The Ranch
VII. Christmas Eve

by Karin


Sporadic hues of blue, green, yellow and red filled the living room; reflecting faintly on the face of the man that sat in a chair, mesmerized by the flickering lights.

The lights danced, adding to the joyfulness of the time of year. The sparkles contrasted starkly with the posture of the man sitting in the overstuffed chair. One arm lay still and straight on the armrest, the other supported the slightly tilted face with a fisted hand, the elbow firmly planted on the other armrest.

He arose from the chair slowly, as if it took all his strength to pull the motion off. He shuffled his feet towards the object emanating the colors. The shades became less distorted, becoming sharper as he got closer and closer to the magnificently decorated Christmas tree.

His knees began to bend, slowly lowering his body until he was crouched at the foot of the tree. His gaze perused the many colored packages surrounding the tree; with a weighted sigh, Chris Larabee lifted a gift from under the tree. With an unsteady hand, he brought the present closer. His fingertips touched the letters of the handwritten tag, as if he could touch the person who'd written the words.

To Dad Love, JD

"Chris," Buck said softly, touching the shoulder of the man he'd watched from the entryway.

"Go away, Buck," Chris responded without even turning to the man.

"Can't do that, cowboy," Vin stated as he followed behind Buck. "Made a promise we'd watch after ya'."

"Don't need a keeper," Chris answered quietly.

"Maybe not, but ya' need your friends," Buck said.

"We're all hurtin' here Chris, maybe not as much as you..." Vin began, but his voice faltered. "We feel it, too."

"Least we had Thanksgiving," Chris said as he stood slowly and faced the two men.

"Think that was probably the first real Thanksgiving that boy ever had," Buck smiled sadly as he spoke of the memory.

"Kid's eyes were bigger then the turkey platter," Vin shared.

"Gloria was ready to kill him," Chris nodded, a small smile creasing his lips as he remembered the voices that had brought him out of the den the day before Thanksgiving...

..."You boys go and find something to do!" Gloria ordered with aggravation as she knuckled a hand with her wooden spoon.

"Ow! I was just testing it!" JD squealed as he retracted his hand from the bowl he'd been trying to sample.

"You can taste it tomorrow. Now, you two take him out of here so I can get things done!" Gloria said, pointing the wooden spoon towards Esau and Travis.

"Come on JD, you keep after Mrs. Potter like ain't gonna have any fingers to hold your silverware with," Esau said, tugging on JD's arm.

"'Side's, the food tastes better when you haven't sampled it," Travis added his two cents.

"Well, how am I supposed to know if I'm gonna like it, if I don't try it?" JD asked; thinking Mrs. Potter was distracted JD attempted another sneak...


...only to be rewarded with the wooden spoon snapped across his knuckles again, a bit more forcefully than before, and a glare from Gloria Potter that would rival any one of his father's.

"Is there a problem in here?" Chris asked, curios to what all the smacking sounds were all about.

Four voices responded all at the same time.

"...can't get a thing done with these boys pestering me," "...he keeps snitching," "...she keeps smacking my knuckles with that wooden spoon," "...maybe you should take the hint JD, and she'll stop hitting you," "so what you're on her side now?" "...not what I said," "...wish they'd just leave so I can get things done," "...if I like it if I don't try it?" "...have half a mind to just leave, let ya'll fend for yourselves..."

Chris watched as the four continued to bicker, his head turned to the table only to see Vin sitting silently, his shoulders jumping and his head shaking.

"ENOUGH!" Chris yelled and all the chattering stopped. Gloria, unfazed, turned back to her task of mixing ingredients, while three teenage boys looked like deer caught in headlights. Chris chanced a glance to the table only to find Vin gone.


"Enough I said. Leave Mrs. Potter to do her baking. Go for a ride, a walk, whatever. If you can't find something to do to keep yourselves busy, then I'll find something for you to do," Chris stated with authority.

"But..." JD tried again.

"JD, you just got that cast off two weeks ago. I'd hate to have to take you back to the hospital and explain to them how you got your knuckles broken. So, I suggest you leave the food alone and find something constructive to do."

"Let's go upstairs and play PS2," Travis suggested.

"Outside," Chris growled.

"Come on guys, let's go to the cabin...if that's okay with you Mr. Larabee," Esau asked.

"That'd be fine," Chris smiled tightly.

"Come on," Esau begged softly, tugging at the other two, and successfully led them out of the house.

"VIN!" Chris bellowed as he turned and left the kitchen.

Vin stepped out from the stairwell and returned to the kitchen.

"Looks mighty fine Mrs. Potter," Vin smiled his compliment, his hand going to the same bowl JD had tried to sample with out success.

"Thank you dear," Mrs. Potter replied, with a curt slap to the knuckles with the dreaded spoon. "Compliments will get you no where I'm afraid. Maybe you should keep the boys company?"

"I can take a hint," Vin smiled, kissing the woman on the cheek. He tried one more time as he turned to leave.

"You're already in enough trouble with Chris," she said, raising her spoon.

"Maybe I will ride out and check some fences," Vin decided.

"VIN!" Chris' voice carried as he came closer to the kitchen. Vin chose to sneak out of the house just as Chris entered the kitchen. He looked at the back of Mrs. Potter, whom's spoon now pointed to the door.

"Thank you," Chris said, and went out the door.

"Kids," Gloria sighed as she raised her head to peer out the window to see Chris catch up with Vin out side.

+ + + + + + +

Two teens walked slowly down a long, familiar, dirt driveway. At the end, a large cape style house was barely outlined in the dying daylight; lights pierced through the darkening sky, pulling the teenagers closer as they continued to walk.

"Glad you called, Travis," Esau quietly said.

"Not sure this is a good idea, Esau," Travis responded, just as quietly.

"He told us to stop by whenever we wanted. Besides, we promised JD we'd keep an eye on Mr. Larabee and the other guys," Esau shrugged, defending why they were walking to the ranch house.

"I'm gonna expect him to see him come running down the stairs in that stupid hat he puts on when we go riding," Travis smiled sadly, mentally seeing JD in the 'Bat-Hat'.

"Better than getting chased out of the house by Mrs. P.; remember what happened Thanksgiving?" Esau grinned as he found himself laughing at how Mrs. Potter warded off unwelcome 'taste testers'.

"She was madder than when we came in from the mud hole we found with the four-wheelers," Travis chuckled out.

"Glad we went to the cabin, it was a good ride," Esau nodded as he said the words.

"Yeah," Travis agreed.

They continued in silence, the light moment gone as both boys remembered their ride and what they had learned and shared with one another...

..."Mrs. P was about ready to kill you," Travis sighed as the three boys tied their horses to the hitching pole outside the cabin.

"Really JD, not your brightest move," Esau added.

"Did you see all that food?" JD asked as they entered the cabin, each finding a place to sit.

"Duuuuh. It's Thanksgiving, JD," Travis explained.

"This your first Thanksgiving?" Esau asked.

"No!" JD answered, a little harsher and quicker than the others thought necessary.

"I didn't mean it like that, JD. I know...I mean...don't take this the wrong way..." Esau began to explain. "You didn't have much growing up..."

"Had enough," JD defended softly.

"Would you let him finish?" Travis asked sarcastically polite.

"I was just thinking that maybe you didn't have this great big special dinner. You know, turkey and all the fixings," Esau said.

"We just thought..." Travis began.

"That I'd be filing through garbage cans outside of restaurants?" JD accused.

Silence entered the room as neither of the teens could answer the question. Travis and Esau had wondered what JD had done in the years before coming to Four Corners, if Thanksgiving was no more than a paid day-off, or if it had any meaning to their friend at all.

"We didn't mean to..." Esau broke the uncomfortable quiet.

"I know, I shouldn't have jumped all over you guys," JD said, keeping his head down.

"We shouldn't have brought it up," Travis added.

"It's okay," JD said. Lifting his head to look at the others he added, "Really, it's okay."

"So, did you have Thanksgiving?"

Leave it to Travis, Esau sighed silently.

"Not like this, but yeah, we had a special dinner," JD smiled.

"Like what?" Esau found himself asking, he mentally noted to not spend so much time around Travis for a while.

"You know those TV dinners?" The two friends nodded. "Well, every year, my mom would buy two, and we'd have them. She'd get the candles out and I'd set the table. She'd cook the dinners in the oven, and then we'd put them onto a plate. If we had enough money she'd even buy one of those pies or some other kind of dessert. We'd watch the Macy's parade and then we'd eat after."

Esau and Travis started to feel bad for JD, but the sparkle in his eyes and the smile on his face, made the two teens smile; JD had good Thanksgivings, maybe not the elaborate ones they'd had growing up, but they were fond memories.

"The holidays were good, guys. We didn't have much, but it was enough. What we lacked, we made up for in other ways," JD smiled.

"Sometimes wish my folks were more like your mom and Mr. Larabee," Travis sighed. "I love my family, but I don't like them most of the time. Everyone's always worried about appearances, you know? Have to act a certain way, look a certain way. All the screwing up and trouble my brothers have gotten into, I guess I'm their 'last hope'. Keep the Roy name in good standing. It sucks a big one, you know. 'Do this. Do that', 'say this, say that', 'use this fork at the Governor's mansion'."

"You're having Thanksgiving at the Governor's house?" JD exclaimed.

"Does every year," Esau sighed; he knew how much Travis hated the man.

"Don't get yourself all worked up, the guy's a jackass," Travis said.

"Least you don't have your cranky old aunt pointing out every little thing you do wrong," Esau said.

"Who?" JD asked, this had been the first JD had heard of any relatives that Esau had.

"His Aunt Nettie," Travis said with sympathy.

"She's a tad old fashioned, think she should've lived back in the late 1800's. She's got all these ways of thinking. With Aunt Nettie there's no gray, everything's black and white' right or wrong, you know what I mean? No middle ground," Esau explained.

"She'd love Ezra," JD smiled, a mental picture forming in his mind.

"No...she loves Vin, thinks he's the cat's meow. Ezra...there's another story all together," Esau and Travis smiled.

"You mean she knows all the guys?" JD asked.

"Yeah. Few years back, we had some trouble. My folks had gone to an auction in Texas; my Aunt came to stay with us. Anyway, things were getting hard, on the farm I mean, prices were down on everything. My parents went to Texas to buy this prize bull; he came from good stock and had a good bloodline. The bank was trying their best, but we were behind on loan payments. Some city slicker wanted the land, sent his goons out to reek havoc with us, so we couldn't afford to keep running with all the repairs we'd have to make.

"To make a long story a bit shorter, Mr. Larabee's old sergeant from the police department called him, told him what was going on, and asked him to look in on us, and keep an eye on the place. Mr.Larabee came over, looked at the damaged fence, brought the kids from camp over and all the guys and helped fix the place of charge," Esau enlightened the bewildered JD.

"So what's that got to do with your Aunt not liking Ezra?" JD asked, remembering the reason the whole story had started in the first place.

"Well, all these people were bustin' their butts," Esau chuckled as he spoke, Travis joining in with his own snickers. "And Ezra's sitting on a stump, that hat he wears resting on the tip of his boot, watching everybody work. Aunt Nettie sees him, walks on over to him bold as all can be and says something like, 'Man never drowned himself in his own sweat,' and Ezra, cool as always, looks up at her and says 'A gentleman does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor'," Esau said in his best 'Ezra voice'. "Or something like that," he continued through a laugh.

"So how'd you keep the farm?" JD giggled, after getting his laughter under control.

"Ezra," Esau replied.

"Huh? How?"

"Vin and Mr. Larabee 'convinced' Ezra to make a 'donation' to the cause," Travis smiled.

"Ezra paid off the loan?" JD gasped incredulously, unbelieving what was being said.

"Sort of. He paid it off for us, but as soon as the bull bred all the cows and they calved, we paid him back," Esau said with a shrug.

"So she hates Ezra, and she likes Vin why?" JD questioned, wondering if he'd missed something along the telling of the story.

"I had an Uncle that died, I think Vin and him were a lot alike. She liked him the minute she met him, and he respects her," Esau smiled.

"So when's your Aunt Nettie coming?" JD asked.

"Probably at the house already," Esau sighed, looking at his watch. "You think Mrs. P's cranky with her baking...Hell, Mrs. P's a peach compared to Aunt Nettie, she doesn't take anyone's shit," the teen shook his head. "Probably gonna get Hell when I get home, cause I wasn't there to 'welcome her'."

"It is getting late, we should get going if we're gonna make it home before dark," Travis said.

"Yeah, probably right," JD agreed.

The teens left the cabin and mounted their horses for home. None of them realized that it could possibly be the last time they would spend time at the cabin as a group again.

+ + + + + + +

A knock on the door brought Chris, Buck and Vin quickly back to the present.

"I'll get it," Vin offered, and walked to the door.

He opened the door to find Travis and Esau standing there.

"Boys," Vin acknowledged quietly, seeming hardly surprised to see them.

"We was..." Travis tried.

After a brief pause, Esau spoke.

"We just felt like we had to come," Esau stated somberly.

"Glad ya' did, Buck and Chris are in the living room, others are off doin' their thing," Vin smiled warmly.

Car lights came down the dark driveway as Vin started to close the door behind the teens that'd entered.

"...or not," he said, recognizing the car that pulled into the driveway as that belonging to Ezra.

He held the door open, the teens standing beside him, as Ezra climbed out of the car and approached the house.

"How is he?" Ezra asked.

"Hanging in there, boys just stopped by," Vin motioned to the boys with his head.

"Glad to see you all here, Mr. Larabee needs all our help to get him through this in one piece," Ezra said seriously.

"Your mother a no show, again?" Vin asked, figuring Ezra would be more likely to return to the ranch if his mother hadn't shown up at the place they were meeting.

"On the contrary, Mr. Tanner. The rendezvous went on as scheduled. After dining with Mother, I explained the recent happenings here at the ranch, and told her I felt it wasn't proper etiquette to abandon Mr. Larabee in his time of... 'grief'," Ezra explained.

"So how ya' boys doin'?" Vin asked, after smiling his thanks to Ezra.

"Okay I guess," Esau shrugged.

"I miss him," Travis said, not able to control the sniff of emotion coming over him.

"I know," Vin said, embracing the teen for comfort. "Chris is gonna be glad to see ya'," Vin added, holding Travis firmly by the shoulders at arms length. Travis nodded, wiping the back of his sleeve across his face.

"Shall we join the others?" Ezra asked softly.

The four walked into the living room, Chris was back sitting in the chair, Buck on the hearth of the fireplace; a warm sad smile crossed his features as he saw the teens enter the room.

"Travis and Esau," Buck said quietly as he walked past Chris and tapped him on the arm.

"Boys," Chris said as he stood and turned to face them.

"We don't want..." Esau was unable to find the right words.

"Just thought we'd stop in," Travis said.

"Glad you're here," Chris gave them a tired and grateful smile.

"We were just talkin' 'bout Thanksgiving," Buck said.

"JD sure liked it, glad he invited us, we had a good's a good memory to have," Esau said, an uncontrollable smile crossing his face.

"Did you know that was his first big Thanksgiving?" Travis asked.

"The fact he arose at the ungodly hour of 5 am, gave that away I'm afraid," Ezra smiled, as he remembered being woken out of a deep slumber, by the sound of utensils being dropped onto the linoleum floor...

..."May I enquire as to what you are doing up at this unforgiving hour, young man?"

"Sorry Ez, Mrs. Potter told me the turkey needed to be basted all night and if I got up, to check it," JD whispered.

"It's 5 in the morning, and with the amount of noise you are making, I doubt you are basting a turkey," Ezra said, suspecting JD was more likely 'testing' the turkey rather than basting it.

"I was trying to find the baster, JD answered in a sarcastic whisper, his hands planted firmly on his pajama clad hips.

"Yes, well, so have you any idea 'what' the instrument looks like?"

"Well, of," JD sighed. "I was gonna use a spoon, but I couldn't find one long enough."

"If I may," Ezra said; opening a drawer, he retrieved the much sought after turkey baster, and handed it to JD.

"Hey Ezra?"


"Umm, you know how to use this thing?"

"Dear Lord."

+ + + + + + +

Rain poured outside the small plexiglas shelter a young teenage boy sat in, escaping the wetness momentarily. With cold shaking hands, he retrieved a small zip-lock bag. He opened the bag with great difficulty, then held the prized piece of paper between the unsteady, and uncooperative fingers.

He unfolded the paper, reading it for what he was sure the 1000th time, still not believing what the document stated.

The smile that crossed his face as he read the paper quickly dissipated into a stern look of anger. How could that man keep this from him? Didn't he know how important this was to him? Why hadn't he told him? Did the man honestly think he'd be disappointed?

JD placed the paper back into the plastic bag. A chill gripped him, and he decided to move on. Removing his baseball hat, he ran a hand through his wet hair, slicking the wet tendrils back before placing the cap back on.

JD stood from the bench; pulling his jean jacket closer around him, he tucked each hand under his armpits, readying himself to head back into the unforgiving December rain.

The all too familiar wide smile found it's home again as JD took in a deep breath of renewed hope.

"I'm coming, Dad. I'm almost home," JD whispered as he looked into the dark sky. With another encouraging breath, JD stepped out of the shelter and into the rain. He was going home.

+ + + + + + +

Footsteps on the porch and the front door opening again brought the men out of their moment of reminiscing.

"Closed up the clinic early," Nathan explained.

"Figured I was needed here more tonight than I was at the shelter," Josiah smiled sadly, squeezing Travis' shoulder as he passed.

"We were just discussing Thanksgiving," Ezra offered as the two men found a place to sit.

"That was a wonderful day, wasn't it," Josiah grinned, his eyes seeming to sparkle.

"Wished it never ended," Chris said quietly, standing from the chair and walking to the window. "Should have done more than I did," Chris continued as he stared out the window, not really looking at anything.

"Ain't nothin' we could've done," Buck assured, knowing that Chris was no longer speaking of Thanksgiving, but was speaking of events that took place just days after and had taken JD from them.

It all started with a phone call...

..."Chris, Mary's on the line for ya'," Buck said, poking his head into den.

"Thanks," Chris replied, and then picked up the receiver.

"Mary," Chris greeted. "What kind of problem? With who?" Chris waited for an answer. "What do you mean not over the phone? Mary, what the hell's going on?" again Chris waited. "Fine, in 20 minutes," and returned the receiver to the carriage.

20 minutes later...

"She give ya' any hint?" Vin asked from where he leaned on the wall.

"Nope, just said there was a problem and she didn't want to discuss it over the phone," Chris shook his head.

"Well I guess we'll find out," Buck said, nodding his head out the window as Mary Travis' car came to a stop in front of the house.

Mrs. Potter could be heard greeting Mary as she opened the door, and then directing her to where the men were waiting for her.

She wasn't given the chance to sit.

"What's this all about Mary?"

"Chris," Mary gasped, either due to nervousness at what she was about to tell the man, or because the words had been bit out.

"Yes, please Mrs. Travis. Do tell what all this secrecy is in regards to," Ezra asked, wondering in the back of his mind if they were being sued or some other legal matter had turned up.

"There's no easy way to say this..."

"Suggest ya' just spit it out then," Vin added, becoming aggravated and alarmed by the woman's demeanor.

"This was given to me today," Mary said, her voice faltering, as she removed a blue legal document from her brief case.

Ezra took the legal document and began to read.

'Petition for Custody' was the first three words he came across, and didn't go any further.

"Is this what I think it is?" Ezra asked, all his fancy words gone with the words he'd read.

"What is it Ezra?" Chris asked; from the look on Ezra's face, his gut told him this wasn't good news and that he didn't want to read the document.

"It's a Petition for Custody, someone's stepped forward claiming to be JD's father," Mary was the one to reply.

"What?!?" was said by all the five men simultaneously.

"You said there wasn't any next of kin! How did this happen? I thought you did a background check...that's the policy isn't it?!" Chris bellowed from where he stood, not trusting himself to get too close to the woman who'd just told him unexpected news.

"He'd never been anywhere else, Chris, there wasn't any reason to do a national search," Mary tried to reason, feeling very much like a mouse amongst a group of alley cats with no way out.

"He had no idea who his father nothing! What in God's name made you think that his father stayed in Massachusetts!?" Chris continued.

"He and his mother were dirt poor Chris, he quit school to work, who's to say that she didn't...make money on the s..."

"If you are about to suggest that the boys mother acted improperly, I highly recommend you reconsider," Ezra snarled, taking a step closer to Mary, saving the woman from making a deadly mistake.

"Statistics show that women in her financial state do 'unconventional' things to earn money," Mary stated, rewording her previous statement to lighten the blow.

"And I say folks who go by what letters and numbers say are ignorant."

Mary's head turned and the men's attention focused on the woman standing in the entryway of the living room.

"Mrs. Potter, with all due respect, this doesn't concern you," Mary said coldly.

"Like Hell it doesn't!" Gloria snapped at the bewildered woman. "I'm a part of this family, too, and if what you're saying affects this family, than it does concern me! How dare you, with your holier-than-thou attitude, speculate on what that woman did or didn't do to support that boy. She did more than most mothers who could afford to do right by their children. All she did was love him, with every inch of her being."

"And you know this how?" Mary asked, smugly.

"All I have to do is look at JD. A boy doesn't grow into such a fine young man like he is, without being loved."

"That's enough...I want some answers Mary and I want them now," Chris interrupted the women's 'bickering'. Truth be told, Gloria had been waiting to let loose on the woman ever since her implicative comments about JD tending to Domonique, who had relied on the teen to comfort her after her mother's death.

"All I know is this was placed on my desk. I've spoken to the man who claims to be JD's father, and he'll be here in the morning," Mary enlightened.

"In the morning, to what? Meet JD?"

"The petition's been signed," Ezra sighed as he looked at a Judge's signature.

"He's gonna take JD?" Chris cried out, barely able to control the anger he was feeling.

"Take me where?"

The room became instantly silent as JD entered the room. He'd heard voices as he walked closer to the house, and had heard his name a few times when Mrs. Potter was 'talking', but what it had been in reference to he didn't know. As the silence grew, JD became uneasy. He looked to his father for reassurance, when he saw nothing but controlled sadness in his eyes, JD became worried. He glanced around the room, inventorying everyone who was there, so he knew nothing had happened to one of the men. He'd just left Esau and Travis, so he knew that they were safe. So, what could it be?

"What's wrong? Dad, who's takin' me where?" JD asked, his fear increasing.

"Someone's petitioned for your custody, JD," again Mary took charge.

"What?" JD laughed out. "Who?" he asked in a serious tone, realizing that this wasn't a joke.

"Your father," Mary answered, again in a soft 'happy' tone, like this was going to be good news.

"My father...I don't understand," JD said, turning to Chris.

"Your birth father has stepped forward and has filed for custody," Mary answered dryly, somehow forgetting she was dealing with people she knew...even liked. This had suddenly become just another case to her.

"And got it?" JD addressed Mary; he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Yes," Mary replied, very much in professional mode.

"Why are you smiling? You think this is good news?" JD asked, shifting into survival gear. He became oblivious to the others in the was just him and Mary. Gloria gave Buck a look of concern, she was the only one that could see JD, and what she saw in his face scared her.

"He's your father..." Mary defended. "He has a right..."

" nothing!!" JD exclaimed, taking a step toward the woman.

"JD," Chris said calmly, holding onto his son's arm.

"For 16 years he didn't give a rats ass about me or my mother! And all of a sudden he has a guilty conscious, and ...Boom...he says he wants me? And that's it? I don't get any say? What about Dad? What about him? This is bullshit!! You can't give me to this guy! I don't even know him...he doesn't know me!" JD yelled, his voice decibels above normal and becoming scratchy.

"Don't let her do this, Dad," JD begged quietly as he turned to Chris, tears streaming down his face.

The pure panic in JD's eyes tore a hole in Chris' heart.

"Please..." JD cried as Chris brought him to his chest and held him tightly.

"Get out," Chris said sternly to Mary.

"Is he going to be okay?" Mary asked.

"I think it best you leave now, 'fore ya' find yourself on your pretty little ass outside," Buck seethed as he walked menacingly towards Mary.

"Are you threatening me?"

"'s a promise. Get out."

"Ya' done 'nough, should be right proud of yerself," Vin said with a unnerving quiet.

"I'd be more than happy to show you out," Mrs. Potter offered quietly in Mary's ear, causing the woman to jump slightly.

"I can find my way out, thank you."

+ + + + + + +

"I just let him go," Chris sighed, turning from the window.

"You did everything you could, Mr. Larabee," Travis tried to assure.

"Billings walked right in, and took him. I should have taken him to the cabin, we should have run...I should have done more," Chris said tightly.

"JD knew what would happen if you ran, or if he didn't go. As it was, Billings showed up with ten cops. What were you gonna do? Get yourself arrested? Or shot?" Esau asked.

"Mr. Larabee...Chris, we exhausted every legal avenue," Ezra tried.

"Lot of good that did," Chris spat.

"Maybe we oughta leave," Travis whispered to Esau, seeing Chris beginning to lose a bit of control.

"Yeah, maybe your right," Esau agreed.

"Be best if you'd stay," Josiah's mellow voice stated over them. "Right now, I believe you two are the ones that are keeping him going, making him remember he can't lose control."

Chris looked over at the two teens, both looking very uncomfortable; he nodded his head at whatever words Buck had spoken to him, took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. Without another word, he turned back to the window, just as snow began to fall.

"God, please take care of him," Chris pleaded just under his breath, low enough for God to hear. The same request he'd asked when Seth Billings had shown up to the ranch to take JD away...

...It had been two days since Seth Billings had laid claim to JD, one day since JD had first set eyes upon the man that had been awarded custody of his 'son'.

+ + + + + + +

The men were prepared for JD to be distant and cautious of the man. When JD had learned of this man, he had become almost volatile with Mary. They expected the same when the teenager met Seth Billings, and he didn't disappoint them.

Vin had even commented that Chris' ability to unnerve a man with just one look, had rubbed off on JD; most of the first hour spent with Billings consisted of JD glaring coldly at the man, blocking every word the man said completely out...not wanting to hear anything Seth Billings had to say.

"What do you want from me?" Seth had asked, fatigued and exasperated with the young man.

"What do I want from you?" JD asked sarcastically. "That's easy...D-N-A."

"Excuse me?" Billings asked, surprised by what the teen said.

Chris had to duck his head to hide the satisfied smile that crossed his face. The others had thought of that, but due to some 'technical' procedure, Chris could neither ask for a paternity test, nor could he or any member of their tight family, offer the idea to JD. JD had to make the request himself, and if this had to become a court matter, JD had to convince a judge that he'd thought of it without any help from the men from the ranch.

"I want you to take a paternity test...if you pass and you're without a doubt the guy who donated the sperm to make me..." JD began casually.

"Donate? I knew nothing about this until just a year ago! IF you'd been listening to me you would've heard me tell you how your mother and I met, then...."

"If you are...then I'll go with you willingly; if your not, you can kiss my ass," JD continued without listening to the man, then stood to leave.

Seth grabbed him by the arm, not forcefully, but with enough pressure to make JD stop.

"I already have custody of you JD, we're leaving tomorrow," Seth said firmly.

JD's demeanor had changed dramatically the next day, and that worried Chris and the others to no end. Esau and Travis had come early that morning, they'd attempted to pack JD's room into boxes, but JD would have none of it.

'Came here with what was in my back pack, I'll leave with what was in my back pack,' was what he offered for an explanation; Josiah explained that JD didn't want the memories to follow him, Esau and Travis figured it had to do with the confidence JD had that the DNA test would turn out in his favor, and Chris and the others thought JD would bolt from this man the first chance he got.

'Take it to the shelter...someone'll need it,' JD looked directly at Josiah.

Josiah just nodded, speechless at the calm, uncaring exterior of the teen.

When the knock on the door came, Mrs. Potter begrudgingly opened the door for Mary Travis and Seth Billings.

'They're having a few minutes together, you can wait on the porch,' Gloria had said curtly, refusing to allow the couple to enter the house. 'No need of all this.' Gloria had added as she saw the patrol cars in the driveway.

'Just a precaution, we all know how Chris....'

'Yes, Mrs. Travis, we all know how Chris loves that boy, and if you were the father you claim to be, you'd see that and leave the boy here,' Gloria had sternly replied, tears streaming down her cheeks.

'Gloria,' Josiah had soothed, closing the door on the stunned Mary Travis and guided Gloria to where everyone had gathered for their farewells in the living room.

JD's calm had completely disarmed Chris. The young man had barely spoken two words. It looked as if JD was just going to walk out of the house without so much as a good-bye as he picked up his backpack and flung it over one shoulder.

Josiah had stepped in front of the young man; he wrapped his large arms around the youth. 'God speed,' Josiah said softly.

'Keep an eye on Dad,' was JD's request, one which he repeated six more times to the guys and Mrs. Potter as each person hugged JD tightly, some tighter and longer than others, as if they held tight enough, the inevitable wouldn't happen.

Esau and Travis had asked JD to write, he never acknowledged he would, but asked his friends to watch over the men, Mrs. Potter and his father. They could only nod their assurance.

'Don't worry, Dad...I'll be fine,' JD had smiled, the confidence in the words again alarming Chris.

'Don't run JD, promise me you won't run,' Chris pleaded, afraid the calmness of his son meant the young man had a plan already in motion.

'I'll be okay,' JD had avoided the plea.

Chris held onto JD until he couldn't feel the young man breathe, and the loose arm JD'd placed around his father's waist fell unceremoniously to JD's side.

'I'm not giving up. I promise,' Chris pledged before letting go of his son.

Without another word, JD walked out of the living room, opened the front door, and down the stairs to the car that waited to take him from the ranch.

Chris stood at the top of the stairs, surrounded by the others who watched the cars disappear down the driveway.

'God, please take care of him,' Chris asked quietly, several hands took turns squeezing his shoulders in support, following Buck back into the house to leave Chris to grieve alone; the others knowing that Chris wouldn't let go in front of them.

Buck and Vin each wrapped an arm around the friends of their 'nephew', all grieving and in a state of disbelieve, as they walked into the house.

Ezra held Gloria's hand tightly, Josiah placed his hands on each of the heaving shoulders, and Nathan held the other hand as they walked into the house.

Chris barely had the strength to breathe, as he slumped to the first step, reality slamming into him head first as the dust from the cars settled back onto the road. JD was gone, another son taken away. Chris was helpless to save Adam...and he'd just stood by and watched as some stranger took JD from him, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do.

JD would hate him for not fighting, why shouldn't he? Chris hated himself for not fighting harder. All Chris could hope for now was that science would confirm what JD seemed to already know...that Billings' claim was wrong.

+ + + + + + +

JD blew into his fisted hands, causing a blue mist to appear, then dissipate, as quickly as the temporary heat.

Two days. Two days he'd been walking further away from the man who'd claimed to be his father; getting closer to the man he called 'Dad', Chris Larabee, his father.

JD hugged himself, tucking his hands back to the semi-warmth of his armpits. The rain hadn't let up a bit since he'd left the bus stop an hour and a half ago, and the relief from cold hands had long disappeared when the rain finally managed to soak every inch of JD's jacket and shirt.

The only thing keeping him from out-right shivering was the thought of seeing Chris again, sitting by the fireplace as it warmed him; or was it the rage he felt towards Seth Billings.

The man had right out and out lied. He said he was his father; a father would never have done what he'd done, wouldn't have ripped him from the stability JD had become familiar with. He said he'd take the paternity test, said he'd live with the results and act accordingly, he hadn't.

Seth Billings had taken the court ordered paternity test JD had requested. The results had come in the mail 2 days later. Seth claimed parentage without divulging the contents of the envelope to JD.

JD waited for Billings to go about his nightly routine; which consisted of 'rolling a fat one', a fifth of whiskey, making 'arrangements' for deliveries, then consequently passing out in the tattered recliner in front of the TV.

JD had given Billings all but ten minutes before he began pilfering through the trash, looking for the letter that had come with the envelope. JD found his treasure 12 pieces of paper and a dozen spent roaches later.

With great anticipation he scanned the letter.

'Come on, come on' he had chanted as he looked for the meaning to the Greek he was trying to decipher. Finally, at the end of the graph-like chart, the words and numbers he'd searched for were found.

'99.99% negative. DNA not compatible.'

JD had nearly vocalized the 'yes' loudly, but maintained it as an excited whisper.

It had taken JD only 3 minutes to empty the remaining marijuana from the plastic bag, fold the precious DNA results, place it in the bag, grab his jacket, tie his sneakers, put his ball cap on and leave the scummy apartment he'd been forced to call home for nearly three weeks.

"Best present I ever got," JD quietly said, finding renewed strength as he relived the memory. "Just hope I make it home for Christmas."

JD smiled slightly as he read the sign under the streetlight. 'Wicke's High School 10 miles'.

10 miles to school, 20 miles from there to home, JD thought.

"I'm almost there Dad," he said aloud through chattering teeth. "Almost home."

+ + + + + + +

The quiet in the living room at the ranch became deafening. The men were scattered around the room in silent reflection. Travis stood next to the Christmas tree, knowing how much care went into decorating the tree... so it would be 'more than perfect.'

How JD could move after eating Thanksgiving dinner was beyond Travis. JD had plunged into the holiday head first, not avoiding any item of food on the table. More incredible to believe that JD had gotten everyone out of the house, saddled horses, and ridden out to the small fur grove, to find 'just the right tree'.

"Of all the trees..." Travis sighed, shaking his head.

"Kid took three hours finding this," Vin said, smiling at Travis as he approached the teen.

"Thought for sure Mr. Larabee was going to lose it when he picked this one," Travis grinned, remembering how Chris had rolled his eye's when Chris had asked JD about a nice full, 6 foot fur; JD's simply said 'not the right one.'

"Don't know why you're surprised he picked this one," Esau said as he joined the two, Buck and Chris following behind, the others scattered still within earshot of the conversation. "Look what he picked out for a hat to go riding in."

"I believe he picked this one for a reason," Josiah offered his opinion.

"Yeah, he felt bad for it," Buck smiled.

"I remember him referencing a certain animated holiday staple, something about feeling a kinship to the tree and a certain member of the..."

"Charlie Brown Christmas, Ezra. This is what we rednecks call a Charlie Brown Christmas tree," Buck said pointedly, showcasing the tree with a wave of his arm.

"It truly is pathetic," Ezra sighed, somewhat sympathetically as he looked at the tree.

The others looked at the tree, all had to admit the tree wasn't what they would have chosen. It seemed completely out of place in the large living room.

Josiah even said the tree was smaller than the one they had at the shelter, which happened to be a 'left-over' from a man who sold Christmas tree's.

"I think it's perfect," Chris said quietly from the chair he occupied, eyeing the tree with a mix of admiration and sadness. "Couldn't wait to get that tree up and decorated," Chris smiled, looking down into his hands. Everyone was so stuffed from eating Thanksgiving dinner; and there was JD, still bouncing around with excitement and energy as he asked what they were going to do for a tree.

JD could hardly contain himself when Chris had shrugged his shoulders and said, "Probably go to the fur grove and cut one down."

For the next hour, JD hinted about where the tree should go, painted a grand picture with words as to how it would look, then took out all the stops by pitifully begging.

Thinking JD would be pacified, Chris agreed to search for the tree; the idea of riding horses was Chris' idea, hoping the ride would either tire JD out, or at least be a slower process than taking 'Buster'.

Chris didn't realize once the tree was up, or at least standing upright, his son thought it only proper to decorate the small, thin tree. Telling the others that it wouldn't look so bad once it was decorated, added the extra incentive.

The truth was, they all just wanted to shut JD up, keep him idle for more than 20 seconds, and they hoped that decorating the tree would do just that.

Chris and the other had to admit, the tree looked fantastic when it was finally decorated. The branches, which were few and far between, were strong and stout; able to withstand any ornament the guys threw at it, light they placed on it, or any amount of tinsel they hung on it.

"No wonder he picked this tree," Josiah had stated after placing a few tinsel strands onto a branch, then standing back.

"Mind x'plainin' it to me?" Vin asked through a soft chuckle.

"Got just as many decorations on that twig as we put on last years tree," Josiah smiled, as the tree began to sparkle.

"An' yer point?"

"Last years tree had branches that bowed with some decorations, this one hasn't got any bent branches," Josiah shrugged his shoulder, the point being obvious to him.

"And this explanation is going where exactly?" Ezra asked, having listened in on the two.

"Might be small, but it's stronger than it looks," Josiah smiled, as he'd turned back to look at JD.

"Ahhh," Ezra smiled.

"Just like JD," Vin nodded.

+ + + + + + +

A cruel shiver ran down JD's spine to his feet. Knives stabbed at his hands, as the earlier chill turned to numbing cold. The rain had finally stopped, only to be replaced by an unforgiving cold, steady breeze; the convulsing jaw grew into chattering teeth, as JD's body tried to fight off the frigid air.

JD had spent so much time with his shoulders hunched over and his hands tucked securely under his arms, he was sure that he was frozen that way. He had nearly been ready to give up, to just lie down and allow his body to rest...or just give into the much sought after sleep.

Get to school, then you can take a break, JD urged himself onward.

His body and soul giving everything they could to comply and not disappoint.

JD was so cold, he couldn't even form an outward smile when he saw the big silver letters, illuminated by a spot light, indicating Wickes High School. His legs moved faster without the teen's urging, his lungs took in quick breaths of frozen air as he found himself closer and closer to his goal.

He found sudden relief as he sat on a wooden bench, the stonewall providing a much needed respite from the cool wind. The shelter gave JD warmth, at least it seemed to. Maybe it was the fact he was closer than ever to home that made him stop shivering so violently; or perhaps he'd just taken the first step of 'beyond cold' to human Popsicle. Either way it didn't matter, nothing mattered; whether Seth Billings had finally awakened from his 'cocktailed' slumber, if he was pissed that his little 'courier' had split, if Billings had discovered the 'golden chalice' had been taken and now was tucked away safely in JD's inside pocket didn't matter.

Home mattered. Family mattered. Friends mattered. The ranch mattered.

Chris mattered, his, his Dad, mattered the most.

Again JD muttered his promise of being home before Christmas, as his eyes grew heavy with each word. He'd been running for two days now, never stopping, never sleeping, and never eating.

As his eyelids no longer fought to stay open, they came closer to the desired position they'd been denied for too long. JD's last conscious thought before his eyes were completely covered was that he didn't remember being tired or hungry until that moment.

+ + + + + + +

A chill ran down Chris' back, causing Buck and the others to notice the sudden discomfort as Chris hugged himself slightly and rubbed his hands up and down his arms.

"Ya' al'right, cowboy?" Vin asked.

"Yeah, just a little cold I guess," Chris answered absently, his mind not quite there in the room with the others.

"Nearly 85 in here with the damn fireplace goin'," Buck snorted.

"Are you achy?" Nathan asked, he was comfortable with the temperature.

"No, Nathan. I'm not achy, I'm not sick or anything. Just got a chill, nothing more," Chris assured, waving off Nathan's attempts to examine the man.

Chris managed to convince Nathan, but not Vin. Something was definitely wrong. Maybe it was stress; with everything that'd happened over the last three weeks or so, maybe it all just piled up on Chris and this was the way his body was handling it. God knows Chris hadn't had a whole lot of time to deal with JD leaving. As the old adage says 'life goes on'.

Chris had barely time to breathe before the first child had arrived. Vin was glad another social worker had brought the little boy and not Mary, he wasn't too sure when Mary'd ever come far as Vin was concerned, never would be too soon.

Vin decided to make sure for himself if Chris was okay, or if this 'sudden chill' and far away look on Chris' face had more to do with the fact he would miss out on a chance to share Christmas (or any holiday for that matter) with a son he'd known for less than a year, than a draft coming through a window and finding it's way down Chris's shirt.

"Ya' sure yer okay?" Vin quietly asked.

Chris was ready to retort with a repeat of his answer, but something in Vin's eyes told him that the answer wouldn't fly, and that he could be totally honest with the man.

"He's cold, Vin," Chris answered, his head lowering as did his voice; he really didn't want to see the look on Vin's face that told him he was crazy.

"Who?" Vin asked with concern.

"JD. He's cold," Chris said seriously, looking directly into Vin's eyes.

"How do ya' know that?" Vin questioned.

"Remember when he broke his arm?" Chris asked, Vin nodded. "You're going to think I'm crazy..." Chris faltered.

"No I ain't, what about it?" Vin stated seriously. Chris looked deep into Vin's eyes, looking for any hint of doubt. He didn't see it, so he continued. "I felt it. I didn't know it, but I was waiting for him to show, it was getting pretty late. Kept myself busy watching that Western he likes to watch. Started thinking he should be on his way, then this pain shoots up from my right wrist; didn't think much about it at the time, thought it might have been a hint of arthritis. Didn't think on it until JD got home...with a broken right arm."

"I can call Mary, have her call Billings, make sure he's okay," Vin offered.

"You don't think what I just told you is a bit...weird?" Chris asked, taken back by Vin's response.

"Folks got bonds people can't always x'plain. Parents got a way of knowin' when thins ain't right with their kids without seein' it," Vin said.

"So you don't think I'm losing my mind?"

"Nope. Think yer a father who's worried 'bout his son," Vin said.

"But I'm not his father," Chris sighed.

"Maybe not on paper. Yer still his father in here," Vin pointed to his heart. "Ya' know that don't never go away."


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VIII. Christmas