Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Thanks to KT for Monarch of the Glen AU
Characters: Ezra, JD
Summary: Office Politics can be a dangerous game.
Authors Note: Written to acknowledge Tony's birthday
The day-to-day business at Glenneaval castle had temporarily separated its seven overseers. Chris, Buck, and Josiah were in Glasgow meeting with a company interested in shipping lumber from the estate. Nathan was helping with baby inoculations at the clinic in Four Corners, and Ezra was meeting with someone in his office. Knowing Vin was still around; JD figured he'd ask if he could shadow him for the day.
Passing by Ezra's office, JD was shocked to overhear a heated discussion coming from inside. He hovered in the corridor and wondered if he should go in and see who Ezra was hollering at, but a hand on his shoulder caused him to stop.
"Best not to get involved," Vin suggested.
"Who's in there?" JD asked.
"Some chappie from Ezra's city office."
JD gawped. "Ezra has an office in the city?"
Vin nodded. "Aye, from before he came to live here."
JD's brow furrowed. "But...he never goes there, does he?"
"Aye, he does, but not often. I've heard he keeps in touch with staff and other solicitors working for him through phone conferences."
There was a soft whistle from the teenager. "Man, you learn something new every day." Ezra's raised voice caused the pair to subconsciously lean in and listen.
Ezra stared at the man before him. "Are you always this reserved, or is it only in my company?" There was a silent pause. "Still nothing to say? Well, allow me to continue. Word of your behavior has reached me on more than one occasion. I despise bullying, and will no longer suffer the contemptible reports from my city colleagues. You, sir, are delusional if you thought you would get away with such outrageous behavior toward fellow colleagues." Ezra consulted a file.
"With one verbal and one written warning in your personal file, I hereby give notice that your employment for E.P. Standish, Solicitors, is terminated as from five o'clock this evening. Feel free when you return to take what's left of the day to clean out your desk. Should you need extra time, consult with a senior staff member so he can alert security, who will escort you off the premises when you are finished." He pointed to the door.
"Monies owed to you will be transferred to your bank account on the closure of your company administrative account." He pointed to the door. "Good day."
Legal secretary Paul Chard glared at his former employer. "You brought me here under false circumstances. I understood I was coming here for positive news of my application for personal secretary."
"The message you were given was to come here, at my expense, to discuss your future with my company. When you return, the office will be closed for the day, with only my three partners remaining. I wanted to ensure that tomorrow will be a fresh start for the staff, especially those who have suffered the brutality of your conduct."
Chard shook his head and turned to leave. He glanced back. "You've made a big mistake, Mr. 'high and mighty' Standish."
Ezra raised one eyebrow. "I highly doubt that. My mistake was not firing you sooner." He gestured. "The door is heavy, be sure to avoid it hitting you on your way out."
In the corridor, Vin and JD stepped sharply back when a furious young man rushed out and away from the room. JD and Vin watched him stalk off before the former peeked in.
"Uh...Hi." JD and Vin walked inside.
"Laddie looked a mite pissed off," Vin stated.
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "He was under the misapprehension he was summoned here for a promotion."
"He didn't get one?" JD asked.
"Quite the opposite," Ezra replied.
Vin raised his wrist and tapped his watch. "Well, much as I'd like to stay here talking, I got a lot to do, so I'd best get going."
JD went to ask Vin if he could come too, when Ezra spoke.
With a wave, Vin was out of the door. JD stifled a grunt of disappointment before turning to Ezra with a warm smile. "Yeah?"
"I wondered if you could help me."
"I wanted to call upon your considerable technical expertise. I want to hold video conferences instead of audio from here, with my partners in the city. Where should I start?"
JD's grin grew. "Well, we're all set this end. I'd need to take a look at your office setup."
"Splendid. Would tomorrow be convenient?"
Chris and Buck wouldn't be back until the day after next, and JD had been given strict instructions not to work alone while they were away. "Sure, sounds good. We driving?"
"We are. It will be good for my car to get an extended run. What say we leave around nine, just after breakfast, and stay in the city overnight to make some time to dine in a fine establishment?"
JD whooped. "Road trip! This'll be fun." He moved to leave. "I'm gonna go pack. Later, Ezra."
Standish chuckled as he watched JD leave. "Fun? Absolutely. I have no doubt it will be an interesting trip."
The drive to Edinburgh took around three hours, due to a few unscheduled stops along the way for JD to check out something that interested him. Ezra had to put his foot down and limit the stops to 'would go bang if missed' features. However, JD's enthusiasm and excitement reminded the legal eagle of how beautiful his adopted country was. Regardless of his mother Maude marrying Angus, Ezra stayed because he fell in love with Glenneaval castle, the area, and the locals.
Initially, he found men he could trust in Chris, Vin, Josiah, and Nathan, and then met a pair who made him laugh, and 'loosen up' as JD put it. When Buck and JD arrived, it was as if a jigsaw was completed. Life had always been good, but now it was...magnificent. There was rarely a dull moment, and Angus and his family's legacy lived on through two he would have loved to have known, and the other five men he always trusted. All the while, seven individuals became a family.
Despite needing to make this trip, the closer he got to his city office, the more he realized how little he wanted to be there. Years before, all he ever wanted was a swanky city premises and clientele to match. He still had those things, but these days was more content with the day-to-day running of a handsome and historic property, earning a modest salary, and living in a real castle.
Ezra approached a grand, stone building and entered a large parking lot situated in the grounds behind. JD was out of the Range Rover before Ezra had actually stopped. He whistled.
"Oh, man. Ezra, this is awesome."
The Englishman smiled. "Thank you. It took me a lot of hard work, and several fortunate hands of poker, to get here." He grabbed a briefcase, locked the car, and gestured toward a door located at the back of the building. "After you."
As Ezra entered the building, a strange chill came over him. "Shake it off, Ezra, this is a place of business, no harm can come to you here."
Riding up in the elevator car, he laughed and slapped JD's hand away from the buttons before they were forced to stop at all eight floors, but despite his excellent frame of mind, and eagerness to proudly parade his business to JD, the closer they got to floor eight, the more unsettled he became.
The car glided to a halt and the doors slid open. As they stepped out, an odor had Ezra's senses on full alert. At the same time JD ran forward shouting something about someone being hurt, Ezra processed the smell as the coppery tang of blood.
Standish hurried through the corridor after the teenager, earnestly calling his name. Entering the outer office, which the four main offices filtered off, he stopped dead and his mouth went dry. There were two bloody bodies lying on the floor next to the desks they once worked from, while against one wall six more of his employees cowered, and stared in fear at a point behind him.
Slowly, Ezra turned to see Chard standing there. One fist held a stunned JD by his hair, in the other hand was a gun. The man smiled, cruelly.
"I decided my business with you wasn't fully concluded, Mister Standish."
Ezra stepped forward, setting off a chain of events. "Good Lord, Chard..." He fell hard as the gun in Chard's hand crunched against his temple."
"Ezra!" JD tried to catch his friend, but Chard held fast and waved the gun in his face.
"Stay put!" The man looked toward the whimpering staff and gestured the barrel of the gun toward the door. "Get out, I got who I came for."
When the room cleared, he ordered JD to help a groggy Standish to his feet. Using the back stairs, he forced the pair at gunpoint outside and toward a green Ford Focus. With JD driving, and Chard and Ezra in the back seats, the car pulled out of the car park and into traffic. They easily merged with the vehicles flowing in the opposite direction to the arriving police squad cars. Within twenty minutes they were clearing the city limits and heading off the main highway and onto a network of small 'B' roads that were too insignificant to be mapped, and making Chard's escape with his semi-conscious prize and an unwitting driver, nigh on undetectable.
Several hours had passed and JD once again glanced nervously in his rear view mirror to locate Ezra. In the back seat, the previously insentient Englishman was now struggling in and out of consciousness as his head rested against the side window and bobbed with the movement of the car. The boy could only see Chard's arm and hand, but it was the hand holding the gun, and his stomach flipped. He took a breath.
"Just drive, sonny."
"Name's JD, JD Dunne, and here's the thing, I only have my learner's permit."
"Well, I can drive, and I know Standish here does in that fancy Range Rover of his. So you're covered Jay-Dee Dunne."
"Is Ezra okay?" JD gasped at a cuff to his head.
"Just - drive."
"Sure, sure, no problem..."
"Shutting up - oh, one more thing." He heard a huff.
"It's pretty wild moorland out here. I don't have a clue where we are."
"Well I do, so..."
"...I know...just drive. Got it."
Ezra groaned and JD's heart soared at the sound.
"Wha..." He tugged at his taped wrists. "What is this? Chard?" There was no reply. Ezra looked the man in the eyes. "Is all this because I terminated your employment?"
There was deep resentment in the man's Scottish brogue. "What do you think? I've spent years making you money, and that was my thanks? To be let go without as much as a redundancy package. Employers like you make me puke. You live a life of luxury, while your subordinates don't even get a pay rise for five years. Then the final insult. You dragged me out to see just how fine a living you enjoy so I could suffer the humiliation of being told I'm fired." He waved the gun in Ezra's face.
"Your actions ensured my life was destined for the gutter, so I went one better. I plan to make sure you have no life at all."
Ezra's expression appeared considerably calmer than he felt. "Is that so? Might I remind you that you were paid quite handsomely for what little actual work you did amid terrorizing your colleagues. Other employees have received salary increments, you sir did not, because for every year you worked for me, you have an equal number of disciplinary statements in your file. I do not reward those who feel they can behave in the opposite manner to which my establishment operates. Your fate was always in your hands. Blaming others for your folly is, quite frankly, excessive."
An awkward silence followed, but the hatred in Chard's features rose.
"Chard, listen to me, I am certain we can work this out, it's not too late..."
"It is for you, Standish."
There was a slight swerve of the car as JD subconsciously reacted to the cold declaration. Ezra sat up straight.
"I see. Well then, so be it, but at least show some propriety and let my young friend go."
From the driver's seat, JD shook his head. "Nu-uh. I ain't leaving you, Ezra." Standish would have cursed JD's outburst, but it touched him to experience such loyalty.
Chard snorted. "Aahh, how sweet. Tell me Jay-Dee; are you another one of his faithful minions?"
JD looked in the mirror and saw Chard's eyes staring at him. "No sir. Ezra's like a brother to me, and is why I'm begging you to stop this."
JD's words affected both men, but in very different ways. For Ezra, it was a rush of warmth and brotherhood unlike anything he had experienced before. For Chard, it was a surge of envy and frustration that the man who ruined his life should be so revered.
JD stared at the wilderness around them. "Why? Aahh..." The clout to the back of his head was a lot harder this time. "Jeeze. Chill out, dude. Where should I pull over?"
"ANYWHERE! Where he dies doesn't matter!"
With the raging man off guard, Ezra grabbed the gun and the two wrestled furiously for possession. Chard was strong, but Ezra worked out at the castle's gym every evening, and was more than a match for him. Their equal fury presented a difficult challenge, not to mention Ezra's efforts to keep the gun pointed away from JD's position.
"Over my...dead body...Standish..."
A flash of light and the sound of a gunshot filled the car's interior moments before the vehicle veered crazily off the road.
JD's heart pounded at the struggle behind him. The back of his seat was kicked and jostled, and he jerked forward, forcing him to fight to keep control of the wheel. A gunshot made the teenager jolt so violently he veered off the road and traversed down a heather-strewn banking. The car tipped up and rolled over once, before sliding to a halt on its roof.
Buck grew energized the further he, Josiah, and Chris drove away from Glasgow. Their business meeting was not only successful, but also concluded early. There was a time when the men, especially Buck and Chris, would have made the most of their good fortune and spent the down time painting the town red. However, the long-time friends, and also Josiah, had concurrently expressed their desire to go home, even though it would mean driving along country roads in the dark, and the decision hadn't seemed odd at all.
After years of going it alone, the three men were finally settled. Chris had found contentment in caretaking an estate rich in history alongside men and women he cared deeply about, especially one man. Right from the moment they met, he and Vin's relationship was hard to define, but it went beyond friendship. Chris enjoyed the Scotsman's company, and trusted him and his opinions unreservedly.
From his appointment and onward, Chris became closer to the others on the estate, even more so after Angus's death. He was sure it was no coincidence that JD and Buck joining them during that poignant time around Angus's passing, fulfilled the family ambiance each individual secretly craved, but never believed could be achieved.
Josiah's job at the castle came along after he turned up to see Angus to tear into the man about his lack of conservation effort on the estate. He never expected to find a Laird not only agreeing with him, but also subsequently offering him a job to help bring the estate into line. Unsure whether he wanted to be tied to one area when there was so much work to be done in the world, Josiah took a week to decide.
However, after visiting the locale over the course of that week, discovering his old friend Nathan Jackson was working there, and taking his final tour of the property with Chris, Vin, and Angus himself, made the decision a 'no-brainer', as JD would say. It was an opportunity he chose not to pass up due to the passion and commitment in those three, along with the sheer magnificence of the estate, and he found that for the first time in a long while, he was excited.
Sitting alone in the back seat of Chris's Range Rover, Josiah found himself missing home. Nathan's sensitivity, Vin's intriguing knowledge and expertise, JD's boundless energy and warmth, and Ezra's sharp wit and loquacious sentences. He fondly remembered one time at dinner, not long after JD had joined them, when Ezra went into a patter of eloquent soliloquizing, while JD tapped an occasional word into the iPhone secreted under the table and on his lap, in an effort to keep up.
When the Englishman found out, instead of firing off a clever, disparaging comment for which he was notorious, his green eyes crinkled in a genuine smile and he told JD that the proficiency he admired above all others was ingenuity, and that only truly exceptional people possessed the gift of improvisation. The conservationist smiled to himself at the memory of Ezra recovering his momentary lapse in composure when he then commented that it was good to finally be around people who measured up to his own paradigm. When JD's head went down, and several necks craned to see what his iPhone came up with for the last word of the Englishman's sentence, the laugh from Ezra was infectious.
Buck had feared when leaving the Black Watch, that coming home after such a long absence was a mistake, especially now his mother was gone, taking his ties to the glen right along with her. But when he learned of the estate vacancy, and that he would be working for a man he previously trusted with his life, Buck took the difficult step, and it turned out to be one of the best, if not the best decision, of his life.
Learning that Angus was his father was a bolt from the blue, but the truth had given Buck something he thought he'd never have, a blood relative who was like a little brother to him. Just thinking of JD made Buck grin. The kid reminded Buck of himself, and a young Chris, too. However, JD was one thing those two had never been - innocent. The teenager looked at life with the enthusiasm and energy of a child, which was no mean feat considering his troubled upbringing. Buck could hardly wait to roll in for breakfast in the morning and see JD's reaction to him, Josiah, and Chris being home.
"It's approaching the top of the hour. Do you mind if I listen to the news?"
Chris's question snapped Buck out of his pondering. "Aye, go ahead. Be good to catch up with the world."
Josiah leaned forward. "Yes, I'd like that, too."
The bulletin was only five minutes long, and somewhere in the middle was a report of an earlier and ongoing incident at a solicitor's office in Edinburgh, where two employees had been shot and seriously injured, and the main partner and one other was taken at gunpoint by the vengeful ex-employee. Chris shook his head as he switched off the radio.
"World's going crazy."
Buck nodded. "Aye makes me grateful we're in our own little piece of paradise."
The blond smiled. "Aye, that it does. We have our moments, but thankfully crap like that isn't something we need to worry about."
That statement should have evoked feelings of reassurance, but for some bizarre reason, it caused an uneasy niggle at the back of all of their minds.
Dinnertime at Glenneaval castle was no less a family affair, just with fewer members around the table. Nettie couldn't help chuckling to herself at how quiet it was without JD relaying some tale of near-disaster that day, while Chris shook his head, Vin refused to make eye contact, and Buck's shoulders bobbed up and down as he chuckled. Little wonder then that Chris and Buck had forbid JD to work alone while they were away.
Nathan glanced across at Ezra's usual seat. He never thought the day would come when he missed the Englishman, but he did. Between them, they kept the estate's and the castle's domestic affairs in order, and surprisingly the relationship worked.
It helped that Ezra was no longer acting the affluent, egotistical businessman that first came to Glenneaval. The place had soothed him, slowed his pace, and opened his eyes to a different way of life. It had taught him to let his guard down more.
Meanwhile, Nathan found a life without prejudice at Glenneaval. It was a place where he was accepted for the skilled nursing practitioner that he was. Where his employer encouraged him to linger and talk, instead of tearing from task to task. Angus insisted on funding Nathan's Master's Degree, which would allow him to work in a variety of advanced practice nursing roles. After Angus died, Nathan used his new qualification to secure a position as the area's Clinical Nurse Specialist. Ezra had been the first to congratulate him, and the pair sat together enjoying a fine malt whiskey, while working through a schedule to suit them both.
After leaving the room to take a call, Vin rejoined Nathan, and Nettie in the dining hall. "Chris, Josiah, and Buck are heading home." He grinned. "Buck didn't want me to tell JD, he wants to surprise him."
"Well, it'll be Buck who's surprised, with Ezra and JD in Edinburgh," Nettie noted.
"I thought they might have checked in this evening," Nathan mused aloud.
Nettie took a serving of potatoes for herself from a salver. "It would have been nice to hear from them, but knowing how JD finds everything captivating, he'll be running Ezra all over town and they're likely having the time of their lives."
Scraped, cut and bruised, JD squeezed through a shattered side window and dropped on his back onto the grass. He intended to lay there to catch his breath and stop the world from spinning, but in moments, he was sitting upright and staring into the car.
JD crawled through the grass on his hands and knees until he reached the broken window Ezra had been sitting beside. The Englishman was bloodied, but awake. JD saw that Chard was unconscious and so cautiously encouraged Ezra to climb through the opening. Standish gripped the arms around his chest as he prepared to move.
"Easy son, I fear most of my person is in some degree of pain."
JD took the strain. "Can't promise it won't hurt, but we gotta get away from this asshole."
Ezra winced. "I concur."
It was a lengthy and difficult maneuver, but eventually the winded, aching pair was lying next to each other on the grass.
JD finally had the energy to prop himself up on his side. "You okay, Ezra?"
Standish turned to look at the teenager. "I've had better days."
"No shit?" JD's expression turned apologetic. "We need to hi-tail it away from here while the crazy guy's out of it. Do you think you can?"
Ezra glanced toward the inverted, battered car and its prone occupant and then to JD. "Most definitely." He was alarmed to see the boy moving back to the car. "JD!"
The New Yorker crawled back to the vehicle and spent some time searching before returning. With a shard of glass he'd brought back, JD sawed at the bonds on Ezra's wrists. "I can't find the gun."
"Then I vote we focus on your original plan and hope that Chard won't either." Ezra's brow furrowed. "Is he still alive?"
JD nodded while standing and preparing to help his friend to his feet. "I can see him breathing. D'you reckon he's got our phones on him, too?"
The Englishman gritted his teeth as, with JD's help, he stood, though he kept himself turned slightly away from the boy.
"Quite likely, but I forbid you to go back. He could wake up at any moment." Ezra glanced around at the vast expanse of overgrown moorland. "I fear we're spoiled for choice with regards to direction. Perhaps we should follow the road."
JD nodded. They hadn't met a single vehicle the whole time they traveled along that road, but the chance of being picked up before Chard caught up with them was still a possibility. "Y'know, Chard could've broken a leg..."
"We can only hope," Ezra replied.
Without notice, JD took Ezra's arm and looped it around his own neck. His other arm then encircled Ezra and got a grip on his waist, on the side Ezra had kept hidden.
"Let's do this..." JD's brow creased and he stared at the clammy, pale man in his care.
Alarmed, JD looked down at his trembling, open hand that had clutched Ezra's flank. It was covered in fresh blood.
"My apologies," Ezra puffed out. "The bullet wound in my side may slow us down."
Ezra and JD were making slow progress along the narrow, highland road, but JD maintained that compared to the battle to hike up the banking from where the overturned Ford lay, it was a breeze. The pair traveled around a mile or so through the scrub before climbing to the higher ground and the road, in the hope of throwing Chard off the trail. Now dusk was falling and they were tired, thirsty, and no nearer help than when they rolled the car.
Ezra was surprised at how resilient JD was. The men were protective of the young, slight American, but if the others could see JD now, they would be proud. After using his own T-shirt to plug the deep furrow in Ezra's side, the teen had taken most of the strain to get Ezra this far. However, the effort was taking its toll, and the boy had slowed since the three and a half hours they began their arduous journey.
Standish's strength was almost gone. His side burned and sharp pain caught his breath with every step. He was seriously concerned as to how much longer he could go on.
Ezra's bloodshot eyes peered at JD. "What?"
Jutting out his hip to help keep Ezra up, JD kept a hold of the man's waist, while releasing the hand he was clasping. He pointed to one side. "Smoke."
"What of it?" Ezra snapped. His reply was a little testier than he would like, but the wound in his side was really throbbing. "My apologies, JD, you didn't deserve that."
Damp, heavy bangs hung in the boy's eyes, and his face glistened from the exertion of half-carrying Ezra, but he still managed a grin. "Aww, that's okay. What I mean is, if there's smoke..."
"We either have a brushfire, or a dwelling." Ezra managed a smile. "I vote for the latter."
JD nodded and retook Ezra's hand, which was resting on his shoulder. "Me too. Let's go."
Veering off the road, the pair struggled through the dampening grass and shrubbery toward the direction of the upward smoke trail. It would be dark soon, and they needed shelter before that happened. Open moorland could be bleak, murky, and cold at night, and both knew they would struggle with such conditions, especially Ezra in his weakened state.
Seventy-eight year-old Murdo Niven lifted the whistling kettle off the archaic, wood-burning range. He slowly poured water onto the tealeaves nestled inside what was once a shiny metal teapot. Leaving the tea to steep, he shuffled around his generous, but dated kitchen, picked up an unsliced loaf of bread, a knife and a dishtowel, and placed them on the oversized kitchen table. Picking up the teapot and its heat stand, his favorite mug, a spoon and the sugar bowl, Murdo took them to the table and eased himself into one of six sturdy chairs. Setting the dishtowel out on the table, he placed the bread on top and cut two chunky slices. From the plastic butter dish that was already on the table, he slathered butter onto the bread. With a pleased smile, the elderly man filled the sandwich with a slab of cheese and two slices of ham. He poured himself a mug of tea, added sugar, and cursed when he realized he had no milk on the table.
With a grunt, he pushed himself up, and stiffly walked toward a large, walk-in pantry. Inside, his breath caught in the frigid air until, milk in hand, Murdo returned to his feast. Milk added to the waiting tea, he gleefully sliced into the chunky sandwich to make two halves and then lifted one half to his lips. Before he could take a bite, there was a knock on the door.
"Gaah." He waved off the intrusion. "Acchhh, go 'way." He went to bite again, but the sound of an unfamiliar accent stopped him.
"Hello? Please, sir, I got a hurt man out here. We could sure use your help."
Coming to the end of a small side road, JD and Ezra were visibly relieved on reaching a small croft. "Man, I was beginning to think I'd dreamed up that smoke."
Ezra squeezed the hip his hand was near. "I never doubted you for a moment."
JD giggled. "Thanks, but I reckon you could smell smoke the nearer we got, right?"
There was a pause before Ezra smiled. "Vin's rubbing off on you, you're getting accomplished at spotting tells."
"Or maybe it was when you said 'Good Lord hasn't this occupier heard of smokeless fuel?'." JD heard Ezra chuckle and it bolstered his failing spirits. "Come on, someone's home, I can see a light." They reached the door and JD peeked into a window.
"I think maybe they've had a power out, though."
Ezra wanted to drop. Despite JD's help, his body and head were feeling the effects of the earlier crash and his initial manhandling, while the gouge in his side was burning white hot. He felt nauseous, and giddy, and feared the wound might be infected. After all, Lord knows what was lurking on Chard's vehicle's upholstery, or in the dirt and grass he lay in once he was out of the car. Also, while they walked, his shirt rubbed at the padding that JD provided, which in turn aggravated the wound, and now he desperately wanted to take a look, and clean it up.
On hearing the dismissal from inside after JD's knock, Ezra's exhaustion caused him to begin slipping to the ground, but JD clung tight and hollered out a plea for help. The door was unbolted, and as it opened, a shaft of warm light fell on the shivering pair just before Ezra's body finally gave out.
It was close to 11pm when Buck, Chris, and Josiah, quietly entered the castle's main sitting room. Vin would normally be home and in bed by now due to his early start, but he knew he wouldn't settle if the boys weren't home before he left the castle. The men greeted each other with warm smiles as the three travelers looked around the room.
"Still here, Vin?" Chris asked.
"Has Ezra gone on up to bed?" Josiah queried.
Buck thumbed over his shoulder. "The laddie in the den?"
Vin replied. "Had you let me get a word in edgeways, Bucklin, I would have told you earlier that Ezra and JD went to Edinburgh today. They're due back tomorrow." His keen senses detected a stifled reaction in all three men, but their body language was barely detectable and he wondered if the moves were subconscious. As to why, became a mental note for the ghillie.
"Nettie left three plates warming in case you were hungry," Nathan told them.
The odd mood engulfing the weary travelers lifted at the mention of food. "Music to my ears," Josiah grinned.
"Can your digestive systems handle eating a meal this late?" the nurse asked. "I could make you some sandwiches."
Chris smiled. "Actually, that's a good idea. I hate to go to bed on a heavy stomach." His grin grew at the looks from Josiah and Buck. He gestured toward the kitchen. "Go help yourselves; I was just stating my own preference."
Buck moved for the door, followed by Josiah. "Just as well, you can go off people, you know," he mumbled, causing ripples of laughter.
"As it's so late, why don't you bed down here for tonight, Vin?" Chris suggested.
The ghillie nodded. "The dogs are settled in the kitchen, so I might as well. Thanks."
Larabee smiled. Vin had a room here should he ever need it, but he always thanked them for the offer.
Close to midnight and the five friends were finishing off the night with a wee dram, or two, of whiskey. A reflective Buck stared at his drink for some time before looking up.
"Did they say what time tomorrow?"
"What's that?" Nathan asked.
"Ezra and JD. Did they mention what time they'd be home?" He noticed the awkward glances between Vin and Nathan, and so did Chris and Josiah.
"Problem?" Chris asked, as that earlier chill he experienced was niggling him again.
"Don'ae think so," Vin answered, "it's just that they didn't call in tonight."
Buck's mouth opened to speak but the heavy knocker on the main door sounded, and echoed throughout the castle. Chris was on his feet in an instant and four men quickly followed him through the winding corridor and to the door. Larabee peered through a small window in the heavy oak door before unbolting it, and disarming the security alarm. He opened the door to a policeman and woman, who were not from the local constabulary.
"May we come in, sir?" The WPC asked.
Chris nodded to her, stood back, and let them into the hallway before closing the door. "What's this about?"
The police constable answered. He took out a notebook and read from it. "At approximately 2:45pm this afternoon in a borough of Edinburgh, and at the premises of Standish Solicitors, a gunman now known to us as Paul Edward Chard, a former employee of the company, fired a gun and seriously injured one member of staff and also one partner, before taking two hostages and fleeing the area. So far we have been unable to locate his vehicle, himself, or his hostages and the Chief Inspector decided to alert next of kin as to the current situation."
There were three nods from Chris, Buck, and Josiah on recognizing the news story from the radio.
"And his hostages are...?" Buck's voice was brittle with emotion due to being sure he already knew the answer.
The police constable consulted his notebook. "The main partner, Ezra Standish, and a young man with him who has yet to be identified. No one at the office knew him."
Vin's troubled eyes widened. "I know the gunman. He was here a few days ago. Ezra, err, Mr. Standish, fired him." He swallowed, hard. "I think the laddie taken with Mr. Standish may be the current Laird of Glenneaval, JD Dunne. He went with him to the city this morning."
Vin watched the male officer scribbling down the information.
Chris cut in. "I'm no expert, but I've heard JD talk of tracing people by means of their mobile phones. He and Ezra both have one..."
The female officer nodded. "Very true, and three phones were found in the company car park, but they were smashed and their SIM cards were missing. We have them stored as evidence but fingerprints found on them have yet to be identified."
Larabee offered a tight smile. 'God bless you, laddie'. "Our new Laird introduced us to fingerprint retention processing and we're currently in the course of logging and storing the fingerprints of anyone working here. We already have the core staff on file." He looked at Jackson. "Nathan, would you show the officer through to the office?"
Still visibly stunned from the news, Nathan nodded and signaled for the officer to follow him.
"They weren't shot?"
Police officer Appleby looked at Buck and shook her head. "Not at the point of being abducted, no, sir." She tried a reassuring smile. "I appreciate you're all shocked right now, but I can assure you we have an excellent team on the case, and even now, at this late hour, the search is ongoing. By sunrise, a chopper will be in the air again and expanding the search."
"We wan'ae help." Vin's words just cut in ahead of Chris and Buck's own insistence.
"I'm sure you do, and it's much appreciated, but usually in these circumstances..."
"That wasn't a request," Chris interjected.
Nathan and the male officer returned with a copy of Ezra and JD's fingerprints.
Chris eyed the officers and continued as if uninterrupted. "Know this; we'll be helping you search, with, or without the police's blessing."
Inside the croft, Ezra was unconscious, shirtless, and lying on an unmade bed inside Murdo's bedroom. JD sat quietly and watched while, by lamplight, the old man cleaned up the angry gouge in the Englishman's side, and treated the cuts from the crash.
"Why isn't he awake?" JD asked, quietly.
"Ah dinnae ken. Seems pure done in."
Murdo shook his head and mumbled. "Wee Sassenach..."
JD knew that word. "As it happens, I'm American."
Murdo sat back and seemed pleased with his work. "Not sure of other ailments but he's tired, and a little hot. I'll go get him a glass o' water." He gestured toward a bowl. "You wet that cloth in there and cool his head."
Glad to be useful, JD did as he was told. Soon Murdo was back and helping Ezra drink. He looked at a worried JD. "Keep thy head, he'll no die." He saw JD nod, gratefully.
"You have the look of a wee tattybogle. Come and get cleaned up, and have a bite tae eat. It's as black as the devil's waistcoat out there and you and your injured friend need to sleep, so you'll no be going anywhere 'til morning." He saw the boy hesitate to leave his friend.
"C'mon, laddie, we'll no let him be for long."
JD stood. "Sir, I need to use your phone."
Murdo's eyebrows rose. "Phone? No phone here, laddie, no power either, just as it's always been - cooking and warmth by means of fire, and light from flame and daylight."
JD stared at the retreating Scotsman. 'Man, what are the odds? We find the only house still living in the dark ages.' Giving Ezra's warm skin one last wipe over, JD squeezed the man's arm and halfheartedly followed Murdo out into the kitchen. Now he thought about it, he was kinda hungry.
"Hey, Mister, what's a tattybogle?"
Chard was hurting, cold, and tired. Hunkered into a small gap in some large ferns just off the road, he shivered and hugged himself. The trail from his two missing captives led him to here, but the darkness had beaten him. However, in the distance he'd seen smoke rising from out of the woodland, which meant a campsite, or more likely, a house. Pulling a blanket from the car around him, and placing his gun in his lap, he leaned back against a tree stump and closed his eyes.
In the morning, if he couldn't pick up Standish's trail he would head for the site of the smoke. If he was really lucky, the trail might lead him there anyway. With that thought, and warmth from the blanket and his sheltered spot making him drowsy, Chard slept, and dreamed of the moment he would have Standish in his sights, and at last get his chance to settle a score.
Dawn on the moors, and Buck's gaze followed the chopper as it flew low above him. He yawned, and like Chris and Vin, his whiskered features reflected his sleepless night. The three had traveled to the new search area, while Josiah and Nathan went to Ezra's office in an attempt to extract something, anything, from Chard's colleagues, and the police incident room, in the hope of gleaning clues to his mindset.
Chris, Vin and Buck were at the scene of the rolled Ford. Due to Vin's perpetual knowledge of the countryside, they reached the wreck fifteen minutes before the first squad car, although the chopper hovered overhead since locating the wreckage. Those valuable minutes gave Vin ample time to study the area and Chris and Buck waited nervously for the review. Vin pointed as he spoke.
"Crushed grass here shows two bodies lay there, but not for long, it's damp, like the ground around it, which means they didn't stick around. Another patch further along shows a third party did the same." He showed them his upturned palm. Both men had seen him lick it before placing it flat on the ground.
"Among the dirt and grass in the first location there are dots of blood, so someone who was there is injured and bleeding out. The third person left blood on the leaves of a tree, and bushes around it, suggesting a head or shoulder injury. Two pairs of boots trail off that way, but not heading for the road." For the first time, Tanner looked bothered.
"The third party followed it."
Chris stayed quiet, and Buck was just getting edgy when the estate manager spoke and nodded to the cops swarming around the crashed vehicle.
"Vin, go and report what you've found. Be sure to tell them you think they might not have initially headed for the road, and at least the chopper will have an idea of where to search. We'll follow the trail and figure out if they did get to the road, kept going through the brush, or doubled back at some point."
Both Chris's companions appeared pleased with the decision, and once Vin gave the cops his report, with Buck and Chris right on his heels he led the way along the trail that JD and Ezra, and Chard, took.
>> What do you mean you won't stay here? You married the man, Mother, you can't just walk away. Is it his health?" Ezra snorted at Maude's reaction. "So much for vowing to love 'in sickness and in health'. Throwaway vows for an out-and-out social climber."
Maude stopped packing and her eyes flashed. "Watch your mouth, Ezra. I refuse to remain in a lonely marriage. I'm leaving at the end of the week, and I expected you to understand, and then come with me."
Standish walked across Maude's bedroom and stood in front of her. "You know Angus loves you, but he has responsibilities, and a birthright to live up to. You've fallen out of love with this life because you're too fond of the city and its beauty salons, bright lights, and fine dining. Why not go to Angus's city apartment and think things over?"
Maude stared. "Fine, I will; but I want you with me..." <<
Sitting next to the bed Ezra occupied, JD was about to doze off when the Englishman began thrashing in his dreams.
"No! I am not leaving, Mother. I'm settled...just because you feel the need to move on...it's not betrayal...let me live my life...Mother, please..."
JD jumped to his feet, picked up and wrung out the soaked cloth in the bowl of water, and dabbed at his friend's face and neck. "Easy there, Ezra, it's me, JD. You're dreaming. Take it easy and rest up now."
He saw a flash of green through Ezra's slit eyes, but then the man was asleep again, which prompted JD to sit back down. Once satisfied that Ezra was settled, JD relaxed and was soon dead to the world.
After a night of dozing in the rocking chair in the kitchen, Murdo peered into his bedroom and smiled at the man sleeping in the bed. JD's head lay next to Ezra's arm, while the boy's forward sloping body balanced precariously on one of the kitchen chairs. The Scotsman looked at the youth. A bairn was really all he seemed, about the same age as his youngest grandson would be, Murdo decided. Not that he knew for sure; his son, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren were on the other side of the world - in New Zealand, and had been since a year before his dear wife, Elspeth, passed away.
While a pot of tea steeped, Murdo cooked bacon, eggs, and sausage on the solid hobs above the hot, wood-filled stove. As he cooked, he wondered if the visitors were brothers. They didn't particularly look alike, but they behaved as such. The last and only time his son visited, Murdo noticed his Scottish accent was less native now, so the pair not sounding alike didn't put him off his interest.
Either way, it was nice to have company other than his trusty radio and wind-up gramophone. Batteries, and petrol for his tractor, were two of the few luxury items he bought in with his meager pension, as despite his age, he was still mostly self-sufficient.
Though few, and far between, neighbors would exchange flour, yeast, bacon, and sausages for the farmer's eggs, goats' milk, cheese, and butter, all of which were the best in the area, even if Murdo said so himself. However, he was concerned that the hens weren't laying quite as many eggs these days, forcing him to have to trade almost all of them, or consequently miss out an item for himself on the exchange.
Murdo enjoyed his simple life with no frills, or modern conveniences save for his old tractor; and nothing or no one would change him now. His only regrets were needing to stop growing vegetables due to his aging frame, and having no heir close at hand, and as he grew older, was left to wonder what would happen to his little farm when he died.
As he walked out of the bedroom, JD's mouth watered at the smells that filled the kitchen. "'Morning, sir."
Mr. Niven didn't turn, or look up. "Name's Murdo, bairn. Sit yourself down and pour us both a cup o' tea. Breakfast is ready." He placed two plates of bacon, egg, and sausages down on the table, which already had a rack of toast, and the butter dish on it.
"How's your friend this morning?" Murdo already knew Ezra's temperature was stable, as he'd checked for himself earlier when the pair was asleep.
Torn between savoring his food, or chewing fast and swallowing to speak, JD opted for the latter and gulped. "He's a whole lot cooler, thanks. We really appreciate you taking us in last night. I mean, I know these days it's kinda risky opening the door to strangers, but I reckon Ezra would be in a bad way right now if it wasn't for you."
Murdo watched the youngster tuck into his meal. "Tish, bairn. I first thought you to be a neighbor disturbing my supper, but I'd no turn away a man needing help." After a few bites of his own food, and some small exchanges of information, the elderly man stepped up the conversation.
"How did your friend get hurt in such a way?"
JD swallowed a gulp of tea and his hands moved wildly as he talked. "Aww, man. You wouldn't b-e-l-i-e-v-e what we've been through..."
"JD, how can anyone be so animated at this ungodly hour?" Despite walking like an old man, Ezra smiled back at the huge grin from the boy before taking a seat at the table. He acknowledged Murdo "Good morning. My name is Ezra Standish and I am in your debt, sir."
Murdo poured another cup of tea from the pot. "No debt owed, son. Help yourse'n to toast. Would you be wanting cooked food?"
Ezra raised a hand. "No, thank you, this will be sufficient." He looked at JD. "How are you today, JD?"
"Aw, I'm good, thanks, just real hungry, and pretty sore here and there." He eyed the man dressed in his shirt, but with it untucked. JD had never seen Ezra so casual. "How are you doing?"
Ezra savored a sip of his cup of tea. "Well under par, but considerably better than yesterday, thanks to you both. Did you contact the others? Are they on their way?" He stopped mid-sip at JD's stare. "What?"
JD glanced awkwardly at Murdo.
"What the bairn wants to say is that I have no phone."
"Ah, I see. Transport, perhaps?"
"Got my old Ferguson. Not for the roads, though."
"A tractor," JD explained due to information gleaned from a recent conversation.
"Around thirty miles as the crow flies."
"Got a lot of marshland around here, though."
JD patted the Englishman's arm. "We'll think of something, Ezra. There's still the road. Maybe I could go try and find someone to flag down. Plus, the cops'll be searching too, right?"
Ezra winced at the pull from his wound. "Absolutely; but while grateful for the offer, there will be none of this going off alone. Chard may still be out there, somewhere."
"Chard?" Murdo asked.
Standish replied. "The man who, for whatever reason, did this to me."
Murdo looked at them with interest, but clearly wasn't bothered. "You two in trouble?"
Ezra stayed JD's reply. "No sir, we are the victims of abduction. Our kidnapper seems intent on killing me, and the last time we saw him, he was still in possession of the gun that injured me." Ezra turned to JD.
"But what pains me more, is that this young man was unwittingly dragged into this abhorrent affair, and yet I find myself grateful he was with me, as I doubt if I would have made it this far without him."
JD's breathing quickened and his throat tightened at Ezra's words. It took a few seconds, but he finally managed to speak. "I think you're underselling yourself, bro."
Ezra's eyes unexpectedly filled. "That works both ways, my young friend."
Murdo stood and began collecting empty plates. "More tea, lads?"
All three jolted when the door opened with a bang to reveal Chard standing there sporting a nasty head wound, and unfortunately still armed.
"Well, well, you're a sturdy toff, Standish; I'll give you, that."
Ezra stood. "We have help on the way, get out."
"They'll be too late for you. Step away from the kid, or I'll shoot him, first."
To Ezra's horror, an exasperated JD stood, walked around the table and stopped a little way in front of Chard.
"Buddy, I gotta tell you, I've had bigger guns pointed at me, and by way-uglier dudes than you."
Seeing Chard aim the gun at JD's chest, Murdo turned sharply to the youth and backhanded him. He ignored JD's and Ezra's shocked stares
"Haud yer wheesht, bairn!" Murdo faced Chard. "He's a-feared for his brother. Go on your way, and no more will be said."
Chard shook his head. "Got an old man and a boy fighting your corner, eh, Standish. I often wondered if you had gumption, or were just all mouth and braces." He jerked the gun barrel. "Get over here."
Not wanting anyone else hurt, or in danger, Ezra complied. When he reached Chard, the man punched Ezra hard, right where the large, dried bloodstain covered his shirt. Ezra screamed out in pain and instantly fell to his knees.
With one incapacitated, Chard pointed his gun at JD who was moving to help Ezra.
"YOU!" He glanced quickly around. "Lock the old man in the larder."
Shaking himself out of his stunned mindset, JD shook his head. "What? No! It...it's cold in there..."
"JUST DO IT!"
Murdo nodded at JD, and after several moments of angry, silent protest, the boy reluctantly walked the old man to the pantry.
"I'm sorry," JD whispered, his emotions right on the edge.
Murdo reached out and touched the red welt on JD's cheek. "Aye, laddie, as am I for the skelp. Just wanted to save you from yourse'n."
With a heavy heart, JD closed the door. He knew the old man was safe in there, but what if no one found him. Would he ever be able to get out? He saw Chard wave him away from the door, and as the gunman jammed the larder doorknob with a kitchen chair, JD took advantage and hurried to help Ezra, who was now lying on the floor shivering, and curled up in agony.
The man jerked violently at JD's touch.
"Whoa! It's okay, it's me, JD."
Ezra unscrewed his eyes and looked at JD in earnest. "G...go..."
A horrified youth shook his head. "No way..." JD gasped in pain when Chard suddenly grasped his hair and hurled him to one side. As JD crashed into a chair next to the table, Chard grabbed Ezra's hair and pulled him upright.
"Move it, Standish, we've got unfinished business."
Hearing the sound of a chopper overhead rallied a winded JD and somehow the teen found the strength to jump to his feet. He charged at Chard, making the man lose his grip on his prize.
"Ezra, go, help's here..." A heavy blow to just above his right ear sent JD slumping back to the floor, where a furious Chard kicked at him until he curled into a tight ball.
When JD hit the chair and rattled the table, the butter knife had fallen to the floor. Having slipped downwards after JD's lunge at Chard, Ezra saw the utensil lying there. Reaching out, his fingers curled around it. With the little strength remaining, he plunged it into Chard's calf. The man went stiff and howled in pain, diverting his attention from JD, but his focus on the original task remained intact. Despite the knife embedded in his leg, Chard hauled an exhausted and weakened Ezra upright, dragged him outside, and at gunpoint, forced him to cross the yard. In minutes, they were heading deep into the dense woods around Niven's property.
While Ezra stumbled on just ahead of Chard, he found it incomprehensible that he could be this helpless. Most of his life had been about survival of the fittest; living on his wit, and guile, and drawing on his strength of personality to see him through whatever came at him. Yet here he was being taken at gunpoint through bushes and over uneven, sodden terrain by a madman no bigger in physique than he was. He concluded, as another jolt of agony speared through his sweat-soaked body, that uncontrolled anger played a vital part in a battle to the death. That, and having a weapon.
Ezra stumbled again and was mercilessly hauled to his feet and ordered on. He attempted to order Chard to halt, but instead his words came out as a plea. "Stop...please, stop."
It simply caused Chard to increase speed, and Ezra began to consider he might actually die just because he fired someone. They came to a clearing and Standish grunted and hissed in pain when Chard shoved him hard and dumped him on his face. Raising his head, Ezra's blurred gaze saw the man glance around the tree-encircled area.
"This will do."
Despite the uncompromising terrain, Vin's skills led him, Chris, and Buck to where Chard spent the night. Tanner studied the crushed foliage before standing. He approached and spoke to Chris and Buck, and then into a radio the police had given him to stay in touch.
"Okay, they went that way, so what or where were they aiming for?" Chris asked.
The three men three stared at the visible trail leading through the undergrowth from the roadside. Collectively, three pairs of eyes followed it, and then looked up at the skyline. To the background sounds of a helicopter sweeping overhead, the three were now jogging through the brushwood and heading for the same smoke column as Ezra, JD, and Chard had, previously. Chris's phone rang and still running, he answered it.
"Yeah? Josiah?" He hadn't heard from the Edinburgh-bound pair since they'd parted ways.
>> "Sorry it's taken so long. Our digging here revealed that due to habitual abusive behavior, Chard's position with Ezra's firm was his sixth job in a year, and the longest one he's ever held down." <<
"Doesn't seem to be anything there to suggest he would flip out this way," Chris replied, a little out of breath.
>> Ezra's employees informed us that at the start of Chard's employment Maude was the talk of the city owing to her recent divorce, and the wealth it brought her. During a coffee break, Chard vilified the senior partner to a colleague, declaring him a spoiled rich boy who had probably never actually worked for anything in his life. The colleague Chard was talking to turned out to be Ezra himself. The pair had never met because another partner recruited Chard while Ezra was supporting his mother through her divorce. Ezra decided to wave off the comment, but instead of it offering Chard an opportunity to back off gracefully, for whatever reason, it fueled the man's animosity toward Ezra further. " <<
"So this actually is personal, and not just some random act of lunacy." Chris realized they were entering a yard.
"Thanks. Check in with Glenneaval, and then you and Nathan get here as soon as you can." Chris pulled up sharply alongside Vin, and Buck. "Josiah, I have to go, we've found something."
Chris closed down the call and all three stared toward the open door of the small farmhouse before them.
In the clearing, Chard had forced Ezra up onto his knees and now limped around him, making the Englishman even dizzier than he already was, while wondering why the knife sticking out of Chard's leg wasn't causing more of an issue. He knew his own wound was wet, so the punch had started it bleeding again, plus it throbbed mercilessly.
"What is your problem?" Ezra hissed, thoroughly at the end of his endurance.
Chard glared at him. "You, you're my problem. You and people like you. I've received nothing more than a meager salary all my life, while toffee-nosed, rich kids get life handed to them on a silver platter." He leaned in and pushed the gun against Ezra's cheek.
"Rich kids like you! Then when I insulted you that time, you were all 'hey, let's just forget it.' WHY? Why would you do that?" His finger poked Ezra.
"I'll tell you why...because you think you're so much better than me that you can be all high-minded. Too rich to be affected by the likes of me, your minion. Well I'm affecting you now, Mister Standish, let's see how forgiving you'll be after this. Oh, wait," he gloated, "you'll be dead."
Ezra looked at him with a mix of horror, and disbelief. "You've lost your mind, and hurt people I care about on your descent into madness. You know nothing about me, so you don't get the right to judge me."
In a flash of fury, Chard leaned in on his wounded leg, however, the knife in his calf bit cruelly. Looking down, he took hold of the smooth, buff colored, Bakelite handle, yanked the knife out, and then waved both the gun and the dripping weapon in Ezra's face.
"DON'T TRY TELLING ME WHAT TO DO! I'm in charge here, and you're about to die knowing none of your precious mother's money can help you this time."
Even though every fiber of his being quivered with exhaustion, Ezra was incensed and was about to dispute his allegation by telling Chard his capital was down to his own hard work when he noticed the blood drain from Chard's face and him wobble a little. A subtle glance told him the wound in Chard's leg was bleeding profusely and despite just wanting to lie down and sleep, Ezra decided that keeping the man pumped up and preoccupied might just save his life.
Staying low, Chris, Vin, and Buck ran toward the farmhouse and with Vin one side, and Chris and Buck on the other side of the door, they squatted with their backs flat to the wall. They could hear sounds inside, but couldn't make out what they were, so with a nod to each other they all stood, and with a 'hello the house' from Chris, he led the dash inside.
Three men were horrified to see chairs overturned and JD curled up on the flagstone floor. Buck instantly went to his cousin. A glance to Vin from Chris before he dropped down next to Buck wasn't necessary as the ghillie was already scrutinizing the cozy space. His head turned sharply and a noise caused him to go and investigate.
JD groaned when Buck touched him, but the brunet persisted. "JD...c'mon boy, look at me." Buck drew back in shock when JD cried out, and then began pushing him away.
"Whoa, Kid, it's Buck, you're okay, wee bro, it's just Buck, Chris and Vin."
Battered and bleeding, JD slowly focused on his saviors before pointing and hollering out "GO!"
Disturbed by a sound, Tanner made his way toward a corner of the kitchen and a door propped shut by a chair. The noise was muffled, but he could make out pounding on the door and a voice calling out. He had a split second to decide whether this was someone in need of help, or a successfully captured Chard. His instincts went with the former and he removed the chair.
JD was still frantically pushing Buck, and now Chris away. Finally, his bruised ribs allowed him to take enough of a breath to be clearer. "Go now! Chard's...got a gun...took Ezra...outside..."
As both men were reacting to the information, a new voice made itself heard. "Go, I'll take care of the wee lad."
Buck and Chris stared at Vin and the elderly man with him. "This is his home," Vin explained, clearly eager to go. He stepped outside to figure out a direction.
Chris stood, but Buck hesitated in moving. JD whispered and nodded.
"Murdo's got this, guys...go...GO!"
With a tight smile, and a brief touch to JD's face, Buck also stood and he and Chris joined Vin outside. Tanner pointed toward nearby woods, and the three took off running.
The proficiency that comes of working on an estate crammed with forestry and moorland was evident as Chris, Buck, and Vin sprinted through the woods ducking and dodging branches and boughs, while dexterously avoiding potholes and hurdling exposed tree roots as they did so. Angry red stripes marked glistening cheeks, suggesting that a few twigs hit home, but not enough to slow them down. The three broke through the tree line and saw the two men they were seeking standing in the clearing before them.
Ezra had received a burst of adrenalin on realizing Chard made a mistake in removing the knife. He struggled to his feet and with a chopper hovering overhead boosting his confidence, he clutched one hand to his bloody side, and walked toward the sickly-looking gunman.
"So you feel justified in doing this to me. Well know this; you may succeed here today, but all it will make you is a murderer; the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. How proud you must feel of being about to accomplish your only single lifetime achievement."
"Knowing there's one less freeloader around will make people like me feel justice has been served." Chard wobbled as he tried taking a step forward. "I hope I get to see your mother's face once she's over the shock of your death and is realizing I've relieved her of her burden."
Chard's words evoked a memory and momentarily threw Ezra as an old fear - based on years of being dumped with distant relatives while Maude went off to earn some fast cash, or worse, find a new husband - resurfaced.
Occasionally, during transitional periods between Maude's spouses, Maude chose to take him with her to be taught the 'trade'. To Ezra's surprise, he found he had a gift for fast-talking, and hoodwinking the public. So much so that money he succeeded in squirreling away eventually put him through University. After several years of working for other law firms, Ezra started his own practice and for the first time in years, felt free of Maude's hold over him. That was until husband number four was rejected, and she came to him for help, and support.
That truth jarred his memory into a more positive mode. His and Maude's reunion brought them closer than they had been in years, and as such introduced him more quickly than usual to husband number five. It offered him the opportunity to visit Glenneaval when Maude decided she had the status she craved, but not the money, and so called upon Ezra for assistance and advice. Within months, he had a new life, career, and to have the first of Maude's husbands treat him with kindness and respect, and more like a son than a burden.
His last thought prompted Ezra to make a final rally. He straightened, and moving closer to Chard, he at last unleashed his suppressed anger.
"Well I, Mother, and my family will know different. Do your worst. Be the big man with the gun, for this will be the only time the control will be yours, as there will be none of the glory you seek. You're a doomed man, Chard. Can you sense it? Can you feel the power slipping away from you? I'm not afraid, and yet I can tell that you are." He saw the man raise the gun, and observed there was a definite lack of strength as Chard stood there, quivering.
"What's wrong, Paul? Are you finally realizing what a waste of space you are? What's the idiom? 'Empty vessels make the most noise?' Suits you to perfection. The one colleague who offered the least yet shouted the most." Ezra swayed as the edges of his vision began to close in. If he planned to save himself, it was now or never but his exhausted mind was out of ideas.
"Enough. Time's up, Standish!"
Suddenly, Chard's back arched, and he cried out when something hard came from nowhere and thumped into the back of his right shoulder. Ezra saw Chard drop the knife in his left hand and grasp his right wrist as if suffering an electric shock. The reaction gave Ezra the push he'd needed to lunge at him, which launched a battle for the gun. The struggle took arms and the weapon to full stretch into the air and every angle in between until the gun disappeared between the two entangled bodies. Moments later came a gunshot, causing the two men to cling to, and stare at each other, before both collapsed to the ground.
Despite having his back to them, Chris, Buck, and Vin could see Chard had a gun in his hand. Vin dropped down to the ground and selected a rock. Within moments, he picked it up, stood, took aim, and hurled it, catching Chard square in the center of the back of his right shoulder.
The three Scotsmen restarted their line of attack. Moments later, the gun disappeared from view. A gunshot stopped Chris, Vin, and Buck in their tracks, and they looked on in alarm when both combatants dropped to the ground. Vin began hollering into his radio for paramedics, jolting them all into a sprint toward the huddled pair.
In a combined effort, Murdo got JD from off the floor and into a chair. The boy was trembling, and initially his raspy breaths were labored and shallow.
"How are you faring?"
With his breathing evening out more, JD laid an arm across his aching midriff and looked up. "I...I'm fine, thanks. It's...Ezra I'm worried about."
Murdo stared at the boy's battered features and nodded. "Aye, but I get the feeling that man thinks fast on his feet."
"Yeah, normally he does but, seeing as he could barely stand..." JD shakily got to his feet. "Let's go after them."
The old man held JD's arms. "Ooh, no. That'll not happen while you're in such pain."
JD pulled out his most pleading of gazes. "I told you, I'm fine, please..." He jolted and his eyes widened at the sound of a distant gunshot, while at the same time Murdo tightened his grip on the boy.
"Oh God...Ezra, no...NOOOO!"
A powerful vibration through Ezra's body robbed him of the last of his strength and he fell to the ground, taking Chard with him. Or was it the other way around? He could no longer think straight and as everything went dark, he let go. The fleeting silence was replaced by familiar voices calling his name and removing a weight off him. It took a moment or two for Ezra to register that Chris was holding him and talking.
"I said it's over. Chard's dead, Ezra. You can relax, now."
Ezra looked up at Chris and closed his eyes. "I'm most grateful."
Vin and Buck rolled Chard away from Ezra and instantly saw the man was dead. Chris hauled the Englishman away from the three, went to his knees, and cradled him. "Ezra, Ezra, you in there, man? Ezra! It's over, you hear me? It's over."
Larabee smiled when, after a flutter of eyelids, unfocused green eyes looked at him. "I said it's over. Chard's dead, Ezra. You can rest now." The Englishman thanked him before going limp.
Aware the area was filling with uniformed police, Chris looked up at the hovering chopper and then around the site before he yelled out at no one in particular. "Where are the paramedics?"
Vin and Buck stood next to Chris and Ezra until two paramedics cleared the trees and ran straight for the group. Larabee relinquished his charge to the medical professionals, and stood with Buck and Vin.
"I've got this, Buck, go on back to the farmhouse and check on JD."
Buck offered a grateful nod to Chris. He briefly visited with Ezra and touched a hand to the unconscious man's head before taking off at a sprint.
Another paramedic appeared from the tree line and carried a collapsed chair over to Ezra. Once he opened up the specialized chair, the attending medical team carefully lifted Ezra into it. The Englishman, whose wound had been dressed, his arm attached to a drip and was breathing through an oxygen mask, had a blanket draped over him ready to go. As the three attending took up the chair to carry Ezra toward the ambulance waiting on the other side of the trees, Chris prepared to go with them. He looked at Vin.
"I'll make sure the paramedics know about JD, and the old chap, and you find out where Josiah and Nathan are."
Understanding Chris needed to know how everyone was doing, Vin turned to leave. "Aye will do."
Buck knew he was a fit man, but the speed of his sprint back to the farmhouse was fast even for him, and he almost lost the two cops who went with him. He skidded in through the open door to find Murdo holding onto a distraught JD.
JD's head shot up. "Buck!"
Murdo smiled and released the boy into the care of the man with the worried eyes. JD clung to Buck and relished in the safety and familiarity that was finally available to him.
"Buck...Ezra...?" he squeaked out, his words muffled against the big man's chest.
"He's okay," Buck assured, his voice rough with exhaustion and emotion. "Chard didn't make it, though." He felt JD cling tighter and intensified his own embrace. Resting his chin on top of the mop of dark hair, Buck looked across at Murdo and mouthed to him.
Murdo Niven smiled broadly, nodded to Buck, and then the two police officers entering the kitchen. "I'll go make us a pot of tea."
Buck felt JD slipping and guided the boy to a chair. He looked at him. "You alright?"
JD forced a smile. "Sure, just pooped, is all." He leaned in. "Check on Murdo," he whispered. "He's had a rough night, too."
Buck ruffled his cousin's hair before straightening. He caught Murdo's arm as he passed him. "Sir, let me make that cuppa while you take the weight off your feet."
Murdo glanced at JD before patting Buck's hand. "I thank you for the offer, but I'm fine, laddie."
"Actually, sir," one cop said, "we'd be obliged if you could give us your statement."
Buck nodded to the septuagenarian. "I'll just go make that tea."
Vin made his way back to the part of the road where the trio picked up the trail to Murdo's. It was far from deserted. Several squad cars and an ambulance lined up one behind the other, while numerous cops milled around awaiting instructions, and ensured any travelers on the road got through safely. Chris's Range Rover was back at the crash site, but the ghillie smiled to see a familiar red CRV at the end of the line and he walked toward it.
On seeing him heading their way, Josiah and Nathan were instantly out of Nathan's car and heading for Vin. The three converged and shook hands.
"What news, Vin?" Josiah asked.
"Anyone hurt?" Nathan pressed.
Vin took a breath. "Chard's dead." He paused while two shocked men absorbed the news. "JD's a tad battered, as is Ezra, but..." Vin licked his lips. "Chard shot Ezra." He raised a hand before either man could comment.
"The injury is a deep gouge in Ezra's side, and he's lost enough blood to warrant a unit or two at the hospital, so he's a wee bit ragged right now, and about to go..." Vin stopped when he saw Josiah's and Nathan's gazes move to the side. He turned to see Chris walking next to Ezra, who was in the chair and being carried over the uneven ground toward the ambulance. Without another word, the three men hurried over and joined Chris.
The conservationist leaned in. "Ezra, it's Josiah. Can you hear me, laddie?"
The ambulance men were glad to stop for a moment after their hike through the woods.
"Ezra?" Nathan glanced worriedly at the others on receiving no response.
Eyelids moved and Ezra's eyes slowly opened. His shaky hand pulled the oxygen mask a short distance from his face and he attempted a smile. "Forgive...my dishevelment...I fear it's been a difficult...couple of days."
Four men grinned and each patted or squeezed the man's shoulder. Josiah leaned in closer. "I'd like to accompany you to the hospital."
As if prompted by Josiah's request, the paramedics picked Ezra up and set him down inside the vehicle. The auburn-haired patient glanced back at Larabee, who gestured his concurrence with a nod. Ezra looked at Josiah.
"That's very...kind of you, Josiah. I would appreciate your company."
Josiah climbed in after one of the paramedics.
"We'll be right behind you," Chris called out, and received a smile from Josiah.
The second paramedic closed the doors. He turned to Chris, Vin, and Nathan.
"Our colleague left us on the way here to go to the farmhouse. Another ambulance will get here shortly with directions by road to the house." He decided it wasn't necessary to inform them of the coroner's vehicle on its way to take Chard once the crime scene was released. The man climbed into the driver's seat, and with full blues and twos, headed for Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
The three remaining men watched the vehicle speed away and felt hollow inside. While they had their problems at Glenneaval, this horrific incident was far removed from their lives in their wee slice of paradise, and all three felt a strong desire to get back there. Chris jerked his head to where he just came from.
"Let's round up the rest of the bunch so we can make plans to go home."
Buck couldn't hide his concern as JD sat in silence while a paramedic checked over every bump, bruise, cut, and scrape. Even though it was evident that he was hurting when the medical technician prodded, dabbed, and dressed his injuries, the boy still stayed quiet. However, when Chris, Vin, and Nathan knocked, and entered the farmhouse, Buck saw JD's chin wobble before he turned his head to one side. Buck's concerned glance didn't go unnoticed by Chris, and he quietly approached the boy.
"How are you doing, son?"
JD didn't look, he just nodded. "I'm fine, thanks." A thought struck him and he risked giving away his predicament to face Chris and ask his question. "How's Ezra doing?"
Chris smiled. "Pretty good, considering. He'll spend the rest of the day, and the night in hospital, but the paramedics were hopeful he'd be sent home after that."
JD's eyes shimmered as he looked at Chris. "Good. I wanna go home."
Sensing Nathan about to intervene, Chris answered quickly and indicated to the paramedics. "No problem, but let the professionals do their job first. Deal?"
There was a pause from JD, followed by a nod. "Deal."
Chris walked over to Murdo, who was sipping tea while sitting in his rocking chair. He extended his hand, which Murdo shook. "I owe you more than I can ever fully repay. Thank you."
Murdo continued to sip. "Donn'ae owe me naught, lad. Y'have two brave lads, there."
Buck laughed, softly, causing Murdo's gray eyes to look his way. "You're not so bad yourse'n, man."
Murdo smiled. "Ah well, it livened things up hereabouts. Would be a good tale to pass on to the grandbairns." He sighed. "Should I ever see them again afore I meet my maker."
JD's gaze moved to Murdo, and a tear finally escaped. The glances he threw Buck, Chris and the others sent a message as clear as if he'd said it aloud.
JD winced at the needle jab to his arm, and the paramedic's words returned everyone's attention to the task in hand - getting all of Chard's casualties to hospital. Chris had already decided Murdo would be going, too. While clearly a resilient man, he was getting on in years, and none of them would leave before knowing he was unscathed from the incident.
Chris caught the paramedic saying something to Buck, and it was enough to have the man standing in front of JD in a moment. As the health professional went to join two newly arrived paramedics, the Glenneaval party watched JD slowly slip into a state of semi-unconsciousness. The way Buck was prepared for it suggested this was what the paramedic discussed with him. Buck held fast to his fading charge and craned his neck back to speak to the others.
"The paramedic said JD's dehydrated, and his heart and pulse are fast, so the EMT decided it would be best to settle him down a wee bit."
"A bit?" Vin challenged. "He's all but out."
"One thing I've learned about JD," Nathan put in, "is he's a lightweight with drugs."
Buck looked at his cousin and wondered if that had anything to do with JD's mother's addiction to drugs most of his life, and his determination to be the very opposite to her.
Within ten minutes, the farmhouse was secured, and everyone from Glenneaval was heading out to join Ezra and Josiah at the hospital. Buck went with JD and Murdo in the ambulance, while Chris and Vin, courtesy of Nathan, picked up his Range Rover further along the moorland road.
Ezra awoke in a semi-darkened room and to a clinical smell that he recognized instantly. He groaned louder than he meant to, causing Josiah's face to come into view.
Ezra blinked to focus his eyes, and grimaced at the dull throb caused when he tried to move. "I'm in some doubt that this is my beloved feather bed I'm lying in."
Josiah laughed. "Good instincts."
"Subsequently, my question is; who must I confer with in order to leave this place?"
Josiah got up to open the blinds a little and let in the late morning sun, before sitting back in the chair next to the bed. "You've only been resting up for one day, however, there's no more that needs to be done, here. Nathan offered to change your dressings, so pending a successful examination by the doctor, you could be going home, today." He picked up a control and eased the head of the bed into a sitting position before helping Ezra get comfortable.
Ezra, however, was frowning. "One day, you say?"
Josiah nodded. "You were exhausted, man. The doctor wasn't concerned and was happy to let you sleep."
The Englishman touched his bandaged side. "What about this?"
"Cleaned, stitched and dressed. You received one unit of type specific blood, and as I mentioned, when released you will be in Nathan's skilled care."
Ezra relaxed back but it was short-lived. "JD!"
Sanchez smiled. "Is doing okay, and is with Buck and Murdo. They wanted the old chap to come back to Glenneaval with us, but he refused, so they've taken some things to his home and are saying goodbye. We'll pick them up along the way. Vin's been here, as was Chris, both at your side up until last night. Chris needed to get back to the business, but he wouldn't leave until the doctor assured him you were cleared to travel. Vin went with him, leaving Nathan to drive you, me, Buck, and JD home."
"How snug we shall all be," Ezra commented, but the twinkle in his eye offset the tone of the observation. His expression sobered and it wasn't difficult to work out what was on his mind.
Josiah took hold of Ezra's hand. "You didn't dream it. Chard died, and the coroner is ruling misadventure, though that's not official yet, but it's enough for the police to consider the case closed, pending your statement. They already have JD's, and Mr. Niven's."
"Are the police coming here?"
"If you want, or we can go to the stationhouse before we leave."
"The latter would be preferable. I wonder if I could impose further and stop in on Murdo myself when picking up JD and Buck."
Nathan entered the room and overheard the request. He agreed. "No problem, it won't add much time to our journey. Only fair you should get the chance."
"Thank you. Now, as JD would say..." he grinned. "Kindly get me the hell outta here."
Murdo stood at his kitchen table and stared at the giant food hamper sitting on it. "Och, this will keep me going for most of the year."
JD showed him a new can opener. "This is designed for arthritic hands, so you shouldn't have any problems opening them from now on. Also, once a month, for a year, you'll get a delivery from us of fresh fruit and veg, along with a different Scottish cheese, as well as a block of your preferred Scottish Cheddar."
Murdo looked stunned. "Really? For me? Why?"
Buck smiled. "Because we wanted to thank you, and seeing as you won't come with us so we can keep an eye on you, we'll just have to satisfy ourselves with feeding you occasionally. Oh, and around March next year some of us will come down and build you two, large, raised beds, around waist height, and accessible from all sides, so you can grow vegetables again, or just plant flowers, if you prefer."
Murdo waved a hand. "There's no need for you to do all this."
"Tough, we're gonna," JD said with a grin.
Murdo wagged a wizened finger. "You're no too big for another skelp, bairn." His words were accompanied by his own grin.
JD sighed. "Please reconsider visiting us...if not now, maybe later, say at Christmas...or Hogmanay, or both!"
Buck nodded. "Like the kid says, we really want to show you some Glenneaval hospitality."
Murdo went thoughtful. "Would be nice to see in a good Hogmanay afore departing this world."
JD's bruised face lit up. "That's a deal then, yeah?"
Murdo Niven chuckled. "You're a tough one to say no to, boy."
Buck rolled his eyes. "You're no wrong there."
While JD rested quietly, and Murdo made more tea, Buck set about making good any damage incurred when Chard was there. He was just finished and enjoying yet more tea, and a ham sandwich, when Ezra appeared in the open doorway. Buck grinned and JD and Murdo stood. The latter greeted him first.
"Ahh, good to see you well, lad."
Ezra took Murdo's hand and simply held it in a handshake grip. "I said it before, and I'll repeat my words. I am in your debt, and would appreciate it if you would allow me to return the favor - anything you desire, simply state your preference."
The old Scotsman's other hand enclosed his own and Ezra's. "Just seeing you here, and healthy, is reward enough. To see you..." he looked back at JD, "...and the youngster recovering warms my old heart."
Ezra's shimmering gaze moved and he saw JD standing there. He and Murdo released hands and the Englishman walked toward JD. The pair stood facing each other for a moment before, as one, they embraced. Despite it being an unfamiliar encounter for Ezra, the satisfaction it evoked caused him to wonder why. They separated, but didn't speak. The pair simply each gave a crooked grin and nodded.
"We should really be on our way if we're going to get home for supper," Nathan reminded.
The group collected themselves and said their goodbyes to Murdo. JD turned back and embraced the old man, who smiled and patted the boy's back.
"Please, Murdo, please come visit us."
Murdo looked at JD. "Wheesht but you do go on. Alright, when?"
The boy beamed. "Say...two weeks? We'll come and get you."
Murdo nodded. "Aye, alright, two weeks then, but I warn you, I have nae fancy clobber to wear."
"That's fine," Ezra assured. "I'm the only one who has fashion sense there, anyway."
Murdo laughed and watched the squabbling bunch until the CRV was out of sight. "Two weeks, eh? I cann'ae wait."
During the trip home, Nathan and Josiah shared the driving and it was the latter doing so when the CRV approached the castle gatehouse. The vehicle's headlights lit the darkened woodland road, which soon opened out to the intersection that led around to the back of the house, or the large drive up to the castle's front door. Josiah chose the former, and in the distance, the castle's interior lights glowed like beacons welcoming the weary travelers home.
In a light doze, Buck caught Nathan's heads up that they were home and he stretched his legs and back. In the opposite corner of the rear seat, Ezra slept soundly, his head resting against a travel pillow of Nathan's. JD was seated between Ezra and Buck, and was also fast asleep. His pillow was Buck, and the reason why the tall man hadn't stretched fully. Earlier, Buck's arm held JD close, but after several cries out from Ezra as he dreamed, Buck's long arm had snaked along the back of the seat and while it maintained contact with JD, his hand now gripped the Englishman's shoulder.
That hand gave the shoulder in its grasp a squeeze. Ezra was awake instantly and clearly bemused at first. Wiping a hand over his face brought him around quickly and he glanced across at Buck.
"How long was I asleep?"
"Pretty much all the way here," Buck answered, while gently shaking JD awake. "The kid, too."
"How tedious for you; my apologies for my deficient companionship."
Buck chuckled, laughing harder as JD brought himself around with a vigorous nose rub. "No apology necessary. It was good to see you both resting."
"Not to mention he's also been zonked out most of the way," Nathan supplied.
Buck shrugged. "Yeah, that too."
Josiah's deep chuckle drew all their attention. "We have a welcoming committee."
Nathan's earlier ETA had the castle's occupants on tenterhooks waiting for their missing friends' arrival. On the back porch step, Chris and Vin stood with their backs to the open door, the interior light illuminating the pair through the gloom as Josiah came around the back of the castle and parked in Nathan's usual spot.
As they pulled in, Ezra stared at his Range Rover, parked in its regular place. He smiled, warmth spreading through him on realizing Chris and Vin must have gone into Edinburgh to collect it. Gratitude filled his heart at the happy thought he wouldn't need to go back into the city anytime soon. Cool air made him shiver and he looked through the open door to see Josiah ready to help him out. Ezra began to climb out of the CRV prepared to refuse assistance, but the journey made him stiff, and sore. The thought of walking more like Murdo than a man in his thirties did not sit well, and so he clung to the offered arms and made full use of the offer.
Buck was so happy to be home and all together again, he swept JD up in his powerful arms and carried the cackling, protesting teenager right to Chris, Vin, and Nettie before setting him down. Buck had once needed to haul an injured fellow Black Watch soldier over his shoulder while both wearing full kit, so carrying JD was effortless, or it would have been if the kid hadn't wriggled so much. The group laughed, the laughter escalating when Ezra pointed at Buck and warned him to not even think about it. Nettie hugged all the new arrivals, taking extra care with JD, and Ezra, while whispering to each of them how pleased she was to have them home safe. Before going inside, Ezra took a step to one side and looked at the group who had inadvertently become as family to him.
"I, err, I just wanted to say..." He composed himself. "I wanted to say how fortunate I consider myself to have people like you in my life. To know how much effort you all put in for me during this abhorrent incident is humbling indeed. Thank you." Between a mixture of moved, relief, tiredness, and hunger, smiles and nods were the response to the compliment before the group went inside and locked up for the night.
Due to the late hour a light supper was served, however exhaustion triumphed as not just the injured, but also everyone, felt the need to go to bed. Nettie noticed Buck's sudden change in demeanor as they prepared to retire, and glanced knowingly at Chris, who spoke.
"Buck, we figured you would want to stick close to our injured pair, so we've made up one of the rooms on that wing for you."
Buck draped an arm around JD and Ezra, and grinned. "Roomies."
"Kindly stick to your own chamber, and we'll get along just fine, Buck." Ezra noted everyone staring at him, and smiled wide enough to show off his gold tooth. "JD tells me he sleeps naked."
"He does!" JD defended, causing more laughter, and Vin to comment.
"NO!" JD stated, almost choking on his milk. "For one thing, it's too darn cold."
"So you see, Nettie, this is why one would want to discourage any nocturnal wanderings from Mister Wilmington."
Vin nodded, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "Oh aye, the stuff of nightmares."
The genial Scotsman chuckled. "Och, do I sense a little 'Buck' envy there, Tanner?"
"Enough!" Nettie scolded. "Bed!"
With jokes over, tiredness resumed control. Nathan helped Ezra up to his room, and then to undress. He changed his dressing, and ensured he took his medication before leaving the man to sleep. Buck helped JD, and seethed at the bruises, grazes and boot marks on the boy's fair skin. PJs on, JD took his meds, and then eased himself into bed.
"Man, it's good to be home."
Buck sat in the chair next to the bed. "Aye, that it is. Now get some proper rest."
"You're not staying there all night, are you?"
"No, but if it's alright with you, I'll stay a wee while."
JD yawned. "Sure, knock yourself out." He hunkered down, and grinned. "Thanks."
In minutes, JD was asleep. Buck stared at the boy, and silently thanked God that he and Ezra were okay, and finally home. An hour later, he looked in on Ezra before heading for his temporary room.
Ezra heard Buck open the door, and knew he approached the bed before standing there for some time. When Buck left he relaxed, but felt a little guilty for pretending to be asleep. He just wanted some time alone. Previous events weighed heavily on the man's mind. The realization of how close he came to death dominated his thoughts for a long time, until he wondered if he would ever sleep. Finally, more positive musings took over. JD's help, Murdo's kindness, having the others come looking for him - to be referred to as a brother.
The medication at last began to take hold and he sighed. The door creaked opened.
"'Night, Ezra, sweet dreams."
The Englishman grinned, and just before the door closed, he spoke. "Goodnight, Buck, and the same to you, my friend."
Two weeks later saw the folk of Glenneaval on alert. Ezra and JD had insisted on going to pick up Murdo Niven, and though there was no reason to be concerned, inevitably they all were, right to the point Chris got the call that they had reached their local village. Buck drove, as Ezra was still not cleared to, and JD only had a learner's permit, and so not allowed to drive on the motorway. Nettie took one final look around the dining room before closing the doors, and joined the others to greet their septuagenarian hero.
Buck drove up the gravel approach and grinned at the small whistle from the back seat.
"Man alive, you live in a castle."
JD grinned. "Yeah, neat, huh?"
Murdo's brow creased.
"JD said he thinks it's very nice," Ezra translated.
Buck pulled up outside the main door, where Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan, and Nettie greeted them. Chris stepped forward and helped the old man out of the car.
"Welcome, Mr. Niven."
"Name's Murdo, son, I'll answer to naught else."
Chris nodded. "Understood. We thought maybe a small tour, then a bite to eat, followed by taking you to your room."
"D'ye have any cheese?" Murdo cackled at Nettie's alarm. "Just a wee joke."
"Because he really likes cheese," JD decided to explain.
"Thanks Kid," Vin commented. "Would've missed that."
JD went to smile, but instead, his eyes narrowed. "You're yanking my chain."
Vin grinned, and ducked a shove from the boy.
Ezra and JD walked Murdo around the immediate grounds, and led him to the back gardens overlooking the loch. The three sat on a bench there and took in the view until Nettie called them for dinner. They both helped Murdo to his feet.
"This is a special place, lads. I'm glad you kept on at me to visit."
The pair nodded in agreement and escorted him to the dining room, where they insisted he step inside first.
All from Glenneaval stood back and enjoyed watching as the man that had become a close friend to them, stared in surprise when his son, daughter-in-law, two grown grandchildren and his great grandson approached him.
"Stuart?" Murdo's eyes filled. "My boy!" Father and son embraced, affecting all in the room. A tear rolled down JD's face and as he sniffed, gratefully accepted Buck's consoling, while unaware of the brunet's own tears.
Stepping back, Stuart let his kids hug their grandfather. They hadn't seen him since they were twelve. The great grandson was introduced. "This is Murdoch, Jack and Isla's son."
Murdo shook his namesake's hand, and laughed as the nineteen-year-old hugged him. "Wonderful to meet you, son." He composed himself and looked around at the gathered group. "How is all this possible?"
"We wanted to do this," JD explained, "and Ezra insisted on footing the bill."
The Englishman smiled.
"Why pay all that money, for me?" Murdo asked.
"As I said previously, I will be forever grateful for the bravery, kindness, and compassion you showed myself and JD, and felt this was the least I could do to repay you."
"That was no necessary," Murdo said, softly.
"It most certainly was," Ezra insisted.
Chris stepped forward, drawing JD with him. "We'd like you to live on the estate. We have a croft, much like your own, and all yours if you say the word."
"Or you could come back with us, Da," Stuart reminded.
The old man needed to sit, and Ezra guided him to a chair. "Son, I'm too old to be flying off, now, but I thank you for the offer. Boys, while living here would be fine indeed, I couldn'ae leave my home after all these years."
JD squatted at the man's knees. "We thought you might say that, so here's the thing. Josiah found stonemasons who can move your house brick by brick to a location we picked out for you. How d'you feel about that?"
"What? You can put my house here, in this glen, and in one piece?"
Josiah stepped in. "We can. They number each brick, and transport it, to then put it all back together."
"Just as it is? My scullery, bedrooms, living room...even my outhouse?"
"We thought maybe you'd allow us one addition of an indoor toilet," Vin replied.
"I promise you, the place Buck, Vin, Chris, and Josiah picked out is so much like where you live now, you'll hardly know the difference, well, not by much," JD put in.
"What of my neighbors?"
There was a pause. "You'll have us," Ezra stated.
"Why don't we have dinner, and then you can sleep on it," Nettie suggested. In agreement, the group took up seats around the table.
"Och, one other thing," Buck added. "No matter what you decide, the estate plan to fly your family out here twice a year, at times of theirs and your choosing."
Murdo's gray eyes spilled tears. "Things like this donn'ae happen to folk like me. Thank you, thank you all."
Sat to one side of him, JD clasped Murdo's trembling hand. "I said that once and look at me now." He glanced around the room, at the walls, the paintings, the furniture, and then to all assembled. "This place is real special, it somehow brings folk together."
Ezra nodded. "I only know of one person who left this place without finding the happiness she sought, and I fear that was more down to her determination not to, than anything else. We will respect whatever decision you make, my friend, for in our hearts, you will always be a part of Glenneaval, regardless."
For the next two days, the Glenneaval residents left Murdo and his family to enjoy some private time together while they went about business as usual. On the third day, Murdo and his son were taken to the location picked out for his home to be rebuilt. He nodded his approval, but said nothing. After the weekend and having enjoyed touring the location, and a spot of lake fishing, Stuart and the family had to return home. It was a tearful farewell, but the first reunion date was arranged, making their parting far less traumatic.
On Murdo's final night with his new friends, it was decided to treat him to a traditional Glenneaval Christmas dinner, due to him not being with them until Hogmanay. It started with Cock o' Leekie soup, then a fish course of smoked salmon - caught on the estate. The main course was roast turkey, served with roast potatoes, roast parsnips, forcemeat, and chestnut stuffings, bacon rolls and chipolata sausages, brussel sprouts, carrots and peas, with gravy, bread sauce and cranberry jelly. For dessert, they opted for clootie dumpling with whiskey cream, and a cheese board especially for Murdo; and they washed it all down with various wines, soda, and a brandy to finish.
The old man sat back and patted his belly. "Man alive, I'm full tae bursting."
"Well rather than mess up my dining room, why don't we risk you bursting in the living room?" Nettie insisted, clearing dishes even as she talked. She waved off help and shooed them out.
In the sitting room, JD could hold his question in no longer. "Well, Murdo? Did you decide...about moving here, I mean?"
There was a long pause. Ezra looked knowingly around at the others; JD's face fell.
"It's no, huh?"
Murdo patted the seat next to him on the couch and JD got up from his chair and sat there. He gestured to Ezra, who crossed the room to sit on the sofa arm, and next to JD.
"I thank you kindly for your offer. It touched my heart, and for a wee while I thought I could take you up on it; but I know now, I cann'ae do so. I cann'ae leave my beloved Elspeth. She's buried in the grounds of the wee church where we were wed, and I have it in mind that, when my time comes, to once again lie alongside her. I hope you understand, I cann'ae leave her there alone."
All gathered nodded their understanding, while clearly moved by the man's devotion. Ezra could feel JD shaking, and was the least one surprised when JD stood.
"I, uh...there's a chore I need to do before bed." He squeezed Moro's hand. "Your wife was a real lucky lady."
Murdo patted the hand on his. "As was I a lucky man, bairn. I'll bid you goodnight."
Chris's eyes narrowed as JD excused himself and left. Buck's were wide with surprise. "I, um...I'm sure that's not because..."
Murdo shook his head. "During our time together, he told me about his ma. I fear I've touched a nerve."
Ezra stood and raised a hand to halt Buck. "Please, allow me, I feel I may be the most qualified for this situation."
The Englishman found JD where he expected to, down on the beach. The boy was skipping stones across the loch and Ezra made sure his approach wasn't particularly quiet. JD stopped skipping and stood staring out across the calm, moonlit water.
"I don't accept as true that your mother believes you abandoned her, JD."
Openly weeping, JD turned to Ezra. "Really? 'Cause I do." His head drooped. "I can't say I never gave her a second thought, because I did, but unlike Murdo, it didn't stop me from making a life-changing decision - one that meant I might never visit her grave again."
Ezra took out a handkerchief to dust off a rock, sat on it, and gestured for JD to join him, which he did. There was a pause. "I never shared why Chard hated me so, did I?"
JD looked at him and shook his head.
"It was because of my relationship with my mother. He saw me as an idler, a slacker, scrounger, parasite - freeloader; a man who lived off the wealth of family."
JD's brow creased. "But you're not like that..."
Ezra smiled. "No, and I never have been. From an early age, Mother taught me how to fend for myself, whether it was with relatives, or by her side. All I have is from my own resourcefulness, and yet I'm clearly viewed to the contrary. As a result, and from seeing Mother consistently behave in the very manner of which I am accused, I have distanced myself from the woman who gave me life and the confidence to know I can do anything if I accept it as true. In those moments with Chard when I believed I might die, I did not even consider her." He looked at JD.
"Instead I found my thoughts drifting toward a group of people who, despite me knowing far less time than my true relatives, have become more a family to me than any other person on this earth. I realized that day how fortunate I am to be graced with the friendship of such wonderful people. Now, don't misunderstand, I love my mother, and I know she did her best to ensure that I had the life skills necessary to survive, however, in the grand scheme of things, I fail her badly in the role of supportive son.
"Your mother went to her grave knowing she was loved and possibly wishing more for you. In a strange reversal of fate to Murdo, by doing what you did, and what I'm sure she would have wanted for you but which you now feel guilty about; you have brought her home. Natives of this glen remember her; the castle is filled with her presence, the garden with her efforts. I'm willing to wager that there is more of her spirit here, than back in Brooklyn.
"You do yourself an injustice, JD, as do I. Just as Murdo chooses to stay put, you must embrace your decision to come here, and know that your mother would most certainly approve, while I will celebrate the opportunity to repair Mother's relationship and mine, while appreciating that all the wisdom she imparted to me was out of love." He winked. "And communicated in her own delightful, inimitable style."
JD took a deep breath of the cool night air. He looked at Ezra. "Sounds like you had a pretty life-changing moment yourself back there."
Ezra nodded. "I did, and I am determined to use the experience to move forward and make the best of every opportunity." He watched JD jump down off the rock.
"I guess I should go back and apologize for shooting off like that."
"Well, apparently Murdo knows why you did due to some conversation between you while I was resting up."
JD nodded. "Oh yeah. Just to the others, then."
"JD, it will keep, your time with Murdo will not."
The boy offered a crooked grin. "You're a sharp guy, Ezra."
Standish laughed. I appreciate the compliment. It, err, was a compliment, yes?"
"You bet." JD stepped nearer and looked a little awkward, so Ezra helped him out and pulled him close. The youth patted his back. "Thanks, Ezra."
Ezra released JD. "Back at ya," he said in a decent imitation of a southern US-style accent, and chuckled to himself as JD left, giggling.
Left by himself, Ezra looked out across the loch. The only sounds were a breeze through the trees, the gentle lapping of water on the beach, and the occasional plop of a fish surfacing. Moonlight glinting across the water completed the idyllic setting, encapsulating much of what he loved of this place.
Ezra knew Vin was standing in the garden above him, and that the man returned inside when the Englishman took the first step in his plan to move forward. A familiar voice came over his cell phone.
"Mother, good to hear your voice, how are you? Good. I was thinking recently how long it is since we've had a chance to talk." Ezra smiled. "That sounds perfect, I'll see you then. What?" The man's throat tightened. "I - love you too."
He clutched his phone to his chest, stood, and looked back at the illuminated castle.
"I love you, too."
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Old metal teapot
Old kitchen range
Dinnae ken - don't know
Sassenach - Saxon (Englishman)
Bairn - child, youngster
Toff - a rich, well-dressed, or upper-class person, especially a man
Haud yer wheesht, bairn - Be quiet, child
Skelp - slap
Blues and Twos
Edinburgh Royal Infirmary
Donn'ae owe me naught - (you) don't owe me anything
Motorway - expressway
Cock o' Leekie soup
Scullery - kitchen