The Big Four Oh

by KT

This week was Buck's birthday, he was 40. He doesn't like being 40. At first Buck didn't want to have a birthday and Chris didn't understand why he didn't want a birthday. I think Chris should have listend to Buck more. We found out why Buck didn't want to have a birthday and Chris was sorry he didn't listen to him. JD got scared when he found out Buck was going to be 40. Chris and him had this really cool present for him. But its all ok now, they went to see Dr Will.  Dad helped me find a good present for Buck on the inernet and Uncle Josiah and Uncle Ezra and Uncle Nathan all give him and us a spesial trip. Chris gave Buck a very special thing.

We had lots of fun this week, Buck had a birthday and I had to stand on a box and I could see forever and ever. Chris and me got my thum importalized Uncle Ezra told me that word it means something will last forever and I gave it to Buck for his birthday.

JD, you didn't tell anything about Buck not wanting a birthday and going to doctor Will nor nothing.

I don't wanna talk about that.

We's supposed to talk about what happened this week, and that's what happened.


But JD.


Then I'll tell about it.

No, don't, don't talk about it.

Chris made his excuses to the rest of the team at lunchtime on Monday, he really shouldn't have left it so late, but finding the perfect gifts had stretched both his imagination and research skills to the limit, even with Ezra's help. It was going to cost him extra, a lot extra, to get what he needed at such short notice, but it was so perfect, it was worth it. While the others knew what was going on, Buck remained, he fervently hoped, ignorant. As far as Buck knew, he was going to a meeting about interdepartmental policy. It didn't take long to cross the city and arrive back at the ranch.

The boys were lying on their stomachs on the porch, drawing pictures, when the Ram came up the drive.

"Look, JD, he's here," Vin alerted the younger boy to Chris' imminent arrival.

JD's head shot up. "Mrs Potter, Chris is here!" he shouted.

Their housekeeper came to the door, just as the truck pulled up.

"Off you go then, dear, have a nice time." She looked over at Vin, who was clearly wishing he was going out with his father as well. "It's something they need to do together," she reminded him gently.

Vin gave her a little smile. "Yes, ma'am, I know."

"How about, I make some oatmeal cookies and you help me, you can scrape out the bowl all on your own."

A huge smile split Vin's face instantly. "Yes, ma'am!"

When JD saw Vin again he told him all about his trip with Chris, but made him promise not to tell Buck, because it was to be a surprise. The trouble was he was so excited about it, he could barely keep from telling his father himself. None the less, he made it to bedtime without letting the cat out of the bag. Even if he had let something slip out, Buck was so distracted he probably wouldn't have noticed. The entire evening he was just 'going through the motions', when Chris asked him if anything was wrong, he just shrugged and said he was tired.

He managed to put on a good performance for the boys, but Chris wasn't buying it. As Buck was tucking JD into bed, the little boy looked up at his beloved father with a look of slightly worried puzzlement.

"Da?" he asked.

"Yes, Little Bit?"

"Are you really gonna be forty on Thursday?"

Buck managed a weak smile. "Looks that way, yes."

"Is forty old?"

Buck bent his head and kissed JD on the forehead. "Good night, Little Bit, sleep safe."

It hadn't escaped Chris' notice that Buck hadn't answered JD's innocent question. Once the boys were settled, Chris headed out onto the porch to find his friend and get to the bottom of the problem.

"You wanna tell me what's eating you - and don't tell me you're tired, tell me the truth," he challenged. "Are you sick?"

Buck, who was looking out toward the barn shook his head.

"So what's going on?"

"Thursday," the big brunet finally admitted.

"Your birthday, your fortieth birthday?"

"Yeah, don't think I'm ready for that - being forty."

"Oh, it's not that bad, honest, I survived to tell the tale, no thanks to you - as I recall."

Buck was sure Chris was about to start reminiscing about his own fortieth birthday, and the raucous party he had organized for his long time best friend that night. He didn't want to hear it, not now.

"It's not that, I…"

"What?" Chris had caught that there was more to Buck's mood than just an unwillingness to leave his youth behind.

"Oh, I don't know, I just know I can't do this," he finally looked over his shoulder at Chris. "I'm sorry, I don't know what you've got planned, but I can't do it, I just can't. If the boys …"

"Yes, the boys," Chris reminded firmly.

"Well, if they got presents and such it's okay, but no big party, no surprises, I…" He turned back to look at the barn. "Just don't okay, right now I'm this," he held his thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart, "close to just taking ol' Beau an' heading up in t' them hills 'til the whole thing is over."

Chris took a step toward Buck so that they were face to face.

"You have responsibilities now, you can't just take off."

"I know, damn it, Chris, I know, I just…oh hell, I don't know." Buck turned away, raking his fingers through his thick hair. He just couldn't seem to find a way to explain the deep dread, the sense of impending doom that had plagued him for weeks now. He'd hidden it well, and in truth, outside of his dreams, he didn't notice it much, between his job and the boys he rarely had time to think. At first he didn't understand it, but as his birthday came closer, and the feelings got stronger, he saw the correlation, now, with just days to go, it was becoming almost unbearable.

"Pal, I'm forty-two. I'm still here - right? Hell, Josiah's fifty-five and he still a damn good field agent. Life won't end on Thursday."

The trouble was Buck really did feel life would end on Thursday. With each passing day he was more sure of it.

"I know that." Buck turned away. "I know that… it's just…"

"There's no just about it. You may not have known what you were getting into when you took JD home, but you sure as hell do now." Chris' voice rose just a little, frustration creeping in. "Your old life is over pal, gone, finito! Just 'cause you're facing forty you can't go looking to hold on to what you perceive as your youth, just …grow up!"

Even as he said it, Chris regretted it. All too often people had mistaken Buck's easy going, laid back, and fun loving demeanour for immaturity. Some had even paid for that erroneous assumption with their lives. He, of all people, knew it wasn't true. Whatever persona Buck presented to the world, he had a will of iron, was a consummate professional and wonderful and responsible father.

Vin had arrived on the porch just as Buck was saying he was going to ride off into the hills until 'the whole thing' was over. He wasn't sure what 'the whole thing' was but he knew he didn't want Buck to leave. JD hadn't settled, and was crying softly into his pillow refusing to tell Vin what the problem was. At their nightly Pow Wow, Buck had said he'd spent some time thinking over a problem and he was still working on it. JD had said he was excited. When Buck asked what he was excited about, he'd almost said he was excited about his trip with Chris and then remembered at the last minute that he wasn't supposed to tell about that.

"I was just excited," he explained, with a smile and a shrug. JD seemed to find life itself exciting, so no one questioned his statement.

When Vin found he couldn't get JD to explain what was wrong, he had gone in search of Buck. The argument between the two men escalated. Vin reacted instinctively to the anger and aggression before him and he hid. As he watched, Buck blanched at the phrase 'grow up', and his keen, perceptive eyes saw the hurt those words had caused, and it was making him angry with his father. To the boy it was clear Buck was struggling with some 'feel bad' thoughts, but Chris wasn't letting him explain. Vin knew all too well that 'feel bad' thoughts were hard to explain, even to Dr. Will.

"Chris, this isn't about growing up," Buck protested.

"Well, what is it about?"

"I don't know. I just feel it, this…"


For a moment, Chris thought his friend was going to answer, but then he just turned and strode off the porch and away into the darkness, heading for the barn.

"Where are you going?" Chris called after him.

"The barn, no where else."

Chris didn't respond, he just watched. Once Buck had disappeared, he turned and walked along the long front porch to the old swing seat.

Vin watched as he sat down and lit a small cigar. Once the boys arrived, Chris' smoking had been consigned to an occasional stress reliever outside and out of sight - or so he thought.

It was clear to Vin that Buck was just as upset as JD and he didn't want to ask Chris, so he was going to have to help JD on his own - if he could. Sneaking back into the house by the back door, Vin crept back to the bedroom. JD was where he had left him, huddled up in the middle of the bed, under his Scooby-Doo comforter crying. Lifting the edge of the bedding, Vin slipped into bed beside his brother, as he always had when he was upset or scared.

"What's wrong?" he whispered.

JD didn't answer, but he did roll over and wrap his arms around Vin. Vin, as ever, reciprocated, pulling him in close and holding on tight.

"It'll be okay. Chris 'll figure it out." Even as he said it, he wasn't sure he believed it, and right there and then, a deep resolve settled on young Vin Tanner. If Chris couldn't see that Buck was having 'feel bad' thoughts and JD was upset, then he couldn't help fix it, so he - Vincent Michael Tanner - would have to get it fixed.

At breakfast, Vin felt like a stranger in a strange house. Buck was still doing chores in the barn, Chris was drinking black coffee and JD was subdued, gazing every now and again toward back door.

"Do you want some cereal?" Chris asked.

"Yes, please," Vin replied.

JD didn't respond. "JD?" Vin prompted.


"Chris asked if ya want some cereal."

JD looked up. "Uh huh."

Bowls of Cheerios with milk and glasses of juice appeared in front of them.

"Guys, Mrs Potter's gonna to be a little late this morning, she has some personal errands to run, so Buck 'll stay here until she comes - okay?" Chris asked.

JD brightened up considerably and Vin assured his father they were both happy with the arrangement. Now, much more cheerful, JD attacked the food before him with gusto. Chris was about to head out to his truck, when Buck wandered in from the barn.

"Hi, Buck," JD greeted from his seat.

"Hey there, you two," he responded, as he poured himself a mug of coffee.

JD scraped his bowl noisily.

"You done there, Little Bit?"

JD looked up and nodded. "I tooked the pattern off," he responded, parroting Buck when he cleared his plate after good meal.

"Have you fed Torkus this morning?"

"Not yet," the small boy admitted.

"Well, you better get to it."

JD scooted off his seat and pulled the fridge open and collected the bag of salad Mrs Potter had put aside for the tortoise. Swinging the bag from side to side, the small boy skipped out of the kitchen.

"You not going, too?" Buck asked Vin as he remained at the table.

Vin just gave a small shrug. "Buck?" he asked hesitantly.


"Can I ask you something?"

"Sure you can, you know that."

"What would you do if you knew someone was having 'feel-bad' thoughts but no one was helping them?"

Buck was somewhat surprised by the question, and it took him sometime to formulate a response.

"Well, I think I'd try to help them, if I could," he finally answered.

"What if you was too little to help them?"

Buck frowned. "Are we talking about someone at school?" he asked.

Vin shook his head.


Now Vin wasn't sure what to say. He thought Buck needed help, but JD had cried for a long time the night before and had been unusually quiet until Chris explained about Buck staying with them, for a few hours at least. Finally he decided to stick to his goal of helping Buck.

"He's not the one," he explained guardedly. "It's a grownup."

"A grownup? Hmm, well, that could be tricky. Grownups don't always want help with 'feel bad' thoughts."

Gazing up at Buck, Vin nodded sagely. He really loved Buck. He wasn't his father, but he meant more to him than his uncles. Buck was the calm one, the one who didn't get upset, and sometimes, Buck understood things better than Chris, Buck knew about being a kid.

"Could I help this grownup in some way?" Buck asked.

Vin sighed and frowned, finally he shook his head slightly. "I don't think so."

"What kinds of 'feel-bad' thoughts is this adult having - do you know?"

Vin thought back to what he had seen and heard the night before. "I think he's scared but he doesn't know what he's scared of."

"He?" Buck clarified.


"Well, that's tricky, see men don't like to admit when they're scared."

Vin understood that, he'd been scared all the time when he lived on the streets, doubly so when he had JD to look after, but he couldn't ever tell anyone, not until he met Doctor Will. Buck himself told him he was brave, that you could be scared and still be brave and now he knew for sure that was so, because he had no doubt Buck was very brave, but he sure did look and sound scared last night. Before Buck could answer, JD came bouncing back into the kitchen.

"Da, what are we gonna do?" he asked as he ran up to his father.

"Um, well, you know Mrs Potter 'll be here by ten, that don't give us much time, Little Bit," Buck explained.

JD turned his head to scrutinize the big clock on the wall; reaching out his little hand he traced two circles, a frown of concentration on his face. "It won't be ten o'clock for two and a half whole hours," he finally pointed out. "That's a long…" he stretched out the word and his arms just to emphasise how long it was. "…time. We can do lots, please, Da," he pleaded.

"Little Bit, I'm a mite tired today. Why don't you and Vin just play on your own?" Buck suggested softly.

JD looked crestfallen. "Are you sick?" he asked worriedly.

"No, I'm not sick, just tired."

JD suddenly burst into tears and ran from the room.

"What the…" Buck spluttered, taken totally by surprise. "JD?" He was half out of the room before he looked back at Vin. The slim seven year old gazed up at him, huge blue eyes full of worry. "Do you know what's wrong?" he asked.

Vin gave him a little shrug and shook his head. "He…"


"He was crying last night," Vin admitted.

"Crying? Why didn't you come get me? What was he crying about?" Buck demanded.

"He wouldn't say. I was…"

Vin didn't get to explain why he hadn't fetched Buck that night, because the tall man was already out of the door and heading to the boys' room.

JD was on his bed, scrunched up in on his hands and knees, head buried in the pillow, sobbing. Buck forced himself to calm down before stepping into the room. Lowering himself to his knees he stretched out to rub gentle circles on JD's back.

"Hey there, Little Bit, want to tell your ol' Da all about it?" he asked.

In response, JD just wailed all the harder, but did uncurl and wrap his arms around Buck's neck.

"Come on, JD, tell me what's wrong?" Buck pleaded, but the little head on his shoulders shook. "You can't tell me?"

"N…N…No," JD managed to get out between hitched sobs.

Buck looked over his shoulder, past JD's dark mop of hair, to Vin, who was standing in the doorway.

"Can you tell Vin?" Buck enquired.

"NO!" JD wailed, clutching Buck even more tightly.

Buck was feeling totally helpless; everything had changed so fast. With some effort, he peeled JD off so he could look at the distraught five-year-old in the bloodshot, tear filled eyes. "What about Chris or one of your uncles? Could they help?"

There was a moment when Buck thought the boy would say yes, but after some thought, he just shook his head. Leaning forward again as Buck, once more, pulled him close.

"JD?" Vin asked, as he approached. "Could ya tell Doctor Will?"

JD gazed at Vin over Buck's shoulder for a long time, while Buck all but held his breath. Finally JD nodded.

"Ok, Little Bit, I'm gonna go ring him right now; see if he can fit you in." Buck started to stand, assuming JD would let go, instead his son just clamped his short legs around the man's waist. "Okay. I got you, come on."

They were in luck. The doctor's secretary informed them there had been a cancellation only that morning and there was an appointment free at eleven. Buck called Chris to explain he would bring the boys into the city and would drop Vin at the office before taking JD over to the doctor's. As he was saying this, Vin tugged on his shirtsleeve.

"…I'll just - Hang on Chris." Buck pulled his head away from the phone and looked down at Vin. "What's up, son?" he asked.

"I wanna talk to Doctor Will, too."

"You sure?"


"Well, okay. Chris, did ya get all that?" Buck nodded at Chris' response and handed the phone to Vin.

"Hi, Dad."

"Hey there, Cowboy. Is there something bothering you that I should know about?"

"No, I'm okay, I jist need t' ask him som'ing," Vin assured.

"Well, that's fine, that's what he's good at, answering questions, but you remember - there is nothing you can't ask me, and nothing you can do that will make me stop loving you. You know that - right?"

Vin's serious face broke into a wide smile. "I know, love you." With that he handed the phone back to Buck.

Will Lowery looked through the big window into the playroom at three-quarters of the unique family he had been helping. He honestly hadn't expected to see them again so soon, Vin's little brush with vandalism not withstanding. In all honesty he didn't feel he'd gotten to the bottom of that incident. Vin was playing with the Lego, building what looked like a castle with meticulous care. JD was sitting on a chair watching him, but, Will noted, maintaining contact with Buck.

"Hello, everyone," he greeted as he finally entered.

Vin's head shot up and a big smile appeared on his face. "Hi, Doctor Will," he greeted brightly.

"Hi there, Vin, great castle."


Will turned to face Buck and his son. "Hello." This time the doctor's greeting was much softer.

Buck stood and extended his hand. "Hi, doc. Sorry to trouble you, but something is upsetting JD and he feels the only person he can tell is you. I'm sure we can sort it out, once we know what the problem is."

"You guys are never any trouble, I'm here to help. Is everyone else okay?" the doctor asked.

Buck nodded his head toward Vin. "Um, well, Vin asked if he could see you as well, if you have time."

"I expect I can squeeze him in," Will assured. "Okay if JD goes first?" he asked Vin.

"Sure," Vin answered with another smile.

JD had not walked with his usual joy and bounce as the two of them walked to the doctor's office. He shuffled his bottom to the back of the chair with an audible sigh.

"So, JD, is there something you what to tell me or ask me? Buck said you've been very upset."

JD nodded, huge sad eyes gazed at him.

"You know that what you say in here is private, just between you and me?" Will reminded the boy.

"I know," JD sighed.

"So what's wrong?"

"On Thursday Buck's gonna be forty," JD stated, as if that explained everything.

JD bounced back into the waiting room with a huge smile on his face. "Hi, Da!" he shouted as he ran across the room to his waiting father.

"Well, you look a bit more cheerful," Buck commented.

The doctor came in just behind the little whirlwind. "Why don't I let JD explain everything to you while I talk to Vin?" he suggested. Turning to the other boy in the room he asked. "Is that okay with you?"

Vin agreed and happily went with him to his office while JD launched into an explanation.

"See it was all Gracy Pilcher's fault, she's a big girl, she's nine and she knows lots of stuff and she said that when you're forty you're really, really old and old people can't do stuff 'cause they get tired and all bent and stiff and they smell funny and …and they can't play with ya or ride or play ball or nothing fun like that and old people don't like McDonald's!" JD looked horrified at this and shook his head to dispel the awful thought. "An' I thought you was gonna be old and you couldn't do nothing with me soon and I didn't want to tell Vin 'cause Chris is way older than you and so Chris… I thought he was gonna not play with Vin and..."

"Breathe, Little Bit, breathe."

JD gulped in a huge breath and then set off again. "But Doctor Will 'splained it all t' me and he's a real doctor so he knows more than stupid Gracy Pilcher and he said you're not old at all."

"I'm pleased to hear it." Buck winked at JD.

"An' neither is Chris and Unca 'Siah's lots, lots older than you and he can do lots of stuff still and you won't be really, really old until after I'm all growed up. Buck?"


"I'll still love you even when yer old and smelly."

Caught off guard and trying to assimilate all the information that had come his way, Buck almost missed what JD had just said.

"You will?" he asked.

"Yup, honest."

With that, Buck pulled JD into a hug and kissed the top of his head. "Thanks, Little Bit, that means a whole lot to me."

Vin came back in, looking somewhat serious, just after JD finally finished explaining everything. He and Buck were on the floor spreading out all the toy cars.

"Hi, Vin. Do ya wanna play Demolition Derby with me an' Buck?"

"Well, how about you and Vin play, while I have a word with Buck," Doctor Will suggested. "Would that be okay?"

JD looked from Buck to the cars and back to the doctor. "Okay, I guess," he agreed a little reluctantly.

"I'm coming right back and we have lots of time to play 'Demolition Derby' at home tonight - okay?" Buck assured.

"I know, bye, Buck." JD reached up and wrapped his arms around his father's neck, hugging him as if he was never going to see him again.

"I'll be back real soon." With that, Buck followed the doctor down the corridor to his office.

"Take a seat," Will offered. Once Buck was settled, he started to explain. "Vin has some concerns." Buck frowned and was about to ask what they were when Will held his hand up to stop him. "About you."


"Yes, it seems he overheard a conversation last night. About your birthday? He feels Chris wasn't very sympathetic and he's too young to help you with some 'feel-bad' thoughts you're having." He looked up, trying to gauge the reactions of the man in front of him. Buck just looked confused. "Are you having 'feel-bad' thoughts?" the doctor asked.

Buck wanted to deny it. He was a man, an adult, he didn't need a shrink - right? Damn it Buck! Listen to yourself, dumb macho pride! You're screwed up over this birthday and you know it.

"So," Chris began at their nightly Pow Wow. "Is someone finally going to tell me what's been going on with you three today?"

JD instantly began to explain everything, including his assertion that Chris was so much older than Buck, at which point Chris glared at Buck, who just gave him an innocent looking smile. Finally JD finished, so Chris looked at Vin.

Buck had been with Doctor Will for a long time, at least it seemed like a long time to the two waiting boys and to the young intern that had been asked to watch them, even if he was taking the opportunity to do some behavioural and developmental observations. When Buck had come out, he'd taken the two boys aside and explained to them, at least some of what he and the doctor had discussed.

JD? I asked Buck and he said it was okay to talk about it, he said what we talk about at the Pow Wow we can talk about in the essay.


Well, he did. You don't have to but I'm gonna tell about it.





Okay I guess.

See it was all about Buck's mom, 'cause she died when he was real young, not as young as me and JD was when our moms …well when they went away, but he wasn't very old, he was in the army. Anyway she was thirty nine, that's how old Buck was - before his birthday and he didn't want to be older than his mom - that's what Doctor Will reckons. Buck says he thinks that's why he was feeling scared about his birthday. He says he misses his mom and he's been thinking about her a lot and he wishes she could have met us - me and JD.

But she can see us.


Buck's mom can see us 'cause moms watch out for you when they go to heaven, Buck said they did.

Yeah, I know.

My mom's watching out for me.

That's right and my mom, too, and Buck's mom.

Moms never stop watching their babies.

With Chris feeling a lot more sympathetic toward Buck, Buck feeling better equipped to deal with his worries, JD assured that Buck wasn't headed for the seniors' home any time soon and Vin feeling that he had achieved something, the rest of the week went a great deal more smoothly. On Tuesday, Josiah left work early and went out to the ranch to help the boys make the cards for Buck. On Wednesday, Ezra also drove out to the ranch, so he could help them wrap their presents. The boys tried to get him to divulge what the 'uncles' were giving Buck. They knew it was a big thing and they knew it was from all three of them, but what it was, no one would tell them.

"Tell us, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease," JD pleaded. He was kneeling on the floor while Ezra sat in the recliner, sipping coffee. JD's little hands rested on his uncle's knee and huge brown eyes gazed up at him pleadingly. "Pleeeease, Unca Ezra, please."

"It will do you no good to plead, Master Dunne, my lips are sealed."

Vin folded his arms and frowned. "That's not nice, making us wait, it's not fair," he declared. "You're being mean."

Ezra smiled. "Your 'good cop, bad cop' routine is not going to work on me. I will not divulge the nature of our present to Buck."

JD looked around at Vin. "Buck said it would work," he protested.

"Nah, he said it always works in the movies, guess it doesn't always work in real life. We won't tell him, honest," Vin tried one more time.

"I will not tell. Now, I do believe your fathers will be home soon, so we had best hide these presents - hadn't we?"

"I know where to hide mine!" JD exclaimed, picking up the small silver wrapped package.

"Wait, JD!" Ezra called. The small boy stopped mid stride and turned back. "Where are you planning to conceal it?"

"Under my bed," he explained, in such a way it was clear he thought it was a stupid question.

"JD!" Vin exclaimed. "That's the first place Buck 'll look."

JD looked at Ezra pleadingly, who was forced to concur. "I fear Vin is correct."

"Well, where can I hide it?" JD asked.

"That, we will have to give some thought to." Ezra put his coffee down and stood up. "Let us adjourn to your room."

"What about me? My present's so big." Vin looked down at the large box wrapped in gold paper.

"Never fear. We will find a suitable place. Come, gentlemen."

Buck hadn't bothered to set his alarm. He knew no one would let him sleep in. He still wasn't one hundred percent comfortable with the idea of being forty, but his chat with the doctor had not only identified the probable source of the anxiety, but also given him some coping strategies. The main one being 'go with the flow' and Buck was very good at that, he'd been doing it all his life. Sure enough, just after six, there was a little knock at the door.

"Come in," he called.

Instantly, the door was opened and JD flew into the room, followed by Vin.

"Happy Birthday!" the little brunet shouted as he jumped up onto the bed.

"Well, thank you, Little Bit." Buck looked over at Vin while JD clambered over him and gently patted the mattress.

With a big grin, Vin quickly joined him on the bed.

"Well? Do I get a birthday hug?" Buck asked.

Instantly, both boys turned towards him and enveloped him in a huge double bear hug.

We made cards for Buck ourselves; they weren't as fancy as the ones you can buy in the stores but Unca 'Siah said Buck would like our cards better - and he did! Your card was the best.

No, JD, yours was better 'cause you did it all by yourself, you even put forty candles on the cake, and did all that writing, that was really good.

But you took all them pictures with Chris' camera and then printed them and even scanned the picture of Buck's mom, and you made a coll-aged of them.

A collage JD, that's what Uncle 'Siah called it. I only did it 'cause I can't draw as good as you.

You can, too.

No, you do real good pictures JD. It wasn't me scanned the picture of Buck's mom, Chris did it, 'cause it's very precious to Buck and if it got messed up, he said it would be better if it was his fault not mine.

We gave Buck a birthday hug and then we gave him his cards and he almost cried, not 'cause he was sad but 'cause he was happy. That's silly, crying when you're happy.

I know, I asked Chris and he said it's true, he said he cried when Adam was born and when the doctors told him I was gonna be okay, after the troll shot me.

??? Grownups can be so dumb sometimes! Crying is what you do when you're sad not happy, when you're happy you smile - like this.

JD! I told you, it can't see you.

Oh, yeah. Computer, I was doing a big, big happy smile.

Anyways we gave Buck his cards and then we did chores and then we had breakfast, and 'cause it was Buck's birthday we got to have waffles and syrup, even though it was only a Thursday, 'cause he likes them lots and lots. Me, too.

Yeah, me, too.

We wanted to give Buck his presents right then, but Chris said no. He said it would take too long and he and Buck had to get to work, besides it would be more fun if we waited until the evening 'till everyone could be there.

That was bad; it was the longest day ever! Mrs Potter got real tired of telling us what time it was! But when Da and Chris came home with Uncle Ezra an' Uncle 'Siah and Uncle Nathan we had lots of fun and Buck liked all his presents lots and lots.

He liked yours best.

He liked them all Vin, he said so.

But he liked yours best, that's okay, he's meant to like yours best 'cause he's your Da. Chris gave Buck some beer.

And he got cip-tic presents, too.

Cryptic, that's what Uncle Ezra called them, it means something that is a clue but a really difficult clue, I couldn't figure it out.

Me knee 'ver.

Buck, Chris and the others arrived in a veritable convoy of vehicles, lights flashing and horns tooting.

"They're here!" JD shrieked, somewhat superfluously, as he started jumping up and down on the porch.

They had given up playing 'ATF Office' in the tree house at five o'clock. Since then, the two boys had sat on the porch, throwing the occasional stick for their puppies, while they waited. Mrs Potter had reminded them that, when their fathers and uncles did return, they were to stay on the porch until all the cars had stopped. Ringo and Elvis, oblivious to this rule, ran toward the cars, barking and wagging their tails enthusiastically.

Once everyone was on the porch with a cold drink, the boys were dispatched to retrieve their gifts. While they were away, Gloria Potter was getting ready to leave.

"Happy Birthday, Buck." She beamed at him.

Buck stood up, beer in hand. "You already said that this morning but thank you again. You know, darlin', we really couldn't manage without you."

"Here." She pulled out a small parcel and gave it to him. "That's for today, and your cake is in the kitchen, JD did the writing!"

"Oh, you shouldn't have," he assured her. Nevertheless, he was opening the package.

Inside was a small charm on a silver chain, it consisted of a little glass vial with silver ends. Inside the vial was a small dark mass that wasn't instantly recognizable.

Before he could ask, she explained. "It's a lock of JD's hair."

Buck examined the charm, then looked up, a huge grin on his face. "Darlin', it's perfect!" With that, he kissed her. "Thank you."

"Oh, goodness," she flustered. "I'd best be off now."

Buck put the charm around his neck and tucked it under his shirt. "Thanks again, Gloria!" he called as she headed out into the sun toward her car.

It was decided that the uncles would go first, then Chris and then the boys. Josiah gave Buck a box containing three rolls of film, Ezra gave him a very cheap alarm clock, set to go off at five a.m. and Nathan gave him a small wicker basket containing a champagne cork.

Buck just looked at the three presents, thanked his friends and - since he had been informed that these were but preliminary gifts - tried to work out what his real gift was going to be. Chris gave him a crate containing a dozen bottles of beer, each one from a different country, including Estonia, Japan, South Africa and even India. Then it was Vin's turn. His parcel was quite large and he was struggling to carry it. Finally handing it over, he grinned. "Hope you like it."

"I'm sure I will, Junior. Now let's see what we have."

Buck peeled back the paper to reveal an old cardboard box with the name of a well-known cookie company on it.

"It's not cookies," Vin explained quickly.

Buck looked up and winked. "I should hope not, I'd go pop if I ate a box that size full of cookies."

"I could eat that many," JD piped up.

"Yes, you probably could, Little Bit," Buck admitted.

He returned his attention to the box and its contents. Inside were two objects, encased in bubble wrap. While Vin watched eagerly, Buck unwrapped one. Inside was a rear taillight. First he frowned, then he turned the light around and studied it and finally he gasped. "But this is a… this is the right one!"

"Is it okay?" Vin asked.

"Oh, Vin, it's perfect, I'd about given up on finding these."

Buck's old truck had been a 'special edition' model and he'd been unable to find the exact replacement lights while he was restoring it. Since he'd had the truck, it had had the wrong specification rear taillights. Most people couldn't tell, but it annoyed Buck. Now, he finally had the correct lights. He carefully put the light back in the box and turned to Vin.

"Thanks, Vin." He knelt down so he was on the seven-year-old's level and held his hands slightly apart. Vin accepted the invitation and stepped into the offered hug. While he held him, Buck whispered in his ear.

"And thanks for talking to Doc Will for me, 'ppreciate it, buddy." With that, he gave him an extra little squeeze before letting him go. "And later you can tell me how you found them."

"Me now, me now!" JD was jumping up and down.

"Yes, Little Bit, you now."

As Vin stepped away, JD ran up, carrying a parcel that was as small as Vin's had been large. Clearly, JD had done the majority of the wrapping himself, judging by the amount of sticky tape on it. Eventually, Buck managed to pull enough off to tear the paper and slip the long, thin, sleek looking box out. Inside was a watch, an elegant man's dress watch, in shiny chrome and stainless steel.

"Look a' the front." JD was still bouncing as he spoke.

Buck dutifully examined the watch's face. He could make out what appeared to an abstract design etched into the face.

"It's my thumb." JD thrust his left thumb up, almost taking Buck's eye out.

"Your thumb?" Buck looked at the pattern again, and now could see the abstract design was indeed a thumbprint. "But how?"

"I went with Chris and we saw the man, and he put stuff on my thumb an' it was all black and sticky and I pressed it on some metal and I had to do it four whole times! And, and then he gived Chris some special stuff and he got all the black off and you could see my where my thumb touched the really, really shiny metal, you know the pattern and …"

"Breathe," Buck instructed, automatically.

JD gulped down some air and continued. "And he put the metal in some stuff, it's called Hydro - claw - sick - acid, and I had to watch with Chris through the window and then the man put it in some water and then he used the same stuff Chris used on me to get the black off and underneath it was still shiny. See?"

Buck could indeed see. The watch face had been softly etched by the acid, while the thumbprint stood out in shiny relief. Grinning now, like the preverbal Cheshire cat, Buck took off his strong, but unremarkable work watch and slipped on the new one, holding out his arm to admire it, before pulling JD in for a huge hug. With JD still in his arms, he stood and carried the boy to the others. By now, Vin had moved so he was beside Chris. One by one, the others admired the watch and congratulated JD on his gift.

We had birthday cake, Mrs Potter made it, it was chocolate fudge cake and it was really good. I did the writing on it, but it didn't have forty candles. Mrs Potter said it was too many and it would melt the cake. So there was one candle that was four shaped and one was oh shaped to make forty. Chris gave Buck a special present but we don't know what it was.

Chris said he'll tell us next week after it was all made… um…legal and proper.

What's legal proper?

Don't know. Tell about yesterday.

Okay, see yesterday was Saturday we had to get up real early and it was still dark and even Da didn't know why and we had to get up in the dark. But Uncle 'Siah came over and he helped with the chores and we only got granola bars for breakfast. Then we had to get in the Ram, all of us and Uncle 'Siah, and go for a long drive and the sun started to come up and we drove to this field and there was the biggest balloon in the world.

It weren't the biggest in the world, JD.

Well, it was real big and it was all different colours and Uncle Nathan and Uncle Ezra was there.

He didn't like having to get up so early; he said if God wanted us up that early, he'd have made it light.

Yeah, and we all got in this big, big basket, it was this big.

Ouch! JD you hit me in the face, quit wavin' yer arms about.

Sorry, anyway we all got in and I couldn't see over the edge but the man said he had a special box for me to stand on so I could see. And I had to wear a harness and I had reins just like Milagro.

I didn't have to wear one, 'cause I'm a big boy.

It was only 'cause I was on the box.

You kept jumping up and down.


Tell the story, JD.

Oh, okay and we went up so high we could see forever.

It wasn't that far.

Was too, we could see all the mountains and the sun made them pink and it was so pretty and everyone took pictures and when we looked down all the houses looked like Lego. When the man made the thing go it was noisy.


Yeah, burner, that was noisy, but then it stopped and it was really quiet and I liked it lots and so did Buck. That's what Uncle Ezra and Uncle 'Siah and Uncle Nathan give to Buck, a ride in a balloon. It was the best.

Yeah, it was amazing.

And when we was real high the people on the ground looked like little, itty-bitty toys and they all waved at us and we waved back.

When we had to come down it was a kinda bumpy.

That was fun; I liked that part.

Yeah, it was real funny, specially when Uncle Ezra said a bad word. After we landed we had a special picnic breakfast.

There was these things called Pan Oh Chocolate and they was real nice, I wanna have them again. And I got to drink orange juice with champagne in it.

You got one sip JD.

So? I still got some.


We're here, Chris!

You guys coming riding or what?


 So I'm forty. No going back, not that there ever was and I so nearly let my own fears ruin it for everyone. I've got a seven-year-old to thank for making me get help when I needed it. Been thinking about Ma recently, she died when I was twenty. I was miles away, in the army, so I wasn't with her, I didn't get to say goodbye. She would have loved the boys and she would have been the best grandmother. She had a way of lighting up a room when she came in that only one other person I know has, and that's my JD. God,I miss her sometimes, don't think I could go on if I lost him, too. There's something else that happened this weekend, something the boys don't know yet, but they will, just as soon as it's all registered and legal. The night of my birthday Chris gave me an envelope. Inside was a deed, he is gifting me half the land, this land, his land - it's great that Colorado lets us do this tax-free. He said it was about time, we - me and JD - we're family and we deserve to have an equal stake in the family home. The ranch belonged to Chris' granddaddy, on his Ma's side, so I know how much it means to him. He said if he'd had a brother then, his granddad would have spit it, so it's the right thing to do - now he's got a brother. I'm a very lucky man, and I know it.

The End

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Comments: KT