Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven is owned by Mirisch and several other companies and corporations that I can't keep track of. Not making any money just having fun.
Authors Notes: This story is set the week after the events depicted in Thalia's Street Gang. It's not essential to have read if first but it might help. If there is one thing I have learnt in looking after children and young people of all ages and cultural backgrounds it is that there is no 'right way' to do it and no instruction manual. Thanks to Thalia for her help, encouragement, and proof reading.
The Larabee's doorbell brought Vin running to the door. On the front step was a taxi driver.
"Cab for Larabee?" he asked.
Vin turned back to yell over his shoulder, "Mrs Larabee ma'am, cab's here!"
Maggie Larabee came to the head of the stairs, "Vin Tanner if I've told you once I've told you a hundred times it's Maggie and tell him I'll be there in a sec. Get the guys in from the garden will you?"
Maggie shook her head. One day she'd get Vin to call her by her name without being prompted, not that she could fault him for being polite. She looked around the bedroom trying to make sure she had everything she needed for her trip. Then she hefted the bag onto her shoulder and headed downstairs. Assembled in the hall were her boys, all of five of them. Only Chris was the son of her blood, Buck was her adopted son, Vin had just become her foster son, Ezra was technically in Josiah Sanchez's care but since there was no school and Josiah was working he spent most days at the Larabee house, and last of all came little JD. Right now he was in her and her husband's temporary custody, but his single mother was dying, and much as she hated to think of it, sometime in the future, when the inevitable tragedy happened, he too would be adopted, the paperwork was all in place. The three eldest boys were all taller than her, Ezra would be before the summer was out she reckoned. Chris and particularly Buck towered over her, but there was no doubt who was in charge.
"Now Chris and Buck are in charge until Ryan gets here, when I get back I want a clean house and all of you in one piece!" she glared at them, then softening her voice she smiled. "I'll see all of you at the ranch on Sunday night."
With that she said her good byes, and headed out to the waiting cab. She was going to Salt Lake City, where a friend of Josiah's had invited her to address a conference of foster carers. Initially she had been flattered, then apprehensive and finally worried about leaving the family for four days. When it transpired two of those days were going to be during their holiday at the ranch she felt better. Her biggest concern had been leaving JD, but he had made such an instant connection with Buck, she had no qualms about leaving him in his care. Heading out to the cab, Vin fell in step beside her.
"I'll take your bag for you," he offered, removing the bag from her shoulder without waiting for her reply. As he loaded the bag into the trunk of the cab, he gave her an apprehensive look, that she had in a few short days come to learn meant he wanted to say something.
"What is it Vin?" she asked quietly.
"Make sure you tell them how it's done," he said, "someone has too."
Vin had been in dozens of foster homes before landing up with the Larabee's and had felt safer and more at home with them in less than a week than he did at any of the others, some had been abusive, others uncaring and unloving. Maggie looked into his wonderfully clear blue eyes, that seemed to reflect the sky.
"I will, don't worry, enjoy the ranch. I've a feeling you're gonna be in your element."
Once she was gone the boys sat down on the porch step to decide what to do all day. Nathan Jackson was due to come over at anytime, so they just sat around talking until he was there and they could plan properly.
"So Ezra can you ride?" JD asked.
The prospect of going to a real ranch was one of the things that had persuaded JD to go along with his mother's plan to send him away for the summer. He knew the real reason he had been sent so far from his home in Chicago. She did not want him to watch her die. She had tried to keep her reasons secret, but he had overheard. He called her regularly, each time worried it would be the last. Now the trip was only a day away he was getting excited, deliberately fuelling his own excitement to push other less happy thoughts to the back of his mind.
"Well Ez can ya," he asked again.
"Of course, equitation is a gentlemanly art," Ezra replied. "Mr. Dunne I would appreciate it if you would refrain from using that unfortunate diminutive of my name. You may be happy to be known by a mere two letters, I am not."
"Oh I am soooo sorry Mr. Standish, please forgive me," JD mocked.
"Now JD it's rude to mock the afflicted, Ezra can't help using them $20 dollar words, it's a curse." Buck said while grinning at the pouting Ezra. "'Sides Ezra's making up for all that lost time." Then he looked up at Vin, "What about you junior you ride?"
Vin had not yet decided how he felt about Buck calling him junior, he didn't do it very often and he never seemed to be mocking, rather it seemed to be a term of endearment.
"'Cause, I'm from Texas," he said as though every one in Texas was born riding.
Chris smiled at his new friend. The two off them had hit it of the moment they had met, they had made a connection as instant and strong as the one Buck and JD had made.
"And you young JD, are you a practitioner of the equestrian arts?" Ezra asked.
Suddenly JD looked crestfallen, as he had to admit he was the only one who couldn't ride.
"Don't worry kid, I'll teach you. By the picnic on Sunday you'll be riding like the wind don't you worry." Buck put an arm around him and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"I can't ride neither." The sudden deep voice startled them. Nathan could be surprisingly stealthy, when he wanted to be.
"Nate, good to see you," Chris greeted. "I'll teach you if you like, there's still time for you to change your mind and come."
"No I can't miss this opportunity. Kojay said that Burning Eagle only comes into the city once every two years or so," he explained. "It's a great honour to meet him, let alone have him give me lessons," Nathan breathed.
Ever since the leader of the local Native American community had invited Nathan to learn the healing skills of his people, he had often spent evenings and weekends in the Rez learning everything he could. Now one of the tribe's most revered shamans was coming into the city for a week, and Nathan had been invited to meet him and even learn from him.
"Oh and hey Chanu said there's gonna be a sweat lodge tonight at his place, so everyone can get ready, sort of cleansing I think. He said you guys can come, except JD, sorry you're too young," Nathan offered.
JD was about to protest that he wasn't too young, but a little shake of the head from Buck told him to let it lie.
"I fail to see the point of getting all sweaty on purpose, without the benefit of a fully equipped Turkish bath on hand." Ezra commented.
"I'm seeing Sarah tonight," Chris explained.
"Hot date!" Buck said with what could only be called a leer.
"Who?" Chris demanded.
"The Jenny Murphy, the ice queen cheerleader?"
"The one and only."
"She's a senior, how do you do it?" Chris asked in genuine wonder.
"You either got it or you don't, an' I got it," he bragged.
"I'd like to come," Vin said quietly.
The others were still ribbing Buck and almost didn't hear him.
"You sure?" asked Nathan.
Vin assured him he was serious, and they agreed to meet at eight.
Less than two weeks into the summer vacation, midweek the neighbourhood was quiet. After their trouble with the Grey Coats in the graveyard the week before the local gangs had stayed in their own territories, and things were quiet. Chris knew it wouldn't last, he just hoped there would be no trouble while they were away. It turned out to be a very quiet day, no one did much. Vin had some schoolwork to do. One of the conditions of him being allowed to stay with the Larabee's was he had to work to get his grades up to the required level. Most sixteen-year-olds would have resented it, but Vin was just grateful that someone was genuinely interested in him, and had worked diligently at his daily assignments. Today he intended to get several days work done, in one go before he got to the ranch. Buck played computer games with JD and the others took a walking patrol around the neighbourhood.
Come the evening Ryan Larabee came in from a long day at the station to the smell of soap and after-shave, and that only meant one thing, his sons had dates. In fact Chris was on his way out just as Ryan came in.
"Hold it son, I need a quick word, where's Casanova?" he asked after Buck.
Just then Buck's tall frame came into the hall, drinking from a bottle of mineral water. "Did you want me dad?" he asked.
"Look you two are gonna have to organise everything tomorrow, I know I was going to be here to do that but I have to work until lunchtime, so I don't want you two out late tonight, midnight no later," he instructed.
Both young men looked annoyed, but agreed.
Vin walked beside Nathan with some trepidation into the Rez, wondering if he had done the right thing. He had heard of sweat lodges and even of people having visions in them, he wasn't sure why he wanted to try it he just knew he did. The lodge had been set up in a basement, and Vin's first shock was that he was expected to strip naked before he went in. Naturally shy he was about to back out of the whole thing when Kojay came up to him.
"You are Nathan's friend Vincent?" he asked.
"Yes sir," he replied nervously.
"You are apprehensive?"
"It is normal, we never know what we will find, but if you are here you must be searching for something. What do you seek Vincent?"
"You mean what am I looking for?" Kojay nodded. "I like to learn new things," he explained.
"The search for knowledge is the finest quest."
After that, Vin felt he couldn't back out.
Ezra and JD found themselves stuck at home with Ryan Larabee, Ezra was going to sleep there because of the trip the next day. Their hearts dropped when Ryan said he was going to show them a video of one of his favourite movies. Their hearts went down like stones when it turned out to be in black and white. But fifteen minutes into 'Arsenic and Old Lace' they were both enthralled and laughing.
JD lay awake for a long time, he had gone to bed before Buck on other occasions, but he had never gone to bed knowing Buck wasn't in the house. He felt safe around Buck; the dark scary things in his future seemed further away and a little less scary. He knew Buck was due back at midnight and was half hoping he would still be awake when he got in, and half wishing he would fall asleep and the morning would come, so they could leave for the ranch.
Ryan looked at his watch for the fourth time, 12:30 and neither son was home. Vin had come in an hour ago, looking somewhat distant and even more monosyllabic than usual. Finally he went to bed, they would both be hearing from him in the morning. He didn't hear Chris come in, but he did hear Buck, he listened to him attempting to use the bathroom silently and fail as he threw up, Ryan checked his alarm, it was 2:30 am. He listened to Buck ease open the bedroom door and slip into the room he shared with JD.
Next morning, JD was awake when Ryan knocked on the bedroom door and without waiting for an answer came in.
"JD you awake son?" he asked. By way of an answer JD sat up.
"Good lad, would you give me and Buck a moment in here?" he asked.
JD knew Buck, who wasn't awake, was in real trouble for coming home so late. JD had heard him come in, whispered a 'good night', and got a softy spoken 'go to sleep kid' in reply. He went out onto the landing and stood still listening at the door.
"Buck!" he heard Larabee shout, getting a grunt in return. "Get up!" JD heard the sound of Buck hauling his six-foot plus frame out of bed.
"Well?" he heard the policeman ask his adopted son. Just then he heard Buck's alarm go off, and Buck say something about not wanting to oversleep.
"Very commendable, but it doesn't explain why you didn't get home 'till gone two in the morning, why your shirt stinks of beer and why you threw up when you got in, although the last two might explain why you look like shit this morning." There was silence for a while. "I'm waiting."
JD heard Buck take a deep breath, later he would come to know it meant Buck was trying to control his temper.
"Jenny and I were at a party, someone brought some beer, I guess some got spilt, I don't know why I threw up, I just did, we kinda lost track of time I guess, I came home as soon as I realised, I'm sorry."
JD had never heard the usually exuberant Buck sound so lifeless.
"I'll tell you why you threw up and why you look like shit now, it's called a hangover, Buck how could you come home drunk, with the kid in your room, what kind an example is that?"
JD wanted to run in and defend Buck, but knew he couldn't interfere. "I wasn't drunk dad I've never been drunk, I had some beer, less than a glass, thats all, I've had more at the ranch, you gave it me, for God sake!" Buck's voice was rising.
"You mind your tongue! I know what I can see before me, I know what I heard last night, now I don't want to ruin JD's trip, so we are going to end this now, but you consider you self on warning, and you will be in by midnight every night while we are away, are we clear young man?"
Buck knew he could not win so he gave up. "Yes sir we're clear," he replied trying to keep his tone neutral, but failing to keep all the anger out of it.
JD knew the conversation was at an end, he darted into the bathroom, flushed the toilet and then came out, as though he had been in there the whole time. Just as Chris came bleary eyed out of the room he shared with Vin and Ezra.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Buck got back late and your dad's giving him a hard time," JD explained.
Great I'll get it next, Chris thought.
Ryan came out onto the landing and immediately saw Chris. He didn't even look at JD, and probably never even knew he was there. Chris straitened up, expecting the worst. Without bothering to shut the door, he walked around the landing to Chris.
"What time did you get back?" he asked abruptly.
"About one I think," Chris replied honestly.
"Would you like to explain yourself?"
"Sarah and me were watching videos we forgot the time, I'm sorry, what more can I say?"
"Not a lot, I'm relying on you son to get things organised today, I need to know I can trust you," his voice had none of the anger he had just unleashed at Buck.
"You can rely on me dad," Chris affirmed.
Ryan nodded, giving Chris a pat on the arm. "I know son, now is Ezra still asleep?"
"Naturally." Ezra was definitely not a morning person.
"What about Vin?" he inquired.
Chris' only response was to shrug, but before they could speculate about his whereabouts, a crash, as something hollow and metallic hit the kitchen floor, made them all jump. There followed a fine, earthy expletive in a thick Texas drawl.
"Well I guess that answers that question," Ryan said lightly.
"You okay pal!" Chris bellowed over the banister.
"Yeah, one of your saucepans jist attacked me!" Vin bellowed back bitterly.
"The big blue one," Ryan and Chris called down in unison.
"How did you know?" he called back.
"It's cursed," Ryan explained.
"Possessed," Chris added.
As the three-way conversation about the evil properties of the blue saucepan went echoing through the house, JD slipped unnoticed into his room. Buck was sitting on the edge of his bed looking distinctly under the weather. JD hovered nervously, until he looked up.
"God Buck you look awful," he commented.
He was surprised to see Buck's face break into its customary grin. "Now kid I have to tell you that that is damn near impossible," he explained with his customary humour.
"I heard what Mr. Larabee said to you, it wasn't fair," he said quietly.
Buck agreed but he didn't want to damage JD's fragile faith in Ryan as a father figure.
"He's just stressed is all, 'cause Mom's not here to organise everything and 'cause he has to work today, I was late so I deserved what I got."
"But you weren't drunk," JD pointed out, Buck just shrugged.
True to their word Chris and Buck made sure the house was cleaned top to bottom. Vin and JD laid into the work with vigour, Ezra looked at the duster and can of polish he was given as if they were contaminated with radioactivity, until Buck pointed out he could either polish or clean the toilets. Once he started though he did a thorough job. By lunchtime all the bags were packed and everything was stacked by the door. Since Ryan wasn't back yet there was a lull, no one could go anywhere so they just sat around. Buck fell asleep on the sofa and Chris finally managed to get Vin alone to talk to him about the sweat lodge.
"So what was it like?" he asked.
Vin shrugged, it wasn't something he was sure he could articulate. Finally he said, "You can't explain it, you have to do it, but it won't be the same for you," he looked Chris in the eye, trying to see if he understood.
"Yeah I think I will," Chris admitted. "Would you do it again?" he asked.
Vin hadn't thought of that, and couldn't answer immediately, sitting silently for a long time he considered the question, Chris just sat equally silently and waited. Finally Vin admitted he would, although he couldn't say why.
The spell was broken when the car finally pulled up. It was a bit of a squeeze but they finally got everything in and headed out of the city. JD watched with growing excitement as the suburbs dropped away and they headed west through the mountains, then they turned north and headed away from the well travelled roads into the remote mountains close to the continental divide. On the journey, which would take nearly four hours, Chris explained that the Larabees had once raised cattle in the whole valley, but civilisation and settlers had encroached and the family had scaled back their operation, slowly concentrating on raising horses. Now they were primarily known for their prize-winning quarter horses, although they still had a small beef herd. The valley was remote, the ranch itself was situated, where a side creek joined the main creek. Large amounts of land in the mountains around and the valley also belonged to Chris' grandfather, but much of the mountain land beyond the immediate vicinity of the ranch, that before the war had been cut for lumber, had now been gifted to the state for recreation.
It was evening as they pulled up in front of the house. Ezra was pleasantly surprised to find it was large and appeared to have all the necessities of modern life, Vin and JD just stood in awe, neither one had ever even stepped inside such a big house. The house was all on one floor and laid out in a 'U' shape. With a pool in between the two wings. As they unloaded the bags Ryan's father, Chris Larabee snr, met them. He was tall, thin, fair like his grandson, looked to still be in good shape, and as he stood on the veranda dressed in black, very imposing. JD flinched inwardly as he took in the rather scary vision, standing a little closer to Buck.
"Hi granddad," Chris called happily as he mounted the steps up to the house.
"Hi." JD looked up at Buck as he also greeted the old man.
Buck had never felt comfortable calling Larabee senior 'granddad' and usually avoided calling him anything. If necessary he would call him 'sir' or 'boss' like the hired hands.
"Son, Chris, Buck good to see you, introduce me to your friends."
"Granddad this is Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish," Chris introduced.
"How do you do Mr. Larabee, may I compliment you on a magnificent home," Ezra said by way of introduction.
"It is very kind of you to invite us here sir," Vin said quietly.
"And this young feller is JD," Buck explained.
"Hello sir," JD said with as much courage as he could muster.
They all trooped inside. To the right of the entrance were the dining room and the kitchen; on the left the study and the den; directly in front, the living room which opened out onto the pool area. The left-hand wing was where the adults slept, the right housed the children. There were four bedrooms in the right wing and Chris realised as they made their way to the bedrooms they had not discussed who was going to have to share. He needn't have worried as Buck took JD to his room without even thinking about it.
Since the bar-b-q wouldn't be ready for an hour the boys all went for a swim in the pool. Kitting the boys out for the trip had proved to be a bit of a nightmare for Maggie. Ezra had lots of clothes but nothing suitable for a week on a ranch, he also had lots of shoes but no boots. JD had only street clothes and he would get by, but he only had one pair of trainers. Vin only had clothes suitable for a week on a ranch, but his boots were too small for him, leaving him only trainers and he had no swimming trunks at all. Some of Chris' old jeans fitted Ezra, as did Vin's out grown boots, so Maggie purchased swimwear for Vin. All the boots Buck and Chris had ever grown out of were at the ranch and it was hoped there would be something to fit the other two.
Once it came to the meal, as was the custom, Mr. Larabee snr. offered the three older boys each a can of beer. He believed and so did his son, that it was best to introduce children to alcohol in the safety of the home, so they would learn what they liked, what they could handle and so they had nothing to prove once they reached the legal drinking age. Ryan had too often had to deal with the consequences of inexperienced young people suddenly gaining access to the formally forbidden fruit of alcohol. Sometimes the consequences were tragic, even fatal. Buck had taken some time to get used to the biter liquid, but now enjoyed the odd beer. Before he came to the Larabee's and he had seen up close the consequences of over drinking, he quickly resolved to know his limits and to never exceeded them. Vin was no stranger to the odd beer, but like Buck he had seen the consequences of over drinking. Chris had taken to beer like a duck to water the first time his grandfather had given it to him.
Buck opened the can and took a drink, knowing full well Ryan was watching him. He sat down on a low wall and savoured the cold liquid, watching Ezra asking if he could have a drink and being told no. He was actually old enough by Larabee family tradition but since Josiah was his guardian and had not given permission, he got no drink. He listened as Ezra managed to persuade Ryan that if Josiah called him and said it was alright he could have wine at the table, which he liked having never had beer. Chris and Vin were playing with Chris snr's. three dogs on the lawn, as Buck watched them he realised he couldn't see JD. Draining his beer he went for a wander looking for the young man. Finally he spotted him sitting atop a paddock fence watching the horses graze in the warm late evening sun.
"Hey kid spotted one you like the look of," he called as he approached.
JD looked around to see his friend coming up to him.
"What ya mean?" he asked.
"These are saddle horses, do you like the look of anyone in particular?"
JD looked back over the field. "No they're all beautiful."
Buck stepped up to the rail, and ducked under it into the paddock.
"Come on let's go find you a horse." Without waiting for a reply he wondered off into the middle.
JD hesitated and then followed, jogging to catch up with Buck. Just as he did, Buck stopped.
"Perfect," he breathed. Then after making a soft clicking noise, he called softly. "Henry, Henry."
A big strawberry roan lifted its head and began to amble over in their direction. Finally the big horse reached them. JD had never been close to a horse before, he had thought he would be afraid but he wasn't. Henry nuzzled at Buck's pockets until he produced a carrot.
"You want to give him one?"
JD did indeed, so Buck showed him how to safely feed a horse. JD enjoyed the sensation as the big horse gently lipped the food from his hand. As he did Buck explained that Henry was the first horse he had ever ridden, he was safe, gentle and well schooled. As he talked JD began to instinctively stroke the horse's soft neck.
"He likes you," Buck commented. "Wanna get on him?"
"Can I really?" JD breathed.
Henry was wearing a head collar so Buck could lead him. He quickly gave JD a leg up and stood back to admire the vision. JD looked comfortable as he sat there patting Henry and grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
"Now sit up strait, and relax thats the secret, none of this gripping with your knees rubbish your hear about on TV, let you legs hang long." Buck explained.
JD did as he was told, Buck was happy; he looked secure, and taking hold of the head collar he led the big gentle horse around the paddock.
"Feel safe?" he enquired.
"Yeah very," JD was surprised to report.
"Right hold your arms up like youre a tight rope walker, and we'll pick up the pace, now remember relax, sit up straight and you'll be okay." He looked back over his shoulder at JD.
"Trust me?" he asked.
With that Buck tugged a little on the head collar and encouraged Henry into a trot. Doing exactly as Buck had instructed he managed to stay on the horse and feel secure.
"See saddles are just there to make it more comfortable, but you don't need it really," Buck explained, as he jogged beside the horse.
JD just grinned and relaxed into the horse's movements. Buck decided he'd run about as far as he was going to for now.
"Okay, he's going to walk again, sit up straight and relax," he reminded.
He led the horse over to the rail, where he had spotted a rope coiled and hanging over a fence post.
"Wanna try going a bit faster?" he asked. JD looked apprehensive. "It's actually easier than trotting," he looked up at JD with a grin. "Trust me?"
JD did trust Buck implicitly to keep him safe.
"Alright," he agreed.
Buck slipped the rope through the ring in the head collar, then he taught JD how to use his legs to keep Henry going and how if he used more of one leg than the other he could move the horse without the need for a bridle.
In no time he was trotting in a circle around Buck; who held the rope. With one more reminder to sit up and relax Buck used the rope end and his voice to push Henry into a gentle canter. At the sudden change to the smooth gate JD's heart leapt, it was so comfortable, so much easier than the trot. Arms still outstretched, he tilted his head back as Buck made the horse go faster, he felt he was flying!
It was all but dark, and no one knew where Buck and JD had disappeared to. Eventually Vin spotted them in the distance, and offered to fetch them back, but a thunder faced Ryan Larabee said he would go and the others were to go inside. The very last of the light was going as JD's impromptu lesson was coming to an end. As Henry slowed to a halt he leant forward and wrapped his arms around the horse's neck laying his head against the mane.
"Oh wow," he breathed.
"Yeah, wow, I know," empathised Buck.
"Buck!" Ryan bellowed, as he approached out of the gloom.
The sudden noise made Henry side step and JD found himself sliding off the horse, with no saddle he had no chance to stop the fall, landing in a heap on the ground beside Buck. He was already picking himself up by the time he heard Buck asking if he was alright.
"I'm fine, honest," he assured dusting himself down, and instinctively giving Henry soothing pats on the neck.
Buck was glaring at Larabee, but said nothing, turning to JD instead.
"It's getting too dark out here, kid you'd better say good night to Henry and get back to the house," he counselled.
JD gave the big horse a hug, spoke soothing words of thanks, making the horse flick his ears and look around to nuzzle the boy, then he thanked Buck as well, before turning to go back to the house. It was quite dark now and the well-lit house stood out as a warm beacon in the night. Ryan waited until he was gone as Buck removed the rope. Although free the horse made no attempt to leave.
"What the hell were you doing?" Larabee asked.
"The kid wanted to have a go, he's a natural," Buck explained.
"It's dark, you've got no saddle or bridal, there are other horses, God knows what could have happened?"
"It was Henry what was gonna happen?"
"He fell off!"
That did it, Buck lost his temper. "He fell off 'cause you yelled at me and startled the horse!" he fumed.
"Don't take that tone of voice to me! He could have fallen off at any time, he could have been hurt, it was dangerous, I'm responsible for the boy. For God sake his mother is dying, you want to be the one who calls her to explain her son has broken his neck?"
Buck took a breath, "Look I know something about what he's going through, and it's not gonna get any better if we wrap him in cotton wool, he loves riding it'll help him," his voice softened. "Dad you should've seen him, he was in heaven, dad he loved it."
"I'm happy he enjoyed it, but it doesnt change the fact it was dangerous and irresponsible, Buck you're supposed to be looking after him."
"I would never let anything happen to him, never." Buck said vehemently.
The two of them regarded each other in the near dark, before without another word Ryan turned and went back to the house. Buck walked up to the patient horse still standing close by.
"Well old friend guess I know where I stand," he sighed.
Ever since the morning a hateful thought had entered his head, it had grown when he had overheard Ryan talking to Chris about coming in late. He didn't like it, his rational mind rejected it, but it had gnawed away at him all day. The fact that he had a headache and a nagging pain in his gut he had put down to a pulled muscle, didn't help. Henry was falling asleep his head resting on Buck's shoulder, lulled by the rhythmic stroking of his neck. Buck didn't mind, he liked the feeling that someone, even a horse would trust him enough to fall asleep on him, just as JD had the week before. Whatever problems he was having with his father, he had to be there for JD. He swore not for the first time he would never let the boy down, and when the inevitable happened he would suppress the painful memories it would bring up and be the rock JD would need. As he left the field and headed up to the house, his mind was filled with the vision of a young boy, riding bareback, framed in late evening sunlight, transported, however briefly, to a truly happy place, and the pleasant thought that he had helped to give him that brief moment of joy.
In the morning, everyone except Ezra was up early and dressed for work, Chris had found boots for Vin and JD. When Ezra finally emerged he found the house empty except for Sofia the housekeeper. She provided him with breakfast and pointed him in the direction of the ranch buildings. Already feeling uncomfortable in the jeans, he reluctantly pulled on the boots and set out to find the others.
Chris had realised he hadn't seen Ella at all. The last time they had been at the ranch she had followed Chris everywhere. He made a tentative enquiry, only to be told to his great relief that she and her father, the ranch foreman, were away visiting his mother. Ryan said they would have to get their own horses ready. Ezra arrived to find the other four all working; Buck was teaching JD how to groom a horse, Vin was also grooming and Chris was up in the loft pitching hay. He called down to Ezra.
"Afternoon sleepy head!"
"Mr. Larabee it is only ten in the morning," he protested.
"Yeah but you're still late, there's mucking out to be done, I'll come and show you."
Ezra stood stock still in the yard a look of pure horror on his face. They weren't serious, they couldn't be.
Chris looked at him as he came out of the barn. "Ezra you said you could ride, right?"
"Ride yes, care for a horse no, a gentleman's horse is brought to him fully prepared," he explained bitterly.
"Well last one up gets the shitty jobs around here and when we say shitty, we mean it!" Buck explained as he surveyed JD's work.
"How come your job appears to be purely supervisory?" Ezra asked Buck.
"'Cause he's hurt," JD explained, immediately coming to Buck's defence.
"Hurt how?" Ezra demanded with incredulity.
"Pulled a stomach muscle yesterday somehow," Buck explained.
Vin listened to the argument as Chris showed the extremely reluctant Ezra how to clean out a stable, he was happy standing there grooming Mexico, the compact pinto Chris had picked out for him. He wanted the horse to know him, so he talked to it all the time as he groomed. Eventually Mexico returned the complement, turning his head to Vin and gently nibbling the seam of his jeans. Ezra complained about mucking out, he complained about picking hoofs, he complained about grooming and he even complained about having to tack up his own horse, the only thing he didn't complain about was the horse itself, a fine boned chestnut, called Cromwell.
By eleven everyone except Buck was mounted. Chris led Vin and Ezra up the track for a gentle tour of the ranch, and Buck took JD, mounted on Henry but now with a saddle, into an empty corral for a riding lesson. JD proved, just as Buck had told Ryan, to be a natural. Whatever Buck told him to do he got it right first time, he had a natural balance on the horse, that Buck envied. Their lesson ended and Buck showed JD how to take care of Henry. The farrier had arrived for a routine visit, along with his daughter, and while JD watched the horses being shod, Buck and the girl, whose name was Taryn and was nineteen, got better acquainted. By lunchtime JD had filed a hoof and cooled a hot shoe, and Buck had a date for that evening.
Chris, Vin and Ezra had a good ride, but on their return Ezra complained about untacking his horse and washing him down.
"Ezra do you ever do anything without complaining?" Chris asked.
"I do not see why I have to perform physical labour, especially hot, sweaty, dirty, labour, I've never done it before." There had been a whiny tone to his voice; but it suddenly changed, suddenly the confident quick talking man in a child's body was gone, instead there was the voice of a lost child. "It's
not what I'm used to, I don't understand it." He turned away, hefting the big saddle into his arms and following Vin into the tack room.
Chris watched him go. it was, he realised, easy to dismiss Ezra as a cocky juvenile crook trying to work the system, until his time was done. Easy to forget his whole world had changed, every frame of reference had been lost, his mother had abandoned him and he had ended up behind bars. And now he was in a family, yet another alien environment. Chris suddenly realised just how vulnerable Ezra was, and resolved to help him find his way in the new world, he found himself in. As he put his own saddle away, Chris watched Ezra walk across the yard to rinse his hands under the tap. Vin stepped up behind Chris so silently only his breathing gave him away. Chris turned suddenly to look at him and was surprised to find Vin was looking past him and at Ezra.
"He's drowning," he said enigmatically.
Chris also looked back at Ezra, Vin had captured in two succinct words what Chris had been thinking.
"I know," he said in reply, then he turned back to Vin. "What about you?"
"Oh keeping my head above water," he assured with a lopsided grin.
All five boys trooped up to the house together, abandoning their boots on the veranda outside the side entrance, and after washing up filed into the kitchen. Both Ryan and his father joined them, enquiring about their day so far. Ezra admitted he had enjoyed the ride, Vin as usual said nothing, JD told Ryan about his lesson, and about helping to shoe the horses. He avoided looking at Larabee snr. he still found the man intimidating, even scary.
"Dad do you have anything for these energetic youngsters to do this afternoon?" Ryan asked.
Both Ezra and Buck groaned inwardly, Ezra had had his fill of manual labour for one day, and Buck just didn't feel up to it. Chris didn't notice Buck's discomfort, but he knew Ezra had done enough for his first day. He looked up at his grandfather and gave him the slightest of slightest shakes of the head. The senior Larabee frowned and then turned to his son.
"No not on the weekend, 'cause come Monday I've no doubt we can find lots of jobs for you boys." He saw JD looking apprehensive and misunderstanding it, spoke directly to the youngest at the table. "Even for you JD."
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