All Seven are featured as well as Nettie, Mary, Inez and Raine
(A story with some revisions and an epilogue for our Christmas season)
WARNING: Death of a canon character.
It had been a cold and dreary winter and Chris Larabee thought it was fitting the ice on the trees matched the ice in his heart. Christmas had always been hard for Chris, knowing how much Sarah and Adam had loved it, and this year had been the hardest of all. No one in the ATF building had dared wish any of Team 7 a Merry Christmas and their office was the only one conspicuously free of decorations. If the term silence is golden were real, even Ezra would be rich beyond his wildest dreams in the past few months since that fateful day in October.
Chris wiped his eyes, staring at the scenery that was beginning to show signs of new life in the trees, flowers and greenery on the ranch. He took it as a personal affront to see the beginnings of new life blooming in defiance of the long, cold winter.
The rest would be coming soon, the first gathering since St. Patrick’s Day, in which they all got drunk on green beer and became so loud and rowdy that most ended up in a fight with some other celebrants and Inez, in exasperation, threw them out, albeit as compassionately as possible. Except for Buck. Buck, who had broken down and was weeping uncontrollably into his mug had been taken home by Inez and missed the next three days of work.
Chris’ phone vibrated, breaking his reverie and he looked at the message with a large sigh. Mary. Mary had refused to be rebuffed, had done everything possible to comfort him; and Chris had done nothing but push her away since that day in October. That was how Team Seven thought of it – that day in October. Earlier in the day, Chris, looking through his top drawer for a pair of socks, had pulled out the small jewelry box he had totally forgotten about and fingered the diamond and ruby engagement ring he had shoved in the drawer after that day. What a fool he had been even thinking of marrying Mary Travis after proposing on Christmas Day. Chris felt happiness was not meant for him.
Chris walked sluggishly into the kitchen, grabbed three beers from the bare refrigerator and went to sit in his favorite chair on the porch, gazing into the distance. He didn’t wait long. A solitary rider, light brown hair blowing in the breeze, rode up, dismounted and after taking care of Peso, walked to the porch and sat down beside Chris. A quick nod was the only acknowledgement as the man gazed off in the distance.
Chris held out one beer and Vin took it, popped the top and drank it with one fluid motion. Vin glanced at the other beers and then at Chris.
Chris smiled faintly. “No,” he said to the unspoken question in Vin’s eyes about Chris drinking too much.
Vin nodded and took the second beer. “Thirsty.”
Chris raised a slight eyebrow.
“Puked a lot of green beer on St. Paddy’s,” Vin reminded Chris.
“Wasn’t the only one,” Chris replied matter-of-factly.
“Buck sure looked a sight with his moustache painted green,” Vin remarked with a slight smile.
“I thought Inez’s eyes were going to pop out of her head at the sight of him.”
Silence and then a tiny sigh from Vin. “What’s this gathering all about, Chris?”
Chris’ gaze was steady. “I don’t know, Vin. I’m not sure I want to find out.”
+ + + + + + +
“Buck? Buck, you there? It’s JD! Well, of course you would know it’s JD, it’s not like you have never heard my voice before . . . well, I will just keep talking because I really hope you pick up the phone if you’re not in the middle of . . . well, I wasn’t going to say it, Case, I just mean he might be busy . . . well, Ouch! Don’t hit me, I didn’t say it and I know I’m babbling but what? Oh, it might be better in person? Well, of course that makes sense, what do you mean, I’m not making sense! Yeah, maybe I’m not, but come on, I can’t wait to see his face when I tell him . . . OUCH! I DIDN’T SAY IT YET! Buck, Buck? Never mind, I’ll tell you in person, love you Big Brother!”
Nathan Jackson stood in the doorway of the CDC and bowed his head as Buck clicked off his cell phone message. Buck stared vacantly at the phone and then clicked the message on again, a message Buck had heard several hundred times.
Nathan watched with moistened eyes then said, “Buck. We need to leave now.”
Buck’s blue eyes shifted to Nathan. “Don’t wanna go, Nathan.”
Nathan nodded, but waited quietly.
Buck sighed and then stood. As much as he dreaded going, he just wanted to get it over with.
+ + + + + + +
“You’ll need another haircut soon, young man,” Ezra said softly as his right hand clasped the left hand of the motionless figure in the bed while his left pushed back the dark bangs from the white face. “I’ve never known how anyone could stand bangs in their eyes like you.” Ezra sat in the chair, studying the boy lying in the bed. “You don’t know how much I want to hear your voice again, no matter how much you talk and mangle the English language, call me Ez. You have no idea how much we all miss you, JD. You may not have been with Team Seven long, but your presence is in every spot in our offices and in our hearts.”
“That he is, Ezra,” Josiah confirmed.
Ezra turned to look at the sunken eyes of the one the seven always turned to in times of spiritual crisis. Now there was a difference in the man – Josiah had turned his back on God in his anger and he no longer wore his cross.
All of the men had felt the loss keenly – the loss of Josiah’s faith. Josiah drew near the bed and studied the boy lying there. “It is not right – one so full of life – to be so lifeless now.”
“No, indeed it is not,” Ezra agreed sadly. “I would do anything to change this, Josiah.”
“We all would,” Josiah said, sadly stroking JD’s dark hair. His voice grew bitter. “Nothing helped – not Nathan’s skill, your money, my prayers, Buck’s pleading, Chris’ rages or Vin’s quiet beliefs.”
“It’s been months, Josiah,” Ezra said. “Months. I keep wondering if we did the right thing. What would JD have wanted?”
Josiah, stroking JD’s dark hair almost ritualistically, shook his head. “I talked to Nathan. He is driving Buck to the ranch. It’s time for us to leave, too, Ezra. Come on.”
Ezra sighed. “I’ll come back soon, young man.” He bent to kiss JD’s forehead and then followed Josiah out of the room.
+ + + + + + +
Six men sat on the porch of Chris’ ranch and waited. Chris was surprisingly calm, having vented so much anger in the past few months he seemed almost devoid of emotion. Buck was now the one drinking heavily, almost mirroring Chris after Chris had lost Sarah and Adam. It greatly saddened the others to see Buck’s humor and charm were now things of the past just as the lively chatter of his young roommate was silenced. Vin had developed a more nervous personality and was dismayed to find the four beers had only left him with a mild buzz to ease the tension he felt.
Nathan, grim and quiet, sat by Josiah. Nathan’s calm demeanor and quiet confidence in his medical skills had taken a hit and he continually second-guessed his decisions. Josiah suffered a similar loss of faith after fervent prayers following JD’s accident. He had not darkened a church door for the past four months. And then there was Ezra. His last undercover assignment had almost ended disastrously as Ezra lost concentration and almost lost his life with only Vin’s quick skill saving him from a bullet. Since then the best undercover agent in the ATF was confined to desk duty.
“I don’t know,” was Chris’ flat answer to why they had all been summoned, each secretly dreading the reason. A white pickup drove slowly up the driveway and each man stared as if hypnotized as Nettie Wells, looking worn, tired and older than ever, stepped out.
Vin broke out of his stupor and walked to her and offered his arm and she took it, a small smile on his face as she silently greeted him, and then a pitying look at the five men waiting.
Nettie Wells was as straightforward and to the point as usual. “Thank you for being here. Casey died yesterday morning.”
+ + + + + + +
It took a few seconds for each man to break out of his stupor and murmurs of “So sorry, Nettie. We loved Casey. If there is anything I can do . . .”
Vin had kept his arms protectively around her as she smiled sadly, patted each man’s hand as they embraced her.
“Thank you. I know Casey was family to you, too. I’ve been expecting it, but it is never easy . . . I need to tell JD. Is he any better?” Taking the sad shakes of the head from each man, she bowed her head for a moment, and then nodded her thanks to Vin as he pulled a chair in front of the men for her to sit in.
Nettie was struggling between her loss and the pleasant memories of Casey. “That boy made my Casey happier than she had ever been in her life. Oh, JD never liked me calling him a boy. He would stand up and tall as his could and puff out his chest – and I don’t think he even realized it. He so wanted me to approve of him and prove he was now full-grown. Just like my Casey. Those two children . . . well, children to me . . .were so anxious to be seen as adults. Casseopeia . . . did any one of you know that was her real name?”
The men couldn’t help chuckling.
“Casseopeia . . . my sister had some high falutin’ ideas. Casey never liked it . . . the kids in grade school called her Pea and she hated it. Never let anyone except JD find out about her real name.” She was silent for a moment, then continued. “Proud of those two . . . so young and so wise and mature in many ways,” and she broke down slightly but then squared her shoulders.
“Mr. Wilmington I understand you kept a recording of JD’s last message? May I hear it?”
Buck nodded. “Ezra made sure there are several backups. Ezra, do you . . .” and he stopped as Ezra nodded and then reached into his shirt pocket. He pressed the button and JD’s voice was so full of life they looked around, almost expecting to see him. Casey, too, they could easily picture her beside him, shaking her head and laughing at him fondly and then punching him in the arm.
Nettie listened with a wistful smile. After the recording ceased and the smiles faded into sad faces, Nettie squared her shoulders.
“I don’t suppose any of you knew that JD and Casey were married several months ago.”
Six startled faces gave her the answer she expected.
+ + + + + + +
Nettie sighed as she bent over to kiss the forehead and smooth the dark hair off the forehead of the silent young man. “You made my Casey so happy, young man. The two of you lived most of a whole lifetime in a short time. What I wouldn’t give to see the two of you, laughing, blushing, so nervous and excited when you came to tell me . . . Casey promising she would have a real church wedding after she finished her college courses and you promising me you would always take care of Casey and cherish her forever.”
Vin watched as a lone tear slid down the careworn face and Nettie’s hand shook for a moment.
“Casey fought hard. You keep fighting, too. She would want that.” Nettie’s voice trembled and she turned away from the heartbreaking sight of the silent JD. Vin opened his arms and she let herself be comforted by him. A last look and Vin took Nettie to her farm, advising her to get some sleep.
Two days later, Casey’s service was small, but beautiful, with the last picture of JD and Casey together: the one Nettie took when the two told her of their marriage. Casey was beaming in a short, lacey white dress and JD in green shirt and black slacks. Both were smiling at the camera with JD’s right arm around Casey’s small waist. They looked like a married couple and it was so clear how happy they were. No one could have told by that picture that tragedy was only a couple of days away. Nettie was proud each of the six men gave poignant examples of Casey that led to laughter and tears and Vin kept close to Nettie. Though the service was hard on everyone, Buck was especially tense as he kept seeing JD’s face in the coffin.
After leaving the graveyard, Chris had invited Nettie and the others to his ranch for food and drink. No one was in the mood to eat much, and Nettie, after visiting with Mary, Inez and Raine, begged off and the women, after cleaning up, took Nettie home, leaving the tasty leftovers to the men. Vin even stared at the large chocolate cake without tasting even a bite. He wanted JD to be there, fighting him for the cake as usual, and missing the inevitable mess it would lead to.
The men, sitting outside felt the cold discomfort of the white elephant in the atmosphere.
Everyone was afraid to bring up the subject, but as the silence continued, it was Nathan who broke it. “Do you think JD would want us to . . .”
Buck threw his glass down, shattering it and making the others jump. “Don’t even start, Nathan! JD will wake up!”
“Buck, it’s been months; I think we should all at least talk about it.” Losing Casey had brought JD’s lengthy coma to the forefront of Nathan’s mind.
Buck, enraged, jumped up to tower over Nathan. “I’m warning you, Nathan . . .”
Josiah moved, placing a hand on Buck’s shoulder. “Buck, please. Avoiding the subject will not help us. We need to discuss JD’s situation.”
Buck jerked away. “This is JD, Josiah. He will come out of it. I’m never giving up on him and I’m not letting any of you do so, either!”
“Would JD be happy the way he is?” Vin asked quietly. “JD was never still. Now he’s trapped.”
“But there’s still hope, Nathan. There’s still hope,” Buck insisted, his voice now trembling.
“The odds are very small, Buck. Even Ezra wouldn’t take that bet.”
“It’s isn’t money, it’s JD!” Buck screamed as he fled, putting anend to the gloomy talk.+ + + + + + +
Chris entered the office early the next day. He sighed as he looked around. The whole office was so still, so barren. Only JD’s desk was the way the kid had left it: messy and comic books along with candy wrappers scattered; plus a healthy supply of rubber bands he used on Buck. What Chris wouldn’t give to see that fresh face, so cocky and full of life, but with a trusting and naďve manner that endeared him to all swiveling in his desk and laughing. The kid was twenty-two, twenty-two for heaven’s sake! JD was meant to live a full and happy life. Sadness threatened to wash over Chris, and in anger he squished the paper coffee cup in his right hand and then tossed it across the room, not concerned with the hot liquid on his hand.
“Whoa, Cowboy!” Vin entered the room and stooped down to pick up the crushed cup. “Think you killed it,” he tried to deadpan, though saddened by Chris’s anguished eyes. “Ya spilled some on JD’s desk.”
“Shit.” Chris grabbed some Kleenexes from Nathan’s desk and tried to mop up some of the coffee.
“No!” Buck yelled from the elevator as he ran to the desk, pushing both Chris and Vin away. “You aren’t cleaning off his space!”
The elevator opened again and three surprised agents got out. “Buck!”
Josiah and Nathan, followed by Ezra, tried to pull the three apart.
“They aren’t cleaning off JD’s desk!” Buck roared. “He isn’t dead!”
“Buck!” Chris grabbed his friend and looked into Buck’s wild eyes. “I spilled some coffee on his desk! Vin and I were trying to wipe it up without damaging JD’s stuff. We are not clearing it off! ”
Slowly the wildness left Buck’s blue eyes and he sagged. “Oh. Oh. Sorry, Chris, Vin . . . it’s just that . . .” The big man shook and flopped down in his chair, putting his head down in his hands.
The other men surrounded him, trying to comfort him as Buck sobbed. “Damnit, JD. You can’t leave me, little brother. I’m so lost without you. . .”
Vin looked away, a tear slowly leaking from his right eye.
Nathan’s face showed strain. Josiah was muttering, the others couldn’t tell if it was prayers or not.
Ezra, quiet, looked from face to face.
“I can’t do this anymore, Chris,” Buck said suddenly as he lifted his tear-stained face.
“You need help, Buck,” Chris suggested. “Get it. Travis understands up to now – but we have to have everyone 100% to do our job. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll give you my resignation,” Buck offered.
“No! Buck, take time off; get help; and then . . .”
Buck was shaking his head. “I’m no use to you. Maybe . . . I need to go away for a few days.” Buck then got up and left the room.
“Chris,” Nathan began hesitantly. “I’ve been thinking I should go to medical school. If I just had more knowledge . . . JD . . . and I know part of Buck’s problem is with me. If I go, maybe Buck will feel better and stay.”
Josiah sighed. “Feel pretty useless myself, Nathan. Maybe I’m too old and should just retire.”
Chris and Vin were looking at the dismantling of Team 7 with stunned expressions.
Ezra, usually so composed, was starring in disbelief. “No. That’s not what JD would have wanted . . .” Ezra turned and bolted into the breakroom, frantically dialing his phone. “This is Ezra . . . yes, it has to be now before we all fall apart . . . I know it’s soon . . . can’t wait any longer. I’ll get them to the ranch. Thanks.”
Ezra shut the phone off and wiped his forehead. “This has to work. Please, please!”
+ + + + + + +
Saturday dawned with a beautiful sunrise full of warmth and color. Ezra, after much persuasion, had convinced the others to show up at Chris’s ranch, stating repeatedly the meeting was for JD. Buck had already polished off a couple of beers and kept away from both Nathan and Vin, angry they were even considering taking JD off life support.
Chris sat between the men, with Vin and Nathan on the right side and Buck and Ezra on the left. Ezra had immediately offered to pay all the medical expenses for as long as it took to bring JD back; and Buck, grateful, drew closer to Ezra. Josiah sat off to the side of the rest, pondering the broken spirits of each man.
Nettie Wells drove up in her battered white pickup and before Vin could rise, Ezra walked over to escort her back to the porch. “Thank you, fancy-pants,” she teased, sounding more like the old Nettie before the tragedy.
The others, puzzled by obvious closeness between the two, instinctively felt there was something going on.
After pulling up a chair for Nettie and fetching a glass of tea, Ezra sat beside her, facing the others.
Nettie patted Ezra’s hand warmly, and said abruptly. “I owe more than any of you will know to Ezra. Without any hesitation, he offered the best medical care for Casey as well as JD. There was no way I could afford it on my own – and we needed specialized care because . . .”
Nettie stopped, put a handkerchief to her face. “I want you all to understand, we discussed this, Casey, Ezra and myself as to what to tell each of you. You had gone through so much and there was not guarantee we would not lose them – and cause further grief. If you want to be angry with anyone, be upset with me. Casey knew the odds. She would have to have the best care possible to have a chance . . . she knew she might lose her own life in the process. She . . . she showed a maturity way beyond her years. She thought it would have been too hard for JD to decide . . . and since he was in a coma, she was glad at least she could spare him from a decision that he would always have doubts about.”
The confusion did not leave the five men’s faces at the words.
Nettie put her hand up in a waiting gesture. “The doctor has advised me to get treatment and rest – I have breast cancer.” Anticipating the murmur of sympathetic voices, she again raised her hand. “I should be fine; it’s just being worn down from the worry about JD and Casey . . .this doesn’t make sense to you now, but it is the reason why I have to rest and ask all of you to help. JD would want this.”
Ezra said quietly, “JD found the best family possible next to his mother. First; Casey, his wife, and Nettie, a wonderful mother for the two of them. JD loved all of us and he would hate to see what has been happening with his brothers. Buck, you know JD would hate seeing you drink and get belligerent. There has been little trace of the charming Buck we were all used to seeing. Nathan, JD knows you have done your best for him and the accident was not your fault. That responsibility is in the hands of a man who choose to drink and drive and is now rotting in jail.” Ezra’s voice went hard as the thought of the man responsible for all the suffering came to his mind and tears appeared in both Buck’s and Nathan’s eyes.
“Josiah, JD possesses a faith as strong as yours used to be. He depended on you and your guidance. He would hate that you are throwing that away.” Josiah’s head bowed and tears come to his eyes.
“Vin, JD would not hold against you that you questioned keeping him on life support. He went through so much with his mother suffering . . . and I think as Josiah would tell you, the question often came up in their discussions. Do not feel guilty anymore.” Vin’s eyes clouded over and he met Nettie’s compassionate gaze.
“Chris, JD would not want you to have any regrets for hiring him. He knew you would sometimes look at him and see an older Adam – and he loves you for that. You, like the rest of us are his heroes.”
Chris looked away, nodding.
Nettie took over, “You all have been there for JD, Casey and I. I owe every one of you so much. And especially three women – Nathan, I know you appreciate what a fine woman your girlfriend is and I would not wait too long to make her your wife.”
“Chris, I can’t say whether you and Mary are right for each other, but she has been rock solid ever since the accident, she and Inez – another woman worth her weight in gold – have kept me going.”
A brown van drove slowly towards the house.
Nettie and Ezra stood up.
“I think maybe in this case a picture is worth a thousand words, gentlemen, and now you will fully understand.”
From the van, Mary, Inez and Raine emerged. They were not alone.
Five faces were equally thunderstruck.
+ + + + + + +
Mary Travis emerged first, with a blue-blanketed bundle. She looked at Chris, whose mouth was wide open, as were the others.
“Mary,” was all Chris could say at first, although noticing that Mary never looked so beautiful and it reminded him of how Sarah had looked holding baby Adam.
When Mary reached Chris, she lifted the blanket revealing a tiny baby boy. “Chris, everyone, let me introduce you to Adam Christopher Vincent Dunne.”
Astonished, Chris looked into the green eyes of the tiny baby with brown hair. Mary gently placed the baby in Chris’ arms as the others gathered around.
Chris, choked, managed to get out, “Adam looked at lot like that, Nettie.” Tears filled his eyes as he admired the baby boy as the others gathered around.
“Yes, he sure does, Chris,” Buck said quietly, as deeply moved as Chris. The others admired the baby boy, and when Buck stroked the baby’s hand, little Adam latched on to his finger.
“There, there, little fellow, that’s quite a grip you have!” Buck exclaimed in delight.
“Nathan,” Raine called as she came forward with a bundle wrapped in a pink blanket.
All the women enjoyed seeing the astonishment on the men’s faces, except Ezra, who was now standing discreetly by Nathan as he looked into the face of a baby girl with brown hair and brown eyes. Raine’s countenance was Madonna and child, as she cooed to the little one in her arms while the rest gathered round. “Everyone, meet Cassandra Annette Rachel Dunne.”
As the group crowded around, almost speechless, Nettie said drily, though with a twinkle in her eyes, “No way was Casey going to allow her daughter to be called Cassiopeia.”
“She’s so tiny, Nettie,” Vin exclaimed, charmed by the little one with a tuft of brown hair.
“She was premature, but she is doing much better, Vin. Not only does she look like her mother, she has her spirit, too.”
“What a beautiful little lady,” Josiah said, delighted as the baby took his finger.
Raine’s silver laugh sounded as she gave the baby to Nathan to hold. Nathan was speechless as he gazed at the baby girl.
“Twins!” Buck exclaimed, slapping his leg.
Lastly, Inez stepped out in front of Buck. “Tres.” She had a blue blanket with a baby smaller than the other two, who were still very tiny.
Buck’s eyes bulged and he sat down weakly. “Triplets? Triplets?”
“Buck, here is little John Daniel Bucklin Dunne. He was the smallest of all – we didn’t know if he would make it, but I believe he has his father’s spirit.”
Buck stood up and peeked at a small baby with tufts of dark hair and hazel eyes.
“That boy never did anything half way!” Buck stated proudly.
“Hold him,” Inez urged.
Buck backed up, “Gee, Inez, he’s so tiny – and I’m a clumsy lout.”
“Go over there and sit and I will place him in your arms,” Inez ordered sternly.
She backed Buck up until he fell in the chair and put the little one in his arms. Buck, cooing at the baby, blinked back tears. “He looks like JD.”
“Yes, he does,” Nettie agreed. “We have some baby pictures – and little John is the image of his father.”
All of the men were admiring the babies and the smiles were the biggest they had shown in months. Nettie sat down in a chair, waiting for the inevitable questions.
“Let’s get inside,” Chris suggested and they all agreed, though Buck, paler than an ice cube kept trying to get Inez to take the baby back so he wouldn’t drop him. Inez just laughed, but stood close just in case.
The three women, deciding the little ones needed naps after all the excitement, took the babies upstairs.
“Ezra knew?” Nathan asked, looking from Ezra to Nettie.
“Yes. Again, the babies were premature and we didn’t know if any would live. We did not want your hearts broken again. It was the care of the specialists that saved our babies.” Nettie brought a Kleenex to her eyes. “We knew we might lose Casey, but she wanted the babies to have all the medical help they could get. She was able to see each of them for a few days before she died. She was so happy . . . and if JD had come out of the coma, she would have been ecstatic.” Again, a swift wipe of her eyes.
“Triplets,” Josiah said in awe.
“Don’t know how little Casey was able to carry three babies,” Buck blurted, and then reddened.
“Two – Casey and Adam were two and a half pounds each; little John was one and a half pounds. All were poorly at first, and that’s why we didn’t tell you,” Nettie explained. “Then Ezra called. I hear some of you are leaving?”
Six men exchanged glances. Nettie could tell that each one was dealing with mixed feelings.
+ + + + + + +
A few days later, Chris entered the living room at his ranch and smiled at Mary rocking little Adam.
Chris’ ranch was always bustling with activity as different ones took turns watching over the children, cleaning, cooking and doing anything that needed done.
Nettie had left for her treatment and rest, content with the promises of all seven to care for the babies, who were now two months old.
Chris was torn between sadness at hearing Adam’s name; and happiness at seeing the infant who was named in honor of his son and the knowledge that Sarah would have loved to have the baby named after her two favorite boys. Mary had been a big help as had the other women, and as she looked up smiling, he returned the smile.
She shared his joyous expression, then with a smile, nodded to the comfortable rocker where Buck sat, mouth open as he snored with a tiny blue blanket and the smallest of the babies cradled in his loving arms.
Inez, exasperated, came in from the kitchen and scolded Buck softly in Spanish as she stood beside him, hands on hips.
Ezra, following behind along with Vin, was hard pressed not to laugh as he followed most of her scolding more by expression than actual words.
“Here, Inez, let me,” Ezra stepped forward and tenderly lifted the tiny baby as Vin and Inez held their breaths.
Buck, not fully awake, snorted, gazed around and then opened his mouth to protest.
“Uh, uh, uh,” Vin chided. “You’ve been hogging baby John for days. His other uncles and aunts barely get to see the little guy.”
“And what a sight he is,” Ezra beamed, staring at the big hazel eyes. “It’s your Uncle Ezra, little one.”
Baby John kept his eyes on Ezra, then moved his right hand into his mouth and suckled.
“Oh, little one, are you hungry?” Inez crooned as she started to reach for the baby.
“No, no, no, Inez, he’s not crying and I just got him!” Ezra protested, turning away.
Josiah and Nathan, entering the room, burst out in laughter as they watched Ezra gently maneuver away from Inez to keep ahold of his most precious treasure.
“Shhhhhh!” Raine scolded, coming down the stairs. “I just got Casey to sleep!”
“Babies need noises so they don’t get startled,” Mary disagreed. “Sounds in the womb are very loud.” Seeing Chris raise an eyebrow, “Well, I’ve been studying. When I think of all the times I shushed Steven when Billy was sleeping . . .” and a momentary sadness appeared in her eyes, but she blinked and then smiled down at Adam.
“Sarah, too,” Chris said, meeting her gaze. “She made me take my boots off in the house, but I kept forgetting to fix the third stair step that creaked . . .”
“Creaked?” Buck questioned. “It sounded more like a freight train! Hey, Ezra, if you’re getting tired . . .”
“I insist on having my special time with this beautiful baby,” Ezra frowned. “You, my dear sir, are in violation of the injunction of monopolizing and therefore corrupting this most innocent and adorable infant.”
Buck rubbed his ear. “Injunction. What?”
“We all want more time with baby John!” the others said together.
Ezra nodded. “That’s just what I said, little one. Your Uncle Ezra will teach you refinement.”
Buck tried not to twitch as little John made the rounds of his adoring throng of aunts and uncles. Finally, Mary gave baby Adam to Buck and Buck was instantly mesmerized by the baby that looked similar to Adam.
“I’ll be damned at how much he reminds me of Adam,” Buck exclaimed, meeting Chris’s gaze and Chris gave a nod to Buck.
Little Casey had a short nap and even with three babies downstairs, everyone complained they never got enough time holding each one.
Nettie Wells, during her last visit, commented tartly it was a wonder any of the babies were put down to sleep and said the adults would spoil the babies by holding them all of the time. But Nettie said it with a smile and she was very pleased to see how happy the group was with the little ones and left for her next treatment content. She had, however, made a suggestion Vin had not forgotten. His eyes met Josiah’s and then Vin said. “I think it is time the babies met their father.”
+ + + + + + +
“I’m scared, Josiah,” Vin said quietly as he two hung back from the rest of the group. Vin, backed by Josiah, had talked the others into taking the babies to meet their father. It was not a hard sale, everyone was excited, but some inner unease no one could name.
Josiah patted Vin on the shoulder. “I know. You’ve been uneasy ever since I told you I was concerned JD was holding on to make sure the babies were okay before he slipped away from us. That’s one scenario. The other is they will help lead him back to us.”
“What will we do if he does slip away?” Vin bit his lip, trying not to think that was a possibility.
Josiah sighed. “Then we’ll all do what is best for the babies.” Some of the nurses frowned at such a big entourage, but none were immune from the charm of the little ones as they cooed.
With a deep breath, the men stepped into the room while the women held the babies and waited outside. All were used to the machines and tubes and had learned to talk to JD as if he were able to answer them.
“Hey, JD,” Chris started. “All your big brothers are here. We love you, Kid, and we miss you. We think it’s time you came back to us – our lives are incomplete without you.” Chris stopped for a moment, feeling deeply how true that was. “We all know what a hero you are, Kid, and we know why you turned the car so you took the brute of the accident and spared Casey the worst of the wreck.”
“Then, ignoring your own serious injuries walked up the hill to the road, doing your best to get Casey help,” Vin continued.
“After putting all the blankets as well as your own coat over Casey,” Buck added, giving the dark hair a toss. “So like you – always thinking of others. Freezing cold, Kid, and you were so determined to save Casey and the babies . . .” Buck choked up and wiped his eyes.
“The paramedics said you didn’t collapse until you knew Casey was in the ambulance,” Nathan added soberly. “You had not acted like you were seriously injured until after you kissed Casey and the door shut. Then you just let go and fell in the snow.”
Josiah and Ezra moved to opposite sides. “Your mother would be so proud of you, JD,” Josiah said softly. “She knew from the beginning what a wonderful young man you would grow into.”
“Unique. JD, I am honored to have made your acquaintance and – Buck is not the only one who can claim this – I consider you to be my little brother as well. And I could not ask for a better one.” Ezra’s voice was soft and he reached out to brush back JD’s bangs.
“So, JD, you know how much we all love you and want you back. And we have three new people who want to make your acquaintance as well.” Josiah finished and stepped back, leaving Buck and Vin on different sides of the bed while Chris took little Adam from Mary and came forward, while Ezra filmed from the camcorder Josiah gave him.
Chris stopped for a moment, looking down at the baby boy in his arms. “JD, I am so honored to have your son named for Adam and myself – JD, here is your son, Adam Christopher Vincent.” Chris placed the beautiful boy on JD’s chest.
Tears were flowing freely now as the others were overcome with emotion.
Chris watched carefully for a minute, then lifted baby Adam up, tears in his eyes.
Nathan now stepped forward with baby Casey. “JD, you have a beautiful daughter named for Casey, Nettie and your mother – Cassandra Annette Rachel. She looks so much like her mother, JD. And with those eyes – she will have as much spirit.”
JD’s baby daughter rested on his chest, her little arms and legs moving.
Ezra was having a hard time holding the camcorder steady as he sniffed and his eyes watered.
Lastly, Buck moved forward, after taking the smallest baby from Inez. “Hey, little brother. You just done gone and outdone anyone else, right? Had to give your all your big brothers heart attacks. You have three gorgeous babies, JD. This wee lad is John Daniel Bucklin.” Buck laid the tiniest of the babies on his father’s chest and choked up. “Oh, Kid, this baby is the spittin’ image of you. He needs you, Kid. They all do, Adam, Casey, and John. And we need you, JD. Please come back to us.”
All three babies were placed in the bed with their father while Ezra kept the camcorder recording. The men and women gathered around the bed, and then Josiah traded places with Ezra so Ezra could be in the video. Ezra waited and then picked up little John.
“Hey,” Buck called.
Ezra frowned. “JD, your overbearing big brother Buck thinks he can monopolize little John. I protest the assumption and would like you to tell Buck he is not the only uncle who loves this tiny lad.”
Josiah had to smile as Buck and Ezra, though keeping their voices down and their actions gentle, squabbled over baby John, Vin was vying with Nathan for Casey;
even Chris and Mary were both trying to lay claim to Adam.
“Hope you get to see this, Son,” Josiah whispered.
+ + + + + + +
“Ladies, we need a few minutes. Would you take the babies back to the ranch?” Chris asked, eyes fixed on JD. After they left, he bent down and kissed JD’s forehead. “I promise, JD, we all promise – your babies will get the best care, but as you know, Kid, it ain’t the same as the love of a father. It’s something you’ve wanted all your life – no matter how much your mother loved you – or even how much your big brothers love you.”
The other five leaned in, nodding and placing a hand on JD; Vin and Nathan murmuring the same kind of words as Chris while Josiah prayed and Ezra, lump in his throat, prayed the best way he could – bartering good behavior if only JD would wake.
Tears rolled from Buck’s cheek splashing down on JD’s pale face, when through a haze, Buck caught his breath. “He wrinkled his nose.”
The others focused on JD’s face, hardly daring to breath. Could Buck be right?
Once before, through murky water, a ten-year-old boy struggled with confusion and sense of direction until a small light above lit the way to the surface of the lake. His starving lungs caused a gasp for air as the light above him broke through clouds and the sunlight appeared.
A small smile appeared on the pale face and JD slowly opened his hazel eyes to the teary faces of his brothers. He could feel the love as it warmed him as surely as his mother would heat his favorite blanket in the dryer to warm him as he came out of the cold and snuggled him close.
“JD,” Buck rasped. Buck Wilmington had lived for this moment and thought how he would holler and jump, but he could only hold onto JD’s hand and smile.
“Glad to have you back, son,” Nathan said earnestly and then went to alert the staff.
Never had the smiles been wider on the others and JD did not question anything.
He yawned and said, “Tired.”
“You’ve been sleeping forever, Rip Van Winkle,” Vin teased, “but if you’re tired . . .”
“Fought hard . . . to come back. Mom and Casey . . . said to.”
“You belong here, little brother. They’ll wait.”
Mary, Raine, and Inez returned to the room, transfixed. Nathan had caught them before they left but it was hard to believe until they could see for their own eyes.
JD saw, too, and his eyes widened. “Babies?”
“Adam, Casey and John,” Chris said. “You’re a father now.”
“Yes,” said Dr. Lawrence. “Three beautiful babies. Happy Father’s Day, JD.”
“Father . . .” JD breathed.
“You made us six the proudest uncles anywhere, JD,” Chris choked.
Just then all three babies began to babble and the sound of the excited chatter was like music to everyone’s ears.
Josiah moved to the window to thank God, and for a moment his tear-dimmed eyes saw faraway shapes as Rose, Casey, Sarah and Adam seemed to wave and then fade away.
Five months had passed since JD first opened his eyes, days followed by tests and physical therapy. Six men gathered around a room, happy with anticipation. JD was finally coming home.
“I can’t thank you enough for taking care of the babies,” JD said, voice quavering with emotion. “I couldn’t have done it without your help – and the ladies, too.”
Josiah moved to sat beside the bed, taking JD’s hand. “No need to thank us, JD.”
Tears flowing freely from JD’s eyes, he turned his head away, blinking. “I’m . . . I’m scared, Josiah. What if I am not a good enough father for the babies? I . . . I never had one, and babies need their mother more . . . I wish Casey was here for them, she would be better at this than I can be.”
“Not so, Kid,” Chris rebuked, moving to the other side of the bed. “And you’re not alone – we are all here to help you. It’s normal being scared – I wouldn’t hold Adam for the first few days, I was afraid I would drop him.”
“Sarah couldn’t get Chris to change diapers, either,” Buck chimed in. “One day Sarah was sick in bed and Chris panicked – he actually called me to come help change Adam. When I got there, Chris had torn all the tabs off four diapers, had the diaper backwards, and there was poop everywhere. Sarah was not amused.”
“Seems to me you were puking, Wilmington,” Chris argued. “Said the smell was horrible.”
“But I got Adam cleaned and changed before I puked,” Buck laughed.
JD smiled at the banter.
Nathan stepped up. “I know you will feel pressure to do too much, JD, but the best gift you can give your babies is to take good care of their daddy. So please accept the help you need.” The other men nodded.
JD knew he had been pushing himself and was worried about the slow progress he felt he was making. Nathan once again had read his mind and Nathan gave him a reassuring smile and a pat on his hand.
“Hell, Nate and Raine just love taking care of Casey,” Buck laughed and Nathan didn’t deny it.
“Remember, you may be a father, but you still have six big brothers who will not let you overdo,” Vin reminded JD with a smile.
Buck winked at JD. “Kid, you ready to blow this pop stand?”
JD smiled but looked to the man standing furthest away from the bed. “Can I speak to Ezra first, guys?”
Ezra stepped up to the bed and sat down by JD after the other five left.
JD was having trouble speaking, but said, “Ezra, how can I thank you for all you did for Casey, myself and the babies? Nettie said Casey’s doctors didn’t think she or the babies would have survived without the specialized care you paid for.”
Ezra’s throat constricted. “No need, JD, no need at all. I . . . I can’t think of a better use for the money. I know money will never be useful as Nathan’s skills and…”
“Ezra,” JD stopped him, taking Ezra’s hand and gazing earnestly into the green eyes. “Ezra, when are you going to stop thinking that you are only worth money? You mean so much more to all of us than any amount of money ever could.”
“Maude would disagree, young man.”
“She was wrong, Ezra. She never appreciated what a wonderful son she had. I know my mother would have been so proud of you.”
“Your mother,” Ezra said, unknowingly echoing Buck’s words about his own mother, “was a saint.” Ezra stood up. “Thank you, JD. Your words mean more to me than I can express adequately.” After exchanging smiles, he added. “Nettie is so much better. She sends her love and will be visiting her grandchildren soon.”
JD’s face suddenly crumpled. “Ezra, I . . .miss . . . Casey . . . so,” and he sobbed.
Ezra patted JD’s hand and pulled him up into a tight hug. Josiah had been right. JD being discharged would bring the loss of his wife to the surface. For a minute, he was not the father of babies but a young husband missing his beloved wife.
“I know, son, I know,” was all Ezra could say as the other men entered, alarmed at JD’ sobs. Each one gathered around to show support for their young brother.
JD gained control and smiled wanly. “I’m fine. Have to be for the babies. You think I ought to go by John now? Doesn’t it sound more mature?”
“Hmmm, don’t think I like Big John and Little John,” Josiah mused.
“Well, you are not calling that adorable child little Bucklin!” Ezra exclaimed, making everyone laugh.
“Nawww, saving that wonderful moniker for my own son,” Buck bragged.
“Oh, I think Miss Inez might have something to say about that,” Vin added with a wink to JD.
“You mean?” JD gasped.
Buck smiled, a twinkle in his eye, “Oh, that Wilmington charm is wearing her down, Kid.”
“More like baby John is bringing out her maternal side,” Nathan disagreed.
“And with all your past womanizing, Buck, and the Good Lord’s sense of humor, you may be blessed with all girls,” Josiah said, earning a scowl from Buck as the others laughed heartily.
As a pretty nurse arrived with the standard ride, six men helped JD to his feet. JD still felt a big shaky, but felt the support of the others.
“Let’s go, kid,” Buck urged. “I hear tell there’s a celebratory feast in the works and three of the prettiest babies ever born waiting to welcome their daddy home.”
JD sat in the wheelchair and sighed. “The babies are so lucky to have the best uncles in the world, as well as aunts. And I have the most wonderful six brothers anyone could ever hope for. I’m ready, guys. Daddy. Daddy. I’m a daddy. I wonder how it will feel when the babies can talk and call me daddy for the first time?”
Chris took control of the wheelchair. “The best feeling in the world, Son. The best.”
JD was awed by the snow falling from the sky. The air was clear and crisp, cold, but not so cold it took your breath away. As JD was driven to the ranch, for the first time in weeks, he was awed by the beauty. Chris and the others exchanged smiles.
Forgoing the wheelchair, Buck swept his little brother up, laughing as JD pushed as Buck. “I can walk!”
“Free ride, this time, Kid! Can’t have you taking a tumble before your babies get to see you!”
Nathan, bursting at the seams, opened the door with a flourish, not only revealing a large, Welcome Home, Daddy! Sign but a gorgeous tree and Christmas wreaths and decorations of silver and gold and green and red. By the tree were three small bassinets containing the babies.
Chris, choked, said “JD, we think the babies and you coming here are the best Christmas presents any of us could ever have and no one could find a way to top that.”
The ladies were bustling around, cooking and watching the babies, along with a proud Nettie. Buck put JD down by Nettie’s chair and they clasped hands, gazing at the three beautiful babies, and then at the top of the tree, where Casey’s favorite angel was and the tinkling of three bells.
“Merry Christmas!” Everyone yelled at once.
And it was.
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