Main Characters: Seven, Raine, Casey, Nettie, OCs
Alternate Universe Future LB-ATF with LB-ATF memories
NOTE: I've based the ages for this story on the year that LB-ATF first appeared which was 2001. Therefore, Vin will be just turning 22 in 2016 and JD,19.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, author unknown, English Christmas Carol.
Good King Wenceslas, John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore. 1854.
It’s a Wonderful World, from the movie, Roustabout, staring Elvis Presley.
December 21, 2016 (Wednesday)
The slender young man, dressed in rumpled fatigues and wearing a worried expression on his handsome face, strode down the hospital hallway. He slowed whenever he reached a doorway, scanning the number plate on each door. At the end of the hall, he found the one he was looking for. He hesitated, one hand pressed against the closed door, as if he wasn't certain that he wanted to enter the room. Then, taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open and stepped across the threshold.
Inside, he stepped past the bathroom door, entering the main space of the room. There he saw a single bed, containing a very still occupant. The person he had come to see. Dropping his duffle in the nearest corner, he turned, straightened his posture, and ran his hands down his shirt to smooth it. Stepping over to the bed, he surveyed the readings on the machines, not really knowing what he was seeing, but taking comfort in numbers that seemed to be in the 'normal' range.
Pulling a chair over to the bedside, he perched on the edge, his eyes never leaving the quiet form on the bed. Reaching out he took a cool, weathered hand in his, giving it a squeeze. He struggled to get his voice to work, having to clear his voice three times before it did. "Hey, I'm home. I managed to get an earlier flight home after I... after I got the call, and they okayed a compassion leave so I can stay here 'til the third. Longer if… well, if I need to. But that doesn't mean you can play this up to keep me home longer, right? I've got a job to do, you know."
He stopped, taking a deep, shuddering breath. His chest hurt, his throat was tight and he struggled to keep from crying. It had been easier to think that this was all a dream or some cruel hoax... maybe a joke even, during his flight, and even through the drive from the airport. Easy to pretend it wasn't real. But now... now it was impossible to avoid the truth.
"Shit... sorry... you had me so scared. I kept thinking what if... you know? What if I got here too late? What if... well, just all the what if's that you tend to think of at times like this. It's been so long since I've been home, and I regret that now. I should have been here... you know? Should have been around and maybe... maybe you'd be fine.
"I'm rambling, I know. You know I can handle a lot of things but it's never... never been easy for me to see you down and hurt. God knows I've had enough practice with it! I swear, you take more chances..." he broke off, no longer able to hold back the tears. For several minutes the room was quiet except for the mechanical sounds of the machines and the sounds of soft sobbing.
A nurse came into the room, feeling uncomfortable at interrupting such an intimate scene. But she had too many patients to care for and the end of her shift was fast approaching. As quietly as she could, she stepped over to the bed and began reading the machines. She took the patient's pulse, blood pressure and temperature, noting them all on the electronic charting program. Turning, she saw that the young man was watching her through tear washed eyes. With a compassionate smile she said, "vitals are much better than earlier, and right where we would expect them to be right now."
He smiled. "Thanks, I'm... I'm glad to hear that."
Taking in his uniform and the tired pinch to his face, she said, "Not a homecoming you were hoping for, I'm sure."
"No ma'am, not at all," he replied with a shy smile.
"Is there anything I can get you? Soda? Water?" So what if she was running a little late? The young soldier looked very alone and very lost right now.
"No ma'am, I'm fine. Thank you, though."
"Okay, well if you change your mind, just give us a shout." When he nodded, she smiled, and finished with, "Well, I'll leave you alone then."
After she left, he sat back, slumping in the chair. The last thing he wanted right now was to be alone, but he couldn't tell her that. He had been alone once upon a time, and he never wanted to be alone again. Then a soft sound brought his attention back from his thoughts and he found himself drawn to the bed once more. The figure there was moving restlessly on the mattress. He laid his hand on the softly rising chest and said quietly, "You're okay, just rest. I'm here." The figure stilled once more.
He sat back down, preparing to wait for as long as it took until they could talk. He had missed those talks; talking over the phone or by skype just wasn't the same. There was always a sense of detachment that kept him from feeling the closeness that they had shared for so long.
Memories flooded his tired mind; happier times when he felt safe and loved, protected and cherished. Feelings that, while still there, were tucked away and replaced by maturity and self-reliance. How he longed to go back to that other time, if only for a minute. To be drawn into a warm embrace and held safe from the pain that the world could provide.
He wasn't certain how much time had passed; he was counting breaths and heartbeats rather than minutes and hours. He heard someone enter the room and waited for another disruption by the medical staff. Only it didn't come.
He turned at that barely muted cry, smiling despite the worry that filled him. "Hey, yourself!"
"When did you get here? Why didn't you call?"
Glancing at the clock above the other man‘s head, he said, "About two hours ago, and it was 3:00 am. I didn't want to wake you... although I'm thinking now that you probably weren't asleep. You look like five miles of bad road."
"Ha... ha. How is he?"
Turning toward the man who had been his father for the past fifteen years, he shrugged. "Nurse said that his vitals are better and about what they expected."
"Good... I guess." The newcomer came closer, then, reaching the other man, he pulled him into a tight hug that brought tears to both pairs of eyes. "Oh, God, Vin, I'm so glad to see you!"
"Me too, little brother, me too."
The two young men settled in chairs drawn close to the bed where Chris Larabee lay. Both looked as if they carried the weight of the world on their shoulders but, now that they were together to share the burden, it was lightening.
"Any word on your Da?" Vin Tanner asked.
Shaking his head, JD Dunne replied, "nothing. Uncle Ezra's been to visit all of his old contacts. Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan are working with DPD and Team Three to see if they can find any leads."
"No contact from... whoever did this?"
"No, nothing. Whoever did it was good; they left nothing to trace back to them."
"Yeah." Then the younger man, having just turned nineteen, dredged up a smile and said once more, "Good to see you, big bro."
December 22, 2016 (Thursday)
Five men sat in the hospital waiting room, having been thrown out of Chris' room while the doctor was checking him out. The blond had roused briefly during the night, but hadn't really been coherent; not aware that his son was at his bedside as he called out for his oldest friend. He had slipped back into unconsciousness, aware only of the fact that Buck was in trouble.
"Why now?" Vin asked to the group in general. "Why would someone come after Dad and Buck now?"
"We think it was probably someone they put behind bars, who's been released in the last year. Team Three is investigating anyone released in that time period," Ezra Standish explained, "anyone who would see your father... fathers... as responsible for their incarceration."
The two youngest men looked at one another. Their fathers had been responsible for many arrests when they were still field agents. Even though they'd retired three years ago, turning their attention to ranching, it was very likely that there were many criminals who still bore them a grudge.
"Any idea how many people that means?" JD asked.
"About twenty fit that criteria that we've found so far. But there may be more, people who've come back into the area in the last several months, friends or relatives of perps they were forced to kill who just left prison, any number of variables."
With a low whistle, Vin said, "That could end up being a pretty big list."
"Yes, it could," Josiah responded. Then he added, "I'm sorry boys."
Frowning, young Tanner said, "Sorry for what, Uncle 'Siah?"
"This is certainly not the homecoming we'd hoped for either of you."
"Yeah, well, me either, but what are you going to do? I'm just glad I could get here."
"We're all glad to see you, son," Ezra chimed in.
"I'm glad to see you guys, too, but I thought my leave was going to be... well, a lot different."
"No doubt," Nathan added. They had planned to make Vin's leave fun and exciting, with a variety of activities planned, as well as quiet time together with his extended family. Sitting in a hospital waiting room had not been on the list of things to do.
"So... what exactly happened?" Vin asked. "All I know is that Chris was found unconscious, with a knife wound in his back, and Buck's nowhere to be found."
"Well, we don't know a lot more than that," Ezra admitted. "Chris and Buck were supposed to come in to give a guest lecture for me, on close quarters combat. When they didn't show up, I called the ranch, but got no answer. I called Josiah and asked him to go check on them."
Nodding, Sanchez took up the exposition. "I drove out there and found Chris lying in the barn. He was semi conscious but could tell me enough to let me know that Buck had been abducted. I called 9-1-1 for an ambulance and the sheriff, and then called Nathan."
"Since the clinic is closer, I got there before the ambulance, so I did triage while Josiah talked to the deputies."
The rest, we don't know a lot more than you do, since we're no longer active field agents."
Vin nodded and sighed. He couldn't keep his voice from trembling as he said, "I'm so glad you guys were there."
"Wish we'd have been earlier," Ezra admitted, "so that, perhaps, we'd have kept Buck from being taken."
"Or been kidnapped with him," JD argued. "It's bad enough to worry about our Dads, Uncle Ezra, I wouldn't want to be worried about you, or any of my uncles, too."
Vin reached out and squeezed his friend and adopted brother's shoulder as he looked around at the three men who they had adopted some 15 years earlier. They had been so instrumental in their lives; he couldn't imagine what his life would have been like without them.
His father had suffered a career ending injury three years ago and, after attempting to return to work in a supervisory position, had decided that his heart was no longer in it. About the same time, the others were finding themselves less and less happy with being field agents. They had been a team for nearly 20 years by that time, much longer than was typical for the profession. So, they had decided that it was time to disband the much celebrated Magnificent Team Seven, and begin the next stage of their lives.
While Chris and Buck had began making the ranch a working one, Nathan finished his education and began working as a nurse practitioner. Josiah took over the Grant Street Mission, which he had volunteered at for years. Only Ezra remained linked to the ATF, where he had begun working as an instructor, soon becoming known as being one of the best.
The change of career hadn't kept them from remaining a very tight-knit 'family'. They got together at least once a month, and often once a week. They had been there to see Vin off when he entered the military, and had kept in touch with him throughout his tour. They had been there to see JD graduate, and had celebrated his acceptance to MIT.
And now they were all drawn together to wait with their nephews.
"I don't know what we'd do without you guys," Vin said, tears filling bright blue eyes.
"Believe me, nephew, we would be nowhere else. I only wish we were getting together under better circumstances," Ezra replied.
"Didn't I just say that?" Josiah scoffed.
"Really? Well, evidently your words weren't as... memorable... as mine were."
"I'll show you memorable!" Josiah flexed his still bulging muscles.
"Ah yes, you've always been one to display your physical strength, while I prefer a more civilized way of communication."
"Yeah, big words... I've always wondered if you even know what half those words mean, or did you just memorize a dictionary when you were a kid?" Nathan entered the conversation.
From outside, it would seem that the three men were ready to come to blows, but the two youngest members of the group knew much better. Exchanging amused looks, Vin and JD sat back and enjoyed the show.
"Vin Tanner?" The nurse's voice broke into the impromptu performance, bringing them all back to the reason for their gathering.
Vin stood as he replied, "Yes, ma'am?"
"Your father is awake, Vin, would you like to..." she didn't have a chance to finish her sentence, as the handsome young man all but flew out of the room. Turning to where the others were standing as well, she came closer and said, "You're the rest of his family?"
"Yes, ma'am," JD replied.
"The doctor just finished checking him over. He's still dealing with the effects of the concussion and blood loss, but he should make a complete recovery." She couldn't help but enjoy the looks of relief and joy that spread across the faces of the four men before her. "When Vin comes back in the rest of you can go see him but, please, only two at a time, and don't wear him out."
"Thank you, nurse," Josiah replied for them all.
Back inside the room where his father lay, Vin couldn't help the sigh of relief when he saw a pair of very familiar eyes staring in his direction. "Hey, Dad!"
"Vin? Oh my God, Vin!" Chris pushed himself up from the bed with a groan, his arms spread as wide as possible, given the restraint of IVs and monitor wires. "Jesus, come here!"
All but flying across the room, Vin shoved the side rail down and dropped to the mattress, arms sliding around his father, even as he felt a pair of strong arms encircle him. There were no more words... they had never needed them.
December 23, 2016 (Friday)
Vin finally left the hospital and went home after being there for a day and a half; his father had been coherent enough to insist that he take a break. Home, the place that had meant safety, security, love and family for most of his life. His life before coming to live at 14911 Rock Ridge Drive was nothing more than a series of faded memories, most of which left him feeling more than a little sick to his stomach.
Home had changed over the years. Both dogs he and JD had gotten their second Christmas were gone, as were Pony and Beau. Peso and Milagro were well past their prime and spent most of their time dozing in their stalls. The corral had been expanded though, and there were a dozen new horses residing at the ranch.
The house had undergone several changes over the years, as well. The summer he'd turned 16, he and JD, with the supervision of their fathers and uncles, had converted the attic into what they referred to as their "apartments". There were two large bedrooms, two baths, and a large community area where they could play video games and watch movies without driving their fathers crazy. Vin smiled when he thought about just how often their dads had wandered upstairs and ended up watching movies or playing games with them.
Buck had converted their old bedroom into his own, while his old bedroom had become his "study", which in actuality was more of a place to wine and dine one lady or another in private. With a sigh, Vin remembered how their schedules had made it more and more difficult for them to all get together, even meals were often catch as catch can. But his Dad had made one thing perfectly clear. Sunday was family day. From sun up to sun down, the four of them spent the day together, or at least each father was with his son.
The day would begin with a huge breakfast, typically Buck's special pancakes or Chris' French toast. Later, though, he and JD had begun to share the duties, learning to make their father's recipes and even experimenting with their own. At times it had been a disaster, but those were often the most memorable.
After breakfast they would go for a ride if the weather was tolerable, or into town if it wasn't. They'd go to a museum or to the movies, anything that struck their fancy. On those occasions that he or JD had something scheduled that day all four attended. Typically it was a sports event, although he had joined a band in high school and JD had tried his hand at acting in some of the school
plays. Dinner was always a very special affair as well. In an effort to give their sons a taste of sophistication, Chris insisted they all get showered and dressed in their nicest clothes; then they
would go to one of the more up-scale restaurants in the area. At least they knew what fork to use and where to place their napkin.
Stepping into the house, Vin heard the sound of the television playing in the den area of the great room. He found his younger brother stretched out on the couch, watching television. "Hey, didn't think anyone was home."
"Just me." JD sat up with a yawn. "They won't let me stick around the bureau, or DPD, so I finally just came home."
Sitting down on the couch beside the other young man, Vin asked, "Anything new?"
With a shake of his head, still long, black bangs swinging as he did, Dunne replied. "No. Chris remember anything new?"
"Nothing yet. Hopefully when he's feeling better some of his memory will come back. Right now the last thing he remembers is getting ready to go to bed the night before."
"Damn it!" JD picked up the pillow he had been lying on and threw it across the room, "What the hell! Son of a bitch!"
"Nice to see they're teaching you healthy stress release at MIT, little brother." Vin tried to tease the other man out of his mood, but it did no good.
Leaping to his feet, JD stomped and stormed around the room, then the house. Vin heard the door of the mud room open and slam shut and knew what would happen next. JD would take off on a run, tearing down the drive and out onto the shoulder of the road beyond. He would run as far as the Potter home, turn and run back. Five miles there, five miles back. It had become his best stress reliever when, at fifteen, he had broken up with Casey Wells. Then at fifteen and a half when he had broken up with Casey... and at sixteen and a half... Vin smiled. His brother had spent most of his life in love with the petite, auburn haired young woman, although almost half of that time was spent in an argument.
Going to the refrigerator, Vin began pulling things out and deciding what he could make for the two of them for lunch. By the time his brother returned home, he was just sitting a plate of grilled hamburgers, salad and fries on the table. Adding a pitcher of lemonade to the table, he greeted JD with, "You've shaved off some time."
"Yeah... been running a lot... lately," JD gulped in air between words, leaning forward and resting his hands on his knees.
"Good. Go wash up, and don't leave a mess in the sink." Vin grinned.
With a soft chuckle, JD quipped back, "yes, sir," as he moved down the hall; coming back in a couple minutes later.
Together they sat down and began preparing their plates. Settling across the table from his brother, JD watched as Vin created a burger that included mustard, catsup, mayonnaise, jalapenos, cayenne pepper and an onion. “How do you still have a stomach?” JD wondered aloud.
“You sound like April,” Vin grumbled, then mentally kicked himself.
“April?” JD replied, dark brows waggling a lot like his father’s did when there was a mention of a woman.
“Never mind,” Vin muttered behind his sandwich. Just then the phone rang and he leapt to answer it. “LWTD Ranch… Uncle Ezra, what’s up? But… yeah, okay… we’ll be there in an hour.”
“What?” JD asked, his heart in his throat.
“Let’s shove this stuff in the fridge, Uncle Ezra said he needs us to meet him and the others at the hospital.”
“Something wrong with Chris?”
Shaking his head, Vin replied, “No, they’ve got something… Dad’s remembered something.”
“Let’s go!” Leaping to his feet, the younger man began gathering up the things on the table and shoved them haphazardly into the refrigerator. Each of them took the sandwich they’d made and a soda as they ran out the door and headed for the driveway. In less than five minutes after the call came in, they were bouncing down the drive in JD’s truck.
The two young men arrived in Chris’ room to find he and their uncles in the midst of a discussion.
“… I’m telling you, it was Coby Martin.”
“Coby? Chris, he’s been working for you at the ranch for over six months.” Ezra pointed out.
“Don’t you think I know that!” Chris leaned back against the pillows, clutching his head.
“Dad?” Vin moved across the room quickly. He hit the button that would deliver pain medication through the IV while, at the same time, gripping his father’s shoulder. “Dad, take it easy. We need you to get better, not worse.”
“I’m fine.” The voice that answered him held the grit and gravel that all of them recognized as belonging to Chris Larabee, the Supervising agent for ATF Team Seven. Now, though, they could hear a slight tremble beneath it, a clear indication that he wasn’t well enough to be in the midst of a battle, especially with some of his closest friends.
“Coby? You think Coby had something to do with Da being missing and Chris being hurt?” JD asked, his temper rising.
“You know this guy?” Vin asked, shocked.
“Yeah. He and I met right after you left for boot camp. It was the year I took off between High School and College,” JD explained. The precocious teen had graduated a year early, and he felt he needed a little more time at home before making use of the scholarship he’d earned from MIT. Buck and Chris had both agreed. “He‘s your age, and I guess I sort of… well, looked on him as your replacement. Well, not really, but you know, someone older who -- “
“I get the picture, JD, just tell me more about this guy.”
“Well, he and I spent a lot of time together, he taught me -- “
“He taught you how to get on your ass drunk, how to pick up a prostitute --”
“It was just once, Chris, and I haven’t done anything like it since!” JD protested.
Inwardly cringing at the uneasiness between his father and his younger brother, Vin broke into the argument. “Okay, let’s save this for a later time, can we?”
“My sentiments, exactly, Vin,” Ezra agreed. “Right now we need to find out all we can about this young man.”
“Then shouldn’t the DPD or the Team investigating Buck’s disappearance be in on this?” Vin asked.
“They’re following up on their leads,” Josiah explained. “This isn’t official or anything.”
“Right, we’re just… discussing your dad’s injuries from… a medical standpoint,” Nathan added.
Vin rolled his eyes. “Damn if you’re not sounding more like Uncle Ezra every time I come home.”
“Vincent Michael,” Chris growled, “You had better put a quarter in the swear jar when you get home, young man.”
Tanner looked at his father in shock, and then saw a twinkle in his eye that didn’t seem to have anything to do with either his head injury or the medication. Barely stifling a laugh, he said with a somber tone, “Yes, Father.” The ensuing laughter broke the tension in the room, allowing everyone to calm down and get back on track.
“Okay, JD, tell us everything you know about Coby.” Josiah encouraged.
As he began to talk, JD also began to pace around the room. “Coby moved in with his older sister, Amy shortly before we met.”
“Where are his parents?” Ezra asked.
“They were killed in a car accident,“ Chris said.
Stopping in his tracks, JD turned to stare at his second father. “No they weren’t.”
“What? That’s what he told me and your da when he asked us about working at the ranch.”
“No, his dad died, he was killed when he walked in on a home invasion a couple weeks before he moved in with Amy. His mom …“ JD trailed off, frowning as he tried to recall any discussion about Coby Martin’s mother. “I don’t remember him ever talking about his mom. We were always comparing dads, you know ‘my dad can whip your dad’ sort of stuff, but… huh. I guess, never really having a mom around, I never really thought about it.”
“JD?” Ezra spoke up, “What was Coby’s father’s name?”
“Uh… Rob… Rod… something like that. He mostly just referred to him as dad. Why?”
“Obviously he was hiding something if he told Chris one story and you another. I wonder what else he told multiple stories about? Where did he tell you he moved to Denver from?”
“He grew up here, he just moved from his parents home to his sister’s.”
“Is Amy’s last name Martin as well?” Ezra continued the questioning.
“Yeah… yeah, I think so. I don’t think she was married or anything.”
“How old do you think she might be?” Nathan asked.
With a shrug, JD said, “maybe 30.”
“So, Amy Martin, born sometime in 1986. Do you remember the address?”
“Not really, when we went over there, he was driving, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention. It was around the museum and library… on the avenues I think.”
“That’s nowhere near where he told us he was living,” Chris said, shaking his head.
“Son of a --”
“Swear jar, JD,” Vin reminded the younger man, leading to another round of laughter.
“Well, it’s a beginning, at least,” Ezra said. He had opened his notebook and was tapping away at the keyboard. The others waited as he worked at it for several minutes, performing keyboard acrobatics as he searched for information.
When a pair of green eyes peered over the monitor, Chris asked, “What did you find?”
“Does the name Martin Rogers ring a bell, Chris?”
“Martin… Rogers… I think… oh shit!”
“What, Dad?” Vin asked.
“Martin Rogers and his wife, Amelia, were involved in a gun running organization that was one of our last cases.” Standish explained.
“Right, I remember,” Josiah took up the exposition. “We took in their partners, but Marty and Amelia dug in deep. It took everything we had just to find them.”
“Martin took his own life when he saw that there was no hope,” Nathan added to the story. “Amelia tried, but she ‘chickened out’ and we were able to arrest her. She blamed us for her husband’s death; tried to blame everyone and everything rather than accept her own responsibility in what happened.”
“So Coby and his sister are their kids?” JD asked.
“There are two children mentioned; Colton and Amanda. Colton was tried as a juvenile, released on his eighteenth birthday… not quite two years ago.”
“Which would mean he was out about the time Coby made an appearance and befriended JD.” Chris said. “What about the sister?”
“She was never found.”
“Which means she could have been on the outside, preparing for anything,” Josiah suggested.
“It would seem so. However, in looking over the visitors list for Amelia Rogers a younger sister, one Amy Martin. They visited once a month until last month.”
“And nobody put the two together… until now,” Nathan spoke up.
“Evidently there was no reason to do more than the typical background check on the young woman,” Ezra explained. “They made certain that they stayed ‘under the radar’, as it were.”
“So… it’s all been about revenge,” Vin surmised.
“Looks like it,” Chris said from where he lay. Then he began to attempt to get up, grunting with pain when his movements pulled at his wound.
“What are you trying to do?” Vin asked in a scolding tone. It wasn’t really a question, he knew exactly what his father was doing.
“We need to go track them down … get Buck away from… them,” Larabee was panting with the effort of getting out of the bed.
Pushing the older man back against the mattress with little effort, Vin said, “No, you’re going to stay right here and let the others take care of things. You’re retired, Dad, not to mention you’ve got a concussion and a hole in your back.”
“I’m -- “
“Don’t you dare say it!” Vin barked. “You are not fine, and you are not going to risk your life playing hero, do you understand? Both of us are a lot older than the time you rode after me with an unhealed bullet wound in your shoulder, and I will sit on you if I have to, to keep you from risking your life again!”
The others were silent, every eye in the room glued to the seething young man who was glaring at his father. Finally, Chris spoke up, his voice barely above a whisper. “I… I’m sorry, Vin… I didn’t realize…”
Taking a deep, trembling breath, Vin said, “I didn’t either Dad… until just now. Please… for my sake, let someone else take care of things this time.”
Unshed tears glistening in hazel-green eyes, father looked up at son and said, “I promise, Son, I’ll let the others take care of things.”
December 24, 2016 (Saturday)
Christmas Eve afternoon. It certainly wasn’t the holiday that he had envisioned, laying on his bunk in the barracks back at Benning. He had enjoyed the annual tower lighting ceremony and all that was involved in that celebration, and the very next day his world seemed to have fallen apart, with a single phone call.
Vin was stretched out on the empty, stripped, second bed that was in his father’s room, a blanket over his legs, left by a nurse during the night. At least Chris was in a regular room now, and that gave him hope. The fact that his father looked pale and in pain, even though he was sleeping, worried him, however.
JD and the others had been in and out since the day before. JD was usually angry when he entered the room, having been chased out of the DPD station or the Bureau offices when he began creating yet another disturbance. But, Vin was relieved to see, he still had a positive effect on his brother, and typically had him calmed down in a few minutes.
After his own outburst the day before he had refused to leave his father’s bedside again. Luckily the hospital supplied him with visitor trays so that he could keep an eye on Chris; he knew that his stubborn father would not be able to keep his word for long. Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington had been friends since right after high school, and had remained friends through the years. And that friendship had only grown stronger when they’d become parents to himself and JD.
Tanner leapt at the loud disruption of his thoughts, and cursed under his breath when his father woke as well. Turning toward his younger brother, he scolded, “JD Dunne, you know better
“Sorry, sorry! Sorry, Chris. But they’ve got a lead on where Coby is! Team Three’s going there now!”
“Oh… thank God,” Larabee breathed, “Do they know for sure that Buck’s with him?”
Some of his cheer disappearing, JD said, “No, not yet.”
“I’m sure they’ll find him,” Vin said quietly. “He’ll be okay, JD.”
Smiling again, the exuberance of youth not allowing him to remain down for long, the younger man said, “Of course they will. He’s been looking forward to us coming home for ages, Vin, he’s not going to miss us being here.”
Chris couldn’t help but smile as his two sons positive outlook buoyed his own flagging faith and hope. He knew that he had never been one who could easily see the positive; his life too marked by negative over the years. He had been fearful that he would be mourning the loss of another person who was close to him soon.
“Uncle Ezra got permission, so he’s going with them. He said he’d let us know what he could, as soon as he could.”
“Good. If we all stay here, then we’ll all know at the same time,” Vin pointed out, wanting to make certain that JD didn’t take off again. He was worried that his younger brother would do something crazy. Mostly because he wanted to go do something crazy. He wanted nothing as much as going after the creep that had inflicted pain on the two men who meant more to him than life itself.
“Hey, what’s the date?” Chris wondered aloud.
“Isn’t that a sign of your marbles being scrambled, if you don’t know?” Vin teased. “It’s the 24th.”
With a sigh, his father said, “Christmas Eve.”
“Yeah, not exactly what we expected when we came home,” JD agreed.
“Well, how about we make do with what we can, then?” A deep voice boomed from the doorway. Josiah and Nathan entered the room, accompanied by Raine Jackson, Inez Recillos and Casey Wells. All of them were laden with boxes and bags, most of which smelled heavenly.
They soon had a banquet spread out around the room, using the tray table from the second bed, and every other surface available. Chris raised the head of his bed up, watching the activity with an amused expression.
Soon they were all sitting around the room, enjoying a Christmas Eve feast provided by the young women, who had spent most of the day cooking. Casey had also brought a DVD player and JD hooked it up to the room’s television so that the gathering could enjoy some Christmas movies that included everything from the 50’s classic Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim to the modern classic A Christmas Story. The latter was nearly drowned out by the three youngest members of the gathering, who had grown up with the movie, as they recited most of the dialog, ver batim. All of them, though, recited some of the more popular lines, including “FRA-GEE-LEE!”
As midnight approached, Vin, who was by this time sitting on his father’s bed, sharing a bag of popcorn with him, frowned. “Uncle ’Siah? Do you have your Bible with you?”
“Why, yes, I do, son. Why?”
“It’s almost Christmas, you need to read the Nativity to us.”
His attention going from one of his nephews to the other, the oldest member of the adopted family said, “I wasn’t certain that everyone would be interested in hearing it this year.”
“But we have to have it, Uncle ’Siah!” JD protested.
“Of course we do! Let’s set the scene,” Casey suggested. She changed the DVD in the player and they suddenly had a “roaring fire” flickering on the television. They turned off some of the lights, and Josiah moved his chair so that he could read beneath one of the wall lamps.
With a smile, the older man dug his Bible out of his satchel and opened it. Putting on his reading glasses he began to read, his deep voice bringing the scene quickly to life. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of
Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”
As he continued to read, the others found themselves growing drowsy and comfortable. Vin leaned farther and farther back, and then found himself being drawn into his father’s embrace. No matter that he was now a man, he found great comfort in being in his father’s arms again.
On the other bed Casey sat leaning against the raised mattress, while JD lay on it, his head pillowed in her lap. She ran her fingers through his long, dark hair, allowing him to relax more than he had for days. She smiled when he sighed, long and content, his body growing heavy against her as he was nearly lulled to sleep.
Nathan sat in the recliner, while Raine sat in his lap, her cheek leaning against the top of his head. Inez sat on the foot of the second bed, her feet and legs tucked up beneath a festive holiday skirt. Everyone was comfortable, their gaze going from Josiah to the video fire and back.
“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young
child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
“And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And when they departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.”
Just as Josiah completed the story of the Nativity, every cell phone belonging to the men in the room began to chirp, sing and beep, alerting them all to a message. Still lying beside his father, Vin retrieved his phone from his pocket and slid it open, holding it so both of them could see the screen. All of them read the words…
“Will arrive at hospital in one hour to update you on the search.”
They all looked at one another, hope and fear mixing on their faces. What would the news be?
Wishing to keep the others from fretting too much, Nathan said, “So, what do you boys remember about your first Christmas at home?”
Vin chuckled. “I remember going into the great room Christmas morning and thinking that there were so many packages under the tree that there must be a whole town full of kids coming over for them.”
JD laughed as well. “Yeah, well, I figured that most of them were for me. In fact I sort of hoped that they’d hidden yours somewhere else, Vin, because I wanted all of them!”
That brought laughter for all of them. When it quieted, Josiah asked, “What was your favorite gift?”
Together, the young men said, “the puppies!”
Chris laughed hard enough that the stitches in his back pulled and he grunted. It didn’t keep him from saying, “You’ll have to tell your uncle Ezra that.”
“Why?” Vin asked, reaching for the pump that would deliver his father’s pain medication, only to stop when his father shook his head, letting him know that he was all right.
“You never heard about that?” Raine asked.
“No, what?” JD asked.
Easing himself up on the bed, Chris told them the tale of the role their uncle had played in bringing the dogs into their lives. By the time he finished the story, everyone was laughing hardily.
“I sure do miss them,” JD said when things quieted. His beloved Elvis had passed on first, four years ago, and Ringo had survived him by just over a year. Pony had been gone for six years and Beau for two.
Vin saw his brother’s somber expression and knew exactly where his mind had taken him. “They all had good, long lives and knew nothing but love, little brother. We don’t have to be sad for them, or ourselves.”
Chris felt a stab of pain as his sons moods threatened to darken. Hoping to bring them back up, he said, “Do you remember the first time Buck and I let you two go get the tree?”
Vin was immediately laughing, JD only a breath behind. Then, as the others began to remember the story of two teens taking the truck up into the foothills in search of the year’s “perfect tree”, the room began to fill with laughter.
“OH MAN!” Vin chuckled. “That was a disaster in the making.”
“Remember the fight we got into over which tree to chop down?” JD asked.
“Yeah, it ended up being a snowball fight, and you popped me right in the mouth with one the size of a baseball! That sucker was hard, too!”
“Well what about you? Hitting that tree I was just in front of, just right, so about fifty pounds of snow dumped off the branches on me!”
“Oh, you wimp, it couldn’t have been more than twenty!”
“Says you! I had snow in my underwear when we got home!”
“If I remember right, the two of you finally decided by rock-paper-scissors,” Raine said.
“Yeah, we still got the wrong one,” JD grumbled. He had chosen paper, only to have Vin choose scissors.
“Shoot, no! That was a rockin’ tree!”
“It was a nice one but, if I remember right, you made the final choice the next year, Little Bit.” Chris said with a grin.
Smiling back at the use of his old nickname, JD said, “Yeah, you’re right, and it was the ultimate Christmas tree… EVER!”
Suddenly, Josiah raised a hand to quiet the others, his head cocked toward the door. Going over and opening it, he returned with a smile as the others could now hear what he did.
“God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”
“Carolers?” Casey asked no one in particular.
“Remember Christ, our Savior…” A line of people, all dressed like characters from a Dickens story, filed into the room, continuing the song.
“Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy
In Bethlehem, in Israel,
This blessed Babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which His Mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy
From God our Heavenly Father
A blessed Angel came;
And unto certain Shepherds
Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by Name.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy
"Fear not then," said the Angel,
"Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Savior
Of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan's power and might."
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy
The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind:
And went to Bethlehem straightway
The Son of God to find.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy
The family sat, enthralled, listening to the group of men and women as they sang the song. Chris wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulders, knowing that his own comfort and joy was sitting right beside him. All around him, his family and friends gave him a strength he had once thought he would never know again.
Turning to see unshed tears in his father’s eyes, Vin whispered, “You okay?”
Smiling, Chris nodded, “I’m fine, Cowboy.”
The group wished the group Merry Christmas and then began a second song, Good King Wenceslas, as they began to leave the room.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel…
“That was beautiful,” Inez said, wiping a tear from her dark eyes.
Josiah turned to push the door closed once more, but stopped. With a grin, he said, “I guess we’re about to receive another Christmas surprise.”
“What?” Nathan asked.
Simply smiling, Josiah made certain the door was open, and stepped back into the room.
The group watched the entryway, wondering what Sanchez was talking about. Just then, Santa Claus, riding a wheelchair instead of a sleigh, came into the room, Ezra pushing him.
“Uncle --” Vin began.
“Ezra?” Chris finished.
Just then, Santa pulled down his beard, revealing a battered but smiling face.
“DA!” JD screamed, leaping from the bed and grabbing up his father in a fierce hug.
Behind them, tears rolling down his handsome face, Ezra Standish announced to one and all, “Merry Christmas.”
December 25, 2016 (Sunday)
Christmas morning began at 12:07 am that year, with the reuniting of the entire family. It took several minutes before any of them could process the appearance of “Santa” Wilmington and his main elf, Ezra. It took several more before any of them could form a coherent sentence.
“Buck, are you okay?” Chris asked his old friend, who was now engulfed in the arms of both their sons.
“A little the worse for wear, but nothing that won’t heal. So far. Boys, I love you and I am very excited to see you, but do you think you might give me a chance to breathe?”
Embarrassed laughter came from the two younger men, and they moved back. Vin returned to his father’s side, while Josiah brought a chair over so that JD could sit beside his father.
“So, what happened?” Nathan asked.
Turning to Chris, Wilmington asked, “Where did you leave off?”
“All I remembered was seeing Coby’s face. I got a pretty good knock on the head, so most of it’s just brief glimpses.”
“His last clear memory is of going to bed the night before,” Vin supplied.
With a low whistle, Buck said, “Well can’t say that I’d want to remember much of that morning. You and I went out to the barn to start work, and Coby was already out there. You noticed before I did that he was acting pretty odd, and you called him on it.
“Coby got real belligerent and started yellin’ about how high and mighty we thought we were, how we had everything and we’d left him with nothing. He just wasn’t making any sense. We tried to get him to calm down, but the more we tried, the angrier he got.
“All of a sudden there was a young woman there, too, and she was helping to get him all riled up, telling him that we’d made their lives hell, while our sons lived in luxury, that we didn’t deserve anything we had, and that included the ranch. They were both laughing and saying how they ought to kill the horses and burn down the ranch; they were going to punish us and the boys would feel the same pain they’d felt all their lives. The more they fed off one another, the less sense they made.”
“Must be a family trait, if I remember, Amelia didn’t make a lot of sense when she took the stand in her defense.” Chris said.
“More than likely it came from being raised by sociopathic, paranoid parents,” Josiah added. “To them, this is the way you handle things. You blame others for your own misfortune, and get revenge on anyone you think has wronged you.”
“How incredibly sad,” Inez put in.
“You’re right, it is,” Vin added.
“So, how did Chris end up hurt and you ended up being abducted?” JD asked.
“Amy got completely out of control. Suddenly she had a knife in her hand, and she went after Chris.” Turning toward his old friend, he added, “You were just turning away from her, that’s why you ended up with a wound in the back.
“I went after her, but she’d already stabbed Chris. Coby came after me, and the three of us ended up fighting. I managed to get the knife away from Amy, but the two of them… well, they were damn fine fighters, and they wore me down.
“Chris, once he recovered from the shock of being wounded, dove into the fight as well. We gave as good as we got for quite a while…”
“Yeah, the barn looked like a bomb had gone off in there or something,” Josiah inserted.
“Felt like it, too. But things turned when Coby got hold of a shovel and hit Chris across the back of the head with the metal end. He hit him two or three times after that, I’m not certain how many times, really.”
With a grin, Larabee said, “Enough to put a dent in my head.”
“Yeah, and as hard as that is, it must have been some pretty solid hits!” Vin teased.
With a playful shove, father said to son, “You’re not too old to turn over my knee, young man!”
After the laughter died down, Buck continued. “I think they decided you were dying, because Coby started freaking out about them being murderers. So Amy decided that they’d keep me alive for the moment, but kidnap me, so that they‘d have bargaining power if the cops came after them... Or they might kill me later. It was almost impossible to follow their conversation, they were both so out of control by then. I put up a fight, but in the end, Amy held the knife to your throat and told me that if I didn’t cooperate, that she’d make damn certain you were dead.”
“So you went along willingly… I’m sorry, Buck,” Chris said softly.
“I wouldn’t say willingly, but I saw no other choice, Chris, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” the big brunet replied. “You’ve got nothing to apologize for, they were the ones making our lives hell.”
“So then what happened?” Casey asked.
“We drove up into the hills. There’s an old compound up there; they used to live there with their parents. They locked me away in one of the concrete bunkers, and left me there. I honestly think that Amy, at least, was just going to leave me there to die. I heard her tell Coby a couple times that she was taking care of me… bringing me food and water.”
“When we discovered him, there was nothing in there but a single, decrepit, cot, and a bucket for him to use for… well, nature’s call.”
Inez, ever the hostess, exclaimed, “You’ve not eaten?”
“No darlin’, not since breakfast the morning all this happened.” He gave her his best, beleaguered Buck look, that was guaranteed to elicit sympathy from any woman that was its recipient.
“I’ll fix you a plate then, and see if I can get it warmed up,” She grabbed one of the large plates and began to fill it with different foods.
“Where’s Coby now?” JD asked, his tone dark.
“We were able to arrest both he and his sister,” Ezra explained, leaving out the details of the fight that had taken place at the compound and the fact that there were two agents in the hospital due to injuries. Both Amy and Coby… or Colton and Amanda… were also in the hospital, in the jail ward. “They are in custody, celebrating the holiday behind bars.”
“Good,” the youngest man of the group said, his voice still cold and unemotional.
The others worried about that tone; one they had never heard coming from the teen before. The room grew almost uncomfortably quiet for several, long minutes. Finally, Inez broke it by bringing the plate back from where she’d gone to warm the food. They brought Chris’ tray table over and sat it in front of Buck, adding a large glass of cider and a second, smaller plate, filled with cookies and pie.
“Have you been checked out downstairs?” Nathan asked.
“Yeah, they gave me an IV to re-hydrate me, added an antibiotic and gave me a B-12 shot. They want me to stay here tonight for observation, but I should be able to go home… well, later today.”
“The two of us used our… rather copious skills… to have Buck assigned to this room. The staff agreed to wait until our celebration concluded before making the bed and checking St. Nicholas in.” Ezra explained, with no small amount of pride in his voice.
Raine, observing the tired look on their newly reunited family member, said, “Well, perhaps we should let them do that, it looks like Santa could use a good night’s sleep.”
“I’m not sure I’ll sleep any time soon,” Buck replied, emotion raw in his voice. “I’m just so damn glad to be home!”
“Swear jar!” the two boys yelled, their faces alight with mischief.
It was nearly 4:00 am before things settled down. Everyone had gone home except the two boys, who insisted on staying with their fathers. They left only long enough to help carry things back out to the cars, giving the nursing staff the time to get Buck out of his Santa costume, into hospital clothes, and tucked into bed. When they crept back into the room, both men were settled in bed, only the dim night lights providing a soft glow in the darkened room. Each son pulled a chair up beside their father’s bed, and settled in for the night.
“You boys should go home,” Buck said softly.
“I’ll go home when you go home, Da,” JD replied, reaching out to clasp his father’s hand.
“You should go home when they do, Vin,” Chris said.
“I’m fine, Dad.”
“You didn’t travel all the way from Georgia to sit in a hospital room,” the blond tried again.
“No, I traveled all the way from Georgia to be with my Dad… Dad.”
“Give it up, Chris,” Buck broke in. “You know that boy’s as stubborn as you are.”
With a chuckle, Larabee said, “I think he’s even more stubborn than I am!”
Feigning a shudder, JD said, “I don’t even want to think about that!”
The close-knit family shared a good laugh at that, then settled in to get some rest. Soon, both fathers were asleep, Buck beginning to snore. Their sons settled in to the chairs, drifting off to sleep as well.
December 26, 2016 (Monday)
“Alright, Buck, you’re tests came back and you’re in relatively good shape, considering. I want you to take it easy for the next few days, then you can resume normal activity as tolerated,” the doctor advised the big brunet.
Wilmington grinned, joy in his blue eyes at the thought of going home. Then he motioned toward his roommate. “What about Chris, doc?”
“He’s next on my rounds,” the doctor said with a wink. The hospitalist had to admit that, since their retirement, he had missed the near constant interactions he had with the members of ATF Team Seven. He moved over to where the blond lay, reviewing the computer printout as he did. “Chris, how are you feeling today?”
“Bored out of my head and irritated that I’m still laying on my as -- butt.” Even if his sons were young adults, he had been in the habit of not cursing in front of them for more than fifteen years.
“Well, your vitals are pretty nearly normal. How’s your headache?”
“How about your back?”
“It hurts, but not as much as it hurts to be laying here during the holidays.” Chris flashed him a smile, then became serious. “Can I please go home?”
“If you promise to stay off your feet as much as possible, don’t put any strain on your back and take your medication as prescribed. If you don’t you’ll be back here before New Years.”
Larabee’s mouth opened and closed several times before he managed to say, “Really? No argument… or, negotiation?”
Shrugging, the medical professional said, “What can I say? Your son’s home on leave and I figure that, more than anyone else, you’ll behave yourself around him. When do you leave, Vin?”
“Not ‘til the third.” Vin’s smile was almost painfully bright.
“Good, that will give you a week to keep him on track.”
“I’ll make sure he behaves.”
With a nod, the doctor said, “Okay, I’ll get the paperwork ready, and then you can all four get out of my hospital and enjoy the rest of the holiday.”
The quartet arrived home shortly after one that afternoon. They had stopped in at a dinner on the way home for lunch, Vin doing everything but cutting his father’s meat, mainly because Chris threatened him about even attempting.
As Vin pulled his Dad’s Ram into the garage, he looked over to see that Chris was slumped against the window, eyes closed and mouth parted slightly. Reaching over, he popped the seatbelt button, smiling when he got a frown. “Time to wake up, sleepy head.”
“You know, I may be old and I may be injured, but I can still whip your butt.” Chris had to smile when his comment elicited a laugh from his son. He moved slowly, his muscles stiff and sore, but managed to get out of the truck on his own.
Behind them, JD and Buck, climbing out of the backseat, moved quickly out the wide, open door, commenting that they were going to check on the horses. Behind them, Vin wondered if they were leaving him alone with his father, or they wanted some alone time themselves. Then he decided that it was probably both. Moving around the truck, he stayed near his father, although he made certain that he didn’t give the impression that he was hovering.
“I’m okay,” Chris muttered, his head beginning to ache as they walked to the house.
“I know you are. Can’t I walk beside you anyway?”
Smiling, the older blond said, “You can walk beside me any time, son.”
They continued into the house, Vin hoping his father would go to bed, but not surprised when Larabee only went as far as the couch in the great room. At least he kicked off his boots and handed over his coat, before stretching out on the couch with a contented sigh.
“You want something to drink?”
“No, I’m okay for now.”
“Okay. I’m gonna go take a quick shower and change, I’m beginning to feel like I was born in these clothes, and I know I can’t smell all that good.” He had spent so much time at his father’s side that he hadn’t showered or changed since his one, brief stay at home. “Yell if you need me.”
“Will do.” Chris closed his eyes, his body relaxing against the thick cushions of the couch. It seemed like only a minute until he heard a noise and looked to see his son in the room. He started to ask why he’d changed his mind, until he realized that Vin had different clothes on. “Think I must have dozed off.”
Smiling, Vin said, “yeah, for about an hour. I’ve showered, changed and done a load of laundry!”
Scrubbing his hand over his face, Chris grumbled, “I hate concussions.”
“Yeah, me too.” Then, seeing his father’s gaze snap to his face, he added, “I’ve only had a couple, mostly during training exercises.”
“And you couldn’t bother to call me to let me know you’d been hurt?” His voice held a great deal of disappointment.
“Dad, I know you, and I know that you’d have been worried to death about me. They were minor, I just mostly dealt with headaches. I promise that if I ever get badly hurt, that you’ll know about it.”
“Hey, I brought a DVD with me,” Vin said, changing the subject. “It’s some videos I took in Georgia, I thought you might like to see them.”
“I’d love to!”
The two of them sat and watched the video Vin had made, showing scenes and activities around the base, as well as scenery in the area. Chris felt a sense of melancholy coming over him as he watched, sad that his son was so far from home, although it was obvious that he was thriving in the military. His son was going through Ranger training; something that filled him with a sense of pride.
When they were finished, Chris noted the time and said, “Are Buck and JD still out at the barn?”
Frowning now, himself, Vin replied, “I guess.” Stepping over to the phone, he hit the intercom function to ring the barn. After ten rings, he hung up. “Think I’ll run out there and see what’s going on.”
His worry growing, Larabee said, “I’ll come with you.”
“Dad, seriously, it’s probably fine, I’ll just go see if they need help with whatever they’re doing.”
“I need to stretch my legs, anyway, I feel sore from one end to the other.” Chris pulled his boots on and pushed himself up off the couch. He couldn’t say what it was, but something had, what Buck called his “spidey sense”, tingling. Something was wrong.
Walking out to the barn, father and son talked, Chris telling his son about the changes that had happened at the ranch since his last visit home. Reaching the door, Vin pulled it open, stepping in right behind his father. “What’s keeping you guys --” He joined his father in staring, shocked, at the scene before him.
December 27, 2016 (Tuesday)
JD stood in the doorway of his father‘s bedroom, watching him sleep and thinking about the day before, the pain of those hours threatening to overwhelm him for a second time. He and his Da had gone to take care of the horses, wanting to give Vin and Chris some alone time and get some alone time for themselves as well. They had entered the barn to find it much the same way it had looked the day the two men had been attacked.
His Da had seemed to fine in the beginning, even joking about the mess that had been left behind. While Buck went to care for the horses, he decided to take on the bloodied floor and shovel. He didn’t notice that he was singing under his breath; didn’t notice that he was singing a song that he and Coby had played a lot when they were out driving around. Then, suddenly, he found himself face down on the ground, with his father straddling him, yelling.
“NO! NO NO NO NO!!!! You are not going to leave him here like that! You’re not going to hurt him!!! Damn you! You can’t do that!!”
“Da! Da, stop! It’s me, Da, it’s JD! Stop!” His voice didn’t get through to the other man, though; could do nothing but try and defend himself from the attack.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, he heard someone enter the barn, and then he heard Vin’s voice. Thankfully his older brother was there suddenly, grabbing Buck and pulling him off. And Chris was there, dropping down beside him and holding him, all the while calling out to his father.
“Buck! Stop! What’s going on here?”
“NO! You can’t do this! You can’t leave him! DAMN YOU!”
The struggle went on for several more minutes before, suddenly, his father simply stopped. He dropped to his knees with a guttural cry, fingers knotting themselves in his thick, black hair.
With Chris’ encouragement, they got Buck to his feet and, between the two of them, they managed to get him into the house. While they guided the distraught man into his bedroom, Chris called their Uncle Josiah.
Uncle Josiah had come out and talked to his Da for over two hours. At times, even in the great room where the three of them sat, they could hear him yelling. Both he and Vin worried about what was going on, but Chris said he was just yelling and that everything would be okay.
He hoped so.
When Uncle Josiah finally came into the great room, he looked exhausted. He told them that his Da was sleeping, and that he’d probably sleep through the night.
“What’s going on Josiah?” Chris asked, worried.
“I believe it’s what they call Acute Stress Disorder.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Vin said. “Some of the soldiers have been diagnosed with it after they come from the battle zones.”
“Exactly. To put it simply, it’s a normal reaction to an abnormal event. While Buck seemed to be fine when he was first rescued, he’s now dealing with the emotional toll that was taken when he was locked away for those days.”
Heaving a sigh, Chris growled, “Why didn’t I think of that earlier?”
“Why didn’t any of us?” their Uncle asked as way of reply. “We were all focused on the fact that he had been rescued and was back with us. We were focused on you being injured. We were focused on the boys being home and it being the holidays. And I’m sure that, until the relief and joy more or less “wore off”, Buck wasn’t in contact with that part of himself. Now he is.”
“So, what do we do?” JD finally entered the conversation.
“Be supportive, empathetic and understanding. In the meantime, we need to get him in to see a psychologist.”
“I’ll call Lowery in the morning,” Chris said, surprising the boys that he was still in contact with their old therapist.
Dr. Will had been able to squeeze his Da in just three hours ago, for an emergency session. While his clientele was primarily children and teenagers, the psychologist did see adults as well.
The session had taken nearly two hours. At times he was certain that he could hear his father’s voice, even in the waiting room. Lowery had talked with Buck for a little over an hour and then he had invited the rest of them to join the session. Chris, worn out from the last twenty-four hours, didn’t look strong enough to stand against a spring breeze. But, this was his oldest friend; the man who had stood with him in bringing two orphans into their lives and off the streets. Taking a deep breath, he stood tall and matched his sons step for step as they went into the office.
Once they had all been seated, Dr. Will explained what they already suspected; his Da was suffering from ASD. He would be prescribing medication to help him with the anxiety and depression, and was going to set up some recurring appointments for a few weeks, to help deal with the memories and the feelings that were associated with those memories. But, he informed them, the best thing they could do was to listen to him and to be supportive.
They all agreed that they could certainly do that.
His Da said little for the rest of the day, telling them only that he needed a chance to process some of the things he and the doctor had discussed. He had simply excused himself, and gone to bed.
And now it was Tuesday morning, a couple hours after sunrise, and his Da was still sleeping. Or, so it seemed.
“Come on in, Li’l Bit, I’m awake,” he said in a voice raspy from his emotional tirade the day before.
“I don’t think I really fit the nickname any more, Da.” He padded into the room and sat on the foot of the bed.
Buck smiled. His son was big of heart, big of courage, and big of brain, but short of stature. At over half a foot shorter than his father, JD would always be “Little Bit”.
“How’re you feeling this morning?”
“Old and tired, son, old and tired.”
“Why don’t you come eat breakfast? We waited for you.”
“Go on and eat, I’ll be along after while. I’d like to get a shower and hopefully knock the cobwebs loose.”
“We can wait, have brunch even.”
“JD, I’m not hungry, okay?”
Heaving a heavy sigh, the young man nodded. With a single, baleful look at his father, he left the room.
It was after noon before Buck finally emerged from his room. He was showered, shaved, dressed, and looked tired, haggard, fragile and in pain. He shuffled into the great room, where the others were sitting, talking. They all looked up as he entered, offering smiles and greetings. JD automatically got out of the recliner that had been his father’s seat for as long as he remembered.
Dropping into the seat as if he had suddenly lost the battle with gravity, the big brunet looked from one to the other of his family. “I’m sorry, guys. Sorry that I’ve put you through… well, hell… all of this.”
“Buck you have nothing to apologize for --” Chris began.
Putting up a hand, Wilmington said, “No, I do. I’m not saying that I’m responsible for what Coby and that… that sister of his did. But I am responsible for what I did. Especially to you, son,” he said, turning a pain filled look toward JD.
“Da, I can’t say that it was a joyride, but after talking to Dr. Will, I know that you weren’t trying to hurt me. You were reliving what that bastard --” he stopped and tossed a quarter on the coffee table since they had long ago gotten rid of the swear jar, “and his bitch sister --” another quarter, “did to you.”
“Buck,” Vin said, his voice soft and level in the midst of all the emotion spilling over into the room, “we all understand. Every one of us in this room has seen and even experienced what trauma can do to a person. So I think, first of all, that you need to work on forgiving yourself.”
Turning a proud look at his son, Chris turned next to his old friend. “What Vin says is right, Buck. No one is angry at you for what happened. All that we want to do is to help you through this. At your pace, in your time, but we will be there for you.”
With tears trailing down his face, Buck looked at each of the other three members of his closest family with a mixture of love and humility. “I’m not certain what I did to deserve you guys in my life, but I am forever grateful for you.”
They had all agreed to have a late Christmas, on New Years Eve, with their extended family and friends. There were some last minute gifts to be bought, wrapping to be done, and food to be bought and prepared. They had decided on a sort of “pot luck” theme, with each person bringing a dish that they considered their specialty. Since the LWTD Ranch would be the gathering place, the boys spent most of the day cleaning, insisting that their fathers do nothing but rest and relax. Both men, after their family discussion in the great room, retired to their bedrooms to rest. JD took care of lunch, waking both men to come to the kitchen and eat. Buck was once more reluctant but, after his long fast, his stomach won out and he joined the others for a lunch of sloppy joes, salad and French fries. Finishing, Buck retreated to his room once more, while Chris stretched out on the couch and watched television.
A few hours later, the boys were finished, both fathers were dozing, and Vin was in charge of dinner preparations. He chased his brother out of the kitchen with orders to “stay out” while he banged and rattled around for almost an hour. When he finally emerged, he called them all to the dinner table. Buck didn’t argue this time, just came from his room and settled in with the others. The other three expressed a great deal of praise for the older son, as they found themselves looking at a dinner of grilled flank steak, garlic mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli with bell peppers and dinner rolls. He even had a pitcher of sweet tea sitting at one corner of the table.
“So, when did you learn to cook like this?” Chris asked his son as he sampled the potatoes.
Shrugging, Vin replied, “watch a lot of cooking shows on my down time. I found that I really enjoy cooking.”
“You sure it’s not because April likes cooking shows?” JD teased, causing both their fathers to look from one son to the other.
“April?” Chris made the name sound like a very loaded question.
Glaring at his brother, Vin said only, “She’s just a girl I know. No it’s not serious, yes we’re being careful, and no I don’t have any plans to marry her.”
Buck couldn’t help but laugh as he watched both father and son turn progressively more red faced. Sounding almost like his old self, the big man said, “Ask and you shall receive.”
“But I didn’t ask anything,” Chris lamented.
Dinner became a progressively more relaxed affair after that exchange. After they had finished, Vin went into the kitchen and emerged with a red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.
“Wow!” JD couldn’t help but exclaim as he set eyes on the cake.
“I second that. You’ve gone above and beyond, Vin.” Chris praised.
Shrugging, the young man said, “I just thought it was time we had a nice meal.”
“I agree, that hospital food leaves a lot to be desired,” Chris said with a groan.
“Well, just don’t overdo, you’re still healing.”
“Shit,” Buck said before he could stop himself, earning shocked looks from the other three men at the table. “I’m sorry, Chris.”
“You and the boys have been so busy babysitting me --”
“Don’t even go there,” Larabee said.
“But, you’re still nursing a knife wound and a concussion, and you’re helping look after me. That ain’t right.”
“Buck, we’re not letting him overdo, it’s okay,” Vin put in.
“Yeah, and you two boys. Helluva visit home.”
“We’re home with our family, and that’s what’s important,” JD countered.
“But you should be having fun, getting out to see old friends…”
“Yeah, like Coby? Sorry, Da, but I’m not really interested in seeing anyone else right now.”
“Yeah? What about Casey?”
“I’ve talked to her on the phone a couple times and she and Miss Nettie will be over on New Year‘s Eve. Da, she‘s busy visiting with her friends, just like we planned. I mean, she is going to Lesley now, so it‘s not like we don‘t see one another all the time.”
“Buck, listen,” Chris said softly. “You need to realize that helping you get back on track is the most important thing for any of us. Is this the holiday we planned? No. But it’s the holiday we got, and we can make the best of it.”
“Da, the only thing that’s important to me is that you’re safe. When I heard that you’d been kidnapped…” JD broke off, emotion heavy in his voice and tears trailing down his ivory features.
Standing and going to his brother’s chair, Vin reached down and began to knead his softly trembling shoulders. “Buck, we were all terrified that… well, that things weren’t going to go as well as they did. All we want to do is be here for you, okay? So you need to let go of these guilt feelings and just let us. We can make the best of it, and we can still have a good holiday, but not until you can accept that we all love you, and you… and Dad… you’re the most important part of the holiday to me and JD.”
For several minutes there was nothing but the sound of quiet tears and then, finally, Buck said, in a trembling voice, “When did you get so smart, Vin?”
“Just had good parenting, I guess,” Tanner smiled, bringing lightness back into the room.
“Okay now, how about we try this cake?” Chris said.
After the cake was sampled and praised, the four family members moved into the living area of the great room. With his father’s encouragement, Vin showed Buck and JD his video, narrating it in a way that had them all laughing at some of his exploits.
Afterwards the room grew silent for several moments. Then it was broken, as Buck began to talk, quiet, emotionless, and heartbreaking.
“The thing that kept me going, all those hours I was locked up in that… that place… was thinking about the three of you. My family… and my friends. And, well, some of the ladies in my life, of course.” He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“I could hear them, sometimes, outside, wondering if I was still alive, if they should check on me, or… or just burn down the place.”
“Oh, God, Da,” JD whispered.
“For a long time after they locked me in there, I tried everything I could to get out of there. Looked for anything that would help me get out of there. I just kept thinking, the boys are going to be home, I have to get out of here and go see them. The longer I was in there, the more I felt helpless… hopeless… worthless…”
“You are anything but worthless, Buck Wilmington!” JD protested.
Another smile, and the traumatized man said, “I appreciate that, Little Bit. But all I could think about was that you deserved a nice visit; not wondering where I was.” He turned his gaze to Vin and added, “and you deserved more than having a dead father. I was just so worried that…”
“Buck, I’m going to be fine,” Chris reassured his old friend.
“I know. Damn it, I know, but… I just still feel so…”
“It’s the trauma, Buck, what the doctor called ASD, okay? You may feel like that, but you’re not worthless and you’re not helpless. You’re the one that, ultimately, is going to pull yourself back out of this. Me, Dad, JD… the rest of us… we can be there and we’ll do whatever we can to help out. But you’ve got to be the one to get past all this.”
Buck smiled and, this time, the smile was complete and true. There was a spark of something else in his eyes, too. Hope. But all he said was, “Thanks… all of you. Thank you.”
December 28, 2016 (Wednesday)
The next day, both Buck and Chris were feeling better, and feeling very hemmed in. Double checking with their Uncle Nathan, the two sons took their fathers out for the day. They drove into Denver, checking out the museum, going to lunch at one of their favorite restaurants, and then taking in a movie. They discussed seeing the light display at the zoo, but decided to head back to the ranch when the boys saw that their fathers’ were beginning to wear down.
“I’m fine,” Chris argued, when Vin first made the suggestion to go home.
“So am I. They say the display is the best so far, we don’t want to miss it,” Buck added to the dispute.
“We’ve got time, we can come in and check it out tomorrow evening,” Vin suggested, trying to be the voice of reason. He looked to his younger brother in hopes of getting back up, but JD looked just as disappointed as their fathers. He found his case made, though, when his dad’s legs chose that moment to give out. Quickly, the two younger men were at his side, and led him to a nearby bench. “Yeah, you’re fine, Dad.”
“I’m just a little tired, give me a few minutes…” Chris tried, but realized quickly that he had lost the argument.
“I’ll go get the truck and bring it around,” JD offered, putting out his hand for the keys. A minute later he was jogging away from the other three men.
Ten minutes later, the two fathers in the back seat and their sons up front, the four person family was heading out of town. Vin had the stereo on, tuned to classic rock, which he and his brother had been raised on. At this time of year, the station was playing a lot of Christmas music, and all four of them began to sing along.
About half way home, the singing all seemed to be coming from the front seat. Glancing in the rearview mirror, Vin grinned. Canting his head toward the backseat, he said, “Check it out.”
JD glanced behind him, barely stifling a chuckle. In the backseat, both of their fathers were slumped in the seats, heads lolling to the side, as they drifted deeper into sleep.
Back at the ranch, Vin and JD woke their fathers and sent them into their rooms with orders to “get a nap, or no dessert tonight for grumpy dads!” Their fathers grumbled but shuffled off to their bedrooms. Meanwhile, JD went out to take care of the horses, while Vin started dinner.
Two hours later Buck came out of his room, freshly showered and in sweats and a tee shirt. A short time later dinner was ready but still no Chris. Somewhat concerned, Vin went to his dad’s room. Knocking on the door, he cracked it open and said softly, “Dad?”
“Think so. What time is it?” Chris asked around a jaw cracking yawn.
“Six. Dinner’s ready. I’m gonna turn the light on,” Vin announced before he hit the switch. He grinned at his father, sporting serious bed head and blinking owlishly, and said, “C’mon, Sleeping Beauty, before it gets cold.”
“Yeah, I learned from the best.”
“I need to talk to Buck about that.”
Laughing, Vin said, “riiiight. Need a hand up?”
“Not that old… yet,” Chris grumbled as he moved slowly, grunting as he sat up and then pushed himself up off the mattress. “I’ll be in, in a few.”
Watching as his father shuffled toward the bathroom, Vin said, “Okay, it’ll be on the table by the time you get in there.”
They ate another outstanding dinner provided by Vin; baked chicken with his own “special” coating, creamed sweet peas and a corn and red pepper dish that had all of them raving. Dinner rolls and sweet tea were there as well, and they each had another slice of the red velvet cake for dessert.
“You’re going to make someone a wonderful wife someday, Vin,” JD teased as he stuffed another fork full of cake in his mouth.
Vin’s arm raised and then quickly dropped as he looked guiltily at his father. Rather than giving his brother the salute he had considered, he simply said, “Don’t give up your day job, little brother.”
“Okay, boys, don’t leave us with no other option than to turn you over our knees.” Buck teased.
“Speak for yourself, Buck, not sure I could turn Vin over my knee even if I wanted to,” Chris said with a smile as he looked at the handsome young man who had become the child of his heart so many years ago. For a brief minute he could see the reed thin, tiny, frightened child who had stolen his heart with a single look.
“Oh… yeah, sorry. Just remembering.”
“Remembering what?” Vin asked.
“A little boy I met a long time ago.”
With a smile, Vin said, “You haven’t told us that story for a very long time, Dad.”
“Yeah, Chris. I don’t really remember much of anything from that long ago, but I remember looking up and seeing this… this big, scary looking guy, with a gun, standing over me.”
With a shuddering breath, Chris said, “I had nightmares about that minute for a very long time after that.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Me either,” Vin added.
With another deep breath, Chris said, “I think it was almost a year before I quit having those nightmares. I kept… I kept seeing…”
When it seemed that his old friend wouldn’t be able to finish, Buck took up the narrative. “In his dream, Chris saw himself shoot you, JD.”
“Really?” JD asked, shocked. “I’m sorry, Chris, I never knew. Know what I dreamed about, about that moment?”
Not certain he wanted to know, Larabee said hesitantly, “What?”
“I dreamed that this big, scary looking man with the gun turned into Superman. He picked me up in one arm and carried me with him to this dark looking castle. When he got there, he punched the door with one, big fist and knocked it down. Then, he reached in and grabbed Vin and cradled him in his other arm, and we flew off. Then, even better, there were four other superheroes that joined us, and we all flew away into the sky.”
The room was silent for a full minute before, in barely a whisper, Chris asked, “Really?”
“Yeah. Chris that was the best… the bestest… moment of my entire life!”
“I agree. I mean, I don’t remember much about you finding us but, later, when I woke up… God, Dad, I never dreamed that anyone but my Ma could ever care about me so much. Now… Dad, nobody has ever been more important to me, and nobody has ever made me feel more important.”
“Oh… damn…” Chris said, fiercely scrubbing at his face. Suddenly he found himself wrapped in a pair of strong arms.
Nearby, Buck was also embraced by his son, and his own tears rolled freely down his face.
Outside it began to snow.
December 29, 2016 (Thursday)
“Okay, the sledge is ready,” Vin announced as he and JD stomped into the kitchen from the mud room.
“Hot chocolate and coffee are in the thermoses, and the snacks are packed,” Buck stated as he placed the last thermos in the basket he had been loading down.
“Okay, we’re ready then.” Turning to his father, Vin asked, “you take your meds?”
“Yes, sir, I took my meds,” Chris replied with a roll of his eyes.
“Let’s go already!” JD excitedly.
The four of them were going into the hills to cut down a tree in preparation for their late Christmas celebration. The boys had gone to the neighbors to borrow the sledge and draft horses, wondering as they did, if they were all the same ones they had borrowed on that long ago day they had gone to chop down their first tree.
After some negotiation, the boys settled in the back just as they had every other year, while Buck drove the sledge through the pasture and up into the hills. The entire trip they were all discussing what type of tree they wanted to get this year… just as they did every other year.
Chris couldn’t help but smile. Turning to his old friend he saw that he was being observed. “Just like old times, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s for sure. I hope it never changes, either.”
Heaving a sigh, Chris said, “everything changes. One of these days they’re going to call another place home, and this will be “Dad’s place” and they’ll be bringing their wives and our grandkids with them.”
“Quit marrying me off, Dad!” Vin protested from behind them.
“Yeah, April might not like it…ow!” JD teased, yelping as his brother punched him in the shoulder.
“Don’t make me come back there!” Chris teased.
“I don’t care what else you do, but I am not old enough to be a grandpa!” Buck protested loudly. The discussion dissolved into laughter as the family continued on into the hills.
After a great deal of discussion the “perfect” tree was chosen and the two boys grabbed axes and saws and went to bring it down while their fathers supervised from their seats on the sledge.
They were nearly finished, when Vin heard his father attempting to stifle a cough, only to groan as the action caused him to pull on the healing knife wound. “Dad?”
“I’m… fine, Vin,” Chris replied breathlessly.
“Let’s hurry and get this sucker loaded,” he said to his brother, worried that things weren’t, indeed, fine.
Moving quickly, they finished cutting down the tree, the two young men dragged it to the sledge and muscled it onto the flat surface at the rear of the horse drawn vehicle.
Buck came back to supposedly help them tie it off, but said quietly, “I think we need to get the old man back home, the sooner the better.”
Nodding, Vin said, “Why don’t you talk him into getting into the back? We can get him wrapped up and the wind won’t be hitting him.”
“Easier said than done, but I think I can guilt him into minding,” Buck said with a grin and a wink as he started back toward the front of the big sled.
“Just don’t call him old man to his face,” Vin teased, earning a grin from his second father.
Finished securing the tree, Vin vaulted over the side into the back of the sledge, while JD started toward the front. Their intention was to make it impossible for Chris to disagree, but they smiled as they found him already climbing into the back. Vin grabbed up two of the heavier blankets and wrapped them around his father before he settled the still recovering man onto the straw padded floor of the sledge. Sitting beside his Dad, he wrapped an arm around the man’s shoulders, but simply sat there as the sled began to move.
By the time they reached the ranch house, Chris was dozing against his son’s shoulder, his rest broken by frequent coughing spells. Pulling up as close to the house as he could, Buck set the break, and the other three moved quickly to get the tree shifted enough to allow them to guide Chris off the back of the sledge. While Vin took his father inside, Buck and JD took care of the tree and returned the sledge and horses to their neighbor.
Vin guided his father through the mud room, pulling his coat and boots off before he moved through the house with a gentle hand on his father’s back. In the master bedroom he continued them both into the bathroom. There, he started the shower, filling the room up with steam and helping his Dad strip to his boxers. Leaving Chris alone then, he slipped out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
Tanner busied himself changing the bed linen on his father’s bed, airing the mattress, and tidying up the room while he waited for the man to emerge from the shower. When he did, towel wrapped around his slender waist, Vin checked the wound site, satisfied that it showed no sign of infection.
“Do I pass muster?”
“Yeah, looks like it. But I want you to go to bed and stay there until this evening.”
Setting his hands on his father’s broad shoulders, the younger man said, “Dad, you’re doing too much and I need you to slow down. A week ago I didn’t even…” he broke off as the emotions he felt welled up.
Looking deep into his son’s eyes, Chris said, “I’m sorry Vin, you’re right. Call me when you’re all ready to decorate the tree?”
“Will do.” Giving his father a quick hug, Vin started from the room, tossing over his shoulder, “and put some pants on, you don’t have enough butt to hold that towel up for too long.”
“Smart alack!” Chris yelled as the door closed.
“Okay, this is the last box,” Buck said, setting it on the floor of the great room. He looked up at the tree his sons had set up and whistled softly. “Looks darn good, boys. I think this one is the best one yet.”
“You say that every year, Da,” JD chuckled.
“So? Every year they get better!”
“It does look good, guys,” A soft voice came from behind them. The three men turned to see Chris scuffing into the room, a robe over tee shirt and sleep pants, his hair once more sticking up in several different directions. He dropped to the couch with a groan, scrubbing his hand over his hair and face.
“Thanks, Dad,” Vin said, grinning. “How’re you feeling?”
“Better,” Chris said, “honestly, a lot better. I think I just needed to get out of the cold and get some rest.”
“Good. Because the tree would look lousy without decorations and we weren’t going to decorate it without you.” JD grinned.
The young men began digging the decorations out, finding the lights, tightly coiled and neatly bagged the year before. Gone were the years of having to spend hours untangling the wires. Testing the lights, they found they only had to replace a light on one wire, a finding that was worth celebrating. They did so with cups of eggnog, ala Wilmington. Finishing, JD and Vin began winding the lights around the tree, arguing a few times over how much should be wound around a branch but, for the most part, concluding that part of the decorating without incident.
“Hey, I just realized that I don’t smell anything from the kitchen. Are we going to eat?” Chris asked.
“Dad!” Vin yelped, shocked. “It’s tree decorating evening, did you forget what that means?”
“Oh, right, how could I forget?”
Shaking his head, Buck muttered something that sounded like ‘old man’ but was saved from having to repeat himself when the front doorbell rang. A few minutes later he returned with four large pizza boxes and a drink holder of sodas. Vin had gone to the kitchen and returned with foam plates and a roll of paper towels. This was the ritual that they had begun so many years ago, and it meant home to the two younger men.
Buck put a CD of Christmas music on the stereo and lit the fireplace, while everyone dug into the boxes. Soon they were all eating and enjoying the music, which they interspersed with small talk. After the boys had eaten two or three pieces, they returned to the tree, placing the decorations on the fragrant branches. In the meantime, Chris stretched out on the couch, pulling the afghan off the back and shaking it out over himself. Buck settled in one of the recliners, both father’s content to watch and offer suggestions from time to time.
As the evening passed, the family was content to enjoy one another’s company. This was the homecoming they had dreamed of. Delayed perhaps, but just as happy.
December 30, 2016 (Friday)
“Are you sure you don’t mind, Vin?” JD asked.
“No, not at all. Actually I think it’s time you and Buck got out and had fun, just the two of you. And I’d like to have some time to just hang out with Dad. We’ll meet you at six for dinner and then we’ll go check out the Christmas display, I’d imagine there aren’t going to be a lot of crowds tonight.”
“Probably not, considering Christmas was five days ago,” JD smiled. “Okay, we’ve both got our cells if you need anything. Otherwise we’ll meet up with you guys at Tom’s Cafe.”
“Sounds good.” Vin watched as his younger brother and lifelong friend jogged out to Buck’s vintage pickup and climbing into the passenger seat; waving as father and son drove away. Turning and closing the door behind him, he looked around as he moved down the hallway, memories coming to him from almost every corner. Happy memories for the most part, of a life saved and made so much better by luck and a group of determined adults.
“Where are Buck and JD going?” Chris asked as they met up just outside his bedroom. He had gone to bed early the night before and felt much more rested. He was still coughing and knew that, every time he coughed, his son grew more worried. He’d taken a hot shower in hopes of loosening it up, but his chest still felt tight and painful, and he still felt chilled, but he didn’t share any of that with Vin. Instead, dressed in jeans and a Henley, he looked much more like his old self.
“They’re going into town to check out that new family sports place; it’s got rock climbing walls and a bungee drop, the whole nine yards.”
“Why didn’t you go with them?” Chris asked.
Shaking his head, Vin said, “Dad, I do that sort of stuff on a daily basis.”
“Guess it wouldn’t be that much fun, but can’t say that sitting around here with your old man would be a good time, either.”
“Well, you’d be wrong, and you aren’t an old man. Dad, I came home to see you and the rest of the family. I don’t need to be entertained.” Vin said softly. “I’d rather sit here and watch a movie with you than climb ten rock walls.”
“You’re gonna make your ol… your Dad cry, you keep that up,” Chris replied with a smile as he wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulders.
They moved into the kitchen and Vin shooed his father to the table while he moved around, preparing them breakfast. Buck and JD were going to grab something on the way into town, so it was just the two of them. Soon he was serving up breakfast burritos, hash browns and fresh fruit.
“I’m going to have to buy a new wardrobe if you keep feeding me like this,” Chris teased as he began to eat.
“It’s not like you won’t burn it off as soon as you get back up to speed,” Vin replied, adding with a wink, “Besides, Miss Nettie always said you could stand to gain a few pounds.”
“Ha. Ha. Ha.” Chris responded, uncharacteristically sticking his tongue out at his son.
They settled down and ate their breakfast, Chris putting his foot down and helping to clean up afterwards. Vin settled for rinsing off the dishes and cookware and filling the dishwasher, while his father wiped off counters and the table. Later they went out to the stable where Vin took care of the horses while his father “supervised” his work. Actually they chatted while Vin worked.
“So… your brother seems pretty curious about this… April? How’d he find out about her?” Chris asked.
Shaking his head and grinning even though he was also blushing, Vin said, “Gee, Dad, I certainly couldn’t see through that little… uh… discussion point, was it?”
“That obvious, huh?”
“Clear as glass.” Setting the hay rake down, Vin leaned back against the stall door and crossed his arms. Looking directly as his father, he said, “Her name is April Clarkson, she’s a native of Georgia. She’s about five foot nothing and might weigh 100 pounds with rocks in her pockets. Blonde, blue eyed, helps her mother take care of her father, who had a massive stroke last year, and keeps the family business, a day care, going. I met her at a party I went to with my friend Jake last year.”
“You’ve been seeing her for a year?” Chris tried not to feel hurt, but found it difficult to hear that his son hadn’t shared this information with him before.
“We were just friends until about two months ago. I used to go over and help out with the day care; mostly doing repairs and maintenance things for her and her mom. Her mom… I don’t know, I kind of like thinking that my Mom was like her.”
“What do you mean?” His hurt feelings quickly disappeared as his son talked.
“She’s real sweet, the kind of person you think of when you think of a “mom”. She cooks and bakes like crazy… and, yes, that’s where I picked up my cooking skills. She loves to hug you, loves to sit and listen to you when you need someone to talk to… just a real nice lady.”
“She sounds great.”
“Yeah, she is. Her name is Dora Mae, how’s that for a Southern sounding name?” When his father chuckled, Vin continued. “She hasn’t had it easy, that’s for sure. Especially not for the last two years. And, from what April’s told me, her dad wasn’t a very nice man before his stroke.”
“I’m not sure, she won’t talk a lot about it, just says that he wasn’t nice. Now, well, he can’t talk, can’t walk without help. They have assistance, people who come in and check on him every day, make sure he takes his medication and does his exercises, give him a shower, stuff like that. But otherwise, Mama D… that’s what everyone calls Mrs. Clarkson… and April take care of him.”
“They haven’t thought about a nursing home?”
“Yeah, he was in one for a couple months, but Mama D couldn’t stand it. I guess it wasn’t a very nice place and he didn’t get taken care of very well. So she arranged to have him brought home.”
Shaking his head, Chris said, “Sounds like a strong woman.”
“She is… they both are.”
“So… a couple months ago…”
With another chuckle, Vin said, “April and I went out to a movie, and we just sort of… well… Dad, I’m really not comfortable talking about that part of my life with you, okay?”
Nodding, Chris replied, “As long as you’re careful and responsible, I’ll never expect you to tell me anything you aren’t comfortable talking about.” They had had THE TALK about the time Vin entered middle school, and his son had always seemed to be very sensible when it came to young women and dating.
“Thanks, Dad.” Vin picked the rake back up and went back to work.
Buck couldn’t help but laugh as his son yelled at the top of his lungs while he bungeed from the tower, bouncing up and down like a yo-yo for a few minutes until he came to a stop. As soon as the flushed brunet was released from the harness he bounced over to his father.
“WOW! Da, that was awesome! You sure you don’t want to try it?”
“I don’t think I’m quite up to having my innards jarred and bounced around,” Buck replied.
“You’re gettin’ old, Da,” JD teased.
“Yeah, but I’m still a fine specimen of manhood,” Wilmington replied with a broad grin, splaying his hand over his chest.
“Okay, before it gets any deeper, I think I’m gonna go get my innards rattled one more time before we go to lunch.”
“Good idea, don’t think you’d want to do something like that after lunch!” Buck settled back on the bench he was sitting on, preparing to watch his son throw himself off the tower once again.
A short time later, father and son were sitting in the family fun center’s food court, sharing a lunch of fast food. JD moaned as he bit into a greasy, loaded, hamburger. “Oh, man, I have missed these!”
“I’m sure your arteries haven’t,” Buck teased as he took a bite of his chili fries.
“Ha. Ha. Look, Casey has me eating grass and seeds way too much. A guy’s gotta have protein for cryin’ out loud!”
Buck chuckled. “Sounds like she’s gettin’ you trained up pretty well.”
With a sigh, JD said, “I never know what she’s gonna do next, that’s for sure.”
“Think it’s ever gonna get any better between the two of you?”
Smiling broadly now, the young man said, “I doubt that it could. She’s the love of my life, Da!”
Buck could only smile in return. His son and Casey Wells had dated on and off since they were twelve, when they either saw one another on group dates, or Casey would accompany the family on an outing. Despite what JD had said, he knew that the young woman was the reason for the year’s delay in going to MIT. It was only after she had graduated and been accepted at Lesley that his son had headed for college. While he was involved in the Experimental Study Group program at MIT, she was going for a degree in Social Services, preparing to follow in her great aunt’s footsteps, “Yeah, well last time I talked to you before you came home, you said she drove you crazy and you were fighting every day.”
“Well, that’s part of the reason she’s doing her thing and I’m doing mine while we’re home. We thought maybe a little break would do us both some good.”
“Yeah? Sounds like a very mature decision the two of you came to.”
With a shrug, a blushing JD admitted, “Actually the other students in the ESG program suggested it and when I told her, Casey agreed.”
After father and son shared a laugh, they tossed their trash away, left the trays in their depository and headed back toward the gaming area. Now that JD had gotten a chance to climb the rock walls and bungee jump, they hit the arcade, where they challenged one another to several of the more active games and even took a turn at the electronic dance floor. Throughout it all, they spent more time laughing than focusing on the games, making memories that would sustain them much longer than remembering a winning score.
They took in the latest action movie in the late afternoon, leaving the theatre with just enough time to get to the little cafe and meet up with Chris and Vin. Together the four men took a seat at one of the ten tables in the dining area, relieved that they weren’t going to have to wait. Each ordered their favorite meal and dinner was filled with small talk and teasing, the latter primarily between the two younger men.
As they were waiting for dessert, insisted upon by the two boys, Chris noticed that his old friend had grown quiet. “Buck?”
JD and Vin stopped talking and they, too, were drawn to where the brunet sat. Buck was simply sitting there, staring at nothing, his cup of coffee half way between the table and his mouth. Fortunately he had almost finished it, as his hand was trembling. Chris reached out and took the cup gently, setting it on the table. The action drew the bigger man’s attention, and he frowned as he saw that he was the object of scrutiny.
“Da, are you alright?” JD asked, his voice filled with concern.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
“You seemed to be somewhere else,” Chris explained.
“Really?” Dark brows drew together as he frowned. “I… I don’t know what to say, I… huh, I don’t know.”
“It’s another symptom of ASD,” Vin said softly. “You just sort of check out.”
“When’s your next appointment with Will?”
“Tomorrow morning,” JD supplied.
“Guess I’ll have something to talk to him about, huh?” Buck said, trying and failing to smile.
Reaching out and clasping his father’s shoulder, JD said, “Maybe we should just go on home.”
“No! Seriously, I’m okay. We‘ve been planning to go see the light display too long, we’re going to go.”
Managing a grin, Chris agreed, “We’re going to go, then.”
The quartet entered the zoo a short time later, Vin making sure that his father was well bundled up. Soon, however, the two young men seemed to disappear, being replaced by a pair of tiny, giggling children. The four of them had made it a yearly ritual to come to see the light display during every holiday season. Even during those difficult teen years that were often filled with rebellion and sullen boys, they couldn’t resist the lure of the display. Vin and JD went from one creation to the next, joyfully nudging and poking at one another as they argued over which lighted creation was the best.
Chris and Buck couldn’t help but laugh as they watched their sons antics. They spent their time reminiscing over those years, celebrating their lives with their sons. Despite the cold and their still battered bodies, they couldn’t help but enjoy the trip.
It was only when the display was closing down for the evening that the family left the zoo. As they were heading toward the parking lot, Chris was once more hit with a coughing spell that had him doubled over and groaning in pain. He quickly had Vin on one side of him and JD on the other, supporting him, while Buck went for the truck.
“Damn it, Dad, I knew you were gonna overdo it,” Vin protested.
“Watch your… mouth,” Chris scolded, his voice little more than a wheeze.
“Well, I’m sorry, but… damn it, no I’m not!”
“Take it easy, bro,” JD soothed. “I think what he’s trying to say, Chris, is that you scare him when you overdo like this.”
“Yeah… thanks,” Vin rolled his eyes, but smiled at his younger brother.
Buck was back with the truck in a very brief time, and they got Chris into the backseat. Vin crawled in beside his father, while JD took the shotgun seat. Wilmington looked over the seat and said in a serious tone, “I think we need to take you to the ER and have you checked out, Stud.”
“Buck, I’m…” Chris sighed when he could feel the emotions radiating from the son sitting beside him. In a resigned tone, he said, “Yeah, okay.”
The trip to the ER was relatively quick. They ran several tests, and detected pneumonia in Chris’ left lung. The doctor felt that, even with his recent injuries, he was well enough to go home as long as he wasn‘t alone. JD took the prescription for Levaquin to the pharmacy located in the lobby area to fill it, while Buck went to get the truck. Vin stayed in the little room with his father, helping him get dressed, seeing how worn out he was.
With a shrug, Chris said, “All of this.”
With a smile, Vin said, “Well, at least you’re not staying this time.”
“Good thing, too, since we’re going to have a housefull of people tomorrow. And I think that, if we’d had to postpone the gathering again, Nate and Raine would have shot me and Buck. Their kids are chomping at the bit to come out to the ranch for the “BIG holiday”.”
Just then a nurse came in with a wheelchair and Vin took it from her with a smile and a nod. Chris couldn’t help but see the impact his son had on the young woman, who blushed and giggled as she left the room. Without an argument he dropped tiredly into the seat, and let his son push him from the room.
“Well,” Vin said lightly, “Let’s go get ready for tomorrow’s onslaught then!”
December 31, 2016 (Saturday)
Chris came into the great room to find his son reading the paper, but no sign of the others. “Morning.”
“Morning, Dad.” Vin looked up from the paper, a serious expression lightening up as he smiled at his father. “Hungry?”
“A little, but I can just get some cereal or something. Go ahead and read the paper.” Chris padded on through to the kitchen, where he grabbed a bowl and a packet of oatmeal. Adding water he put it in the microwave and turned to find his son watching him. Shaking his head, he said, “No wonder they want you for special ops.”
Vin smiled but said nothing, slouching down in a chair and crossing his arms loosely across his lean stomach. He watched as his father poured a cup of coffee and then carried everything to the table where he sat the cup and bowl down and then dropped to a chair himself. He gave his son a frown as he picked up a spoon.
“What?” Vin asked.
“Are you going to watch my every move?”
Seeing he wasn’t going to get any more of an answer, Larabee changed the subject. “Buck at his appointment?”
“Yeah, JD went with him.” Looking at his watch, Vin said, “He should be going in about now.”
“Good morning, Buck.”
“Morning, Will. Thanks for seeing me today. I mean, a Saturday, and New Years Eve? Either you‘re a very dedicated man, or I‘m in bad shape.”
“Have a seat.” The psychologist said non-commitally. Then, once they had both settled in the slightly worn chairs, he asked, “How are you feeling today?”
Shrugging, Buck said, “Physically, not bad. Still got a lot of aches and pains, but nothing that won’t heal. But I guess you’re not interested in my physical health.”
“Well, I am, as it’s part of your overall health, but I am more interested in your psychological health. Have you had any further problems related to the abduction?”
“Yeah,” Buck admitted, filling the doctor in on the incident the evening before.
“Okay, well, this is pretty typical considering the situation. Do you remember anything of what was going on in your mind just before Chris got your attention?”
The room was silent for several minutes before Buck shook his head and said quietly, “No, not really.”
“That’s alright, Buck I don’t want you to become too stressed out about this. You could have more incidents like this, but it’s not for certain.”
“How long is this going to go on?” Buck asked with a sigh.
“Hopefully not long. Are you taking the medications I prescribed?”
“Yeah, JD isn’t about to let me forget them.” Both men smiled at that comment.
“Good, but make sure you continue to take them after he leaves for Boston.”
Shaking his head, Buck said, “I expect him to call me every evening to make certain I do.”
“Good. Are you guys getting the chance to enjoy the holidays?”
“Yeah, other than the fact that me and Chris are a mess. Chris is home with pneumonia right now.”
“Yeah, neither of us is happy with the fact that our sons are spending their time home looking after us.”
“I can only imagine you’re feeling a lot of things. Care to elaborate?”
Buck shrugged. “About what you’d expect. We hate that the boys are having to look after us. We had all these great plans, and we’ve had to curtail a lot of them because of what happened.”
The room was silent once more as Will allowed Buck the chance to process his feelings more fully. After nearly five minutes the silence became uncomfortable for the big brunet and he began to speak once more.
“If that snot-nosed little… how could he do that to us? We trusted him… gave him a job… and he… damn him!” The room resonated with anger as he began to vent his anger toward Coby. “He fooled us all. He and JD, they hung around for a year… they were inseperable. What if he’d tried something? What if he’d done something to JD? What if that little bastard had hurt my son?!”
“What if he had hurt JD?” Will asked.
“I’d have killed him!”
Buck sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know. I… I’d want to… but I don’t know. I’m trained to be a professional… I wouldn’t want to do something that would go against that. But I’m not a professional any longer. I… I’m a father, damn it, and I promised to keep JD safe. JD and Vin, both… but JD’s my son. What if Coby had hurt him? I just… I don’t know.”
“But Coby didn’t hurt JD, Buck. He hurt Chris… he and his sister hurt you, abducted you… they talked about letting you die…”
“He and that crazy sister of his… yeah, they were just going to let me die in some twisted version of justice… they’d have let me die without a chance to say good-bye… without a chance to let JD, Vin and Chris know how much it’s meant to me, to be part of this family of ours for the last fifteen years. The holidays would have been ruined… they weren’t going to hurt me, not really.”
“They did hurt you.” Will pointed out.
“Yeah, I know. They could have killed me, but it wouldn’t have hurt me… it would have hurt my son… my family. That’s not acceptable, damn it!”
“What are you angriest about, Buck?” the doctor asked, watching his patient’s face as the emotions flowed over it.
“All of it, damn it! They conned us, damn near killed us, and I couldn’t stop any of it!”
“You felt helpless.”
“Hell yes, I felt helpless! I promised to keep JD safe… I’ve been there for Chris since we were SEALs together. I’m supposed to be the one that’s looking out for them and they locked me in that damned box and left me helpless! I couldn’t do a damn thing… couldn’t be there for my family! A man should be there for his family, not sitting in some box!”
“That was the hardest part, wasn’t it, Buck? The others, they think that you’re upset because you came close to sacrificing yourself for Chris, but to you, that’s not the worst thing. The worst of it was that you couldn’t fill your role.”
Wiping a hand across his face, tears of shame and anger rolling unabashedly, Buck shrugged. “I guess… I mean… I don’t know.”
“Could it be that you feel that your worth depends on your ability to protect those you care about?”
“A man is supposed to take care of those he loves.”
“Even if it means he sacrifices himself?”
Buck frowned. “Yeah… if it comes to that. I mean, I don’t want to die any more than the next guy, I don’t have some kind of a death wish… not like Chris had right after Sarah and Adam died. I mean, he was --”
With a small smile, Will said, “Don’t change the subject, Buck.”
Brought up short, Buck said, “I wasn’t, I…”
“You were getting too close to talking about what’s bothering you. Can I ask you something?”
Hesitantly, Wilmington said, “I guess… I mean that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
“Had you made peace with dying?”
“You were in an impossible position. Locked in “a box” as you call it, with no way out and no way to get word to your family. You were sitting there for hours… days… with nothing but your own thoughts and your captors voices, as they discussed killing you. Had you made peace with dying?” He repeated his question.
“I gave up! Okay? Is that what you want to hear? I gave up! I couldn’t find a way out. I thought Chris was dead. I figured JD and Vin had come home to find that they were going to have to bury their fathers! And I couldn’t change that! Damn it, even when Ezra and the others overtook the camp and rescued me… all I could think about was that I was going to die. It took me hours before I stopped thinking about dying… to start believing that I was gonna live. I gave up!”
“No you didn’t.” Will’s voice was quiet, barely over a whisper.
“What? Yes I did. I gave up… I was ready to die.”
“You did what any sane person in a situation like that would do. You came to terms with the possibility that you weren’t going to survive your captivity. You recognized that you had tried every way possible to escape, but there was nothing you could do. Buck, you did not give up.”
Wilmington considered the words for a few moments before responding. “So, you’re saying that I what… accepted my fate?”
“Prepared yourself to accept a very hard fate would be a better way of looking at it.”
“But, I should have known…”
“Known what?” Lowery asked when it didn’t seem that his patient was going to finish his thought.
“That the others… Ezra… that they’d find me. I didn’t have faith.”
“So, what kept you from having the faith in your friends that you feel you should have had?”
“I don’t know, Doc, I really don’t know.” Wilmington shook his head, then buried his face in his hands.
“In your reality at that moment, Chris was dead and your sons were going to be devastated to find themselves without fathers. The plans you’d made for their homecoming had been destroyed by the people who were threatening to kill you. Just where were you getting any sort of feedback that things were going to end any other way but badly? I‘m not discounting faith here, Buck, but at some point any realistic man is going to surrender to the thought that things are not going to go their way. And you are nothing if not a realistic man.”
Again several minutes passed in silence. Buck stared out the window at the snowy landscape, his hands closing and opening and the muscles in his jaw twitching as he considered the words.
Then, a few more tears trailed down his face, glistening in his mustache. “I… yeah… maybe. You think?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think, I’m just offering a suggestion.”
“Thanks, Doc… so I’ve got to figure it out myself?”
“You have a lot of experience with therapy, what do you think?”
Suddenly Buck found the entire conversation surreal and he began to laugh until the tears that rolled down his handsome face were from something bordering on hysteria. Just as the psychologist was preparing to intervene with a suggestion for medication, he calmed, coughing as he tried to regain control. Catching his breath, he said, “Sorry, Doc. It’s just… suddenly it’s all falling in place. You’re right, I know you are. But…”
“You don’t feel any better. Perhaps you even feel a little worse?”
Nodding, Buck reached out a hand before him. “It’s like, it’s right there. I can see it, I can recognize it… I can believe it. But I can’t really… feel it, I guess.”
Will nodded. “I wouldn’t expect it to all come together right away.” Will leaned forward. “Buck, it’s really not that simple, we’ve still got work to do. But this is definitely a very big step in the right direction.”
Vin looked up from the preparations he was making for the evening’s festivities as Buck and JD entered the fragrant kitchen. One look at Buck told him that the session had been rough. Without a word, he pulled a beer from the refrigerator and twisted off the cap before handing it to the older man. Buck took it and favored him with a smile and a nod before heading for his room.
Behind him, JD scuffed to the table and dropped wearily to a chair. “What can I do to help?”
“Sit there and relax for a while, I’ve got it under control,” Vin replied. “Was it that bad?”
Shaking his head the brunet said, “I can’t remember a time when Da looked so worn out and fragile as when he walked out of Dr. Will’s office.”
“Think it did any good?”
“Da said it did, but that he’s got at least three more sessions.”
“Well, if anyone can bring him out of this, Dr. Will can,” Vin stated with the utmost confidence. Both boys had come to rely on and respect the man over the years.
Other than coming to the kitchen for a light lunch, fathers stayed in their rooms, voicing only token offers to help prepare for the evening’s festivities. They complied with their sons directives to go back to bed to rest, so that they would be able to enjoy the upcoming “BIG Holiday”. Vin continued preparing a variety of dishes, while JD was left with the cleaning and caring for the horses.
By six night had fallen, bringing more snow with it. The two young men stood at the front window, watching as pairs of headlights moved slowly up the long drive. They identified each vehicle as it pulled up to the garage.
“There’s Uncle Nathan, Aunt Raine and the kids.” Vin said with a smile.
“Better hide the breakables!” JD joked at their younger cousins expense. Just a few yards behind, he identified the battered Suburban, “Uncle ‘Siah.”
“Casey and Miss Nettie are coming with him, right?” Vin asked.
“Yeah.” Then as the final pair of headlights bounced into view, JD said, “Wow, Uncle Ezra’s actually on time!”
“Whoa, somebody call the Post! It’ll be front page news in the morning!”
Just then the doorbell rang and Vin moved over to open it, greeting the three Jackson children. Ethan was the first to enter, carrying a stack of presents.
“Hey, kiddo,” Vin greeted the teen, “You need some help?”
“Nah, I got it,” the fourteen year old grumbled in typical teen fashion.
“He’s been grumpy the whole trip!” Isabella, his eleven year old sister informed them as she came in, carrying a slightly smaller stack of gifts. These she handed to JD while she threw her arms around Vin and gushed, “I’ve missed you!”
“I’ve missed you, too, Izzy,” Vin admitted, gently extracting himself from the pre-teen’s embrace. He had dealt with her crush on him since she was five and he, himself, was eleven.
JD handed her back the stack of gifts, patted her on the head with a grin, and pointed her toward the great room. He turned just as the youngest Jackson came into the foyer. “Hey, Noah!”
“Hey, JD!” The nine year old replied with a big grin, his child’s voice ringing through the foyer. “I’m glad you came home, I’ve missed you!”
“Missed you, too, little buddy,” JD tossed the child over his shoulder and galloped through the house toward the great room.
“No running!” Raine called out as she entered the room, followed closely by her husband. Both of them carried covered dishes. She hugged Vin and asked, “How are Chris and Buck doing? Are you sure they’re going to be up for this?”
“I think it’ll do them good, they need a little normal in their lives.”
“I don’t think having our trio in the house qualifies for ‘normal’,” Nathan Jackson’s deep voice shook with glee.
“We’ll keep them in line,” Josiah’s voice, even deeper, rumbled as he entered the room as well, accompanied by Nettie Wells. He carried a large stack of gifts, while Nettie carried two covered dishes.
“Oh, Miss Nettie, is one of those your sugar cookies?” Vin’s voice was hopeful, with hints of the little orphan boy he had once been in his tone.
“No, honey, sorry,” the social worker replied. Then, when she saw his face, she relented and said, “They both are. One for tonight and one for tomorrow.”
Vin’s face broke into a broad grin and he gleefully took the dishes from her. “I’ll just go put these in the kitchen… for later.”
“There are two dozen and one cookies in each dish, sweetheart,” Nettie called after him, knowing that he would recognize that the extra in each dish had been made for him specially.
“Hi, Miss Nettie!” JD greeted the older woman as he came back into the entry way. He was quickly across the room, embracing her.
“Hello, John Dunne.” She tried to look at him with a firm expression, but it quickly softened as she looked into those wide, hazel eyes. “How are you, dear?”
“I’m fine. Where’s Case?”
“Right here!” Casey Wells entered the house, carrying four dishes and two plastic bags, bulky with more goodies. “And I’d love some help, thanks!”
JD was at her side quickly, grabbing the dishes in one arm and holding out the other, hugging his long-time girlfriend. Kissing her on the temple, he said, “How was the ski trip?”
“Great!” Casey replied, both of them ignoring the fact that they hadn’t been able to keep from calling one another almost every evening. Together the couple moved on through the house.
“Excuse me, might I enter? It’s a bit cold out here.”
Josiah turned and grinned, waving the smaller man into the home that had so often been their gathering place. “Well, then, get in here.”
Chris entered the great room, dressed in sweats, freshly showered and only the lingering pallor of illness suggesting that he was less than 100%. He smiled as he found the others, with the exception of his partner and housemate, already gathered there, enjoying snacks and eggnog or cider. “I thought I heard the rumble of a crowd in here.”
“Uncle Chris!” Izzy called out with a smile from where she was sitting near Vin. Then she frowned as she asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Chipmunk,” Chris smiled at the young girl, using his special nickname for her.
Rolling her big, brown eyes, the young girl protested, “I’m not a chipmunk anymore, Uncle Chris!”
Grinning, the blond said, “You’ll always be my Chipmunk, little girl.”
Before she could say anything more, Vin said, “Forget it, Izzy, he never gives up a nickname.”
“That’s right, Cowboy,” Larabee winked as he eased his aching body into his recliner with a soft groan.
“Are you taking care of yourself?” Nathan asked.
“Yes, I’m taking care of myself… and I have a very diligent nursemaid, too. Where’s Buck?”
“He hasn’t come out of his room, yet,” JD said. “I’ll go check on him.”
Buck lay on his back, head resting on folded arms, staring at the ceiling. He sighed when he heard the soft tap on his door; he knew it would come at some point during the evening. “Come on in.”
JD entered the room, a slight smile on his face. “Hey, Da, just wanted to let you know that everyone’s here.”
“Kind of hard not to hear the passing herd.”
“You gonna come out and join us?” The young man’s voice was tentative and hopeful.
“Been trying to decide that,” Buck admitted. Sitting up, he said, “Wasn’t certain how good an idea that would be.”
“Because… well, I’m not exactly on the top of my game.”
“Da, listen, nobody expects you to be on the top of your game. We just want you to be with us. It’s our Christmas, after all… you know… the time when family should be together. The time for sharing and caring… the time for…”
“Okay, okay!” Buck said, holding his hands in surrender. “Stop, already! Give me about ten minutes to get cleaned up and I’ll be out there.”
Grinning, JD simply said, “Good.”
Fifteen minutes later, Buck was sitting in his recliner, Noah Jackson sitting on the chair arm beside him. Until he was six he loved sitting in the big man’s lap but, around the age of seven, he declared himself “too big” for that. The group of friends who had become a family so many years ago sat making small talk. The children reported on their school semester, even Ethan becoming animated as he talked about his work on his school’s basketball team.
Vin had disappeared into the kitchen, where he was warming some of the food he had prepared and checking on the dishes their guests had brought. He returned to the gathering and announced that everything was ready, if they were ready to eat.
The adults found seats at the dining room table, while the three youngest sat at the kitchen table, which had been pulled closer so they didn’t feel completely isolated from the rest of the party. The conversation waxed and waned as everyone passed the platters, bowls and plates of food around. The air was filled with such wonderful aroma that they found themselves eating more than they would have normally. Finally getting their fill, they adjourned back to the family area, Raine, Casey and Isabella volunteering to clean up and put away.
After the others had settled in front of the big screen television, Ezra produced the newest released, child-friendly movie. Everyone relaxed and enjoyed the movie, laughter ringing through the room, the three women joining them when they had finished cleaning up. Vin and JD exchanged a couple of amused looks when they found their former social worker sitting very close to their Uncle Josiah. Casey had shared with her boyfriend that the two of them had been seeing one another for the last few months, and JD shared that news with Vin. Both young men were thrilled that, after years of flirting with one another, the two of them had finally gotten together.
As the ending credits appeared, the gathering began to stir. Stepping into his role of leader, Chris said, “Well, I think it’s about time we started unwrapping some of that stuff under the tree. It’s been there so long I’m sure a lot of it is covered with dust by now!”
“Hey, I’ll have you know that I dusted everything today!” JD protested, bringing a round of laughter from the others.
JD and Casey produced a Santa and an Elf hat, donned them, and began passing out the gifts. When each person had a gift, they all unwrapped them, admiring each object and thanking the giver. The ritual was repeated over and over; the children receiving a few more gifts than the adults, but everyone having a wonderful time looking over their own gifts as well as those given to others.
Buck happened to look at the clock that ticked away over the fireplace, announcing to the others, “Hey, it’s 11:30!”
“Wow, Christmas went fast,” JD teased, “And it’s New Year’s Eve already!”
“Don’t quit college and take that act on the road,” Vin retorted, “You’ll never make it!”
“Well, I say we get the fireworks set up and ready to go off,” Nathan said, nodding to his children. “These three have been going crazy all week, wanting to set something off.”
“Are the horses bedded down?” Chris asked his sons.
“Yeah, I got them taken care of before everyone arrived,” JD assured him; they all knew that fireworks and horses weren’t a good mix.
The gathering bundled up, Nathan and his children hurrying out to their SUV and returning with two boxes of fireworks. Everyone went out into the pasture, away from trees and other obstructions. Vin never strayed far from his father, wanting to make certain that the cold air didn’t become too much for Chris, even if he was bundled to the hilt, including a thick scarf that covered his mouth and nose.
At 11:45, the fireworks began; Nathan taking care of the pyrotechnic display with Ethan’s help, while Izzy and Noah were sent, grumbling, to join the others. Everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ as reds, greens, golds, silvers, purples, blues and whites exploded in the air far above their heads. Then, just as their personal display ended in a grand finale, it was joined by other explosions that rang throughout the countryside and echoed from the hills and mountains beyond.
At 12:05 the gathering had returned to the house; only JD and Casey staying behind, allegedly to make sure there was nothing smoldering in the pasture. Vin quietly promised his father that he’d return later to double check, and would make sure there was nothing in the pasture that could harm the horses before they were let out of the barn in the morning. In the meantime he was focused on making certain that his father was alright; certain that he’d heard a few, stifled, coughs during the fireworks.
Removing their outerwear and boots, they all gathered back in the living area, the fireplace providing the room with much needed warmth. Both Chris and Buck grumbled when Vin flipped a fleece throw over each of them, but neither removed it. Raine sent the three youngest off to get into their nightclothes, while she and Nathan went to the kitchen to put together the snacks for their party. It had been a tradition that, while the adults had a late night party, the children had their own party. They would be upstairs, using Vin and JD’s common room to watch anything they wanted, as long as it met with parental standards. In the meantime the adults would be downstairs, enjoying hot toddies, music and companionship. It was also tradition that everyone stayed at the ranch for the night, to avoid late night holiday traffic that might be far from sober.
Vin hovered over his father for a few minutes to make certain that his foray outside hadn’t aggravated his respiratory problems, then went to help prepare the snacks for the adults.
Soon the old friends were relaxing with drinks and snacks, listening to Chris' newest jazz CD and reminiscing. Laughter, anger, regret, love and camaraderie were all evident in their voices as they talked about their time in the ATF. Vin was like a specter padding through the house from time to time, as he went from overseeing the party upstairs to checking on his father and his second father. Finally, after a grumbled comment from Chris about his hovering, he accepted a drink and settled near the fireplace. There he listened to some of the stories that were shared, corrected, retold and disputed by the five men he had loved and admired for most of his life. He didn’t even notice when Raine spread a blanket over him, as he drifted off to sleep surrounded by his family.
Dawn was a whisper of light peeking through the curtains when Chris was jerked awake by a coughing fit. He rolled to his side, curling in on himself as the spasms shook his body. By the time it subsided, he was covered in perspiration and tears rolled from pain-filled eyes, his body trembling with fatigue. Suddenly someone was there, wiping his face and offering him a drink of water. Sighing as he settled back on the bed, he looked up into his son’s face. With a weary smile, he said, “thanks.”
Vin smiled in return and nodded, waiting as his father’s eyes closed and his breathing evened out. With a relieved sigh, he moved across the room and settled onto the chaise lounge that sat in one corner, shook the quilt lying there out, and covered himself. Snuggling into the deep cushions that smelled of cigars and his father’s cologne, he drifted back off to sleep.
January 1, 2017 (Sunday)
It was nearly noon before the gathering began to stir. While Nettie and Josiah fixed brunch for everyone, JD went to check on his father. He knocked quietly but heard nothing. Waiting a minute, he knocked again, then repeated it twice more, in case Buck was in the bathroom. When he heard nothing, he eased the door open, peering into the darkened room. “Da?”
There was a figure in the bed, he could see, but still no response. Fighting down a growing fear that something was very wrong, he padded across the room, repeating, “Da?”
Reaching the bed, he found his father curled on his side, almost in a fetal position. Dark, blue eyes were opened, staring at nothing. Fear nearly overcoming him, JD leaned over, trying to catch the other man’s gaze. “Da? Please, answer me.”
A blink. Two. Then, quietly, “I’m sorry, JD.”
“Sorry about what?”
“All of it. Sorry I’m not… not your Da right now. Sorry that you’re having to look after me. Babysit me.”
“Da, I don’t care about any of that. Don’t you know that the only important thing for me is that you’re here to celebrate the holidays with us? Damn it, Da, stop blaming yourself, okay? Nothing else matters right now. You‘re here and safe; nothing means more to me.”
The only response was a choked sob. Uncertain what else to do, JD simply sat at his father’s back and began to rub his quivering shoulders, just as his father had done for him so many times. Then, unconsciously, he began to sing, a song his Da had sung to him many times when he was a child.
Young as a circus parade, it's a wonderful world
Pretty as pink lemonade, it's a wonderful world
Life is a carnival, live it for all your worth
You are the star of the greatest show on earth
This big wide world is a clown with his nose painted red
A rainbow colored balloon's dancing high overhead
It's everyone's oyster, step up get your pearl
It's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful world
This big wide world is a clown with his nose painted red
A rainbow colored balloon's dancing high overhead
It's everyone's oyster, step up get your pearl
It's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful world
It's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful world
“Yeah, I promise, Izzy, I’ll send you that stuff for your presentation, as soon as I get back to base,” Vin called out as the Jackson family left for home.
They had enjoyed the brunch, although neither Chris nor Buck had joined them. JD had come from his father’s room, his expression neutral, but Vin could read the pain he was trying to hide. Without a word he fixed his little brother a plate and pointed him toward the empty seat next to Casey. Then he fixed a plate, covered it, and placed in in the refrigerator, next to the plate he’d already fixed for his father.
After brunch the gathering began to disperse. Josiah and Nettie left for the shelter, where they were overseeing a New Years Day party later in the afternoon. Ezra left for home, explaining that he had plans to fly to New Orleans to visit his mother and step-father, still shocked that they
remained married after so many years. Finally, getting their children and all their belongings and gifts gathered up, the Jackson family left the ranch.
Casey stayed behind to help put the house to rights, while Vin and JD first went to care for the horses, and then returned to the house to see to their fathers. Walking down the hallway together, Vin went to Chris’ room, while JD continued on to Buck’s.
Knocking softly, Vin entered his father’s room, then frowned when he saw the bed empty. “Dad?” He called out as he stepped toward the bathroom. There was no response. Puzzled, he stepped back out into the hall, where he found JD standing outside Buck’s room, motioning to him. He quickly moved to join his younger brother.
“Chris is in there with Da,” JD explained as the other young man joined him. “Sounds like they’re hashing some stuff out.”
Nodding, Vin focused his attention on the voices coming from the room. From time to time he and JD exchanged looks, as they tried to decide if they needed to intervene or not.
“Damn it, Buck, you need to let this go!” Chris’ voice rang out.
“Let it go? Let it go!? How the hell am I supposed to let this go, Chris?” Buck yelled back. “You could have died. I should have found a way to… to…”
“To what, Pa? Take them out and save me at the same time? You’re what… super human now? Damn it, Buck, the only one blaming you for anything is you!”
“I thought we were supposed to be supportive,” JD growled.
“Sh. You know how they are, give Dad a little more time, nothing else is working, is it?” Vin asked.
Not thrilled about the prospect of allowing the argument to continue, JD nonetheless stayed quiet.
“You said it yourself, you went with them because otherwise they would have killed me,” Chris continued.
“I should have tried harder to get away. Damn it, Chris, there had to have been some way for me to get away from them. I missed something.”
“You missed dying. You missed getting me killed. You missed… are you even listening?”
“Yes,” Buck’s voice was soft; tired.
“Damn it, Buck,” Chris said, his own voice trembling now. “You’ve been closer to me than a brother for most of my life. It would have ripped a hole in my gut if… if you hadn’t survived this. You’re the one who helped me survive after Sarah and Adam died, and you’re the only one I would have wanted beside me to raise the boys. You’re the best person I’ve ever known, Buck Wilmington, and I cannot stand it that you’re blaming yourself for what happened.”
“No, I mean it. You’re the only one that thinks you have any fault in what happened. Please, for my sake, for the boys, but mostly for yourself… forgive yourself.”
The two boys looked at one another, tears in their own eyes as they listened to the exchange. Then they barely had time to get down the hall before Chris exited the room.
Chris entered the great room to find the two young men sitting on the couch, discussing something they were watching on television. He didn’t miss the fact that they were slightly flushed from their dash down the hall. He chuckled, but didn’t say anything about it. Instead he asked, “Is there anything to eat around here? I’m starving.”
Chris was sitting at the kitchen table, eating the plate of food that Vin had saved back for him earlier. Vin, JD and Casey had joined him, munching on fruit and drinking hot cocoa while they discussed their plans for the rest of the visit. They were all leaving the day after tomorrow, early in the morning; JD and Casey for Boston and Vin for Georgia.
“Dad, seriously, I can call my CO. He said that he’d get a longer extension approved if I was needed here.” Vin was doing his best to convince his father that he should stay home another week.
“Vin, seriously,” Chris echoed, “I’m okay. Nathan and Raine have both offered to come by every day until the pneumonia’s cleared up. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment next week for a follow up. I promise, I’m going to just be quiet and let the world go by.”
“I’ll believe that about the time pigs start flyin’,” Vin groused. “What about the horses?”
“I called Yosemite yesterday. He’s got a hand that needs some extra work, so he’s going to send him over to meet us tomorrow.”
“He knows him well?” JD asked, frowning in concern.
“Yeah, it’s his nephew. He’s newly married and they’re expecting a baby, so he needs extra income. Yosemite says he’s a good worker, and I trust his judgment.”
“Okay,” the younger man said in a relieved tone.
With a hint of a smile, Chris said, “Don’t worry, JD, we’re not going to hire anyone new without a serious background check. I’ve already got one under way for this kid.”
“It pays to have contacts, huh?” Vin asked, with a grin.
“You’ve got that right. I trust Yosemite, but anyone can be fooled, especially when it‘s someone you‘re close to.”
“Amen to that,” Casey chimed in, leaning against JD and rubbing his arm as she laid her head on his shoulder.
“So, as much as I love having you home, Vin, I want you to know that I’ll be fine.”
“And so will I.”
They all turned to find Buck entering the kitchen, showered and dressed, looking more like his old self than he had since this had all begun. JD grinned and left the table, retrieving the plate they had put aside for his father and popping it into the microwave. Casey rose and poured him a cup of coffee, while Buck dropped to one of the chairs at the table with a sigh. A few minutes later he was digging into the plate of food with a hunger he hadn’t shown for days.
Vin took Casey home a short time later, after she and JD seemed to be headed for an argument. He returned to find the other three men in the great room, sitting in front of the television, watching ESPN. He joined them for a while, but then sat up and said, “Shoot, I just remembered something!” The others watched him jog from the room, glancing at one another with curious looks. A few minutes later he was back down, carrying a large, wrapped object and a box. These he carried to the coffee table.
“What on earth?” Buck asked.
“I found this,” he indicated the box, “When I was shopping for Christmas gifts back in Georgia, and it seemed like the perfect thing to bring home.”
When he uncovered the large object, the others smiled. It was the puzzle tray they had used then Vin and JD were children. When their lives had gotten so busy that puzzle making became a thing of the past, he and Gloria Potter had made a cover for the tray they used to keep the pieces contained while the puzzle was in progress. It had been a very important activity during his childhood, and Vin wanted to make certain that the tray was well taken care of.
JD quickly removed the things from the coffee table, and they settled the large, Plexiglas tray on its surface. Next Vin showed them the picture on the lid of the puzzle box; it was a scenic view in Georgia, with a mountain as the main focus. Vin informed them that it was Stone Mountain, pointing out the engraving of Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee on the face of the mountain. He told them a little about his visit to the attraction, with April, while they opened the box and shook the pieces out onto the tray. JD and Vin sat on the floor, while their fathers sat on the couch. Each face held a smile as memories of sitting together came to each of them; young sons and younger fathers, digging through the cut pieces of cardboard, looking for just the right piece to add to the puzzle. From time to time one of them would make a comment, most of them beginning with “do you remember…?” and the quartet would break out in laughter, or sigh over a more poignant memory. They remembered the horse puzzle that had begun it all and the puzzle of a glacier they had worked when ten-year-old Vin had had his heart broken for the first time. They remembered the puzzle of the eagle they’d put together while Buck was recovering from injuries after being in a wreck. They remembered them all, and the stories that went with each one. All of them had been chosen with care; put together with care. Each one still hung, mounted and framed, around the house.
Life was a puzzle, and all the pieces changed as time went by. But the pieces made up of the four men and their friends would always fit together in the end.
January 30, 2011