Alternate Universe "Brothers Larabee"
Characters: JD, Chris
Ratings/Warnings: Some bad language
Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em... damnit!
Summary: What does it take to push an innocent to the edge? And can someone who's been there really help?
Thanks to Phyllis for Brothers Larabee/AU2, and for betaing for me in her usual wonderful way!
Thanks also to Sherry, and to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home
Ezra Standish smiled at his youngest brother as he watched the young man tweak his tie nervously, for the umpteenth time. He had been tempted to comment on how fortunate it was he had encouraged the family's two youngest to purchase a suit some months back, but the gravity of the situation prevented him. Instead, he just remained close, his hand resting on the easterner's shoulder.
Buck was almost glued to JD's side. The brunet squeezed the younger man's arm.
JD exhaled, shakily. "I'm nervous, Buck. I know Chivers didn't actually stab me, but... I really don't want to see him again."
"It'll be over in no time, kid... mark my words. So fast, Chivers won't even realize he left the Nevada State Penitentiary. "
Chris stood in front of the youth. "I'm sorry you have to relive all this, but the guy is going down, and your testimony will be the final nail in his coffin."
JD nodded, but each brother knew the words hadn't really helped. Vin pushed something into JD's hand and, for the first time that day, he smiled as he looked at the medicine bag Vin had given to him after he was attacked. Tanner winked.
"Figured it might help."
JD nodded. "Thanks, it already has."
All the brothers turned at a commotion in the corridor outside the courtroom. Eventually, the DA approached them.
"Chivers escaped this morning, just outside Carson city. I'm sorry, JD, guys, it's over, for now... go home."
JD didn't realize how much he was shaking until Josiah's arms enfolded him and pulled him in close, the former totally missing the angry exchanges between the brothers.
Chris straightened. "We've wasted enough time on that asshole... let's go home."
No one would argue with that directive, but, on the ride home, all JD could think about was the night he was attacked in the stables and the events that led up to it.
EIGHT WEEKS PRIOR
The Larabee study was a hive of activity, but all was not well. Ezra was as equally frustrated as JD, the two men sighing as they once more went over the spreadsheet on the monitor. Finally they looked at each other. They knew what they had to do. Ezra went to round up his brothers, while JD printed off the pages they needed.
All seven were sitting around in the huge living room. JD and Ezra walked them through their findings. Chris leaned forward in his chair.
"Let me get this straight... You found ten discrepancies starting from January 3rd last year? Why are we only now finding these?"
JD looked uncomfortable. "It's my fault. All I've done up to now was enter figures, today, we ran an end of year report, the first one since we switched to this system and it became obvious some of the receipts weren't tallying with the stock figures. I was initially concentrating on our profit margins, which were excellent... I'm sorry, guys."
"I, too, must apologize," Ezra said, supportively. "This was a grave oversight on our part."
Chris shook his head. "Not really. Until JD got our accounts up and running on the computer, all we ever did was send our receipts and log books to our accountant. The ranch hands dealing with the transactions filled in the books when stock was delivered. This way has clearly shown us there's been a major problem with the original structure; I'm guessing the problem is someone's been screwing us. Whose names are on the delivery notes?"
JD and Ezra looked at each other.
"Guys?" Buck pushed.
"Bob Chivers," they answered, together.
Chris and Buck stood, looking at Nathan. Vin glanced at Josiah, waiting patiently for the furious blond to speak.
JD nodded, looking at Buck as he repeated the man's name.
"Our father hired him. He's been our foreman for five years." Buck looked at Chris, knowing Chris was thinking the same as him. Had Chivers been double-crossing them all that time?
Chris was seething. "That man has broken bread with this family." His expression feral, he directed his next question to Vin. "Is he still here?"
Tanner nodded. "Yep, just got in, he's been checking fences in the top pasture today."
Larabee headed for the door, stopping as JD spoke.
"What are you going to do, Chris?"
The blond looked back at him, as Buck came to stand alongside. "Fire the thieving bastard."
Chivers looked up when the seven brothers walked in while he hung his tack in the tack room.
"Mister Larabee... boys. " He nodded to the men, frowning at the furious blond now stopped in front of him, well defined arms folded across his chest.
"Our father trusted you, Chivers... *we* trusted you... *I* trusted you. Get your things together and get the fuck off our property."
Bob swallowed. Despite no information forthcoming, he clearly knew exactly what Chris was referring to. He stood defiantly. "Maybe if that miser of a pa of yours had paid me a decent wage, I wouldna had to do it."
Chris started to move forward. Vin held him, but JD was too slow to grab Buck, the brunet fisting Chivers' shirtfront.
"You ungrateful, deceitful sonofabitch. You were unskilled when you were hired. Our father taught you a trade and rewarded you accordingly. Don't try to lay your dishonesty on this family." He raised his fist. "I oughta punch you into the middle of next week."
Chivers laughed. "Oh yeah, such a big man, with five men and a runt to back you up."
JD was alarmed as all six took an angry step forward. Anxiously, he pushed through his brothers to face them.
"Guys... please? "
Snapping back to reality, Chris glared at his ex-foreman.
JD breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the man exit the stables.
"Should we advertise the position?" Ezra said at last, breaking through the tense silence.
JD looked at Vin, Josiah and Ezra. Frowning, he turned back to Chris, Buck and Nathan. "Do we need to? I mean, you got Vin... and Josiah and Ezra are getting more and more involved now... and... well.. .I've learned loads... "
Buck laughed softly, grateful for the release. Chris pursed his lips, nodding his approval.
"Yeah... good point." He walked purposefully over to Vin and placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "What do you say, Tanner... are you interested in taking on the responsibility? "
JD beamed, closely followed by the others. Vin smiled shyly, looking at his brothers as he shook Chris' hand.
"I'd be real proud to, thank you."
Buck clapped his hands together. "Excellent. Now to real business... who wants a beer? I feel a little celebration coming on."
JD shuddered, recalling how, just after that, Chivers and two other men had come to the ranch one evening when the family had been in town, to burgle the property, JD being unfortunate to interrupt them and getting stabbed for his trouble.
On arriving home, the brothers separated to change out of their smart attire. JD went straight into his bathroom and opened the cabinet, shakily taking out a small, unmarked glass bottle. Hesitating for a moment, he twisted off the top and took a good swig of the liquid inside, coughing as the fiery brew burned his throat. He looked at his reflection in the mirror. The first time he had done this was the day the subpoena had arrived for him to give evidence in the Chivers trial. It had brought everything rushing back... the pain, the fear... emotions he had successfully conquered after the attack. He took one last nip... 'just for courage'. He didn't need the alcohol... he just needed a little... boost.
One week on and Chris Larabee was a contented man. The Double L figures showed, in the last year, the ranch was doing better than they had ever hoped it would and, apart from a few regular hands, was fast becoming a family business. Vin was doing an excellent job as foreman as he, Buck and Chris dealt with the daily ranching responsibilities. Josiah, JD, Ezra, and occasionally, Nathan, pitched in and learned more about the business each day, with Nathan thankfully handy for any day to day mishaps. JD and occasionally, Ezra, kept the accounts and requisitions in order, and had made some excellent investments with a small percentage of the profits. All this added up to the Double L's high-quality reputation growing steadily in the world of horse breeding, a fact Chris knew his father would be so proud of.
As Chris and Pony moseyed along the top pasture, the blond remained remarkably calm, considering his youngest brother hadn't stopped talking since they had left the house earlier in the day, but, he realized, it was more likely due to the fact that Chris found JD's energy and fascination in all things, mostly refreshing. Despite being in his early twenties, intelligent and well educated, JD looked at almost everything with the wonder and innocence of a child, positively bursting with enthusiasm and curiosity, hungry to learn as much as possible and try everything. Chris had happily answered every question, but was finally wearing down as they rode the north boundary together.
"JD... take a breath, kid!"
Dunne blushed. "Oh... sorry, I was doing it again, wasn't I?"
Chris smiled. "Yes... and I really don't mind, but, sometimes, out here, it's kinda nice to just amble along and enjoy the view."
JD nodded. He couldn't disagree with that. It was beautiful country and he thanked God every day he had come to this place... to these people. To breathe the same air and look at the same things his mother and father had once done... or at least, he imagined they had.
Larabee grinned... he'd lasted a whole minute. "Mmm hmm?"
"Dad and my mom... "
The blond turned slightly in his saddle to look at him. "What about them?"
"Did... " he sighed, "... did they ever ride out together... like this?"
Smiling, Chris nodded. "Yeah... yeah, they did. Not as often as they would have liked, but... Linc did manage to persuade her a few times." He appeared to debate something in his mind, finally looking back at JD. "We, that is, me, Buck and Nathan, talked about this not so long ago and reckoned, somewhere out here... " he grinned, "... you were conceived."
The youth's eyes widened. "I was?" He watched Chris nod.
"We recalled one day when they came home from a ride and your mom was giggly and a little flushed. From then, we noticed a change in them. Your ma was different with Linc, little looks, touches. Dad... well, I'd seen that look before. He had fallen for her big time. When she up and left like she did... it shook dad to the core, not that he ever said anything... but... he never took up with another woman again."
The silence over the next few minutes had Chris glancing across at JD with concern, relieved to see the younger man seemed contented, though apparently lost in deep thought. Passing through a small glade, the two men crossed a creek, the horses' hooves kicking up frigid spray as they walked them through it. JD was suddenly snapped from his musings; barely hanging on, as Milagro unexpectedly reared up and took off at full speed across the clearing. Chris started after them, kicking at Pony's flanks to give chase.
"JD! HANG ON!"
The young easterner finally regained his balance and the reins, reins which were tugged clean out of his right hand when Milagro reared, leaving him clinging to the bay's mane until he could snatch them back. Just on the verge of gaining control, he gasped at the sight of a barbed wire fence just ahead of them. His heart was in his throat as it appeared his horse was about to attempt to clear it... so the abrupt stop came as a total surprise... and sent JD straight over the bay's head and into the fence. He barely heard Chris cry out when the pain overtook the shock and he was yelling out himself. Chris jumped off the slowing black, and raced toward his brother.
"Oh shit! JD... don't move!"
Buck steadied the double posts as Vin slotted the rail between them, nodding to Josiah that they were ready for the next one. Ezra stepped out from inside the house and onto the porch, calling to the three men repairing the corral.
"Nathan and I have prepared sandwiches and a rather fine blend of filter coffee for lunch. Are you ready to join us, gentlemen?"
With a wave of acknowledgement, the three put down their tools, took off their gloves, dusted themselves off and walked around to the boot room. After washing up, they joined Ezra and Nathan at the kitchen table.
"Should we leave some for Chris and JD?" Josiah asked, trying not to laugh at the look on the ravenous Texan's face.
"Nah, Nettie packed a lunch for them before she went out shopping, earlier." Nathan explained. "Chris reckons they'll be back just in time for dinner."
Buck swallowed a piece of sandwich and took a gulp of coffee. "Thanks, Vin."
Tanner looked at him. "For what?"
"For suggesting JD ride out with Chris today... you made the kid's week."
Vin smiled. "As foreman, I made a decision based on the needs of the ranch... I figured I was needed here today."
For a moment there was silence, then Buck chuckled. "Yeah... right!"
They all laughed. Vin was indeed proving to be a more than capable foreman; it had been an excellent move to appoint him after firing their last, despite the dire consequences for JD that followed. JD had struggled with all that had happened, but he seemed to be more like his old self, now, though, something wasn't quite right and no one had quite figured it out... yet. Buck's cell sang out and the brunet checked the ID and answered, mouthing 'Chris' to the others as he did so. The four brothers were alerted as Buck stiffened and stood, waving his free hand in a 'move it!' gesture to the others.
"Okay... we're coming... hang in there, bro."
"What?" Vin asked as he stood, noting Buck's pale features.
"Nathan, bring your bag, there's been an accident."
Chris hissed as he carefully removed another barb. "Keep still!" He instantly regretted his tone as he noticed JD shivering, Chris wasn't sure if it was shock or pain.
"S... sorry... "
"No, I'm sorry, kid... but there's a real nasty one in your neck and I need you to keep as still as you can. I'm gonna need help removing it."
"Okay... are they coming?"
Chris looked at him. He slid in behind JD to support the younger man, successfully untangling most of JD's body and clothing from the evil wire, while relieved it wasn't as bad as he'd first feared. "Yeah, they're coming, kid... hang on... won't be long." Chris drew closer and JD relaxed against him. It would offer some comfort, the blond thought, and, if nothing else, keep the youth still.
"D... dumb, huh?"
Chris smiled. "Nah... these things happen." He was concerned with how quiet his youngest brother was, it must have given him quite a fright, to be thrown into a barbed wire fence... it had sure scared the shit out of Chris. He placed his large hand on JD's forehead and held the dark head tight to his chest... partly for comfort and partly to stop JD from moving too much.
"Say... this hasn't put you off that Rocky Mountain trail ride we're going on next month, has it?"
"Oh no... " JD said, quietly, staring at the coiled wire around him... "still want to do that." He looked up at the sound of a vehicle, groaning as the wire again bit into him.
"Damnit, JD... you have to keep still!" Chris ordered.
As they approached, Buck jumped out of the moving vehicle, closely followed by Nathan and Vin.
"Did you bring the cutters?" Chris asked a worried Buck, relieved when Vin held them up and no one berated his unnecessary question.
Nathan hurried toward the pair on the ground and crouched down next to JD just as Josiah and Ezra joined them, the doctor trying not to show his concern at the bleeding wounds on his youngest brother.
"Mister Dunne, I have left a particularly fine cup of Belgian coffee to be here... and I see it's nothing... trivial. "
JD laughed, instantly regretting it. He pre-empted Chris, his voice raspy as he shivered. "I know... I know... keep still!"
Squatting down, Josiah rested a hand on the leg that was free from the wire as Nathan spoke softly, pulling out a hypodermic from his bag.
"I'm going to give you something to put you out, JD. It'll be safer for when they cut the wire, okay?"
JD blinked his eyes, slowly, he dared not nod, his neck was really hurting now. They all held their breath as Nathan drew liquid from a small bottle and pushed up JD's shirt sleeve, smiling as he did so.
Nathan swabbed the area. "Sharp scratch... "
Buck moved to hold JD's gaze, taking the youth's hand to add to the comfort of Chris's. He smiled, watching as anxious hazel eyes slowly closed.
When JD drifted off, Buck got up and carefully eased himself into Chris's place, the blond grateful to stretch his stiff muscles. Satisfied JD was out of it, Nathan nodded to his brothers and backed away. Vin, Chris and Josiah took up their positions. Chris looked at Vin as the Texan held the cutters.
"You okay, Vin?"
The Texan nodded. "You bet... let's do this." Nathan was ready for the barb in JD's neck, quietly dealing with it after it was cut loose while Vin continued on. Once JD was free and his cuts dealt with, temporarily, the family made their way home, Vin riding JD's horse back, with Chris on Pony. Tanner looked sorrowfully at his older brother.
"I'm sorry, Chris."
The blond's eyebrows drew together as he glanced across. Vin continued.
"With all that's been goin' on, I forgot Chivers was in the process of removin' all the old wire fences. I guess he hadn't got this far."
Chris nodded. A few years back, Linc had bought the land from a neighbor to extend his own property, discovering, over time, the previous owner had lined his territory with barbed wire fencing. Over the past year, the Double L men had steadily been replacing them with their own fence posts or just plain removing them. This one had, regrettably, not yet been removed.
"Not your fault, Vin... just one of those unfortunate things."
Tanner sighed. "Yeah, I guess JD would agree with you on that."
With thoughts now on their injured sibling, the two men picked up the pace.
JD woke up to the sound of a magazine being flipped in a semi- darkened room. He frowned, where was he? No sooner had he asked himself the question, he realized he was in his own room. Turning his head, slowly, he saw Nathan sitting there. "Hi."
Nathan grinned and approached the bed from his seat in the rocking chair. He checked JD's vitals and his bandages, then smiled, reassuringly. "You okay?"
JD nodded, relieved to find that he could. "I'm good, thanks, a little sore and tired... but fine. Is everything okay, Nathan?"
The doctor nodded. "Not too bad. The wire in your neck was a little deep, but the wound is clean and should heal quickly. The other cuts bled some, but nothing too severe. Can I get you anything?"
"Just a drink," JD sighed. "Where's Buck?"
"He left a half hour ago for Rosie's, well, I sent him, actually, there was nothing he could do, Inez needed him and I was here with you, anyway. He's not staying... said he'd be home by ten... it's 8.30 now."
"Thanks." JD sipped the offered drink then relaxed back, yawning. "I can't keep my eyes open," he said quietly.
"That's just the shot I gave you working its way out of your system, you'll be fine by tomorrow." Nathan smiled as his final words were lost on his slumbering brother, re-taking his seat to continue watching over him. Buck would no doubt be taking over later.
Sitting on the edge of his bed in the early hours of the morning, JD smiled at his snoring brother. Unable to ignore the ache in his bladder any longer, JD went shakily to the bathroom. After washing his hands, he looked at the bandage on his neck, wincing at the sting as he ran his fingers over it. He opened his bathroom cabinet and took out a bottle, unscrewed the cap and took a few mouthfuls of liquid, shuddering as he replaced the top, placed the bottle back in the cabinet and closed the mirrored door. He still hated the taste of whiskey. A minute later he was back in bed and soon after that, asleep.
Buck jerked awake to the smell of coffee.
"'Morning," Chris grinned, handing one cup to Buck and the other to JD, who was sitting up in bed.
"Thanks," Buck yawned, looking across to JD. "Hey, squirt, shoot, you look terrible."
JD laughed and sipped his coffee. "You should look in the mirror, bro." He smiled as Chris sat on the bed.
"How are you?"
"I'm fine, Chris, thanks... really. A little sore, but fine." He frowned as the blond stared at him, tilting is head. "Chris?"
Larabee filed away his suspicions... for now... and patted the youth's knee. "Come and have breakfast."
JD nodded and watched him get up and leave, laughing as a disgruntled Buck called after him.
"That's okay, stud... I wasn't hungry, anyway."
Chris called to Nathan as the doctor sat down to breakfast. "What did you use on JD?"
Nathan frowned. "Nothing since last night, why?"
"Anything alcohol based?"
The doctor shook his head. "No, just iodine patches. Chris?"
The blond smiled as he joined his brothers at the table. "Just wondered, that's all. The smile grew wider as JD and Buck sat with them.
Vin spoke. "How you doin', kid?"
"I'm good, thanks Vin... and starved."
"Well, you did miss dinner last night," Ezra reminded him.
JD nodded. "Guys... " he looked at them all, "... thanks... you know... for helping me, yesterday."
Josiah poured JD some juice. "It's what family does, son."
All nodding, the brothers tucked in to their eggs, sausage and bacon as they discussed the day's business.
Two days later, just before dinner, Chris grabbed JD's arm as he passed by the recliner Chris was sitting in, green eyes scrutinizing the younger man. JD had passed him a few times and Chris's senses were on alert. "JD... have you had a drink?"
The youth shook his head. "No." He grinned. "Ohh... you can probably smell the new mouthwash I've started using. Strong, isn't it? Almost blows your head off."
Chris nodded and relaxed his hold on JD, who continued on up to his room.
"Finally noticed, huh?"
Chris turned to Buck as the brunet exited the study. "What?"
No words were exchanged; Chris knew *that* look, instantly understanding what Buck was referring to. He sighed. "How long?"
"Long enough... just for courage, I reckon... but we all know where that road leads."
Larabee got up and ushered Buck back into the study, closing the door. "Just when, exactly, were you gonna tell me?"
"I needed you to figure it out," Buck answered, honestly. "I wanted to be sure it wasn't just my overactive imagination. "
"Have you confronted JD about it?"
Buck shook his head, his face sad. "No... didn't want to make things awkward... thought I'd wait on you... unless I saw it get worse. I'm still trying to figure out why the kid feels he needs to drink... and hide it from us."
Chris swallowed, his clenched teeth causing the muscle in his cheek to jump as his mind processed Buck's words. JD was not a regular drinker by nature, sure... the odd beer. He looked at his brother, concern evident... what had they missed?
Two weeks later and normality... or what was considered *normal* for the Double L was evident... at least on the surface... but Buck and Chris had been vigilant and were well aware JD was still taking the odd nips of whiskey.
With JD soon to be on his way home from helping Inez at Rosie's, while Buck assisted Chris and Vin with their new stallion, Chris called the remaining brothers together. As they all sat around the dining table, Nettie gone for the night and a hotpot simmering nicely in the oven, Chris stood and paced for a moment, still unsure as to whether they were approaching this in the right manner. As far as Chris was concerned, JD had never lied to them... or hidden anything from them, before... despite he and Buck giving their youngest many opportunities to own up to his little indulgences.
"Are we waitin' on JD?" Vin asked.
Chris shook his head. "Not tonight." He saw the slow nod from Buck and took a deep breath. "I may be doing this all wrong... and, if at the end you agree I fucked up... I'll try and make it right, but, for now... just hear me out. Have any of you noticed JD acting a little... differently in the last month or so?"
"How so?" Josiah asked, not missing the uncomfortable looks between Ezra and Vin.
"Reckon we should leave it there, cowboy... JD should be here." Vin stated.
"I'm not trying to hurt him, Vin... I want to help. Buck and me have a pretty good idea of what he's doing... just wondered how well he's hiding it."
"I would say he did well... at first... but as he's become more... 'dependent'... I'm afraid, the tells have become obvious," Ezra volunteered.
"Just when did you boys plan on sharing this information? " Buck snapped at the realization someone else knew.
"What's this about?" Josiah could feel his frustration growing; Nathan seemed as clueless as him. The four brothers ignored Josiah as their anger grew.
"What... you gonna wait 'til the kid falls on his face... or makes a stupid mistake, Standish?" Buck accused.
Ezra stood. "No, *Mister Wilmington* I was merely torn as to how to address the matter without JD feeling pressured into lying any further."
"None of us knew how to bring this to the table, Bucklin... " Vin defended, "... still not sure doin' this without JD here is right... but I'm glad we're addressin' it, somehow."
"HOW MANY HEADS DO I HAVE TO BREAK TO GET AN ANSWER, HERE?" Josiah growled out.
Seeing Nathan about to say something, Chris spoke. "We're pretty sure JD's been drinking... in secret... Buck and I wondered if any of you had noticed. Clearly... " he eyed Vin and Ezra, "... some of you have."
JD sank back against the wall of the boot room, his stomach turning as he heard Chris's words and the ensuing heated debate. Evidently, the brothers missed the arrival and garaging of JD's bike and now he understood why. Overlooking the fact that he had kicked off his boots, the youth exited quietly and headed to the stables. Racing up the ladder to the loft, he sat there for a moment, shaking. Seconds later, he reached into his jacket pocket and took out a small, full bottle of whiskey, breaking the seal and spinning the top until the pungent aroma assaulted his nostrils. He stared at the bottle for a moment. 'What were they talking about? It was only a few sips now and then.' JD stared down at the floor of the barn... the shuffling of horses drawing his attention downwards... down to *that* spot... the spot where he had been violently attacked. Toby, JD's 'adopted' donkey brayed and JD 'shushed' him loudly, returning his attention back to the bottle.
Without a second thought, he took a long pull... shuddering as the liquid burned his throat and warmed his chest. He took another drink, spluttering as his body rebelled slightly at the unfamiliar quantity, but, undeterred, he took another... and another... fuck them...
"Fuck you... " he yelled, the contents of the bottle swooshing around as he pointed toward the house with the hand that was holding it. "You... you don't know... you... think you do... but you don't... " He took another drink as he again, stared at the stable floor. "You can't... " he whispered, "... how could you... it happened to me... "
Vin had heard enough and walked toward the boot room to put on his coat and boots, check on Toby and get some air, stopping suddenly as he looked at the floor. "Chris." The blond joined him, closing his eyes after he looked down.
"What?" Buck had now arrived.
"JD's been here."
In less than a minute, six men were heading toward the stables, attracted by the partly open door and soft light showing through it, all inhaling sharply as they stepped inside to see JD balancing precariously on the edge of the hay loft.
"JD... come down, kid."
Dunne looked down at Chris, then the others. "CHRIS! Chris... hey there, big brother... how ya doin'? Finished talking about me now, have you... huh?"
Larabee sighed. "Come down and let me explain, JD."
The youth pointed, clearly upset. "Explain? Explain what? That you don't TRUST ME?"
Chris never flinched. "I'm not doing this here, JD... come down, please... we'll go to the house... "
"THERE!" JD shouted, pointing to the ground beneath Larabee and Wilmington's feet. "Right fucking there... you're stood right... right where the bastard stabbed me... bastard... " JD wobbled and slipped. "Oooh... shit!"
In an instant, Josiah moved to catch him, wincing sharply as he broke the youth's fall and they landed on the hard, hay-strewn floor.
"Whoooo!" JD howled, scrambling to his feet and oblivious to Josiah's pain. "What a rush... gotta do that again... "
Buck grabbed JD's arm to halt his progress, stunned as a punch from the spinning younger man landed squarely on his chin. He released the youth as he staggered back, slightly.
"JD!" Chris hollered, inhaling deeply to stay calm. "Come on son... let's go in... " He was genuinely surprised when the youth stepped right into his face.
"You... you're not my father... you don't get to tell me what to do."
The brothers were in shock. JD was one of the sweetest, kindest people they had ever met... this behavior caught them completely off- guard. Buck and Nathan were transported back several years as memories of a heavily drunk Chris overwhelmed them. Chris was feeling it too... and as he looked into the alcohol-hazed hazel eyes of his youngest brother, something inside... snapped. He snatched at JD's jacket, his eyes wide with anger, ignoring the pummeling JD was attempting to give him to break free.
"You think you can speak to me... to us, like that... HUH? You think this is clever, you little shit? HUH?"
Larabee hissed at Ezra. "Shut up... I know where this can lead... and it's not happening while I have breath in my body... his ass is mine." He dragged a wildly protesting JD out of the barn, across the yard and into the house, the others following, watching as Chris half- carried, half-dragged JD up the stairs.
"Mine, Buck... " Chris called down, not looking back, "... back off!"
The five brothers stared after them, visibly shocked and unsure of what to do.
"I feel as if we should be doing something," Ezra said.
Buck choked back the emotion in his throat. "We just have to wait... no one knows better than Chris what he's going through... we just need to... wait."
Nathan took Josiah's arm, "Come on... let's check out those ribs."
The big man looked at them all. "A conversation for another time... but... just for the record... I too know something of what JD's going through."
Vin, Buck and Ezra stared after the pair, now wondering how many more 'revelations' would surface before the day was over as the battle between JD and Chris raged on above them.
JD grabbed the doorframes to Chris's room to halt their progress. "Gerrofff me... you... you got no right!" JD yelped as Chris pried his fingers off the wood, pulled him into his room and slammed the door, locking it.
JD began to wilt. "Chris... "
The blond never faltered as he kept the younger man upright. "It stops here, JD... this is not you... you're better than this... no more son... no more."
Realizing he was now in Chris's bathroom, JD turned as the blond reached around him and turned on the shower jets.
"What... what are you doing? No... NO! Let go of me, BUCK! BUCK!...Chris... no... NO!"
Just able to toe off his boots, Chris hoisted the struggling younger man into the large cubicle and ignored the boy's screams of protest as the water drenched them both. JD struggled desperately, but the water penetrated his clothing and chilled his skin as Chris held firm. He pushed JD's face into one of the streams, tears streaming down his own face as his inebriated brother's struggles grew weaker as fury gave way to tears.
"Wh... why, Chris?" JD spluttered and coughed out his words as he fought the stream of water hitting his head and face. "You would... wouldn' t do this to Vin... or Ezra... why... why... me? Do... do you hate me... that much?"
Chris hugged his brother close as they remained under the dual streams, both men drenched and still fully clothed. "I don't hate you, you idiot... I love you... and I'll do whatever it takes to stop this taking hold... it's not real, JD... it doesn't solve anything... it just makes it all fifty times worse."
Chris instantly recognized the next sound and just got JD out of the shower and to the toilet before the youth dropped heavily to his knees and threw up. Huge puddles formed around them as JD vomited into the white porcelain while Chris rubbed his back... tenderly soothing the groaning, sobbing younger man until JD had nothing left. Now barely conscious, JD was laid on the floor face down, as Chris stripped first himself, then his brother, of the sodden clothing. Putting on his robe, the blond dragged JD to his feet, roughly rubbed a towel across JD's hair and practically carried the dripping, naked youth into the bedroom. Once JD was comfortable in Chris's bed, the older man managed to get some water into him. Then, after pushing back soaked black tendrils of hair from JD's face, Chris settled back in a large upholstered chair as he watched his youngest brother sleep off the effects of the alcohol. Chris rubbed a weary hand over his face. It was going to be a long night.
Josiah winced, waving Nathan off as he watched the doctor approach him. They'd established that his ribs were bruised, but he'd survive. No one had slept through the night and were mightily relieved when Vin brewed a pot of coffee and served up toast, as 6am chimed on the timepiece in the study. While they sat silently around the kitchen table, they scrutinized each other, each man drawn and bleary-eyed. Buck rubbed the sore spot on his chin.
Ezra spoke. "What the hell happened, last night?"
Buck sighed. "Chris made sure JD knows how he feels about alcohol dependency."
"Shoulda stopped him... JD was hollerin'... "
"Chris would never hurt him, Vin," Nathan defended, "scare the shit outta him, yeah... but never hurt him."
"Never thought he would," Vin countered, "just felt so bad... Chris'd never do that to one of us."
They all pondered Vin's words. Twice in almost as many months, Chris had taken an aggressive approach to helping JD through a trauma. The first one had worked... was that why Chris went for a similar strategy again?
"When should we deem it appropriate to take up some coffee?" Ezra inquired, breaking into the tired silence.
"Chris'll let us know," Buck assured, and bit into his toast, though, he didn't really taste it.
Chris Larabee yawned and rubbed his sore eyes. As he sat propped against his headboard, he looked down at the weight across his chest and the damp head of hair under his hand, smiling at the even breath sounds of deep sleep. During the night, JD had become restless and distressed, only settling when the blond slipped onto the bed and pulled JD close, staying that way until now. Chris ached, but wanted JD to sleep longer, so he closed his eyes and drifted back off to sleep. An hour later, Chris's bladder was calling the shots, so he eased JD off him and back into the bed, relieved when, despite stirring slightly, JD remained sound asleep.
Larabee blew out a breath as he surveyed the mess in his bathroom. When he was done, he quickly checked on JD then unlocked his door and headed toward the welcoming smell of fresh-brewed coffee. His brothers watched him as he poured himself a mug, then joined them at the table. He was amazed he got in three sips before the first question was fired at him.
Chris nodded to Buck.
Staring into Vin's scrutinizing blue eyes, the blond answered. "That wasn't our JD... just wanted to be sure we never see that one ever again."
"You don't think you just took away his choices," Josiah asked.
"Don't give a shit," Chris replied, ingesting more coffee.
Ezra huffed a soft laugh. "Good answer."
The doctor looked to his older brother.
"Would you go check him out, please?"
With a nod, Nathan left. Buck went to join him, Chris halted him.
"Not done yet, Buck... when I am... he's all yours."
Protests screamed inside Buck's head, but he just nodded and relaxed back as he watched the blond pour an extra coffee and head back upstairs. They all looked up as Nathan returned.
"He's fine. Looks like the pair took a real big shower last night... fully clothed."
Oblivious to the shocked expressions on his brothers' faces, Jackson continued. "JD's sleeping like a baby... reckon he'll have a killer headache when he wakes, though. I've left him some aspirin... just in case."
He wanted to raise his head, but it felt like a lead weight, so JD concentrated on opening his eyes, instead. He hadn't realized he was groaning until a hand brushed away hair from his face and rested on his head. The first thing he saw was a pair of green eyes staring back at him.
"How are you feeling?"
JD recognized Chris's voice, but his only reply was another groan.
"That good, huh?"
The hand moved from JD's head and when he took a proper look around he could see Chris, dressed in a black robe, sitting in a high- backed chair and sipping from a mug.
"I brought you coffee, but I reckon you'll be better drinking water. Nathan left you some aspirin."
The easterner shakily pushed himself up, gasping suddenly. He looked at his older brother. "I... I have no clothes," he rasped through a parched throat.
"Yeah... and if you piss in my bed, you'll be washing the sheets by hand."
Nodding his understanding and instantly regretting it, JD climbed slowly out of the bed and staggered into the bathroom. When he returned, Chris was holding out a pair of pajama bottoms and a T- shirt for him to put on. Once dressed, JD sat, hunched over on the edge of the bed, almost dozing off, when Chris handed him the aspirin, uncapping a bottle of water as his brother popped the pills and nodded his thanks just before he took a few long pulls. The youth was genuinely amazed at how fast the wastebasket appeared when the acidic mix of bile and aspirin made its return as he heaved for several minutes. He stared at the bright pink concoction in the dosing cup in front of his face.
"Let's try this, then."
A few minutes later, when it was evident the Pepto Bismol was staying put, Chris easily lifted his exhausted brother back against the headrest, putting pillows behind and around him for comfort and support. While JD spent the next hour drifting in and out of sleep, Chris dressed, drank JD's coffee, went downstairs for more, then returned to his room, sitting back in the chair to wait to speak to JD.
Once the horses were fed, watered and released, Vin made a managerial decision, calling in all the hands, to do whatever needed to be done for the day. This was now officially 'family day' and the five men retreated to the house to wait on Chris and JD.
Settling down in the kitchen to eat several rounds of sandwiches, the brothers said very little, each man lost in his own thoughts. Nathan stayed close to Buck. They all knew how close the brunet was to JD and Nathan understood the torment he must be going through, knowing his little brother was experiencing something not unlike the three original Larabees had lived through before. Buck wasn't attempting to hide his anguish, his hair disheveled as he ran his fingers through it constantly.
Nathan squeezed Buck's arm, not in the least surprised when the man released a soft sigh. "JD's not Chris, Buck. He has demons... but not like Chris had. And he's got six of us here... willing him through this. If anyone's right for this... it's Chris."
Buck patted Nathan's hand. "I know... I just want to... see him." He smiled a little as he saw four other heads nod. "Did you hear him in the barn? That fucking trial has brought all this back. Why didn't I see it coming? I mean... for Christ's sake... look what he went through after the attack."
They all jumped as he slammed a clenched fist down onto the kitchen table. "You idiot, Wilmington!"
They all looked at Josiah. "We're all idiots, then, because we have all been around that boy almost as much as you. JD's first real cry for help came last night... when he finally stopped hiding what he was doing. He wanted to be saved, brother... and Goddamnit... he will be."
"I can't lose him," Buck whispered, "I just want back the kid we've gotten to know and love... y'know?"
They all nodded.
"He's still there, Buck," Ezra smiled, "he wasn't enjoying what he was doing... he's no Chris Larabee... not where alcohol is concerned, anyway."
"I reckon it's time this family had us some fun."
Surprised at the sudden change in conversation, Buck asked. "What d'ya have in mind, Vin?"
The Texan grinned. "Let me think on it."
"Look at me." Chris sighed, dark bangs obscuring JD's face as the youth sat upright with his head bowed. The blond got up and sat on the edge of the bed, facing his brother.
"Talk to me, kid."
JD cocked one eye at him. "You gonna give me another fucking shower?"
Chris bit back a grin. "No... I promise. JD, I want to help... we all do, but we can't if you won't talk to us. What's eating at you, son?"
JD sighed, finally making full eye contact. "The trial."
Larabee nodded. "Why whiskey?"
"You prefer I popped pain pills, instead... got plenty left over... "
Chris tilted his head. "Okay... let's try that again... why anything? Why not talk to one of us?"
JD's head dropped to hide his trembling chin, but huge tears dripping to the sheets gave the game away. He sighed. "You... you're all so... strong, so... confident. I hated how I felt after the attack... like a big kid... frightened to even step outside without someone being with me." He looked at Chris, the blond's heart aching to see such despair.
"You helped me, Chris, Buck, too... hell, all the guys... I really started to feel like *me* again, but... when the subpoena arrived... "
"... it all came rushing back... " Chris finished.
JD nodded. "I thought... just a nip when I felt like it was taking control, would help... and it did, at first, but... I had to take a little more... and a little more, to even get to where I was when I first started. Then... when I overheard you talking to the guys last night... I felt so angry, but really... I was so ashamed."
Instinctively, Chris moved closer, embracing his distraught brother, but he knew it had to come out... or they couldn't move forward. After a few minutes, Chris pulled back and handed JD some tissues.
"I know how easy it is to get sucked in, kid. For me... it became more than just courage... it became an escape and so important to me that, I lost all focus. Dad was in despair... so was Nathan. Buck... God that man put up with some shit." He smiled, sadly. "I don't know why Buck put up with me... I ran him ragged, hit him... cursed him... almost lost him. That's why I love him so much... despite everything... he kept me alive. I know how close we've all become, but... I can't tell you how happy I am that you and Buck are so tight. Buck will always be there for you."
"I know," JD nodded.
"And so will I... "
JD nodded again as he scrubbed at his eyes. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Is... is it because I'm small you think you can drag me around like that?"
Chris chewed at his cheek. "JD... when I got you to go in the barn after the attack... it was purely a gut reaction... and it worked. When I saw you last night... I got so worked up... all I could think about was giving you some sort of wake-up call. Believe me... taking a shower fully clothed was not initially on the agenda, just getting you to a bathroom to throw up. Then this memory of Buck and me in a similar position just... flashed across my mind." He watched as JD absorbed every word, dark eyebrows rising at his last confession.
"He didn't get in with me... just tossed me right in there, screamed at me to get a grip before I killed myself... then left me. Next thing I remembered, I was in my own bed and Buck was sitting in that chair there... watching over me. I guess what I'm saying is... it seemed like a good idea at the time." He smiled as the sparkle returned to the younger man's eyes.
"Oh, and for the record... I've hauled Wilmington's drunken ass up to his bed more times than I care to remember... and he ain't small!" JD's chuckle warmed the blond's heart. "So... it ends here?"
Dunne looked Chris in the eyes for the longest time, then nodded. "It ends here." He watched his hero stand.
"I'm gonna go rustle you up some breakfast and let Buck off the dog- leash I had to put him on to stop him coming up here." He grinned *that* grin, JD chuckled again.
As he reached the door, JD called him.
"Chris... thanks... for everything... particula rly for almost drowning me last night."
The blond laughed softly as the words were followed by the huge JD grin they all loved to see. "You're welcome, little brother."
Five pairs of eyes stared at Chris as he walked into the kitchen. "What d'ya think, Nathan... scrambled eggs and toast for a dodgy stomach?"
All five grinned as Nathan nodded. Ezra stood to gather the necessary items as Vin got out the pan. Chris gestured his head as he looked at Buck.
With a whoop, Buck moved to leave the kitchen, but not before he gave Chris a big ol' squeeze, slapping the man on the back. Chris chuckled and returned the gesture. In seconds, Buck was gone.
"He gonna be okay?"
Chris sat wearily down at the table, thanking Josiah for the coffee as he answered Vin's question. "Yeah... he is... and he's got good support."
Again, they all agreed. Vin looked at Chris. "Hey, cowboy... I'd like to run somethin' by you."
Buck frowned when he saw JD was no longer in Chris's room. Not really understanding why, he crept toward JD's room and stepped inside, his heart rate increasing as he heard JD rummaging in the bathroom cabinet. Buck peeked around the corner, his stomach flipping as he watched his youngest brother uncapping a brown bottle... the unmistakable smell of whiskey filtering through the air. Seconds later, Buck's shoulders slumped in relief as the youth upended the bottle and watched its contents drain away into the sink. Buck quickly retreated to wait in the rocking chair.
As JD exited the bathroom and spotted Buck, his emotions flooded to the surface. Buck leapt to his feet and embraced the youth like he hadn't seen him in a month, staying like that way for a good while.
"I'm so sorry, Buck."
"Shh... it's over... let's move on." He smiled at the nod to his shoulder and squeezed tighter.
"The whiskey was from Rosie's, but... " JD pulled back to look up at Buck, "... I never stole it; I always put money in the till."
Buck pushed his fingers through JD's still damp hair, leaving them entwined in the strands. "I believe you. Just promise me you'll always come to me... or one of the others, if you feel like this again."
JD nodded, his hand rising to grasp Buck's forearm. "I promise."
Buck grinned and pulled his brother back toward him, making a mental note to thank Chris again, later.
Show attendees were trying to act uninterested, but when the Double L horsebox was opened, all eyes turned that way. The ranch had a remarkable, but well deserved reputation and all were eager to see what the brothers had entered for the 'Best of Show' competition. JD walked up the lowered ramp and a minute later led the first animal out, startled by the escalating laughter.
"Oh man... it's a donkey!"
Those words caused more laughter and JD felt his cheeks color up. Toby just brayed, as if to say exactly what he thought of his audience. Chris stepped forward and took Toby's reins, winking at his brother.
"Go get the last one, kid."
JD grinned at Chris, affection shining in his eyes as he recognized what the man was doing and quickly aware the laughter stopped as soon as Larabee had taken over. Chris was highly respected and rarely laughed at. The hilarity turned to gasps of awe when the sleek black stallion was led from the box. This animal was magnificent, and no one doubted who would take the accolades today. JD handed off the horse to Vin, grinning at the wink he received as Chris handed Toby's reins back to him. Chris, Buck and Vin wandered over to their designated area.
"This was a great idea, Vin," Buck complimented, "it was just the sort of focus we needed over the last few weeks."
Chris nodded his agreement, a little amused at how Vin still blushed at a compliment. "Any idea why Toby came along, today?"
Vin shrugged. "All JD would say was that he seemed to want to get into the horsebox." He looked around. "Where did JD and the others take Toby, anyhow?"
"To a stall, I think," Buck answered, watching Chris run a hand down the stallion's neck.
"Got me a good feeling about this one, today," Chris stated.
Vin grinned, Buck nodded. "Hell, yeah!"
Ezra, Josiah and Nathan had accompanied their youngest brother to another part of the show ground, Toby happily trotting alongside.
"Thanks for coming with me," JD grinned.
"I can't think of a better way to spend the day than dodging horse droppings and huge, blood-sucking flies," Ezra stated, flashing his gold tooth as he grinned widely. They all chuckled.
Nathan spoke. "Does Chris know you're doing this?"
JD shook his head. "No, nor Buck and Vin... I figured they had enough to think about, today."
Josiah wrapped an arm around the youth's shoulders. "I understand your reasoning, John Daniel, but I fear they may be disappointed they didn't know."
JD looked worried. "Really? I don't want to hurt their feelings."
"Oh, I doubt you could ever do that, JD," Ezra smiled, stopping as he patted himself down. "Would you excuse me for a moment, I seem to have mislaid my wallet."
Buck straightened from brushing the horse as Standish approached them. "Hell, Ezra, did I just see you running?"
"Indeed," he panted. "JD has entered that infernal equine noise maker in a competition, but has apparently not mentioned it to you. I thought you might like to know."
All three stepped forward, taking the offered program from Ezra and reading it.
"We got time to get over there?" Vin asked.
Chris nodded. "Just... but there's plenty of time after the event... before ours."
With an unspoken agreement, they all headed for the small showring.
Josiah and Nathan watched with bated breath as the judges examined Toby. JD checked his watch as he held the donkey steady. Still a half hour to go before the stallion's competition, he didn't want to miss that. As the judges were walking up and down, Chris, Vin, Buck and Ezra joined Nathan and Josiah, the latter pair grinning as they arrived.
"How's he doing?" Buck asked.
"Hard to tell," Josiah answered, suddenly stiffening as the decision became imminent. Buck beamed with pride and Vin and Chris hi-fived as the winner's ribbon was handed to a grinning JD, Toby seemingly unimpressed as he tried to eat the award. After placing Toby in a stall, JD returned to his brothers, chuckling as Buck swept him up in a big ol' bear hug.
"Why didn't you tell us, kid?" Vin asked.
"Aww... it was just a bit of fun," JD blushed. "I didn't want to bother you... just thought I'd get some practice in... you know."
"Let's go see if we can make it two out of two, huh?" Chris grinned, leading them back to the main arena.
No one laughed, as, later that evening the two Double L winners were led back into their horsebox. JD turned to walk back down the ramp when he froze, his face losing color. Buck was at his side in moments, alerting the others. He was shocked to realize JD was shaking.
"Wh... what is it? What's wrong?"
JD spoke quietly through clenched teeth. "Chivers is here." He grabbed Buck's arm as the brunet turned to look. "NO! Don't let him see you looking."
"Are you sure?"
"Why... why would he take such a chance, Buck? He knows we know him."
Buck guided JD down the ramp, meeting the others. Buck laughed, much to JD's surprise.
"Okay... look as if I'm telling you something funny... but... Chivers is here."
The five men laughed, Chris spoke, his voice low and dangerous. "The arrogant bastard. Wanted by the law and known to us... and still he hangs around. What say we do a little *law enforcement* of our own?"
They all nodded, JD shook his head. "How about we let the cops handle it?"
They all sympathized, but didn't feel that was an option this time. "JD, stick with Buck, I don't want you alone. How far behind us did you see him?" Chris asked.
"About ten yards... behind the main stalls... he was... he was just... watching us."
Chris nodded. "Vin, with me, Nathan, you, Ezra and Josiah go left, We'll go right... Buck... just follow him, but the priorities are JD and the animals... got it?"
They all agreed and moved off. JD's shoulders slumped.
"Sorry, Buck... I know what Chris is trying to do, but, I'm fine... honest. I was just a little shocked, is all."
"Nice and steady then, okay? Let's go." Slapping a bill in a steward's hand to watch the horsebox, Buck and JD headed off.
Bob Chivers was nervous. He felt sure the kid had seen him... and now the rest of the family had split up. He cursed himself for not leaving when he saw them arrive. The guy he was working for didn't know he was a wanted man and had been very happy that the Double L wasn't listed as entering this show. Clearly... he had been premature in his celebrations.
He couldn't help himself, though. The Double L stallion was truly stunning. He had to hand it to the brothers... they knew their horseflesh, but probably hanging around to watch while they loaded him had been pushing his luck. Chivers edged his way around the show ground... he needed a vehicle... fast.
Vin was first to spot him, gesturing to Chris and calling the others' cells to alert them to Chivers' location. The brothers moved in... and Chivers was well aware of them, now. Spotting an idling truck, he jumped in. People dived left and right to avoid the fast-moving vehicle as it weaved carelessly through those still remaining. Chris observed the vehicle's path and raced for two trucks parked side by side. With a leap, Chris hit the back of one truck, jumped on the cab, leapt to the second vehicle then bound toward the escaping truck Chivers was driving, successfully hitting the bed and clinging to the back of the cab for dear life.
Terrified for Chris's safety, JD looked left and right, spotting the metal barrier to the ground's entrance. While his brothers kept track of the truck, JD raced for the main gate.
Chris managed to get a hand on the driver's door handle but just as he opened the door, Chivers swerved sharply, the blond clinging to the swinging door as the truck hurtled on. Chivers had the gates in his sights and nothing was going to stop him.
Breathless, JD reached the small kiosk that controlled the gates, cursing as he realized the barrier was up and the post abandoned. Stepping inside, he scanned the panel, nodding to himself as he could see the controls were simple. Looking up momentarily, his mouth went dry as he saw Chivers bearing down on him, fleetingly focusing on Chris clinging to the open door of the cab as he caught the dangling blond's eye. Composing himself, JD punched two buttons and the barrier shuddered and started to drop.
Chivers cursed as the heavy metal pole descended and barred his escape. Opening the passenger door, he scooted across the seat and rolled out, dropping heavily to the ground and screaming in agony as something in his shoulder snapped. Chris drew a deep breath and, timing himself, let go, curling into a ball as he hit the ground. He had no doubt he'd damaged some ribs, but without missing a beat, picked himself up and headed straight for a writhing Chivers, noting his family were closing in every second.
JD punched the air in triumph, suddenly paling as the runaway truck's momentum carried it straight for the booth.
Hearing his fast-approaching brothers, yelling, Chris looked up just in time to see the glass and wooden kiosk disintegrate like matchwood as the truck plowed into it. He breathed out a name. "JD?"
Buck's knees almost went from under him as he watched the last place his youngest brother had been, shatter into pieces. Realizing Chivers was in no condition to go anywhere, Chris took off for the booth, calling frantically for his brother as he scanned and pulled at the wreckage. When the other five reached him, they stood in shock, as they surveyed the top two thirds of the kiosk lying in bits and the bottom third trapped beneath the truck's bed. Vin went to where the side door of the kiosk originally was and dropped to the ground, crawling on his belly until he reached the damaged structure. Moving a piece of the door, a pair of hazel eyes peeked back at him, mouthing one word.
Vin grinned with relief. "Are you hurt?"
JD raised his eyebrows. "Don't think so... help me out." Reaching out, he grasped Vin's outstretched hand and moved carefully as Tanner backed out, pulling JD along as he did so.
"Little help, here!" the Texan called.
As if someone stuck them with a cattle prod, all five moved together. Buck dropped to the ground first, stretching out a hand for JD to take as Josiah grabbed Vin's legs and slowly pulled him out, Ezra and Chris assisting Buck. A few long seconds later, Buck, Vin and JD were clear of the truck. As Josiah helped them to their feet, Chris looked intently at JD. Apart from a few small cuts and bruises to his face, the young easterner appeared to be uninjured.
JD turned to stare at where he had just emerged from, turning back to the others.
"Wow. Guess this is one of those times I should be glad I'm short!"
Laughing with relief, all seven embraced, oblivious now to the cops dealing with Bob Chivers. Chris's gravelly voice rose from the huddle.
"Let's go home."
Three weeks on and JD stared at the letter in his hands, finally looking up to face an anxious Chris and Buck. He grinned.
"Chivers pleaded guilty. He's going straight to sentencing... I' m not needed to give evidence anymore."
All three blew out a breath. They could finally put it all behind them.
JD had not once shown an interest in alcohol since his encounter with Chris, who was more than satisfied with his progress, convinced now it was never going to be the kind of problem he himself had suffered.
Their stallion had successfully impregnated Bronwyn, a beautiful black mare and they had already received five offers to buy him, his price now more than six times what the brothers had originally paid for him.
Toby succeeded in eating his ribbon, but not before JD captured his success on camera. Despite, to their surprise, a few offers for the little guy, all seven brothers made it clear... Toby was now an official member of the family... Toby... stayed.
Nettie ushered the three brothers to the laden dining table, the other four quickly joining them to sit around the table, laughing and catching up with the day's events. JD looked around the table at each man.
Vin, such a remarkable man. Strong, brave, fiercely loyal and protective, but still could blush at a compliment. He was JD's inspiration.
Nathan, clever, gentle, highly skilled, always focused on the well- being of his family. JD admired him greatly.
Josiah, wise, caring, nurturing and affectionate. The man oozed love. JD loved spending time with Josiah.
Ezra, witty, educated, sharp and sweet... yes... sweet. Long gone was that hard outer shell he tried to maintain, he was no less a Larabee than the rest of them, and he was thriving on it. JD looked up to him, he had taught him so much from the business world.
Buck, one word described Buck for JD... perfect. The man himself would never have agreed, but to JD, he was everything he could have wanted in a brother and he hoped one day he could tell him so, oblivious to the fact that Buck... already knew.
Chris, JD wanted to be like this man more than anything. He had faults, of course, but he had integrity and a charisma that drew you to him... and yet sent you running if you crossed him. He was his hero.
In truth, they all were and he loved them all dearly. As far as he was concerned, God created six perfect brothers... and JD got to keep them all. He grinned as Chris looked at him and winked, then laughed, slapping Buck's hand away from his dinner roll while the big man swore he was doing it for Vin.
Every day with these men was an adventure and JD loved every minute of it. He'd said it before, but it was worth saying again... life didn't get much better than this.
Follow-up story: Little Donkey