They entered the room quietly. JD lay in the bed nearest the door. Nathan had arranged for Chris to be assigned the other bed. JD's hair had been washed to remove the blood and was slightly damp Buck found as he pushed the long dark hair from the young man's eyes. The bandage that covered the stitched wound accentuated the pallor of his face.
"Hey, JD," Buck said as he sat on the edge of the bed. He leaned in close and continued. "You're okay now, kid. We're all here. Chris is upstairs, but he'll be here in a bit. So, it's time to wake up." Buck watched, but there was no movement, no sign that JD was waking. They didn't expect the youth to just wake up and start talking, but they could hope. So, the five settled in, taking turns talking and telling stories-to JD and to each other. They had been there almost an hour when a young nurse entered.
"Mr. Larabee is in recovery now." She smiled at the five men and left.
Vin stood. "Mind if I come with you?"
"Of course not, Vin. Anyone else coming?" Nathan asked. Josiah stood as well as Ezra.
"Can we all go?" Josiah asked.
Nathan smiled. "Oh, I think I can arrange it. Buck?"
Buck had taken up residence in the chair next to the bed. "Nah. I'll stay here, in case he starts waking up."
The four entered recovery and found only one bed occupied. Nathan spoke with a nurse while Vin, Ezra, and Josiah gathered around the foot of Chris's bed. Nathan joined them a moment later.
"Janet told me he's been trying to wake up. Mumbling some and moving around. Surgery went well. They didn't have any trouble," Nathan informed them.
All eyes turned to Chris when he started mumbling and moving his head. Nathan placed a hand on his shoulder and gently shook.
"Chris. Chris. Can you hear me? It's Nathan. Time to wake up." Nathan waited for a response. "Come on, Chris."
Slowly, the green eyes pried themselves open and focused on the black physician.
"Nath.," Chris slurred. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Nathan?"
"Hey, there ya go. Chris, everything's okay. You're in recovery."
Chris's brow knitted. "Recovery? The hospital? Why?" He closed his eyes in frustration. "I don't remember. What happened?"
"You had an accident. But you're going to be okay. You banged your head and broke your leg. They had to pin the leg and that's why you're in recovery. It went well. You shouldn't have any problems with it healing."
Chris focused on Nathan's face. "What kind of accident?"
"You wrecked the truck-rolled it down the mountain."
"Damn. I don't remember.." He stopped, his eyes darting around as if searching for a thought just out of reach. "Was someone with me? Did I hurt someone?" Chris asked with a pained expression.
"Yes, someone was with you. And no, you didn't hurt anyone. You had an accident. He was injured, but we think he'll be fine. Don't worry."
The blond man's face asked the question his voice was afraid to.
"It's JD, Chris. But, he's going to be okay."
Confusion was written all over Chris's face. He shook his head. "No. No, I don't remember JD. It was someone else. Who.." Again, Chris's face frowned as he tried to remember. Suddenly, his eyes widened. "Vin! It was Vin. I remember talking to Vin. He was there." Chris gripped Nathan's wrist as he spoke.
"No. Vin came later. Vin came to find ya'll." Nathan waved Vin over to the bed. "He's right here. See? Vin's okay." Nathan moved to allow Vin closer to the bed.
"Hey, cowboy. How ya doing?" Vin asked as he placed a hand on Chris's chest. He was taken by surprise when Chris grabbed and held on to his forearm. His grip was intense and passionate. He saw tears roll from Chris's eyes. Emotion washed over Vin and he swayed slightly with the intensity. He felt tears spring to his own eyes.
"Vin. God. I remember your voice. I thought.." Chris was breathing hard. His gaze bored into Vin's blue eyes. "I'm sorry. Please, don't leave." Chris's voice dropped to a soft plea.
Vin could not stop the tear that cascaded down his slim face. "I ain't going nowhere, cowboy. Me and Ezra, we all ready decided to hang around." He placed his free hand on Chris's hair and smoothed the short blond strands back. "Guess you're stuck with us for a while."
He watched as the older man relaxed, his eyes sliding closed, flicked open, only to close again. "I can't.. Don't leave.. Ez too.. Have ta stay..please.," Chris mumbled as he drifted off to sleep, his grip relaxing on Vin's arm. Vin took Chris's hand and gripped it for a moment before placing it next to his side.
Vin stepped back. He turned to the others. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but no words would come. He finally took a deep, shuddering breath and slowly released it. He jammed his shaking hands into his pockets.
Ezra was the first to find his voice. "I do believe that is the most moving plea I have heard. I am astounded Chris would be that open with such raw emotions."
Nathan ushered the men out, a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Chris wasn't always so tight with his emotions. Losing Sarah and Adam made him draw into himself. Lincs's death made him worse. I'm sure if he wasn't sedated, he'd have maintained that tight rein on his emotions." The four entered the elevator as Nathan continued. "Buck is a 'what you see, is what you get' sort of guy; a lot like JD. Me- well, I'm not as easy to read as Buck, but you can usually tell what I'm feeling. Chris-he's totally unreadable. He frowns all the time. It's his shield. If he's happy, he frowns; sad, he frowns; upset, he frowns. Now, if he's mad, he growls," Nathan laughed. "Chris has a lot of love in him. You just have to dig it out."
"He seemed very concerned that Vin was injured. Why did he not convey that interest in Vin and I before we decided to leave?" Ezra asked.
"He might not have said anything to you, but told Buck and me that he wished you would stay, but we couldn't convince him to talk to you. He kept saying, 'if they want to leave, I don't have the right to ask 'em to stay.' He was convinced that ya'll wanted to leave because you didn't like it here, not because you're uncomfortable with this family thing."
Vin and Ezra exchanged looks and Josiah laughed. "Seems Buck isn't the only one that's easy to read. Living with siblings is a big change for someone who never has. JD is the only one adjusting easily. Maybe we should ask him the secret."
All four exchanged glances. All four had the same thought. "Would JD be around to talk about anything?"
Buck sat quietly after the others left. The silence was oppressive, so he began to talk, about anything, everything.
"..Mattie said ya'll hadn't shown up. I got to tell ya, kid, I got real scared. Chris was really wanting to buy that stallion. And I knew he'd of called if he decided to not go. I'll have to call Mattie and see if he still has that animal. We might can still get 'em. Course, now we'll have to replace the truck. I guess it'll be a while 'fore Chris can drive. But we can worry about that later." Buck looked at the young man that lay in the bed. He had not moved since the five men had arrived. It was disquieting to see the boy so still when he always seemed to be in motion. "Oh, come on, kid. This is just.."
Buck stood and moved to the head of the bed. He placed one hand on JD's chest. "Please, kid. Come on back to us. I know you're in there." Buck fought to talk around the lump in his throat. He leaned over and placed his other hand on the dark hair and his forehead to the boy's. Whispering, he spoke into JD's ear. "Please, don't go. We just got ya in our lives. We ain't ready to let go yet. Don't you be, okay?" Buck stayed close for a moment more and then stood, wiping at the tears that rolled down his face.
He turned to sit down, when he heard a small noise from the bed. He turned back and his breath caught in his throat. JD slowly moved his head to the side. Then, his leg moved, a hand flexed; all restless movements. Buck leaned over again. "JD? JD. Come on. Wake up."
"Hey, kid. You in there? Come on, open your eyes," Buck coaxed.
"Buck?" JD murmured.
"Yeah, kid. It's me."
JD frowned, his eyes still closed. "Buck, you dead too?"
Buck frowned in confusion. Maybe there was something wrong with the boy's mind. Then he realized what JD was thinking. "JD. I ain't dead. Neither are you. Open your eyes and look at me."
"No. Hurts...head .. can't be heaven," JD mumbled.
"No, JD, it ain't heaven. You didn't die, JD. Come on. Open your eyes." Buck rubbed JD's chest roughly. "Come on. Open 'em," he commanded.
JD rolled his head away, but Buck drew it back toward him. The black lashes fluttered and Buck got a glimmer of hazel. They snapped closed again.
"I know, but you have to open your eyes," Buck told him.
Again, the lashes fluttered. This time they opened all the way, closed, then opened again. JD looked at Buck. Buck watched, grinning, as JD blinked several times, then focused on his face.
"Hey, JD," Buck laughed. "How ya doing?"
"I'm fine," JD said. He looked at Buck and smiled. The smile faded as he looked past Buck's shoulder and then glanced around the room. "What happened? Why am I in the hospital?"
"You were in an accident. Don't you remember?" Buck watched as JD's face pinched in thought. He suddenly shuddered and Buck placed a reassuring hand on his chest. JD's eyes locked with Buck's.
"Mudslide. Oh, Lord. The tree...the tree smashed into .." JD paled, his breath frozen in his throat and Buck realized what he was thinking. Again, he rubbed the center of the boy's chest to anchor his attention.
"JD, it's okay. Chris is all right." He saw the doubt with young man's eyes. Eyes that filled with tears, tears of despair at the loss of a brother and tears of terror at the remembered crash and descent down the mountainside.
"No. No, I saw 'em. That tree smashed into Chris's door. And then we went over," JD's voice quivered with emotion, barely audible. JD eyes begged Buck to believe him.
"Yes, JD, that's what happened, but Chris is going to be fine. He broke his leg, but he's fine." JD's eyes told Buck that he wanted to believe him, but he had seen the crash and could not forget the sight. "JD, have I ever lied to you? Ever?"
The youth's chin quivered, but he shook his head.
"Well, I'm not going to start now. Chris is upstairs in recovery. They put a pin in his leg. And in a couple of hours, they're going to bring him down and put him right over there." Buck pointed to the empty spot near the window. "You believe me now, boy. The others are upstairs visiting 'em right now." He watched as JD relaxed and nodded. "Okay, I'm going to call the doctor," and he pushed the call button on the bedrail. "He wanted to check you after you woke up."
Buck smiled at the youngster. He reached over and moved some hair out of JD's eyes as the nurse came in. "He's awake," Buck informed her.
The four brothers were exiting the elevator as the doctor and nurse entered JD's room. Josiah softly said, "Oh, Lord." They hurried down the hall s Buck came out of the room. He smiled as he saw them coming and held up his arms as a referee would to signal a touchdown in football. They gathered at the door and heard their youngest answering questions. They watched as the doctor examined his eyes and ears, checked his reflexes and made notes on his chart.
"JD, you seem fine. Everything checks out. Keep it up and you can go home tomorrow. Nathan, you boys come on in." He watched as the five man entered the room and spread out around the bed. Placing a hand on Nathan's arm, he said. "Nathan, he needs to rest, but he checks out excellent. No problems at all." He looked at his watch. "It's 11:40 now. Chris should coming down in an hour or so. You all can stay 'til then, but let them rest tonight. If there aren't any problems, they can probably go home tomorrow."
"I'm glad it worked out." He left the family alone.
JD looked at the five men gathered around him, a soft smile on his face. The head of the bed had been raised until his was half sitting up.
"Sorry about the going away party, guys." He looked from Vin and Ezra.
Vin sat down on the front of the bed, leaning against the foot board. "Heck, kid, we can eat together anytime. "
"Quite correct, Vincent. We have decided to make ourselves accessible for future parties, JD," Ezra threw in.
Buck gripped Vin by both shoulders and squeezed. "You two decided to stay?"
Vin, attempting to impersonate a turtle, yelped softly. "Damn, Buck, ya trying to pinch my head off?"
Buck just grinned bigger. "Nope, just making sure I had your attention." He released the young man and swung around to face Josiah. "You know? For a day that started out bad, this is turning into one hell of a good day." He clasped Josiah by the shoulder. "Yup. One hell of a good day."
The six men smiled and began to arrange themselves around the room to wait for Chris's arrival.
JD watched each man. They all sat quietly, absorbed in their own thoughts as they released the tension that had built during the day.
The silence was finally broken by a grumbling sound from the bed JD occupied. They looked over and saw a red faced young man. "Sorry, but I'm hungry." The five men laughed and all five heads nodded in agreement. No one had eaten since breakfast.
"I'll ask the nurse if you can have anything, JD," Nathan stated and left the room. He returned to find JD asleep. "Guess, we can wait until we leave."
"Yeah, we'll go by the Saloon," Buck suggested.
Nathan took a seat with the others. They discussed what things needed to be done the next day. Buck needed to call Mattie and let him know what happened and ask about the stallion. They needed to get the Dodge brought up and stored at the house until they could decide what to do with it. They needed to call their insurance company.
Josiah turned as a shadow fell across the doorway. He stood when he recognized the two people standing in the opening. His movement drew the attention of the others.
"Casey, Michael. Come on in," Buck softly inserted as he jumped up and ushered the couple in.
"We don't mean to intrude, Buck. We just wanted to check on you all," the small woman stated. She glanced around at the men in the room.
Ezra extended his hand to the young woman. Casey blushed when Ezra's lips brushed the back of her hand. "We have not been properly introduced, but if you will allow me; I saw you, both of you, this evening working so diligently to extract our brothers from their perilous plight. You did wonderful work in an extremely precarious situation. I extend my heartfelt thanks for your wonderful performance." Ezra bowed his head in a salute to the two.
"Well, you've got to be Ezra. Aunt Nellie told me what a fancy talker you are," Casey smiled.
"Aunt Nettie?" Vin asked.
"Oh, Lord. Where's my head? Boys, this here is Miss Casey Wells. She's Nettie's niece. And this is her partner, Michael Thetford. They're firefighters/EMT's" Buck explained. Continuing, he introduced the brothers. "Case, Michael, you met Ezra Standish. That's Josiah Sanchez to your left. And is scrawny thing here is Vin Tanner." Handshakes were exchanged, as well as 'thanks' and 'your welcomes' for their rescue efforts.
Casey turned to the bed. She softly stated. "So, that means that this must be JD." She looked at the young man in a manner that had Buck by her side in a moment.
"He's okay, darlin'. He's just sleeping," Buck smiled a tight lipped grin that went all the way to his eyes. "I'll introduce you in the morning, if you like."
Casey blushed as she realized she had been staring at the sleeping form. She remembered the sight of the blood matted hair and fair complexion, pale in the emergency lighting. She flushed as she recalled the feelings she had experienced at her first glimpse of this young man face.
"That's okay, Buck. I just wanted to see how ya'll were," she stammered.
Buck was still grinning. "I know he'll want to thank ya himself for getting 'em out. You come out to the ranch next week with your Aunt Nettie. You can get JD to show you around and maybe, go for a horseback ride."
"We'll see." She took a laughing Michael by the sleeve. "Come on, partner, we still have a couple of hours to work."
At the door, she threw up her hands and spun around. "Shoot, Buck, you got me so flustered-how's Chris?"
"He's fine. Should be coming down from surgery anytime now." Buck did not try to hide his amusement. "Oh, Casey. Could you warn Nettie about the road. She comes that way sometimes."
"I've already talked to her. I'll go call her and let her know how Chris and JD are. Night, Buck, Nathan. Pleasure to meet you gentlemen."
She and Michael disappeared out the doorway. Buck spun around to the others, his eyes twinkling. Nathan sat open-mouthed, then finally managed to say. "That girl is such a tomboy; Nettie was afraid she'd never be interested in boys. She would rather compete with them than date them."
Buck observed, "Well, I think things just changed. JD better watch out."
Josiah was shaking his head. "I do believe that girl was having impure thoughts as she watched the poor boy sleep."
Vin spoke up. "Well, I don't know about 'impure thoughts', but she was definitely liking what she was seeing. I've seen dogs show less interest in raw meat."
The five men were still laughing when Chris was wheeled in. They moved back as the orderlies situated the bed and left. Nathan approached the bed and took Chris's wrist to check his pulse. Chris mumbled and pulled his arm away.
"Chris, you awake?" Nathan asked. He watched as Chris rolled his head slowly to the side.
"Yeah, " Chris opened his eyes. After a moment, he focused them on Nathan. "Yeah, I'm awake, Nathan. Can I get something to drink?'
Vin moved toward the bathroom. "I'll get it." A pitcher and wrapped glasses sat on the counter next to the bathroom door. Grabbing a glass, he unwrapped it and filled it from the tap. After handing the glass to Nathan, he went back and picked up the pitcher. "I'll go get some ice from the nurse" he told them as he left the room.
Buck walked over and gently placed his hand on the cast encasing Chris's entire left leg.
"Hey, Buck," Chris said. "Set me up some, would you?"
Buck raised the head of the bed, bringing Chris up to almost the same angle as JD. Chris looked at the sleeping youngster. "He okay?"
Buck turned and looked also. "Yeah, he woke up a little while ago. He'll be fine." Turning back to Chris, the smile faded. He allowed the fear of 'what if' to grip his heart. Chris saw the look. It was one he had seen before-when Rosie died, when the call came about Sarah and Adam, when Linc died.
"Don't, Buck," Chris said. "We're okay. Or will be. So don't go thinking about what could've happened. Or how we could've stopped it from happening." He nodded his thanks as Vin placed the pitcher of ice water on the bed stand.
Buck swallowed hard, a look of guilt on his face. "I know you're right, Chris. In my head, I know. But, in my heart, I just.."
Chris reached out and took Buck's wrist. "I know, pard. Just keep thinking good thoughts. Don't dwell on the bad. You'll get past it."
Buck smiled and nodded. He looked from Chris to Josiah, Vin, and Ezra. "You have those three to thank. They got worried and called. They're the reason we started looking when we did."
"Yeah, I was wondering about that. I'm really grateful to you all."
Josiah put a hand on each man's shoulder. "I came home from the shelter and they were already on the phone to Buck. These boys were all ready to go on the hunt and just needed a point in the right direction," Josiah laughed as both men squirmed and looked embarrassed. "Some good came of today's calamity. Ezra and Vin discovered their ambivalent feelings fell more to the stay side than the go. Their decision to stay and prosper within the family is a welcome one."
Chris looked at the two men. " You've decided to stay?" Chris could not keep the hopeful note out of his voice.
All six turned to the small voice that spoke. "Who's staying?'
Buck walked around to the other bed. "Hey, kid. We wake ya?"
"No. I gotta pee," JD mumbled. "Who was leaving?"
"Vin and Ezra were leaving, but now they're staying? Remember? We talked about it earlier," Buck explained.
"They're in the hospital? Are they sick?" JD's eyes were closed and he yawned.
Buck shook his head. "No. They were leaving the ranch, remember? But, now, they're going to stay. Stay at the ranch."
"Oh. Good." He tossed back the covers to stand up. "I'm glad they're not sick."
Buck pushed him gently back into bed. "Kid, you can't get up. You got a IV in the your hand."
"But I gotta go," JD protested sleepily.
"I'll get a bed pan."
Nathan joined them. "JD.. you shouldn't get up yet."
"Yes. Now" He sat back up.
"Well, let me call a nurse," Buck offered.
"No. I can go by myself."
Nathan looked at Buck and shrugged. "Jack didn't say he couldn't get up. Just, maybe, one of us should go with him."
"NO! Geez, I can go pee without help."
Buck laughed. "JD, I don't doubt that you can. I just don't know if you can walk by yourself."
Vin stepped past Buck and helped JD stand. "Dang it, Buck. Don't argue with 'em." He took the IV pole in one hand and JD's elbow with the other. "Come on, JD. I'll get ya to the bathroom and let you do your business."
They shuffled across the room as the others watched.
Buck turned and sat on JD's bed. "Well, I guess he told me."
Vin stepped back out the door, telling JD as he pulled it closed. "Yell when you're done."
He turned to find everyone looking at him. "He had to go. You can't argue about it. He ain't even really awake."
All five men laughed.
A few minutes of quiet passed.
Vin opened the door a crack. "Ready?' He opened the door and helped the young man back across the room. Buck straightened the covers over him after Vin helped him back into the bed.
JD looked around. "You and Ezra are staying? For good?"
"We are definitely staying for a while. No promises on how long. Vin and Josiah, both have birthdays coming up this month, I believe," Ezra commented. It was a comment that earned him a glare from Vin. "We wouldn't want to miss the festivities, would we?" Ezra had a mischievous glint in his eyes.
JD's drowsy voice slurred, "Good. Too many older brothers.."
"Oops, he's gone," Nathan told them. He looked up to see Chris's eyes slide closed, then jerk open again. "I'm about ready to head home. Ya'll coming?"
They all nodded in agreement. The five men headed for the door.
"Hey," Chris called. "Thanks, boys. Ezra. Vin." He paused. "I'm glad you're staying. Really glad."
The words were small. But the impact was profound. It cemented the relationship of the seven. There would be arguments. There would be disagreements, and fights, and words exchanged. There would also be acceptance and concern and love.
There would be a family. A family of brothers.
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