"Brothers Larabee" Universe
Thanks to Phyllis for Brothers Larabee
Follows the story, 'The Tale of Cletus Bunt'
The buzz around the Double L was electric. With less than three weeks to Thanksgiving, the seven brothers had begun to plan and look forward to the occasion. JD had already dragged Vin and Buck out to look for a suitable tree and had somehow finagled Chris and Josiah into helping them cut it down nearer to the time.
But the others suspected the immediate buzz was JD's excitement at a promise Buck was keeping...to head out to Cletus Bunt's old stomping ground for a short camping trip. Chris told them they were crazy, it was getting too cold to camp out, but Vin had taken JD to one side and offered him plenty of tips to stay warm. JD was made up, nothing would stop them now.
Looking around as he saddled up, JD grinned. It didn't get better than this...nice home, great family, horse riding and camping, his life was perfect. Buck's enthusiasm had made it all the better. They had asked if the others wanted to join them, but Chris was insistent they had too much to do with two men down...just seconds before grinning and telling them to have fun and take care. It was just three days...they could manage.
Ezra was beside himself with disappointment about not going camping, the twinkle in his eye speaking volumes and suggesting that may not actually be the case. He helped JD tack up and walked with him into the yard where Buck was mounted and waiting on his kid brother. The others gathered around the pair as JD mounted up, his huge grin infectious.
"Got your cells?" Chris checked. They both nodded.
"Have fun," Josiah said, patting each rider on the knee.
"Stay safe," Nathan urged.
"Remember what I taught you," Vin reminded JD, who nodded enthusiastically.
"What did he teach you?" Buck asked.
JD turned his head toward him. "That if it gets real cold at night, I should crawl in with you."
Buck's eyes narrowed as he tried to decide if Vin and JD were winding him up.
Ezra passed Buck a pewter flask. "To keep out the chill."
The big man beamed. "Hey...thank you, Ezra. Much obliged."
JD rolled his eyes. "Don't think I'm carrying your sorry drunk ass to bed, big brother!" Unsuccessfully, he ducked the hair ruffle from the brunet.
"Watch the sassing, squirt. It'll take more than this to get me tight as a tick." With a glance and nod to JD, the pair moved to leave.
"See you in three days," JD waved, as he wheeled his horse around. In no time, they were out of sight.
Having ridden most of the day, they set up their camp. Buck pointed beyond a small outcrop. "How about we catch us some fish for supper?"
JD's head turned to where Buck was pointing. "There's a river here?"
Buck winked. "Let's go see."
A few minutes later they came upon a small lake. JD's eyes widened. "Oh, wow! This is yours?"
"Ours" Buck reminded. "Yeah, it is."
"Wait...we don't have poles."
Buck chuckled. "Boy...I have so much to teach you."
From the bank, JD watched in fascination as Buck removed his boots and socks, rolled up his jeans legs and waded in. He stood for some time, unmoving and silent, when all of a sudden the big man reached into the water and flipped a fish toward his brother. JD howled his approval as the fish landed on the bank, earning him a mock scowl and a silent `shush', before another fish sailed his way.
"You gonna try?" Buck encouraged.
"Sure!" JD toed off his sneakers, almost falling over when he went for his socks. Hiking his jeans legs up to his thighs, he walked into the water, gasping. "Whoooo...it's freezing."
Buck chuckled and beckoned him closer. "Just do as I do," he whispered. He pointed to a fish, just visible in the crystal clear water as it approached. Placing his hands just so in the water, JD waited until the fish was over them, and on Buck's nod, lifted it.
Not planning on being dinner this night, the fish flapped like crazy, startling JD. He lost his fish, and his balance and, arms flailing, flew backwards...taking Buck with him.
Later that evening, as the two brothers sat wrapped in blankets around the campfire and sipping hot coffee, JD looked at Buck and smiled.
The brunet returned the smile. "For what?"
"For coming here with me. For keeping your promise. I wouldn't have minded, you know. I know how busy you get around the holidays."
"Hey," Buck said, softly, "half the fun of owning a bar is I can hire help when I want to. I wouldn't have missed this for the world, plus, when we get back, we get to start preparing to spend Thanksgiving with friends and family. My idea of Heaven, kid."
JD sighed, softly. His too. He yawned.
"Y'know, it might be a good idea to get an early night. We got a lot of ground to cover tomorrow."
Nodding, JD clambered to his feet, pulling the blankets around him as he headed for the tent. "Good point. I'd best get in first, before you start your log-sawing."
"You little..." Laughing, the pair wrestled for a short while and then headed into the tent and the waiting sleeping bags. Their clothes would not likely dry by the morning, so it was a good thing they had brought an extra pair of jeans and some shirts and underwear, or their trip would have been cut short.
By mid afternoon the next day, Buck figured the cabin no longer existed. They had searched for hours, but, despite their disappointment, the pair had enjoyed every minute of their time together. They were about to head back to camp when JD's squeak and spurring on of his horse caused Buck to chase after the fast disappearing youth. Reaching a clearing, Buck approached JD's now stationary mount and looked to where JD was staring.
"This has to be it." Dismounting, the youth walked over to the barely standing, but clearly charred remains of what was once a timber structure. JD was initially oblivious to his brother being right with him as he scrutinized the crumbling, blackened wood, his heart in his throat at the thought this might actually be Bunt's cabin. It smelled of moss and...something JD couldn't quite put his finger on. He turned to Buck, his eyes wide and full of expectation.
"What do you think?"
The brunet studied the ruins with a cautious eye. There was no doubt this building had been burned a long time ago, but as to whether it was actually Bunt's former home...He was torn, what should he say?
One look at JD's expression decided for him. "I reckon you could be right, kid." He chuckled at JD's whoop of delight. Buck knew he could be wrong, but just seeing the sheer pleasure his words had brought to his kid brother's face, chased away any doubts.
Cautiously the pair edged toward the structure and took a closer look. The stone hearth and chimney still stood proudly and, though collapsed, there was evidence of what was once a spit rod and a rusted pot nestled in the cavity where a fire would have burned. JD reached out and eased the pot from its resting place. "Would it be a bad thing if we took this home?"
"Don't reckon Cletus has much use for it these days." Just saying the name inside the crumbled building caused both men to glance reverently around. They looked at each other.
"Let me get some shots and we'll go, yeah?" Suddenly feeling an overwhelming desire to leave, JD pulled out his digital camera, snapped off a few shots and took a few minutes of video before replacing the camera in his saddlebag.
"Ready?" Buck asked. He was feeling whatever JD was, too, the situation not being helped by the horses becoming restless. He watched JD replace the pot.
"Yeah, I'm ready. I think maybe the pot should stay here, though."
Turning, the pair returned to their horses, re-mounted and headed back to their campsite. That night, Ezra's flask proved to be a welcome addition to their `repast' as the southerner would have probably referred to it, and after talking over their day, they huddled down for the night, planning to head back home after breakfast.
Dinner that evening at the Double L was lively as the five remaining brothers discussed JD's earlier phone call, regaling them of his and Buck's adventures. They debated the possibility that Bunt's cabin had indeed been found and looked forward to the pair's return. The place had been way too quiet without them, and their homecoming would kick start the Thanksgiving preparations, something they were all looking forward to.
The two men had been traveling for over half a day and the ride so far had been an enjoyable one. Buck's grin never left his face as he let his youngest sibling talk about everything from their trip, to the weather, to the ranch, to their lives today. He loved to listen to the boy, amazed at how the dialogue never ceased, was compelling, diverse, and never tedious, as JD's thirst for knowledge and answers to everything became paramount.
They were looking forward to the lead up to Thanksgiving with the family when they got home. Nettie had initially arranged to visit with Casey and enjoy being treated to a home cooked meal from her niece, but the young woman had been offered the chance to go skiing, and Nettie insisted she go. Buck had invited Inez to join them and so the table would now be set for seven men and two ladies, with Josiah as head chef. It was promising to be quite an occasion.
Buck was pulled from his musings and looked at JD. "What for?"
JD shrugged. "I've been running off at the mouth again, haven't I?" The youth had realized Buck no longer seemed to be listening.
The brunet waved a hand. "No, no...something you said about the leaves shedding got me to thinking about Thanksgiving. " He smiled, warmly. "You'll never bore me, kid. Before you came along, I was the talker of the family. I just wish I had all the answers for you."
"Shoot, Buck," the lad grinned. "I don't always ask questions to get answers. It's just a relief sometimes to get all this stuff in my head out there, you know?"
Buck laughed. "Hell yeah...I know."
Another hour or so of relaxed riding and Buck spotted something on the ground, in the distance, just beneath an outcrop. Slowing his horse, he stood in the saddle to get a better view. He suddenly realized JD was continuing on.
"JD, wait up!"
Before the younger man halted, he noticed something lying in the grass just ahead, and jumped down off his horse to take a look. On reaching the object, the contents of JD's stomach rose to the surface and he moved away to throw up.
Sliding a rifle from its sheath, Buck glanced across at his heaving brother then down at the intestine-strewn area around a semi- mutilated mare on the ground. "Damn."
Checking the ground surrounding the dead animal, Buck flipped open his cell and dialed, moving to JD as he did so. Resting the rifle against his leg, Buck rubbed his younger brother's back, and kept one eye on the half-eaten animal and the other on the zone around it. He spoke to Chris.
"I think we got us a cougar, stud. And I think we may have disturbed it...looks like it was in the middle of dining out on one of our mares."
Hearing those words, JD straightened, wiped his mouth and glanced nervously around. Did that mean it was still close by? Approaching his horse, he reached into a saddlebag for some water to rinse his mouth and clear the acrid taste of regurgitated food. He jolted as the horses suddenly pulled away and became restless. Looking to Buck, they exchanged glances, then both men stared around them.
From the outcrop, a snarling, brown streak leapt down at them, both men instinctively raising their arms in defense. As the two were bowled over, JD felt sharp fangs pierce his jacket and clamp around his right shoulder and arm. He screamed out in pain and fear while the cougar got a better hold and started shaking him. In the attack, Buck had dropped the rifle and frantically stared at the grass to locate it. Realizing he was out of time, he instinctively swung a fist at the beast, which promptly released JD and fastened its jaws onto Buck's leg instead.
Trembling and bleeding, JD gulped in a great lungful of air as he tried to fight the pain, panicking slightly at the sight of Buck being attacked by the huge cat. Momentarily forgetting his injuries on seeing Buck's dilemma, JD scrambled across the ground for the rifle, shakily aiming it in the air, well above the cougar's head. He'd never fired a real gun before, so he didn't attempt to try to hit the animal this close to Buck. The gunshot did the trick and the cougar raced off, leaving Buck rolling on the ground in agony and clutching his left thigh just above his knee.
The horses long gone, pain and shock was fast catching up to him as JD searched the ground for Buck's cell, completely forgetting in his distress that he had his own. Keeping the rifle close, JD snatched up the discarded phone. Fearing he might pass out before he got his message across, he lay down, resting the back of his head on Buck's stomach. JD kept his shaking hand steady long enough to press redial. He felt relieved and comforted when his brother's hand rested on his head.
"Chris?" JD swallowed the bile in his throat and fought through the pain as he spoke in heavy breaths. "It...the cougar...it got us. Okay...'bout two hours out. O...okay, th...thanks." Despite Chris's voice still coming from the phone, JD snapped it shut and closed his eyes to combat the rising nausea and effects of the blood loss.
Buck clenched his teeth as he battled the agonizing pain in his thigh. He knew he was bleeding, just not how much. Through panting breaths, he spoke.
"The...guys on...their way?"
"You...okay...kid? " He felt JD nod weakly.
"Never...better, kid, never...better. "
Despite everything, before releasing long moans they both chuckled, though JD figured it was more from hysteria than amusement. "Buck?"
"Perhaps you...should hold the...rifle."
Buck gently tugged at the boy's hair. "Yeah kid, perhaps I should. When...we get...home...I'll teach you how...to shoot." He felt JD nod against him.
"You did good."
JD sighed. "Buck?"
"Hell...of a...punch, bro."
As they lay there, JD felt Buck's body go limp as the man succumbed to his injuries. He knew he had to move and try to bind their wounds...and he would...in a minute...just after this little nap...
"You called Ezra and Josiah?"
Tanner nodded to Larabee as he jumped into the front passenger seat of the Ram and started dialing on his cell. "They're still in town," he replied.
Nathan tossed stuff into the back and climbed into the rear seat. "I've got Life Flight on standby."
Chris nodded, grimly. "Let's go." Slamming into `drive', Chris hit the gas and the Ram spun out of the driveway and toward the highway. From JD's information of being two hours out, which could be cut at least in half, if not more, by truck, Chris had a good idea of the pair's whereabouts. The trail could be picked up from several points off the highway to where they were, and even though the terrain from there was a little rough, it would be no problem for the mighty 4x4. All Chris hoped, was that JD's information was correct, and they were indeed in the more open ground he figured them to be. His cell rang and he pressed to answer via the in-car system.
"It's Josiah. Where do you wish us to meet you?"
Chris glanced at his brothers and sighed. "I reckon we'll be heading to the hospital. Stay in town, we'll call you as soon as we know more." He shut down the call and looked at Vin. "Any luck?"
The Texan shook his head. "Both cells ring, then go to voicemail."
"Shit!" Chris put his foot down and was relieved ten minutes later to hit the turn-off.
JD groaned and blinked his eyes open. Feverish and disoriented, he tried to think what was different from the last time he was awake, soon realizing his head was no longer lying on Buck. Pushing through the fevered agony, JD flipped over to see, through the heavy sweat- dampened fronds of hair veiling his eyes, the huge cat dragging his unconscious brother away toward the brush. "No...Buck!"
Despite wanting to just curl in on himself, using his one good arm, JD dragged his aching, trembling body along the ground toward the now discarded rifle ahead of him. Terror choked at him as he realized he couldn't reach the weapon.
"Buck...BUCK...wake up, damnit...WAKE UP!" The effort was simply too much and he dropped heavily into the grass and passed out.
Something tugged at Buck's consciousness and he was suddenly aware of the cold air on his belly instead of the raging hot head that had been there. Shivering, he rolled his head to one side to see JD a few yards away, lying face down and unconscious. `Where the hell was he going?'
"J...D..." His voice was a mere whisper and through the agony fogging his mind, he somehow realized he needed to look at his leg. Forcing his quaking body into a sitting position, Buck succeeded, on his third attempt, to dig out a bandana from his pocket. He groaned at his blood-soaked jeans and, despite knowing it would hurt like hell, looped the kerchief around his leg. He barely had time to secure it and grasp at the rifle next to him, before dizziness overwhelmed him and he passed out again.
Buck wasn't sure how long he had been out, when, sometime later, he again glanced across at JD. Seeing those wide hazel eyes staring back at him, Buck screamed out as he flipped over onto his stomach, then, inch by agonizing inch, began to make his way toward his brother.
JD didn't want to move, each twitch sent fiery pain through his body, but once Buck started dragging himself toward him, there was no way he would stay put, so, gritting his teeth, he started crawling toward the big man.
Buck wanted to yell out to JD to wait, but it was taking all his concentration to keep moving. All he could think of was that they were bleeding and a big ol' cougar was somewhere close by...he had to get himself and the gun next to JD. After a joint, agonizing effort, the pair touched hands and somehow, that very act propelled them to their final destination. Sweaty, exhausted and in terrible pain, the two brothers clung to each other, not giving a damn how it looked right then...just grateful to be comforted by the other's presence.
"The cougar...it got you..."
Not realizing JD's fevered mind was referring to a whole other and non-existent incident, Buck agreed. "Yeah...but I'm okay...and so are you, just relax." Silence reigned until JD spoke again.
"Why...are they...taking so long to get...here?" JD rasped out.
Buck stroked the soaked hair under his large hand. "They're not...it...just...feels that way."
"The cougar...it...could come back," JD whispered, his trembling increasing. He wasn't ashamed to admit, the idea of the beast coming back and ripping into them again...terrified him.
The brunet pulled JD in tighter and ran a blood-stained hand over his own sweaty features. "All we gotta do...is hang in there...got the rifle right...here...okay? " Buck felt JD nod and prayed he was right. He was pretty damn scared, too.
The big black Ram bounced and swerved over the uneven terrain. Chris's heart was pounding at the thought they may be too late, and he guessed, due to the silence in the cab, the other two felt the same. He jerked as Vin suddenly pointed and yelled out when they approached a large clearing.
Nathan and Vin didn't even wait for the truck to fully stop when they were out and running toward their injured brothers. Only a split- second behind them, and despite Vin carrying one, Chris went into the back of the truck and pulled out a rifle.
Buck jolted when Nathan's gentle touch startled him. At first, the doctor panicked, seeing Buck coated in blood top and bottom, and his face streaked with red, but soon realized it was just his leg, the rest was from JD's shoulder and arm and that there was no head or facial injuries. Separating the pair, Nathan was torn who to treat first, his decision made when Vin took JD into his arms and propped him up against his chest, while Chris grabbed some bandages for the younger man, both men urging Nathan to deal with Buck.
Buck became agitated and kept pushing Nathan away. "No...JD...now..."
"Now, keep still or it'll just delay his treatment further," Nathan scolded, mildly. "We got him covered, big guy." Buck stilled instantly, but his gaze remained fixed on the three men huddled together a few feet away.
JD's breathing was rapid and shallow as he looked up at his two brothers, crying out as Chris eased off his jacket and applied pressure to his wounds.
"Sorry, kid," Chris said sincerely, surprised at how much his hands were trembling. He felt more than saw Vin's encouragement, wishing Nathan would hurry up. "How's Buck?" he called out.
"Buck..." JD became restless.
Vin held him firmer. "Easy kid...Nathan's got him."
JD moved his head to look into Vin's eyes, his dark, sweat soaked bangs and lashes, standing out against his ashen pallor. "Be...careful, it's still...out there."
Tanner smiled to reassure him. "It's okay...we got three rifles here...he steps one paw within a hundred yards of us and he's dead." Vin was relieved to see JD visibly relax at his words.
Nathan left Buck with Chris holding up a fluids bag for the man, and worked on JD. Finally he addressed them about the situation. "They're a little shocky, but the drips I've put in will help. I reckon we can cancel Life Flight and get them in ourselves. We just need to keep them warm."
"Back of the truck?" Chris asked, receiving a nod.
Leaving Nathan and Vin caring for the injured pair, Chris pulled apart the camping gear and set up the truck bed with the sleeping bags and blankets they brought with them, tossing the waterproofed tent into the rear seat of the truck in case it began to rain. Once Buck and JD were settled and wrapped warmly, Nathan climbed in with them and soon the five were heading toward the hospital and their two waiting brothers.
While the two injured men were in the ER, Chris filled in Josiah and Ezra, who had joined them in the waiting room. Vin and Chris had taken a quick look at the mutilated mare before heading into town, and were clearly shocked and upset about the whole situation. They stood and turned to watch Nathan approach.
"Theit wounds have been cleaned, irrigated and stitched, bloods taken oxygen and IVs for pain and antibiotics started. Buck's talking some, but JD's real quiet, so they're taking them both to a room soon, for round the clock monitoring."
"Why? Can't we just take them home?" Vin asked.
"Shock." Nathan answered. "Their wounds won't kill them, but if shock isn't treated properly, it can, and right now they're both presenting symptoms. The doc is confident it'll be just a day or two here and then they can go home. My rotation finishes tomorrow and I have four days rest, so I'll be able to take care of them."
"We all will," Josiah assured, not wanting Nathan to bear the burden alone. The others nodded.
Nathan continued. "Really, guys, it's good, they're just being cautious. The wounds are bad, but not too deep, and Buck and JD'll have to take it easy for a while, but the prognosis is encouraging. " He pointed into the ER. "You can see them for a few minutes, then they'll be transferred to a room. Only one can stay with them for tonight, but once they've rested comfortably, it's open house."
Entering the quiet ER, the five brothers smiled at a sleepy Buck. JD however was fast asleep. Both men were receiving oxygen from nasal canulars, and were hooked up to IVs and auto BP cuffs. Buck's leg was bandaged and elevated, as was JD's heavily bandaged shoulder and upper arm.
"He okay?" Chris asked, his head gesturing toward their youngest.
Buck nodded. "You know how he is on pain meds...zonked."
Offering a small smile, Buck winked. "Doing good, stud. I'm told it's nasty but not life threatening. Got to admit, though, I feel real shaky right now."
"Hardly surprising, is it?" Ezra pointed out.
"Gonna have to do us a little cougar huntin'," Vin assured.
Buck nodded. "Yeah, no telling why this one is picking on our stock that close to the ranch...or how many he's had up to now."
"Did it seem injured?" Chris asked.
Buck raised his eyebrows. "Sure as hell...didn't move like he was."
Seeing that Buck was tiring, Chris patted his arm. "Rest easy, bro. We all agreed before we came in here, Josiah's staying for a while, then I'll be back to take over." He glanced across at the big man, who was nodding while stood next to JD, his large hand resting on the sleeping boy's head.
His eyes closing, Buck nodded. Each brother gave both Buck and JD a squeeze before exiting the room and heading home.
The room now flooded with natural morning light, Chris put down his magazine, yawned and stretched and shut off the overhead lamp. Josiah had been gone about two hours, informing Chris that, while both men remained asleep despite the BP cuff inflating every hour and the nurses taking two hourly temperature checks, JD had been fidgety. Mumbling from their youngest caused Chris to stand and approach JD's bed. There was no doubt, as JD tossed his head and restlessly moved his limbs, the young man was in the throes of a dream...and apparently a bad one. Placing one hand on JD's bare chest, Chris leaned in and gently shook his brother.
"JD...hey, kid...wake up now, come on...wake up." He smiled at the first glimpse of hazel.
JD was scanning the pasture, but Buck was nowhere to be seen. He could feel the panic rising as a trail of blood led him to the vision of a giant cougar dragging off his screaming brother. JD was trying to follow, despite feeling terrified of the huge beast ahead of him, but couldn't move, there was something pushing on his chest...and now it was calling to him. The images dissolved as his heavy eyelids began to lift and shards of light penetrated the weariness. Soon Chris's smiling face was greeting him.
"B...Buck?" he whispered. A gentle hand cupped his cheek and turned his head to one side. JD visibly sighed to see Buck lying in a bed next to him, and relaxed back into sleep.
Chris eased back into his chair to watch and wait as JD fought his way to awareness. Within twenty minutes, JD was awake and taking some water. In less than an hour, both men were awake and had been examined by their doctor, who was happy with their progress and decided the pair would be released, with a prescription, by the afternoon. By that evening, they had eaten at least three times and were both home and in their own rooms.
Having left at first light, Chris stared down from his horse, rifle primed as Vin examined the remains of another of their stock. Walking the immediate area, Vin was clearly perplexed.
"Never known a cat to act this way so close to civilization. It's gettin' closer...no tellin' how much closer it'll get for an easy meal."
Larabee ran a weary hand over his face. This was their second day out hunting and it was getting them no nearer to killing the beast, which was seemingly their only option, it was feeding too close to the ranch, and was obviously more than prepared to attack humans.
"Let's call it a day. Most of the stock is in the lower pastures, now. We'll just have to be vigilant, especially with the brood mares and paddocks."
Mounting up, Vin nodded, but he was not happy. He was going to have to rethink his strategy on this one.
Dinner two days later saw all seven eating together for the first time since the incident. Buck was using crutches to get about, but more to satisfy Nathan than because he felt really needed them. JD's right arm was strapped in a heavy-duty blue sling, the youth grateful for being ambidextrous as he struggled one-handedly, despite being constantly reminded to ask for help.
Their horses had returned to the ranch immediately after leaving their masters the day they were attacked, a ranch hand checking, watering and feeding them while the brothers were at the hospital. Vin was now telling them all about the lack of success so far in tracing the cougar and that another mare had been lost.
"Lookin' at the tracks, it's favorin' one leg."
"So, it's injured?" Ezra asked.
"Or was injured and is now hampered from poor healing," Chris answered.
"Would explain why it's feedin' off easy kills," Vin nodded. "Still not sure why it's gettin' so close to the ranch though. It's not behavin' as I would expect."
"Is that unusual, then?" Josiah inquired.
Buck nodded. "Yeah, they're fierce, but don't usually wander close to populated areas. I figured it attacked us to protect its meal...now I'm not so sure it didn't see us as a meal."
JD shuddered and his fork clattered onto his plate. He looked around. "Sorry." He saw Nathan point at his dish.
"You struggling with your food?"
All eyes turned to look at JD's barely touched meal. "Nah, just a little slow eating," JD smiled. In truth, his brothers talking about the cougar had his stomach churning. The thought that the beast was venturing closer to the ranch had him in a cold sweat.
Buck, Chris and Vin exchanged glances. All six men had noted how quiet JD had been. Not even asking about him and Buck finding the cabin had gotten him talking much.
"JD, you need to talk about this." Chris's tone was soft, but determined. This had to be nipped in the bud.
JD shrugged his good shoulder. "Chris, I'm fine, just tired." He glanced sideways at him, quickly realizing Chris wasn't buying it. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, JD pushed away from the table and stood. "'Scuse me."
JD glanced back at Buck who was attempting to stand. He raised his free hand. "Please...I reeeeally don't want to talk about it." With that, he headed for the stairs and his bedroom.
Josiah stood and smiled at the astonished men. "Allow me."
"No," Buck insisted, "I should go."
"Buck," Josiah smiled. "I may be wrong, but I think you may be part of the problem." He waved a hand to stave off any hurt feelings. "I just mean you're too close to it right now. Let me try."
Torn, Buck pondered the suggestion, finally nodding. "Okay, but I go next." He watched Josiah nod and leave.
Chris rested a hand on his arm. "He didn't mean it was your fault."
Buck smiled, tightly. "I know."
The temptation to ignore the knock at the door was quickly quashed on realizing it would simply set off a chain of events. "Come in." JD looked at Josiah from his seated position on the edge of his bed. "Hey."
Sanchez smiled and gestured to join JD, doing so at the youth's nod. They sat in silence for a minute. "So John Daniel, is it that Buck was hurt too, the trauma of the attack, the fact the big cat is still out there and not too far away, or all of the above, that's bothering you?"
JD sighed, staring at his swinging feet. "You forgot to include that, while I crap myself every time the damn thing is mentioned, Buck's taking it in his stride and the others are talking about hunting it like it was a little pussycat."
Josiah squeezed his knee. "Aww, son. You're a city boy. These men have likely had this kind of problem before. We know Vin has hunted previously; and no, Buck isn't dismissing it, he's just coping a little better. Doesn't mean he's not having nightmares."
JD looked up at him.
Josiah nodded. "I've heard him call out."
Silence, then JD sighed again. "When I sleep, I keep seeing it dragging Buck across the ground...but I can't get to him...and I can't find the gun." He shook his head. "But...that never really happened, so why do I keep seeing it?"
"I'm guessing you're re-living your deepest fear."
JD nodded. "Yeah, maybe."
"Come back downstairs, John. We all want to help."
JD swallowed. "I'm not a coward, Josiah," he said, softly.
"Good God, boy, there's no doubt about that."
"You...you don't think that's what they...?"
Josiah stared at him. "I'm going to turn that question back at you. Now...answer it."
JD thought, then smiled. He stood. "Yeah...lets go back downstairs."
Coffees or beers in hand as they relaxed in the main room, five men grinned as their two brothers joined them. Understanding the nod from Josiah, they waited for JD to sit and get things rolling.
"Every time I close my eyes, I see it. Huge teeth, wild eyes...hot, foul breath." He looked at the earnest faces and couldn't resist. "But enough about Buck."
They all laughed and JD felt the tension melt from his body.
"I love it here, but...suddenly I find I don't want to be outside alone any more. I know it's crazy, but..."
"No, it's not," Chris assured. "Kid, we're all feeling a mite skittish right now. That's why we have to get this thing. It's getting bolder by the day, and we're losing stock..." He swallowed. "Not forgetting, we could have lost two brothers, too. No one's gonna fully relax until it's in a sack and buried in the ground."
"Once you're outta that sling, I'm gonna teach you how to shoot." Vin looked at Buck as he glanced at JD, instantly clued into what the man was thinking. "Bucklin and me...are gonna teach you how to shoot," Vin corrected.
"It's a good skill to have in a place like this," Chris added.
"Can you all shoot?" JD asked. They all nodded.
"Even you, Ezra?"
Standish nodded. "My business is security, JD...I could shoot before I had appointed my first staff." He grinned. "Mother was mortified."
JD chewed his lip. "I used to do okay at the shooting gallery when the carnival hit town..." he blushed. "Not really the same thing, is it?"
Vin grinned. "It's a start."
The seven chatted for a while, then, sensing a need, left Buck and JD together to talk. JD joined Buck on the sofa and gratefully accepted the arm around his shoulders. The pair sat in companionable silence for a while, watching the fire as it slowly started to die.
"Chris was talking about getting the tree a week from Monday or Tuesday."
JD nodded. "Cool."
"I hope we can both go get it, too."
"Yeah." JD turned to Buck. "Sorry I'm such a wuss."
Buck grinned. "Are you kidding me? There's not an hour goes by I don't relive that attack."
"How come you never show it?"
Buck pondered that for a moment. "I guess, in my line of work I've learned to put on a front...get on with it." He squeezed JD's good arm. "Chris knows, though. Never could fool him. I reckon the others do, too."
"You fooled me."
"Nah...you had enough to do to cope with your own issues, is all. I've seen how you look at me. Why didn't you just ask?"
"I wanted to."
"Guess I'm an idiot, huh?"
"Guess so." They laughed. "So, are we good, kid?"
With a grunt, the pair got up from the sofa, locked up and headed for bed. In the shadows and close to his bedroom, Chris was leaning against a wall. He waited until he heard doors close and headed up to Buck's room.
Hearing a soft knock, Buck opened his door and without looking, said, "Come in, stud."
Closing the door, Chris looked at his brother. "Why didn't you tell him?"
"About not sleeping properly since you've been home."
"Kid didn't need to hear that."
"I disagree, that's just what he needed. JD needs to see it's okay for a man to be afraid once in a while."
"I'm not afraid."
"You're afraid to sleep, Buck."
The brunet glared at him. "Yeah, you know why? `Cause every time I do, that fucking lion's chewing our little brother up. You really think he needs me to tell him that...huh?"
Chris smiled. Buck was exasperated, where the hell was the humor in what he'd just said?
"JD's bad dreams are about you...yours are about him. Tell him."
Buck looked at Chris. "I'll think on it."
Chris turned to leave. "JD already thinks you're perfect...telling him about this won't change that."
Buck laughed. "Larabee, you're as much of a wind-up merchant as the kid is. Get the hell out of my room." He watched Chris leave. "Kid thinks I'm perfect...yeah...right, sassy little shit shows me just how much he believes that every day..."
Saying goodnight and closing the door, Chris grinned to hear Buck chuckling and mumbling to himself.
The final part of the week before Thanksgiving found Buck, Vin and JD down in the pasture past the barn. Resting against a rock, Buck watched Vin return from the target and adjust JD's grip on the shotgun.
"Like we showed you...relax, breathe...squeeze. "
JD nodded and composed himself, firing seconds later. He winced and rolled his stiff, injured shoulder.
Buck grinned at Vin as the can flew sideways. "Damn, you're a natural, kid."
JD handed the gun to Vin and showed his trembling hands. "You think?"
Buck approached, grinning. "I know."
"And tomorrow, we go cougar huntin', again." Vin assured.
JD shuddered. "Maybe it's dead, there's been no more kills found since last week."
Vin stared out at the landscape. "Nope, he's out there...I can feel it." He turned to JD. "Come on...let's set you back further and see how you shoot then."
That evening, JD went to put a log on the fire, but the wood box was empty. Picking it up, he went through the mud room to put his boots on and headed out to the back of the house to the wood store. He finished filling the box and had just closed the heavy lid when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. His head snapped around, but all he could see off the dimly lit deck was pitch blackness.
JD froze on the spot, his breathing increasing as fear gripped his heart. He felt like he was being watched. Picking up the box, he walked slowly backwards along the verandah toward the mud room door, his heart pounding harder with every step he took as he scanned the distant gloom. A low growl from somewhere in the shadows and a glint of reflected light in the inky blackness from the porch light, set off his panic button and, dropping the box he ran the last few yards and lunged for the door, at first failing to open it as his hands trembled and fumbled with the handle.
"Fuck...fuck. ..hey, HEY LET ME IN!" His whole body quaking now, he cried out in relief when the door finally opened, tumbling through it and into Chris's arms. His breaths were too fast to form a word, only able to point and wheeze. Vin instantly disappeared as JD was brought through to the kitchen. Buck held the youth and touched his clammy face as he helped him to a chair.
"Jeeze, boy, your heart's pounding like a jackhammer. What happened?"
JD swallowed and took a deeper breath. He looked at the five men with him. "I...i...it's out...there." There was no need for explanation, only one thing could have JD this agitated.
Walking through to the study, Vin grabbed his keys approached the gun cabinet and unlocked it. Taking out a rifle and a box of shells, he re-locked the cupboard, placed the shells on the desk and loaded the gun before heading back to the mud room. Passing the kitchen, he called out.
"When I open the door, hit all the floodlights."
Alarmed, JD leapt to his feet, much to the others' surprise and ignoring his protesting shoulder, pinned Vin against the hall wall. "NO! No, are you crazy? It's too dark...you can't go out there...NO!"
Compassion dueling with a need to move, Vin looked first at JD then at Chris. The latter pulled JD away, but the youngster fought him.
"No...don't let him, Chris...please. " He turned to Vin. "Please..."
Vin touched his face. "It'll be okay."
Ezra and Nathan had also taken up rifles and all three headed out. Josiah hit the switches and the yard was awash with bright light. Something big and fast started running toward the distant tree line and several shots rang out.
With Chris following his brothers out, Buck remained with JD, talking to him, while listening out for what was happening outside. After what seemed like an eternity, Chris returned, his smile broad.
"They got it."
Buck grinned, JD frowned. "How...how can they be sure?"
"Because Vin and Josiah are dragging the carcass back as we speak. We'll put it in the garage for tonight, and figure out what to do with it tomorrow."
That evening, they all got a little drunk, relieved the threat was over. Next morning, Chris insisted Buck and JD take a look at the dead animal, hoping it would bring them closure. He was right, it helped.
Thanksgiving morning and chores were started early to clear the day. With all the seasonal hands gone, the few remaining ranch hands had enjoyed a pre-event dinner with the family, courtesy of Nettie, before heading home to their loved ones. With Josiah cooking, the brothers had pulled together to enable them all to relax sooner rather than later.
Buck was in town. Rosie's would close at 1pm and he and Inez would then make their way to the ranch. Dinner was to be served at 3pm promptly.
In the barn, Vin grinned at JD, their breath hanging white in the cold air as they put their backs into moving some hay bales under cover. It was clear JD was still struggling a little with his shoulder, but the kid never once complained, and had laughed but showed sympathy when Ezra's hang-nail had forced him to `sadly abstain' from manual labor. Chris had agreed Ezra should remain indoors, appointing him with the title of 'Chef's helper' for the day. With nine to feed, he was still peeling vegetables two hours on.
Snatching a handful of hay and tossing it, the Texan hit JD smack in the head. The younger man howled and returned the gesture. Half an hour later, their work had doubled with the mess, but they had never been happier as they swept it all up before ensuring the horses were fed and watered for the day.
One by one the brothers gathered in the great room. Nettie had arrived and was enjoying some egg nog. They all looked and grinned as Buck and Inez came in, Chris taking the latter's coat as he handed her an egg nog, too. Buck disappeared and returned with a sprig of mistletoe.
"I know it's not quite Christmas, but I thought, maybe...you could kiss me under this?" he grinned at Inez.
The beautiful Mexican eyed him with amusement, scowling as the sprig slowly traveled south. She folded her arms across her chest. "Keep that moving down and it will take more than a kiss to revive what I would do to where it stops."
They all laughed, especially Buck and he returned the mistletoe to above his head. "Better?"
"Much." With a smile, she stood on tip-toe, placed her delicate hands on each side of his face and went to kiss his cheek, but he moved and their lips met. She slapped his arm. "You are incorrigible. "
Buck winked. "Hell yeah."
Josiah joined them intermittently for drinks before finally announcing dinner was served. The table was positively groaning with food and mouths watered as they took their seats. Holding hands, Josiah said a short prayer and Chris made a noise in his throat after it, to get everyone's attention.
"Before we dig in, I just wanted to say a huge thanks to Josiah for all his hard work..."
Ezra gave a little cough.
"Oh yeah...and his little helper."
They all laughed. Ezra waved it off. "Please...it was my pleasure."
Those words caused more laughter. Chris continued. "Thanks also to Nettie for yesterday's feast. It meant a lot to us all, and the guys in the bunkhouse."
Nettie smiled and nodded.
"We're real glad Nettie and Inez could join us today, welcome, ladies." He paused. "Thanks to JD, Buck and Vin for decorating the tree, though, I have my suspicions about how many chocolate ornaments have gone missing."
JD and Vin failed hopelessly at feigning innocence. Buck chuckled, heartily.
"It's been a great but tough year, especially the last few weeks," he looked at Buck and JD. "But, we got through it, and for that, we give thanks. Having you all here is great, too. Dad would have loved all this." He raised his glass. "To friends, family and the spirit of Thanksgiving."
They all returned the gesture and began to heap their plates with food, the happy gathering chatting, laughing, eating and drinking their way through a wonderful meal and an equally wonderful day, as the first flakes of snow began to drift down onto the land.
And they all knew Chris was right, they truly did have a lot to be thankful for.