Alternate Universe: One Big Happy Family
Buck Wilmington Larabee was in his element. Elbows deep in his current project, he felt a measure of peace and contentment that had been missing from his young life since the night Uncle Chris and Uncle Ezra and gathered up the brothers and told them their Mama and Daddy wouldn't be coming home. Buck had been floundering in a dark sea of grief, fear and uncertainty ever since, sure that with the death of his parents he was about to lose everything he had come to love.
This was not like the last time he lost a parent. Buck remembered that before his birth mother had died she had taken great care to prepare him, and he had known exactly what was going to happen to him and JD beforehand. He had time to get comfortable in his new surroundings and learned to love and trust his new parents before his mother had been taken away forever. He had missed his mother terribly, but had still felt a measure of security. This time it had happened so unexpectedly that all security had been stripped away. He had been left to wonder where they would go, who would take care of them, and if he and his brothers would be separated.
When Timmy Johnson had informed him that they would now have to go live in the orphanage, he hadn't known whether to believe him or not. Before, they hadn't been orphans because they had two new parents, but this time they didn't. It seemed entirely logical to his nine-year old mind that the orphanage would be where they would wind up. The thought of leaving his home and his brothers had made him feel like a heavy weight was lying on his chest, making it difficult to breathe sometimes. He wanted to cling to JD, Vin, and Josiah just as tightly as JD was clinging to him.
When Uncle Chris had made it clear that he and his brothers were staying in their home and his aunts and uncles would be coming to take care of them, Buck had felt the burden lift and took what felt like his first real, deep breath in days. He still missed his parents something awful, but felt better knowing his future and that of his brothers was secure.
"Are you almost done with the walkie-talkies, Buck?" JD's excited voice asked.
"Almost, JD. I just need to finish connecting these wires," Buck said as he returned his attention to the job at hand.
Buck happily snipped the last wire, connected it to the battery terminal, and closed the plastic back to the case surrounding his home built radio.
Eileen and Cody had discovered the young child they had adopted was insatiably curious about all things mechanical and electrical, and had an uncanny ability to understand the way they operated. Whenever Buck would get too quiet and they went looking for him, they would usually find him tearing apart a motor or appliance to see how it worked. Although at first reasonably upset at this demolition of their household appliances and vehicles, they were soon astounded to discover that the boy has able to rebuild whatever he had dismantled, and was usually able to make it work better than it had before he had taken it apart.
Cody had found Buck would react to a trip to Radio Shack as any other child would to being turned loose in a toy store. At Christmas while JD was pouring over the Toys R Us wish book, Buck was drooling over component catalogs. Where his brothers might be happy with pizza, ice cream, or toys as rewards for good behavior or grades, Buck asked for toggle switches, torque wrenches, or soldering irons.
Over the last three years the employees for both ranches had gotten into the habit of bringing their broken equipment or appliances to the boy who was more than happy to fix them if possible, and if not, he salvaged the parts to add to his growing collection. Said collection had grown to such large proportions that Cody had cleared a shed in the ranch yard and converted it into a workshop for the boy, where he happily puttered making new devices from the scavenged parts. During haying season Chris' ranch foreman would "borrow" the boy to fix the cantankerous hay bailer that no one else ever seemed able to get to work. Everyone in the whole area agreed that Buck had the magic touch with machines.
"There," Buck sat back in satisfaction, "all done. Here, you take this one over there and see if you can hear me." Buck handed the second radio to his brother and waited until he reached the corner before pressing the talk button on his radio.
"Buck, calling JD. Can you hear me, JD?" Buck said pressing his mouth to the microphone.
"Hey! I can hear you, Buck! Can you hear me?" JD yelled in excitement.
"You got to push the button to talk, JD. Like this," Buck held up his radio and demonstrated, "then you let the button go to hear."
JD carefully held down the send button and shouted into the radio, "Can you hear me now, Buck?"
"Dang, JD!" Buck winced as he pulled the speaker away from his ear, "You don't have to shout. Just talk normal." Realizing what he just said and who he was talking to, Buck corrected himself, "I mean, talk soft, okay. I can hear you without you yelling."
"Sorry, Buck," JD apologized. He held the button down once more and said, "Is this better?"
Buck smiled and answered on his radio, "Yeah, like that."
JD danced in excited circles. "This is so cool, Buck! Can we go play army now?"
"Let's play spies instead!" Buck suggested.
"Sure! We can be secret agents sent in to get the secret formula. We'll go spy on Nettie! You can go see where she is and you can watch her and tell me if she comes to the kitchen. I'll go get the secret formula from the cookie jar." Buck said with a grin.
"Why can't I steal the secret formula?" JD whined.
"Cause you can't reach the cookie jar, JD," Buck pointed out.
"Can too!" JD yelled.
"No you can't. You're still too little."
"NO, I'M NOT!" JD screamed and closed his hand around the nearest object, which happened to be a broken circuit board from a radio, and hurled it at Buck.
Buck, used to JD's tendency to throw things when he was angry, calmly ducked out of the way.
"Do you want to play with my radios?" Buck asked with a smirk.
"Yeah," JD grumbled.
"Then I get to get the secret formula," Buck finished firmly.
JD's face screwed up in a pout, then realizing he couldn't win this one his face relaxed as he gave a disappointed sigh. "Okay, you can get the secret formula," he agreed grudgingly, "but you better get enough for me too!"
"Deal," Buck agreed.
With the crisis resolved the two boys skulked out of Buck's workshop intent on their mission of cookie liberation.
Chris was in a conversation with his foreman about the growth curve and weight ratios of the ranch's newest crop of calves when he saw the familiar blue pickup come to a halt in the ranch yard. Chris nodded to his foreman and walked to meet the man exiting the truck with a large, canvas bag.
"I can't leave you boys alone for a minute, can I," Nathan joked.
Chris smiled and reached out to shake the doctor's hand before replying, "We wouldn't want you to feel like we didn't like you anymore. The hands are sure if you didn't get called over at least once a week you'd think they were mad at you or something."
"It's hell being popular," Nathan joked.
"It's the price you pay for being so good at what you do."
Nathan Jackson was an exceptional physician and everyone in the local area knew they were damn lucky to have someone of his ability willing to work in the small rural community that he serviced.
Nathan had been in his last year of residency when Chris' father had approached him with a job offer. Almost completely bedridden for the last 20 years of his life, William Larabee had been acutely conscious of the lack of medical care that could be found in the small rural community. The closest real doctor had been almost an hour's drive away, and of little use in an emergency.
William Larabee had spent his last year on earth funding, building and finally staffing a small, but well equipped medical clinic for the area. He donated land from his ranch to build the clinic, and set up a trust fund for its operation. Then with the help of an old friend, who was affiliated with the University of Texas School of Medicine, William scoured the ranks of last year residents, looking for the best of the best. He had finally settled on Dr. Nathan Jackson, a doctor with specializations in both family practice and surgery, and had approached the young doctor with an offer Nathan found too good to resist.
William offered Nathan a handsome salary, and payment of all his student loans in exchange for a five year contract to operate the new medical clinic. When William learned Raine Jackson was a registered nurse he offered her the job as Nathan's nurse and office manager. William had sweetened the deal by offering them a lovely house not far from the clinic rent free. Knowing a great deal when they saw one, the Jacksons had leapt at the opportunity.
They had made their home on the Larabee ranch for the last four years, making a place for themselves in the tightly knit community. They could not imagine living anywhere else now. Much to the satisfaction and relief of the local residents, the Jacksons had decided to continue to run the clinic after their contract was up.
Nathan ignored Chris' compliment and got down to business. "Raine beeped me on the way into the city and just said to get over here. I assume since everything seems pretty quiet that it's nothing too serious?"
"Randy Johnson managed to slice his hand pretty good mending a fence. Got him resting in the barn office with pressure on it. Isn't bleeding too badly anymore, but I figured it was deep enough to need a couple of stitches. I was gonna bring him over to the clinic, but when I called to let you know we'd be coming Raine told me to just sit tight and she'd send you over."
Nodding his head in acknowledgement, Nathan followed Chris through the large barn and into the office built in the far end. Chris entered the room where the wounded ranch hand was sitting quietly, pressing a gauze pad tightly into the palm of his left hand. Randy Johnson eyed his boss with a nervous smile.
Chris had spent several tense minutes of their wait for Nathan expressing his opinion of Randy's middle son Timmy's chosen topics of conversation in regards to his nephews. Randy and almost fallen over himself reassuring his boss that he would have a long talk with his son about his insensitive behavior.
Randy was a long time employee of The Lazy L, and thought Chris Larabee to be a good boss. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy, who expected a lot from his employees and gave a lot in return. He was demanding, but fair unless you did anything to hurt or threaten his family, then you better be ready to run for your life. Everyone in the area knew how much Chris Larabee cared for his young nephews. That Timmy would say anything that stupid to someone who had just lost his parents was bad enough, but to say it to one of Chris Larabee's nephews was bordering on the insane.
"Hey, Randy. I hear you did a number on that hand of yours," Nathan grinned at the ranch hand as he set his medical bag on the wooden floor, and reached out to grasp the gauze covered hand in a gentle grip.
"Just doesn't seem to be my day, Doc," Randy hissed as Nathan unwrapped the bandage and examined the wound.
"Gonna need stitches alright," Nathan shook his head. "When's the last time you had a tetanus shot?"
"About six months ago when I dropped that roll of barbed wire on my foot."
"Oh, yeah. I remember that one. You certainly do have the worst luck when it comes to fencing. As your doctor, I would recommend you give it up completely," Nathan joked as he withdrew the suturing kit and sterile gloves from his bag.
"Hey, tell it to the boss, Doc," Randy grinned.
Nathan expertly injected an anesthetic, cleaned the wound, sutured it, and bandaged the hand while he continued to joke with his patient.
"You go easy on that. Keep it dry and stop by the clinic on the way home and I'll have Raine give you some antibiotics just in case. You come see me at the end of the week. Don't you even THINK of removing those stitches yourself, you hear me?" Nathan warned.
Randy nodded agreeably, "Sure, Doc. I hear ya."
"Why don't you head on home for the day, Randy," Chris said. "You need someone to drive you home?"
"No, I can manage. Thanks, boss. I could use the extra time to talk to a certain little blockhead who's probably driving his mother crazy about now," Randy grimaced.
Chris nodded but remained silent as the injured ranch hand left the office and headed out of the barn.
"You want to tell me what that last part was all about," Nathan asked as he removed the stained gloves and tossed them and the used equipment into a container in his bag.
Chris tersely repeated the events of the night before.
"He's just a kid, Chris. Kids say a lot of things without realizing how hurtful they can be."
"I know than, Nathan. That's why Timmy is getting a talk from his old man instead of me."
Imagining the child's reaction to having an enraged Chris Larabee "talk" to him made Nathan laugh.
"That kid would have to be in therapy for years to recover from a talk like that." Nathan said with a chuckle.
Chris answered with a slightly feral grin of his own.
"I gotta go," Nathan said, picking up his bag and slinging it over one shoulder. "I need to go pick up that new ultra sound machine in San Antonio, so I'll be gone for a few hours. Try not to rough anybody up while I'm gone, okay?"
"Gee, Nate, you never let me have any fun," Chris joked.
Nathan exited the barn still laughing.
"Just put them down on the table there, Josiah," Inez told the teenager as he entered the kitchen door with both arms loaded with grocery bags.
"Okay Aunt Inez. That's the last of them," Josiah replied, setting the bags down where Inez had indicated. "Do you need some help putting things away?"
"You can put the milk in the refrigerator if you would," Inez tossed over her shoulder as she emptied one shopping bag and transferred the contents to the cabinet.
Josiah obligingly hefted the gallon jug of milk in one hand and swung the refrigerator door open with the other. He stood gazing into the interior of the well stocked appliance, then turned to face Inez with a grin.
"I think we have a problem, Aunt Inez. There's no place to put it."
Inez joined the boy in front of the refrigerator and placed one hand on his shoulder as she bent over slightly to peer inside.
Josiah stilled at the feel of the soft hand on his shoulder. He stood motionless, absorbing the feel of his aunt's touch. Josiah found it hard to express the simple joy he felt whenever he had physical contact with any member of his new family.
Displays of physical affection had not been something he had received much in the years before he came to live with the Larabees. His father was generally too busy to bother and his mother was too wrapped up in her own problems and alcoholism to want him around unless she had an immediate use for him. The nomadic lifestyle his family had led from the time he was an infant had not allowed him any time to make any close friends that might have felt comfortable showing him any physical affection.
In stark contrast to his birth parents, Eileen and Cody Larabee had been great believers in showing their children love. The giving and receiving of hugs, and kisses, and the playful ruffling of hair were all commonplace occurrences in the Larabee household. The sudden flood of affection after so many years of drought had unsettled Josiah at first, but soon he came to revel in the loving touches of his family
Josiah had felt like an outsider the first few weeks of his life as a Larabee. He had not really accepted emotionally that he was now a member of the family until one day in town when they had to cross a busy street, and young JD had slipped his hand into Josiah's and looked up at him, waiting patiently for Josiah to lead him across. The feel of that small, warm hand in his own had rocked Josiah's world as he came to the sudden realization that the small boy looking up at him with such absolute trust was now his brother. HIS brother. A part of HIS family. Josiah had to blink away the tears that had suddenly tried to fill his eyes before he could lead HIS little brother across the road safely. Once on the other side, Josiah had kept hold of JD's hand, cherishing the warmth that seemed to spread from the child's hand into his own until it seemed to fill his whole body.
Ever since that fateful day Josiah couldn't get enough. Where other boys his age were trying to avoid hugs from their mothers, Josiah actively sought them from his. Standing on the porch watching the sun go down with his new father's arm relaxed across his young shoulders brought Josiah a sense of peace and happiness he had never known in his short life. Touching became his way to reassure himself that his new life was real, that this was really his family, and that he was loved at last. Fighting his cravings to drink was always a little easier when he was wrapped in the arms of his new mother or father.
With the death of Eileen and Cody, Josiah found himself craving the physical contact with the remainder of his family more than ever. The inherent love behind Inez's simple, unthinking touch was a panacea to his battered soul and helped remind him that he was not alone, that he still had family.
"I think if we move this jar to the door, and shove this back " Inez said shuffling things in the refrigerator, "I believe there. That should do it.
Josiah set the jug in the cleared space and threw another smile at Inez.
"You boys aren't eating enough. That's why it's so full. You'll have to start doing better," Inez smiled
"I guess I haven't been too hungry lately." Josiah turned his head away slightly.
Inez wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close.
"I understand. I know it's been hard on you boys. It's been hard on all of us, but it will get better." Inez pulled back and took his face in her hands. She looked deep into his troubled eyes. "It will get better. I promise you, Josiah."
Josiah wrapped his own arms around her waist and held on for a few precious minutes before letting go and stepping back.
"What else can I help you with?" he asked with a warm smile.
Vin tensed as he heard the slight sound of a board creaking in the barn behind him. He was standing in one of the horse stalls on a low box that let him reach the back of the chestnut mare's coat with the brush. He carefully stepped off the box, as silent as he could be, but continued to murmur his soothing song to the horse. He stepped around the animal and carefully snuck a look out of the stall before pulling back quickly. Sighing in relief and relaxing, Vin smiled at what he had seen. Buck and JD were hugging the side of the barn quietly making their way to the stall he was in, trying to sneak up on him. This was a favorite game of the three. In the thirteen months that Vin had lived with them they had never managed to catch him by surprise. With his senses honed for survival, Vin's awareness of his surroundings at all times always alerted him to their attempts.
Grinning to himself in glee, Vin positioned himself to one side of the stall door and waited. When Vin sensed the two boys on the other side of the doorway, he jumped out at them, yelling at the top of his lungs.
JD screamed and fell on his bottom trying to get away from the loud noise and Buck tripped over him and took his own tumble to the floor. Vin had to hold his sides because he was laughing so hard.
"I gotcha ya," he gasped between guffaws. "I gotcha ya good!"
Buck looked at JD then both boys started laughing too. Buck rose to his feet and helped JD up, both still laughing.
"Good one, Vin," Buck congratulated his brother. "I was sure we were gonna get you this time."
"Never happen, Buck. You two couldn't sneak up on a deaf and blind man," Vin kidded.
"Hey! Is that any way to treat people who bring you cookies?" Buck said with a grin as he reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew two sugar cookies wrapped in a crumpled paper napkin.
Vin's eye lit up when his saw the treat and he reached out to grab them but Buck pulled them back quickly and hid them behind his back.
"Not so fast, junior," Buck smirked.
"Okay, okay. Maybe you guys could sneak up on a deaf and blind man," Vin said. After Buck passed him the cookies Vin finished with, "but you sure couldn't sneak up on anybody else!" Vin quickly ducked the smack Buck aimed at the back of his head.
"Look at the walkie-talkies Buck built, Vin." JD shoved the radio at Vin.
"We've been playing spies."
Vin turned the device over in his hands, and held one up to his lips and pressed the send button. "Do they really work?" he asked.
Buck used his radio to reply "You betcha!"
"That's cool, Buck," Vin grinned. "Now we can talk to each other after bedtime!"
"Or when you run off again," Buck punched him lightly in the arm. "Aunt Mary was gonna send Uncle Chris out to find you when Uncle Ez called this morning. She was getting all red in the face and everything."
Vin shrugged. He didn't really see the need for learning all the stuff she tried to teach him. He already knew everything he needed to live. Why waste time indoors taking lessons when he could be outside hunting, or exploring the two ranches, or working with the horses.
Vin was very used to being own his own, and doing what he wanted or needed to do. It was only his deep love of Eileen that had caused him to start paying attention to how his actions affected other people.
The first time he had gone exploring the ranch on his own and returned to the house after being gone for several hours, he had found his new mother in tears, crying in fear for him. The sight of the woman he was coming to care so much about in such a state because of him wretched Vin's poor little heart. From that day on, Vin and Eileen had come to an agreement. Eileen tried to give him more freedom when possible, and Vin was careful to let her know his whereabouts so she wouldn't worry.
Vin was still a wild creature to a certain extent, and the only way the independent child could ever be truly controlled was through his heart. Although Vin had come to love Mary, too, she didn't have the same hold on his heart Eileen had claimed, and he didn't feel the same need to please her that he had felt for his mother.
"You think she's gonna make Vin go to bed without his supper?" JD asked.
"A fat lot of good that would do, JD. He's got almost as much stuff stocked up in his closet as Nettie has in the kitchen." Buck snorted in disdain at the idea of his brother going hungry with all the packaged and freeze-dried food Eileen had allowed him to keep in his room.
Buck rubbed his nose in remembrance of the one time he had relieved Vin of his cache of food as a joke. Buck had been forcibly shown that his little brother took food very seriously, equating it with security. Buck considered himself lucky that Vin had let him get away with only a bloody nose.
"She won't send him to bed without supper, but I heard her tell Nettie she was gonna talk to Ezra about not letting him in the horse barn for a week," Buck shook his head in sympathy at the other boy's stunned gasp.
"No! Uncle Ez wouldn't do that . Would he?" Vin groaned.
Buck shrugged and said, "I don't know, Vin. She was pretty mad. She might be able to convince him it's for your own good. You know he'd do it then. He might do it just to calm her down. Who knows?"
While Vin was contemplating this unforeseen disaster, Josiah entered the barn and approached his brothers.
"Josiah!" JD yelled in relief, running to his brother and grabbing his hand, "You're back!"
Josiah squeezed JD's hand in greeting. Since their parents had been killed JD hated to have Josiah go into the city for his weekly appointments, scared his brother would not be returning either. He was always deeply relieved when Josiah got back home.
"Yep, I made it back, squirt," Josiah teased. "Aunt Inez sent me to get you guys. She said Uncle Ezra's going to drive us home. He promised Aunt Mary he'd have us back before supper."
Buck raised one eyebrow slightly and threw Vin an "I told you so" look causing Vin's shoulders to sag in dejection.
"We'd better go before we make Uncle Ezra mad too," Buck advised Vin, "because you sure don't want him already upset with you if Aunt Mary does decide to talk to him."
Nodding in agreement, Vin hurried to the door.
"Come on, JD," Josiah said with a smile. "I'll give you a piggy back ride."
JD willingly accepted the offer, and the remaining three brothers followed their fourth out the door.
"Good morning, Mary," Inez said as she entered the kitchen door. She crossed to the cabinet and took down a mug and filled it with coffee from the half -full pot on the warmer.
"Good morning, Inez," Mary smiled up at her friend. "You're up early for a Saturday morning." The sun was just barely rising and although Mary had a tendency to wake early, she knew Inez and Ezra tended to wake at a much later hour.
"I thought we might as well get started with the plans for us moving in," Inez answered with a heavy sigh as she took a seat at the kitchen table, "since I couldn't sleep anyway."
"Uh-oh. Sounds like bad news." Mary reached out and took her friend's hand and held it between both of her own. "Didn't happen?" she asked.
"No," Inez confirmed, "Another month without results. I'm starting to get so frustrated. I'm beginning to think it will never happen again."
"Don't start thinking like that, Inez. When the time is right it will happen. You just have to relax and not let it take over your life. That kind of stress just starts a vicious cycle, you know that," Mary advised.
"You're right. I know you're right but it's just so hard!" Inez whispered as tears started to fill her eyes.
"Oh, Inez," Mary stood up and moved behind Inez and wrapped her arms around her friend. "I've been there. I know what you're going through. At least you have a husband that's willing to try. Chris still won't even consider the idea of a baby."
"Oh, I'm being so insensitive," Inez moaned. "I shouldn't be going on about this when I know it must be hurting you. I'm so sorry, Mary."
"No, no, no! You have every right to be upset, to mourn. That's not being insensitive, that's being human. You're my friend and you have the right to expect me to share in your sorrows," Mary said.
"I wish I was as good a friend to you as you are to me," Inez said wiping her eyes with the back of her hands and then laying them on top of Mary's arms and squeezing gently.
"You stop that! You're a wonderful friend. You've done your share of supporting me when I needed you, and don't you worry about me. Chris' refusal to consider another child is something I've lived with for along time, Inez. You're not hurting me. I promise."
"I don't know what I would have done without you in the last year, Mary. I think Ezra would have to come visit me in the looney bin by now if you hadn't been there." Inez sniffled and hugged Mary close.
"Hey, you're my friend. Besides, I couldn't just sit back and let you go round the bend. It's too far a drive to visit you if they carted you off to the funny farm," Mary joked and brushed a stray tear from Inez's cheek.
Mary and Inez had first come to meet each other soon after Mary's marriage to Chris. They had met while attending meetings to organize a charity event for the local little league and over the course of the event had become fast friends, much to the chagrin of their respective spouses.
When Inez and Ezra had lost their three month old daughter Eleanor to SIDS, they had both come apart. Ezra especially couldn't deal with the loss and pushed everyone, including Inez, away in his grief. Mary had been the one that Inez had clung to for sanity. Mary had been the one Inez poured her heart out to, and Mary had been the one to hold her when she cried.
Ironically enough, it had been Chris that had, quite literally, knocked some sense into Ezra and made him realize he would be losing not only his daughter but his wife if he didn't snap out of it. When Ezra had finally come to his senses and reached out for his wife Mary had joyfully stepped aside, glad to see the two finally working together to mend their shattered lives.
The ordeal had bonded the two women and their relationship had become as close as sisters, so when Inez and Ezra had decided it was time to try again for a child, Mary had been Inez's sounding board and personal cheerleader.
"I'm not going to let this get me down, not today," Inez stated firmly. "We've got enough to worry about right now. We've somehow got to combine three households, and keep your husband and my husband from strangling each other in the process."
Giving Inez one last hug, Mary returned to her chair and picked up her coffee mug.
"Maybe we should go talk to Raine," Mary suggested, hiding a smile behind her mug.
"You think she might have some ideas about how to get them to get along?" Inez asked.
"No, but maybe we can talk her into giving us prescriptions for Valium," Mary grinned.
"Better yet," Inez giggled, "Get her to give the prescriptions to Ezra and Chris!"
Both women broke down laughing.
"Busted¹," was all Buck could think when Nettie Wells quickly turned to see him as he hastily pulled his head back under the kitchen table and tried to stifle his giggles.
"Buck Wilmington Larabee! I'm gonna tan your backside, boy!" Nettie threatened, desperately trying to control the grin that was attempting to break across the angry face she was having trouble maintaining.
Though most people saw Nettie Wells as a blunt, straightforward, tough type of woman, she actually had a wicked sense of humor, and a tremendous soft spot for the four little hooligans that lived in the home she took care of. She had a tendency to spoil them rotten in her own no-nonsense way. All of the boys saw past her façade to the kind heart underneath and adored the woman.
On this fine Saturday morning, Buck had just played another of his practical jokes on the poor woman, rigging the toaster to sling the toasted slices of bread out of their slots with a great deal more than normal force. The bread had been propelled so forcefully from the toaster that brown crumbs could now be seen on the ceiling where two slices had collided with it before falling to land on the kitchen floor.
Buck quit trying to be quiet and started laughing in earnest, crawling out from under the table and standing up.
"I'll clean it up, Miss Nettie," Buck assured her.
"You see that you do, you young hellion," Nettie growled, turning away to hide her smile.
While Buck was busy cleaning toast crumbs from the floor and tossing them into the garbage, Nettie made a new pot of coffee. Within minutes the welcoming smell of fresh coffee wafted from the kitchen and down the hall.
Chris entered the kitchen with a yawn a few minutes later.
"Morning, Nettie. Morning, Buck"
"Morning, Uncle Chris."
"Morning, Chris," Nettie answered, setting a large mug of coffee in front of the man. "What would you like for breakfast, Chris?" she asked.
"Don't bother, Nettie. I think I'll just make me some toast," Chris said around another yawn, missing the conspiratorial look between the other two. Nettie and Buck both quickly turned away and tried to look busy, as Chris rose from the table and slipped two slices of bread into the sabotaged toaster. Buck returned to the table with a bowl and a box of cereal and tried to look innocent, a look that would have set off alarm bells in Chris's head if he had been awake enough to notice.
Chris walked to the refrigerator to get the butter while the toast was browning then returned to stand in front of the toaster, mouth stretched wide in another yawn. Hearing the slight metallic sound that always preceded the bread being ejected from the toaster, Chris started to reach out for the toast when it suddenly sprung out of the toaster past his hand. Chris jumped back, startled as the bread passed his face, and stared at the flying objects in disbelief as they rebounded off the ceiling and fell back down, one landing on the floor and the other on his boot.
Chris turned his shocked eyes to face Buck who had laughed himself out of his chair and was now rolling on the floor, and the older woman who was holding her sides and had tears of laughter starting to run down her face.
Shaking his head in disgust, Chris looked at the hysterical duo and said, "I knew I should have stayed in bed this morning."
Chris watched them for a minute more before the humor of the situation struck him and he joined in their laughter.
"On second thought, I think I'll pass on the toast this morning," he said with a smile.
"Too late, Uncle Chris," Buck blurted out, "I think the toast already passed on you!" sending all three back into spasms of laughter.
¹ Sorry, bad joke but just couldn't resist :-)