The Ranch
V. Hearts and Plots

by Karin



"Your dad's going to think something's up," Travis said.

"No he won't, he won't even notice we're gone," JD said. It was Friday afternoon. Mrs. Gaines had planned a big gathering at the ranch, and JD was told he would attend. He managed to successfully avoid the discussion that Mrs. Gaines had tried to start that Monday. It was bad enough having to tolerate the sub's moods in school, but to come home on the bus and find her she was waiting for him to taunt and tease him with the fact that she wasn't just a part of his father's life, but had taken it over completely...leaving JD with no one.

"JD...tell him for Christ sakes!" Esau yelled out in exasperation. He didn't understand JD's silence, didn't understand why he just didn't come right out and tell Mr. Larabee how he felt about Mrs. Gaines. How miserable she made JD, how she treated him at day JD was the smartest kid in class...the next he's said something stupid, only to have it all start again.

"I can't...he's real happy with her," JD said quietly.

"JD, if he knew what she's been doing to you, he'd dump her in a sec, man," Travis said softly.

"But then he wouldn't be happy. Don't you get it?" JD laughed out his question.

"I can't do that to him..."

"Because of what he did for you?" Esau asked. JD nodded.

"Christ, JD," Esau sighed, understanding the magnitude of what JD was saying. "Look, I get it okay... I do. Mr. Larabee's given you a home and a family, he saved you from going back to Boston and getting screwed by the system. You think you owe him..."

" do owe him...but don't you think that every day you call him Dad he don't take that as a payment?" Travis asked.


"But nothing! He owes you too, JD! My dad told me what Mr. Larabee was like...after the fire. He blamed everyone within a ten mile radius...then blamed himself for years. When you came along you gave him back something he thought he'd lost," Esau added.

"And Mrs. Gaines is something else he lost..." JD said, trying to defend his non-action.

"What? A wife? So you're just gonna lay down like a mat...let her walk all over you, just so your dad can be happy?" Esau asked.

"I don't know... with Miss Watson coming back in a few weeks, Mrs. Gaines won't be teaching; hopefully she'll get a job somewhere else...far away somewhere else," JD said.

"She's got it made in the shade with her claws stuck into your dad JD...she's not stupid," Travis said.

"I'm sorry I even told you guys...I figured you'd get it...but don't, you just don't," JD sighed as he began to leave the Wells' barn.

"JD...we get it," Easu said with honesty.

"We just don't understand it, JD," Travis sighed.

"I won't bother you anymore, then," JD sighed and left.

"We gotta do something Travis," Esau said, concern prevalent.

"No shit Sherlock...but what?"

"We go to this cook out thing...maybe we can see if Vin has any ideas," Esau relayed.

"Nothing good is gonna come out of this...JD's gonna be pissed at us for interferring," Travis sighed heavily.

"I least I can understand pissed," Esau said.

+ + + + + + +

The back yard was packed with friends and relatives of Ella's. There must have been 25 people standing around being social, but JD'd never felt so alone. He tried to play the good son, tried to smile when he was introduced...but he couldn't pull it off. Seeing Ella with his dad just rubbed all his nerves raw. Every look, every touch, every kiss broke JD's heart.

As the introductions went on, JD pulled back casually until he made his way to a lone picnic table. He watched as introductions went on, noticed his father never looked around to see where he was...didn't notice he was even missing.

It'd been close to two weeks since his father had brought Mrs. Gaines to the ranch, and it was like she never left. He'd only spoken with his father in passing. The days of heart-to-heart talks, conversations of school happenings were of the past...JD knew that.

Chris Larabee had given him so much...he really couldn't expect it to last. He'd been happy with his mother in the two room apartment, that had come to an abrupt end. He'd been happy with his new father and the family that came with it...and that too, had ended. The only good thing, at least he would be able to see his father; although now it would be more like looking at a photograph, contact from a distance.

"Can I have your attention," Chris stood up on the porch, his voice loud. The crowd turned to see him standing with Ella at his side, a pleased smile on her face.

"We, Ella and I, would like to thank each and everyone of you for coming this evening," Chris smiled.

"We wanted our friends here to make an important announcement," Chris smiled as he continued.

Vin, Buck and Ezra looked at one another, then turned to scan the crowd. Vin slapped at Buck's arm when he saw JD standing next to the picnic table...away from the crowd looking confused. Buck signaled to Ezra and they began to make their way through the people.

"Told ya' she ain't good for him," Buck seethed as they waded through the crowd. "He should've taken JD aside an' told him before makin' some kind of announcement," Buck continued.

"Yup," Vin sighed.

For the first time in his life, Ezra was left speechless. Why couldn't Chris see what they saw? JD was HIS son after all...not theirs.

"We're getting married!" Ella said with excitement.

"Wha..?" JD managed to let out quietly, suddenly realizing that he'd lost his breath with the partial word.

"JD, son," Buck said quietly, seeing the teen's face turn white.

"Bu..." JD tried to speak.

"Easy kid," Vin comforted.

"I suggest we remove our young friend from the premises," Ezra said evenly.

Travis and Esau had shown up at the ranch just before the announcement. They had politely waded through the crowd...but picked up the pace after 'We're getting married' was blurted out.

They reached JD soon after the three men.

"Maybe you outta get Nathan," Buck said quietly, as the two teens stopped next to him, realizing that JD hadn't taken in a breath since his last attempt to speak. Travis and Esau immediately turned to do as they were asked.

"JD...come on kid...take a breath...just breathe, kid," Vin said.

JD looked to each of the men, his eyes wide with astonishment at what he'd just heard.

"Something's wrong with JD," Chris leaned over and whispered to Ella.

"They're probably sharing in his excitement," Ella whispered back, patting Chris on the chest.

"I'd better go make sure he's okay. You did tell him didn't you?" Chris asked.

"Please, Chris. I told you I'd talk to him," she smiled. Well, she had 'tried' to talk to him about their plans, was it her fault the little twit just walked away every time she tried to tell him?

"Buck?" Chris asked as he saw Vin carry JD into the house.

"You didn't tell him first," Buck snapped out, not able or wanting to hide his anger.

"Ella told him," Chris said, following Buck into the house.

"You sure of that?" Buck shot back.

"Nathan?" Chris asked anxiously as he approached the couch where his son lay, ignoring Buck's accusations.

"He just passed out...hyperventilating can do that, his breathing's okay. Guess her telling everyone you was getting married was quite a surprise for him," Nathan sighed. He too, was disappointed that Chris hadn't spoken to JD beforehand.

"It wasn't supposed to be a surprise, Ella said she would talk to him," Chris said distractedly, as he leaned over to touch his son's forehead.

"You should have told him!" Ezra yelled, finding his voice again.

"She..." Chris began quietly, the reality that maybe she hadn't told JD about their engagement began to sink in.

"Chris..." Vin said, motioning his head for Chris to join him.

Chris looked around the room, seeing the disappointment in the men's faces.

"Do me a favor boys," Nathan asked Esau and Travis who were standing with Josiah. "Go turn JD's covers down on his bed...soon as he wakes up I want him up there." Travis and Esau nodded, and left the room to do what they'd been asked.

Chris watched as his son's two friends left the room, silently wondering if they had any insight to JD's reaction to the news of his engagement.

"Chris. It's important," Vin said. Chris snapped his head back to where Vin stood, he nodded then went to Vin.

"What is it?"

"There ain't no easy way to say it, so I'm just gonna let it out," Vin sighed, then stepped closer to where Chris stood.

"I done some checking on Ella," Vin started.

"You what?" Chris asked.

"She come out here after her husband died, he was killed for his land," Vin stated.

"So far you aren't telling me anything I don't know. She suspected that Culpepper Mining Company had something to do with his death. This guy, 'Handsome' Jack Averill, got off due to some technicality," Chris conveyed what he knew.

"She put the house on the market, Culpepper bought it," Vin said, his tone remaining even.

"I know that!" Chris shot back. "Ella told me the whole thing, Vin!"

"She tell you that she's on the board of Culpepper? She partially owns it," Vin asked, growing impatient with the man.

"She sold off her shares," Chris defended. "All in the past."

"She's still getting 20 grand a month..." Vin pointed out.

"Payoff for her investment," Chris seemed to have an answer for everything.

"If I may..." Ezra spoke up...he could see Chris just didn't want to believe what Vin was trying to tell him.

"You, too?"

"Please..." Ezra said, as if to ask in a nice way...'give me a chance, listen to what I have to say'.

"Fine," Chris sighed.

"How exactly did you end things with Mrs. Gaines?" Ezra asked.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Chris asked impatiently...he was growing tired of what the others were implying.

"Motive," Ezra said dryly.


"Yes, motive. How did you end things with Mrs. Gaines?" Ezra asked again, sounding much like the cop Chris had been when interrogating a perp.

"I was assigned here in Denver after the Academy...she had her job in Wichita...I planned on transferring out to Wichita as soon as I could," Chris revealed.

"But?" Vin asked.

"I met Sarah," Chris sighed.

"So the break up took place in a letter or over the phone?" Ezra asked.

"In person. I took a few days off...flew to Kansas and told her I'd met someone else," Chris said.

"And she took it well?" Ezra questioned.

"Yeah...she said she'd also met someone else. We did a lot of crazy things...kid stuff. Both of us knew it wasn't going to last forever," Chris shrugged.

"Some one must have thought other wise," Ezra said calmly as he took two photographs from the inside pocket of his suit coat, and handed them to Chris.

He looked over both photo held the article's of the fire and the opening of the ranch. He looked at the small picture of his wife and young son, Sarah's face marred by a red circle and an X.

The other photograph contained a picture in a frame. Chris saw himself and Ella, years ago. He had a puzzled look on his face as he saw the red X next to the 'happy couple'.

"Where'd you get these?" Chris asked.

"Well...we..uhm..." Vin stuttered.

"Got lost?" Ezra offered.

"You broke into her house?!" Chris fumed.

"There was no breaking...only entering..." Ezra pointed out.

"Don't matter none Chris..." Vin tried to justify.

"Yes it does!!" Chris still refused to see what the articles projected.

"Fowler was her cousin Chris, she knew where to find ya'. No matter how ya' add it...2 an' 2 still makes 4," Vin said.

"Your newly announced financee` has pulled the wool over your eyes, my friend," Ezra said quietly.

"Fowler was her cousin?" Chris looked at the pictures again; he suddenly realized that Ella was the person that hired Fowler...the fire wasn't meant for him...the X with nothing under it...that was for JD...Vin was matter how you added it all came down to Ella.

Chris looked out the window to where Ella stood still smiling and accepting congratulations, and for the first time noticed Ella looked different to him. Yes, she should be happy, they'd just announced their engagement...but if she cared for JD as much as she always told Chris she did...why wasn't she here at his side, why was she talking to her cousin with a smile still on her face and not concerned at the fact that JD'd been carried into the house?

"Bitch," Chris gasped. With lightning speed, Chris turned before either Vin or Ezra could stop him.

"Hold up pard," Buck had been watching and listening, and was able to step in front of Chris.

"She killed Sarah and..."

"I know...this ain't the way Chris, lets call the Sarge...have him check into the case, tell him where to look for the information. You need to keep your head here pard, this here boy of yours has been through enough already, don't ya' think?" Buck said, his tone not underestimating the importance of his words.

Chris sighed, as Buck guided him to a chair to sit in before he fell.

"Ain't all she done. She's made JD's life a livin' hell," Vin sighed...all the men turned to look at him, this was news to all of them.

"What?" Buck asked.

"She ain't been nice to JD...been hard on him in school...from what the kids told me," Vin enlightened hitching his head towards the stairs. "How...could do I make this up to him?" Chris said.

"Please don't marry her, Dad," JD pleaded as he sat up from where he'd woken just moments ago.

"Why didn't you tell me how you felt?" Chris asked.

"ME? Why didn't you tell me?" JD asked as he pushed himself from the couch.

"I'm not going to marry her JD," Chris said, like he thought it would pacify the kid.

"So that makes everything okay? 'I'm not gonna marry her'...that's it? You're supposed to be my father! Why didn't you tell me!?" JD yelled. He'd taking a few steps towards Chris, but Nathan and Buck held him back. They'd never seen JD angry...they weren't really sure what to expect.

"Why didn't you tell me what was going on? I asked you, JD! 'Just say the word'...but you never told me!" Chris bellowed.

"How could I?! She was always here...I haven't seen you or been able to talk to you since she came here two weeks ago! When was I supposed to tell you...I don't even think you would've listened...much less cared!" JD continued to rant.

"She told me everything was going great..."

"Yeah...that's why I made sure I was always here!" JD said sarcastically "If you'd taken your eyes off of her and looked around you would've seen that I wasn't around here! I guess what they say is right..." JD seemed to grow quiet.

"What's that?" Chris asked sharply.

"Man can't see when he thinks with the wrong part of his body," JD spit out, then turned and left the room.

Chris moved to go after JD.

"Let him be, Chris," Josiah said calmly, as he blocked Chris' way.

"The boy's upset and hurt... best let him simmer down. Be angry with the one responsible. She's played you and she's played him...she's hurt both of you...she's to blame for this," Josiah spoke, his deep voice remaining calm.

Chris took a deep breath and nodded. Remembering Travis and Esau hadn't come back from downstairs, Chris resigned to the fact that JD wouldn't be alone and would be okay; he turned to Buck, and redirected his anger.

"Make that call, Buck," Chris said. "Now, how do we make it so she's not tipped off and runs," Chris switched gears, knowing that if they let on that they knew of her involvement that she might bolt.

"Well, I suggest we let the day continue to play out as scheduled. JD of course 'will tell' Mr. Larabee that Mrs. Gaines failed to inform him of your impending engagement...she of course will deny it..." Ezra began to devise a plan.

"And of course I'll believe Ella," Chris sighed.

"Of course.'s important that JD not be left alone. If Mrs. Gaines happens to see through this ploy, I fear the consequence of this act will fall to the young man," Ezra cautioned.

"What about a deversion...we need to get these people out of here," Nathan voiced his opinion.

"Well, it only seems fitting that since Mrs. Gaines has presented herself as, shall we say, a

'wolf in sheep's clothing' that we see how well she fits in with them," Ezra smiled.

" how do we convince JD to go along with this?" Chris asked.

"Leave that to me," Vin smiled.

+ + + + + + +

"There you are darling. Is JD okay?" Ella asked Chris, as he slid next to her.

"Yeah," he said, smiling as he looked away from the woman.

"What happened?" she asked, seeming to be concerned.

"Says he didn't know about the engagement," Chris said with doubt.

"No!" Ella gasped. "Chris, I told him Friday like I told you I would. During his free period, he was happy and excited. I can't understand why he seemed so shocked," Ella said.

Oh I do, Chris thought. "I think he's a little jealous...I haven't been able to spend as much time with him as I used to," Chris said.

"I'll speak to him again if you'd like. A soon as we're married and settled in, things will calm down," Ella reassured.

"Hey! Congratulations you two!" Buck smiled, shaking Chris' hand and then giving Ella a hug.

"Oh, before I forget," Buck said, turning to Chris. "I made that phone call," Buck smiled widely, referring to contacting their old Sargeant at Denver PD.

"Phone call? About what?" Ella asked, curious.

"Oh...nothing for you to be concerned about, lets just say it's an engagement present," Chris smiled as he teasingly hugged his soon to be ex-fiancee`.

+ + + + + + +

"So, they're not getting married?" Travis asked JD.

"He didn't say 'never' just said he wasn't gonna marry her," JD said.

"Why?" Travis questioned.

"What do you mean why?" Esau asked.

"Just seems funny. I mean one minute he says he's getting married...then, nope, not getting married," Travis explained.

"Maybe it's because of the way she was treating you," Esau offered.

"They didn't know...not that Dad would have noticed," JD sighed.

"Vin knew...maybe he did some checking..." Travis said absently.

"What?! You told Vin? Who's bright idea was that?"

"Now, JD...calm down...we had to do something!" Esau said.

"I told you I would handle it!" JD yelled...he was so mad at so many people at that moment.

"You were doing a hell of a job at handling it, JD!" Esau said as he stood toe to toe with JD.

"What's that supposed to mean?!" JD yelled back.

"Means they're good enough friends to know ya' was in trouble and didn't know what to do, so they found someone who could," Vin said as he leaned on the door frame.

"I didn't ask for any help...I was doing just fine," JD said dejectedly.

"No you weren't 'doin' just fine'. She put ya' through a lot JD... she ain't right. You should be thankin' your stars ya' got friends that care enough, knowing that they're gonna get yelled at later," Vin said, never leaving his position in the door.

JD hung his head, his nod was all the apology he could give at the moment; and Travis and Esau didn't expect anything else.

"Now, ya' pissed off enough to get all them people outta here?" Vin asked with a mischievous smile.

The spark in the teens eyes told Vin they were plenty pissed.

"Good, here's what I want ya'll to do..."

Vin filled the teens in on the plan...he and JD watched as Travis and Esau left he ranch...then waited another ten minutes before leaving the house.

+ + + + + + +

"Four Corners...Yes, nice to hear from you on such short notice Mr. Reynolds," Ezra answered the ringing phone, he sent a look to Vin to let him know that Sargeant Reynolds had information for them.

"Yes... she's still here... Yes quite a substantial crowd... I'm sure we could arrange some sort of fiasco... in an hour?" Ezra looked at Vin, Vin nodded his response. "Yes, that would be feasable... Thank you sir," Ezra hung up the phone.

+ + + + + + +

Chris snorted slightly as Vin filled him in that JD and his friends were more than happy to help clear the people out.

"JD ask why?" Chris questioned quietly.

"Nope, he's lookin' foward to it," Vin smiled.

Chris continued to mill around the crowd, meeting soon to be relatives and Ella's friends. After hearing 'we've heard so much about you' and 'it's a pleasure to have finally met you', he began to wonder if Ella had told them they'd been seeing seeing each other for a while, not just two weeks.

Good God...two weeks. What the hell came over me? How could I be so blind as to not see what I see so clearly now? How could I just cast JD aside, expecting him not to be upset or confused. Katherine...I'm so sorry for what I put him through, please forgive me, Chris finished his thought, ignoring the words of Ella's third cousin on her father's side.

"DAD!!! DAD!!!" JD ran out of the house, his voice conveying the urgency of what he had to tell him.

"Calm down, JD," Chris said. Inside Chris beamed, JD had put aside his anger to help with the ploy.

"What is it, JD?" Ella asked.

"The Roy's sheep got loose!" JD said quickly.

"And they want you to help round them up?" Ella ventured a guess.

"No...we need to clear every body out of here," Chris said evenly.

"What? Why!?" Ella asked.

"When they get loose, they come over here...they really like our grass," JD smiled.

Ella's face took on a whole different expression, one that scared Chris. JD was unfazed, he'd seen it before on many occasions. It was the one that said...

"YOU!! You're to blame! You let them loose didn't you! You just can't be happy until you ruin everything for me...and your father! You selfish, greedy, self absorbed little TWIT!" Ella fumed, losing the 'nothing's wrong with me, it's just JD being jealous' facade she managed to have for two weeks.

"No need to yell at JD, the sheep get out all the time, Ella," Chris kept his calm composure, fighting every urge to go off on the woman as she laid into his son.

"As if this is coincidence Chris, he left the party as soon as we announced our engagement...put on that great show of being upset...just so he could tear you away from me. That didn't work so he went to the other ranch and let the sheep go! Didn't you!!" Ella accused.

"JD?" Chris asked, like he believed Ella.

"WHAT!??" JD answered, incensed that his father was taking her side...again.

Chris and JD were going to get into a heated discussion, but the sound of Josiah and Buck trying to get the crowd's attention stopped them.

The gasps and screeches from the crowd tickled JD's funny bone as Buck and Josiah went on to tell them what was about to crash the party.

People began to leave the back yard in a rushed manner. Buck and Josiah masked their smiles of pleasure as they watched Ella try and convince party goers to just go into the house, that there really wasn't any need for them to leave, but they weren't convinced.

+ + + + + + +

The border collies swiftly ran across the grass, their eyes never leaving the herd of sheep that had taken over Four Corners. Long high pitched whistles and short quick one's echoed around the flock, the collies shifting their bodies, laying low to the ground or charging the herd at the signal.

In less than hour, the sheep were headed back down the long dirt road and back to their pen.

Chris was out front thanking a mounted Travis and Esau for the diversion. Neither one had asked why, but they suspected from the smile they'd seen on JD's face, it had something to do with the fact that Mrs. Gaines may have shown her true face in front of Mr. Larabee; and, that he wasn't pleased.

JD was standing on the back deck, his hands stuck in his jeans pockets as far as the cast would allow, a small smug smile crossing his face.

Ella strutted out from the house, stopping nest to JD.

"Are you happy? Are you?" Ella seethed through clenched teeth.

"Me?! What did I do?" JD said with surprise, looking around for one of the guys, he didn't like being here by himself with this woman.

"You planned are just hell-bent on running Chris' life. Don't make him choose between me and you...because...You. Will. Loose," Ella hissed, her face inches from the teens.

"I've already won," JD said with more courage than he felt.

"Dammit JD...this could have been perfect. We could have been a part of a wonderful family," Ella suddenly changed tones, speaking softly.

"I already am," JD stayed firm.

" have a father, and 'uncles'. You have everything but what you want the most," Ella said, her eyes dancing with pure evil.

"And what would that be?" JD asked, his brow furrowed.

"A mother," she smiled, thinking she'd hit a nerve.

"You!" JD laughed. "You think if you married my Dad that you'd automatically be my mother?" JD continued to laugh.

"You would NEVER measure up," JD returned in a derisive tone.

That's when Ella Gaines made her fatal mistake.

JD's head snapped to the side with the force that had swept across his right cheek. Long feminine fingernails, ripping the surface of the tender skin, left three red streaks, seeping blood.

JD brought his head slowly back to face the woman who just slapped him, his eyes seemed to turn from the kind hazel, to cold steely orbs, glaring at her as the back of his left hand touched the spot.

Ella brought her hand back to strike again.

"Ya' have a death wish?" Vin growled close in the woman's ear, as he held her shaking arm in mid swing.

"JD. Ya' alright?" Vin asked, taking his eyes from the woman, to look at the stunned teen.

"Yeah, yeah...I'm fine," JD nodded, he took a few steps back, then turned and entered the house.

+ + + + + + +

"Yes?" Ezra answered the cellular phone that had rung in his pocket. "Really? Yes, very good. I assure you she will be here, but I must warn you to make your trip here quickly. I can not assure the woman's safety when Mr. Larabee is informed," Ezra stated into the phone before folding it and replacing it in his pocket.

"Mr. Larabee, a word?" Ezra asked as Chris came around to the back of the house. He looked quizzically at Vin who held onto to Ella's arm, then looked around for JD.

"This about the phone call?" Chris asked as he continued to walk with Ezra towards where Vin held Ella. Both men stopped when they were in front of the two.

"Yes," Ezra said, he took a deep breath, causing Chris to think they hadn't found any evidence of Ella's involvement that claimed the lives of his wife and son. "She's guilty as sin," Ezra said with out emotion, looking directly at the woman who suddenly stopped struggling to free herself.

"Chris...please. I was right, you saw it for yourself. We...we're MEANT to be together. Sarah...she stole you from me, robbed my heart of happiness. I ...I didn't know about Adam, not till after the fire. Can't you see? I did it for US," Ella explained, her voice steady and sure, knowing that Chris would understand.

"You Bitch!!" Chris yelled lurching for her before she could move away.

"Chris!" she screeched, right before his hand went around her throat.

"YOU KILLED MY WIFE AND SON!! YOU TOOK THEM FROM ME!!!" Chris screamed, his hands tightening around her throat.

"NO!! CHRIS!!" Buck and the others yelled. Vin tried to pull Ella from Chris' hands, only to have the enraged man follow.

Suddenly a tug of war was on...Ezra trying to pry Chris' hands away from the woman's deserving neck, while Josiah and Buck tried to make some distance between the two.

Ella gasped and coughed as air was once again allowed into her lungs.

"Cops are on their way pard. I know how ya' feel, ain't nothin' more I'd like to see than her deader than dead...but that ain't gonna do that boy of yours no good. Think of JD, Chris...don't do this to him," Buck said softly as he stood in front of Chris, holding the man back from his intended target.

"She isn't worth it, Dad," was what stopped Chris Larabee's efforts to escape his friends hold.

Chris turned his rage filled eyes to his son; the anger faded quickly as soon as Chris saw JD.

Chris took two steps to his son, he reached a shaky hand and touched the red streaks on JD's cheek.

"I'm sorry," Chris sighed, grasping JD around the back of the neck and pulling him to a tight embrace.

"Dad," JD squeaked after several seconds.

"Yeah?" Chris asked, not easing his grip.

"I can't breathe," JD revealed.

+ + + + + + +

Chris hung his arm across JD's shoulders as they watched Ella being read her rights.

"I'm never going to give up Chris. I love you," Ella said as she stood in front of the man.

"I could never love someone who took what I loved more than life itself," Chris said with out emotion. As much as he had loved this woman, the hate he felt was twice as intense.

Ella turned away; her hand grabbed a pistol from one of the uniformed police officers that escorted her. With a swiftness that no one should have possessed she turned and aimed the gun at the person she felt responsible for her misery...and fired.

"NO!!!" Chris screamed, JD's eyes growing wide with horror as he watched the bullet fly towards him with tremendous speed, but unable to move.

The others on the porch heard several more shots, each knowing that Ella Gaines would never interfere with their lives again. They didn't see her jerk with the three shots that tore through her body, didn't see her fall lifeless to the ground in a distorted heap. Their eyes were focused on the two forms that were on the ground. One kneeling helplessly next to the one who had fallen, his hand pressing on the red spot that grew on the others chest, as if just his touch could stop the liquid from draining out.

"JD...JD," Buck said softly, grabbing at the stunned teen to move back and let Nathan take over.

"She...was.. Me...Dad," JD seemed to talk in riddles, his voice stunned, shocked.

"I know..I know...let Nathan tend to him," Buck said, knowing what JD meant to say.

+ + + + + + +

The waiting room atmosphere was tense, filled with sorrow and worry. Eight men sat in chairs...waiting. Buck, Vin and Ezra remained close to JD, who hadn't spoken a word since leaving the ranch, following the ambulance that carried his father.

Nathan and Josiah had picked up Travis and Esau at the Roy's ranch, informing them of what had happened and that JD might need them there.

"It's been too long," JD spoke his first words, his voice raspy, quiet, and hoarse.

"Only seems like it," Buck said. Chris had been taken into surgery 45 minutes ago to remove the bullet from his left lung.

"Perhaps Mr. Jackson will be able get some information for us," Ezra said, his tone sounding more like a question directly for Nathan, than words of comfort for the devastated 16 year old that sat in front of him.

"I need to wash my hands," JD again spoke, his voice more heartbreaking than before.

Nathan opted to stay, knowing the impatient members waiting news may need some reassurance.

"Come on," Vin said softly, lifting JD by the elbow, encouraging him to stand.

JD stood as if on automatic pilot, he managed a few steps with Vin's hand still at his elbow. Vin removed the hand, opting to place it loosely around the teen's shoulder.

Neither one lost a step as JD began to lean into Vin's side. JD turned his head into Vin's chest, Vin tightened his grip, then leaned his head down and kissed the top of JD's head. Still walking, the others could see the shoulders of the teen jump as he sobbed.

Travis and Esau wiped their sleeves across their faces. They hurt for their friend, he'd lost so much...he didn't deserve to lose more. Neither was ashamed of the tears that began, they had held them in just as long as JD had.

Ezra hung his head and pinched the tears back. Buck sniffed loudly as he slapped Ezra on the shoulder lightly, Ezra nodded, answering the silent fact that Chris and JD would be fine.

Nathan and Josiah had moved towards the teens. Nathan and Josiah were hardly unemotional, it's that both faced similar situations in their lives at the Clinic and Shelter, so they were able to 'distance' themselves until everyone else was emotionally stable.

"Faith young ones. Faith," Josiah said, as always his tone even, soft, steady, comforting.

"They both deserve more," Travis managed to speak first.

"Chris is a tough one, don't go worry yourselves over him," Nathan said, he patted Esau's leg as he stood. "Keep an eye on him," Nathan said before leaving the room to get an update.

Vin and JD entered the waiting room, in much the same manner as they had left. Vin easily guided JD to the couch, sitting next to him...not once did the protective arm leave the young man's shoulders, nor did the teen's head leave the comfort and safety of Vin's side.

Tears fell absently from tired, worried, hazel eyes. JD had paled, the dark circles showing the stress he was under. Vin was glad that breathing was an automatic function, he doubted JD would have possessed the strength to even do that.

Nathan came back into the room, bringing with him the man that had taken Chris up to the operating room.

"JD...this is Dr. Fargo, he's the one that worked on your dad," Nathan introduced.

"JD," Dr. Fargo said gently as he stepped towards the youth. Getting closer to the teen, the doctor realized that Nathan hadn't been exaggerating about the young man's state. JD stood quickly as he heard his named being called by a man that looked like a doctor.

"We got the bullet out, there was minimal damage," he informed.

"Is..he...he's ..." JD tried to get the word in his head somehow down to his tongue.

"He's going to be fine," Dr. Fargo smiled.

"That's great Doc, thanks for lettin' us know," Buck smiled.

"Yeah," JD said, after taking a deep breath. That breath became his undoing as he physically gave into the stress and began to crumble.

Vin and Buck were quick enough to grab JD before he fell completely to the floor.

"I'm okay...I'm okay," JD said as he felt himself being lowered to a chair.

"We know ya' are, just let the doc here take a look at ya'," Buck said , his voice trying to sound light.

"He's fine, just wore out I expect," Dr. Fargo said quietly to Buck who nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, figured as much," Buck sighed.

"Chris' being brought down to his room, I'm sure he'd like to see JD. He woke up a bit before surgery, he wasn't sure if JD was hurt or not. I told him he was fine, but I don't really think he understood," Dr. Fargo informed.

+ + + + + + +

"He's so cold," JD whispered as he touched his father's arm.

"Usually hap'ens when ya've lost blood, kid," Vin said softly.

JD nodded absently at Vin's words.

"Thought Dr. Fargo said he was gonna wake up soon. Why won't he wake up Vin?" JD had tried to remain quiet, but the more he voiced his concern, the more he was convinced something was wrong.

"It ain't been that long, JD," Buck said softly from behind Vin.

"I was pretty mad at think he's not waking up, cause of that?" JD asked the two men beside him.

"No way, son," Buck said quickly. "Ain't nothin' he wants more than to open his eyes and see ya' sittin' here. Just give him some time."

"Just want him to wake up. Tell him how sorry I am for causing so much trouble," JD said as he hung his head.

"Ain't nothin' ya' did JD," Vin reassured.

"I should've tried harder...I didn't give her a chance..."

"A chance? She didn't deserve a chance," Vin sighed.

"JD, Vin and Ezra did some looking into Ella's past. She was involved in some pretty awful of which was the fire that took away Sarah and Adam..." Buck began to explain, hoping that it would ease some of the guilt JD felt.

"You mean...Dad wasn't the target of that fire?" JD asked. Buck couldn't say anything...he just nodded.

"Her comin' here wasn't by accident...she came lookin' for Chris. She pushed ya' aside. She didn't want this big family...she just wanted Chris. Ain't nothin' ya' did," Vin said.

JD took a deep breath as he looked back to where his father lay. He hung his head and again asked...

"Why won't he wake up?"

"Cause I got myself shot," Chris said weakly from the bed.

"Dad?" JD said anxiously, worried that he'd been the only one who'd heard his father speak.

"Are you okay? Did she hurt you," Chris asked with concern.

"I'm fine...never touched me," JD seemed to gather strength as his father spoke.

"Heard more shots...what about everyone else?" Chris asked, knowing the important question had been asked, he felt the need to know that everyone else was okay.

"They shot her down cowboy," Vin said quietly. "I'm sorry," he felt the need to add.

"Don't be. Got all I need right here," Chris smiled, as he grasped his son's hand. "Right?" Chris asked.

JD nodded, his eyes filling. "Yeah."

+ + + + + + +

Chris marveled at his son. He'd seen an entirely different side of JD after coming home from the hospital. JD was extremely overprotective, giving each man instructions as to how to care for his father while he was at school. JD hated to leave Chris, but Vin and the others told JD they were more than able to care for his father.

JD listed the limitations the doctor had given to him by memory, a piece of paper outlined them carefully so that no one would forget.

"I don't want to hear what I did the other day," JD said, sounding more grown up than he was.

"Promise, I'll wait for you to come home to feed the horses," Chris smiled.

Satisfied, JD left the house.

"Remind me never...and I mean NEVER get hurt when he's around," Buck smiled. It'd been two weeks since Chris came home, and JD was taking the doctors 'take it easy for a couple of weeks' way to seriously.

"Ya' s'pose this is what he' was like when his momma was sick?" Vin asked.

"Imagine it was pretty close," Chris smiled.

"Well, I guess I wouldn't mind him nursemaidin' me ifn' I was hurt," Vin said.

"Can't say as I did...but he's gotten a little carried away don't you think?" Chris asked from the chair he sat in, feet up on a stool, and a wool blanket wrapped around his shoulders and covering his legs. The portable phone sat on a table next to the chair, along with a few magazines and the piece of wood Chris had been carving...the knife JD had deemed not a good idea, arguing that his father was still weak, and could cut himself if he became too unsteady.

"Well, bus is gone," Vin smiled.

"Where to?" Buck asked.

"Where else?" Chris grinned, standing from the chair, discarding all that had been placed or wrapped around him.

All three men jogged to the barn. Exiting the barn already mounted, they stopped.

"Let's ride boys," Chris smiled, he spurred his horse into a gallop, the other two following close behind.

Chris let the breeze carry his sorrows away, cleansing himself of the guilt he had carried with him as to how he'd treated JD. He had taken JD for granted...not at first, but as time passed and things relaxed and became settled... he had. Ella was the perfect example. He'd let himself fall back into old habits with Ella...just doing, not thinking of any consequences that might happen.

JD told him he didn't blame him, and forgave him. JD told him he was a 'true' father. He might have been 'distracted' with Ella, but when it came down to it...Chris protected him...he'd taken the bullet meant for JD. You couldn't show your love, appreciation, or your concern more strongly than that.

Chris had told JD that getting shot was probably just his 'penance' for messing up...or just dumb luck. JD just shook his head, he didn't care what Chris thought it was or wasn't, what he deserved, what he didn't deserve; the most important thing about being a family was the unconditional love...and Chris had that...and so did JD.

They were a family...a man and a boy....a father and his son.


Comments to:

VI. At Least We Had Thanksgiving