Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em damnit!
Thanks to Phyllis for BL/AU2
Summary: A visitor brings devastating news
A half hour before dinner and with everyone in the house and washed up, Buck was passing by JD's room to head for the dining room when he did a double-take. He knocked, and walked in, approaching the boy lying on his back on the bed with his arms folded behind his head. "Hey, Kid. You okay?"
JD glanced at him and shrugged. He figured one look at him already clued Buck in that he wasn't. He watched the brunet sit next to him.
"So what's up?"
"Nothing, honest. Go ahead, I'll "
Buck cocked an eyebrow. "Kid, this is me, okay? What is it?"
After a long, agonizing pause, JD pushed up on his elbows and explained. "I called Danson, like Chris asked me to, and confirmed we'd take the stallion."
Buck nodded. "Uh huh."
JD's gaze dropped to his one hand as it twisted the bedcovers. "The guy blew me off, said he only talks to the organ grinder, never the monkey."
Seeing how crushed JD was angered Buck, but he forced a smile and raised a hand to squeeze the kid's shoulder. "JD, folks in these parts say what's on their minds when it comes to business and rarely consider feelings. In the past, along with Dad, Chris was the 'go to' guy for sales, or me, and now Vin, too." Buck winked. "But we're a team, now; Chris'll put him straight."
"Like the ranch hands too, huh?" JD sighed, briefly reflecting on a series of practical jokes he'd been the brunt of recently. "Is it 'cause I'm short?"
Buck laughed. He couldn't help himself. "Yeah Kid, it's 'cause you're short."
"Buck it's not funny " JD's frustration at his rough time from one of the ranch workers was because he had failed miserably to deal with it and not involve his brothers. Vin had found out about the situation, and despite protests from his kid brother, promised JD it would be taken care of discretely. This newest snub by a local horse dealer by the name of Alton Danson had added to JD's misery. He feared he was never going to be taken seriously like the rest of his brothers, and figured he would just have to suck up the fact he simply didn't have the authority the rest of his family possessed.
Sobering at the realization JD was taking things to heart more than he'd realized, Buck lightly punched JD's arm. "Sorry, I was just joshing. Come on, it's almost dinnertime."
Shaking his head, JD pushed past Buck, stood and headed for the bathroom he shared with him. "Nah, you go ahead, I'm not hungry right now."
Before Buck could argue the point, JD had disappeared into the room. "Damn." With a sigh, the brunet headed downstairs to join his brothers.
JD's absence at the dinner table naturally aroused interest. Josiah frowned. "I felt sure John Daniel would want to tuck in to Nettie's baking. She's outdone herself today. The smells have been driving me mad all afternoon."
When Vin's usual 'all the more for me' was not forthcoming, concern grew. "Vin, is something going on?" Chris asked.
Tanner glanced at Buck, and not missing it, Chris laid down his fork. "One of you, damnit."
With a nod from Buck, Vin answered. "One of the ranch hands got JD doin' a few job that don't exist. The kid heard him laughin' to the others when he said somethin' about 'orderin' the kid around is like stealin' acorns from a blind pig'."
"Who?" Chris growled, not missing the others' reactions to that news.
"Easy, Cowboy Buck and me got it covered."
"Actually, there's more."
Now Vin was frowning at Buck, his expression turning feral. "Lambert's done somethin' else?"
Chris stood. "Lambert, right "
Buck grabbed his arm. "Whoa, ease up there, Stud. You know bunkhouse ribbing goes with the territory. Let me and Vin deal with Lambert, I need you to deal with Danson."
Re-taking his seat, Chris stared in confusion. "Danson? Alton Danson?"
Buck nodded. "Just give him a heads up that if either of the seven of us confirms a deal, he's to take their word for it, and not wait on you."
"This about the stallion?" Chris wondered. Buck nodded. Chris pursed his lips. "Okay, Danson's mine, you deal with Lambert."
"I assume your management of this unsavory set of incidents will factor in JD's sensitivity to his treatment and how he's perceived with our employees." Ezra grinned at the 'duh' expressions he received. "May I assist?"
"Not sure," Vin replied. "I'll let you know."
Several days later, and JD and Josiah were sitting on the top fence of the corral watching Chris take their new stallion through its paces. The pair viewed in awe as their brother's expertise flowed through him to give the feisty horse the reassurance he needed to trust his new master.
"How'd someone get that good?" JD wondered, his gaze never straying from the spectacle.
"I reckon it's all about the natural ability," Josiah replied, also engrossed. "Clearly Chris is skilled, and learned from growing up in the business. However, especially when working with animals, natural talent makes all the difference."
JD sighed. "Yeah, I guess."
Josiah grinned and squeezed the boy's knee. "Brother, you have that gift. You, Vin, Buck, and Chris you all do." He smiled wider when JD turned his head to him.
"Really? Is that down to Linc, do you think? Only Mom never had any dealings with horses, living in the city and all; nor me much for that matter, except for that one summer I spent helping out at a riding school to earn some money." JD didn't elaborate on how that was the year his mom became too sick to work any longer and that they barely kept a roof over their heads from that day.
With a nod, Josiah turned his attention back to the activity at the center of the paddock. "Genetics most certainly would have a part in it, yes."
"As I understand it, our great, and great, great grandfathers also ran a successful stud ranch, yes?"
JD nodded, and smiled. "Oh yeah."
Josiah chuckled at the beaming youth next to him. JD loved to fit together pieces of the puzzle of his new life. He figured it helped the boy find peace to have yet another tie to this wonderful family Linc Larabee inadvertently created. They waved to Vin and Buck as they exited the barn, before all four, plus Chris, turned toward a vehicle rolling up their long driveway. Instinctively, all five brothers moved together to greet the unexpected visitor.
When a stranger climbed out of the halted rental car, Chris stepped forward. "Howdy. Can we help you?"
The man with short, dark hair, graying at the temples, and wearing jeans, a biker tee and an up-market version of a biker jacket extended his hand, and smiled when Chris did likewise to shake it. "This is the Double L?"
All five nodded. Chris answered. "It is." He frowned when the man scanned the group, his face lighting up when he spotted JD.
It didn't take a genius to see JD taken aback by the man's presence and subconsciously Buck and Vin moved to flank their youngest.
"Brock?" JD released a small yelp when the man stepped closer and pulled him into an embrace. He released the startled youth to get a good look at him.
"Damnit, son, I been looking for you for months."
Trying not to panic at the paternal reference, JD blinked. "Really? Why?"
The man appeared to look ashamed. "When I heard about your ma, I was real upset. I asked around, but was told you'd headed out here." He smiled. "John, I know I did bad by you and your mom, but well, I guess when I grew up some and got over the shock of being a father, I came back. I tried, truly I did, but I guess we were never meant to be as a couple "
JD stepped back to meet a warm wall of solid, tense muscle. Buck placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him. "Father? Wha ? Father? You you're not my father," JD breathed, his whole world teetering on the brink of crashing down around him.
The man waved a hand. "I know, I know, quite a shock, huh? And there's me blurting it out like that, the very thing I promised not to do." He scratched at his stubbled chin and shifted awkwardly, unaware he was being scrutinized by skilled Texan eyes. "Your mom never claimed it officially, but we knew. I came out here hoping we could talk some, maybe get to know each other "
JD was desperate to halt this nightmare, but nothing he did seemed to wake him. "I have had, a father and now I have brothers. You're talking crazy."
"Mister, if this is some kind of joke, it's not funny," Buck hissed out.
"Joke? Why would I joke about a thing like this?" He pointed to JD. "Ask him. He knows me and his mom were together "
"No!" JD was visibly shaking. "No you weren't. You just lived a couple of doors down "
Brock smiled. "Son "
JD wagged a warning finger at him. "Don't call me that don't ever call me that. I'm not your son I'M NOT!" Finally managing to break through between Buck and Vin, JD rushed off into the house.
"I think you should leave," Vin more warned than suggested.
"Guys, I can leave, but it won't change anything." He shrugged his acceptance that he would be going and turned to get into his car. "Tell Johnny I'll be in touch."
For a while, no one moved as the car started, did a U-turn, and then drove away. Finally, Buck spun on his heels and followed JD into the house. Vin swallowed the lump in his throat, and attempted to confirm his belief that the man was lying, but those words refused to be uttered. Instead, his emotions took the fore.
"This is fuckin' bullshit."
Josiah and Chris wanted to agree, but a knot of fear in their stomachs was currently exerting a stranglehold on their hearts until their minds finally accepted the thought being forced into them.
'But what if it's not?'
"JD? Where's the " Ezra startled as JD rushed past him and up the stairs. " Fire?" he finished as he watched the boy take the stairs two at a time. He looked back to the door when Buck followed in an identical manner.
"Buck what ?" Ezra's exasperation grew as Buck ignored him too. Spotting Nathan exiting the kitchen, he waved. The doctor stopped and frowned.
"Why are you waving at me?"
Standish nodded. "Oh, marvelous. For a moment there I thought I might be invisible." Both men turned to the door when Josiah, Chris, and Vin came in. Chris pointed toward the kitchen.
"We need to talk."
Buck knocked the bedroom door for the third time. "JD, come on, Kid. Let me in." He sighed with relief when the handle turned and the door opened, but it was short-lived when he saw JD's anguish. "Aww, Kid " He stepped inside and pulled the reluctant body into an embrace, grateful when JD's stiffness turned into a heartfelt clinch. It was a good minute before JD spoke.
"We we're not brothers "
Emotion racked the smaller body, but Buck pushed him back and, while holding JD's shoulders he stared into distraught features. "Now you just hold on there, little brother. Nothing that man can say, do, or try to prove, will change what's between us. We're kin family, and that's all you need to know."
JD's face crumpled. "But what if he's not lying?"
Buck pulled JD back into him. "He is. I don't care how long or how much money it takes to prove it, we will. Y'hear?" He felt JD nod against him, and as he gripped his brother tighter, Buck hoped his fear for JD's torment wasn't as obvious as he felt it to be.
Breakfast next morning found six stunned men staring at their plates. JD had risen early, and Vin just caught the back of the youth riding out on his horse. With little appetite, they decided to talk instead of eat.
"Thoughts?" Chris prompted.
"It's fuckin' bullshit," Vin reiterated.
"Evidently," Ezra concurred. "So the question is, what does the reprobate want from this?"
"Kid's heartsick," Buck stated, absently, his features reflecting an identical demeanor.
Josiah nodded. "While we all know Linc could not have been wrong about this, JD's inconsolable. I fear he already doubts his birthright."
"I'll take him to the hospital." All eyes turned to Nathan. "He needs a paternity test."
"DNA!" Buck clapped his hands together. "When? Now?"
The doctor stood. "I'll go arrange for it as soon as possible."
Turning, Nathan nodded at Chris. "It'll take about three days. JD's co operation is a no brainer, and we have Dad's details on file, but I need a hair follicle, or a blood or saliva sample from the guy claiming to be his father."
"Consider it done," Ezra, Buck, and Vin said together, before offering wry smiles.
"Is it legal to take a sample without permission?" Chris asked, sensing the mood.
"Only if the subject refuses to acknowledge it was given freely," Nathan replied, before heading into the study.
"Oh, he'll give freely," Buck promised, pushing back his chair to stand.
"I got me a contact in Boston," Vin added, now also on his feet. "I'll see what he can dig up on this fella."
"I'll pull JD's paperwork together," Josiah offered, already moving toward the study after Nathan. "Get as much background and documentation ready as is available."
Pushing up from his chair, Chris nodded his approval. "Good. I got me a hunch where JD was headed. I'll talk to you all later."
Milagro nuzzled the hand stroking his nose. JD smiled, kissed the velvet muzzle, then looped the reins around a bush before walking over to a group of tombstones in the small cemetery he was visiting. He shared the flowers he was carrying between Linc's and his mother's graves, before sitting down on the soft grass covering them. He sighed, heavily.
"Aww Mom, what is Brock talking about?" While he spoke, he snatched up clumps of grass to toss into the warm, gentle breeze. "I mean, I know you two seemed close for a while, but " he took a shuddering breath. "But, I never figured it was 'cause of *that* " He swallowed, thoughts of how the ranch hands saw him, and business associates treated him, racing to the fore. "Maybe I really don't have that 'Larabee' gene after all, huh? It sure would make some sense about a few things."
His fingers still tugged out manicured blades as he looked up, tears spilling from his eyes. JD glanced back in the direction of the ranch. "I love it here," he whispered. "I love the guys, my life. Having six big brothers is, next to you being here, the best thing ever." He glanced at the two headstones and directed his comments to the pair who had claimed him as theirs. JD was fighting sobs now. "I mean, I know what Buck said and all, but " he sniffed. "But, things would never be the same again if Brock's not lying."
JD covered his face with his hands and bowed his head. "I I'd have to leave."
"Over six dead bodies."
JD jerked hard at the unexpected intrusion. He glanced back over his shoulder. "Chris," he sniffed, swiping at his eyes with his jacket sleeve. Not having the energy to move right then, JD watched the blond approach and join him on the grass.
Chris pointed at the severed, root-heavy blades. "You keep dragging on them, and we're gonna have to sow in grass seeds."
JD brushed off his hands in reply, then hugged himself. "How did you find me?"
"Well, I figured you'd want to come out and talk with dad, and your ma." Chris smiled. "'Course the big square of missing blooms from Nettie's wildflower patch pretty much sealed it for me."
JD looked at Chris, then back to Linc's grave. "He's not my dad." He looked down at the hand on his arm.
"Yeah, he is. I'd bet the ranch on it. Once the result of the test comes through "
JD's head turned sharply to his brother. "Test?"
Chris nodded. "A paternity test. Nathan's arranging for one." He halted the impending argument. "We as your family, don't give a shit about what this fella from Boston is spouting, or having to prove it, but once it's legal, that sonuvabitch will have nothing left but to piss off back to Boston for good. Comprende?"
Hearing Chris's words and seeing the conviction in his face almost made JD smile. Almost, but not quite.
"If he's so wrong, why'd he come all the way out here?"
Chris squeezed the arm in his grip. "That's what we're aiming to find out."
Buck, Vin, and Ezra had searched through the day to find out where Brock was staying, but with no luck. Entering Rosie's, their surprise and relief was evident when the man himself staggered around the clientele handing out fat cigars. Inez glowered at them.
"Are you seeing what I have to endure?"
"How long's he been here?" Vin asked.
"All day. He has been drinking, and generally obnoxious, while handing out cigars and proclaiming to have just become a father, and also to have fallen into prosperity." She faked a spit. "I pity the child."
"Prosperity?" Ezra asked, leaning into the bar so as not to draw attention to themselves. Inez nodded. Buck nudged the southerner.
"Go parley with him, Ezra. He never met you, he might just talk."
With a touch to his temple in salute, Ezra watched Vin and Buck skulk off to a darkened booth, and then proceeded to make his move. He smiled, and strolled over to Brock's table.
"My heartiest congratulations."
Brock Truman frowned. "Huh?"
"I understand your wife has given birth."
Truman smiled and tucked a fat cigar into Ezra's jacket pocket. "Something like that, yeah."
"Thank you for the splendid cigar, though, I wonder, would it not be more prudent to be thriftier? Being a new father is an expensive undertaking." His eyebrow rose when Brock out and out laughed. The man tapped his nose.
"Ah, well, that's the best part. See, this little bundle of joy brings great wealth with him. This happy occasion will see me set for life."
The pair sat down. "Really? I hadn't realized the proverbial stork brought babies and riches these days."
"Ha it does when the kid's twenty and a millionaire."
Ezra swallowed hard, and would always wonder how he managed to stop himself from punching the smug bastard clean out of his chair.
As they watched events unfold, Vin's cell vibrated. Buck saw the Texan conduct a short conversation before popping the phone back into his pocket.
"Trouble?" Buck asked.
"That was my guy in Boston."
"Can he help us?"
Tanner smiled. "He said to trust him, and I do." They both looked at the man sitting with Ezra.
"Ain't no way that jerkass is gonna come for a test willingly," Buck stated. Eyes flashing as he scanned the room, he grinned. "Then again "
Ezra looked up to see Buck, Vin, and local cop Mike Handle approaching. Vin stumbled, elbowing Brock in the face as his hands caught the table in an effort to 'save' himself. Truman howled as blood poured from his nose. Vin grabbed a napkin and daubed at the outpour, apologizing profusely.
"Damn, sorry, fella. Here, let me get that for you." He offered Brock a fresh napkin, and pointed to the soiled one in his hand. "This your blood, huh?"
Confused at the question, but in too much pain to care, Truman nodded as he held the fresh napkin to his nose. "Yeah. Damn, that smarts."
"Whoa, looks like you got a bug crawling through your hair there." Buck 'flicked' at the imaginary creepy-crawly. "Ooh sorry pal, I think I snagged some of your hair. Is this your hair?"
Brock blinked as he looked at the strands caught between Buck's fingers. He rubbed at his scalp. "Oww yes! Jesus, be fucking careful, you moron." He tucked in his chin to look at his shoulder. "Did you get it? The bug?"
"You're right, I'm an idiot," Buck declared. "And yeah, I got it." He patted his shoulder. "We'll leave you in peace, pal." Realizing Brock was looking at him and Vin as if trying to place where he'd seen them before, he hastily stuffed a twenty into the guy's pocket. "Have a drink on us, pal."
Standing, Ezra joined Buck, Vin and Officer Handle as they moved away. "Now Mike," Buck said. "You heard the fella admit that was his blood and hair, right?"
Mike nodded. "Uh yeah, he did."
"Cool, and you saw him accept money, and didn't hear him question or protest us taking the samples away, did you?"
Mike narrowed his eyes. "Uh n-o-o-o."
"So, uh should we need you to testify to that that in front of a judge would you?" Vin asked.
The cop smirked. "I guess I would." Three hands pumped his as the 'samples' were carefully placed inside Zip Lock bags from behind the bar.
That night, from the porch, Buck looked toward the chink of light from the stable door. He strolled across the yard and peeked inside to see JD brushing his horse, with Toby, his donkey, in the stall with them and leaning hard into the boy's hip.
"Need a hand?" Buck instantly regretted not making more noise when he saw JD jerk, Milagro whicker, and Toby snort as if in disgust at the intrusion.
Recovering, JD nodded. "Sure, if you want."
"Sorry. If I'm disturbing you "
"No." JD turned to him and smiled, thinly. "No, company would be nice, thanks."
Picking up a brush and comb, Buck joined in the grooming. "Worried about the test tomorrow?" He noted the 'well duh' and chuckled, softly. "Yeah, sure me too."
JD spoke after a long pause. "Funny how something could be so wanted, yet so not looked forward to at the same time."
"You got nothing to worry about, JD. You must know that."
JD shrugged. "I thought I did, but I keep thinking yeah, maybe Mom and Linc did have se " he coughed. "Make love, but what if she thought she was pregnant with me when she left here, but wasn't?"
Buck stopped brushing. "You think she went to Boston, screwed around with that douchebag as soon as she got there, then had you less than nine months later?" He noted the horrified look on JD's face and ignored it. "Never in a month of Sundays, Kid. She was a fine, honorable lady and left here carrying you. It happened just as Dad said. Your ma may have felt she'd done wrong, but the one thing Dad always maintained each one of his boys was conceived in love." His gaze softened.
"You're Linc's and you're ours, and we don't need no fancy test to tell us that." He touched a hand to his heart. "We know *I* know; in here." His gaze met JD's sorrowful stare.
"God Buck, I hope so. I don't think I could bear it if I'm not Linc's son." His next words were whispered. "If we all aren't brothers." JD wasn't really surprised to find the brunet at his side. He leaned in to the offered support.
"I don't care either way," Buck stated. "You're my little brother, and nothing's gonna change that nothing."
Early next morning and dressed in a hospital gown, JD sat in a curtained area, and on a trolley bed, his legs swinging idly over the side as he waited for the doctor. While standing next to JD, Chris watched Buck pacing. JD was acting indifferently, but his body language suggested he was anything but.
A man in a semi-long white coat entered the room with Nathan. Chris and Buck watched as the doctor talked JD through the procedure, before taking swabs from inside JD's mouth, and then sealing them in marked vials. When JD opened wide for the doctor, he looked like the little boy lost he always tried to deny. Chris prayed the results would not only come back favorably, but faster than three days.
Several hours later, the seven men were in Rosie's Bar for lunch, but no one was particularly hungry. JD was forlorn and it was painful to see. No one missed his wistful glances around at the men, and the lack of banter was stifling. When Truman walked in and headed toward them, JD visibly wilted, and six men's hackles rose.
"Don't recall inviting you here," Chris challenged. Brock smiled.
"Now, is that any way to be speaking to Johnny's Pappy?" No one expected JD's sudden rise to his feet.
"I'm not your son, and no matter how much you try to prove it, I never will be " he thumbed at his heart. "Not here, anyway."
"Why are you fighting me, John? I just want to get to know you, boy."
"Well, thanks, but I'm not interested."
"Not even when I tell you I'm suing these fine fellas here for the anguish and anxiety I've suffered and that's been caused by the trauma of them making false claims and luring my son out of Boston and away from his only living relative? And of the strain searching for you has put on my health."
JD's jaw dropped as he stared at the exceptionally robust man. "Is that what you're interested in? Money? Well in that case "
"I believe," Ezra drawled, standing and moving slightly in front of JD, "That if you're spoiling for a legal battle, sir we have the means to tie you up in litigation until you're way too old and frail to appreciate any recompense, let alone spend it."
Brock grinned and bobbed his eyebrows at JD. "There son, you see what type of people you've come to associate with."
JD glanced around at the others. "Yeah, I do. Good people too good for the likes of us." He brushed against Brock's shoulder as he left the inn. "And quit calling me 'son'."
"You see?" Truman gestured after the boy. "Now you've upset him. All I wanted was to talk to him"
Buck stood and leaned in. The only reason he hadn't lashed out was due to the knuckle-whitening grip Chris and Josiah had on his arms. "Buckle up, Pard, you're in for a rough ride."
Brock went to speak, but the feral returned looks unsettled him, especially from the man in dark clothing. "Whatever." With that, he left.
Vin shuddered. "Shoot, I've met some slime balls in my time, but he's pure evil."
"Nope, just pure greedy." It was becoming all too apparent now why this man was here. Chris sighed, wishing it was two days on to prove what they already knew, while wondering if they paid the man off, as he clearly wanted them too, would it help?
Two days on, and in the early hours of the morning JD stared up at his brothers' features smiling back at him from the new family portrait that hung over the mantle in the big room. Apart from Buck, JD couldn't see many physical connections to him. Moving to the study, he gazed at the older portrait of his father and the original three sons. He did have his dad's jaw line, and maybe his eyes but then his mom's eyes were hazel, too. He felt his chin tremble.
"Aww Mom, I could really use talking to you right now."
"Whatcha up to?"
JD startled, then shook his head at Buck. "Shoot, I'm gonna put a bell on you!"
Buck grinned. "I could tell you a story 'bout that "
"No, no I'm good, thanks," JD mock warned.
Draping an arm around JD's shoulders, the pair gazed at the image of Linc smiling back at them. "Thinking of Dad?"
"Come on, let's go get a drink and talk."
As they exited the study, five brothers smiled back at them. "Made some hot chocolate, if you're interested," Chris offered.
Vin winked. "No worries if you don't, I can drink three..."
JD laughed, and it lifted everyone's spirits. He'd barely smiled in two days. "Nah, wouldn't want you upchucking after drinking three of those, would we?"
Sitting around the kitchen table, the seven talked about growing up. Leaning against Buck, and for the first time since Brock's appearance, JD slept, right there, in the kitchen; drifting off to tales of Linc's fascination with the fairer sex, and laughter at Buck's declaration that he couldn't understand the attraction.
The seven brothers were gathered in the big room, their demeanors as gloomy as if waiting on news of a death sentence. Vin paced the living room like a caged lion. Chris stood leaning against the mantelpiece, his mood dark, and enclosed. Ezra was drumming his fingers against the arm of the couch he was sitting in, while Nathan, sitting on the opposite end, watched each brother anxiously. Josiah brought in a tray of coffees, and smiled at Buck, who had pulled JD in close to ease the boy's trembling. Everyone jolted when the doorbell sounded. Opening the door, they frowned at the doctor who had taken JD's swabs, and were instantly alarmed that the man had come to tell them the news in person.
After being urged to sit, but no one taking up the offer, Doctor Maggs addressed JD. He opened his briefcase and handed over a large, manila envelope. "Would you like to open it, or shall I just say it?"
Taking the envelope, JD clutched it to his chest and swallowed hard. He glanced around at his family and, grateful for the presence of Buck right next to him, nodded. "Just say it," he rasped.
Maggs went to speak when Vin's cell rang and interrupted him. Apologizing to them all with a glance, and hoping a quaking JD wouldn't fall over before the call ended, Vin listened, expressed his thanks to the caller, and as he closed his phone, gestured for the doctor to continue.
Maggs looked at them all and then rested his gaze on JD. He grinned. "Congratulations, you have a little brother."
Despite the whoops, pats to his back, and hi-fives all around him, JD remained frozen to the spot, expecting any minute to wake up in bed and find this part was all a dream. He blinked slowly as each brother was also handed an envelope from the briefcase.
"An excellent idea, boys. Your tests also confirm each one of you is the son of Linc Larabee." He turned to leave. "Have a happy life, JD." Politely refusing the offer of a drink, the doctor left the family alone to celebrate.
JD inhaled a shaky breath, but hadn't even realized his knees had buckled until he was sitting on Buck's recliner and holding a glass of water in his trembling hands. Dark curtains of hair obscured his face when he bowed his head to hide his emotion. Buck was having none of it and, pulling JD's head against his hip, he gently massaged the heated scalp with his fingers before his declaration broke the collective, apprehensive pause.
"Not that any of us ever doubted it."
His raspy words hit home as all six of them looked around at each other. When they were called into the attorney's office that fateful day and told the news about their father's past, and his hopes for their future, their thoughts had turned to their mothers, and all that the news of Linc's association with them entailed. The family had never once considered that the ladies, or Linc could be wrong, so this incident had shaken them all more than they realized. In hindsight, they were now grateful Nathan suggested they all took the test to ensure this never happened again.
Vin stepped forward, dropped to balance on his haunches and, taking JD's hand, he waited until red-rimmed eyes looked up to meet his.
"The call I took it was from a bounty hunter friend of mine, in Boston." He smiled at JD's alarmed expression. "He confirmed Brock Truman, ex-con, did eight years of a fifteen year sentence in MCI Shirley for armed robbery of a liquor store."
Buck couldn't help himself. "When?"
Vin outright laughed. "Slap bang in the middle of JD's immaculate conception that is, of course, if you ever could have believed he was the kid's dad." He gave a wary look to the man who appeared about to hug him. "Easy Bucklin."
Vin turned back to JD. "Figured it wouldn't hurt to get as much info on the dirtbag as possible, huh?" His heart clenched when JD nodded and the tear he was fighting to contain slid down his cheek. Still holding JD's hand, Vin smiled.
"Word is, he moved into your neighborhood when you were just a little fella. Some of your neighbors still live there, and there was one who recalled he tried to get close to your mom, but she wouldn't have any of it. He was outta the neighborhood in less than three months." Vin licked his lips. "My friend also discovered Brock has an outstandin' warrant on him for jumpin' bail. He passed the information on to the local cops, and it would seem Truman has since skipped out without payin' his hotel bill, and leavin' them with a stolen credit card."
JD was slowly nodding. He vaguely recalled Truman being around once or twice when he was just a little thing, and Brock had also once paid them a visit while JD's mom was really sick. He hadn't stuck around for long once he learned how ill she was. It didn't surprise him the man was a crook. Looking up, the youth finally found his voice.
"Thank you." JD glanced at each one of his smiling family. "Thank you all. You never once doubted it y'all are better men than me."
Chris shook his head and ensured JD was looking at him when he spoke. "No, don't put yourself down like that. There's not a man among us who could know how to react to that kind of information." Everyone nodded.
Chris grinned. "Don't know about you guys, but I could sure use a trail ride right about now."
JD stood, his voice thick with emotion. "Sounds great." He pointed. "Just need to use the bathroom."
Before he could leave, Buck and Josiah pulled the seven men into a heartfelt group clinch. It didn't last long, but for those few seconds the strength of brotherhood flowed through them, and began the healing process.
ONE WEEK LATER
After helping to unpack the weekly groceries, JD bounded from the kitchen. "Can I have blue, I don't want yellow!"
With his head lowered as he read, Chris complained from his seat at the dining table. "For the love of God, it's just a freakin' toothbrush, JD. Quit yelling, I'm trying to read."
Rolling his eyes, JD glanced at a grinning Josiah and silently mimicked his brother. Without looking up, Chris picked up an apple from the fruit bowl to one side of him and lobbed it at JD, just missing his head.
JD ducked, and watched the projectile sail just over his hair "Hey!"
Enjoying a coffee, and from his seat next to Chris, Nathan chuckled and turned to the blond. "Good shot!"
"Dreadful," Chris sighed, marking a leaf in his book before looking up. "I was aiming for the toothbrush in his hand." He glared at JD when the fruity missile returned and knocked the book from his fingers. Chris stood.
JD gulped. "Oh shit!"
Now Josiah and Nathan were laughing heartily as the normally composed family leader jumped to his feet and chased their wailing youngest out of the house. The former turned to the latter.
"It's good to have things back to normal."
Nathan nodded. "It sure is."
Buck and Vin came in and walked through to the kitchen, followed by an inquisitive Ezra. "Seriously, I have to know, why is Lambert rubbing horse excrement into his face?"
Josiah and Nathan stared at each other before rising and following the three. This they had to know, too.
Handing out beers to whoever was interested, Buck twisted off the top of his bottle, took a long pull, then grinned as he leaned back against the sink. "Good for the skin isn't it, Vin?"
Tanner nodded. "So I heard. Good to neutralize lye dust, too."
Nathan's smile disappeared. "Lambert got lye dust on his face?"
Buck chuckled. "Uh, he thinks he does." He glanced at Vin. "`Course, it's just flour, but if he knew that, he wouldn't have rubbed in Vin's miracle cure to stop his skin from burning."
Nathan's grin was back. "Miracle cure? You mean horseshit."
Vin shrugged and took a drink. "Eh, you say tomahto, we say tomayto "
Buck nudged his cohort. "'Bout time to ante up, huh?"
Unwilling to miss the show, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan followed them out.
While being watched by stunned ranch hands, Dirk Lambert was liberally rubbing the contents of a juicy, green, horse's apple into his face and hands. Seeing Vin and Buck returning, he hurried toward them.
"Is this enough fellas, huh? Have I put enough on?"
Peering into the man's poop-encrusted face, Buck wrinkled his nose and glanced at Vin. "Ooh, I reckon that should do it, what do you think, Vin?"
Tanner made his own inspection, but his reply was more feral, and just loud enough for all to hear. "No, not nearly enough to make up for the shit he's been feedin' JD lately. But I guess it'll have to do for now " Vin leaned in to the sounds of ranch hands laughing. "But if we ever catch you gloatin' over windin' up the kid, or any of our family again, we'll be spoon-feedin' horseshit to you, right before we kick your ass off this property. Got it?"
With realization sinking in, Dirk nodded. "Got it. Boys, I'm sorry. The teasing kinda got out of hand. I really do like the kid we all do."
It was Buck's turn to lean in, now. "And that's the only reason you're standing there covered in horse crap, instead of buried face down in it."
Returning to the house, Ezra chuckled. "Remind me never to attempt to pull one over on you boys."
"Oh, you can try," Vin winked. "There's plenty of horseshit to go around."
They all laughed, knowing Vin would rather cut off his arms than hurt any of his family. Buck halted them. "No telling JD about this at least, not just yet. We figured we'd tell him over dinner, tonight."
Vin nodded, then made a face. "I may be wrong, but I don't think JD's gonna see this as being handled discretely."
"No shit," Buck replied, causing more laughter, whether the pun was intended, or not.
Later that day, and armed with blooms shop bought this time, JD divided them between Linc's, Sarah's, and Adam's graves, and then Chris's, his, Buck's, and Nathan's mom's graves. Brushing off his mom's headstone, he sighed.
"I'm sorry I doubted you, Mom. Well, I didn't really, I guess, but there was a moment back there when I feared you and Brock might actually have met each other just after you left the Double L. I can't begin to tell you how glad I am that wasn't the case." He swallowed hard. "I couldn't bear the thought of losing the guys now." He plopped down onto the grass, ignoring the dampness seeping into his jeans from the early morning rain shower.
"You never talked much about Dad, but when you did, especially as I got older, I never doubted the love you held for him, or that there had never been another man for you before, or since him." Like before, he began plucking at the grass. "The guys reckon he found out the family got money, and came here to scare me, and hopefully get them to pay him off. I guess he never figured how fierce this family unites to protect each other." He smiled; the pride and affection in his tone for his brothers evident.
"I love you, Mom. I never told you this often enough, but you were always my hero. You took care of me all alone, and every day was filled with hardships, but also with love. Thank you."
With one last adjustment to the flowers in the pot at the foot of the headstone, JD stood and brushed himself down. Turning, he grinned at the distant line up next to Milagro of six men atop horses. He waved to them, and cast one more glance back at his mother's resting place.
"You'll always be my hero, but I hope you don't mind, I got six more now, too."
A soft breeze ruffled his dark hair and JD smiled. "Thanks, Mom."