Forging the Bond by Sue M

Alternate Universe: FC County Sheriff's Department

Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em. . .damnit!

Summary: One man's decision to run for State Attorney General, changes the lives of seven men. . .for the better.

This is the second story for 'US County Sheriff's Department' AU, created by Marla Robinson. The founding story is called The Homecoming

My deepest gratitude to Marla, who trusted me with an idea she conceived way back in 2000 and whose help and guidance have been a wonderful inspiration.

Phyllis, who has always been there for me and not only betad but brainstormed this baby for hours with me.

Karen, whose expertise and willingness to help whenever I yell is something I am truly grateful for.

Mari, a total all-rounder who is not just a great writer but is now quite the collage expert and is always there for me and I can't thank her enough.

To Blackraptor for giving my stories a home

Ratings/Warnings: Some violence and bad language

JD Dunne couldn't help but grin on spotting the familiar red Chevy parked just across the road from the El Paso campus of the University of Texas. Waving, he hiked his bag further onto his shoulder and crossed to meet the tall, grinning man leaning back against the vehicle.


Sheriff Buck Wilmington's heart soared as he spotted his son just inside the grounds of the college JD had been attending for the past two months.

His son.

Each time he said the words, whether in his head, or out loud, a goofy grin spread wide across his handsome features. The last few months had been a revelation. Caring for someone again had come easily to the affectionate man, a little too easily at times, almost smothering the boy. He quickly realized he had been going a little too fast for JD. It was obvious the kid loved Buck, and was thriving on their devotion to each other, but he had suffered two huge losses in a short space of time and was clearly still coming to terms with it all. The pair had experienced a few ups and downs, but, they were getting there.

Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson had been a Godsend during that time, supporting the pair both physically and spiritually. The four had become very close over the summer and between them found a way to get through both the trauma that followed the funeral of Clem Dunne, JD's grandfather, and the excitement and newness of Buck's appointment as County Sheriff of Four Corners, a position that had taken Buck away from his new home life more than he cared for.

Nathan was passionate about his calling and was an exceptional doctor, caring well beyond professional bounds and endearing himself to the town and one recuperating, scared seventeen year-old. Buck had known Nathan for only a short time, mostly professionally, but seeing the man's compassion for a boy traumatized from being beaten and, until recently, convinced he was partly responsible for his grandfather' s death, had touched Buck's soul. Nathan was now considered a good friend.

JD's relationship with Josiah had warmed Buck's heart. Josiah was deeply important to the new sheriff and he had been hoping the pair would get along. They had done far more than that, spending hours talking together when Josiah came to visit. And Josiah had visited, a lot. It was so damned good, having the man in their lives, though JD's teasing and calling him 'gramps' had set all sorts of emotions raging for the three.

JD's, to overcome using the name without the emotional baggage it carried.

Josiah's, in proud acceptance that someone held him in such high esteem and, although they teasingly agreed Josiah would be the preferred appellation, the criminal psychologist had been sideswiped by the feelings produced as a result of the developing little family he was now a part of.

Buck's, to have the comfort that two of the most important people in his life, had grown so fond of each other so quickly.

With the addition of Ezra to their little group, life was richer than it had been for a while. . .for all five of them. Buck hadn't been this happy in a long time.


JD's infectious grin lit up his face. A handsome, friendly boy, he had quickly made friends, despite going home most weekends. He loved college, but missed home terribly, talking on the phone for over an hour each night with Buck and listening enthusiastically about his father's day. . .and vice versa.

His father.

JD still couldn't believe his luck. To believe his father was dead, only to find, soon after the loss of his mom, he was far from it, had been a dream come true. Buck was everything JD wanted in a father. Their relationship had begun with friendship and the pair was now more a mix of parent/child/ brother.

He had yet to call Buck anything other than his name, not ready yet and unsure if he ever would be, to call him 'Dad'. But he loved him, of that there was no doubt, it had come easily and unconditionally, and, apart from a few awkward moments when JD was overwhelmed by the speed of events, they were very happy in their new life.

He watched Buck push away from the truck and without a second thought happily accepted the embrace waiting, savoring the feeling of love and security enveloping him, while trying not to dwell on the 'what ifs' had Buck and his mom ever found each other. JD smiled as he felt Buck brush a soft kiss into his hair, squeezing the man just a little bit tighter before letting go. He had seventeen years to make up for and wasn't about to waste a moment of it worrying about how it looked. Pulling away, he smiled.

"Couldn't keep away, huh?"

Buck returned the smile. "Had a day off. . .figured you wouldn't mind me dropping by."

They jumped into the truck and started buckling up. "Everything okay?" JD's face flashed with a sudden look of concern, relaxing as Buck nodded, still smiling.

"All good. Just missing you." His heart filled to bursting as JD squeezed his arm.

"Missing you too, Buck. But, hey. . .in two weeks you'll have me home for six whole weeks."

Closing in on JD's dorm, Buck glanced across. "That's one of the reasons why I'm here." He frowned at the look of panic on JD's face.

"I can come home, can't I?"

"Oh hell, yeah. . .Jeeze, boy, I can hardly wait. No, it's more what you'll be doing while you're home."

JD tilted his head. "Like what?"

Buck signaled to pull in. "I pulled some strings at the office," he grinned, "I'm on good terms with the sheriff there. . ."

JD chuckled.

". . .anyway, if you're interested, you can come help out there. . .you know. . . filing, maybe learn to work dispatch, in case we're short-staffed. I figured it would be good experience for when you're ready to apply to the academy, and. . ." Buck flushed a little, "we'll get to see each other more."

JD's eyes widened. "For real?"

Buck nodded. "Straight up. . .if you're interested."

"Interested. . .are you kidding? When do I start?"

Buck laughed as they got out of the truck and headed for JD's room. "Whenever you're ready."

JD looked up at the building. "Why are we here?"

Placing an arm on his son's shoulders Buck leaned in. "Thought you might want to freshen up. . .I'm taking you out for dinner."

"Awesome. . .can we have steak?"

"You bet, squirt."


Chris Larabee stared out of his office window. Since his trip back to Four Corners several months ago, he had found himself dwelling more and more on his hometown, of Buck. . .and his house. For the first time in several years, he was missing the place. Going back had not been nearly as traumatic as he'd expected. Finding out Buck was back and now running the County Sheriff's Department made him reflect on their time together, before and after his father, Daniel, had died, then his wife and son. . .and Buck's ma. They had been good times. . .exceptional times. Chris was missing Buck more than he cared to admit. An unexpected phone call and lunch invitation a few days ago had Chris's senses reeling. Rising from his chair, he slipped into his jacket and headed out.


Orin Travis smiled and stood to greet Chris as he joined him at the table in the restaurant.

"Very good to see you, Chris," Orin smiled, shaking hands and re- taking his seat.

"Same here, sir. Congratulations on your successful campaign." He sat down. "What can I do for you?"

Travis chuckled at Chris' direct approach. "Let's order, then we'll talk."


Tossing his napkin onto his plate, Chris leaned back in his chair. "So. . .this Task Force will operate out of Four Corners?"

Orin nodded. "Yes. Activity along the border has increased to the point that our department alone is struggling. And it's so varied; from burglary to drug smuggling. . .expertise in various fields would now be the way to go.. Your skills and connections would be a major asset to such a team." He sipped at his coffee, watching Chris do the same as the man clearly pondered the idea. "If you could recommend anyone from another division, I'd be willing to look him or her over. I had considered approaching the Rangers. Their expertise is legendary and would be ideal."

Larabee's eyes flashed. "I may be able to help you there. I know of a good man. He'd be invaluable for an operation like this." he put down his cup and leaned his elbows on the table, hands clasped as they rested on the white linen cloth. "Would we report directly to you?"

Travis nodded. "Yes. You would still keep your status, for the short term, but if it works out, the unit would be reassessed and new positions appointed. In short, you would have to decide if you wanted to stay on, or go back to the FBI permanently. "

Calling for the bill, Chris nodded. "If I can get hold of this guy I know, when would be the best time to come see you?"

Orin smiled. "Did I pique your interest, Christopher? "

Chris grinned. "No promises, but I have a lot of respect for you, and I'd like to see more of your plans."

Throwing money onto a dish, both men stood and clasped hands. "Good to hear," the newly appointed attorney general smiled. "How about we meet again in a month, in Four Corners. . .with your friend. . ." He looked for more information.

"Tanner, his name's Vin Tanner. A month it is, then."

As Travis watched Chris leave, he felt confident his plan would work. He had two more he wanted to approach, again, men of specialized skills, but at least they were more local.


Vin Tanner was enjoying an afternoon at the shooting range. Feeling a tap to his shoulder, he pushed one side of his earmuffs back and turned to the messenger.

"Phone call."

Nodding, Vin set down his weapon and headed for the phone.


>> Hey. . .how are you?" <<


>> Yeah, it's me. <<

Vin grinned. "I'm good, you?"

>> Never better, I'm in Houston, can we meet?" <<

Vin checked his watch. "One hour from now, do ya?"

>> "Sounds good, I'll meet you at Allesandro's. " <<

"Perfect, I'm starved." He heard Chris chuckle before he hung up. Curious as to why Larabee had called, Vin packed up his stuff and left the range.


The last two weeks had seemed like the longest of his life. Buck approached the apartment block JD's dorm was in and almost got bowled over as JD bundled out of the door with a large suitcase.

"Whoa. . .easy there, squirt." Buck grinned, then frowned. "Didn't I say to wait for me to help you?"

JD's grin was dazzling. "Aww, I couldn't wait. . .'sides, I have news."

Taking the case, Buck glanced across as the pair walked to the Chevy. "News?"

JD stopped dead, his face glowing. "Dean Morris called me to his office an hour ago." He handed Buck a letter. "They want me to advance to year three next term."

Buck looked confused, releasing the case and opening the letter as he spoke. "What happened to years one and two?"

The boy chuckled. "I didn't want to mention it, in case I failed, but I just took my freshman and sophomore exams combined. They fast- tracked me because I was flying through first year."

Placing his hands on his son's shoulders, Buck grinned. "Fast- tracked? Are you tellin' me I have a little genius for a son?"

JD's eyes flashed with adoration on hearing Buck call him son, quickly recovering. "Aw hell. . .you only now figuring that out?"

Chuckling, Buck pulled him close. "Smartass," he grinned, suddenly realizing the significance of the word. "Your mom was a clever girl," he added, his voice hushed.

JD leaned in. "She told me my dad was pretty smart, too." He sighed, then looked up. "'Course, it means I get to go to the academy that much sooner."

Buck released him. "The police academy isn't going anywhere, kid. Come on, let's go home."

JD nodded. "Sounds great."


Only an hour after the two arrived home, Josiah was pulling into the long drive. JD was at the corral with Honey, Firefly and Beau, feeding the horses treats. He waved on seeing the professor pulling in, wiping his hands on his jeans as he walked to meet him. "Hey Josiah!"

Sanchez eased his large frame from his '98 metallic bronze Volvo, grinning at the approaching youth. Before JD could consider another option, Josiah drew him into a big ol' bear hug, warmed by the chuckle it produced.

"Missed you, boy," he sighed.

"Missed you, too," came JD's muffled reply. "How are Rain and Nathan?"

"Good. . .good. . .and asking after you. Nathan said he'll drop by tomorrow. Rain wondered if you'd be giving her a hand this break."

JD pulled back. "Buck's got me a little job with the Sheriff's office. . . but, I guess I could spare an hour or two to deliver." He smiled. "Be kinda neat to see Ezra."

The pair started walking toward the house, waving at Buck who was leaning against the doorpost, waiting for them. "I'm sure that could be arranged," Josiah agreed.


Buck grinned as he loaded the dishwasher while Josiah and JD debated the merits of manual expertise versus computer profiling in police work. Realizing this debate could run and run, he took in some coffee and milk and sat between the pair.

"Did you tell Josiah your news?" Buck asked, changing the subject.

"News?" Josiah inquired, sitting back in his chair as he sipped his coffee.

Grinning, JD filled him in about his progress in college. "So, this time next year, I could be in the Police Academy."

"Are you sure that's what you want to do, son?"

The youth looked puzzled. "Sure, why? Don't you think I could make a good cop?"

Josiah waved his hand. "Yes, of course, that's not why I asked.. It's just that it's. . ." he glanced at Buck, ". . .it can be very dangerous, especially here, in this county. Being close to the Mexican border creates a lot of headaches for the County Sheriff's Office. . .or were you thinking of specializing? "

JD shook his head. "No. . .I want to be like Buck. Mister Travis says that wouldn't be an issue. . .if I want to be assigned to the Sheriff's Office." He didn't miss the second glance between Josiah and his father. "What's going on? Buck. . . don't you think I'll get into the academy?"

Buck hesitated. He didn't doubt JD for a moment, but his concerns over choosing such a hazardous profession had been playing on the brunet's mind. Taking Buck's silence as a 'yes', JD's face showed hurt as he tossed his napkin onto his plate. Scraping back his chair he stood and left to go outside.

Buck called after him. "Wait. . .son, let me explain. . ." He sighed. "Aww hell, now he's all bent out of shape an' he's got it all wrong."

Josiah smiled, kindly. "Welcome to fatherhood." He stood. "I'll leave, now. Go to him, son. . .don't let this sit too long."

Buck stood and followed Josiah out. "Does it ever get any easier? I mean. . .we get along fine an' all, but every now and then we have moments like. . .this."

Getting into his car, the professor looked back at the man leaning heavily on the car door. "Not easier, no, but with it comes many paths, some lined with happiness, some with tears." He smiled, ". . .but all. . .with love."

Buck grinned as he shut the car door and watched Josiah roll down his window. "You still love talkin' in riddles, don't ya?"

"It keeps the mind sharp." With a laugh, Josiah started the car and pulled off, honking to JD as he passed the corral.

Seeing the Volvo slow, JD moved toward it and leaned in as it stopped. "Bye, Josiah."

"Goodbye, John Daniel. JD. . .don't be too hard on Buck. His concerns are not with your abilities. . .but for your safety. He loves you, son, and with such love comes a deep-seated fear. . .a fear of loss."

JD smiled as he pulled back from the window. "Yeah, I guess. Thanks." He waved as the car pulled away. He knew exactly what Josiah meant. He'd never told Buck, but, every day, he worried about what his father was doing, and if he was safe. Lost in his thoughts, he smiled as he felt strong arms encircle him from behind.

"Sorry, Buck."

"I'm sorry too." He released JD and turned him to face him. "It's not you I doubt. . ."

"It's okay. . .really. I've never said this, but. . .I worry about you every day." he swallowed as he looked into his father's eyes. "I couldn't bear it if I lost you, too."

Buck held him close. "Ain't gonna happen, boy. . .trust me. Come on, let's clean out the stables and go on in and watch a movie, huh?"

"Do I get to choose the movie?"

Buck laughed as they walked to the stables. "Fine. . .got one in mind?"

"How about 'The Alamo'?"

"Good choice. You know, there's an interesting tale about that film hereabouts."

"There is?"

Buck draped an arm around JD's shoulders. "Yep, when it was first released, it did real well at the box office, that is, everywhere except Texas."

JD frowned. "Really, why?"

Buck grinned. "Well, we knew how it ended."

JD cackled and playfully pushed his father. "Aww man. . .you almost had me going, there.." They entered the stables.

"What?" Buck protested, "it's true!"


From the highway just off the approach to the Wilmington home, two men sat in a black Cherokee. One lowered his binoculars.

"Who's the kid, Chico?"

Chico shrugged. "No idea. Patron just said to keep track of the sheriff and that's what we're doing."

Raul nodded. "Don't seem like he knows about the shipment tomorrow. I reckon Patron was worrying over nothing."

"Maybe, but this guy's sharp, has a solid track record, just like Travis. Fuentes doesn't want to take any chances."

Raul grinned, pointing toward the ranch. "Maybe we just found us an advantage."

Chico raised his eyebrows, knowingly. "What, and have the Feds on our tails, too? Patron wouldn't want that."

Raul started the car. For a long time, he'd wanted to be Fuentes' right-hand man. . .maybe he'd just found himself an 'in'.


"When do you leave?"

Tanner rolled his naked body back toward the woman lying next to him. "Two days," he replied, moving his lips toward hers. They kissed.

"Will's back tomorrow," she entwined her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply. "We have all day. . .and all night."

"Charlotte, I. . ."

"Shh. . ." she urged. "For now it's just us. . .you and me. . .don't waste our time together on guilt."

Vin slowly ran his hand over her satin skin. "Charlotte. . .I love you, but. . .I can't do this anymore. Will's a good man; he's just having a rough time right now. You know he loves you."

Charlotte pouted. "You didn't say that last night. Why are you suddenly feeling remorse now?"

Rolling onto his back, Vin sighed, looking back at her. "Woman. . .you drive me crazy. When I see you, somethin' inside me explodes and I can't get enough of you. But. . .it's wrong, you know it, an' I know it." He turned his body toward her. "Tell me you don't love him, an' we'll leave together. . .today. " Her expression was all the answer he needed.

"I'm gonna make this easy. A friend has approached me about a job across the state. If we like what we see, I reckon I'll take it. Your husband deserves another chance. . .it's obvious you want to give it to him. . .and you should." He wiped away a tear from Charlotte's eye with his thumb as she nodded.

"Please Vin. . .don't deny me one last night. Everything you say is true. . . but. . .I do love you, too."

He knew it was wrong, but he truly was in love. As he draped his body over her, Vin just hoped the memories they were about to make wouldn't tear him apart.


Chris Larabee looked around his neat one-bedroom apartment. His existence over the last several years had been one of self-imposed isolation, living only for the job. But seeing his old home, Travis, and re-connecting with Vin, had stirred the man into quiet anticipation. He had liked Orin's proposal, far more than he'd let on. And being around Vin had made him realize how much he and the younger man got along. They had talked for hours at Alessandro's. Vin had confided to him that he had gotten himself into a difficult relationship that needed to be resolved, though he hadn't divulged why..

On returning to the Dallas office of the FBI, Chris had come to the conclusion Orin's offer was more than a little enticing and had approached AD Will Richmond to discuss it with him, pleased to have his blessing to check it out.

The AD was having personal problems. His two year old son had died unexpectedly and, Chris, fully understanding the man's grief, empathized and the two had talked long and hard over drinks about many things, including family. Will had decided to set things right between him and his wife, setting aside his suspicions she was having an affair and resolving to show her how much he still loved her. And Chris had decided it was time to lay his own ghosts to rest.

Convincing words Chris thought as he zipped up his bag. Now all he had to do was believe them.


Day two of his new job and JD had spent all morning updating computer records. Actually, he had done far more than that, and Nettie was smiling, well, either that or she had gas, JD figured, she was a hard woman to read. He had spent more time than was necessary on one ongoing casefile. In the office, he had heard Buck and his deputies discussing activity at a small storage depot on the outskirts of town. It was listed as a feed storage, but the deputies were not convinced. The name Fuentes had been bandied about and JD's computer 'skills' had turned up a lot of interesting stuff.

Realizing the time, he got up to go to Rain's deli to make the deliveries, vaguely aware of Buck discussing sending in a team to raid the so-called feed depot. JD flashed his father a concerned look, receiving a wink. Buck excused himself and approached JD.

"You heading for Rain's?"

JD nodded. "I know I shouldn't eavesdrop but. . .you're going on a raid?"

Buck squeezed the youth's neck, understanding his anxiety. "We got it covered, okay? We're all trained professionals and we're planning for every eventuality. Now go ahead. . .do what you need to do and I'll see you when you're done," He tilted his head. ". . .okay?"

"This raid. . .is it today?"

Buck leaned in. "Tomorrow night. Now. . .scoot."

With a grin, JD left, unlocked the bike and pedaled over to Rain's, taking a small diversion on the way. Straddling the bike with his feet on the ground, JD looked over the storage facility that seemed to be causing such consternation. It was little more than a large barn, yet it was obviously in use due to the massive padlocks on the huge doors.

But it seemed all quiet, now. With a shrug, JD turned the bike and headed back to town.


From the side of the building, Raul watched the youth leave. Pinching the end of his cheroot, he flicked it and went on inside through the back entrance, where three cars were also parked, well out of sight of the highway. He just caught the end of Fuentes' address to his men.

"Be extra vigilant. The merchandise is only here for two nights and then it's on its way to Miami. Wilmington has his ear to the ground. . .I don't want him hearing anything, entiende?"

The men nodded and dispersed. Raul smiled to himself as a plan hatched, a plan that would put him right up there as Fuentes' number one man.


Rain beamed as the shop bell tinkled and JD walked in. "Hi, hon. The basket's all ready for you." She approached him. "It may be coincidence, but my orders for today have almost doubled." She pinched his cheek. "You're damned good for business, JD."

The youth flushed. "Aww, don't tease. Is Nathan around?"

Now Rain was flushing. "He's uh. . .upstairs. . .just erm. . ."

JD rolled his eyes as he picked up the basket and panniers. "I am nearly eighteen, y'know. . .I'm not that naïve."

"JD. . ."

He chuckled. "Besides, you haven't changed the sign back from 'back in ten minutes." He gave a wave. "See you later."

Rain watched him leave, a soft chuckle sounding from behind her.

"Well may you laugh, Nathan Jackson. Not only are you wearing me out, we're now the talk of the town." She fondled the arms now encircling her, leaning back against her husband.

"JD's not a gossip and, as for wearing you out. . ." he kissed her earlobe, "It's me that has to take vitamins."

They both laughed and with a final kiss, separated to continue on with their day.


The smile on Ezra P Standish's face as he watched the human wrecking ball make his way through the staggered office furniture was wide enough to show his gold tooth.

"Well. . .good to see you, JD. How is college?"

JD grinned. "Hey, Ezra, it's going really well, thanks. How are you?"

"Never better, my young friend," he lied, "never better." He took and paid for his sandwich. "Do you have time to regale me with tales?" He pushed out a chair in anticipation.

"Sure, you're my last call. Missed you yesterday."

"Ah yes, my duties called, I'm afraid." JD took the offered seat and the pair spent the next twenty minutes catching up.


Pushing his iPod earphones into place, JD rode away from the Public Defenders' Office, cutting across some secluded open ground as a shortcut to the Sheriff's Department building. The sound of a vehicle following him was drowned out by the music blaring into his eardrums and seconds later JD's bike was clipped and the boy flew off to land hard and roll on the dry ground. Dazed, bleeding and hurting JD moaned as rough hands hoisted him up and tossed him into the trunk of a Sedan.

Looking around to ensure he hadn't been seen, Raul picked up the mangled bike and hurled it over a nearby hedge before jumping in one of his Patron's cars and driving quickly away.

In the dark, hot trunk, JD could no longer stay conscious, letting his aching body relax into blessed pain-free darkness.


Walking to Nettie's desk to return a folder, Buck frowned on seeing JD's empty desk. He glanced at his watch, then at the clock on the office wall, just as a double-check. He turned to Nettie.

"JD not back, yet?"

Nettie shook her head as she continued typing, looking at the clock over the top of her glasses. "Haven't seen him in three hours."

Buck picked up the phone and dialed, receiving voicemail for JD's cell. He tried a new number.

"Rain, hi. . .it's Buck. Did JD come back to you after. . .I see. Where was his last call?" Pinning the phone between his ear and his shoulder, Buck scribbled down a number.

"Thanks, hon." Placing his finger on the cradle to end the call, Buck dialed the number on the pad.

"Hi, this is Sheriff Wilmington; I need to speak to Ezra Standish. . . thanks." He tapped idly on the desk while he waited to be put through, glancing once again at the clock. "Ezra, hi. . .it's Buck. What time did JD leave you today?" His gut clenched as he looked again at the clock. "Thanks. . .no, no trouble. . .I hope. Thanks Ezra. You comin' out this weekend for poker? Great."


Buck ran a hand over his face as he looked at Nettie. "JD's been out of touch for over an hour. It's not like him. Put out a call. . .ask the guys to keep an eye out for him." He looked over to JD's desk. Frowning, he walked over and picked up a manila folder in his tray. "Damnit, JD." He held it up. "How long's he had this?"

"Buck," Nettie scolded, "I'm neither psychic nor clairvoyant. The boy's been working fine; I'm not on his back every minute. He's been filing and updating all morning, I didn't know he had that. Why are you asking?"

Buck walked toward her. "He knows we're going on a bust here, tomorrow night. . .was asking me about it." He turned the file in his hands. "You don't think. . .?"

Nettie leaned over and called over the radio.

"Information for all units, attempt to locate on an overdue juvenile. JD Dunne, seventeen years old, 5'8", dark hair. Last seen wearing a white Patriots T-shirt, blue jeans, Nike sneakers and a blue denim jacket. . .last known location public defender's office, is riding a metallic blue Mesa Mountain Hardtail."

She turned to see Buck staring at her. "What? I know my mountain bikes."

Buck shook his head. Was there anything Nettie didn't know?


Struggling into the feed storage with the unconscious, sweaty, bleeding youth, Raul was more than a little disappointed to see the place empty. No one was here to share in his most glorious moment. . .the moment he proved how he could think on his feet. . .the moment he delivered Sheriff Wilmington's son to his Patron.

Raul had asked around town, ascertaining who the boy with Wilmington had been. Certain the man would never risk his own son's life. . .the battle was won. Buck and his men would stay away, and Fuentes' deal would go without a hitch.


Carelessly dropping JD down on the cold cement floor in a back room of the feed hold, Raul sought out duct tape, binding JD's hands and ankles and taping his mouth. The kid may be unconscious now, but if he woke up hollering, that would blow his plan out of the water.

Satisfied with his handiwork, Raul left, locking up after himself. He would come back later to check on the kid and claim his deserved praise.


Chris Larabee pulled his Ram into the parking lot of the Sheriff's Department. Vin Tanner looked out of the windshield.

"Impressive building."

Chris nodded. "Dates back to 1889."

The pair exited the truck and went into the building through the rear entrance.


Buck was pacing. Travis had arrived only a few minutes ago, unable at this point to tell Buck who he was expecting. . .and why. . .due to the frenetic atmosphere of the office. Buck stopped mid pace as Chris and Vin walked in.


Larabee took in the scene around him, totally unprepared for Buck's approach.

The brunet took large strides and embraced his once best friend. "Chris. . .you ol' war dog. . ."

Half smiling, the blond patted Buck on the back. "Hey, big guy. . .people will talk."

Buck held on tighter. "Let 'em," he breathed.

Chris looked to Travis as Buck released him. "What's going on?"

Unsure how much to divulge at this stage, Orin answered. "A young lad. . . JD. . .he's been working here for the summer, works for a local deli, too. Seems like he's gone missing."

"How long's he been gone?"

Buck moved back from Chris as Vin spoke. Chris gestured with his hand.

"Sorry. . .Buck, Vin Tanner. . .Vin. . ."

Buck moved to clasp Vin's hand. "Good to see you again, Vin."

Frowning, Chris asked, "You two know each other?"

Buck nodded, trembling fingers running through his dark hair. "Yeah. . . met a few months ago."

Tanner nodded his acknowledgement.

"An hour and a half."

They all turned to Nettie. "You asked how long he'd been missing. . .an hour and a half."

Vin raised an eyebrow. "Don't seem too long to be goin' into a panic just yet."

"It's not like JD."

Chris touched Buck's arm. "JD. . .would he be the kid I met out at your place a few months back?" At Buck's nod, he added. "Hell, pard...a kid that age. . .they get distracted. . ."

"I agree, but JD wouldn't do that to me."

"Buck. . ."

The sheriff faced his oldest friend. "He's my son, Chris."

Larabee's outer calm remained intact, but inside he was in turmoil. "What?"

Buck dropped his head. "He's my son."

"Wha. . .now, wait a minute. . .the kid I met said Katherine Dunne was his moth. . ." he grabbed Buck's arms. "He's yours and. . .Kathy's?"

Buck nodded as he watched Chris' face move through a range of emotions.

"From. . .that night?"

Another nod.

"Holy shit. . ." Larabee's quick mind was piecing it all together while fighting an unexpected rush of envy. "Is that why she left?" The sadness in Buck's face told Chris all he needed to know. "Buck. . .I'm so sorry," he whispered.


Nettie's voice cut through the tension. "Daphne. . .how can we help you?" She watched the older woman drop an object onto her desk, even as she struggled with the Chihuahua wriggling in her arms. "Manuel. . .behave sweetums." She addressed Nettie. "I found this. . .it's one of those pea- pod things, isn't it?"

In two strides, Vin was at the desk and taking the item. "Where did you find this, ma'am?" He spoke as he read the inscription on the back.

Daphne giggled. "Ma'am. . .how polite. . ."

"Ma'am. . .we need to know," Vin urged.

"Oh. . .well. . .it was lying in the dirt on the open ground just over yonder."

Buck recognized it as JD's instantly; he had given it to him just after the kid had moved into the ranch. JD had loved his iPod, but not his engraved name on the back.

"Thank you." Buck kissed her cheek as Vin handed him the object. He turned to the others. "JD. . .he complained about me having it engraved. . . teased me about sewing name-tags into his clothes, next." Buck's eyes filled as he reminisced, turning the metallic blue iPod in his large hand. Together, Vin, Buck and Chris exited the building, followed by Deputies Mendoza and Ramon.


In less than ten minutes, they were moving around the open ground, Tanner scouring the dirt, crouching occasionally to pick up debris to examine it. He pointed and drew their attention to tire marks and a small piece of metal.

"Seems an odd place to be drivin' a vehicle." He handed the bagged metal object to Chris and followed a line until he came close to a hedge. "What's beyond here?"

"Railway land," Phil answered, realizing Buck was focusing on the nondescript bagged metal object in Chris' hand.

With practiced agility, Tanner climbed the hedge to drop deftly to the other side. In less than a minute, he was back. "Was the kid on a bike?"

Buck's voice was a mere raspy whisper as his fear built.


Ranger Tanner looked at Deputy Ramon. "We need this cordoned off an' forensics out here." He approached Buck, pointing around as he spoke.

"Way I see it. . .a vehicle mounted the sidewalk just over there, and impacted somethin' just here. There are shoeprints leadin' just to that thicket there," he touched Buck's arm.

"I reckon the car hit the bike. . .looks like whoever did it tossed the bike over the brush. . .likely to hide it."

Buck was shaking. "Well, if that's so. . .where's JD?"

Flicking a quick glance to Chris, Vin sighed. "There's blood on the ground just over there. . .maybe he wandered off. . ."

Buck swallowed, realizing Tanner was holding back. "But. . .?"

Tanner shrugged. "The ground's good. . .can't see no prints to suggest it's so. . .I'm sorry, Bucklin."

"Sorry? So. . .what are you sayin'? He's wanderin' around injured. . .or. . .or kidnapped. . .what. . . WHAT?"

Sensing Buck was losing it, Chris turned the brunet to face him. "Keep it together, big guy. Kidnapping makes it a Federal matter. . . let me help you."

Buck wilted. "Oh Jesus. . .Chris. . .I can't lose him. . .I only just found him." He shuddered, emotion thick in his throat. "Who would want to kidnap JD?"

Larabee looked at Tanner, who nodded. "That's what we aim to figure out. We'll find him. . .okay? Buck. . .trust me."

The sheriff leaned in, grateful for the reassuring squeeze to the back of his neck, followed by the FBI agent's. . .his friend's. . .words.

"I do, Chris. . .I do."

Waiting for Buck to compose himself, Chris flipped open his cell. "Hi Consuela. Can I speak to AD Richmond, please." He was vaguely aware of a glance from Vin. "Will. . .Chris. . .there' s been a development here in Four Corners. . .possible kidnapping. I'm going to head the investigation. . . thanks, I'll be in touch." As he ended his conversation, the place became a hive of activity. A shot of the damaged bike confirmed it was the one JD was riding and the group returned to the office to piece things together and find a line of inquiry.


JD groaned as he blinked open his eyes. His head hurt and his shoulder burned.. Shit, he'd probably put it out again. He tried hard to remember why he was trussed up and in pain, his recall stopping at talking with Ezra. He could hear voices. . .raised voices, shivering at the sound as fear and curiosity battled it out. Curiosity won and he listened.


Enrico Fuentes was enraged. "You did what?" He backhanded Raul hard across the face. "Do you know what you have done? You have kidnapped the son of the town sheriff. . .this will bring the Feds here." He allowed one of his men to approach and whisper in his ear, his eyes flashing at Raul.

"Chris Larabee is already here. I know of him. That man is relentless. . . he will leave no stone unturned until he finds this boy." He listened to more news.

"What? Madre de Dios. . .there's a Ranger here also? He slapped Raul again. "Get out. . .and take the boy with you. I want nothing more to do with you. . .you are dead to me."

Reeling from the rejection, Raul watched Enrico and his entourage walk away. Snapping himself out of his shock, he fished out car keys from his pocket and headed for the room JD was in.


JD froze at the sound of approaching footsteps, wincing slightly when the semi-darkened room brightened as the door flew open. With a grunt and little concern evident for the boy, Raul positioned JD over his shoulder, exited the building and hefted him into the back seat of his Cherokee. JD screamed out through his gag but any sounds fell on deaf ears. He kicked out, catching Raul heavily on the leg and not, unfortunately, where he had been aiming for.


Tossing the wriggling boy into the car, Raul grunted in pain as JD's kick impacted painfully. Furious, he punched the animated boy hard in the face, stilling him instantly. Getting in and pulling quickly away from the building, Raul tried to figure what to do before he was spotted. He decided to take JD out into the desert to dump him. . .it would take them days to locate the kid. . .maybe they never would and he'd be home free.


Stepping outside to light up a cheroot, Chris took in his surroundings. Events had happened so fast he hadn't had time to appreciate that he was home. Apart from a few additions, the place looked the same and, though he didn't know why, he felt oddly comforted. Buck was still Buck. . .Chris' face creased with concern for his old friend. The last time he saw him this distraught was when his ma had been shot dead. That day, Chris had walked away. . .unable to accept any more pain. He straightened, dropping his cheroot and stubbing it out with his boot as he exhaled the last of the smoke. Well, he wouldn't walk away from Buck this time. Yeah, it had been a shock to learn Buck had become a father long before Chris' son Adam had been a twinkle in his and Sarah's eyes, but the very fact his oldest friend was a father and clearly doted on his son, pushed Chris into a determination he forgot existed within him. He was running on more than adrenalin. . .something inside him had awakened and he swore then and there, he would resolve this. . .he just hoped it wouldn't end as his worse case scenario.

A car speeding past caught his attention. 'Salas'. Just as Chris was wishing Vin was with him, the Texan appeared.

"Raul Salas?"

Vin nodded, recalling Buck going over the case file JD had become fascinated with. "One of Fuentes' men. Why?"

"He just hightailed it past here. Wanna go poke a stick at him?"

Grinning, Vin was already headed for the truck. The pair pulled out and Vin dialed his cell. "Miss Nettie, tell Buck we're chasing down a lead. . .we'll keep in touch."

"Seems awful keen to head into the desert," Chris noted as Raul's car sped up.

"Run lights and siren," Vin suggested. "See if it rattles him."

Chris nodded and pulled out the magnetic globe cherry light, flicking a switch to run sirens at the same time as the light flashed. Raul sped up.

"Interesting, " Chris declared, "Call it in, huh?"

Vin acknowledged him. "Dispatch, this is Ranger Tanner, be advised, we are in pursuit of a black Cherokee, license plate Robert Sam Victor X-ray 9 9, heading west on. . ." he looked at Larabee.

"Mesa highway," Chris called.

"Dispatch. . .copy that. Do you require assistance?"

"Affirmative dispatch. Tanner out."

"Do we need help?" Chris asked.

Clinging to the dash as they made a sharp turn, Vin shrugged. "Can't hurt. He sure don't seem too keen to meet us."


Buck's head snapped round to Nettie at the call from Tanner.

"Dispatch. . .any available units Mesa Highway heading west of Four Corners."

"425 en route. . .ten out."

"416. . .responding. . . six out."

"Copy that. . .416 and 425 responding. . .ETA ten and six minutes. . .dispatch out."

Buck snatched up his truck keys.

"Buck," Nettie warned, glancing at Orin. "It may be nothing. . ."

Buck looked back as he made for the door. "Chris has good instincts. . . and I hear tell Vin's shit hot, too. Keep in touch."

Once more, Nettie spoke into the radio. "Dispatch. . .428 en route. . .ETA ten minutes."

"Tanner. . .copy that, dispatch. . .Tanner out."

"Let's hope it's not a wild goose chase." Nettie sighed.

Orin glanced at her. "I've never known Chris Larabee to head off on a wild goose chase yet."


Raul Salas was nervous. He had done nothing to attract attention, yet here he was in a high speed chase with a big black Dodge Ram up his ass. It was a twisting highway, nowhere to go. . .nothing but wide open desert. . .he was screwed. He glanced in his mirror, screeching out in terror as the next bend came all too soon. Raul lost control and the wheel spun away from him. His attempt to correct the trajectory failed miserably and as he screamed out in sheer terror, the Cherokee spun and flipped, rolling over several times before landing on its roof.

Larabee's face was grim.


The two men cursed together as they watched the truck ahead fly out of control. Veering off the highway, the Ram pulled up a little way from the overturned vehicle. Spotting someone running away, Vin unbuckled his belt, threw open the door and gave chase.

"Larabee to dispatch. . .code 10-53. Suspect vehicle crashed. Repeat, code 10-53. Suspect vehicle crashed. Ambulance response required."

He could smell the gasoline from where he stood, a breath catching in his throat when the familiar 'ffwum' sounded as fire flared up along the truck's chassis. For a moment he was mesmerized by the orange flames, transported to another place and time. Jerking back to reality, Chris cautiously approached the vehicle, crying out as he spotted someone in the back of the vehicle. It only took a second to realize who the casualty was and, disregarding his own safety, he dropped to the ground and reached in through the smashed side window.


Recognizing he was out of time, Larabee grabbed hold of JD's jacket and hauled the boy toward him, his mind consumed with a resolve that another son would not be lost to this ruthless element. Finally claiming his prize, Chris hoisted himself and the unconscious boy up and cradled him to his chest. He managed to stagger several yards when an explosion sounded behind him and he and JD were flung forward with a momentum that took Chris' breath. . .and his consciousness, away.


Tanner performed a flying tackle and Salas dropped to the ground. In seconds, Vin had cuffed and hauled him to his feet, turning toward the Ram in silent triumph, only to see the Cherokee explode. Tanner screamed out.



Buck had picked up Nathan on his way to follow Chris and Vin. He wasn't even sure the doctor would be needed, but he figured it was a wise move. He was just about to call in for a location update on the pair when Chris' 10-53 call came in, soon followed by a huge fireball erupting in the distance, stretching up toward the sky for anyone within a mile to see. Buck paled.

"Oh dear God. . .no. . ."     ~~~     Vin dragged his dazed prisoner over to the Ram and cuffed him to the window frame, as he glanced around at the damage to the truck's windows from the blast. Insuring he had the keys, he hurried back to where the prone forms of Chris and JD lay. Unsure of who to go to first, he moved to the nearest.

Touching his fingers to JD's throat, he breathed a sigh of relief. The kid was alive, thank God. Checking the youth for injuries and discovering a badly misshapen shoulder, Vin couldn't prevent the glare he shot Salas before he eased the kid over onto his good side, placed him in the recovery position and covered him with his jacket. Content JD was safe for now, Vin moved to Chris who was lying face down in the dust. Relieved once again to find a strong, steady pulse, Tanner spoke to his friend as he checked for injuries.

"Chris. . .hey. . .hey, cowboy. . .can you hear me?"

Chris moaned, stirring slightly. "Don't. . .call me. . .cowboy. . ." He grunted as he tried and failed to get up.

"Whoa. . .no. . .ease up there, pard. . .stay still 'til you can get your bearin's," Vin soothed.

Ignoring the ranger's advice, Chris winced as he tried, once again to find vertical. "Shit. . .feels like. . .I've been beaten. . .with a baseball bat." Vin eased Chris back, supporting the groggy man. If Chris was so determined to sit up, Vin could at least make sure he was safe and comfortable. Larabee glanced across at JD.

"Oh fuck. . ."

"He's okay. . .nothin' too serious as far as I can tell, though I think his shoulder's out." Vin looked up, drawing his gun as the noise of screeching brakes sounded just behind them, followed by pounding footsteps as Buck left Nathan in his wake on seeing his boy's prone form.


Sliding to a stop, one leg extended and the other tucked under him, Buck ignored the dust cloud as he reached out to his son.

"Oh, shit, son. . ."

"Buck. . .Buck!"

At the second call, Buck turned to Vin and Chris, clearly only seeing them for the first time.

"I think his shoulder's out, so best not to move him just yet," Vin warned, re-holstering his weapon.

With a nod and a scrutinizing glance at Chris' injured form, Buck swallowed the emotion clogging his throat and lay a hand on JD's head, leaning in. "I'm here, son. . .I'm right with you. Nathan's here and we'll have you safe in no time." He jerked as Nathan dropped his equipment down next to him.

Torn between a private moment and a desperate need to know his son and former best friend were really okay, Buck mumbled softly. "I. . .I got him, Nathan. . .if you need to check on Chris."

"Basic triage, Buck. . .you check on the unconscious victim first," Nathan stated gently, giving Buck's shoulder a supportive squeeze. The doctor opened his bag and did a series of checks. Tugging the stethoscope from his ears, Nathan finally looked at Buck.

"Breath sounds are good. Pupils are a little sluggish and he's bruised some. . .looks like his shoulder's dislocated, too, but I reckon, as long as the concussion's not too bad, he'll be okay." He laid a hand on Buck's arm. "Just remember. . .a concussion is still serious. . .but it's better than we dared hope."

Wilmington nodded. Despite the crash and resulting explosion, JD had probably been hit by a moving vehicle when he was on his bike, too. He prayed luck was with them. Nodding as Nathan patted him on the back and went to Chris, Buck resumed his vigil and soft litany, hoping JD could hear and know he was there for him.


Nathan pulled back from his examination of Chris. "Were you unconscious at any time?"

"Yeah, for a minute or so," Vin answered for him, ignoring the glare Larabee threw his way.

Nathan nodded. "Looks like you may have a busted rib, or two. . .try not to move too much until we can get you to X-ray."

"Not. . .a. . .problem, " Chris huffed out between clenched teeth.


The welcome sound of paramedics arriving eased their minds as Buck and Vin moved back for the attending EMTs to work. Vin walked over to Raul and had just uncuffed him from the truck when he was shoved aside. Sliding through the dirt on his ass, he looked up to see Buck grab Raul and thump him back against the Ram.

"You're mine!"

Buck's words were pure venom as he slammed Salas again, roaring his frustration at Vin as the Ranger leapt to his feet, jumped on Buck's back and grabbed him around the neck.

"Get the fuck off me, Tanner!"

"No chance," Vin grunted out, tightening his hold.

Nathan moved to join them. "Knock it off, Bucklin. . .he isn't worth it. . . c'mon, big guy. . .JD needs you, not this."

While Buck struggled, the emotion began to work its way to the surface, finally allowing Vin to relax the death grip the sheriff had on Salas' jacket. As more deputies arrived on the scene, Raul was hauled away to be checked over by the paramedics.

"He. . .he hurt my boy. . ." With those words, Buck wilted and the confrontation was over as quickly as it had started.

"I know," Vin breathed into his ear as he released him, grateful to see Nathan also take Buck's arm, but more in support than restraint.


"Let's move!"

The paramedic's instruction sobered them all as they saw JD and Chris on gurneys, being rolled toward the ambulance. Vin slapped Buck on the back and went to determine how badly injured Raul was before re- cuffing him. Buck nodded to Tanner as he stepped away, and moved to Chris' side

"You. . .saved JD?"

Larabee looked at Buck through tired eyes, the pain injection he had received, kicking in. "You saved him, pard. . .I just made sure we didn't lose another boy to. . ." he was unable to finish.

Buck nodded, gratitude shining in his eyes as he glanced at the smoldering Cherokee, then back to Chris. "How did you know. . .?"

Chris swallowed. "Lucky break. . .we didn't. . .we were just gonna rattle his cage, thought he was. . .alone."

As he watched Chris' eyes close, Buck gave the blond's arm a squeeze and moved to be with JD. Vin approached.

"Medics say Salas is clear to travel. . .just a few bumps an' scrapes. I need your truck keys. . .Nathan an' me are gonna take him back to the precinct."

The brunet glanced back at his vehicle. "They're still in the truck."

Acknowledging Buck's reply, Tanner left as Wilmington climbed into the front of the ambulance and in seconds, was gone. Vin flashed a feral look to Raul.

"Now. . .you're mine."


Ezra Standish was used to the occasional glare when he signed in at the jailhouse for a PD client, but the stares afforded him today were particularly scathing.

"Always good to see you, gentlemen." He made no attempt to disguise the sarcasm in his voice as he moved on through to the cells. The attorney stopped at the one a slim, fair-haired man in his, Ezra estimated, mid to late twenties, was leaning against.

"Raul Salas?"

Vin pushed slowly away from the bars as an officer unlocked the door, his piercing blue eyes never once breaking away from Ezra's.

"Something I can do for you, officer?" Standish asked, staring right back.

Vin shrugged. "Sleep well at night, do ya?"

"Most definitely," Standish answered, resting his briefcase on a bench in the cell. "Now, if you would be so kind to allow myself and my client some privacy."

With one final glare at a semi-cowering Salas, Vin moved away. Ezra opened his briefcase.

"Now, Mister Salas, what is it I can do for you?"

Raul swallowed, nervously. "I kidnapped some kid for my Patron. . .only he got mad, and now he's disowned me."

"So you're admitting culpability? "

"If that means I did it, yeah. . .but. . .I know things. . .about my Patron. . .I want protection.. .I want to trade me for my boss."

Ezra folded his arms across his chest. "Am I to understand you are admitting to the charge of kidnapping and. . ." he read the file jacket, ". . .endangering a minor, in return for witness protection to turn State's evidence against your former employer?"


"Who is your former employer?"

"Enrico Fuentes."

"One moment, please." Gesturing to the guard, Ezra was let out and went in search of Buck. Instead, he found Vin, who pointed to the file in the attorney's hand.

"You read that?"

"I've glanced through it."

"The man's scum."

"Quite likely, but he is still entitled to representation. Now, as pleasant as these exchanges have been, I must locate Sheriff Wilmington."

Vin frowned. "You need to go to Eagle Bend County Hospital then." He was surprised to see the attorney pale.

"Has. . .has Buck been injured?"

"Nope. . ." Again Vin pointed to the file, ". . .but his kid has."

Ezra's world narrowed as he felt his knees weaken a little. "The. . .the boy kidnapped. . .was JD?"

"You know him?"

"I. . .he. . .yes." Hastily, he pushed past Vin. "Excuse me."


Vin watched him go, following a few seconds later to find him outside, squatting down and leaning back against the red-brick building.

"You okay?" He crouched down next to him, realizing Standish was using his cell.

"Struthers? I need to be removed from this case.. There is a serious conflict of interest. . .I don't give a damn how stretched we are, I cannot continue with this assignment. . .are you having difficulty with your audible range? Oh no, I assure you I heard you perfectly." He wiped a hand over his face. He knew what he had to do.

"Now, hear this. . .I resign. . .no, not from the case, from the Public Defender's Office. . .I think you will find, sir. . .that I can." Snapping his cell closed, Ezra took a shaky breath.

"Are you crazy?" Vin asked. "Don't you reckon that was a little hasty?"

"Quite possibly. . ." He turned to Vin and smiled thinly, ". . .on both counts. Truth be told, it has been in the cards for some time. This was just one case too many." He stood, Vin rising with him.

"Name's Tanner. . .Ranger Vin Tanner."

Standish smiled a little wider. "Ezra P. Standish, ex-PD attorney. A ranger? Were you called in for this case especially?"

"Nope, just happened to be in town visiting with AG Travis. So. . . this 'conflict of interest', you know Buck and JD well?"

Ezra nodded. "Very well. I'm extremely fond of both of them, especially JD. Do you. . .know them?"

"I know Buck. . .a little. Haven't met the kid. . .officially. . . yet."

Ezra sighed. "He's at the hospital, you say. Is it bad?"

"Not sure, I was gonna head down there soon."

"May I accompany you?"

Vin smiled. "Sure. What about your client?"

"Ah, well. . .it would seem my former client, Mister Salas, wishes to 'squeal' on his former employer."

Tanner chuckled. "Squeal?"

Ezra returned the smile. "It seemed an appropriate word for the odious individual. Can you give me half an hour?"

"No problem. I'll get things started this end." He handed Ezra a card. "Call my cell when you're done."

As Ezra watched Vin walk back inside the building, he sucked in a deep, cleansing breath. For the first time in a long while he felt. . . liberated.


Buck sighed heavily as he watched over his son lying in the hospital bed, still not fully comprehending what had happened to the kid. He glanced across at Chris, who was in the bed next to JD and resting comfortably. Smiling up as Josiah entered the room and handed him a coffee, the two sat in silence for a while, then Josiah spoke, his voice soft and gentle.

"Nathan's scaring up some food. Ezra rang earlier, asking after JD. He said he and a Vin Tanner were on their way over."

Buck nodded. "Tanner was the guy with Chris."

"I see. Do you know him?"

"Not real well," Buck sighed out as he pushed his fingers through JD's hair. "He's a friend of Chris'. Orin mentioned he'd been in touch with Chris, I guess he was gonna explain more today, until. . ."

Josiah raised a hand to squeeze Buck's shoulder. "Easy son. . .don't dwell on the `might haves'." He glanced upwards, "Someone up there was watching out for us today."

"You spouting about `divine intervention' again, preacher man?" Buck asked, a hint of frustration in his voice. With the exception of JD's entry into his life, he hadn't felt he'd been particularly well catered for in that department over the years.

"Scoff all you want, Bucklin John," Josiah half-smiled, "then think on all that's happened these past months. . .and tell me you haven't felt the hand of divine intervention keeping that boy safe and you two together."

Before Buck could answer, not that he was sure what he wanted to say, Ezra's head peeked around the slowly opening room door. Smiling on seeing the two men look back at him, Ezra stepped inside, closely followed by Vin.

"Gentlemen," he gestured toward the bed. "How is our youngest?"

Buck had to smile at the endearment. "Doing okay, he hasn't woken up yet, but the doc thinks that'll be soon. . .says he's showing all the right signs."

As Ezra walked to the bed to get a closer look, Buck stood and clasped Vin's hand.

"Thank you," he whispered..

Vin gave a tight grin. "Nothin' to thank me for, Bucklin. . .we took off after the guy to shake him up some. . .just divine intervention put us on the trail of your kid." He frowned at Buck's deep chuckle of Vin's choice of words, turning to Josiah as Buck introduced him..

"Vin Tanner. . .Josiah Sanchez." The two men shook hands, all three turning as Ezra joined them.

"Buck, may I have a moment of your time. . ." he gestured toward the door, ". . .outside?"

Buck looked reluctantly back at JD.

"I'd be happy to sit with him an' Chris for a spell," Vin offered.

Josiah guided Buck outside. "And I need a bathroom break." He smiled at Vin, "Thank you, Mr. Tanner."

The ranger relaxed into a chair, "No problem. . .an' the name's Vin." He pointed toward Chris. "How's Chris doin'?"

"He's good," Buck nodded, glancing affectionately at the sleeping form of his once best friend. "Sleeping off the pain meds."

Nodding back, Vin watched them leave and relaxed.. He stared at Chris for a moment. "C'mon, cowboy. . .time to wake up." He turned his attention to JD. "You too, kid."


"What's so all-fired important Ezra?" Buck asked the moment they were outside the room. Ezra moved them out of the corridor and into the empty waiting room across the hall.

"Salas is likely to be taken into protection. . .he wants to give evidence against Fuentes in return for leniency for the kidnapping and endangerment charges."

Buck dropped his head. "So. . .he gets away with hurting my boy."

Standish nodded. "I need to tell you one other thing." He took a breath. "I was assigned to Salas as his attorney." He watched Buck stare back at him, his face a mixture of emotions.

"The Public Defender's Office was reluctant to release me for the short-term, so I made it easy. . .I resigned."

The sheriff's jaw dropped. "You did what?"

Ezra gave a soft smile. "It is something I should have done months ago, Buck. Aside from JD, there are very few redeeming characters out there to represent these days. I was beginning to feel like the pariah the Sheriff's Office often consider me to be."

"Ezra. . ."

"It's alright, Buck. . .I was finding myself in agreement with them. It's not what I entered this profession for. Henceforth, I intend to represent those who are worthy of my time, pro bono. Of course, there will be the more lucrative clients, but they will simply finance my free time to help those who need a good attorney. . .but can't pay."

Buck grinned and clasped the smaller man on the shoulder. "JD's always sayin' you're an all round good guy, even if you're none too popular with the department. . .guess the kid's a better judge of character than I thought."

"I'll take that as a compliment, Sheriff."

"Good. . .'cause that's what it was, my friend."

A sudden noise from the other room sent them running for the door.


JD knew he was climbing through the fog when the pain started registering. He gasped, clenching his eyes tightly closed as his shoulder burned and ached. Alarm bells went off in his head when an unfamiliar voice called to him bringing him fully awake.

"Hey. . .kid. . .you okay?"

JD's eyes flew open only to see a total stranger standing over him. Disoriented, he panicked. `Oh God. . .it's not over. . .' and kicked out at his kidnapper.

"Get away. . .get the hell away from me. . .help. . .someone. . . HELP ME. . .PLEASE!"

Slightly taken aback, Vin gently held JD by his good arm. "Hey. . .hey, JD. . .I'm a cop. . .it's okay. . .I'm not gonna hurt you."

JD struggled harder, crying out in pain as he hurt his shoulder in his desperate, confused bid to escape. "No. . .NO! Gerroff me...LEAVE ME ALONE!"


Chris jerked awake, instantly alert despite the pain meds, his only problem being he couldn't quite figure out what was going on. . .and where the hell he was. He slowly turned his head to see Vin earnestly struggling to calm down someone in the next bed. Before he could get his dry mouth to form a word, Buck burst in with two other men.


Vin turned his head to see Buck steaming toward him. "Oh, thank God. . .I think I scared him."

"No kidding," Buck snapped back, instantly taking control as he sat on the bed and pulled JD close. "JD. . .son, it's me. . .listen to my voice, it's Buck." He held the quaking form as firm as he dared while his son fought like a demon, the boy's body shaking with either fear or pure adrenaline. . .likely both. Slowly, JD began to register the soothing tones, his eyes unclenching to focus on his father's intense and concerned deep blue gaze.


"Buck!" he breathed, relaxing into Buck's embrace, his good arm snaking around the man as his hand fisted the back of Buck's shirt. "Oh God. . .Buck. . ." As the words sobbed out, JD's body went slack.

His hand holding the back of JD's head, Buck felt the body in his arms go limp and he eased JD back to get a good look at him. "JD?"


Josiah had already pressed for help and while Buck eased JD down onto the bed, a nurse arrived, shooing them all out while she checked the youth over. Back in the waiting room, Buck wiped a weary hand over his face, his eye catching Vin's.

"Sorry, Vin. . .I shouldna snapped at you like that."

Vin smiled and nodded. "No sweat, I know what it musta looked like. I guess he's a little confused. . . poor kid and he doesn't know me. . .."

They turned as the nurse stepped into the waiting room.

"JD's awake now and doing fine. It seems he hyperventilated, but he came around quite quickly once he was lying down. Mister Larabee's awake, too." Smiling, she walked out of the waiting area just as the group went back into Chris and JD's room.


The men held back as Buck strode into the room and swept JD into another embrace, quickly glancing at Chris who had watched them enter, before turning his attention back to his and JD's reunion. All four were affected by the raw emotion between the pair. Finally, Buck pulled back, taking in every bruise and cut as he thumbed away a stray tear from JD's cheek.

"Thank God you're okay," he said, softly.

JD frowned. "What's going on, Buck? I. . .I don't understand. . .why did that man kidnap me? I don't even know him. . ."

The brunet shushed the boy. "I swear. . .I don't know what's going on, either. But as God and the men here are my witness. . .I'm sure as hell gonna find out."

"I wanna go home. . .please?"

"As soon as they give the word, we're outta here, I promise." He noticed JD looking around him at Vin. Buck shuffled a bit and pointed. "This here's Vin Tanner. He's a Texas Ranger. I think you already know the guy in the next bed."

JD offered a smile to Chris, opening his mouth to speak, but was unable to stop his gaze drifting back to Tanner. "You're a ranger? Cool."

Vin grinned and approached the bed. "Sorry I threw ya."

JD blushed, shifting his strapped shoulder slightly. "I didn't know where the hell I was. . .sorry I yelled." He turned to Chris, noting Vin had moved closer to the man. "Why are you here?"

The blond snorted. "Mostly 'cause I forget I'm not made of steel." He smiled at JD's confusion. Buck explained.

"Chris and Vin took off after the guy who kidnapped you, but they didn't know you were actually in the truck until it crashed." He looked at Larabee as he continued. "Chris pulled you out just before the truck blew up. . .we owe him your life, son."

The room was silent as JD absorbed the information; all five men startled as JD suddenly spoke.

"Damn. . .all that. . .and I missed it!"

They all laughed, the tension instantly evaporating. Buck looked at JD, his eyes conveying his love and pride. He knew JD was showing false bravado, and he was so proud of him. There would be time for reflection when the pair was alone. JD glanced at Chris.

"Thank you, Mr. Larabee."

The blond smiled. "You're welcome, kid. . .and it's Chris."


The door opened and Nathan entered, laden with drinks and snacks. He looked around at the crowded room, then at his selection of food. "I think I may need to get more."

Ezra made to move out. "Not necessary, Nathan. As grateful as I am for the considerate gesture, I should return to the office. . ." he noticed JD's pleading eyes, ". . .well. . .maybe one sandwich. . .and perhaps some. . .introductions? "

Chairs were gathered, introductions made and refreshments consumed. Time passed quickly as the men became acquainted. Eventually, they realized the hour was late and it was time to leave. Ezra wasn't too bothered; clearing out his desk could wait one more day. JD looked at his father, recognizing the signs that the man was about to get comfortable.

"Go home, Buck. . .I'll just be sleeping tonight. . .and I got Chris here with me."

"Naw, I'm good, son."

"Buck. . .you look like shit. . .go get some sleep."

Buck cocked an eyebrow toward Chris. "You back to giving me orders now, Larabee?"

"Always. . .Sheriff Wilmington." He winked and the pair clasped hands.

"Rest easy, stud."

"I intend to."

Buck turned to Vin. "How about we go do the paperwork on this then head for my place? Got a good couch and some decent whiskey you're welcome to."

Tanner smiled. "Much obliged, Bucklin."

They all stood to shake Chris' hand and give JD a squeeze of support as they prepared to head out. Nathan stood between the two beds.

"I'm gonna be around for a few hours doing my own paperwork. If you need me. . ."

JD smiled, wearily. "Thanks, Nathan." He looked up as Buck leaned over him to whisper in his ear.

"Sleep tight, squirt. I'll see you in the morning." He touched his head to JD's. "I love you, son."

As Buck straightened, JD stared back at the man that had become his world, his eyes glistening and wanting desperately to say the words back, but unable to choke back the emotion in his throat to speak. Buck gave a knowing grin and squeezed JD's knee before turning and heading out.


Standish felt as if he was making the walk of a condemned man as eyes followed his journey to his former desk. Setting the box down, he proceeded to empty drawers. His superior, Peter Struthers, approached.

"I can't believe you're running out on us like this, Standish. It's customary to give a month's notice."

"I am aware of that fact," Ezra replied, coolly, continuing with his packing. "As I am also aware I have at least six weeks vacation time outstanding. "

He looked coldly at Struthers. "You sir, are an ass. You couldn't organize this office if you took an office management course for the next year. You have put myself and my former colleagues under the most appalling pressure with little or no regard for our well-being or lack of personal lives as a result of it. My final advice to you. . . hire more staff. The people we are requisite to represent are, quite frankly, at the mercy of incompetent management, overworked attorneys and a derisory judiciary system that often puts innocents and minor offenders in jail while drug barons and murderers escape via loopholes and technicalities."

Struthers scoffed. "So. . .what now, you off to set up in the private sector, Standish? I can't help but wonder how many 'drug barons' and murderers you'll defend, if the money's right?"

Ezra smiled as the last of his things dropped into the box. Without a word, he picked up the carton, turned and left, his step growing lighter the further away he got from the office. Popping the trunk of his silver Chrysler 300, he smiled. Change was in the air. . .he could smell it and for him, it felt. . .right.


Early evening, two days later, and Chris smiled as he was handed a coffee. Buck had insisted he also stay with him and JD for the interim, making it clear that the time span was as permanent as Chris cared to make it. Buck leaned back in his recliner, looking across at his oldest friend as he sat on the sofa sipping his drink. Chris finally spoke.

"He's a great kid, Buck."

Following Chris' line of sight to see the picture of Buck and JD he had been staring at, Buck nodded. "Yeah. . .he really is."

"He's a lot like Kathy."

The brunet sighed. "Yeah. . ."

"Knock, knock. . ." Vin and JD entered through the front door, the pair smiling. "Great place you got here, Bucklin."

"JD give you the tour?" Buck grinned back.

"Yep. . .right to the hayloft."

"Hey. . .don't knock the hayloft," JD mock pouted. He watched Vin fish into his pocket.

"Hey. . .I like the hayloft," Tanner grinned. He held out an evidence bag. "Here, kid. . .forgot to give you this earlier, it was released the day after we filed the paperwork."

JD beamed on seeing his beloved and miraculously unscathed, iPod. "Awesome, thanks." He caught a look from Buck. "What?"

"Nothing. . .we'll talk later."

JD stiffened. "No. . .you clearly have something to say. . .so say it." He looked at the iPod. "It's this, isn't it?" He saw Buck sit forward.

"Alright, yes, it is. Haven't we talked about you riding around in traffic with that damned thing blaring in your ears?"

Chris and Vin exchanged a look. JD pulled a face.

"What. . .are you trying to say the guy hit me because I was wearing this? I wasn't even on the road. He drove off it to hit me from behind. Am I supposed to have eyes in the back of my head?"

Buck stood and approached JD until the two were just inches apart.. "If you hadn't've been wearing it, you'd have heard him."

JD huffed in exasperation. "Well, excu-u-u-u-se me for not expecting some lunatic to run me down and stuff me in a trunk!" JD took a step back. "You're something else, Buck. . .you know that?" He turned, walking off to head to his room.

"Hey! Get back here, JD. We're not done here!"

"Buck. . ."



The brunet turned to glare at Larabee. His shoulders eventually dropped as he sighed. "Damnit. . .I didn't mean for us to fight. . .I just get so mad when. . .DAMNIT! I'd better go after him."

"Let him cool off. You need to as well."

Nodding slowly, Buck sat down heavily. Vin joined Chris on the sofa as Buck continued "It's just. . .Jeeze, Chris. . .I get so scared, y'know? When he's in college. . .I think about him all the time. I'm really struggling with this responsibility thing."

"So. . .you'd rather he wasn't here?"

Buck looked at him horrified. "No. . .shit, no. . .of course not." Again, he nodded slowly. "I know, I know. . .you don't have to say it. . .I'm an idiot."

"Nope. . .you're a father," Chris smiled, draining his mug.

Buck stood, taking the cup. "Vin you still gonna crash here tonight?"

"Yeah, I'd like that, thanks."

"Okay. . ." he pointed. "Couch is yours, whiskey's over in that cabinet, glasses just above it. What say we have us a little drink? While you pour. . .I'll go talk to JD."


Easing his arm out of the sling, JD sat on the edge of his bed as he toed off his sneakers. He was torn between confusion and guilt. He felt guilty because he knew Buck hated him wearing his iPod when cycling, and confused that Buck had turned on him so quickly. He'd only been home for a day and was still struggling with his injuries. Wearily, he popped his pain meds and shifted to lie on his bed, throwing an arm over his eyes to block out the lamp that was glowing on the nightstand. He heard a knock and sighed out a reply.


Buck poked his head around the door. "Can I come in?"

Peeking from under his arm, JD half shrugged. "Suit yourself." He felt the bed dip, then. . .silence.



The question thundered around the quiet room, causing the drowsy boy to jerk. "Yeah, pretty much."

More silence.

"I'm sorry," they chorused, then chuckled softly. Buck took the lead, squeezing JD's leg.

"Sorry, son. When I saw that damn iPod, I just. . .well. . .anyway. . . I shouldn'a jumped on you like that. . .not after. . ."

JD looked at him fully, cutting him off mid-sentence. "You were right, Buck. You've warned me and I ignored you. I swear, I wasn't defying you. . .I. . .I guess I just got cocky, figured I knew the town well enough to know better. I won't do it again, I promise."

Buck's heart swelled with pride. "Takes spunk to admit you're wrong, kid. What say we just drop it and start again?"

"I'd like that," JD half smiled and half yawned.

With a pat to JD's knee, Buck leaned over to click off the lamp for the youth to sleep.

"NO!" JD half sat up. "No. . .please. . .could you leave the light on?"

Buck shifted closer, his voice soft and reassuring. "Sure. . .you...erm. . .any particular reason why?"

JD stared at his father for a few long moments as if pondering a major dilemma. Finally, he spoke, a little embarrassed by what he was about to share.

"When the car hit me. . .I. . .I don't really remember much. . .just the pain. . . but, the guy picked me up and. . ." he swallowed, unable to stop a fat tear escaping from his good eye, his other still partially shut from Salas' punch.

". . .he tossed me in the trunk," JD's voice shuddered. "It was real dark. . . and stuffy. . ."

Before he could continue, Buck was holding him. "Jesus, son. . .I'm sorry. I never even thought. . .oh, God, JD. . .I'm so sorry."

The youth leaned into Buck's broad chest, slowly gaining control "It's okay, now. . .really. Just not real fond of the dark just yet."

They stayed that way for some time, until Buck felt the tell-tale slump of a sleeping form. Gently, he eased JD down on the bed and, standing, pulled a throw from the chair by the window and draped it over him. With one final push of his fingers through the boy's unruly mop of black hair, Buck moved quietly out of the room. Stopping at a closet, he pulled out some pillows and blankets for Vin and rejoined the pair for a few drinks. Vin and Chris were finally having their meeting with Travis in the morning and, despite all that had happened, Buck felt a tinge of excitement at the prospect of what could evolve from it.


Ezra, Josiah and Nathan looked up as Chris and Vin entered Buck's office, Travis sitting at his former desk, smiling as the men entered and took a seat. Outlining his proposal for the Task Force, he sat back to field questions.

"With all due respect, sir, I fail to understand why you require my services," Ezra jumped in first.

Orin sat forward, his clasped hands resting on the polished oak desk. "Your reputation as an attorney is renowned, but I also know you do a lot of the groundwork for your cases yourself. That skill, coupled with your exceptional expertise, would be invaluable to such a team. Of course, it would require you to come on board as a prosecuting attorney, eventually, but for now, a freelance position will suffice, if you prefer."

Despite his best efforts to keep his poker face intact, the enthusiasm Standish was feeling toward this intriguing proposal came through when he eagerly asked, "Where would I be stationed?"

"The top floor of this building has three offices and a bullpen. You would be allocated one of those offices, remaining close to the team, but afforded the privacy required for the purpose of confidentiality. " He turned to Josiah. "I value your expertise immensely, Josiah, you would be a valuable asset to this group, should you decide to join us. As the team's profiler, you too would have your own office, with secure filing of course."

Sanchez nodded graciously, but it was clear from his expression, he was more than a little interested.

"Nathan, as coroner, very little would change, but you would have a space here also. Forensics will be a big part of this set-up, and very separate from the day to day work you're accustomed to."

"What about my clinic?" the doctor asked.

"Leave things as they are, for now. We can always reassess as time goes along."

Jackson nodded his agreement, his face alight with the prospect of such a varied vocation

Travis continued. "Vin, your file is impressive. You've worked your way up through the ranks to become a member of a revered and elite agency. Their loss, should you join us, will be a considerable gain on our part. Your skills are second to none, just like the others gathered here." He sat back, his expression earnest. "I only want the best. . .men who have proven time and again they can think on their feet and get results." He looked around the small group, more than satisfied with the amount of interest exhibited.

"The team will report directly to me, working several caseloads at any one time, but sharing nothing with the local force until necessary. Buck is already on board and will be our liaison to the deputies here, seconded to the task force as and when an operation is ongoing. He will have final say as to if, how and when his people will be used.

"Chris, you and Buck will be pivotal in the success or failure of this enterprise. I know you two can work well together, and, while you will be team leader, as sheriff Buck will have equal status. His position in this community and the success and confidence he has created since his appointment, has been paramount to how this Task Force is being formed. Is this practicable for you, Chris?"

Larabee smiled softly. "That's a loaded question; I haven't said yes, yet."

Travis nodded. "Alright, gentlemen, let's cut to the chase. Is there anyone here that has no interest in my proposal?" The silence that greeted him warmed his soul. "In that case, I will set the wheels in motion. With your permission, Chris, Vin, I will contact your superiors and arrange for the transfers, commencing immediately, though I will of course, allow you two weeks to set your personal affairs in order." They all looked up as Buck knocked and entered the room.

"Just in time," Orin grinned. "Sheriff Wilmington, meet Team Seven."

"Seven?" Vin asked.

Orin nodded. "There are only six other such Task Forces in the country. . .you will be the seventh."

Josiah nodded approvingly. "A lucky number to be sure. I like it."

Buck looked around at everyone. "I reckon this is cause for celebration. I know this great place. . ." he looked at Chris, ". . .used to belong to my ma. How about we meet there this evening and raise a glass or two to our new team?"

Travis raised a hand as he stood. "I'll have to pass, I'm afraid. Evie and I have a black tie event to attend this evening." He moved to leave, looking back at them all as he reached the door. "I have a good feeling about this. I'm honored to be working with you all. I'll be in touch." With that, he left.

All eyes turned to Buck as he spoke. "Seven o'clock then?"

With grins and nods, five men stood and left the room, walking out of the building - together.


"Thanks for letting me come."

Buck glanced across at his son as he checked himself one last time in the mirror. "Are you kidding, me? You may not be a cop. . .yet. . .but you're still a part of this." He walked over to JD, placing a hand on his good shoulder and squeezing gently.

"I know we've had some ups and downs but, son, I haven't been this happy since I was with your mom."

JD smiled, raising his arm to squeeze his father's hand. "I know what you mean." He turned as Vin and Chris jogged down the stairs. "Hey!"

"All set?" Chris asked. Buck and JD nodded.

"Can I drive, Buck?" JD looked at them all. "It's not like I'll be drinking and my shoulder's a little stiff, but I got plenty of movement," he gently rolled his shoulder to prove his point. "See?" He watched Buck walk over to the small table near the door, grinning broadly as the brunet tossed him the keys to the Chevy.

"C'mon, let's go," Buck urged, "we can't be too late back, got us a big day tomorrow."

"You have?" JD asked as he walked out with him, looking to Vin and Chris for confirmation.

Buck nodded. "We finally get to take down Fuentes."

JD smiled, but the butterflies suddenly taking flight in his stomach put an end to the relaxed feeling he had been enjoying.


Inez grinned widely as the table of seven erupted into laughter once again. JD was lapping up the stories with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, loving the tales of the Four Corners County Sheriff's Office.

"Aaah, Chris. . .remember the guy we took down with our very own 'K9' unit?"

Larabee chuckled at Buck's question, aware all eyes were on him to share the story. He nodded and began relaying the tale, much to Buck's delight.

"Well. . .Buck and me were cruising. . .spotted a suspect vehicle and tailed him for a few blocks. Anyhow, the driver got spooked when we hit the lights and he jumped a red light. We gave chase, stopping in a suburban area where the guy hopped out and raced off toward the gardens." He grinned widely as Buck started cackling. Chris pointed. "Ol' pard, here, called in a K9 unit when we realized the kid was hiding close by, only to be told the ETA would be another fifteen minutes."

Chris was chuckling also now, wiping at his eye as he watched Buck's shoulders vibrate with laughter, causing the others to join in, despite not knowing the outcome of the story. Chris continued.

"Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Buck starts talking up a storm; acting like the unit had arrived. Before I could ask. . ." he was laughing hard now, "Buck starts talking to this invisible dog. . . then starts. . .barking. . . "

They all looked at Buck as the laughter got louder.

". . .so, Buck's going. . .'now boy. . .easy there. . .don't hurt the guy'. . .then barking like a maniac. . ."

". . .you joined in!" Buck reminded through tears of laughter.

"No. . .I just pretended to be talking to the dog handler," Chris insisted. "Anyway. . .out from some bushes comes this kid, whining and crying, hands in the air begging for us not to set the dog on him and while I'm cuffing him, Buck saunters up and right in the guy's face, gives one final 'woof'."

The table erupted with laughter. As it died down, Josiah spoke. "I'm guessing that's where the handle 'Big Dog' came from."

Buck bobbed his eyebrows, "That. . .among other things. . .emphasis on 'big'."

"Buck!" all but JD chorused as they tossed coasters at him, the youth's eyes narrowing at the reference.

"I kid you not," Buck laughed, swigging back on a beer. "You recall that night, Chris, with the triplets? Oh. . .what were their names?"

The blond looked pensive, suddenly snapping his fingers. "The Pontiac triplets!"

Buck nodded wildly, waving his bottle. "Yeah, yeah. . .the Pontiac triplets. Man, what a night, huh, stud? We could barely walk the next morning!"

More howls of laughter erupted, but JD suddenly went cold. What was Buck talking about. . .other women? But. . .Buck had said he'd loved his mom.

"Man we had some wild times, didn't we, Chris? We were forever fighting off the ladies, 'til Sarah corralled him and he became an upstanding married man." Buck suddenly paled as he saw Chris' face drop, relieved to see a surprisingly fast recovery.

"Yeah," was all Chris said. . .but his eyes told Buck he could talk about it now. Larabee had moved forward since he'd been away, and it was a wonderful thing to see.


JD swiped at his eyes as he leaned against the Saloon wall, looking out across the desert while breathing in great gulps of the night air. He knew he was being stupid. . .he had seventeen years of Buck's life to catch up on. But. . .hearing his father talking about women that way had shaken him to the core, and now he was thinking. . .was that the reason Buck had never come looking for them. . .he was just having too much darned fun? He glanced back inside the roadhouse window to see Buck schmoozing with Inez, though, he smirked, it didn't look like he was having a whole lot of luck with her.

And the odd feeling was back and he couldn't help wondering if he was only now seeing the real man for the first time. Buck was different around Chris; dare he say. . .happier? Nah. . .JD scolded himself. All these crazy thoughts, just because Buck was revealing a side of himself JD hadn't yet seen.

Still. . .it raised the questions. . .just how much more was there to learn? And, would he like it?


Breakfast at the Wilmington homestead was a subdued affair. Vin and Chris had headed on into town to prepare for and assist with the raid, before returning to their homes to organize their move to Four Corners. Raul Salas had confirmed the new shipment would be in the lock-up for just a few days, so they had to move fast.


JD jerked from his musings, looking up at his father's concerned eyes.

"You awake, there?" Buck teased.

"Uh huh," was the only reply. Buck sighed.

"JD, what's wrong, son? You've been real quiet since we came home last night." He placed a finger under the boy's chin to lift it, surprised at the emotion in the expressive hazel eyes. "JD?"

JD didn't want to do this now. He knew Buck had a big day. . .it could keep.

"I'm fine."

"Like hell you are, come on. . .out with it."

Despite every fiber in his body screaming "no", JD spoke. "Just how many women are we talking about? Is that what kept you from looking for me and mom. . .all the women that were so damned anxious to throw themselves at Buck 'Big Dog' Wilmington? Just when were you planning on sharing that little bit of your back-story with me?"

Buck swallowed, shocked at the questions. "It. . .it wasn't like that, son."

"Sure it wasn't," JD scoffed, "I could tell that from all the stories you seemed eager to share last night." He rose from the table to take his cereal bowl and tumbler to the kitchen. Buck stood and followed.

"Listen. . .wait up, kid." He swallowed at the fierce look he received as JD spun to face him. "Yeah. . .there were women. . .lots of women. . .but, there was never anyone. . .special. I could never stay in a relationship for long. At first, it was because I couldn't let go of your ma. . .then, as time went on. . .it just seemed the easiest way not to get hurt again."

JD's eyes flashed. "Really? And now I'm wondering. . .while we were living hand to mouth, just how many more little bastards you got running around out there, huh?" He pointed to the door. "Should I expect a little brother or sister to come knocking any day soon?"

Buck was getting angry. "Watch your mouth! I've always been careful. . ."

"What, like you were with me?"

"That was different. We were kids and overtaken by the moment. . .and we loved each other. Son. . .your mother was everything to me. . .she could have asked for the moon and I'd have given it to her."

"Oh yeah. . .asked for anything, as long as she was within arms reach, huh? `Cause you sure as hell put no effort into it when distance was involved."

"She could have been anywhere!" Buck yelled. "And I thought she ran out on me, remember? What was I supposed to do? I was barely eighteen!"

"Something. . .anything! " JD yelled back, choking on the emotions that had now taken control. "I watched her shrivel and die, a little piece at a time. Alone and practically penniless, while telling me how wonderful my father had been. I wiped her ass, bathed her and spoon fed her, while believing her `knight in shining armor' couldn't be there for us because he was dead.. I lived the dream, to find all the years we were alone, you were alive and tossing women aside like they were old magazines. I can't believe I turned down MIT to stick around to listen to this bullshit!"

Buck's mind was reeling, that last phrase suddenly standing out. He grabbed JD's arm, flinching at the recoil his movement produced. "Wait. . .what? You turned down MIT? When? What the hell were you thinking? And why the hell am I only learning about this, now?"

JD went pale as Buck suddenly grabbed his arm. This had gotten out of control. . .shit. . .shit. . . he hadn't meant any of it, had he? And now he'd divulged his biggest secret.

So he attacked some more, snatching his arm from his father's hand. "Yeah, so what? It was my decision to make, not yours." He balked at the hurt now replacing the anger in Buck's eyes.

Buck stiffened. "I thought we were a team. That you'd consult with me over something as important as that. Guess I was wrong." He checked his watch. "I have to go. This isn't over, son. . .we'll talk when I get home." Snatching up his keys, Buck hurried out the door, leaving a tearful seventeen year old in his wake. It took a few moments for JD to rally, suddenly rushing outside to apologize, only to catch the tail end of the Chevy rolling down the drive toward the highway. JD stared after it.

"Dad. . .I'm sorry."


Vests with `Sheriff' emblazoned across the backs littered the courtyard to Fuentes' storage building. Buck looked around at his deputies, casting a glance toward the tree Vin had settled in, a little further back. He glanced at Chris, gesturing with his head toward the ranger.

"What is he? Part cat?"

Chris grinned. "You've read his jacket?"

Buck nodded.

"Then you know just what you got there. You'll never have another man at your back as good as him."

"Oh I dunno, Larabee. . .you're not so bad."

Chris nodded. "True." They both chuckled. Buck lifted his radio.

"Team one. . .status report."

"All set here, sir."


"Ready when you are, Sheriff."

Buck again looked at his men, then at Chris. "All set, Old Dog?"

"Geesus, Bucklin, not that ol' handle." He glared at the chuckling deputies. "I shot the last man who laughed at that name," he warned them.

"For the record," Buck whispered to the gathering, "that would be me." Cutting off any questions to re-focus on the job in hand, Buck spoke into the radio again. "Team one. . .it's a go in. . .three. . .two. . .one. . . GO, GO, GO!"

On hearing the noisy entrance at the front of the building, Buck nodded to the two deputies holding the battering ram and held up three fingers to drop them one by one. On the third drop, the implement was successfully smashed into the back door, splintering the sturdy wood and caving it inward, followed by six armed officers brandishing MP-5 sub machine guns and yelling out `Sheriff's Department!' as they moved inside.

As expected, the activity at the front of the building drove the perpetrators toward the back and a fierce gun battle ensued with packing cases splintering in the heavy barrage and bodies falling all around. Chico somehow managed to successfully maneuver Fuentes to the shattered back door, only to be stopped at the exit by several bullets hitting the ground close to their feet as Vin fired a volley of warning shots.

Hearing the gunfire, Buck and Chris turned and ran for the back exit. The next few moments happened as if in slow motion.

Chris arrived a split-second before Buck, a shot imminent as Chico aimed and fired. Seeing the danger, Buck dove sideways and sent Chris flying. The shot hit Wilmington high in the side of the shoulder and he collapsed onto a falling Larabee, blood spurting from the wound.

A fraction of a second after Chico fired, his head exploded and his body fell to the ground. The sight had Fuentes dropping to his knees. Throwing his gun to the ground he raised his arms as he pleaded for his life. Seconds after that, Vin had jumped down from his perch and was toeing Chico's bloody corpse as he forced Fuentes down onto his stomach and cuffed him, looking up at the noisy exit from the building of men with raised arms and almost a dozen deputies leading them out at gunpoint. As soon as he heard the call for an ambulance, Vin handed off his captive to a free deputy and, heart in throat, ran inside the building, the scene inside stopping him in his tracks.


Surrounded by several deputies, Chris was cradling a bloody Buck while struggling to remove the Kevlar from his oldest friend, cursing a blue streak as he did so.

"You fucking maniac, Wilmington. . .you don't get to save my ass. . .y'hear me? That's my job you ornery bastard!"

Buck huffed out a laugh, his breaths coming in short gasps and barely aware that Vin had just joined them, the ranger pulling off his own vest and top shirt to give to Chris to staunch the flow of blood.

"Seemed. . .like a. . .good idea at. . .the time. . .stud." He groaned, squeezing his eyes tight shut for a moment, then opening them to stare hard at his friend while grasping Chris' vest.

"You an' Josiah. . .you take care of. . .my boy, y'hear? Take care of JD. . .for me. . ."

"Shut up, you jackass," Chris admonished, "You're not goin' anywhere. JD'll be just fine. . .with you." He gulped at the ferocity with which Buck pulled on him.

"P. . .promise. . .me. . ."

"Okay, okay, I promise. . .Buck. . .BUCK! " Chris' alarmed cry drew full attention to Buck's eyes rolling back and his body going limp. In an instant, the paramedics had arrived and taken over and, minutes after that, Buck was being lifted into an ambulance, Chris following. The blond turned and grabbed Vin's shoulder.

"Get Josiah. . .then go get JD and bring him to the hospital."

Nodding, Vin took off in one of the sheriff trucks, to the sound of a wailing ambulance heading out and the sight of cops securing the area and the contraband.


JD stretched as he pushed his fingers through his wet hair, refreshed after his shower. He had mucked out the horse stalls, cleaned and vacuumed the house and attempted to eat a sandwich, but found he wasn't hungry. He checked his watch as he rolled his aching shoulder, wondering if the raid was over yet. Buck had insisted JD didn't go into the office today. He wasn't sure exactly why, but guessed it was due to the planned bust. Being away from the action hadn't made JD worry any less; in fact, he thought it had actually made it worse. Pulling lint from his black knit t-shirt, he looked up at the sound of a vehicle pulling up, glancing out the window to check on who it was. He grinned and went out onto the deck to meet them.

"Josiah. . .Vin. . .hi! "

One look at their faces made him go cold. "Josiah?" He breathed out his next word. "Buck. . ." looking fearful as the professor approached him and Vin hung back, his head down.

"Josiah?" JD was trembling now.

Sanchez pulled him into an embrace. "Lock up, John Daniel, your father needs you."

JD looked at him, tears forming in anticipation of what he was about to hear. . .and from sheer terror. "Is Buck. . .is he. . .oh God."

Josiah stroked JD's hair. "It's bad, son. We have to go."

In less than a minute, the ranch was secure and the three were in the truck and heading out.

"The horses," JD whispered as they passed the corral.

"Leave it with me." Vin assured as he hit the gas and headed for Eagle Bend.


Ezra and Nathan entered the ER waiting room together. Standish approached a pacing Larabee.


The blond sighed, heavily. "They're working on him now." He looked at them with terrified eyes. "I. . .I just don't know. The bullet went into his shoulder. . .ricocheted into his chest. . .made a mess, chewed up a few nerves. He lost a lot of blood." He barely acknowledged a visibly shaken Ezra's squeeze to his arm as he watched Nathan walk away and enter the ER. JD's, Josiah's and Vin's entrance drew their attention. JD flew to Ezra, the southerner taken aback, but not really surprised at the show of affection. He soothed the distraught teenager until JD backed away to face Chris.

JD gasped at the blood on Chris' clothes and hands. "Chris?"

Unexpectedly, Larabee pulled the youth toward him and held him tightly. "It's my fault. . .I'm sorry, kid.. The bullet was meant for me. . . he saved my life." His last words were a mere whisper. He glanced almost apologetically at Josiah, his expression telling the man all he needed to know as Josiah fought back his own tears.

JD sobbed. "No. . .it. . .we, we had a fight. . .I said things. . .I shouldn'a done that before a bust."

Vin approached and placed a hand on each man's shoulder. "JD. . .Bucklin was in top form, so quit frettin', and Larabee. . .tell me, here an' now, you wouldn'a done the same thing."

No one spoke, but his words clearly relieved some of the tension, which promptly returned at the sound of an alarm going off and several medical staff rushing past them to enter the ER.


It was all Chris could do to hold onto the youth, relieved when Josiah took over.

"John, stop it!"

Nathan exited the ER, his features strained. "They. . ." he looked at JD. ". . .they almost lost him. They're trying to stabilize him for surgery."


JD had heard enough. He bolted free of Josiah and burst into the ER, shoulder charging a male nurse to get to Buck's side.

"Buck. . .Buck. . .please, don't leave me. . ." he leaned right in, his lips next to Buck's ear. "Dad. . .I love you. . .please. . .I'm sorry. . .I didn't mean anything I said, please believe me. Dad. . .please, I need you. . .don't go. . ."


The desperation in the familiar voice brought Buck back from the brink of wherever his body seemed to want to take him. Fighting with all the strength he possessed, Buck's eyelashes fluttered open, his head turning just enough for his and JD's foreheads to touch. He attempted a smile.

"I love you too, son. . .I'm not going. . .anywhere, boy. . .trust me. . ." he whispered.

JD wept, kissing his father's cheek as he gently wrapped his arm around Buck's head, effectively cocooning them off from everyone else in the room. He leaned heavier against the clammy head.

"I do, Dad. . .I do trust you," he breathed. "And, just so's you know. . .I passed on MIT because. . .I wanted to be close to you."

Buck sighed. "Aww, son. . ."


The hushed room suddenly jumped to life as a nurse gently uncurled JD and moved him away as the medical team prepared to roll Buck out to surgery. Chris, Vin, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan had watched the whole bedside scene, moved by the image. Josiah sighed, emotion evident in his voice.

"If that doesn't give Buck the resolve to fight, nothing will."

Pulling JD back, the group watched as Buck was wheeled away. Without conscious thought, the men formed a protective circle around the trembling teen and moved as one toward the surgical floor and the inevitable long wait.


Glancing back at the men in black suits and ties, standing around on the ranch house porch, JD turned to lean over the corral fence and watch the horses. He pulled awkwardly at his own black tie, while trying to decide whether to take off his suit jacket. It was late afternoon but it was still hot and black sure as hell was not the greatest color to wear in bright sunshine. He heard the sound of footsteps and felt an arm drape around his shoulders.

"It's time, JD. Y'all set?"

JD turned and nodded. "Yeah, I guess so." He tilted his head in concern. "Are you sure you're up to this? It's only been three weeks."

Buck grinned and pulled JD away from the fence, turning to return to the rest of the group. "Oh hell, yeah. If I have to rest one more day, I swear you'll have to pad my room, 'cause I'm gonna start bouncing off the walls."

"Now, that I'd like to see." JD chuckled. He relaxed into the embrace, thankful to feel his father's strength in the grip on his shoulder. Watching his mother die had been one of the most painful things he would likely ever experience, but fearing his father would be taken from him by a bullet had been. . .terrifying. He looked at the man.

"I love you, Buck." As soon as the words left his lips, he dropped his head, blushing.

Buck grinned and gripped JD tighter. "I love you too, son. I hope we'll always be able to say that to each other. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard."

JD nodded. "Mom used to say it every day. It always made me feel. . . special."

Buck wanted to tell JD just how special he thought he was, but they'd reached the porch and five smiling men. JD looked at them all.

"It's real neat that you'll all be up there on stage with Mr. Travis during his inauguration speech." He smiled. "I hope I can be good enough to be part of Team Seven one day." He watched Chris step forward, raising a hand to squeeze the back of JD's neck.

"You will kid, you will." He grinned, "Just like your dad."

Vin pointed to the waiting stretch limo. "Can we get to this, before me an' this damned tie start a fight?"

Laughing, they all got into the car. Over the last few weeks, this little band of mostly lonely individuals had formed a bond. JD had put it into words perfectly one night, while Buck was recovering and they were all visiting. He had said it was like having a whole bunch of big brothers. They had all smiled at that comparison and agreed. It worked. . .and it felt good.

That night also, Chris had revealed he wanted to re-build his home, deciding the timing was right and besides, he couldn't live with Buck and JD forever. Everyone had expressed a desire to help. . .it looked like the next six months or so of spare time had been allotted.

Chris would often stare across at his once happy home. But instead of haunting memories, he slowly found happier ones. He would never be able to forget but, feeling his family was never truly far from him, Chris was ready to start again.


Vin was slowly converting Buck and JD's hayloft into a living space. He had really liked it during his tour with JD and had happily taken up the offer to use it as a temporary base.

During Buck's recuperation, and Vin and Chris' return to their respective homes to set up their moves to Four Corners, Nettie and her fifteen year old niece Casey had been helping with the horses and looking in on Buck and JD. Vin had inadvertently met Nettie one day after returning to continue converting the loft, startling the woman enough to find himself staring down the business end of a shotgun. After smoothing ruffled feathers, the pair had talked for a long time, hitting it off instantly. Vin had found another reason to be happy with his move.

Meeting frequently during Buck's recovery, the seven hadn't taken long to realize that fate had placed them at the precipice of a great adventure. A journey offering friendship. . .family. . . opportunity and excitement.

And one they were more than ready to take.


The End