Characters: Seven, OMC
Alternate "Brothers Larabee" universe.
Author's Note: I guess it's obvious to most readers how much I love the modern-day Brothers Larabee AU, so I thought I'd take a shot at a similar theme, (it is a little different), but in the OW.
Happy 17th anniversary, fellas. Long may you ride!
Jethro Daniel Larabee - Jed to his friends - stood outside on the porch of his sprawling homestead and stared out past the corrals to the horizon. Today was to be one of the most important days of his fifty six years on this earth. Today, he hoped, would be the day he found his family.
He was getting no younger, and apart from owning a ranch that was revered throughout the territory, he realized he owed the three sons he lived with more than just a legacy, they deserved to meet their brothers, one of which they didn't even know about. Jed had spent several years tracking down the boys, some of which he hadn't seen for far too many years, and with sadness, some never.
Josiah would be almost thirty-eight, now. After giving birth to their son, Jed's first wife, Sofia, decided that she wasn't quite ready to go west. After much talking, they agreed Jed would go on ahead, and call for them when he was settled. When that day came, Sofia never replied to his initial letters and telegrams, and couldn't be found when he went back for her. He never saw her again, but after a year she started to send occasional letters to update him on Josiah's childhood, right up until her new relationship with a preacher man, and then…nothing.
Jed's marriage to Marjorie was a happy one, producing a son, Christopher Adam. When she was killed in an Indian raid, Jed went a little off the rails, often leaving Chris with his new housekeeper, a negro named Beatrice, while he dallied in town with a pretty saloon girl called Rosanna. A harsh winter followed, forcing Jed to mostly remain close to Beatrice and Christopher, and the familiarity of home and hearth started the healing. Jed's love for his housekeeper blossomed, and they lived as near to husband and wife as possible without a preacher's blessing.
When he returned to town in the spring, he discovered Rosanna had given birth to his son, and called him Bucklin. Rosanna said she loved Jed, but was in no hurry to marry him, proclaiming she was never cut out to be a rancher's wife. He rode out of town heavy-hearted to leave them behind, but vowed he would never forsake them.
His homecoming was warm, and his first night home, passionate. While they lay together, Beatrice confessed she was in the family way. Jed finally persuaded her to ignore what other folk would think and to marry him, to which she happily agreed. Five months later Nathan was born, but tragically, Beatrice died in childbirth, leaving Jed once more alone, and with a four year old boy and a baby to raise.
Learning of his dilemma, Rosanna moved in to help him raise the three boys, and for two years they were a happy family. One day, while in town alone to buy supplies, a task she undertook on a weekly basis, Rosanna was brutally raped and murdered, and Jed was again left to bring up the three boys he loved and who now lived as brothers.
Jed met Maude Standish in town and knew he wanted her after she beat him soundly in a poker game. Theirs was an interesting affair, initially full of passion and laughter, and blessed with a baby boy. However, over time, enforced motherhood and ranch life became too tedious and dusty to bear. No longer suffering from a lack of funds, the reason that drew her into the generous rancher's arms to begin with, she and their son left the spread; herself never to return. However, Maude did, on occasion, write to Jed to tell him his son Ezra was doing well.
The loss of a brother affected his boys deeply, and Jed also missed the child, and so he begged her to return with him. Her only eventual concession was to meet Jed in St. Louis in order for him and Ezra to visit, and for her to accept a generous endowment toward their boy's upbringing. From that day, he never heard from her again, despite her assurance he would be kept apprised of his son's welfare.
Two years later Jed met Annalise. She was a sultry, untamed, barefoot, free spirit and their time together was intense and spiritual. Even before Vin was born, Jed knew she wouldn't stay for long, and he was proven right when Annalise told him she wanted her son to experience life, and believed traveling would be the only way forward. They moved on when Vin turned two years old, but with a firm promise she would one day return. She never did, and Vin was lost to Jed and his brothers, causing father and boys, Chris especially, who had grown particularly close to Vin, more heartache.
Jed's final dalliance was while on his first business trip to New York…a pretty, raven-haired, Irish Catholic immigrant by the name of Bridget, or Bridie, as he came to call her. Though a little young for him, the demure chambermaid had him smitten from the get go. He told her about his family out west, and rather than deter her, she asked lots of questions, and hoped she could meet them all one day. Though their courtship was a whirlwind, the consummation of their relationship was founded on love, and he promised that once his business was concluded and his new horses were at his ranch, he would return to marry her and take her back to his home. They corresponded frequently, but due to him falling ill a spell in the winter, it took almost a year before he was able to go back. Her final letter to him before he set off, was of her confession to bearing him a son, whom she'd called John, and that she could no longer go with him as she was now promised to another. Despite returning, Jed never found her, or his boy, and to this day, to his deep regret, still had not.
Jed snapped from his pondering and his gaze moved to look back at the house, and he smiled. Three of his missing boys, after much time and expense, he *had* tracked down, and today, Chris, Buck, and Nathan were in town to meet them and bring them out to the 'Lazy L'. Jed knew this would not be an easy reunion, and realized that his long-lost sons may not turn up, let alone stay. But he hoped that if they did come, with time and a little sweetener on the deal, they would come around; much like his three boys did when he told them of his plans to find their missing brothers. Their initial apprehension of failure was replaced by anticipation, and, dare he say, even a little excitement.
So Jed patiently waited, hoping this would be the day his far-flung children would finally come home to stay and become a family.
In the town's saloon, Chris Larabee shook his head in amusement and knocked back a whiskey. He and Nathan watched their brother, Buck hover around the batwing doors of the saloon in anticipation of the arrival of the noon stage. Buck knew at least two brothers were arriving on it, so his curiosity piqued when a rider dressed in buckskins rode up to the saloon and dismounted. With an easy gait, the man walked past Buck, approached the bar and ordered a whiskey.
Chris stared at the new arrival, surprising both Nathan and Buck when he stood and approached the stranger.
Warily, the younger man gave a sideways glance, making a half-turn on meeting the inquirer's gaze.
That one name spoken, and a fleeting memory of a fair-haired boy holding onto him, caused Chris's heart to lurch. He smiled.
Vin had often pondered over the years as to whether a similar image to what Chris was visualizing was real or a dream, but seeing the intensity in the green eyes scrutinizing him put his vague memories into place. He returned the smile. "Chris."
Both men extended their hands and Vin clasped Chris's forearm, to which he reciprocated. The pair were totally lost in the moment, until Buck and Nathan joined them.
The buckskin-clad man touched his hat and nodded. "Vin Tanner."
Snapping back from his trance-like state, Chris pointed to each of his brothers. "This here's Nathan, and that's Buck."
Nathan shook his hand, but Buck stepped forward and gave the shocked brother an embrace, causing Chris and Nathan to laugh. "I'm glad you came," Buck said, sincerely.
"Couldn't help myself. Ma's voice when she told her stories about this place faded a long time back, but I never forgot what she'd said about y'all." Vin's voice hitched and he cleared his throat. "So, is this all of us?"
"Nope, still got Josiah and Ezra to come in on the stage," Buck explained.
"Six boys? I didn't figure on there bein' so many of us." Vin was surprised when Buck's gaze went misty.
"Seven," he sighed. "Pa never found John."
Vin straightened. "John?"
Nathan nodded. "The youngest. Pa reckons he'd have just turned seventeen, but he ain't had no luck locating him, despite putting out notices in all the papers back east."
Before the four men could ponder the dilemma, a familiar trundle of heavy wheels reverberated through the saloon. Buck grinned. "Stage's in."
It had been a tedious journey from Eagle Bend. The preacher man and a youth in eastern garb held little interest for gambling entrepreneur Ezra P. Standish. Both seemed lacking in sparkling conversation, or showing, God forbid, little interest in a hand or two of poker to pass the time. Indeed, the whole trip had been one long 'ooh and aah' diatribe from the boy, and unending grinning, peppered with bursts of parables from the older man. Ezra had found the whole trip quite bizarre…the fact the he was smiling inanely at the pair was neither here nor there.
When the coach rolled to a stop, Ezra and the preacher got out, the former catching his luggage as the coachman tossed it down. Ezra's landed with a thump and a puff of dust at his feet. He stared up at the driver. "Too kind," he deadpanned.
"Allow me, brother," the older man chuckled. "And, although you never asked, the name's Sanchez, Josiah Sanchez."
Visibly shocked on hearing the name, Standish would not be allowed to dwell on it, as a gregarious man with a dirty cream Stetson and an unkempt mustache lurking under his nose, bounded over to them.
"Ezra, Josiah? I'm Buck."
Despite an enthusiastic handshake from Josiah, Ezra's cool return was a little disappointing, but Buck remembered what Pa said, it would take time. Interest for the newly arrived pair turned to behind Buck, and to a black man, a man in buckskins, and a serious-looking fella dressed mostly in black.
"This here's Chris, Vin, and Nathan," Buck explained
Josiah plowed right in with more enthusiastic handshakes. Standish raised an eyebrow at the eclectic group.
"Sure do dress fancy for these parts," Nathan slipped in, a little uncomfortable with the stare from the auburn-haired peacock.
Ezra touched his hat. "I'll be sure to follow your example and dress down," he quipped. "Better yet, I could go for the all native, or dour look." He gestured first to Vin, then Chris.
Buck frowned. "Chris is a widower," was all he said before snatching up the fancy suitcases and tossing them into a wagon hitched nearby.
"Those are imported…" Ezra smiled. "Never mind, thank you."
"This is a great day," Josiah beamed, following the four men toward the buggy and three tied horses. "All the brothers, together at last." In minutes, the six were heading toward the Lazy L ranch.
From inside the stagecoach, easterner JD Dunne watched the exchanges with fascination. With something from deep inside driving him, he halted the driver's call to board and jumped out.
"Hey, this ain't your stop lad! Git back in there."
Clutching a saddle, saddlebags, and snatching up the small valise the man at shotgun had tossed down, JD grinned. "It is now."
As the stage pulled away, he glanced around and caught the eye of a man sweeping the boardwalk outside his store. JD pointed after the six men.
"Excuse me mister, any idea who those men were?" He smiled. " I rode in with two of 'em, and never caught their full names."
The storekeeper looked up. "Those be Jed Larabee's brood. I heard tell there were more comin' in. Jed's spread is the Lazy L…a horse ranch about an hour's ride out." He noted the fair-skinned youth go even paler. "You alright there, boy?"
JD's world narrowed, but he snapped out of his shock. "Uh, yeah…fine, thanks. Which way's the livery, please?" Noting the direction indicated by the man's raised broom handle, JD nodded his thanks and ran off that way.
After finding a bay mare he liked, JD bartered a price with the blacksmith. "I know I look green mister, but I worked with horses most of my life, and while this is a good horse, she's a little small for her age. Now, she'd suit me fine, but I ain't paying what you want for her."
Yosemite Smallman stared, and then grinned. "Fair point. Okay stable boy, name your price." In no time, they shook on it.
"One thing," JD added. "I need to find a job before I can get me board and lodge. Can I bed down in here with my horse…just for tonight?"
Something about the boy endeared the big smithy to him. "Sure, but don't go blabbin' it about town, I got me a reputation to keep up."
JD grinned. "I won't. Thanks."
After buying a few meager provisions, JD returned to the stables, wrapped a horse blanket around him, and settled into one corner of his horse's stall. Reaching around the back of his neck, he unclasped a locket, held it in his palm and snapped it open. Inside were two pictures, one of his ma holding him when he was a baby, and the other of the man his ma told him was his father.
Unfolding a piece of paper from his jacket pocket, he read the name she had scrawled on it. "Jethro, 'Jed' Larabee." Leaning back, JD swallowed. He'd come west to find his father. His mama, on her deathbed, insisted he do so, before handing him money she'd saved to attend college after he and his father were reunited.
However, just getting out west took most of the cash, so college was out of the question. And now, if he'd heard right, the men on the stage, and those who met them, were Jed's sons, which meant…he had brothers.
When the storekeeper confirmed who the men were, JD almost went after them, but one thing halted him. In the coach, the big man, Josiah, admitted to him that after being contacted, he was traveling to meet his long lost family. It was now apparent the fancy man was part of that family too. JD couldn't help wondering why no one had contacted him? His mama told JD that Jed knew of him, but had never met him. Did that mean Jed didn't need any more sons? After all, there were six, really imposing guys already claimed as his.
JD clasped the locket in his hand as his weary body fought sleep. He chuckled when his new friend and stallmate snuffled at his hair, and he decided on a plan to get closer to the six men without revealing his identity. He huffed to himself. Maybe when he got to know them, *he* wouldn't want *them*…though something in his heart was telling him that wasn't likely.
Having always been a man of iron will and strong character, Jed Larabee felt his stoic demeanor crumble as a wagon, flanked by four riders came into view.
"My boys," he breathed, his eyes shimmering as he watched them approach. They were handsome and strong, and his heart soared to see all of them had answered his call home. He hadn't given up on John, either, and vowed he never would.
As the brothers dismounted, he walked toward them, his smile warm as he approached each one. "Josiah." The pair shook hands. "You have your mother's smile. How is Sofia?"
Josiah's smile faded. "She died three years ago."
Jed placed a hand on Josiah's shoulder. "Damn, I'm sorry, son." After a pause, he turned to the man in fancy clothing. "Ezra. Good to see you too, son. I'd know your mother's looks and auburn hair anywhere…even if she does insist on darkening those coiffed tresses of hers to hide their true color. How is the darling flannel mouth?"
Standish laughed. "In fine fettle, I can assure you." A moment of sincerity passed over his features. "Thank you for the invitation."
Jed squeezed his arm. "Sure glad you accepted."
He smiled at the wary man in buckskins. "Vin…you look good, son. There's no doubt whose boy you are…you have Annelise's eyes and cheek dimples." His eyes narrowed. "I must ask…why didn't she keep in touch, like she promised?"
Vin tilted his head, his surprise evident at his father's dismay. "Ma died twenty years back, when I was five. Got me taken in by my Kiowa grandfather 'til he died. Been on my own ever since I left the Kiowa to hunt buffalo. Now I'm a bounty hunter."
Chris swallowed, glanced at Buck and Nathan, then stared at the ground. This was not what he expected at all.
"I'm sorry," Jed said, sincerely. "I didn't know."
"Figured," was all Vin returned.
Jed nodded and gestured to the large ranch house."We have a lot to talk over. Come on, our housekeeper Nettie cooked a meal for us. How about we all get reacquainted, and settled in, huh? We can talk business tomorrow." Relieved to see the men move toward the house, Chris, Nathan, Buck, and Jed exchanged hopeful looks. So far, so good.
Just after dawn the next morning, Vin Tanner stood on the porch and looked across the large yard that led toward the river running alongside the property. This spread was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. He smiled at the corrals off the huge stables, filled with prime horseflesh. His stomach rolled in nervous anticipation. Dare he hope? He could see himself living in a place like this, with men like these. He shook himself. Then again, he wasn't the settling kind…was he?
Vin smiled at Chris as he approached, and gratefully accepted the offered mug of coffee. "Yeah."
After a pause, Chris spoke again. "Don't be too hard on Pa, it wasn't down to him some of the women in his life took off and took his boys with 'em. When you get to know him, you'll find he's a man you can tie to."
Vin stared at the ground as he decided on whether to ask the next question. "How hard did he try to find us?"
'Direct and to the point', Chris thought, he liked that. "Been looking flat out nigh on three years. Still ain't found John."
"Pa met John's ma, Bridie, in New York. Just like Buck can be, Jed couldn't keep his britches on around a pretty woman…got her in the family way. Thing is, turns out he loved her. Came home from New York all a' twitterin' about her - real excited about bringing her home as his wife, and a ma to us, but when she wrote to tell him about the kid she bore him, and that she wasn't coming out west, Pa was gone for months trying to find them. He never did."
"So, there's seven of us?"
Vin offered a dimpled smile and looked back out at the vista. "Seven's a good number."
After a hearty breakfast, and over coffee, Jed got down to business. "I'll get straight to the point. I want you boys to stay here and become a family. This is a big spread, we deal directly with the army, have us a contract to provide over two hundred horses a year. That's without local trade." He paused for reactions, but they were giving nothing away.
"I've always wanted my boys around me again…all of you, and several years ago I set out to find y'all after I'd talked it through with Chris, Buck, and Nathan, who of course, agreed." He inhaled to prepare for what he had brought them here to hear.
"If y'all stay, the place will be split seven ways equally, the only concession is, if you move on, you sell to us only, and we'll give you a fair price."
Ezra raised a finger. "Seven, you say? I assume that includes you?"
"No, that includes my youngest boy, John. I ain't found him yet…but I will…someday." He took a sip of coffee to cover his disappointment at not finding him in time for this meeting.
"Any questions?" He was surprised there were none, but he could see they needed time to reflect. "Okay, I'll leave you to ponder my proposition. Whatever you decide, and even though I want you stay, I at least got the chance to meet y'all again, and for that, I'll always be forever grateful."
With a swaggering stride, the man left the big room and walked out to the corrals. Chris, Buck, and Nathan got up to join him. Josiah spoke.
"Would you stay?"
"Don't you need to talk it over?" Buck asked.
"Ain't nothing to say between us that you can't hear," Vin replied. The others nodded.
"One question," Standish put in. "I abhor menial labor, just how much would one be expected to do?"
Chris grinned. "A lot."
"I see." Ezra paused for thought. "And if I were to refuse?"
"I'd kick your butt from here to the river and back," Chris more promised than threatened.
Standish raised an eyebrow. "Hmm, this offer gets more tempting by the minute." Their laughter warmed his soul. Damn…was he feeling…comfortable? That would never do.
After a pause, Josiah looked around at them all. "I'd like to stay."
"Well alright!" Buck hollered.
Tanner met Chris's gaze. There were many unanswered questions, and he was still of a mind to simply walk away, but then…he would never learn anything. He shrugged. "Can't hurt to give it a try. And I ain't got me nowhere else to be right now." He hoped he'd successfully hidden the anticipation building inside him.
Ezra tapped his chin with one finger. "It would be churlish of me to pass up a business venture of this magnitude. Or a butt-kicking by my…" he grinned, "…older brother." A wave of warmth rolled over him and, judging by Vin's and Josiah's expressions, possibly them too. Brothers…family…for a man that had spent most of his young and adult life alone it had a nice ring to it.
From the corral, Jed watched his boys exit the house and walk toward him. Their expressions gave little away, but their gait spoke volumes. He straightened. "So, this mean you're stayin'?"
"Every one of 'em, Pa," Buck blurted out.
Jed nodded, pride shining in his gaze. "Good to hear." He eyed Ezra. "Now go get on some less fancy duds, we got a lot of work to get through."
Before anyone could reply, Jed peered out toward the horizon. "Good Lord, who in tarnation is that?"
All eyes turned to a boy wearing a bowler hat and a wool suit, riding a bay. He was heading their way.
"It's a little Dude," Buck grinned.
"Shoot, Buck…what gave the kid away?" Vin teased as he watched the easterner ride in.
"Sharp, Vin," Buck shot back. "This mean we got us some spines to deal with here?" The lightness to his voice told Vin it was more of a question than an attack.
"Remains to be seen, Bucklin," Vin replied. "You keep feedin' me lines like that and there's no tellin' what I can come out with."
Buck laughed and nudged a chuckling Chris. "Damnit, I like him."
Jed stepped away from the corral and walked to meet the approaching youth. Curious, the others followed. "You lost, Kid?"
JD couldn't believe he was face to face with his father. He touched his hat in greeting to Josiah and Ezra, and swallowed to keep his voice from wavering. "Depends, is this the Larabee ranch?"
Jed nodded. "This is the Lazy L. Somethin' I can do for you?"
"More what I can do for you," JD replied, hoping he sounded more convincing than he felt.
Jed raised an eyebrow. "What you can do for me?" He grinned. "Now this I gotta hear."
JD glanced around the group of amused men. "My name is JD. I just got into town and I heard you folks are not exactly horse poor. As far back as I can recall, I've been around horses. Since I was little, I've fed, cleaned, groomed, and exercised them…"
"Since you was little? So…since yesterday, huh?" Buck teased.
JD glared at the man with the mustache, before continuing. "I taught myself to ride, then when I was older, the master of the estate I lived on got me into racing his thoroughbreds for a while…"
"Kinda hard to keep up with 'em, I bet."
"Buck," Chris admonished, hiding a smirk.
"Aw, c'mon, Stud, he rides in here in his fancy duds and stupid hat, spouting that he lived in some big house back east. He ain't nothin' but a shave tail with a head full of dreams about life out west." He looked at JD. "That about cover it, Kid?"
JD jumped down from his horse and strode over to square up to Buck. "What's wrong with my hat?"
Buck laughed awkwardly, a little surprised by the question. He recovered quickly. "What's right with it, don't you mean? It's too small to keep the sun off that perty fair skin of yours, and it looks stupid."
"It ain't stupid! Bat Masterson wears a hat just like this one!"
Jed and the others could only watch the exchange in stunned amusement.
"Bat Masterson…Bat Masterson? You…you throw a name like that in the air…you…you ain't nothing like him."
JD snorted. "How do you know what I'm like, huh? That dead mouse under your nose got some kind of mystical powers, huh…HUH?" Ignoring the chuckles around him and a southern accent declaring he 'liked the boy's spunk', JD got as much into Buck's face as their obvious seven or eight inch height difference allowed.
"You know nothing about me. You took one look and just made up your mind then and there." He took a step back and addressed them all.
"All my life, Mama worked as a chambermaid, so yeah, I got to live in a big mansion…or at least in an attic room in one. As soon as I was able, I worked as a stable boy, right up to when Mama died two months ago. The money she saved was meant for me to use to travel and for college, but there wasn't enough for both, so I chose to come out here." Suddenly drained after his outburst, JD waved the attention off and moved back to his horse.
Buck's glistening eyes tracked him. He spoke, softly. "Life is hard, and then you die."
Grabbing the reins, JD went to mount up. "Yeah, well I don't plan on dying anytime soon." He looked at Jed. "Sorry I wasted your time."
Before JD could re-mount Jed halted him. "Wait up, Kid. I see you're wearing two side irons. They for show, or can you shoot, too?"
Sensing all was not lost, JD drew one. "I can shoot." He aimed for a distant tree branch and fired. Just as a piece of thin branch fluttered to the ground, his mare bucked from the unexpected gunfire so close to her ear, and knocked JD sideways to land quite spectacularly in a full water trough just outside a corral. Laughter erupted as the shocked, spluttering youth surfaced and hauled himself out.
"Yep, he can shoot," Vin chuckled.
"And he can fly," Ezra joined in.
"And he can swim, too," Buck rounded.
"Oh, har, har…real funny," JD huffed, wiping a hand over his dripping face.
Jed watched the interactions with amusement and interest. He liked this kid, and clearly his sons did, too. But…there was something else. Something familiar about the boy, and also something he'd said, penetrated deep into Jed's soul and it unsettled him. He rallied when he saw JD again about to mount up.
"Alright, go get your things…there's an open cot in the bunkhouse, you start as soon as you move in."
"Pa, he's young," Chris warned.
"I'm older than I look!" JD fired back
"I doubt that," Chris replied.
"Look, I just want to have a chance to settle out here. I know I got a lot to learn, but I'll do anything…even fight if you need me to."
Jed intervened. "Chris? It's up to you."
The pair stared each other out. Chris pursed his lips and then turned his gaze to JD. "Alright, you can stay. I just hope I don't end carving any of what you just said on your tombstone."
The decision seemed to make everyone but Chris grin, especially JD, whose smile almost split his face.
Jed patted Chris on the back, then looked to JD. "It's settled, go get your stuff."
"This is it," JD pointed to his horse and the bag and saddlebags attached to her.
Jed nodded. "In that case, welcome to the Lazy L, Kid." He turned to Buck. "Take our new hand to the bunkhouse, then show JD the horses we'll need saddled up. I wanna show the boys around some of the spread." He grinned as JD enthusiastically shook his hand, and tried not to be impressed when the boy whistled to his horse and she obediently followed him. Jed shook his head. "I guess he wasn't kidding about being around horses."
"More than that," Josiah added. "He rode in on the stage with us, so I'm guessing he only bought that mare yesterday."
"This day keeps getting more interesting by the minute," Jed commented.
JD gestured around. "So, all this is yours, huh?"
Buck shook his head as the pair made their way to the bunkhouse. "No, it's Pa's, but soon it'll be split seven ways, so it'll belong to all of us."
"Nice…for you all, I mean. You sure have a lot of family."
"That we do." Buck opened the door to the bunkhouse and pointed to the open cot. "Right now we got three regular hands, Curly, who's on the roof at lookout, Poke, and Mac, they're out fixing fences today. You'll meet 'em later. We chow down at 6 am and 6 pm. Miss Nettie's rules are you come late, you don't eat."
"If you're out on the ranch, you get a packed lunch. If you're around here, we get a heap 'a sandwiches around midday." Buck grinned. "Trust me, Miss Nettie's meals and lunches are enough for the biggest appetite." He watched JD remove his hat and jacket and dump his stuff on the bed. "Come on, let's go saddle up the horses that Pa wants, and you can settle in your bay, too."
With Jed having no horses specifically picked out for Ezra and Josiah, JD thoughtfully looked over the several he had put aside and picked a large sorrel named Quincy for Josiah, and a Chestnut called Chester for Ezra. He and Buck saddled them, and also Chris's black, named Pony, Nathan's dark bay, Buster, Buck's gray, Beavis, and Jed's dark bay, Quinn. A brooding black horse eyed them suspiciously, and they were just working out how to approach him, when Vin joined them.
"Go ahead, but stay sharp, Peso likes to chew on folk he ain't sure of." He watched with interest as the self-professed stable boy cautiously, but expertly handled, and tacked up the big black. Not very much impressed Tanner, but that did. Together, the three men walked the horses out to the waiting family. Jed nodded his approval at JD's choices. Mounting up, they prepared to ride out.
"Get settled, then muck out the stables and feed and water the horses," Jed instructed JD.
He nodded. "Yessir."
As they moved out, Buck looked back at the solitary figure standing there and was surprised at the little lurch to his heart. "See you later, Kid."
JD watched them ride out, trying hard not to wish he'd told them who he was. 'Not yet…but soon', he promised himself. He had quickly realized he wanted what they seemed to have…kinship, but was still unhappy about how he had never been contacted, unlike the other three.
Five hours later and the family were making their way back to the Lazy L. It had been a good bonding trip, the three newcomers seemed to fit in well with their brothers. Jed hoped, by week's end, the six brothers would sign the contract he had waiting, and make this land equally theirs. He glowered at a group of riders heading their way.
Vin could sense the unease at the approaching riders. "Trouble?" he asked Chris.
"Oh yeah," was all the blond would say.
Jed halted his sons, leaned on his saddle horn, and addressed the new arrivals. "Get off our property, Royal."
"Now that sure ain't no way to greet a neighbor, Larabee."
"Neighbors like you don't deserve a civil greeting. Whatcha doing here?"
The four riders had halted. "We got beef coming in, we need water."
"Ya got water."
"Not enough. You got a whole river running right through your land."
Jed shook his head. "No deal, I got my own needs to settle. Now git!"
For a moment there was a stand-off. Chris leaned forward. "You heard the man…go!"
Chris's glare, and the added presence of the five men surrounding Jed, unnerved cattle rancher Guy Royal. He wheeled his horse around, and with his men, galloped off.
"Nice work," Ezra commented.
Chris pursed his lips. "It ain't over yet."
Jed turned to his sons. "Well boys, your initiation may end up in a gun battle."
Vin stroked his mare's leg. "Was gettin' a mite bored, anyhow."
They headed home. Jed winked. "Oh, don't you worry none, son…you ain't never gonna get bored on this land."
"What's the issue with Royal?" Josiah asked.
"Him and Stuart James are big beef ranchers hereabouts. They don't tolerate others kindly…think they own everything, and what they don't own, they set demands on," Jed explained.
"Our spread's twice the size of theirs put together, and we don't take kindly to bullies. We got a hundred horses coming in soon, water on Lazy L land is for our stock first."
"You think they'll be trouble?" Ezra asked.
"Count on it," Buck confirmed.
Vin grinned. "That a threat, or a promise?"
The men laughed, surprised to find themselves already united in defending this place, despite half of them only just becoming acquainted with it, and their family. Jed's heart swelled with pride, Chris's ma, Marjorie had been right, this place was special.
"Touch sky and turn around real easy now, unless you want the business end of a Spencer carbine going off."
Swallowing at the familiar sound of a rifle cocking, JD turned away from the wheelbarrow of horse muck he was filling, and stared at the small older lady pointing a rifle at him. "Uh…ma'am? Who are you?"
"Was just about to ask you the same question, son."
JD relaxed his up-stretched arms, but changed his mind when the woman shook the rifle at him to put them back up. "Name's JD…Mister Larabee just hired me."
"He never told me."
"It ain't been all that long ago, ma'am."
Riders approaching caused them to turn. "Hey, Miss Nettie, don't shoot the new hire…he ain't broke in yet."
Nettie glared at Buck and uncocked the Spencer. "A heads up would be nice."
"Sorry, I figured Curly woulda told you," Jed suggested as they halted and dismounted.
Nettie bustled off. "Well, he didn't. Dinner's in an hour, get washed up."
Mumbling to himself as to why anyone would think he'd ride all the way out here to steal a barrow-full of horse apples, JD took Quincy and led him into the stables for de-tacking, a brush down, and a drink. The others, including Jed followed him in.
JD turned, a little alarmed. "What? You don't like it?"
The group looked around at the immaculate stables. Gleaming tack was aligned and hung together, and loose pails stood against one wall with the feed barrels. Each stall had fresh straw, food and water, and grooming combs and brushes were laid out in each one, next to where the saddles would rest.
"It was kinda all over the place, so I cleared up and arranged it so each horse…"
"It's okay, son," Jed smiled. "I can see. Good work." He turned and left. JD led Quincy into his stall, warmed by the grins from the others as they did the same with their own steeds. Chuckling to himself, Buck slapped the boy on the back as he passed by.
"You'll do, Kid…you'll do."
Dinner was laid out on a long table in the yard. Jed liked to eat with the ranch hands occasionally, and now he had almost all his family here, this seemed the perfect time. Nettie dished up the stew and potatoes as each man stood in line. JD sniffed his and smiled.
"Looks good, thanks ma'am."
As Nettie filled his plate, Buck watched JD take a seat at the table and snatch up some bread. "Such nice manners," she commented, gesturing toward JD. "So I guess he ain't related to you."
Buck feigned hurt. "Oh, you wound me, Nettie."
"Keep moving, or I will," she deadpanned.
With a chuckle, he followed JD and took a seat opposite him. After a while, Jed raised his beer glass in a toast to them all. "I also have an announcement to make. I ain't getting any younger, so, if you boys decide to stay on for good, and I surely hope you do, I'm gonna take a step back on the day to day running of the Lazy L, and concentrate more on traveling to make the deals." He squeezed Chris's arm.
"Son, this is where I properly hand over. I'll still be around, but with these good boys behind you, the running of the ranch will be down to you, and whichever way you choose to go forward."
Chris looked shocked. "Pa…"
"Come on, son, you know it's in your blood. With nearly all my sons here, this spread is in good hands." He glanced around at them all, heartened to see the approval in his decision. This was a good day…save for one thing…he still had to find his youngest. Again he raised his glass. "To absent friends."
As he watched them all follow suit, JD's eyes filled and he figured he might declare his identity sooner than planned. An arm encircled his shoulders.
"C'mon, Kid. Boss says you're out on the range with me tomorrow. Let's get some shut-eye."
Saying a quick goodnight, JD, Curly, Poke, and Mac headed for the bunkhouse. JD took a deep breath and tried not to be disappointed. Things were moving faster than he'd expected.
Buck watched JD disappear into the bunkhouse. Again, he found himself saddened that the boy was leaving their company. He barely knew the kid, yet felt drawn to him…dare he say…protective? He turned to his father.
"Pa, was thinking maybe I'd go out with Curly and JD tomorrow."
Chris laughed softly, causing all but Nathan and Jed to frown. "You chasing another stray, Bucklin?"
"NO!...No, just thought I could help out, is all."
"Stray?" Ezra asked.
"Buck thinks it's his duty to protect every greenhorn that crosses our path," Nathan answered.
"Not all," Buck defended. He smiled. "I like the kid…just don't wanna see him get hurt before he's fully broke in, is all."
"Mind if I tag along?" Vin asked.
"Sure," Buck beamed. "Uh, that's okay, right Pa?"
"Yup. Chris and me got some business in town, anyhow."
"Could use a trip to town myself," Josiah added. "Now I'm staying, I could use a few things."
"I too," Ezra put in. "I have a requisition I'd like to place."
"A requisition?" Nathan asked.
Standish nodded. "While finding your rustic setting…charming, I find I miss the comfort of a feather bed."
They all laughed. "You're orderin' a bed?" Vin checked.
"Most definitely. Many more nights on that straw filled, sorry excuse for a mattress, and I fear I will lose all flexibility in my back, shoulders and arms, and that will never do."
Jed's eyes twinkled with amusement. "Fair comment, at least four others have slept on it."
Ezra swallowed hard the water he was ingesting and looked suitably appalled. "Good to know."
Laughing, and with plans made, the group cleared the table and headed for bed.
Next morning, at a corner table of the restaurant nestled between the jailhouse and the telegraph office of the town of Four Corners, cattle rancher Stuart James wiped his mouth with a napkin. He tossed it down on the table and eyed the man before him.
"Larabee wouldn't agree?"
Royal shook his head. "Nope. Said he's got stock coming in and he needed the water for himself."
James stared at his companion. "Well, maybe we'll just go take it."
"He's got a lot of men around him."
James smiled. "So have I." He paused for thought. "If we drive the steers up to the high lake, he'll never know."
"Risky, he patrols it often."
"Less risky than us suffering a stampede of thirsty cattle. If we cut down through the canyon to where yours and his land borders, it's only another hour's ride to the lake from there."
"He'll likely have lookouts."
James smirked. "Let's hope they got their affairs in order then."
On arriving in town, Ezra and Josiah hitched their horses and went off to the provisions store, while Chris and Jed walked to the telegraph office. They both stalled when they came face to face with James and Royal, who were exiting the restaurant.
"Boys," James said, touching his hat, before stepping off the boardwalk. The Larabees watched them go.
"Wonder what those two are up to," Chris wondered.
"Nothing good," Jed answered.
Chris nodded and leaned against a porch support post while his father entered the telegraph office. He didn't need to go in, figuring the answer would be the same one it always was - another town, another 'not of these parts' reply about John.
Instead, he watched Royal and James mount up. They rode off in different directions, but their body language to one another before they left told a very different story. Chris subconsciously stroked his side-iron. He could sense trouble brewing long before Royal rode up to them yesterday, and now was sure his new family's initiation would be more than driving horses up to the high lake.
Chris turned to see Ellis, a local storekeeper looking his way, but it wasn't just at him, his father had just joined him.
"Clay," Jed replied. His gaze moved to his son, and Chris nodded his understanding. Still no luck with John.
"That little fella find you okay?"
Jed looked back at Ellis. "Say again?"
"Little fella - with the..." he gestured to his head, " ...funny hat. He was lookin' to ride out to your place."
They quickly realized he meant JD and nodded, but before either man could reply 'yes', they saw him lean in conspiratorially. "Heard he come out west lookin' for his Pa." Clay shook his head. "Got about as much chance of findin' him out here as comin' across a rattlesnake with fur." He raised a hand to wave to Yosemite, the blacksmith.
"Hey, Tiny!" He thumbed toward Jed and Chris whose minds were clearly occupied. "That young 'un got to the ranch after all."
Yosemite nodded and disappeared into the livery.
"Fellas." Ellis greeted Ezra and Josiah as they joined their brother and father.
Ezra noted his family's pensive expressions. "Problem, gentlemen?"
They all turned to Yosemite when he walked up to them.
"Mister Larabee, sir," he held out his hand and placed something into the palm of Jed's. "Found this in the stall the boy slept in th'other night. Could you return it to him?"
Jed nodded. "I will."
When Ellis and Yosemite left, Jed uncurled his hand. The soft gasp had his family staring at the usually stalwart man.
"Pa?" Chris asked.
Jed's trembling fingers failed to open the delicate locket he held. Ezra reached over and waited for permission.
Jed nodded and watched as Ezra's nimble fingers clicked open the locket's clasp. The southerner handed it back to his father, and was surprised to see the man's eyes were spilling.
Jed stared at the locket and then up at each of his sons. "I gave this to Bridie before I left for home." He gently touched the photo of the woman and baby. "That's her...and she must be holding John."
"That's you, Pa." Chris was pointing to the photo in the other half of the locket.
"I know," Jed breathed out.
"JD is John," Josiah concluded.
"Or he could be someone who merely found the jewelry," Ezra played devil's advocate. He believed the best way to test a theory was to challenge it. The looks he received made him shrug. "Or not."
"Let's ride," Chris said, even as all four men were heading for their horses.
Out on the range, Curly tossed down his shovel and walked over to the wagon. He picked up four canteens and walked back to hand one each to Buck, Vin, and JD.
"Man, this ground's hard and dry," JD commented as he nodded his thanks to Curly for the water.
Buck took a long draw before wiping his mouth and answering. "Yup, that's why the posts need to be so deep. That way they'll stay put."
Vin tugged out the canteen cork with his teeth and poured some water over his head and the back of his neck before taking a drink. He gestured to the fence posts in place in the distance. "Looks like we're 'bout done."
Curly nodded. "Yup, once we've closed this here breach, reckon we'll head home. Too much sun makes a man crazy."
JD turned to Buck. "You sure must've had a lot of sun, huh, Buck?"
"Ha! You little..."
Buck flicked off JD's hat and proceeded to kick dust over it while holding the boy off at arm's length. The pair were giggling as they wrestled for possession, causing Vin and Curly to laugh at their antics. JD did a neat little dip and snatched up his hat before scrambling away from Buck's grasping hands.
All at once, Vin went stiff and reached for his mare's leg, but a gunshot to his feet stopped him and the laughter, stone dead, while another hit a fencepost, sending wood splinters flying at the four Lazy L men. Armed riders closing in fast and continuously shooting over their heads gave them no chance to draw their guns and soon a stern voice threatened them.
"Aww...real sweet, boys...a nice family scene." Accompanied by around ten armed riders, Hank Morrissey from the James ranch surveyed the new fenceposts. "Been workin' hard. Shame it all has to come down."
He ignored Vin and Buck's threatening stares and with a nod, some of his men took up ropes and lassoed the posts before ripping them out of the ground. The rest held up the four from the Lazy L at gunpoint. Buck seethed and couldn't hold back anymore.
"You're going down for this, Morrissey."
Hank snorted out a laugh.
"Feelin' real brave with all these cowboys 'round you, huh?" Vin taunted. Buck chuckled.
JD was horrified at what was going on around them. When the last post he'd planted came out, he couldn't take any more and approached the rider hauling his post.
"Hey! That's a full day's work you're ripping out!"
Buck was caught out by JD's unforeseen bravado and was a fraction too late to stop the boy.
"Hey!" JD punched the rider hard in the thigh with his fist. The man reacted by swinging the rope connected to the attached fencepost and it met JD's head with a sickening crack.
"JD!" Buck and Vin called together as he went down.
The distraction was just enough for Vin's mare's leg to clear leather and the Texan fired, first at the man who'd hit JD, and then anyone who dared point a gun their way.
Curly joined in with Vin, while Buck dropped next to JD and rolled the bleeding, unconscious boy into his arms.
"Aww hell." Buck tugged off his bandana and held it to the bloody gash in the boy's hair. "JD?"
Realizing it had suddenly gone quiet, Buck looked up to see Vin about to ride out after the retreating gang. He shouted.
A furious Tanner glared back at him, but on seeing JD in Buck's arms, his anger evaporated and he dismounted to join them.
Buck's shimmering eyes looked up at him. "Bad. We gotta get him back to the ranch. Nathan'll take care of him." He leaned in close to JD's ear. "Y'hear, Kid? Nathan'll fix you up."
In minutes, Buck was in the back of the wagon and holding JD. Vin and Curly made short work of loading up the tools and hitching Buck and JD's horses to the buckboard, before taking off hell bent for leather to the Lazy L.
In the bunkhouse back at the ranch, Nathan was seated on a cot and had just finished strapping a ranch hand's arm. He smiled and patted the man's leg. "Reckon you'll be out of action a couple 'a weeks, Poke."
"Thanks, Doc, but I can't be idle..."
Nathan stopped him. "Firstly, you know I ain't no Doc, not yet, anyway, and secondly, you got hurt working for us, so Pa and Chris'll see you're okay for board and food. Right?"
Poke smiled in relief.
"So no excuses, rest up. I'll check on you tomorrow." He heard horses arriving, so got up and walked out into the yard. He waved. "Hey, Pa, fellas. You're back early."
Something in that last comment sped up his steps. Everything okay?"
"Where's JD?" Jed asked.
Nathan thumbed out toward the plains. "Still out with Curly, Buck, and Vin. Why? He in some kinda trouble?"
No one answered as they dismounted. Mac hurried over and took their horses to the stables.
"Hey!" Nathan called out. "What gives?"
Chris approached. "We think JD..." he looked at his father, and then back to Nathan, "...is John."
Nathan stared. "*Our* John? How come he said nothing?"
"That's what *I* want to know," Jed replied, before stalking off into the house.
"What's got him so mad?" Nathan asked. "That's good, right?"
Chris turned to follow his father. Josiah replied. "Very good, but I believe our father is confused as to why JD came here, yet said nothing."
Ezra brushed off the trail dust and also walked toward the house. "The boy was using caution; an astute move, under the circumstances."
Nathan glowered after the southerner. "What's there to be cautious about? Had a feeling he'd be the wary kind," he mumbled to Josiah.
Josiah grinned and led Nathan toward the house. "Aren't we all, brother?"
It was a rough ride in the wagon, but Buck barely noticed. JD hadn't moved, not even a twitch, and though he had no idea why, Buck was scared for the boy. Nathan had said plenty of times that head injuries could be dangerous, especially if the injured party didn't wake up. Buck shuddered at the girth of the post that James's yahoo had swung at JD's head, and all at once he knew why he was afraid. He feared the boy would never wake up again.
Vin's head was down and he was hunkered over the neck of his horse and racing ahead of the wagon to raise the alarm. He had no idea why Nathan could do any fixing, but Buck had said so, and that's who he was heading for. He was glad they'd ridden around the property the day before, or he wouldn't have any clue as to which way to go, but once Vin traveled a trail, it was in his head for good.
His hat off his head and flying behind him from its stampede string, Vin pulled up directly in front of the house. Moments later, his new family were outside to see what was wrong. Breathless from the ride, Vin explained.
"Got jumped by James's men. JD's hurt, Buck's got him in the wagon...told me to find Nathan..."
Pushing against Josiah for momentum, Nathan quickly turned and ran back inside for his bag. Vin sensed there was something going on when he saw Jed's features become strained. He dismounted.
Jed stepped forward. "JD...we believe he's John."
"John?" Vin's jaw dropped. "The seventh brother?" He saw them all nod. "How...?"
"Later," Ezra urged and pointed. "I do believe that distant dust cloud on the horizon is them."
From the driving seat, Curly called back to Buck. "I can see Nathan waiting."
'Thank God,' Buck thought. "Hear that, Kid? Nearly there, hold on."
The moment the buckboard stopped, Nathan was up there. He carefully examined JD's head.
"He hasn't so much as flicked an eyelash," Buck said, hoarsely.
"We need to get him inside..."
Nathan watched as his father anticipated the request and scooped the boy up in his powerful arms even before Nathan finished speaking. Buck jumped down from the wagon and went to follow, but Chris held his arm.
Buck nodded. "Morrissey." His face darkened in anger. "He's a dead man."
Chris agreed. "For sure." The pair brought up the rear as they entered the house.
Jed gently set JD down on his own bed and stepped back for Nathan to examine him. Nathan ushered them all out of the room.
"Give me some room here, fellas. Soon as I know something, you will."
Reluctantly the group left and took up their vigil in the big room. Within ten minutes, Nettie had a pot of coffee and mugs with them. She looked at Vin, crooked her finger, and the Texan rose to follow her.
"Ma'am?" Vin asked as he entered the kitchen.
"Take a seat, son."
Still confused, Vin did as he was told. Seconds later he dodged his head when Nettie raised a hand to his face.
"Wary young 'un, aint ya?" She dabbed at his brow and face with a damp cloth. "Looks like you took a blow here. I'm guessing you didn't know you'd been bleeding."
Recalling the earlier flying wood splinters, Vin touched his brow bone. "No ma'am."
"Nettie, or Miss Nettie, not ma'am."
"Yes ma'...uh, Miss Nettie."
Nettie smiled approvingly before applying salve to the cut. "I hear tell you lost your Ma."
Vin paused for a moment, and then nodded. "She died of putrid fever when I was just a little feller."
Nettie tilted her head. "You took her name."
"Yeah." Vin glanced back toward the big room.
"Worried about living up to a new name, son?"
Vin shrugged. "I guess. All I ever wanted was to make my ma proud I was a Tanner."
Nettie smiled and started packing up. "You do, son, you do."
After a minute or so of cleaning the wound, JD moaned. Nathan leaned in. "Hey, Kid? You hear me?" He took the boy's hand.
"Squeeze my hand - Kid - squeeze my hand." Nathan grinned when JD did so. "Attaboy, now open those eyes for me."
On hearing the command, and foggy as to who was talking, JD slowly blinked his eyelids open. "Who...?" he rasped out.
The black man smiled. "It's Nathan, remember? You know where you are?"
It took several moments, but slowly JD nodded. "Ranch...?"
"Yup. And your name?"
"J-D..." he sighed and drifted back off.
"...Larabee..." Nathan finished in a whisper. He bandaged JD's head, and then went out to talk to his family.
Vin was back with the others, and the big room went quiet when Nathan exited his father's bedroom. Jed was pacing and instantly walked his way.
Nathan nodded. "He woke up for a minute, and remembered where he was, and his name." he heard a collective sigh of relief.
"I'm going in.."
"...Buck, hold on," Nathan requested. "Let him rest up a while. You can take some food into him after dinner."
Buck went to protest but noticed his father's demeanor. "Pa?"
"We need to talk, son."
Buck's features paled. "About JD?"
JD heard the door click shut and his eyes opened. He looked around the room to get his bearings. He knew he was on the Lazy L, but was unsure as to where, exactly. He went to sit up and had to stifle a cry out from the sharp pain it triggered, but JD fought the dizziness and finally wriggled to the edge of the bed. He sat up, but rested his chin for support on his propped-up hand as he took deep breaths to settle himself.
Hearing voices from beyond the door prompted him to slowly make his way toward it. JD smiled to himself, maybe now was a good time to come clean about his identity.
> "Well let's get to talking about this with him, then." <
Hearing Buck's raised voice, JD put his ear to the warm wood to listen. He heard Chris.
> "He's hurt. How do we just walk in there and say, 'hey, you ain't who we thought you were'?"
"We have to do it sometime," Jed answered. "I got my hands full enough as it is." <
JD shot back as if burned by the door and reached out to steady himself. 'Oh God...that's why he didn't look for me, he doesn't want me'. JD swallowed. He knew he weren't no cowboy, but he could've learned.
He had to go. Better to disappear than hear his father tell him he had all the sons he needed. His muddled, aching mind made up, JD looked to the window and made his way dizzily around the walls and furniture. Once there the boy eased the casement open. With a wistful, liquid glance back toward the big room and those in there, he wriggled head first through the gap.
"You reckon Royal and James are bold enough to strike here?" Chris asked of his father's last comment.
"I'd bet the ranch on it," Jed replied. "I'm just staggered they asked for the water first." Jed looked at Nathan. "I need to speak to my youngest son, Nathan. I've waited too long to put this off any longer..."
A crash from outside had them all look toward the back of the house. With guns drawn, each man hurried out to the back porch. There, they found JD lying on his back amongst several pails and tools.
While his sons stared at the spectacle, Jed holstered his gun and squatted next to JD. "Why are you out of bed?"
JD tried to ignore that he could see two of the man. "Like you care!" He tried to get up, but failed miserably. Buck and Chris moved in to help him up, and then held on as it was clear the boy wasn't steady.
"Why do you think I don't care?" Jed asked, a little taken aback by the accusation.
Glad for the support, but determined not to show it, he stared at the man who gave him life. "I heard you...you have your hands full. Well don't you worry none, I'm only here 'cause Mama asked me to come." The hurt in JD's eyes was painful to see, so all but Chris was surprised when Jed chuckled.
"If you're gonna earwig at doors, boy, best hear the whole story. Chris, who and what was I addressing just now?"
"Royal and James hitting us to water their steers."
All JD could do was stare.
Jed touched the boy's face. "How about we get you back to bed? Reckon we'll use the door this time, though, huh?"
Once JD was settled back on the bed, Buck kneeled next to him. "Hey, Kid, you sure did some damage to that fencepost, and now you go pick a fight with some harmless ranch gear."
JD's eyes remained closed against the fresh pain, but he spoke, softly. "Did...I...bust my hat?"
Buck's eyes welled up and he laughed. "Sorry to say - no."
Jed stepped forward to take up a spot on the bed. He leaned in. "John?"
JD's eyes opened. "Yeah, uh, Pa?" JD blinked - did he really just acknowledge this man to be kin?
"Why didn't you say something when you first got here, son?"
JD winced with pain and looked away. "Why didn't you come looking for me like you did the others?"
Jed smiled, sadly. "Aaahhh, boy, I've been looking for you and your ma all your life, and your ma even longer. Since I come to a decision to call the family together, I've wired almost every town from here to the east coast looking for you." He recalled JD's outburst when he first arrived at the ranch. "You say your mama's dead?"
JD slowly nodded. "Yessir. Before she passed, she gave me a locket and told me about you." Wearily JD raised a hand to his throat, but it was bare. He panicked and tried to get up. "Her locket...it's...oh God..."
Jed reached into his pocket and fished out an object. Taking JD's hand, he placed the locket into it. "You dropped it in the livery the night you slept there. Yosemite gave it back to me when we were in town."
JD sighed in relief. "So, you recognized Mama's photo?"
"I did. JD."
"Mama told me she loved you, but was ashamed she got in the family way before getting wed - that's why she went off the way she did."
Jed's heart felt weighed down with the sorrow of what might have been if Bridie had only waited for him. He leaned in closer to his youngest. "Sadly we can't change the past, but we have time to forge our future. That said, I have a question for you, the same question I asked your brothers two days ago. Will you stay?"
"To take care of the horses?"
All in the room chuckled. "Sure," Jed replied, "but more importantly, to make this family complete, and help to run the ranch with your brothers."
Buck moved back to JD's side. "Whatcha say, little brother?"
JD looked around at the men in the room, men he'd wanted to get close to from almost the moment he met them.
"Come on, Kid, you're one of us, right?"
JD looked up at Chris, the one man he wanted to impress after he'd thought he was too young to work on the ranch. He blinked slow and hard from a spike of pain, and then smiled at his father. "If you really want me, I'd like that, sir."
"Never a question you need ask, son," Jed reminded.
Nathan looked to the others, and then touched his father's shoulder. "He should rest, now."
Each man patted the boy and then dispersed, all except Buck, who insisted this time that he stay, so Nathan relented.
In the big room, Jed addressed the remaining sons. "I found you all, and it's no secret how I want this to end. All you have to decide is whether to stay on and sign for your share of the ranch. My attorney's bringing the papers out here day after tomorrow. If you sign, you'll need stay on at least a year, or you forfeit your share, so be sure of what you want before making up your mind. Life out here ain't easy, but it's the best life a man could hope for."
Two days later and the seven brothers and their father were enjoying dinner. Nettie had cooked fried chicken and Vin and JD couldn't get enough of it - so she made more.
"Good appetites, I like it," she said. "Take after you, Jethro." She left with a big grin on her face.
Buck leaned in to JD and wiped his greasy chin with a napkin.
"Buck! I ain't no baby, take care of your own soupstrainer."
The brunet tweaked his mustache. "My mustache is just fine, Kid."
"Yeah? So, that mean you're saving that hunk 'a bread caught in it for your supper?"
The others laughed when Buck slapped at his mustache with both hands. JD giggled, proud he'd gotten one over on his big brother. Eyeing his napkin, Buck turned to Vin.
"If you wanna keep your fingers, Bucklin, then drop the napkin."
Defeated, Buck's elbow thumped down on the table and he rested his chin in his hand.
Josiah sucked at his chicken bone while Ezra cut at his drumstick with a knife and fork. "Pick it up, Ezra, you'll be there all night."
Standish spoke, but didn't look up. "While grateful for your ingestion advice, I believe I'll refrain."
"Couldn't just say no, huh, Ezra?" Nathan teased.
"No," Ezra deadpanned back.
A knock at the door halted the laughter. Chris looked to his father before standing and answering the door.
"Evening, Jethro, boys."
Attorney Harvey C Randall walked into the ranch house and straight toward Jed's study. "When you're ready, send them in," he ordered.
Jed stood and looked at his family. "Time's up, boys. Harvey needs seven signatures to make you equal partners." With a nod, he strode out of the house, unwilling to see should anyone decide against signing.
Chris stood up, followed by a brisk wiping of hands and mouths before his six brothers followed suit. They filed into the study and closed the door.
Twenty minutes later and Jed was stood leaning on the corral fence, looking, but not seeing the prime horseflesh grazing there. He heard the creak of the heavy front door and turned. The image that greeted him brought tears to his eyes. All seven, grinning brothers stood in a line on the porch and were linked by arms draped across shoulders. He approached.
"Boys, I couldn't be more proud." He took a shaky breath. "Starting tomorrow, we got a lot of hard work ahead of us, not least of all a ranch to protect, but we'll be doing it as a family, and that's all I ever wished for."
The seven brothers exchanged glances before nodding to their father. Chris spoke.
"We're ready, Pa. Let's ride!"
Thanks for riding along
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