Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Thanks to KT for Monarch of the Glen AU
Characters: JD, Buck, Chris, OFC
Ratings/Warnings: Some trauma
Summary: The men of the Glenneaval Estate face disaster when the offer of a helping hand becomes a deadly burden.
Author's Note: Relates to events and characters in the show Lady Killers and loosely follows my story Aspirations
Another heartfelt 'thank you' to Blackraptor for archiving my stories so others may share.
Glossary at end of story.
After a two-day trip to the City, and driving onto Glenneaval Estate, Nathan swore he could actually hear Josiah's body unwinding as the conservationist sighed deeply. "Glad to be back, Josiah?"
"Very much so." He gestured out through the car windows. "Look at this wonderful vista. God's country at its finest. People pay millions for views like this, and we get to see it for free on a daily basis."
Nathan nodded and smiled. It really was a special place. The pair continued in companionable silence as they took in every inch of the sweeping, sun-kissed landscape. Not too long later, they rolled up the castle drive and drove around to where staff and residents parked. "Correct me if I'm wrong but, I thought you said last year that you were thinking of taking early retirement to write a book?"
Josiah looked toward the large yard and saw JD waving wildly at them. Moments later, Buck appeared, grabbed the boy, and the pair wrestled playfully. The conservationist laughed. "So I was, but..." He grinned contentedly at the newcomers who had breathed new life into the old place.
"Plans change - and sometimes for the better."
Also chuckling at the wrangling cousins, Nathan switched off the engine and nodded at Josiah. "Angus would have loved those two."
"Indeed, in fact, I'm in no doubt he does. His love of this estate lives on in them both, and in the five of us who were lucky enough to have known him personally."
The pair exited Nathan's Honda CRV and were instantly greeted with handshakes from Buck, and an attempt at handshakes from JD that developed into a hug for each of them, which they both found endearing. Bags were snatched up and transported - into the castle for Nathan, and into the trunk of Josiah's Volvo, ready for him to drive home after dinner. As Buck accompanied the pair into the sitting room, JD went to the kitchen to make coffee and tea.
JD found Vin in the castle kitchen standing over the sink. He mischievously attempted to nudge the ghillie to one side to get at the taps to fill the kettle, but lost the battle when Vin sent him careering sideways with a sturdy hip-bump. Regaining his balance, the lad turned his attention to Vin's activity. "Whatcha doing, there?"
Not looking up, the estate's ghillie replied. "Cleaning fish."
JD leaned on the work surface next to the sink. "Duh, I got that, but why? Is Nettie okay?"
"Aye, she's gone shopping. I offered to clean these for her while she's out."
JD made a face when Vin slit one fish's gut. "Oh man, that's gross."
Vin glanced at him. "You've never done this before?"
"Nooo, no, nuh uh."
"Really? It's a skill that a Laird should know."
JD straightened. "Yeah?"
Despite feeling a little guilty at teasing the boy, Vin smiled. "Aye."
JD pondered for a moment or two. "Could uh - could you teach me?"
Tanner nodded. "I could, but we should start from scratch."
JD moved in closer to concentrate. "Okay, sure."
Vin looked at the boy and grinned. "These are almost done, but we could try catching some on the weekend."
JD blinked and then stared. "You, you mean, go fishing? Us? You and me?"
"Well, I didn't mean take a trip to the fishmonger's."
JD's face lit up with a beaming smile. "Awesome." He suddenly started moving again to fill the kettle. "Shoot, I almost forgot I came here to make tea and coffee."
Vin moved aside. "Who for?"
"Nathan and Josiah just got back. Buck's with 'em. You want some coffee?"
Vin wrapped the fish in kitchen paper and washed his hands. "Aye, I could go for that - maybe a few biscuits, too."
JD pulled out some mugs. "There's still some of Nettie's carrot cake left."
Vin's cheek dimpled. "Err, no, there's not."
JD laughed. "Yeah, there is. Nettie hid half of the cake before putting the rest in the tin." He thumbed toward the door. "I'll just go see if Ezra and Chris want a drink, too."
Vin watched him go, while pondering how to break the news to JD that he'd found the hidden cake, too.
Early next morning, and Chris's first job of the day was to address a new batch of estate employees in his on-site office. Larabee cut a formidable figure as his gaze sought out each man he stood before.
"I expect my members of staff to be hardworking, honest, and forthright, and you'll get no less from me and the estate's core team. If you have a problem, you bring it to me, or either of these three men I introduced you to earlier." He gestured toward Buck, Vin, and JD, who looked on during Chris's practiced, but no less sincere speech.
"If I learn of any continuous slacking, bullying, rumor-mongering, or troublemaking, the guilty party, or parties, will be politely asked to leave." Chris's eyebrow arched and he glanced sideways when his three friends fought laughter at his last statement. Chris turned back to the new recruits and smiled.
"Okay, maybe not so politely." He handed out worksheets. "I've partnered each of you with an experienced member of staff for your first week. You'll find them waiting for you on the yard, along with the safety gear you'll be needing. Safety is paramount, so if I catch you working without your gear, you'd better be a fast runner."
The five gathered men laughed, but already knew there was no joke intended. Acknowledging their understanding, they left to start their first full day of work on Glenneaval estate.
Chris himself had a lot to get through this day, plus, he'd decided JD was to work alongside him. "All set?" he asked.
JD nodded and hoped he was successfully containing his excitement. "You bet."
"Let's get going, then." Despite having the option to delegate, Larabee was very much a 'hands on' manager. His second duty of the day was to call on several tenants to investigate complaints and concerns from tree-roots endangering crofts, to water leaks, frequent power-outs, and rising damp.
After that, he returned to the office to handle stock order disputes, traveled around to make work inspections, took tree bark samples from copses, collected water samples from the hatcheries and locks for analysis; coordinated the logging schedules with workers for the next day, and discussed tree planting programs with Josiah and an arborist.
Taking a breather for a packed lunch atop the strikingly picturesque Drum Maise, Chris smiled across at JD, who earlier told him how he was no longer fooled by Chris's calm expertise. He now appreciated that Larabee's job was considerably harder than he made it seem.
"How do you keep up with so many duties, Chris? I mean, it's not like Buck and Vin could do any more in a day, but at least they don't have all the admin work, too."
Chris shrugged. "It's what I've been doing since I started here." He offered a small smile. "It's a labor of love, I don't really think of it as work." He almost blushed at the admiration shining in JD's eyes - almost. "Eat up, still got a few roads to inspect." His cell rang.
"Yeah, Buck?" Chris glanced at JD. "Okay, we'll head there next." He closed down the call. "Ewart McClintock says he's got a problem with his generator."
JD stopped mid-bite to look at Chris. "The place where that weird Maddie girl lives?"
Chris smiled. "Aye, that's the one." His smile widened at JD's mumbled 'aww man'.
Ewart McClintock walked into his yard on hearing a vehicle pulling in. He approached Chris's Land Rover Discovery just as Chris and JD were getting out. "Afternoon, Chris, JD."
"Ewart. Buck tells me your generator's playing up," Chris said as he shook the man's hand.
"Aye. Be grateful if you could take a look."
With a nod, the visiting pair headed toward an outbuilding, which housed the generator providing vital power to the remote croft.
JD watched in fascination as Chris opened panels with practiced ease. He scrutinized the machinery. "This runs on diesel, Chris?"
"Yeah, with a battery backup." Chris pointed. "Three cylinder water cooled diesel with electric start/stop, low oil pressure and high engine temperature shutdown. It has a twelve-volt battery charge system, and that's the battery isolator switch."
Chris smiled. "Angus insisted on the best for his tenants, but after fitting them, it took almost five years for them to begin paying for themselves."
"So-o-o, not that old, then?"
"No, and I can see what the problem is."
JD leaned in. "What?"
"But - there's no warning light on."
"It's been disconnected." Chris's words hung in the air.
Someone had deliberately tried to sabotage the unit?
"Good thing the generator is as good as it is - the previous one would have likely caused an explosion before anyone had figured out the issue." He stepped back, took out his phone, and dialed.
"Hey, Buck. I need an engineer to the McClintock farm. Tell him it's the oil pressure shutdown that's causing the problem. Thanks."
"We can't just add more oil?"
Chris led the way out of the building. "We could, but better it's empty for the engineer to work on it."
JD rolled his eyes. "Sure, man am I dumb, or what?"
"Not dumb, just not familiar with the equipment."
JD was grateful for the acknowledgement, even though he figured he should have known better. "I'm surprised Josiah hasn't nagged for wind generators, or solar panels out here."
"Some farms have them, and it's definitely something we're looking into." Chris spied Maddie McClintock peeking at them from inside the feed barn. She had a guilty look on her face and it occurred to Chris who might be responsible for the generator fault. "Kid, go over there and ask Maddie who last checked the generator systems."
JD started to ask if he had to, but the expression on Chris's face told him it was a waste of breath. He nodded and headed over.
On seeing JD approaching, Maddie shot back and feigned being busy.
Maddie glanced at JD and continued coating the barn door with wood preserve. "Quiet day?"
"Well, you're up here doing nothing, so I figured you weren't busy."
JD decided not to rise to the bait. "We'll have your generator up and running in no time."
"Don't sound so pleased," he teased. Picking up a spare brush, JD began to help her apply the preservative.
Maddie shrugged. "Da said that if it couldn't be fixed, it was a sign we should give up."
JD stopped brushing for a few moments. "Why? Generators can be fixed, or replaced."
"Hmmm. Ah well, I guess Kate will have to come home, now."
JD moved to gain eye contact. "Who's Kate?"
"My older sister. She had the good sense to get away from here some ten years now. Da called her a few weeks ago, and for some reason she agreed to come back and help him run the place." As she talked, her brushstrokes became faster, and firmer. "'Cause I'm just a simple sheep-herder, right?"
"Well, seeing as it's your farm's source of income, that's pretty important." JD tried a smile when he saw Maddie glower at him. "Who, uh, who checks the generator?"
Maddie put down her brush. "I do, why?"
JD shrugged and continued painting. "Dunno, Chris wanted to know." He was being honest, he didn't know why Chris had asked the question, and it appeared Maddie believed him, as she promptly dropped the subject.
"I could stay and help you with this - if you'd like."
Once again, the girl acted indifferently. "Suit yourself."
JD smiled to himself and shook his head. He stepped back and looked out into the yard where Chris and Ewart were talking. "Hey Chris, I'm gonna help here for a while. Could someone pick me up later?"
Chris raised a hand in acknowledgement. "No problem. See you at dinner." The blond got into his truck, but as he drove away, he was in no doubt that whoever was dealing with the generator would have realized the oil warning system was compromised. He left the farm feeling uneasy.
Four hours later, and the beams from Buck's Land Rover's headlights swept across the darkened farmyard as he pulled up. The lights were on in the house, and an outbuilding, so the generator was clearly back up and running. He heard laughter from an illuminated outbuilding and headed that way. Cautiously pushing open the freshly wood-stained door, he grinned on seeing JD and Maddie playfully tossing what little hay in the feed barn there was, at each other.
"I'm guessing you're finished for the day, Kid?"
Still giggling, and while plucking stray stalks out of each other's hair, the pair faced the tall man and straightened.
"Uh, hi Buck. Yeah, all done."
Buck stared around the feed barn. "Not much winter feed in here, Maddie."
The girl's sour demeanor was back. "What do you expect? Money's tight."
JD took his first good look around. "Why didn't you say you needed help?"
"Because it's up to me to say, not her."
All three looked to the door to see Ewart standing there.
"Evening, Ewart," Buck said. "So what's going on?"
The man's chin stiffened, and for a moment, Buck thought he would shut down; but unexpectedly, the farmer began talking.
"Peter's holiday insurance didn'ae cover his body being flown home. Then there was his funeral, and just after his, my wife Meg's. All my savings, meager as they were, are gone."
JD and Buck exchanged looks, and both expressions reflected dismay.
Ewart cleared his throat. "Anyhow, away with yer both, my scran's a-cooling." He watched the pair leave and turned to Maddie. "The job would've been over quicker had you no been futering about with the lad. Go wash up."
"We'd already finished..."
"Donn'ae give me no lip, lassie."
With a sigh, Maddie walked past her father and out of the door.
It was a quiet drive home with the cousins deep in thought over the McClintock's woes. Later, at dinner, JD was picking at his food, while his right knee bounced subconsciously, a habit of his when anxious or preoccupied.
"Are you no enjoying your meal, JD?"
The boy looked up at Nettie and blushed. "Uh, no, ma'am, it's good, really." His cheek dimpled. "I guess I'm not that hungry."
"Something on your mind, John Dunne?"
JD smiled at Josiah, glanced at Buck, and nodded. "Yeah." He looked at Buck again in the hope he would explain. Buck picked up on the silent plea and told them the sad tale.
Vin shook his head. "Damn, I knew things were tough, but had no idea it was that bad," he stated.
"If I may..."
All eyes turned to Ezra.
"We have in place a contingency scheme for tenants."
There were slow nods around the table from all bar Buck and JD, and whose puzzled looks prompted Ezra to continue.
"One thing Angus loathed was to see a tenant forced to give up his home due to failure - regardless of reason. If it was from poor work ethic, he would send them, free of charge, a farm manager for a year, appointed for the sole purpose of getting the farm back on track so the tenant could focus on doing the job, and not the paperwork. However, if money was an issue due to circumstances beyond their control, we set up a loan fund, with low interest rates, and a deferred payment for three months."
JD's face lit up. "So - we could maybe offer Ewart help to buy feed for his sheep to get through the winter?"
"Yes." Ezra glanced at Chris and the estate manager offered a small smile and nodded his approval. "I'll get on it first thing."
"Awesome!" JD's grin split his face and he began tucking in to his meal, as did Buck, causing the others to grin. They really were like Angus, never happier than when giving something away.
Within the week, Ezra, Chris, and JD had worked out a deal with Ewart. It turned out he already had an existing loan, so they worked out an extension and a top-up that Chris insisted could be comfortably repaid. After Ewart ordered in the feed, JD helped Maddie spread the fresh hay in the fields and fill the outdoor feeders, as well as fix some fences after the pair rounded up straying sheep off neighbor Cameron McGregor's land.
To all but JD it was a revelation to learn that Ewart and Meg had an older daughter, who would soon be returning to the farm to help run it. That information tipped the balance for the loan, as Kate was recently divorced from her pig farmer husband Del Spivak, and so was just the person to become McClintock's farm manager. Where estate duties were concerned, things soon got back to normal, and Ewart and Maddie were slowly left to themselves, but for two weeks, or until Kate arrived, JD was released to help them out.
One afternoon at the McClintock's farm, JD perched on fencing and watched their sheepdog, Shandy, guide the ewes into a pen in readiness for their lamb ultrasounds. He looked up when he heard a vehicle approaching the yard. The expression on Maddie's face was hard to read - a mix of happiness, and frustration, maybe? Either way, once the pen was secured, the girl walked abruptly over to the brand new Range Rover pulling in.
The young laird jumped down off the fence and squatted to fuss the black and white sheepdog while observing Maddie greeting a blonde woman. Judging by their delight in seeing each other, JD figured it was Maddie's sister, Catherine, or Kate as she seemed to be more known for. Ewart came outside and he and Kate embraced for a long time before the pair went inside and Maddie returned to the sheep pen.
JD stood. "Your sister?" he asked.
"Aye. The Prodigal has returned," she replied, with a hint of sarcasm.
Maddie shrugged. "Sounds like she got a good settlement out of the divorce. Da will be pleased if she's got money to put into the farm."
JD nodded. They could sure use some new equipment. "Well, looks like you're gonna be busy bringing your sister up to speed so I guess I'll leave you to it."
"Will you be helping out again?"
"Sure. If you need me, just give me a call..."
Maddie's mood darkened. "Don't flatter yourself," she spat. "You were never much good anyway."
JD stared in shock for a moment before forcing his feet to move. "R-i-g-h-t. Well, uh, see ya."
He turned and hurried away, pulling up his jacket collar against the chilled breeze as he walked to his truck. "You're welcome," he muttered, and drove away with a considerable amount of wheel spin. He looked in his rearview mirror to see Maddie staring after him, and wondered why she looked so mad. He couldn't work this girl out at all.
"Women, go figure," he sighed, and headed for home.
Inside the McClintock croft, Kate was already making herself at home and brewing a pot of tea. She smiled at Maddie when the girl came in and washed her hands. "How have you been?" she asked.
"How do you think?" Maddie snapped back. She jumped slightly when she realized Kate was right behind her.
"Maddie, don't be bitter. Let's make my homecoming a fresh start, yeah?"
The girl turned to face her sister. "So long as Da's happy, right?"
"Are you no glad to see me?" She saw Maddie's stern expression crack for a split second before the girl composed herself.
"I suppose. At least it'll keep Da off my back."
Appreciating that was as good as it was going to get, at least for now, Kate smiled. "Sit down, I brought cream cakes." The fact that Maddie did as asked, caused Kate to hope they were maybe making headway.
Before dinner that night, JD decided Maddie could take a hike after she'd accused him of not being much use. He was preoccupied at dinner, and when he looked up from his meal, he realized the others were watching him. He forced a smile and looked to Buck and Chris.
"Okay if I come out with you tomorrow, Buck?"
Buck grinned. "Aye, be good to have you back. You are - back?"
JD nodded. "Now Kate's home, I reckon so." 'And apparently I'm not that helpful anyway', he thought to himself.
No one missed the underlying irritation, so the subject matter changed and dinner was eaten without another word of the McClintocks.
The next few weeks were busy and JD barely thought about Maddie, enjoying instead the familiarity of routine, and being with people who cared about him as much as he did for them. On one day, while he and Buck were inspecting some run-off ditches, JD noticed that a large, five-bar gate to a nearby field was off its hinges. Buck was a good quarter mile ahead along the country road so JD took the toolbox from the back of the pick-up and walked over to the gate. Being made of solid oak, the gate was heavier than JD figured and after he'd re-fixed the hinge, he struggled to lift it to set it back on its pin. He almost had it when it slipped.
Buck was making his way back down the lane when a bone-chilling yowl had him running. "JD!" In minutes, the breathless assistant manager reached the truck. "JD?"
Buck peered around the truck to see JD desperately tugging at a large gate, but it was the stream of red running down one of its posts that got Buck's attention. He hurried to JD's side to find the webbed area of hand between his forefinger and thumb was trapped between the top hinge and the pin. "Och, lad."
Buck took the strain but JD's hand was partially impaled from underneath and he was reluctant to pull. "Hold on." With all his might, he hauled up the weighty gate and tossed it aside. JD's features were clammy and pale.
"I - I'm fine, just - just get me off here - please."
Buck pulled out his phone and dialed. "Chris, you or Vin anywhere near Druim Bà?" He closed his eyes in relief. "Please - and Chris - hurry." He shut down the call, tucked away his phone and faced JD.
"Chris and Vin are about twenty minutes away. I'm afraid that if I unhook your hand alone I'll do more damage than good. I'd rather have company here before we take the risk." If there had been no help at hand, Buck would have gone ahead, but knew it would go all the easier with assistance.
JD nodded his understanding while hoping his knees would hold, he was feeling a mite odd right now. "Sorry. I was trying - to help." He shook his head. "Shoulda known I'd screw up."
Buck gently cupped JD's chin between and brought the boy's head up to meet his gaze. "Donn'ae be so hard on yourself, you tried, and that goes a long way in Chris's book." He smiled, produced a large white hanky, and gently wrapped it around the wound and the pin as he talked. "Mine too, though I'll bet you never do something like this alone again, right?"
JD swallowed the rising bile and nodded. "You - got that right." He turned anxious eyes to Buck. "Is it bad?"
"Och no, Nathan'll have it stitched up in no time."
Buck kept JD talking, relief plainly evident when the sound of a racing engine caught their attention and Chris's Land Rover scuffed to a halt. Vin and Chris jumped out.
"You made good time, Stud."
"Surprising what you can do when motivated." Chris strode over to JD and studied the injury. "Vin, gonn'ae need to take this pin off the post."
Tanner pulled a cordless screwdriver out of his own toolbox and set to work. He winked at JD. "I'll have you clear in a jiffy."
"The pin's not all the way through," JD pointed out.
"Removing the pin is the safest way to get you sorted," Chris explained. The whirring of the screwdriver stopped.
Vin stepped back as Buck took hold of JD and Chris pulled the pin free of the post. Between them they got JD to the pickup and sat him sideways in the front passenger seat, and facing outward.
Buck grabbed the first-aid kit, and Chris took the semi-impaled pin and examined it for some time before speaking.
"Brace yourself, Kid." Even as he said the words, he tugged the pin free before JD could even think about it. While Buck wrapped the hand in bandages, Chris and Vin worked quickly to set the gate back in place.
Nursing his throbbing hand, JD watched Chris and Vin set the heavy, five bar, oak gate back on its hinges. He stared down at the blood-stained bandages and winced at the pull, and ache to the puncture and swollen tissue. He looked up and offered a tight smile to his cousin.
"Can't even re-hang a gate properly." He jerked his chin toward Chris and Vin. "These guys come along and have it fixed in no time."
Buck squeezed JD's shoulder. "Chris and Vin have forgotten more about this job than you'll ever know, laddie. The gate's heavy for good reason. Re-hanging one is a two-man job - as is most of the work around here. You'll do well to remember that."
JD tried to raise his injured hand, and flinched at the action. "Not likely to forget again, am I?"
Not long after, and now back in the castle kitchen, Nathan was debating how to proceed with the injury.
"Just do it," JD pleaded.
Buck shook his head. "Been here ten minutes and still nae movement..."
"Buck!" Nathan growled.
"Sorry, just nervous."
"You're nervous?" JD squeaked.
"Got some rust fragments in there," Nathan informed. "I need to get them out.
Nathan glanced up at Nettie and nodded. Moments later, Buck and Chris took hold of JD, Nathan gripped JD's hand and in seconds, following a strained cry, two slivers of rusted metal had been removed from the wound. As Nettie applied pressure and several bandages to the bleeding cut, Nathan patted the panting boy's back.
"Well done. Looks like you didn't do any serious damage." He took JD's padded hand, held it up, and addressed Buck. "Make sure he keeps this up and the pressure applied while I get the rest of my gear."
"Do I need a jab?" JD asked.
"Nah, your tetanus is up to date."
"Nope, the skin's already is knitting together so I can use strips."
Smiling at JD's relieved glance, Vin patted the boy's back as he passed by to return to work. Chris looked at JD and thumbed toward the yard. "I have some calls to make. I'll just be in the office."
JD turned to Vin, and then Chris. "Thanks, guys." He looked up at Buck. "Thanks Buck."
Clutching the raised, padded hand between his large palms, the brunet grinned. "We were pretty much done for the day anyway." He gestured to the injured hand. "Don't think you'll be doing too much with that hand for a few days. Maybe you could pop along and see how Maddie, Kate, and Ewart are doing."
JD rolled his eyes. "Really? Last time I was there Maddie was glad to see me leave. I swear she's loony toons, one minute she's all fun and friendly, the next she's all fired-up and snapping my head off, or accusing me of something."
Buck offered a sympathetic smile. "She's just a wee girl out of her depth, Kid, all bark, no bite. She needs a friend."
Nathan came back into the room. JD looked at Buck. "Alright, alright, I'll go check on 'em in a couple of days."
The brunet smiled, proudly. "Good lad."
It was exactly three weeks since he last drove to the McClintock farm and JD sighed as he spotted it in the distance. Where did Buck get off telling him to go help Mad Maddie out, anyway? He'd helped her paint the feed barn, round up sheep, put in more than a fence post or two, arranged an extension on a loan her father took out…okay, Ezra and Chris helped, too, and she'd promptly told him he was next to useless. Besides, what was he supposed to do with one good hand? Even his and Vin's much-put-off fishing trip had to be postponed again because of the injury.
That thought prompted JD to look at his bandaged hand and he instantly shook off his mood. Yesterday, at the cottage hospital, a consultant confirmed the damage wasn't serious and sent him away with some exercises for when the swelling went down, plus an appointment with a physiotherapist in two weeks' time. He had a lot to be thankful for, and it was at that moment he decided to get over himself and get on with it.
Maddie exited the farmhouse, slammed the door, and stomped off across the yard. She and her father had argued - again, prompting Kate to drive off to town and leave them to it. To be here, helping her Da, Maddie had missed out on a promising relationship back in Edinburgh with a really nice boy, the first male ever to have taken a serious interest in her. In addition, Maddie was now so far behind in her degree that she'd settled on taking a gap year before resuming. She wanted - no needed - to get out of the UK and see the world - or at least some part of it; hopefully find a nice man on her travels to settle down with, like Kate did, 'cause she sure as hell wasn't about to find a man out here, in the wilds.
The young Scot was mentally drained. This recent argument had been the worst ever, insults hurled, and a lot of anger released. Life was so unfair. She felt as though nothing she did pleased her father, and while watching her recently returned sister receiving all the praise - just like Peter used to, she feared she was going seriously stir-crazy out here in the highlands.
Well, she'd had enough. Maddie nodded to herself. Yeah, to hell with everyone, and to hell with the farm, Kate could have it all. Maddie McClintock was getting out.
On hearing an engine approaching, she turned sharply and glanced anxiously toward the yard before hurrying into the barn.
JD pulled into the large cobbled courtyard, parked up, and exited his truck. He spotted Maddie hurriedly entering the barn and sighed again. He was sure she'd seen him, she sure as heck must've heard him arriving. JD rubbed at his tense neck and without a trace of his usual bounce, headed over to see if she was any less loopy today.
Still softly grumbling to himself, JD entered the barn. He frowned as he looked around the empty space. “Maddie!” Hearing no reply, JD called out. "I saw you come in here!"
The barn doors slammed closed and walking from behind them, the disheveled girl looked back at him. Despite feeling a little unsettled by her strange appearance, JD forced a smile.
“Hey, there you are. You look like you’ve been rasslin’ with a bear.” His mouth went dry when her one hand traced a path over her open blouse and bra-enclosed breasts.
Maddie drew nearer. There was a look on her face he'd never seen before. “JD, you like me, don’t you?”
JD straightened, fighting the urge to tell her he liked her fine, even if she was real odd. “Sure, you know I do…ummfff…” Her unexpected kiss was deep and frantic, and before JD knew what was happening, she'd pulled him down with her onto the hay-strewn floor and was pawing at him.
For a second or two, JD behaved with the instincts of a typical teenager and reacted in kind, but common sense kicked in and he rolled away from the girl. Something was wrong here, and he wasn’t about to take advantage of Maddie like this…not that he had the experience to do so, anyway.
Maddie sat up and stared at him. “What’s wrong?” she asked, breathlessly, while scooting closer. Her eyes narrowed. “Why are you backing away? You got a disease or something?”
JD jumped to his feet and tried not to react to her question. Back home, once folks found out what his mother was dying from, his life had been one long round of defending his own good health, yet still he was judged.
He smiled, kindly. “Nothing’s wrong, and no, I don’t have a disease.” How could he put this? Lord, what he wouldn’t give for Buck’s charm right now.
“I just…we don’t…” He composed himself. “We should uh, get to know each other better first. Let’s go to the house and talk some, yeah?”
Also standing, Maddie frowned. “Talk? Get to know each other? I thought we'd been doing that over the last month or two.” She made a face. “I'm done talking, so are you a man, or not?”
JD straightened. “Sure I am.”
“Then what’s there to talk about?” She began to slip off her shirt.
“No, Maddie, no - NO!”
Approaching, JD gently pulled the shirt back over her shoulder and tenderly touched her face with his hand. “I’m real flattered and all, but…not here. Not like this. Okay?” He stepped back and tried to regain some normality. The young laird glanced about.
“Now, I came to offer help. Is there anything you need me to do?” When she just glared at him, he tried again. "Only got one hand, but it's here to help." He grinned, awkwardly as she continued to stare.
“Is uh, your dad here? Or maybe out in the fields? What about Kate?” JD saw her expression darken at the mention of her father and sister, and suddenly Maddie was fastening her clothing and acting as though nothing had happened. “Da’s around. Kate's gone to town.”
The youth watched the young woman walk over to a stall filled with tools and equipment. Believing this was related to a job she needed doing, JD followed her. Seconds later, Maddie turned back to him, and there was an unexpected explosion of vivid light and a thunderous sound.
As if gut-punched, JD curled in on himself while a searing, excruciating pain took his breath, and energy. His legs turned to mush and his knees hit the hay-strewn, concrete floor hard before he fell to the right. His head bounced off the unforgiving surface moments before he rolled to his side. JD's trembling hand clutched at a bloody right flank, while restless legs pushed the hay beneath him around the chilled floor as he tried to comprehend what was happening. The problem was, as the mind-numbing fire and agony assaulted him, he feared he already knew.
JD panted through the building shock and pain, his face and neck glistening with sweat as his body fought to readjust. Looking up through heavy, sweat-soaked bangs, Maddie's blurry features appeared. He screwed his eyes closed so as not to look at the smoking handgun she was holding.
The girl talked over him, her voice chillingly calm as if unaware of her actions and its consequence. “This gun was Peter’s. Don’t know why he needed one like this. I’m pretty sure Mum never knew he had it in his room…” She turned to leave, but instead moved to stare down at him, "...or Da for that matter…though he does now.”
She didn’t wait for JD to answer, not that he could. “Do you know what Da said to me earlier? He said I was hopeless. Peter and Kate were a hundred times better than me at farm work." She sighed. “He always preferred Peter and Kate to me. Oh, and get this, he reckons that the only thing I'm interested in is getting away from here; while all I do is complain, and play around with my little American boyfriend.”
Oblivious to JD shying away from her touch and groaning with the pain the movement caused, she squatted down and ran a finger across his sweaty brow to move a damp, black tendril of hair from over his eyes. “Boyfriend, you? Ha, fat chance; today proved that you're not remotely interested in me.” With that, she stood and turned to exit the barn.
Struggling with the chills and shivers coursing through his heated body, and the terrifying knowledge of the growing puddle of warmth under him, JD tried crying out for her to get help, but could neither articulate his words, nor produce any volume. Seconds later she was out of the barn and he was alone.
Painfully aware that the raspy breaths he could hear were his own, JD fought against the welcoming darkness oozing into the edges of his vision to dig his bandaged right hand into his front jeans pocket. The hurt the jarring action caused almost put him out there and then, but JD gallantly continued. A squeak of relief left his tight, bloodless lips when his iPhone emerged. A blood-slicked thumb pressed the number one button, but he shakily dropped the phone when it slipped from lax fingers. It clattered onto the sparsely hay-strewn, concrete floor just in front of his face. A familiar, cheery voice greeted him.
"...I was just thinking about you…”
“Buck…” the breathy name uttered caused the receiver to halt his banter.
“JD? What's wrong?”
JD knew he was running out of time. His plea came out on a strained whisper. “Buck…she…she shot me, Buck. Maddie...shot me…”
Message delivered, JD finally caved in to the agony and blood loss, unaware of the frantic yells from Buck.
Enjoying a coffee with Chris, Vin, and Josiah in the castle kitchen, Buck went over his previous conversation with JD about the McClintocks. He huffed out a soft laugh and his gaze met three curious ones.
“Was just thinking about Maddie, and how she aggravates the lad.”
Vin nodded. “Strange girl. Nutty as a fruit cake.”
“She is a little odd,” Josiah agreed.
“Where’s JD now?” Chris asked.
“Up at the farm with her,” Buck replied. “Had to coax him a wee bit, but he’s a good boy. He knows he needs to watch out for her, Kate, and Ewart for a while.”
Chris couldn’t explain why, but his stomach unexpectedly flipped. “Perhaps we should get up there and see if we can give him a hand. Maybe check how Kate's settling in.”
Before anyone could answer, Buck’s phone rang. Seeing the caller ID, he held up the phone and grinned. “Talk about timing…” He answered. “Hello, wee man; to what do I owe the pleasure? I was just thinking about you…”
As Buck halted, no one missed him go ghostly white, move his phone from his ear and stare at it before speaking again. “JD? What's wrong?" Despite it considered impossible to go any paler, Buck did, and he startled them all when he began shouting.
“JD! JD…JD, answer me…JD!”
All Buck could hear was what sounded like a mix of raspy breathing and soft moans, and then the moaning stopped. Haunted eyes looked around the gathered men. Chris was now standing and had moved next to Buck.
“What is it?”
The brunet’s gaze moved slowly to his long-time friend. “He…JD…he said…” Buck ran a trembling hand down his face. “He said Maddie shot him.” Saying the words out loud brought him sharply to his feet.
Chair legs scraped across the gray flagstone floor when four men jumped into action. As they raced for their vehicles, Chris was yelling instructions. “Vin, you drive with Josiah. Josiah, find out where Nathan and Ezra are. We may need to get an air ambulance on standby.”
His last words sent a shudder of dread through him. Grabbing Buck, Chris propelled him into his Land Rover and sped off, closely followed by Vin.
Both trucks roared into the McClintock’s yard and pulled up next to JD’s bright red Toyota Hilux. Chris and Vin removed rifles from the back of their vehicles. With a call like that from JD, they were taking no chances. Chris gestured for Vin and Josiah to go into the farmhouse, while he and Buck headed toward the barn.
Reaching the house's front door, Vin looked at Josiah, who nodded, and the ghillie led the way as they crept inside the passageway that went right through into the kitchen. Noting the corridor was clear, they moved along it until they came upon the living room. The door was ajar so Vin pushed it further open and the pair stepped inside. Both men were shocked at what was before them.
“God in Heaven.”
Buck desperately wanted to get into the barn, and yet, at the same time, was terrified of what they might find. Chris looked back at him, and with a nod of agreement, the armed blond led the way in through the semi-open doors.
Seeing JD’s still form lying on the ground, Buck instantly went to him. Chris did a sweep of the area to ensure whoever did this wasn’t waiting around for them. Satisfied they were clear; his attention was drawn to the tragic tableau unfolding before him.
Buck’s trembling fingers reached out to the pulse point in JD’s neck. “JD…Kid, roll over, son.” Even as he spoke the words, and while he fought to ignore the pool of blood the teen was lying in, his large hand was sliding under JD’s cheek. Buck's welling gaze crinkled into a comforting smile when black eyelashes fluttered open, and for a few seconds a hazel gaze held his own.
JD heard footsteps enter the barn, but couldn’t muster the energy to look, let alone protect himself. When a familiar, comforting voice spoke, and he felt a warm hand on his face, JD knew he had to see Buck just one more time. He forced open his eyes, and tried to convey all the love and affection he held for this man, before finally submitting to the deep, dark void he’d been fighting.
He’d done it; he’d looked into the eyes of his brother. He could rest, now.
JD’s eyes closed and his head lolled against Buck's chest. His stiffened, pain-racked form went completely slack in Buck's arms, causing fear to grip the brunet’s heart like a vise. “JD…no!”
Buck eased JD down onto the floor, reached up to his own neck, took hold of the collar of the T-shirt under his top shirt, and literally ripped it from his body. Balling up the material, he held it to the part of JD’s body from where warm blood was oozing and applied pressure. He eased his arm under JD’s limp form and cradled him close, resting his chin on the boy’s clammy head.
“JD, hold on...hold on, Kid.” He barely felt Chris’s hand rest on his shoulder and give it a squeeze.
"Air ambulance is on its way." Chris wondered if his friend had heard him. “Buck…”
Halting from his whispered litany into JD’s ear, Buck turned wild, reddened, liquid eyes to Chris. His distraught features distorted into a look of pure hatred. “Find that bitch. I don’t care if you have to shoot her just...get her.”
Inside the house more drama was unfolding. Vin covered them while Josiah approached Ewart, who looked for all the world as though he was sleeping in his armchair - save for the oozing, bloody hole in his chest.
"Is he...?" Vin was shocked by the tremor in his voice. Few things fazed him, but then this was way beyond normal.
Josiah removed his fingers from the pulse-point near Ewart's throat. "He's alive, but his pulse is thready." He rose from his bent position and dug out his phone. "I'll call for help."
"I'll check the house," Vin said. He lifted his shirt and coat on the right side, and from an IWB holster he removed a Beretta Nano and handed the small handgun to Josiah. "Just in case," he explained before leaving the room.
Handling the weapon with an expertise no one would have expected, Josiah tucked the gun into his own waistband before rushing to the kitchen, grabbing some dishtowels, and returning to use them in applying pressure to Ewart's wound. The man groaned, and Josiah smiled.
"Good man, you stay with me now, you hear?" With one large hand holding the cloths in place, the fingers of the other dialed for help.
Rifle primed and ready, Vin moved stealthily through the downstairs rooms before creeping upstairs. One of the three bedrooms was in disarray, as if someone had left in a hurry, but despite clothes strewn everywhere, the open case on the bed was empty. With a sharp movement, he checked under the bed and inside the wardrobes. Nothing. Vin did the same in the other two rooms, plus the small bathroom. The house was clear.
When he returned to the living room, Vin couldn't help but be impressed to see the Beretta in Josiah's hand and pointed his way. The conservationist relaxed and set the gun down on the lamp table next to Ewart's armchair.
"The house is clear. I'm gonn'ae inspect the outbuildings, but before that, I'll check in with Chris. Will you be okay, Josiah?"
"Aye. I called for an air ambulance." His eyes reflected sorrow. "It would seem one is already on the way. I suggested they send another."
Vin nodded, his heart pounding at the thought of what Chris and Buck may have found inside the barn. "Good call." With one last glance at Ewart's still form, he left.
Inside the barn, Chris stared on hearing his long-time friend's heartfelt plea, but before he could utter a word in response, a noise from the barn door had him turn and raise his rifle. He relaxed a little when Vin approached, noticeably already upset and now staring in wide-eyed horror on seeing Buck cradling JD.
The ghillie suddenly realized Chris had been talking to him. “Wh-what?”
“I said we're expecting an air ambulance. Have you seen Maddie, or Ewart?”
Still looking at Buck and JD, Vin nodded. “Maddie’s no in the house. Josiah’s with Ewart. She -” Vin swallowed and looked up at Chris. “She shot him. She shot her own father.”
Chris momentarily closed his eyes. What a mess. “Dead?"
Vin crouched down next to Buck and JD and shook his head, 'no'.
"Nathan and Ezra?”
Vin glanced up. “Ezra’s on the way. Nathan’s at the cottage hospital. Ezra hasn’t been able to raise him yet.”
“Josiah’s in no danger?”
"No, I checked, the house is clear and so are the outbuildings."
“Could you go keep an eye out for the chopper,” Chris asked, softly, "and send the first responder to who you think is the worst?"
Vin stood. "Aye." He rested a hand on JD's sweat-dampened hair, squeezed Buck's shoulder, and then left to watch out for the paramedics, and while he did so, he would re-check the outbuildings.
Chris approached Buck and squatted down next to him. "Okay, Buck, I'll go looking for Maddie, but not yet - I'm not leaving you and JD." A car's tires screeching to a halt in the farmyard had Chris on his feet and moving toward the barn doors. Seconds later Ezra was hurrying in.
"Dear Lord, I was hoping I'd misunderstood your message." He approached Buck, and noticed the big man didn't so much as flinch when he set a supportive hand on his shoulder. He looked at Chris. "What can I do?"
Larabee made a quick decision. "Stick with Buck. Vin, Josiah and me'll join you as soon as possible."
"Where will you be?"
Chris glanced at Buck before looking back at Ezra. "Searching for Maddie."
"I noticed that there's no private vehicle pertaining to the farm parked on-site. What car does Ewart drive?"
Chris smiled at Ezra's observation. "A beat-up old Land Rover." He crouched down next to Buck, resting his hand on JD's head as he did so. "Buck, I reckon Maddie's well ahead of us. As soon as the paramedics arrive, I'm taking Vin and Josiah to go after her."
Buck nodded before looking up at the two men; his handsome face was lined with concern and fear. "Why's JD so still, Chris?"
Chris moved his fingertips to JD's neck for several seconds. His own heart thumped as he checked JD's pulse. Eventually he turned to Buck. "A little fast, but still strong."
Noticing Buck's balled-up t-shirt was saturated; Chris stood, stripped down to his own Tee and removed it. He lifted Buck's hand and placed the fresh clothing on top of the soaked one, before hurriedly slipping his top clothes back on.
A siren alerted them to a paramedic car's arrival. In less than a minute, emergency medic Bob Sims kneeled down next to JD's wounded side. He looked at Buck. "You've done a great job, here. Okay if I take over?"
Buck removed his bloody hand and reluctantly but gently lay JD down on the floor. The boy groaned and Buck leaned in. "Easy, boy, help's here."
Bob smiled. "He'll do a lot better when I get an IV in."
The men heard the sound of rotor wash moments before Vin came in to tell them more help had arrived.
Chris joined Vin in the yard and waited for the paramedics to arrive from the nearby field where the chopper had landed. He pointed to direct them. "Two men shot, one inside the house, another in the barn."
"Shotgun? Rifle?" One paramedic asked.
Vin shook his head, and answered, his expertise was well known to locals. "Handgun. Both casualties are bleeding heavily. The old man's been hit in the chest, the kid's gutshot."
One paramedic followed him into the house, while Chris took the remaining one into the barn.
Bob's newly arrived partner set up the trolley bed and within less than a minute, complete with an IV drip inserted into his right arm, JD was lying on it. While one applied a pressure bandage to the wound, the other paramedic put a blood pressure cuff on JD's upper left arm. The cuff self-inflated and recorded a reading every two minutes. The pulse oximetry monitor on JD's finger showed his oxygen saturation had dropped to 86%, well below the acceptable 95-99%.
"His breathing's shallow and he's not taking in enough oxygen, but we'll fix that, now." Bob placed an oxygen mask over JD's mouth and chin, and secured it. "He's set to go."
The other paramedic, Tim Keene, covered JD with a blanket, loaded up the mobile equipment onto the bed near JD's feet and just as the police were arriving, he and Buck hurriedly pushed JD out of the barn and toward the waiting helicopter. Buck's heartache and helplessness intensified when the rough ride affected JD's injury and he cried out in pain.
Bob grabbed his bag and just as cops and forensics entered the barn to mark out and work that incident area, he headed on into the house to join Finlay Boothe, the third EMT. Due to the serious condition of both casualties, the paramedic with Ewart had confirmed Josiah's decision to call in another medical chopper, so Buck was allowed to travel with JD and Tim to the hospital. Ezra jumped into his Range Rover and raced off to the hospital, planning a quick pit stop at the castle on the way in order to fill in Nettie and any remaining workers.
The last thing Chris needed right now was to be detained to give a statement. He walked up to the man who appeared to be in charge. "Craig."
"Chris. What the hell happened here?"
"I don't know for sure. We came when JD called us for help, and all he could tell us then was that Maddie McClintock had shot him. He hasn't spoken since that call. Look, I'm happy to answer whatever I can, but right now, I need to get going."
"All of you got here after the fact?"
"Aye. Vin and Josiah found Ewart, and Buck and me came upon JD. Both had been shot."
C.I.D. Inspector Craig Purvis nodded. "Go, I'll catch you later."
Chris shook the man's hand. "Thanks."
When he got outside Josiah and Vin were waiting on him. He spoke low. "We're going after Maddie."
With simple nods, the three got into Chris's Land Rover and left.
At the hospital, Buck paced the Trauma waiting room, his mind time after time replaying his and JD's last conversation about the McClintock farm.
>> "Maybe you could pop along and see how Maddie and Ewart are doing."
"Really? Last time I was there she was glad to see me go. I swear she's loony toons, one minute she's all fun and friendly, the next she's all fired-up and snapping my head off, or accusing me of something."
"She's just a wee girl out of her depth, Kid, all bark, no bite. She needs a friend." <<
As the big man stared at the trauma room doors he sobbed, "I'm so sorry, little brother…" The big man collapsed into a chair and covered his face with his hands, and that was how Ezra found him when he arrived.
"Buck?" Ezra suddenly feared the worst. "Where's JD?"
"In surgery," the brunet said into his hands before he looked up at Standish. He couldn't hold back the tears. "This is my fault. I sent JD up there. He wasn't keen to go." His brimming gaze held Ezra's. "Why couldn't I see what JD already knew about that girl? I let him walk right into..."
Ezra shook his head. "No, Buck. No one could have foreseen this. The girl appeared a little eccentric, angry with the world, but not as someone who could attempt cold-blooded murder."
Buck lowered his head and spoke softly. "No, I blame myself for being so gullible about her." He shuddered. "I've spent my whole life thinking that women were...everything good that warms the soul." He raised his head to meet Ezra's compassionate and concerned gaze. "And that got my little brother shot. I should have protected him, instead, I sent him into hell." Buck re-covered his face with his hands, and all Ezra could do was let the man weep.
Several miles down the track from the farm Vin walked away from the old Land Rover abandoned just ahead of Chris's truck, stopped, and leaned into the idling Land Rover "One of the tires has blown. The grass is a little flattened to one side, which may be from shoes or boots, it's too frosty to tell, and there are other tire tracks on the roadway, but they could be from this morning."
Chris frowned. "This morning?"
"I searched the buildings while waiting on the chopper. Kate's not at the farm and neither is her Range Rover on the premises. I'm assuming she went out this morning."
Larabee shook his head. "Shoot, I totally forgot about Kate. I'll call Craig and tell him she's missing." He instantly dialed and relayed the information.
"Now I think about it, I may know where Maddie's heading," Josiah offered.
Chris turned to him. "Explain?"
"While I was taking care of Ewart I noticed his writing bureau's roller-shutter was open. I saw train timetables and a one way ticket receipt - but now I think of it, there was no ticket."
"Ticket to where? Edinburgh?"
"Good spot, Josiah," Vin stated.
"The ticket might not be hers," Josiah reminded. "Poor JD, he walked right into this madness." He sighed. "I'm no expert, but...I wonder if the girl suffers with bipolar disorder? It can be brought on by extreme stress, and would explain her excessive mood swings."
"Bipolar disorder?" Vin queried.
"Makes some sense," Chris agreed. "Maddie lost Peter, then her ma, and being uprooted from a place she preferred to be in order to return to somewhere she isn'ae fond of is about as stressful as it gets. I recall a man from mine and Buck's regiment was diagnosed with it after he was demobbed. He simply couldn't adjust to life outside the military and the stress built."
Chris pondered a moment, and then made a decision. "Okay, we'll drive to the train station, and pass what we know onto the police on the way there."
He was met with silence. They all wanted to catch up with Maddie, but there was no guarantee they would. JD and Buck, however, could certainly use their support right now. Chris explained. "Buck begged me to find her. The least I can do is try."
Nodding in agreement, Vin jumped back into the truck and they drove off.
On her way back from town, Kate frowned on seeing Maddie standing on the single-track road leading to the farm and to one side of their father's truck. The girl looked strange - unkempt, and twitchy. When Kate pulled up Maddie instantly mobbed her.
"Kate, Help me, I've done something bad. I have to leave."
Alarmed, Kate held her sister's arms. "What is it? What have you done?"
Her eyes widened as Maddie burbled out an explanation. She'd always had a blind spot where Maddie was concerned. They grew up close until Kate dated, and then married, Del Spivak. Del barely tolerated the girl - called her 'mad Maddie' and made it difficult for Kate to be with her - and so the two sisters drifted apart. Part of her decision after the divorce to come home, was in order to make it up to Maddie somehow.
"Never mind the details for now, we should go. Get in." She shoved the girl into her vehicle and reversed it down to a turning point on the trail before driving on. She noticed Maddie was clutching a train ticket. "Where are you going?"
"Where in London? And where's your suitcase?"
"Donn'ae have one. I just had to go."
"Do you have any money?"
Maddie shook her head, no.
Kate drove her and Maddie back to town and parked on its outskirts. Warning Maddie to keep down, Kate walked into the village and drew out money from an ATM machine. She then continued on to the train station. They just made it in time for the train to Edinburgh that connected for London. The pair hid inside the waiting room just off the platform.
"Get off the stop before Edinburgh, and then don't catch the train, take the bus to London."
"Because the cops might already know you bought a ticket." She handed the younger girl a bundle of notes. "Here's two hundred pounds, it's all I was allowed to draw from the machine in one go." Kate scribbled down an address. "When you get to London, take a taxi and go here, she's a friend of mine, I'll let her know you're coming. I think someone Del knows might be able to help, too. Do you have your phone?"
"Keep it turned off. Once you're with Lorna, call me from a landline. I'll get more money to you as soon as I can. Stay put, and stay low, and I'll be in touch as soon as I know we're clear here."
Maddie's eyes filled. "Don't you want to know why I did it?"
Kate shook her head. "It won't change what's happened."
"How can you do all this, Katie?"
Sadness came over the young woman. "Ten years with Del. He wasn'ae just the pig farmer I thought him to be. He had fingers in all sorts of pies..." She sighed and decided, at this time, not to share the cruelty he'd inflicted on her. "Men - you just can't trust them. We girls need to stick together."
The train approached the platform. Kate took off her Barbour wax jacket and handed it to Maddie, who put it on. The blonde drew her sister close, kissed her curl-framed forehead, and then held her at arms' length. "Good luck. I'll talk to you soon." She watched the girl scurry across the platform and onto the train.
Once the train departed, Kate drove home - the long way round - and into whatever disaster awaited her.
Chris screeched to a halt outside the Four Corners train station. He, Vin, and Josiah left their doors swinging open as they jumped out of the vehicle and hurried toward the platform. The man in the ticket office leapt to his feet and yelled out as they passed him.
"Hey! There are no trains now...hello!"
The three men scanned both side platforms with two railway tracks running between them. The place was deserted. They all turned their heads when the man from the ticket office approached them.
"There are no trains in or out for another three hours."
"Did anyone board the Edinburgh train?" Chris asked.
The man shook his head. "Not that I saw. No one bought a ticket, and at the time I waved the train out, the platform was empty." He shrugged. "Now that people can buy tickets online, they come and go as they please. I only see folk who buy tickets from the booth - or if there are any issues to deal with." He shrugged. "Wouldn't be surprised if those automated ticket machines are put in next. That'll be my job gone."
The sound of sirens approaching had them all turn to look. The man from the ticket office raised his eyebrows.
"Ooh, what's all this?" He pointed. "You seeing this? The police are here. I have'nae seen this many squad cars since Archie Stephens drank a bottle of scotch and drove his tractor down the A9."
Any other time, the men of Glenneaval would have laughed at that - but not today. Inspector Craig Purvis joined them.
"Was she here?"
"Maddie wasn'ae seen here, or boarding the train, so we're not sure," Chris replied.
Craig nodded. "Maybe she figured we'd catch on and changed her plans. Either way, I'll have police standing by at Edinburgh station for when the train arrives." He looked at the three friends. "I thought earlier when you said you had to go, it was to the hospital."
"We are," Chris replied, "but we were running on a hunch, and a promise."
Before Craig could say any more, his phone rang and he answered it. As he talked, he looked toward the three men, and then closed down the call. "I'm heading back to the farm, Kate McClintock has arrived home." With a wave, he was gone.
Chris also wanted to speak to Kate, but knew that, for now, he wouldn't get much of an opportunity. He, Vin, and Josiah looked at each other. It was time to be with family. No words were exchanged; they simply made their way back to the truck and then set off for the two-hour drive to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
The folk of Glenneaval Castle had earlier been directed to the surgical waiting room, which was in silence when Chris, Vin, and Josiah arrived. Seated, and flanked by Nathan and Nettie, Buck looked like hell. At Chris's request, Ezra had returned to the estate to ensure all was in order, and to post the next day's work schedules on the office notice board. Chris always prepared the schedules two days ahead, while leaving wiggle-room for any emergencies that might crop up.
"No news?" Vin asked, straight to the point as always.
Nathan shook his head.
Josiah looked at his watch; it had been 5-6 hours since JD was flown off the farm. "Any on Ewart?"
"Haven't seen anyone to ask," Nathan replied. With a squeeze to Buck's knee, he stood. "Now you're all here, I'll go see what I can find out."
Josiah took up the empty seat. Chris squatted down in front of Buck. "How are you holding up, Buck?" Bloodshot eyes stared back at him. Chris nodded. "That good, eh?"
"Surgery's taking too long," Buck said hoarsely.
Nathan stopped at the door and looked back. "It's not so bad, considering the circumstances," he assured.
Despite his exhaustion, Buck gave Nathan his best glare. "You mean considering the kid's been shot," he said softly. Even as he spoke the words, Buck still couldn't believe it had happened.
Numerous concerns ran through the practice nurse's head - the area of injury, underlying damage, blood loss, shock - neither of which Buck needed to hear right now. "Yes," was all he could say in return before exiting the room.
They all stared when Vin lashed out at a chair before setting both hands against a wall and leaning his full weight on them. "How could this happen?" He turned to the others. "This is the Highlands. Even hunting accidents are rare. How could we no see this wee girl was dangerous?"
Chris approached the ghillie and set a supporting hand on his shoulder. "She shot her own father, Vin. Who would have thought she was capable? Ewart is a man suffering private pain, but was never violent. Over the time JD spent with the pair, he warmed to the man - said he was like a lost soul going through the motions of his daily life." He addressed the others. "JD also said Ewart perked up a lot when he heard Kate was coming home."
"Did I hear Nathan say he can find out how Ewart is?" Nettie asked.
The sudden appearance in the doorway of Nathan and a man halted all conversation. Nathan rejoined the group. Buck stood.
"Good..." the man checked his watch, "...evening, my name is Alan Evans - I've just completed an emergency laparotomy on John Dunne."
"How is he?" Buck rasped out, his voice almost gone through worry, weariness, and lack of lubrication.
"He's a strong lad, and he came through surgery well. I'm not sure the term 'lucky' is appropriate, but the bullet missed most vital organs. The bleeding was successfully cauterized, and I've repaired the abdominal damage."
"Anything we should be worried about?" Chris asked.
Mr. Evans offered a small smile - direct and to the point, his kind of man. "He's in post-op now, and then we're moving him to SICU - just to be on the safe side. When you see him, he'll be heavily sedated. We prefer to keep movement down to a minimum in the first twenty-four hours as he has a wound drain. I chose staples over sutures to minimize the risk of infection; however John is on a course of antibiotics."
He nodded toward Nathan. "Nurse Jackson informed us John reacts badly to morphine, so his post-op pain meds are Fentanyl and paracetamol, plus I gave him a local anesthetic shot close to the incision. I'll take him off the Fentanyl and switch him to codeine when he's able to take his meds orally. Any questions?"
"He'll live?" Buck asked. He needed to hear the words.
"Oh yes. John will be poorly, perhaps for a few days, but I have every confidence he'll make a complete recovery. He'll have a scar - something akin the one on his other flank, so not too big."
Chris instantly picked up the anomaly in that statement. "Aye, the eh, scar from the..."
Chris nodded. "Aye." He glanced quickly at the others and hoped they'd hold off until the surgeon left. They did.
"I'll send someone for you when we have John settled."
As Mr. Evans left, the others crowded around Chris.
Buck was trembling. "Knife wound? You hiding something from me?"
Chris raised a hand. "No! I took a gamble and it worked. I have no idea how JD got that injury, but he clearly hasn't shared it with us - yet - so let's allow him time to make that decision, okay?"
Still trying to absorb the information, everyone agreed.
"Coffee!" Josiah declared, and with a nod to Nathan, the pair went in search of a machine or cafeteria.
Chris guided Buck back to his seat. "Buck, once we've seen the kid's okay, Vin and me are gonn'ae have to get back to the estate."
Buck nodded his understanding.
"Josiah and Nathan will stay, and Ezra'll be back here soon, okay?"
"Same as you, Christopher, I'll return home once I've seen the wee lad. There are men to feed."
Two hours later and in the softly lit ICU room, the hypnotic bleeps from the monitors had sent Josiah into sleep. Nathan was seated in a corner and using his tablet to keep in touch with home, and to Google just about anything he could about JD's injury and treatment. While he was an excellent nurse practitioner, he'd never dealt with a bullet wound before, and fully expecting JD to want to go home as early as possible, he preferred to be ready.
Buck was sitting on a chair at the side of the bed and telling JD some tale from his army days. The boy's face was ashen, his dark hair still damp. A nasal cannula hissed pure oxygen into him, an IV pumped in meds and precious fluids, and a machine monitored his pulse and heart rate. Buck had quickly learned to tune it all out in order to do what he did best - talk.
Ewart McClintock had also survived surgery and was located at the other end of the four-bed room, with Kate seated next to him. The girl had turned her back and drawn the curtain on the little entourage at the other end, partly from a misguided sense of guilt, and also due to Buck's occasional glaring gaze.
The door opened and two of the three Glenneaval men looked up to see Ewart's neighbor, Cameron McGregor walk in. The movement roused Josiah, who rubbed a hand over his face as he sat upright.
"Josiah, lads." He looked at JD. "Terrible business. How's the bairn?"
"Doing okay, thanks," Nathan replied. "You here for Ewart?"
Cameron nodded. "Aye. We've had our disagreements, but we've been neighbors for a long time. Came to see how the old bugger is doing." He pointed to JD. "Glad to hear the wee lad is doing well. I give him a tough time, but I know he's no shirker."
Buck offered the faintest of smiles to the man. "No, that he's not." He watched Cameron disappear behind the drawn curtain, but didn't focus on the words spoken between Kate and McGregor, he turned his attention back to JD.
Nathan's tablet pinged and an email from Chris arrived. The nurse read it and addressed his companions. "Ezra's due any minute and Chris says he and Vin will be back here around midday tomorrow."
Buck nodded. "I'd tell them to no bother, but I know how much of a kick the kid'll get to see them here with us."
The other two understood. JD never could hide his adoration for all six men, and particularly his hero-worship of Chris, and admiration for Vin. As for Buck - it was as though he and JD had always been together; such was the depth of their affection for each other. Early on in their relationship, probably from the moment of meeting, Buck took it upon himself to become as a brother and father to the boy. This was why he would beat himself up for being the one to send JD to the McClintock's yesterday - no matter how much the others knew, and would tell him, that what happened wasn't his fault.
Ezra had been with them for several hours when the softest of sighs parted JD's lips. Buck was holding the boy's hand, the one injured from the gate incident, and now freshly bandaged. He squeezed its fingers when he realized JD was waking, and then leaned in.
"Hey there, Kid. You're doing great. Would love to see those big brown eyes, but if you need to sleep, you go ahead."
Ezra chuckled quietly. Buck's words would invariably have JD do the opposite. He was proven right seconds later when JD's eyelids fluttered open, he looked up at Buck, and then slowly closed them to once again resume sleep. The hand Buck was clutching moved with his own to cover the big man's heart.
"Thank you," Buck sniffled, his free hand brushing away the tear that was tickling his mustache.
Whether his gratitude was aimed at JD, the absent medical team, or a deity, none of the other three were sure, but they all nodded in agreement. Nathan instantly emailed home with the news, and smiled minutes later when Vin was the one to reply with 'Awesome!' A clear-cut tribute from the devout Scotsman, to their young laird.
Later the next day and all six men were visiting. Previously, the reason JD opened his eyes was to check that the voice talking at him wasn't a dream. Now he was rousing because, not only was sleep fading, but he was seriously chilled. He wondered if his eyes were open as he was struggling to focus. A smiling, mustached visage helped, and soon JD's eyes were seeing reasonably clearly. The face in front of him spoke.
"Well, hello there sleepy head." The smiling features faded when JD inhaled sharply. "You in pain, son?"
"Mmmm." JD's voice was rough from disuse. "C...cold." Buck went to pull up the bedcovers when Nathan stopped him. He placed the back of his hand against JD's forehead.
"He's hot." Nathan reached for a thermometer located in its dispenser above the head of the bed, and shook it. "Can you open your mouth for me, JD?"
JD hoped he had, either way he felt something slide under his tongue that smelled mildly of rubbing alcohol. Unaware of the faces he was making at the taste, he heard Buck chuckle.
"101," Nathan declared after reading the thermometer. He raised a deferring hand at the looks of concern. "Not all fevers are bad. They help fight infection, and that's what's happening here. JD's on antibiotics which will soon kick in."
"He's shivering," Buck argued.
"Covering him up won't help," Nathan assured.
"Well I'm at least pulling the sheet up over him," Buck insisted.
Nathan smiled in empathy. "I'll go ask for a fan."
The brunet gave JD his full attention. "Aye, Kid?"
"Where is this?"
"We're in Edinburgh hospital."
"Oh." JD's eyes widened as realization set in. "OH!" He glanced around. "Wh...why? Why did Maddie shoot me?"
The hushed question caused all six men in the room to look at the confused gaze pleading for an answer. Buck again took up JD's hand.
"Kid, I don't know why Maddie shot you." He leaned in closer. "She shot her Da, too."
JD's voice was little more than a squeak. Chris rose from his seat and left the room. Seconds later he returned with a cup of ice chips. He gently raised JD's head enough for him to take a chip or two. He watched as the teen sucked on them.
"Yeah, thanks, Chris." JD held the blond's gaze. "Ewart?" he asked, softly.
Chris pointed. "In the bed at the end."
JD's gaze darted left and right and his breathing quickened. "M...Maddie...?"
"Not here," Buck soothed.
JD's eyes welled. "The gun...I...I didn't see the gun...and then..." He was becoming agitated and Nathan left to find a doctor. The hand with the IV inserted wandered down the bedcovers until inquisitive fingers found the wound drain. "Oh God..."
Buck held both JD's hands and got right in his face. "None of that matters now. You're gonn'ae come home, get well, and before you know it we'll be back out fixing up all sorts of things."
When a doctor and nurse came in, Buck stepped away from the bed to let them work. The doctor decided to settle JD down with a mild sedative. He addressed the group.
"He'll sleep for several hours now, should you want to get some food, maybe some rest."
Buck instantly looked reluctant, but Chris had anticipated this and encouraged the man to his feet. "Come on, some air will do us good."
Bending away from Chris's hold on him, Buck leaned close to JD's ear. "Be back soon, Kid. Get some rest." He straightened up and nodded to Chris that he would go.
On reaching the door, five men turned back after noticing Vin had yet to leave the bedside.
"Vin?" Nathan asked.
"Go ahead, I'll catch up."
Once he was alone, he sat down in Buck's vacated chair, rested his forearms on JD's bed and spoke softly. "Can't believe how close we came to losing you. I'm sorry you went through that, and I'm making you a promise - as soon as you can get about again, we're taking that fishing trip, no matter if all hell's breaking out, we're going.
The question was so quiet it might have been missed as JD didn't move, or open his eyes to speak. Vin squeezed the boy's wrist.
"You have the word of a Tanner. Just up to you to get well so we can go."
JD didn't reply - the tranquilizer finally dragging him under - but Vin knew he'd heard. With a pat to the boy's knee, and one last look at the machinery and tubes keeping JD's wellbeing in safe hands, the ghillie left to find the others.
One week on from being injured, and JD's disappointment at being told he was staying in the hospital for another week had seriously affected his demeanor. He professed to feeling as though he was being punished for getting shot. Buck snapped him out of it after reminding JD that a lingering infection, which kept his temperature around 100, ruled out any hope of going home until it was under control - but at least he would be going home - he didn't want, or need, to elaborate further - JD got the point.
To cheer JD up, Buck asked the doctor caring for the teenager if he could put the boy into a wheelchair and take him outside for some fresh air. JD had already been on his feet and walking the corridor, so the doctor agreed. The ploy worked, and a heavily bundled up laird grinned as Buck pushed him to the elevators. Minutes later, the pair was seated in the sunny grounds to the rear of the hospital, and silently enjoying the extensive views. Buck's phone pinged, causing JD to look as he read the text message. It was clear Buck seemed uneasy when he read it.
"What is it?"
Buck put the phone away. "Nothing."
"Did you just lie to me, Buck?"
The brunet looked at him sincerely. "No. As far as you and I are concerned, it's not important."
JD offered a crooked smile. His eyes reflected faith in the man. "Okay."
Buck took in a deep, calming breath, and released it slowly as he turned to his young companion. "JD, Kid."
The boy turned his head to look at him. "Yeah?"
The older man smiled, kindly. "You let this go now, you hear me?"
"Let what go?"
"The idea that this was a personal attack by the girl."
JD huffed. "She shot her Dad, Buck, how much more personal can it get?"
Buck made a face. "Yeah, that was personal - but you - you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." He watched JD's eyes fill and instantly regretted bringing up the subject, but then JD smiled.
"Okay, Bro, I promise to let it go, if you promise to quit blaming yourself for me going up there in the first place." He saw Buck's eyebrows rise. He'd actually surprised the guy for once.
"How...How could you...?"
"I heard you and Chris talking a day or so after I first woke up. I pretended to be asleep while I listened."
Buck looked down and shook his head. "You're a cannie lad, for sure."
JD ducked his head to meet Buck's gaze. "That's good, right?"
They both laughed and the tension eased. Buck sat up straight and looked JD in the eyes.
"I'm always here for you, remember that."
JD nodded. "That goes for me, too. Just 'cause I'm a kid, don't make it any less of a promise."
Buck gave in to the hug that he was yearning to offer. "Locked in my heart, son - locked in my heart." Over JD's shoulder, the sight that greeted him prompted Buck to urgently speak into JD's ear.
"Do you trust me?"
JD eased away. "You know I do."
"Then keep thinking that for the next few minutes."
He'd barely got the words out when Chris approached, accompanied by Kate McClintock. JD's expression became strained and he struggled to keep eye contact, even with Chris. Kate seemed nervous as she spoke.
"Mr. Dunne, first, I want to apologize for Maddie's actions. It's nowhere near any kind of atonement after what you've been through, but it's meant sincerely. Secondly -" she held out an envelope and a set of keys. "I'm here to give notice on the croft."
JD glanced at her briefly; Buck looked surprised, but took the items. Chris continued.
"Cameron McGregor lives alone too, and made a proposition to Ewart that he move in with him and they farm together."
Buck frowned. "And Ewart agreed? More to the point, you agreed?"
Chris nodded. "He wasn't keen to go back home - and after a long talk, the two men decided it was a good compromise. We need to discuss tenancy changes, but aye, I thought it was something Angus would have been partial to."
"I've settled Da's loan," Kate added, "and given the pair my Range Rover - I won't be needing it, I'm moving to the city."
"And Maddie?" Buck asked, not missing the small shudder from JD.
Kate shrugged. "All I can hope is she's okay, and will contact me sometime soon."
"Oh, well that's alright then, huh?" JD snapped before turning his wheelchair to one side.
With a nod, Kate left the three of them. Buck got up off the bench and went after her. JD turned his head to watch him catch up and talk with her.
Kate stopped and let Buck catch up.
"So, the city, eh?"
She nodded. "I bought a small house, with a weed patch for a garden, but it's all mine."
Buck half glanced back at JD, and then looked at Kate. "Kid's angry - you can't blame him. As for your sister, you had no part in her actions, so stop feeling guilty." He raised his arm and extended a hand. "Good luck."
Kate shook the offered hand. "Thanks. You're a nice guy, not like many other men I've known."
Buck grinned. "They tell me I'm one-of-a-kind."
Kate looked back and smiled, before walking away. "I hope not."
Chris observed JD watching Buck and Kate. "I know you're angry, JD, but none of this is Kate's fault."
"I guess Buck thinks so, too."
Chris's cheek dimpled in a smile, and he put a hand on JD's shoulder. "Buck is - Buck. Women are his church. Get used to it."
JD tilted his head. "Is getting used to Buck even possible?"
Chris laughed out loud. "There's never a dull moment."
JD broke into a grin. "You got that right."
Chris pointed to the empty bench. "May I?"
JD tried not to show his surprise that Chris asked. "Sure, help yourself."
The blond took a seat. "How are you doing?
"Pretty good, thanks."
"And, err, how's your back?"
JD frowned as he looked at the man. "My back?"
Chris pointed in the general direction. "The scar?" He noticed instantly that JD knew what he was talking about. There was a long pause.
"Another day?" JD asked.
"Aye, whenever you're ready." Chris dropped the subject. "Are you warm enough?"
"Not so much. I could sure use a coffee."
"You're not allowed coffee yet." He saw JD's face drop, and smiled. "Hot chocolate?"
JD beamed, but then the grin faded. "Not the hospital stuff?"
Chris stood. "I'll nip along to Costa's. I'll get one for Buck, too." He stood up and grasped the handles of the wheelchair. "But first, let's get you back inside." They'd only gone a few yards when Buck jogged to catch them up.
"We're going in?"
"For hot chocolate," JD replied.
"Sounds good," Buck answered and walked alongside JD with a hand resting on the nape of the boy's neck.
Chris smiled to himself at the interaction between the pair after Buck's chat with Kate; they'd be okay.
One week later, and after an emotional farewell with her father, Kate made her way by taxi to Aberdeen airport. She boarded a domestic flight and one hour and forty minutes after take-off, was landing at London's Heathrow airport. From there she took another cab to an address in Chelsea, a loft apartment that she'd booked short-term for Maddie to have a safe place to stay. The sisters' reunion was tearful, and they enjoyed an evening together, ordering in pizza for dinner.
"Was Da mad?" Maddie asked.
"More sad than mad. I hated lying to him about your whereabouts, but it's best this way."
"What's happening to the farm?"
Kate shrugged. "I handed over the keys and papers; it's in the estate's hands, now."
Maddie toyed with a slice of pizza. "How's JD doing?"
Kate looked uncomfortably at her sister's calm question. She really had seemed to have put the terrible things she did out of her mind. "He seemed tired, but looks to be recovering well."
"Wish I could say sorry to him."
Kate shook her head as she took the last piece of pizza. "Best stay well away from him, and especially the men he's befriended. I don't think they'd be quite as laid-back about you turning up as Da was about what you did to him."
"Do you think he'll ever forgive me? Da, I mean."
Kate offered a weak smile. "He loves you, just give him time."
"Maybe one day JD will, too."
The older girl watched her sister get up and take the dishes into the kitchen - and was convinced more than ever that she needed help more than punishment. The faster they could get to their new home, the better - at least she hadn't completely lied about that, it was a small house with a weed patch for a garden, just not in a city in Scotland.
The next morning, Kate picked up her brand new, red Nissan Micra. As she swung by the apartment, she considered the crazy notion that their leaving could turn them into outlaws of their own country. Maddie for sure couldn't go back to Scotland for fear of being arrested, and if Maddie couldn't go home, Kate wouldn't either. The girls packed up the car to head off on a road trip to a new life at the other end of the UK. New papers, birth certificates, and passports, courtesy of an acquaintance of Kate's ex-husband, Del, now claimed them to be Catherine, and Madeline Stokes, from Inverness, Scotland - leaving Ewart, unbeknownst to him, as the only remaining member of the McClintock clan.
Despite the past two weeks' traumatic events, and all the traveling back and forth to the hospital, wearing him out, Buck had overseen the preparations for JD's return home personally. He looked up at the castle turret and its flagpole, and smiled at the Stars and Stripes flag temporarily flying there instead of the Ross Standard. He hoped JD would get a kick out of it.
Stretching his tall frame to adjust the 'Welcome Home' banner over the main door, Buck nodded in satisfaction.
They were ready.
As he and Chris traveled to Edinburgh to pick JD up, Buck's thoughts slipped back to an incident that would haunt him and the others for a long time to come. What he needed to ensure was it didn't do the same to JD. Quite how he would succeed remained to be seen, but one thing he did know was that the friendship, love, and affection the seven men held for each other would make a good starting point.
JD was sitting on the edge of his bed and staring at the view out of the window of his fourth floor room. He was excited to be going home, it felt like he'd been away for months, not weeks; but he was nervous, too. Quite as to why he wasn't sure, and hoped the closer to home he got, the more relaxed he would become.
He turned his head when the door opened and grinned widely to see Buck's smiling features pressed up against the glass. JD laughed at the disgruntled look to Chris when the blond smacked the back of Buck's head and walked on inside the room. JD put a hand against his healing side.
"Oohh, don't make me laugh."
Buck looked alarmed but JD waved off his concern. "Chill, Bro, it just aches a bit when I do is all."
Chris picked up JD's kit bag. "This everything?"
"Uh huh. Where's my wheelchair? I wanna get outta here."
"Wheelchair? This is the NHS," Buck teased; however, he soon went serious. "Do you need one to get to the car?"
JD easily slid off the bed, and only winced a little as his feet hit the floor. "Nah. I might be a little slow walking there, but I'm good."
Buck slid a supportive arm around the boy's shoulders. "Let's go then." Just saying the words seemed to lighten a weight off Buck. It would be good to all be back together again.
At the castle, the welcome awaiting JD brought tears to the youngster's eyes. He'd already excitedly spotted the US flag flapping proudly in the breeze at the top of the main tower, and now he could see Nettie, Josiah, Vin, Nathan, and Ezra, along with several of the longer-serving workers, standing next to the front portico and applauding as Chris's truck rolled to a stop outside the main door of the castle.
"Why all the fuss?" JD asked, his face reflecting genuine surprise, and a little embarrassment.
Buck wanted to say because everyone was afraid JD would never return - but didn't. "I heard there was nothing good on TV."
JD giggled and both the hearts of the men in the car soared to hear the sound. JD hissed and Buck saw him hold his side again. He reached out, but JD first slapped at the hand, and then held it tightly.
"I'm okay, Buck, really." He smiled and glanced into the rearview mirror to catch the gaze from Chris, and then looked at Buck. "Thanks for being there for me, you guys. Everyone's support helped me get well a whole lot quicker than I expected." He glanced out of the windshield.
"I'll be sure to tell the others that, too."
Buck and Chris got out of the truck and Buck opened JD's door before helping him out. Josiah was the first to approach and carefully embraced the boy, one large hand engulfing the dark head as it rested on Josiah's chest.
"Good to have you home, John Dunne-Ross."
"Thank you, Josiah," JD mumbled into the man's chunky Aran jumper. His head moved up and down as the big man chuckled before releasing the boy.
Nettie moved in, hugged JD, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Welcome home, laddie. I've looked up the correct diet for you, and for dinner I've made chicken and pasta in tomato and basil sauce, and apple crumble and custard for pudding." She smiled to see Vin fist pump on hearing what was for dessert. "I hope you'll all be fine with that."
Everyone nodded, Nathan approvingly.
"Thank you," JD said, quietly.
Nettie touched the boy's cheek. "You're very welcome."
Nathan held the back of JD's neck, drew him close and they touched foreheads before he pulled back. "I'll check your dressing later. Welcome back."
Ezra extended his hand and JD took it, but they didn't shake, instead, the Englishman pulled him into an embrace. "I fear this place would never be the same should you not be around." He stepped back and raised an eyebrow. "And I do not function well when worried - I hope you understand what I'm saying."
JD smiled at the man. "Yessir."
Vin raised a hand for a hi-five. When JD reciprocated, the ghillie wrapped his fingers around JD's and leaned in. "Enough now, we're all safe, let's stay that way."
JD grinned. "I will if you will."
Tanner's cheeks dimpled, and Chris coughed.
"That's no the most optimistic promise, knowing what you two are like."
Everyone laughed and it relaxed them all. As they moved inside, JD said his thanks and shook hands with the workers who stayed to greet him. Stepping over the threshold, his eyes again misted as he remembered the time he lay bleeding on a barn floor and doubted he'd ever see the guys, or home again. A warm hand on his shoulder drew him out of his ruminations.
"Don't go there," Buck whispered.
JD smiled at the fact the man knew what he was thinking. "I won't if you won't."
Buck wagged a finger in JD's face. "You played that card with Vin, so it doesn'ae count." He urged JD on. "Come on, I'm so hungry I could bite the arse off a low flying duck."
Nettie's scold just made them laugh harder.
Several weeks later and JD was standing in the middle of a river, on a wide bend. It pulled on his healed wound a little to cast his fishing rod, but not enough to stop him doing so. He glanced back to the bank and saw Vin take a maggot from under his tongue before setting it on the hook of his own line.
"Eeeww, Vin, that's gross."
The ghillie waded out to JD. "It keeps them warm and frisky, good for attracting the fish."
"I'll keep mine in a tin, and cold and sluggish, thank you very much."
"You'll no catch a fish that way."
JD's reel started spinning, his rod bent, and his line went taught. "Shoot! You were saying?"
Vin dropped his own rod to help the lad reel the fish in. The last thing he wanted was for JD to pull on his injury - or lose the catch. The pair battled, and Vin encouraged JD when to reel in. It was developing into quite a fight.
"What is it? A whale?"
Vin grinned. "Focus!"
The line snapped and the pair went flying backwards to land butt-first in the river. They sat there, watching their rods bobbing along the surface of the water. JD sighed.
"My waders are filling with water."
Vin looked at him. "Should have worn chest waders like me."
"The ones you gave me were so long; I'd've had to secure the straps over my ears!"
Vin laughed and scooped water over JD, who instantly took action in kind before they helped each other up. Sloshing through the water, they picked up their rods, and then made their way to the bank, and up to Vin's pick-up. They stared into the cooler in the back of the truck and grinned at the nine Grayling they'd already caught.
"We'll come back in August-September for some Salmon," Vin promised. He stripped off his chest waders to reveal wet jeans, which he quickly stripped off, exchanged them for a dry pair, and then pushed on his boots.
"Man, I'd like that."
JD emptied out the water from his own waders and made a face at the fact his jeans were soaked from hem to butt. He dug out a dry pair, but almost did himself a mischief trying to peel off the wet ones. Vin chuckled and helped him, the last thing he needed was to get ripped a new one for letting JD pull at his still-tender injury - not that the kid would ever have said anything.
"Let's take these wee fishies home and get them cleaned," Vin said.
"Aww gee, can't wait for that," JD replied, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. He giggled when Vin grabbed him around the neck and noogied his head.
"Just for that, you can gut 'em."
After some playful pushing and scuffling, the pair got into the truck and headed home.
From a spot on a hill overlooking the fishing spot, Buck lowered his binoculars. "Looks like they're done."
"And both still in one piece." Chris grinned and shook his head. "When did we become parents, Buck?"
"Big brothers if you don't mind."
Chris snorted. "You're the biggest papa bear of all, pal."
Buck stared up in thought, and then nodded. "Aye, guilty as charged." He pointed. "Home?"
Chris started the Land Rover and sighed, contentedly. "Aye, home."
Tomorrow, he'd drop in, alone, to see how Cameron and Ewart were doing in their new venture - and then check over the vacant croft, and the outbuildings where JD was shot to ensure there were no squatters, and as to what work needed to be carried out before offering it for rent again.
Later, at his own home, Teal House, he'd continue his investigation into Kate and Maddie McClintock's disappearance. He'd made a promise to a man as close to him as a brother to bring Maddie to justice, and Chris Larabee never broke a promise, no matter how long it took to fulfill it.
And fulfill it he would.
Scran - food
Futer(ing) - to mess about with something/someone
Shite - Shit
IWB - Inside WaistBand (holster)
Barbour wax jacket
Cannie - Clever, smart.