Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!
Brothers Larabee Alternate Universe
Summary: The new family learns fast how to work together, and what being part of a family truly means.
(Follows 'Roundup at the Lazy L')
Thank you, Nancy, for all that you do for me and this wonderful fandom's writers and readers :o)
Jethro Larabee walked out of the door of his home a contented man. He shook his head and chuckled at being so happy that even the early hour couldn't dampen his spirits. The image of the first golden tint of sunrise-kissed clouds hovering over the horizon conveniently marked the beginning of a new era - the first day of all his boys home together.
All seven sons under one roof, Jed's greatest wish had been fulfilled.
Jed stretched to crick his back and neck. He'd slept well, too well. The sleep of a man who was finally guilt-free, and his body simply wasn't used to the extended rest. A noise from the stables caused him to frown. Gun drawn, he strode over to the outbuilding and peeked inside. Despite his surprise, his grin was back, and wider than ever. Quietly he walked into the building.
"You should be resting, boy. It's hardly no time since that noggin of yours took a whack."
A startled JD almost speared his foot with the pitchfork he was using. He turned to his father. "Shoot, you near made me a one-footed ranch hand."
Jed chuckled. "Well that would have been a mite tricky. Not many stores sell just one boot." The broad smile from JD made Jed's heart soar. The boy was so like his Ma. He stepped forward to set a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"And I'll remind you, while your efforts are needed, and appreciated; you're no longer just some ranch hand. You're a Larabee. You and your brothers own this spread now - never forget that." He relaxed his hold. "Now, I recall the Doc telling you to take it easy for a few days..." he gestured to JD's stable work.
"...I could be wrong but...this don't look like resting up to me."
JD was moved by the concern. He touched fingers to his still-bandaged head. "Aww, I'm fine. Shoot, I've been hurt worse falling off one of the Master's racehorses than I was the other day."
Jed doubted that, but he appreciated the boy's grit. "Well, I ain't your master, I'm your Pa, and I want you to quit now, wash up, and get ready for breakfast. We got a big day ahead of us, and iffen you're up to it, I want you with us."
JD struggled with the lump forming in his throat. He coughed. "Uh, sure, I'd like that."
Jed turned to leave. "Reckon your brothers will too." His eyebrows rose as ranch hand Curly Potts hurried in through the stable doors with his boots in one hand, and his other tucking in his loose shirt.
"Sorry Boss, I slept in."
JD stared up and out of the loft window. It was barely light, and now he wondered if his getting up wasn't so early for the ranch as he thought.
"Y-e-a-h," Jed drawled, "so what's new?" He pointed at the semi-cleaned stalls. "Git to work."
"Yessir, Mister Larabee." He touched his hat to JD. "Mornin' Kid, nice to see you up and about."
"Morning, Curly." JD turned to his father. "Y'know, I could help Curly finish up, here..."
Jed grasped the back of his son's shirt and hauled him outside. "You could, but you ain't."
With the sun rising, Buck whistled cheerily as he made his way to JD's room with a glass of milk in hand. Last night's events had left him relaxed, and looking forward to ranch life as a whole family. JD turning out to be their youngest brother had caused him to silently thank God for looking out for them. He'd feared JD would never be found.
That thought had him shuddering. He shook away his mood, and as his smile returned, opened JD's door. "'Morning, Kid, got some milk here..."
"Aaahh! Buck! Don't you ever knock?"
Buck's eyes crinkled in a grin to see JD stood near his bed wearing only his union suit, and watched the boy snatch up his bowler hat from the bedside chair and place it strategically. Buck set the glass of milk down on a chest of drawers, not failing to notice JD glaring at him.
"Wasn't expecting to see you up yet, Kid." He grinned inanely at the glare. "What's got you all hot and bothered? Ain't the first time I seen a man in his draws." His gaze drifted. "Shoot, there was this one time me and Chris..."
"Buck!" When his brother looked back at him, JD's head bobbed toward the door. "Go! I'm getting dressed."
Buck sauntered over to a chair and took a seat. "Well I can see that." He waved a hand. "Go ahead, I can wait."
JD gawped. "For what?"
"For you to get your britches on so's we can go eat breakfast."
Realizing Buck wasn't about to leave, JD huffed and turned to get his pants from another chair in the far corner.
"Kid, you, uh...might wanna close that there butt flap first, though."
"Huh?" JD squeaked, and moved the hat to his rear. He glanced back and cursed inwardly, at both the squeak, and the fact his face was flushed. Seeing the tall man's shoulders shaking from laughter, JD relaxed, pushed hair from his eyes, and grinned back. "You're crazy."
"You only just figuring that out now, Kid? Get a move on, I'm hungry - and Nettie don't take kindly to us being late for meals." Buck made a face, lifted one butt cheek, and pulled out a pair of socks from underneath him. He tossed them to JD.
"Guess you'll be wanting these, too."
Chris's curiosity on hearing Vin up and about while still dark had resulted in him accompanying the Texan on a pre-dawn ride. The pair rode for some time in companionable silence until they came upon an outcrop high above the prairie. They stopped and, resting one arm on the saddle horn, Vin leaned forward, pushed his hat back off his face and drank in the view as the sun peeked over the horizon.
"Sure is a pretty place, Chris."
The blond nodded. "Yeah, it is." He smiled at his brother. "Been waiting a long time to show you around."
"Felt like a lifetime," Vin said, softly, but Chris heard him.
"Nearly was," he whispered back.
Tanner straightened. "You reckon we all can make a go of this?"
Chris gazed out over the semi-sunlit vista. "I can see there being some issues, but yeah, I reckon we can do this."
Vin's cheek dimpled in a smile. He wheeled his horse around. "Me too."
Chris followed suit and they walked their horses away from the overhang.
"What's troublin' you?"
He didn't know why, but Chris wasn't in the least bit surprised Vin had picked up on his disposition. "Bothered more than troubled."
"There's a difference?"
"Troubled means I'd be worried we could have a situation out of our control - bothered says we got this, but it may not go as smooth as we'd like."
"This about the horses comin' in?"
Chris nodded. "Yeah. Got eight men due in from Nogales next month with some Spanish horses. We'll be letting them run with our wild herds - they breed and it improves our stock," he explained.
"Meantime, we need to round up about three hundred horses, drive 'em up to the Big Pond where, after we fix those fences James's men pulled up, we'll keep 'em corralled."
"Not nearer the house?"
"Not at first. We check for any brands, then drive down 'round fifty at a time to break ready to sell on."
"Lot 'a work."
Chris glanced sideways and smiled. "Yup, takes a couple 'a months. Once we've done that, hired hands'll drive 'em on to Nevada to sell to the army. Pa'll likely go too. After that we'll take time rounding up more wild horses to take to Big Pond for branding, before letting 'em run."
Vin shook his head."Work never stops. So, that's why Big Pond's so important, and why James has to look someplace else for water."
"You got it, and I reckon this dispute with James and Royal's far from over."
Vin nodded. "How d'you come to trust those eight men bringin' in the horses?"
"They got Odie with 'em...been with Pa for twenty years or so. He trusts him with his life, as do me, Buck, and Nathan." Chris looked toward the sky. The sun had half-cleared the mountaintop. "Should be getting back, breakfast is at seven." Both men urged their horses into a gallop and headed home.
Nettie smiled when Josiah and Nathan came into the kitchen to help carry in the breakfast plates. A minute later, the woman entered the big room with a dish of eggs. She looked to Ezra, seated in one of the overstuffed leather armchairs and manipulating a deck of cards in one hand.
"Wouldn't kill you to help out."
Ezra slowly looked up. "Very true." He continued his activity.
Nettie stared. "Guess with you, I'm gonna have to be more direct, huh?"
Standish smiled but didn't look up. "No, you were perfectly direct, thank you." He looked sideways at her. "A gentleman does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor."
"Well when you find one, let me know. Meantime, get your backside over here and set the table." She saw something in his expression, just a twitch, but it was there. "That direct enough for you?"
Ezra stood. "Perfectly, and you asked so nicely, too."
Nathan had entered the room and was chuckling at the pair. "Come on, Ezra, I'll show you where we keep the cutlery."
The southerner raised an eyebrow. "Would it be a drawer, perchance?"
"Sharp as a spoon," Nettie mumbled before leaving.
Nathan laughed louder, pointed to one of four drawers in a large, solid wood, plate-adorned cabinet, and went back into the kitchen. Ezra walked up to the drawer, and he grinned to himself as he opened it. His curiosity brought him to this place, but he fully expected to be moving on quite quickly. However, he found himself enamored with the area, and even more so with his new family.
'This could work, Ezra, this could actually work.'
Noise at the door saw Chris and Vin stepping inside the house. On seeing Miss Nettie enter the room, both men snatched off their hats.
"Mornin' boys, go wash up, breakfast's ready."
"Yes ma'am," they chorused, and headed for the stairs.
"Oh, and while you're up there, tell Buck and JD to move their butts down here, now."
Both men grinned. "Yes, ma'am."
Breakfast was boisterous, and Jed's smile was wide as he absorbed every long-awaited moment.
Buck thumbed toward JD, who was sitting next to him. "Found him in his room with his butt hanging out of his union suit."
The comment and subsequent laughter caused JD's cheeks to flush and his eyes to widen. "Buck!" Damn, there was that squeaky voice again. JD appealed to his family. "This guy just walks in, don't even knock."
Buck went to ruffle JD's hair, but hesitated on seeing the bandage. He flicked the boy's nose, instead. "Hey, this guy happens to be your big brother, shortstuff." He leaned in and winked. "Best get used to it."
JD tried to look disgruntled, but no one missed the crooked grin.
"You boys take a ride out earlier?" Jed asked of Chris and Vin.
Chris nodded, Vin answered.
"Woke early, figured I'd go watch the sunrise." He noticed JD glance his way, a look of curiosity on his face. Vin smiled at him.
"Where d'ya end up?"
Chris answered his father. "High Spur Canyon."
Jed nodded, approvingly. "Good spot."
Ezra forced a little cough. "Am I to understand you have plans for us today, fa...uh, Jed?"
The patriarch didn't react to Ezra's slip of the tongue. He knew it would be some time, if ever, that a number of the boys would feel comfortable referring to him as their father. Especially so as they were, almost instantly, looking up to Chris, which he'd hoped for and expected, as Chris was a natural leader.
"Well, I wanted to ride up to Big Pond to check out the fences around it ready for the new horses coming in."
Sensing an agenda, Chris glanced sideways at his Pa. "But...?"
Jed smiled wider. "But instead...how about we go into town. I, uh..." His smile widened at the curious stares. "I know it's a few months past, but I kinda liked the idea of us all having an overdue Thanksgiving together."
Chris's face lit up in a rare grin, though he'd been smiling a lot more since his new brothers arrived. Nathan clapped his hands together and nodded enthusiastically.
Buck whooped. "Well alright! A second Turkey Day!" He grabbed JD and gently ruffled his hair. "A good ole family Thanksgiving." He looked at his father. "When, Pa?"
"Well, we still got fences to fix, so how about the weekend after next?"
All his sons nodded.
"I heard Isaiah Bowles got a couple 'a turkeys left over. Nathan, would you ride over there and pick one out?"
"Sure thing, Pa. I'll go over when you fellas ride into town."
"Can't recall ever eatin' Turkey."
JD nodded at Vin. "Me either. Could always smell it cooking from the Master's kitchen, but we'd get beef from his herd." He smiled. "Always tasted good, though."
"Caught me a wild turkey, once," Vin shared. "Woke up in the dark with a sore head and no bird."
JD tilted his head. "Why?"
"Some drifter I met along the way figured he'd take it." Vin's cheek dimpled and he shrugged a shoulder. "I'd planned to share it with him. Never got around to catchin' another one after that."
There was a long pause and Jed, Buck, Nathan, and Chris exchanged looks.
"I for one recall several sumptuous turkey feasts," Ezra stated. He smiled, wistfully. "None of which were with my Mother. She claimed Thanksgiving to be the best time of year for her, uh, specialized skills, so was never around to share it with me."
JD's eyes filled. "I've always had Thanksgiving with my Ma, until last year, when she died just before." He felt the hand that Buck was resting on his shoulder give him a squeeze.
"What about you, Josiah?" Nathan asked.
The ex-preacher stared down at the table and toyed with his napkin. "We celebrated in fine style wherever we were at that time." He looked up. "With Pa being a missionary, we traveled a lot." He looked to Jed. "Ma's husband insisted I address him as my father, and for my sister, Hannah's sake, I did so, but I don't recall too much fatherly love coming my way. After Ma's passing, Pa's mind went..." Josiah decided he wasn't ready to share all just yet, so he smiled. "A family Thanksgiving does sound good."
Chris made the softest of sounds, drawing attention to him. His eyes had a faraway look as he spoke. "Took a long time to want to share a Thanksgiving after losing Sarah and Adam." He focused on the group. "My wife and boy," he explained, while desperately trying to brush aside the returned looks of sympathy.
Instead, Chris glanced fondly back toward the kitchen. "Been a whole lot better since Nettie arrived."
Nettie's voice drifted out from the kitchen. "Good to hear, Christopher!"
The ensuing laughter broke the building melancholy mood.
Jed stood. "Okay, boys, looks like we're done, let's get to it."
Nathan stood at the pen in Isaiah Bowles's yard and observed the three fat turkeys pecking at the ground. He turned to the farmer. "That one, in the middle."
Isaiah smiled. "No problem. You want it now?"
"No, a week from Thursday'll do just fine." Nathan pulled out some bills and paid the man. They shook hands.
"Pleasure doin' business with you and your pa, Nathan. Give him my best, and tell him I'll drop the turkey over the Thursday after next."
The tall black man mounted up and touched his hat. "Will do, Isaiah. You take care, now." He rode off back to the ranch, and looked forward to reading more of the medical book he'd received last week before the others got home.
The townsfolk of Four Corners stared and whispered to each other as Jed and six of his seven sons rode into town. They made a formidable sight, but folk were more curious than afraid. Having known Jed, Chris, Buck, and Nathan for years, they knew them to be good men, and so had already decided the rest of his brood was, also. Why else would a well-respected man like Jed give them houseroom?
The blacksmith, Yosemite, gave a wave to JD, who happily waved back, which in turn amused Buck as to how quickly JD could make friends. As they approached the saloon, Buck turned to his family.
"How about a drink to wash down all that trail dust?"
Jed shook his head in amusement. "Go ahead, got me some business at the bank."
The seven dismounted and secured their horses to a rail with a horse trough. Chris pointed toward the stores opposite.
"I'll go place the orders for next week's festivities. Ezra, I could use your input."
The southerner's mask dropped for a moment as he couldn't disguise a mix of surprise, and delight. "Certainly, I'm happy to assist."
JD nudged Buck. "Festivities? There's gonna be more than just a dinner?"
Buck grabbed his little brother and guided him into the saloon. "It's Thanksgiving, Kid, it's about more than just the food."
They both turned when Vin spoke. "True, but it's a lot about the food, right?"
Buck chuckled and wrangled the Texan into a neck hold. "Oh yeah."
The moment Buck, JD, Vin, and Josiah stepped inside the saloon, it went quiet. Buck slapped a hand filled with bills down on the bar.
"The Lazy L is celebrating a homecoming. Drinks all round, barkeep!"
Cheers went up, followed by patrons clambering to the bar for their free drink. JD's jaw dropped open.
"You really are crazy, Buck."
Buck's gaze danced between JD, Vin, and Josiah. "If being real happy is crazy, then that's what I am. Whiskey, boys?"
All but JD nodded. "Can I have milk, please?"
Buck had no idea why, but he swore he felt his heart swell a few more inches. He smiled. "You bet, little brother."
A grinning JD leaned his elbows on the bar as one hand pushed down on his hat. Little brother - he liked the sound of that.
Chris and Ezra were about to enter Mrs. Potter's general store when Ezra held the blond's arm.
"Forgive me for asking but...you needed my input?"
Chris offered a crooked smile. "Sure. I figured you might know how to throw a party, and you seem to be one of the few of the new fellas who celebrated a true Thanksgiving. Kinda hoped you might have some ideas."
Standish opened the store door and gestured for Chris to enter. "Indeed I do. What kind of financial plan are we working to?"
Chris pulled out a list from his shirt pocket. "This is our food order. Add whatever you feel works, and I'll let you know when we hit our limit."
Jed exited the bank. Funds were in place to pay the men bringing in the horses, and the month's wages for the ranch. He'd withdrawn enough today to cover any goods ordered for Thanksgiving, and the inevitable bar tab Buck was building up. As he approached the saloon, Jed smiled to himself at the thought of the upcoming family feast with all of his sons around one table, an occasion he feared would never happen. However, before the prominent rancher could step inside the drinkery to join his boys, something caught his eye and his mood instantly changed.
Guy Royal walked out of the restaurant and spied Jed coming out of the bank. A quick cast of his gaze around the street soon confirmed he wasn't in town alone. He gestured to his men standing a ways down the street, and they quickly joined him as he walked to intercept Jed before he entered the saloon.
"Jethro, wait up."
"Got nothing to say to you Royal, and somewhere to be."
Chris and Ezra, who were just exiting Potter's store, spotted the confrontation and hurried over. The brothers inside the saloon heard their father's raised voice and quickly joined him on the boardwalk.
Guy and his men eyed the others, and then stood in front of Jed. Royal was trying to control his frustration.
"What happened to being neighborly, Larabee? All James and me are asking is for our steers to have a day and night at Big Pond, and then we'll be gone. Name your price. You got nothing to lose."
Jed's features became unsympathetic. "I have everything to lose. I only have enough water for my herds, and there's nothing you have that will change my mind."
The two groups stared each other out. Chris broke the silence. "Time to leave, boys."
JD leaned into Vin and Buck. "Ain't that fella at the back one of those who pulled up our fences?"
Buck tilted his head and looked. Vin replied. "Yeah." He was surprised when JD shot past him.
"Hey, I know you! You rode onto our land and ripped out our fenceposts."
Jed and Chris straightened as one. "That true?" Chris got in first.
The man shook his head. Royal answered, pointing to JD. "Boy's taken a knock to his noggin, he's confused."
Vin and Buck stepped closer. "Well I ain't confused, that's one of 'em alright," Vin stated, his eyes flashing with anger.
Royal's men closed in around the accused. Guy offered a false smile. "I'll question him when we get back. Rest assured, if he was a part of that heinous act, he'll be punished." Seeing Jed and the others' fury building, Guy turned and ushered his men away. "This ain't over, Larabee!"
"You got that right," Jed barked.
A confused JD stood before his family. "We're letting it go?"
Jed set a hand on his youngest's shoulders. "No, never, but that's a battle for another day." He turned to them all. "Got a hankerin' for home. What about you boys?"
They all agreed. Chris smiled. "Let's go find out how Nathan got on about buying us a turkey."
With the mood lightened, the seven mounted up and rode for home.
Royal watched them go. He turned to the man they'd been defending. "Get me something Jethro Larabee would consider worth changing his mind for."
The ranch hand smiled and nodded. He already had an idea taking shape.
The weekend before the big Thanksgiving celebration saw the final fence posts planted, and the repairs finished. Buck and JD volunteered to drive the tool wagon back and were just finishing up. With a grunt, JD tossed a pickaxe, shovel and sledgehammer into the wagon bed. He looked at Buck, who was grinning, widely.
"What's so funny?"
Buck was loading up flat timber boards. "You."
The brunet stopped loading. "'That just leaves the wagon to load up and drive home', says Chris, 'I'll do it', says you." He was chuckling, now.
JD lifted a heavy bucket of nails into the wagon and pushed it along the bed. "Yeah, so?"
Buck dropped a hand on the youth's shoulder. "There are seven of us, now. You don't have to offer to do everything, y'know."
JD shrugged. "I like helping out, 'sides, you didn't have stay and help."
Buck opened his arms wide and spun in a circle. "What, and leave you out here all by your lonesome?"
"I made it here from all the way from back east, Buck; I reckon I'd have been just fine."
"Sure you did, Kid, but this is the west, and life here's not like the cozy life back east. We got Indians, drifters, and rustlers, and then there's the likes of James, and Royal..."
JD huffed. "...And I had 3am starts, and a belt across my butt if I didn't have the stables and horses ready by 5am." He sighed. "I couldn't tell Mama, she had enough to worry about."
Buck's features darkened. "Did you get beat often?"
JD actually smiled. "I got good at working fast."
Buck's own smile returned and he felt his big heart grow a little more. "C'mon, let's finish up..."
A shot rang out and Buck went down hard and fast.
JD dropped down next to his brother and reached out to touch the bloody gouge on the still man's head. He was so focused on the unconscious man he heard nothing until something heavy hit him between his shoulders. Dizzy and in pain, he fell forward, but before he could rally, a sack was put over his head, his hands were tied behind his back and rough hands lifted him up and tossed him belly-first over a horse.
"No! NO! Buck...BUCK!"
A voice yelled out. "Shut up or I'll kill you and your brother, right here, right now."
Those words gave JD hope that Buck was still alive. Seconds later, his horse and at least three others were riding away from where Buck lay.
Chris leaned against a front support post on the wraparound veranda and stared out across the plains. He didn't so much as flinch when Vin's voice cut through the quiet.
"Maybe." Chris glanced at Vin before returning to his vigil. "Was thinking Buck and JD should be back by now."
Vin nodded and stared to where Chris was looking.
"You think maybe there's tomfoolery to blame?"
"Good chance of that, sure, but..."
"But your gut's tellin' you different."
Chris simply nodded.
"So what are we waitin' for?"
Chris pushed away from the post. "You start saddling up; I'll go talk to Pa."
Inside the house, the remaining brothers stared in concern at Chris's uneasiness. Jed paced, and then stopped in front of Chris.
"I'll go with you."
"No!" Chris offered a tight smile. "I could be wrong. Me and Vin'll ride out and check up on 'em."
Jed's brow furrowed before he nodded. "Okay, but if they're just messing about out there, you tell 'em they're in for a butt-whupping for worrying us all."
Chris returned his hat to his head and moved toward the door. "Get in line, Pa, get in line."
Apart from fearing his every rib was cracked from his riding position, and still suffering pain from the earlier blow between his shoulders, JD really didn't want to give in to the building nausea while he had a sack over his head. Just as he thought he could take no more jostling, his horse stopped, and by the lack of sound, his abductors had halted, too. He stayed calm, but as soon as someone pulled him from the horse, JD fought for his life, kicking out with all the strength he could muster.
By the sounds of the cries from whoever had taken him, and shot Buck, he was finding his targets. JD's feet hit the dirt and he started running blind save for the tiny amount of imagery bleeding through the mesh, which so far was helping him stay upright. A gunshot near his feet however, stopped him dead.
"Told you once, boy, I can just as easy do this with you dead."
Panting lightly, the youngest Larabee decided staying alive was preferable. At least he could try to escape again, and maybe find out if Buck was still alive. "You're in deep trouble, Mister." JD jolted at the voice close to his ear.
"Reckon you're the one in deep trouble, Kid." The man roughly pulled JD along the ground until JD's boots hit a step.
He half walked, half stumbled up and into a shack, and was tossed cruelly across its floor. JD rolled to a stop against a rough timber wall, his heart thumping hard as he wondered what might come next.
"You be a good boy, and if your Pa sees sense, you might get to go home - one day. Gonna leave a man here to make sure you stay put." With a cackle, whoever brought JD here, left. Seconds later the boy heard horses riding away, leaving him alone with one of his kidnappers. JD shuddered.
But where was he?
Chris and Vin rode hard to where they'd left Buck and JD, picking up the pace when it became apparent the pair weren't on the trail home. As they drew near, Chris felt his heart constrict on seeing Buck lying prone in the grass, forcing all that he had feared to the fore.
Vin too had seen who could only be Buck lying still on the ground. His eyes scanned the area for JD, but all he could see was the buckboard, with two harnessed horses waiting patiently to be driven home. When Chris made a sharp dismount to go to Buck, Vin made his way to the wagon.
Chris dropped down next to his brother, turned him over and rested Buck's head in his lap. The blond's gloved finger scraped back a trickle of blood across Buck's forehead and released the breath he was holding when Buck uttered a soft moan, though he didn't wake up. "Thank God," he whispered. "Hang in there, big guy, I'm gonna get you home."
Chris looked up when Vin joined him.
"How's he doin'?"
"Better than I feared." He glanced around, anxiously. "JD?"
Vin gestured with an arm. "Four horses rode in, one lighter'n the others, but when they rode out, it wasn't so light."
"You saying someone's taken JD?"
"Sure looks that way. I'm gonna head off and follow the trail..."
"Vin, No! It's not safe."
Vin squatted next to Chris, his blue eyes flashing. "There's a storm comin' in by mornin'. If I don't go now, we're likely to lose the trail, and with JD in trouble I ain't about to let that happen, Chris."
The pair stared at each other for a moment or two until Chris nodded. "Help me get Buck into the wagon, first."
The pair quickly removed the tools and placed Buck safely in the empty wagon. Chris tied his horse to the buckboard and climbed up into the seat. Vin mounted up and the pair clasped forearms.
"Always am, Cowboy. Get the big guy home safe."
With mutual nods, the pair separated, Chris to get Buck and JD help, and Vin to try and find out who took the kid, and where.
Stuart James strolled out of his large, stone ranch house to greet the riders coming in. He nodded to Guy Royal. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" Even though his expression remained impassive, his words oozed concern. He'd formed an alliance with this man to get his steers what they needed, but he was a loose cannon, and Stuart James was forever reigning him in. For their pact to work, Royal needed to shape up.
Royal dismounted. "Met Jethro Larabee in town th'other day. Wouldn't bend on us using Big Pond." He walked closer to James. "Told me there was nothing I had that would make him change his mind."
James choked back a sigh. "This is old news. There a point to this?"
Royal smiled. "Reckon I got just the thing to adjust his thinking."
James stared, waiting for the punch line.
"Got his youngest stashed away in an ole line shack out on Ox-Eye Prairie."
Stuart James's face was no longer expressionless. He stepped forward. "You took one of his boys with a plan to barter for Big Pond?"
"Sure did." Royal reeled at the punch to the jaw from James. "What the...?"
"I want that water, we need that water, but I ain't about to face the wrath of Larabee and his clan over taking one of their own," James roared. "Fighting over land is one thing, facing a crazed man looking for his boy is a whole other matter. Cut him loose!"
"Can't. By now they'll be looking for him, once they got the other one home."
"The other one?"
"Shifty here shot Buck, to even the odds."
James pointed to a man on horseback. "He's Shifty, you say?"
James drew his gun and shot the man dead. He glared at Royal. "Now git, and let that boy go. I want no part in this."
Stunned by the rejection, Guy Royal mounted up and he and his remaining men rode away.
Stuart James looked at his men and gestured to the dead cowhand. "Throw him in the pig pit."
In the shack, JD listened for a long while. Once he was sure no one was in the room with him, he wriggled and shuffled until he was sitting up and leaning back against the abrasive wall. Winded from the effort, he listened again, but not even a breeze stirred. For that, JD was not so grateful, as inside the sacking was hotter than a burnt boot and he could feel sweat trickling down his neck, his nose, and the sides of his face.
'Not gonna smell too fresh to go home...'
The thought of home brought him back to Buck who was injured, maybe dead, and tears pooled in his eyes. 'Please don't be dead, Buck.'
JD gave himself a moment and then concentrated on the grainy images through the mesh. The place was light, and he could see that the door was open. Actually, there didn't appear to be a door. He moved his head. The windows seemed wide open, too.
Could it really be that easy?
Noise from outside caused JD's heart to pound. He heard a mighty burp and the thunk of a bottle on wood. It sounded like his guard was drinking. Resting his head back against the wall, JD attempted to control his breathing and heartbeat, and hoped that soon he'd hear the sound of snoring.
Then he'd make his move.
Chris's hat had long left his head and was flapping in the breeze from its stampede string as he urged the horses on toward home. Dirt flew from the wagon's wheels, leaving a haze of dust in its wake. He couldn't have been more relieved when the ranch came into view and he snapped the reins to push the horses harder.
"NATHAN! PA! ANYONE!"
As he pulled into the yard, his brothers and his father were hurrying outside.
Chris jumped down off the wagon, raced around to the rear and dropped the back. He took Buck's arm and pulled it around his own shoulders. "Help me!"
Jed's face blanched to see Buck still, and bleeding. He took the other arm, Josiah and Ezra grabbed Buck's legs, and they carried him into the house. "What happened?"
"Not sure. Vin's on it."
"He's out there alone?" Ezra asked. They eased Buck down onto the sofa. "Wait, where's JD?"
Jed was kneeling next to Buck with a hand on the man's pale cheek. His head snapped up at Ezra's question. "Where is JD?"
Chris rubbed a hand over his dusty face. "We don't know. Vin saw signs of horses where Buck and JD were packing up. He reckoned one horse was riderless coming in, but not going out. He's following the trail now."
"You think JD went with them?"
"I reckon so, though I don't reckon it was willingly, judging by Buck's condition." He looked at Nathan, who was attending to Buck. "How's he doing?"
"Hard to say until he comes round. The wound's reasonably clean, and not too deep, though he's lost some blood."
Jed ran a tender hand along Buck's cheek, and then stood. "Why has Vin gone alone? Under the circumstances..."
"...Vin says a storm's coming in by morning. He didn't want to lose the trail."
Jed turned toward the door. "We need to get out there."
"Let's wait on Vin," Chris urged. "We need a bearing."
Jed looked at Buck, clearly torn. "I got one boy hurt and two out there alone, waiting could make us too late." He looked around at the anxious faces and then out of the window. Night would soon be drawing in, and storm clouds were gathering. "He's got 'til sunup, then we're going after 'em."
Out on the prairie, Vin had followed the trail until it hit stony ground. After that, it became impossible to tell which route was taken. He figured he could just keep going until he picked it up again, but it would be full dark soon, and not just from the incoming storm. Vin decided to turn back and get help.
He could do that now, get help, he wasn't alone anymore. That thought should have made him smile, but thinking about Buck being hurt, and JD actually alone right now, didn't make him feel particularly cheery. He looked out across the plains.
"We're comin' Kid, don't give up on us."
Vin wheeled his horse around and galloped off toward home.
Jed and Chris stood at the base of Buck's bed and watched the big man twitch, restlessly. Nathan looked up from his place at Buck's side.
"He's got a head injury. It can cause a little agitation."
"When will he wake up?" Jed asked.
"I reckon he's getting close," Nathan replied. "He was well out of it earlier, but that's changed."
Jed slapped Chris on the back and turned to leave. "Let me know when he's awake."
Chris nodded and resumed his vigil.
Jed walked downstairs and went outside. The bonfire in the yard, re-lit after the storm passed, burned brightly for Vin's return. That's if he did come back. Being a tracker, Jed wondered if Vin might camp out. His question was answered by the sound of a whistle.
"Vin comin' in."
Poke Hayes, still with his arm in a sling from his accident a couple of weeks ago, came out of the bunkhouse. "I'll take your horse, Vin."
"Thanks, Poke." Vin jumped down and approached his father. "How's Buck?"
"Doing better." Jed's expression spoke volumes. "JD?"
"Followed far as I could. Came back when the light faded. They're headin' for a place Chris called Ox-Eye Prairie."
Vin patted off the dust on his coat, and then Jed led his son indoors, where Josiah had a freshly brewed pot of coffee waiting for them. The pair sat down and thanked Josiah as he poured them each a cup.
"Gonna go back out at sunup."
"We all are," Ezra assured.
"Ox-Eye Prairie," Jed mused. "That's our land. Why there?"
"Does it lead anywhere?" Josiah asked.
Jed shrugged. "The longest way round to Royal's place, and that would still be another good day's ride."
Chris entered the room. "Buck's awake." He halted the impending stampede to Buck's room. "What's this about Ox-Eye Prairie?"
"Reckon that's where whoever got JD is headin'," Vin responded.
"You got an idea, Chris?" Jed asked.
"Still got an old line shack up there."
Looks were exchanged and the information filed for later before the family headed up to Buck's room.
JD jolted awake, and instantly regretted it. His neck and shoulders ached from sleeping upright, his arms and wrists hurt from being tied behind his back, and any bruises he'd gotten from riding gut-first over a horse were starting to make themselves known. He was thirsty, and dehydrated, but he considered that a plus. Had he not been, JD would have needed the outhouse - not an easy move under the circumstances.
He silently scolded himself for falling asleep, but quickly reconsidered when he heard snoring. Pushing against the wall with his hands and arms, JD succeeded in standing, but not without the rough wood tearing at his flesh. Something sharp caught his left shoulder and it was all he could do not to cry out. As best he could, and using the limited moonlight available, the boy peered at the object.
He pushed his face close to the nail in the wall, hooked the sacking and pulled. It tore a little, but not nearly enough to see properly. It took several more attempts before the sack was ripped enough to be pushed off, to drop around his neck like a rope and hessian bandanna. The corner above his left eye stung, and he could feel a trickle of blood where he'd caught himself instead of the sacking on the nail, but he could see, and breathe, and that made the pain bearable.
He crept toward the doorway and peeked out. The moonlight enabled him to see that his guard was sound asleep. Stepping lightly, JD got outside, and past the rickety fencing around the shack. He tripped over something hard and being unable to save himself, went down with a thump and a grunt. JD lay there, unmoving, as the drunken man snorted at the disturbance. After what seemed like minutes rather than the few seconds he waited, the snoring began again. JD gratefully got onto his knees, and then his feet, before running like crazy toward what appeared to be a large clump of shrubbery way in the distance.
Dark scoops below, highlighted the bloodshot eyes staring back at the people Buck most loved in the world - except - something wasn't right, but his pounding head wouldn't let him think clearly just yet. He noted he was shirtless and lying in bed, his voice came out as a raspy whisper.
"Kinda hoped you'd tell us, Pard," Chris said, his gaze darting between Buck's eyes, and the white bandages wrapped around dark, wavy hair.
Buck screwed up his face in concentration. "We were fixing fences?"
"Yeah, Vin drawled, "but we were done when this happened."
Buck's eyes closed and his family thought he'd fallen asleep until they opened again. "I was packing up with JD." The brunet looked around. His eyes widened. "Where's JD?"
Jed stiffened and folded his arms across his chest. "We're not sure, son. We think he's been taken."
"Taken? Taken where?" The penny dropped and, despite his infirmity, Buck tried to sit up. "You mean kidnapped?"
"Looks that way," Chris answered.
Ezra and Nathan stepped in to restrain the man as he tried to get out of bed. "Leave me be! We gotta go find him!"
"Buck, you're in no condition to be out of bed yet," Ezra pleaded.
The fight went out of the man and he put a trembling hand to his aching head. "I was supposed to take care of him." He looked at the others. "He's just a kid..."
"Don't underestimate our youngest," Josiah advised. "He got out here all by himself, and from what I've seen so far, he's a very resourceful lad."
The others nodded. Buck released what sounded like a mix of a sob and a laugh.
"That's what JD said." He dropped back against his pillow. "Aahh, Kid, I'm sorry."
"We'll bring him back, Bucklin, I give you my word," Vin assured.
There was a pause.
"Let me come," Buck begged.
Jed shook his head. "We need to ride hard, Buck, and you're not up to the task just yet."
Buck's eyes filled. "When're you leaving?"
"Soon," Chris assured. "It's almost sunup."
The injured man looked at his older brother. "Tell him I'm sorry."
Chris shook his head. "No, 'cause you're not to blame. Get some rest."
With a deep sigh, Buck relaxed and soon he was asleep. Nathan smiled. "That'll be the tea I gave him kicking in."
Jed relaxed his arms. "Nathan, you stay here with Buck."
"What if JD needs doctorin'?" Vin asked.
"We'll fix him up and get him home." Jed gestured toward the door. "Let's go saddle up."
Within the hour, and in the gray dawn light, Jed, Chris, Vin, Ezra, and Josiah were heading out to Ox-Eye Prairie.
JD had taken several tumbles on his run to the undergrowth, and slid gratefully to the ground when he finally got there. The sky was lightening, and he was relieved to have made it to cover before dawn broke, or his keeper woke up, whichever came first. The wet grass felt good against his heated body, but he was getting seriously thirsty now, not to mention he hadn't eaten since the sandwiches he'd had for lunch yesterday.
Exhausted, and a little light-headed, he wriggled under one of the bushes for cover, and fell asleep.
Vin led his family to where he'd lost the trail. Jed and Chris agreed with the Texan's conclusion, and the group headed for the prairie. The Five men rode in silence, their thoughts a mix of concern and anger for Buck and JD. The attack came from out of the blue, and they could only speculate as to who was involved. Whoever was mixed up in this were due the full Larabee wrath.
But that was later, for now they had a son and brother to find.
Before long they'd reached the end of the hard ground. Vin halted them and dismounted. All four waited patiently while Vin scouted around the sodden grassland. He mounted up.
Now the five rode with purpose, four men following Vin with absolute certainty he would track down their youngest and keep the promise he'd made to Buck.
'We'll bring him back, Bucklin, I give you my word...'
>> Entering the living room, JD smiled at the dining table groaning with food. Buck offered him a glass of wine, but he politely declined and instead, poured himself a glass of Nettie's freshly made lemonade. He drank deeply but was still thirsty, so he poured himself another glass. One by one, the family took their seats around the table. With a call of 'tuck in!' from Jed, the boys began spooning out and passing around the food. Jed leaned toward JD.
"One of those turkey legs is yours, son."
"Second youngest gets th'other leg," Vin announced gleefully before his teeth tore a chunk of meat off the bone.
With a grin, JD ripped off the turkey leg but just as he went to bite it, a hand grabbed his arm. "Hey, what gives?"
"You sneaky little bastard."
JD stared at an angry Chris in confusion. "Huh?" The hand around his arm pulled at him.
JD woke up to find his once snoring guard right in his face and pulling him by his arm from under his refuge.
"You think you can hide from me, boy?" the man spat. The smell of stale alcohol leached from his breath. "Mister Royal put me on this job for good reason - I'm the best!" He dragged JD to his feet, but wasn't expecting so much fight left in the boy.
"No! Get off me!"
JD kicked, wriggled and twisted in the man's hands, and succeeded in making him lose his grip. Wasting no time, JD booted the man in his nether region and started running. He could hear the man howling in pain, but didn't dare look back.
"How much farther to the line shack?" Ezra asked.
Chris pointed. "'Bout a mile beyond that stand of underbrush."
Vin's horse stopped. He pulled out a spyglass, stood in his stirrups and looked out toward the underbrush Chris had just mentioned. In one fluid movement, he closed the spyglass, shoved it into his pocket and spurred his horse on. "C'MON!"
Without question, four men took off after the fifth. In no time, they could see what Vin was agitated about, and they rode harder.
JD's forehead and nose bounced off the ground as his captor brought him down. He was flipped over, and he cried out again when a fist crunched into his gut. JD curled in on himself but the man lashed out repeatedly.
"I'm gonna make sure you're done running from me, boy!"
With no hands to defend himself, JD's foot struck out hard and connected with the man's knee, causing it to collapse from under him. JD instantly rolled away, but even as he pushed up onto his haunches to stand, his tormentor limped in to continue the attack. The boy froze at the click of a gun hammer.
"I'm done watching over you, boy!" He aimed his gun at JD's head, "this'll stop you once and for all."
JD's eyes closed in time with a single gunshot.
Having seen JD's dilemma, Vin was leading the charge to help him. Abruptly, and without warning, he stopped his horse dead in its tracks, drew a rifle from its sheath, aimed, and fired. All five men saw one of the two go down as they continued on.
JD wasn't afraid to die, but that didn't mean he didn't fear the manner of its delivery. A heavy thud following the shot, vibrated through the ground around him. Visibly trembling, he opened one eye and promptly wished he hadn't as the man about to shoot him lay close by in the grass with his head blown open. The sound of approaching riders wore on JD's last nerve. Unwilling to wait around to discover whether they were friend or foe, JD pushed up onto his feet and started running. Raised voices increased his efforts until he was suddenly wrestled to the ground.
Deciding that commenting on Vin's one hell of a shot would come later, Chris nudged ahead of the others when he saw JD rise and start running. He, his father, and brothers called out to their youngest, but it just seemed to make him run faster. Head low, Chris urged his horse on and the striking Black responded. Just as he reached JD, Chris dismounted the speeding horse and used the momentum to take the boy off his feet.
The tumble did nothing good to JD's already bruised body, but it didn't stop him kicking out.
"Kid! Quit struggling, it's me. It's Chris!"
It took a few moments until the words filtered through to JD's overactive brain. He stopped struggling and looked up into familiar features. "Chris?" His eyes closed briefly and his body relaxed. "Oh thank God."
"Let's get you up."
By the time the two were on their feet, the other four men were with them, and had dismounted. Vin's Bowie knife was out and he moved around behind JD to cut his bonds. As the boy's arms were released, he cried out in pain from stiffness and renewed circulation.
Chris started rubbing at the aching limbs and Vin placed his uncorked canteen to JD's lips. The boy's hands grasped the bloated skin and he drank greedily. Vin held firm.
"Whoa, easy there, Kid, not too much now. Don't want you gettin' sick."
Reluctantly, JD gave up the canteen, but nodded his understanding. Jed moved in. He touched JD's bruised cheek and examined the boy's bloodied nose. "Good to see you, son."
Wearily, JD looked at his father, and then at four smiling brothers. "Thank you," he said, softly.
"For what?" Ezra asked.
"For coming after me," JD said sincerely.
His words caused them all to pause while they pondered why he'd think that they wouldn't have come.
Vin broke the silence. "Well, weren't much else goin' on," he said, dryly, and then grinned. He began sawing at the rope and sacking gathered around JD's neck, and gestured with his chin toward the dead man. "Figured we should come get you before you gave him an even harder time."
JD's trembling returned and his eyes welled. He looked to each man. "Buck - is...is he dead?"
Chris offered a crooked smile. "Buck's too ornery to die." He noted JD's need for more information. "He's got a nasty head wound, but he's good and waiting on us to bring you home."
Jed frowned. "What for?"
"Didn't see 'em coming - should have been more alert."
Josiah stepped closer. "The cowards shot Buck from a distance. No one can beat odds like that, John Dunne."
No one missed that JD was flagging. "Come on, let's get you home. We'll worry about who did this, later," Chris urged.
"It was Royal."
JD's words brought about a fierce reaction.
"Are you sure?" Chris growled out.
"Yeah, that guy there said so when he caught up with me."
Jed's features darkened. "Boys, I'm taking your brother home. Why don't you go give Royal his man back. I reckon he's due a message from the Lazy L."
Feral smiles greeted Jed's words. While Josiah helped JD up onto Jed's horse, Vin and Chris used their slickers and ropes to wrap the body.
"Did he have a horse, Kid?" Vin asked.
JD shook his head. "You think I'd have been running if he had?"
Vin huffed out a soft laugh. "Fair point. Guess we'll be draggin' him back to Royal's place, then."
Jethro and Josiah offered up their own slickers. "In case yours wear out from being dragged," Jed said, no remorse in his tone.
As he watched four of his sons ride away, Jed mounted up and pulled JD in close. "Come on, I know a tall mustachioed man who's waiting to see that you're okay."
Buck moved restlessly in his bed. When he finally opened his eyes, Nathan was seated next to him and leaning in. Buck looked at him. "What time is it?" he whispered.
"A little after five."
Buck's eyes widened. "Chris or Pa back?"
Nathan shook his head. "No, but then it's a long ride out to Ox-Eye Prairie and back."
"Even longer if they can't find where JD was taken." Deep blue eyes filled at that thought. He looked down at the large hand gripping his wrist.
"They'll find him, Buck, Chris and Pa ain't never give up on anything, and it looks like our new brothers are no different."
Buck sighed. "Can't rightly argue with that." He nodded. "Yeah, if anyone can find JD, it's them."
Almost home and Jed could feel JD slipping into what he hoped was sleep. He handed JD his canteen. "You alright there, son?"
"Mmm? Oh, thanks." JD took the canteen and drank a few swallows of water before handing it back. "Yeah sure, I'm good. You?"
Jed smiled. "Yeah, all good here. You in much pain?"
JD yawned, settled back against his father, and shook his head. "Nah, I'm fine."
"Almost home." There was no response. "JD? You awake, Kid?"
With no need now to take it easy on the boy in his care, Jed touched his heels to his steed's flanks and galloped for home.
Light was fading, so Chris called a halt to set up camp for the night. Soon the four men were settled down and, despite being unprepared for an overnight trip, were enjoying a pot of coffee and a simple rabbit stew courtesy of Vin's foraging and Josiah's cooking.
"What we gonna do when we get to Royal's place?" Vin asked Chris.
Chris gestured with his chin toward the mound of slickers. "I reckon he'll be all the talking we'll need to do."
"But of course, we won't just leave it there," Ezra suggested. The feral smile from Chris was all the reply needed.
"Gunplay, Chris?" Josiah asked.
"Only if provoked. Royal will know exactly what our visit means, but for now, Pa's focus is on Buck and JD."
"And if there's a next time?"
Chris's eyes narrowed as he looked at Ezra. "For what he's done, Royal's already a dead man in my eyes."
Together they cleared up and settled down for the night. Vin looked around at his brothers.
"Hope the kid's doin' okay."
Chris's smile was full of confidence. "He'll be fine."
On hearing a rider coming in, Nathan left Buck's bedside and hurried downstairs just in time to see Jed and Curly carrying JD inside and setting him down on the sofa. Nettie, who was just finishing up for the night, came out of the kitchen and quickly returned to pour some hot water from a pot. In no time, she'd handed Nathan a bowl, and clean cloths.
The healer gently cleaned his brother's face to get a better look at his injuries. He then checked for any on his body.
"Why won't he wake up?"
"Probably exhausted, Pa, he's pretty beat up." Nathan looked at Curly, who was hovering. "Let's get him up to bed."
Within the hour JD was clean and in bed in a fresh nightshirt. A noise at his door had Nathan and Jed look up. The former stood, walked to the door, and took the unsteady visitor's arm.
"What are you doing out of bed, Buck, you ain't well enough to be up yet."
With Nathan's help, a shaky Buck walked toward JD's bed. "Needed to know." He rested on the chair next to the bed that Nathan had earlier vacated in order to help him. He stared at JD's bruised features through misty eyes. "How's he doing?"
"He's been beat up some, but he'll be fine after some rest," Nathan replied.
"Come on, Buck, I'll help you back to bed..."
"No!" Buck offered a tight smile to his father. "I'm fine right here, Pa."
Jed pulled over an upholstered chair and swapped it out for the simple chair Buck was sitting on. He grabbed a blanket and pillow and got Buck settled. "If you're gonna stay, you may as well be comfortable."
Buck nodded, wearily. "Thanks, Pa." He frowned. "Where are Chris and the boys?"
"Returning Royal's property."
It took a moment or two. "Royal took JD?"
"And shot you, yes," Jed said, "or at least his men did. JD told us that the guy guarding him said so."
Buck's expression darkened. "Sure hope you sent the boys there to shoot Royal dead, or I'm gonna go do it myself."
"Just a warning." Jed stalled the inevitable outburst. "The man who was with JD is dead. That's enough killing for one day. Chris will deliver the body, and the message, and the others' presence will be a sharp reminder to Royal as to just who he's messing with."
"You think James was involved," Nathan considered.
"Nothing to suggest it." Jed looked down at JD. "Maybe JD will know."
Nettie appeared at the door with fresh drinking water for JD and coffee for the other three. "I saved you some dinner, Jethro. Come have some food."
With a squeeze to Buck's shoulder, Jed took his coffee and moved to leave. He nodded toward JD. "Let me know when..."
Nathan smiled. "We will." His smile widened when he saw Buck take one of JD's hands in his own and lean in.
"Hey there, shortstuff, you get some rest, we got plenty 'a time to catch up."
Nathan stood, grabbed his own coffee cup, and left the pair alone. As soon as he was gone, Buck held JD's hand close to his heart.
"I'm sorry, little brother." Sensing his own tiredness overtaking him, Buck rested back in the chair. The big-hearted man relaxed but kept hold of JD's wrist. When JD woke up, he'd know it.
Undaunted by the dozen or so armed men watching them, Chris, Vin, Ezra, and Josiah rode onto Royal's ranch with their grisly package in tow. Guy Royal stepped out from the house and stood on the porch. He watched the solemn procession until they stopped, in a line, directly in front of him. With a tilt of his head, he gestured toward the lashed slickers.
Chris leaned forward in the saddle and rested one arm on the horn. His expression was grim. "Returning what's yours, Royal."
Noting the man's confusion, he nodded to Vin who dismounted, took out his knife, and slit the slickers at the position of the dead man's face. He pulled back the material to expose the body's identity.
Royal's features paled and his gaze glanced nervously between Vin and Chris.
Vin cut the body loose from his horse. He walked up to Royal, glared at the man, tossed the severed rope end that had towed the corpse at Royal's chest, and then got back on his horse.
Chris continued. "Take a guess as to where we found him." He paused for effect and his brothers put their hands on their sidearms. "We four were ready to ride in here and make you pay for what you did to our brothers, but Pa - he said just to deliver a message. So here it is." Chris got off his horse and walked right up to Royal.
"There's a line, and you've crossed it." Chris gestured around with his gloved hand. "We see you, or any of your men on our land again, and we'll shoot first and ask questions later." He fisted the man's shirtfront and pulled him up close enough for Royal to feel his heated breath.
"But where you're concerned, I'll personally make sure you're left alive enough so I can finish you off myself - nice and slow."
Guy Royal was rarely lost for words, but he knew when the time was right to keep quiet, and this was one of them. He lowered his gaze and held his breath until Chris released him, walked away, and mounted up.
"We may be leavin'," Vin said, "but this ain't over, Royal."
With an air of cool authority the four brothers wheeled their horses around, and walked them off the ranch. Once clear of the property, they galloped for home.
Time to find out how Buck and JD were doing. Time to be a family again.
The next day, Jed peeked into JD's room and smiled to see his two injured boys asleep next to each other. Buck didn't look too uncomfortable sleeping in the chair, and Jed knew it was a lost cause to try and persuade him to go back to bed. As he left, Jed clicked shut the heavy door, just missing the first signs of JD rousing.
Chris looked up when Jed entered the big room. "They okay?"
Jed nodded. "Sleeping." He poured himself a coffee from the pot sat on a tray on the coffee table, and took a seat in an armchair. The rancher sighed. "I'd say we were lucky this time, but..." he looked at Vin, "...as far as JD's concerned, finding him was more down to skill than luck."
Vin's blue eyes stared into his father's before his cheek dimpled and he glanced down at his coffee cup. He looked up when Jed spoke again.
"Sure is good to have you all home. How did Royal take your words of advice, Chris?" He had no doubt who had delivered the actual message.
"He got the point. Do we know if James was involved?"
Jed shrugged. "Still waiting on JD to fill us in." He watched Chris stand.
"Reckon I'll just go check in on 'em."
Ezra stood. "Would it be acceptable for me to join you?"
Chris nodded once. "Sure." He smiled at the exchange of looks between the brothers with whom he'd visited Royal. "Why don't we all go check on 'em?"
Nathan grinned in approval and relaxed back on the sofa while the other four headed upstairs.
Still seated in the chair, Buck's eyes were firmly fixed on the boy in the bed. He knew JD was awake, but couldn't figure out why the kid wouldn't acknowledge the fact by turning to face him. Buck was just about to speak, when there was a soft tap on the door, followed by four brothers walking in. With a grunt, Buck stood to greet them.
Chris reached out to grab Buck's hand, but gave him a quick clinch, instead. Vin patted Buck's arm, Ezra shook his hand, and Josiah offered a more lengthy embrace. Buck's grin caused them all to smile.
"How're you doing?" Chris asked.
"Good, thanks to you, fellas." He went serious. "You get the asswipes who did this?"
Chris nodded. "Yeah. Royal was behind it."
Buck glanced at the bed. "Just to be clear, his men shot me, and took JD, too?"
Vin was nodding, now.
Seeing Buck's venomous expression, Chris raised a hand to squeeze his shoulder. "It's dealt with."
Buck trusted Chris and he nodded his acceptance.
"How is JD?" Ezra asked.
Buck winked. "Still sleeping. We should go and let him rest."
They all moved to step outside. Buck pressed one finger to his lips in a 'shushing' motion and held Chris back. Understanding, Vin closed the door, leaving the two men inside the room with JD.
Chris frowned at Buck, who raised one eyebrow and nodded toward the bed. They remained silent, and several seconds later, JD stirred in the bed and turned over onto his back. His eyes went wide when he saw Chris and Buck standing at the bottom of his bed and staring back at him.
"Care to share why you pretended to be asleep?" Buck asked.
JD seemed to be about to reply, but then turned his face into the pillow. The two men were instantly next to him.
Hearing Chris's voice, the boy's head turned slightly and he peeked out from under wayward bangs. Instead of answering, he just swallowed hard.
"Kid, what is it?" Buck asked, softly.
"I..." The words caught in his throat and threatened to choke him. How could he tell these men how ashamed he was that his brothers needed to come after him and save his butt?
Because that's just what they did.
He'd felt sure that the fella watching over him was about to shoot him dead.
Despite his own lingering discomfort, Buck kneeled down next to JD's head. He waited until JD looked at him, and smiled. "Ain't nothing you can't talk to us about, Kid. We're family, and families help each other."
JD glanced up at Chris, and then back to Buck. "Feel stupid."
"Buck feels that way every day," Chris teased, while enjoying Buck's reaction. "Why you?"
With a series of grunts and hisses, JD pushed his sore, tired body into a sitting up position. His eyes welled as he looked at Buck's bandaged head. "I got dragged off to Lord knows where and...and I didn't even know if you were still alive, Buck. Couldn't see to fight back 'cause of the sack tied over my head, couldn't even escape properly when I finally got away." He sighed and looked up at Chris. "Needed my big brothers to bail me out like some dumb kid." He bowed his head to hide his shame.
Chris and Buck exchanged relieved looks.
When Chris spoke, the boy looked up at his brothers. "Yeah?"
"Ain't nothing dumb about being taken by force, and even if any of this were your fault, nothing would've changed. We care about you, and would've moved Heaven and earth to find you. Are you saying you wouldn't do the same for one of us?"
JD's eyes went huge. "No!"
Chris turned to leave. "Then we're done here." He turned back. "JD, was James mentioned to you at all?"
JD shook his head. "No, only Royal."
Chris nodded. "See you both at dinner?"
JD and Buck exchanged looks, and both grinned.
"Sure thing, Stud."
As he left the room and closed the door, Chris's lips twitched into a crooked grin. 'He'll do.'
The day before the family's first Thanksgiving together, Isaiah Bowles brought over the fat, and fully plucked turkey. Jed invited him to join them, a gesture that brought the man to tears; he hadn't shared a Thanksgiving meal since his wife passed, six years ago.
Thursday morning saw Nettie cooking up a storm in the kitchen while, out on the porch, JD and Ezra were setting the long table where the family and ranch hands ate together. This was to be a true sharing day. Ezra noticed JD glancing at him occasionally.
"Everything alright, JD?"
The boy smiled. "That's a nice waistcoat - fancy."
Ezra looked down at his burgundy attire with its golden foursquare pattern design. "Why, thank you. I consider myself underdressed without one." He nodded to JD's own, brown waistcoat. "Much as yourself."
JD shrugged. "Never worn anything fancy, but the Master liked his boys to be well turned out. We always wore waistcoats with our britches, and white shirts." JD grinned. "Though those shirts didn't stay white long."
Ezra smiled. "I can well imagine." Before he realized, he'd placed a hand on JD's shoulder. "JD, I'm not one for grand gestures but, I'm pleased and relieved you and Buck are alright."
JD could see the sincerity in the man's eyes and his cheek dimpled. "Really appreciate y'all coming after us."
Ezra's reply was a squeeze of the boy's shoulder.
"You boy's done jawing? I've got food ready for the table."
JD glanced at Nettie and hastily finished up. Ezra stared at the woman.
"Am I to assume that the inference is for us to assist you with said repast?"
"Right on the button, fancy pants." Nettie smiled at JD. "I think Buck's looking for you, son."
"Thanks, ma'am. I could help you first..."
She smiled and tugged at Ezra's arm. "Not necessary, got me all the help I need right here."
Ezra glanced at JD and then followed Nettie in. "Wonderful."
Earlier, Chris noticed Vin heading for the river bank just below the ranch house. When the Texan didn't return, Chris decided to join him. He nodded to Vin as he sat down beside him on the bank.
"Peaceful here, huh?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah, real pretty. Good place to do some thinkin'."
"Got something on your mind, Vin?"
There was a pause before Vin replied. He turned to Chris. "I'm wanted for murder back in Tascosa. Got a $500 bounty on my head." When there was no reaction, he continued. "I didn't do it. Was huntin' a murderer by the name of Eli Joe. He killed a man called Jess Kincaid, then set me up to take the blame to get me off his trail. I plan to go back someday and clear my name."
Chris nodded. "We can do that - someday, but for now, Tascosa's a long way from here, and we got a family to get to know."
Vin stood. "Just promise me that if anythin' happens to me, you'll take my body back to claim the reward. At least then I can rest easy knowin' I had a say in who gains from my bad luck."
Chris offered his hand. "You have my word."
Vin reached out to grasp his brother's forearm and simply nodded before the pair made their way back to the house.
"Hey, come down from there before you break your neck, you ole fool!"
From the roof of the stables, Josiah grinned down at Nathan. "Not so much of the fool, brother. I know what I'm doing."
Nathan smiled back. "I don't doubt it, but if you fall before Thanksgiving dinner is served, Pa won't be too pleased, and as for Nettie..."
Still amused by the concern, Josiah raised a hand. "Point taken." He shuffled down the roof on his butt. "Just gonna drop my tools down so step aside."
Nathan walked back a few steps to avoid the small, wooden toolbox sailing to the ground, and then moved toward the ladder resting against the stable wall. He held it in place while Josiah descended. "What possessed you to climb up there? Poke usually does our repairs."
"You may recall that Poke's arm has barely healed from his accident. Besides, it's not the first roof I've fixed up." He picked up his toolbox and put an arm around Nathan's shoulders as they walked toward the house. "You saying you've never fixed up anything other than our fellow man?"
"Sure," Nathan mumbled, while considering how to phrase his next words. He decided just to go for it. "Prefer not to have to fix you up so soon after getting to know you, is all." He felt the grip on his shoulder tighten, and turned his head to see the toothiest grin ever.
"Not getting rid of me that easily, brother."
"Maybe I should give you a hand next time - just to make sure."
"Sounds like a plan."
The pair laughed and headed into the house to wash up.
"Buck?" JD stared around the empty main room. "BUCK!"
"Up here, Kid!"
On hearing the call, JD's head turned toward the stairwell and he headed up. He found Buck in his own room and sitting on the bed.
Buck smiled and patted the space next to him. "Got a minute?"
"Sure." JD sat down and stared at the wooden box in Buck's hand.
"Something here I want you to have." Buck's hand stretched out and he placed something into the palm of JD's hand. It was a small key. He noted JD's frown as he looked at the object. "It's for this." Buck reached around his back and handed JD a box just like his own.
"Figured you'd have some things of your ma's you'd want to keep safe." He opened his own box to show a variety of trinkets, a pair of satin gloves, and a silk handkerchief. Buck reached in and selected a locket. "This was my ma's."
JD smiled at his brother and nodded. "I got my ma's locket, too, and a hair comb she said was given to her by…by Pa." His smile faded a little. "Been keeping them in a burlap sack I took from the big house's kitchen the day before I left to head out west."
JD stroked the simple, but well made box. "This is real nice of you, thanks, Buck." His cheek dimpled. "I, uh, I don't have anything for you…"
Buck squeezed the boy's wrist. "I didn't give to receive, Kid. Just wanted you to have a safe place for the things that are special to you, like I do." He smiled widely when JD leaned against him.
"I love it, and it's real kind of you."
Buck swallowed the lump in his throat and nudged his little brother. "Come on, we got a turkey to eat."
JD's grin lit up the room. "Yeah!" He stood and gestured to the box in his hands. "Just gonna put this in my room."
Buck nodded. "Okay, Kid, see you outside."
Inside his room, JD set the box down on his bed, pushed the key into the lock and turned. He opened the lid and smiled as the smell of fresh wood tickled his nose. Spinning around, he opened a drawer and took out a sack he'd pushed to the back. Opening it, the boy emptied the sparse contents out onto the bed, and lovingly put each precious item of his mother's into the box - a folded white apron, a small, almost empty fragrance bottle of myrtle and orange blossom, a cotton handkerchief, and the silver hair comb Jed had given her. The final thing he put inside was a small, silver locket. JD flipped it open to look at his mama's image, closed it again, kissed it, and lovingly placed the locket inside the box.
He turned the key, removed it, and put the box into the drawer that the sack came from. JD stared at the key in his hand. There was nothing in the box he wouldn't show his family, yet it seemed right to lock it. In a show of the trust he felt, he set the key down next to the box, closed the drawer, and left to join his family.
JD skidded to a halt on the veranda and looked abashed when he saw everyone was seated and waiting for him to join them. He took up the spare seat between Chris and Buck, and looked to his father, seated at the head of the table, Chris on one side, and Vin on the other, both kitty-corner to their father.
Jed smiled. "Nothing to be sorry for, son." He looked at Josiah. "Would you say grace for us?"
Josiah nodded and reached out his hands. All followed suit and linked hands while he spoke.
"Lord, thank you for this bounteous feast, shared with special people. We feel blessed to have been given such a wonderful family, both close, and extended.
We thank you for each person here, for their unique qualities and personalities. Bless the skill and work of their hands, and watch over each one and keep them safe.
"Amen," the others chorused.
Jed glanced around the seated group. "Dig in!"
Chatter and laughter ensued as food was dished out and shared around. Jed stood and prepared to carve the bird.
Buck rubbed his hands together. "Isaiah, thanks to Nettie, your turkey looks and smells real good."
The man attempted to grin back, but was severely hampered by a mouth filled with parsley, thyme, and onion stuffing. Buck chuckled and got stuck into some sweet potato pie, while slices of juice turkey were eagerly placed onto plates.
"One of those turkey legs is yours, son, if you'd like it."
Déjà vu hit and JD stared at his father as memories and images of the dream he was having when he was kidnapped, and just before his drunken minder found him and almost killed him, flew into his mind.
"Second youngest gets th'other leg," Vin announced gleefully before his teeth tore a chunk of meat off the bone.
Stunned by the accuracy, and a little overwhelmed by the untimely recollection, JD felt he needed a minute. "I, uh…I…'scuse me please." He stood.
Buck grabbed his wrist. "You okay?"
JD nodded, awkwardly. "Mmmm, sure. Won't be long."
JD looked at his father.
"Sit down, son. Sometimes, chasing your demons alone isn't always for the best."
JD sat, while staring at Jed. 'How could he know…?'
Chris got JD's attention. "I can vouch for that, Kid."
JD glanced around. His brothers all seemed to be aware of his inner uneasiness, which was reflected in their compassionate gazes, and, just like that, the bad memory evaporated. His smile returned.
"I, uh, I'll pass on the leg, thanks, Pa. Just white meat, please."
In moments, the happy chatter resumed and the family and guests continued on with their first, if somewhat delayed, Thanksgiving together.
And despite all that life had thrown at them so far in their short time together, every one of the Larabee family were in no doubt there'd be many more happy occasions to celebrate.
Thanks for riding along.
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