Brothers Larabee

by Phyllis

Alternate Universe

They manhandled the bike into the truck. With JD in back balancing the bike on its center stand and Vin following, Buck slowly drove to the motorcycle shop. They had to order a new engine cover because the bike was the latest model and they did not have the parts on stock yet. After buying tie downs to secure the bike, they headed out of town and were soon turning onto a dirt road that seemed to lead nowhere. Buck pulled over and stopped. Vin pulled up beside the Chevy and killed the engine on the Indian. He stood and stretched, then leaned into the passenger window.

Buck gestured to the fence they had just came through. "That's the property line on this side. It's about five more minutes to the house. Those hills in front of us are on our property. All told, I reckon we've got about 10,000 acres. We run some cattle, pigs, and horses. We do some lumbering, but most of Linc's money came from investments-stocks and stuff. Chris is really into cutting horses. We got some of the best quarter horse stock in the country. Either of you ever watched cutting horse competitions before?" Both men shook their heads. Buck continued. "It's truly wonderful to watch. And Chris, well he's the best. It's like him and the horse are one- thinking and moving together. It's a down right joy to behold. Anyways, that's a quick view of the ranch," Buck sighed. "Welcome to the Double L, boys," Buck's voice was wistful. "Ready? Vin you go first. Just follow the road. Don't want to cover you with dust." He started the truck and followed the motorcycle down the road.

Five minutes later, they cleared a stand of trees and saw the house. It was a large two story Victorian with a wraparound porch. A large barn, painted to match the house, sat to one side. JD noticed the barn had an oversized sectional door. As they approached, Buck reached up and hit the opener. The door slowly rose to admit the 4x4 and the motorcycle. It housed Chris's Dodge, Josiah's Suburban, and a small green SUV. Buck parked next to Chris's truck while Vin pulled in beside the Suburban. Vin saw another vehicle, a white Toyota Camry, parked on the other side of the SUV. Buck came around as Vin joined JD.

"The green one is Nathan's and Nettie drives the Toyota. She takes care of the house for us. Door's over here." Buck led the way to a small walk through door as the larger garage door closed. "There is a keypad on the left outside. Chris'll have to get you the number. I can't ever remember the stupid thing. That remote ever stops working, I'm going to park on the porch."

Buck led the two young men to a door on the side of the house. Entering the mudroom off the kitchen, he removed his boots and placed them under a bench with divided slots for a multitude of shoes.

"Just toss your boots in anywhere. Miss Nettie don't allow shoes in the house." He proceeded through the doorway into the kitchen. JD and Vin slipped out of their boots and slid them in under the bench.

They stepped into a large modern kitchen. It was brightly lit and smelled of the anticipated meal. Buck turned toward the two as they entered, revealing a small woman standing in front of him.

"Boys, meet Miss Nettie Wells, the glue that holds this home together. Miss Nettie, meet JD and Vin."

She stood looking at the two young men. She approached JD and took his face in her hands. Smiling, she said. "Well, aren't you a sweet little thing." She felt his blush heat her palms. "Yes, indeed. You're a sweet one."

Turning to Vin, she saw the wariness in his eyes. She reached over and placed her hand on his shoulder and ran it down his arm to his wrist. She took his hand in both of hers and patted the back of it. "Well, Linc would certainly be proud of these handsome young men. Though, I think you probably take after your mothers don't you?"

JD, still blushing, replied, "Yes, ma'am."

Vin only stood there, a hardiness in his eyes at the mention of Linc. Nettie saw that look and she met his eyes with hers. Smiling gently, she placed a hand on his chest and patted him gently. She frowned and ran her hand along his ribcage. "Land 'a goshin, boy. I should have made more food. You're as bony as new foal. We're going to have to fatten you up a little." Glancing at JD, she continued. "Both you boys look like you could use a few good meals."

"I ain't, skinny," JD protested and, then, proceeded to hitch his jeans up from his hips to his waist.

Vin grinned shyly. "Just cause I'm slim, don't mean I don't eat. I can pack it away, been told that plenty of times. I just tend to burn it off as fast as I put it on."

Pointedly, Miss Nettie turned to Buck and patted his stomach, stating, "It's a shame we can't all say that. Isn't that right, Bucklin?"

Buck put a wounded look on his face. "Miss. Nettie, I'll have you know that's not fat, that's pure muscle. I sport a manly physique, that ladies just love."

"Yes, well if you grow any more 'muscle', we'll have to buy you a Clydesdale to carry that 'manly physique'," Miss Nettie retorted. "Now get out of my kitchen so I can finish this meal. And, Buck?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Get that boy's wounds cleaned up. Nathan is in the front room." She swiped at him with a kitchen towel to get him headed in the right direction. The three men beat a hasty retreat from the room.

They found Chris and Nathan in the living room. They looked around as Buck entered.

"Howdy, boys," Buck greeted. "Where's Josiah?'

"He's upstairs, putting his stuff in the bedroom," Nathan informed him.

Chris turned back to gaze out the window. "Buck, show Vin the bedroom at the end. It's got the most windows. Put JD in Adam's old room." He took a drink from the glass he clutched.

Buck and Nathan exchanged glances. That exchange did not escape Chris's attention. "The boy's got to have a room. Besides, I don't think Adam would have minded."

JD and Vin had seen the exchange of looks between Buck and Nathan also.

"Chris, I can bunk with somebody. No big deal," JD offered.

Chris stood and walked up to the smaller man. "JD, I want you to take Adam's room. The weather gets warmer, we'll repaint it for you."

JD studied the face of the man that stood in front of him. He recognized the gesture for what it was-an honest attempt to welcome a stranger into his home and family. "Thanks, Chris. I think I'm going to like it here." His eyes shone with tears. He had lost his mother to cancer only three months ago and knew full well how hard to was to let go of even the smallest possessions of someone you've lost. Each item becomes precious and carries it's own small memory.

Chris looked into those shining hazel eyes and knew JD understood. He gave him a tight lipped crooked smile and then went out to the kitchen.

Buck stood with his mouth hanging open. He finally said, "Damn, kid. Chris must 'a taken a real likin' ya. We been tiring to get him to clear that room out for years."

JD turned sad eyes from the doorway Chris disappeared through to Buck. "You can't rush somebody into doing that. You got to be able to survive first."

The three older men looked at him, each realizing that as young as he appeared, he had an old wisdom earned by the loss of a loved one. And a recent loss judging by the pain on his face.

Buck broke the gloom by taking JD by the shoulders and guiding him to the staircase. "Come on, Vin, you're going to like this room. Big and airy and it's got the best view of all the rooms. It's right across the hall from mine," Buck laughed when he heard a moan from behind him. "I told you it had the best view."

"You're so full of it. Buck" JD laughed as he ran up the stairs to avoid the swat aimed at his head.

"You better be careful, kid, or I'll clean them scrapes myself instead of getting Nathan," Buck threatened the retreating back.

True to his word, Ezra arrived at the ranch shortly before six o'clock. He was introduced to Nettie Wells and shown which room he would be using. Miss Wells informed the seven that dinner was ready and on the table. As the men arranged themselves, she paused at the doorway, putting on her coat.

"Boys, I'll see you in the morning. Be sure and clean up. Breakfast is at seven sharp. Good evening, boys."

For the third time that day, seven strangers united by blood, sat at a table together. Then silence was heavy. Josiah bowed his head and prayed. "Lord, thank You for this bounty of food. Thank You for the fine company that we share today. We have been brought together by unusual circumstances, but know that Your love will help each of us to accept the others in this brotherly love which You have given us. Amen." There were murmured amen's around the table.

"Everyone help yourselves. We'll just pass the bowls around the table," Chris instructed the others. Buck and Nathan fell into a routine born of familiarity. The others hesitantly joined in. Soon everyone had a plate of food and once again silence descended on the room.

JD watched each man with his eyes, finally coming to rest on Chris. "Chris. Buck says you raise horses here."

Chris wiped his mouth as he swallowed. "Yeah, we got around one hundred brood mares. We breed them and then train the two year olds and sell them."

"They run free or do you pin them up?" JD asked.

Buck laughed as Chris politely wiped his mouth again as he swallowed. "Hell, Chris, just talk. Ain't nobody going say anything."

JD's eyes grew wide and he stammered. "Oh, I'm sorry. You eat. We can talk later." JD's face was flushed and he dropped his head down over his plate. He took a small bite of roast and moved some potatoes around with his fork.

Chris shot Buck glare, before turning back to the dejected young man. "JD?" When he didn't look up, Chris took hold of the hand containing the fork. "I don't mind the conversation. Was a little too quiet in here for my taste anyway." He looked around the table. "We just got to get to know each other." He looked around the table again. No one said a word.

"Okay if I go first?" JD volunteered, a big smile on his face. Chris gestured for him to go ahead. "We'll just tell a little about ourselves while everybody eats. Okay?" He glanced at each man. "Well, my name's John, but everyone calls me JD. I just turned twenty- three on January seventh. I was raised in Boston. Actually, it was Dorchester, but it's close enough. My mom raised me. She worked as a maid for some folks that had a cleaning business. I graduated when I was sixteen and went to college to study computer science. I took a summer job with a company that designs computer software and programs. I went full time after I got my degree and worked for them up until I came here. Planned to buy a place for Mom and myself, but we found out she had skin cancer last year and it took all that I had saved to pay her medical bills. I never did get her out of that neighborhood," JD paused, still playing with the food on his plate. "Mom died right after the New Year. I buried her the day before my birthday."

A tear fell onto his plate. He quickly wiped his face. Smiling, he continued. "Got Mr. Samuels letter the next week. I like what I was doing, but not the place that I worked at, so I quit and sold what little there was and bought my bike. Always wanted to see the country. I rode out here to see what this inheritance was all about. Saw some pretty country between Massachusetts and Nevada. I'd like to go back that way in the spring; see it all green and alive. Anyways, I always wondered what it was like to have a big family, so now I guess I'm going to find out." JD looked around. Grinning, he asked, "Who's next? Buck?"

Buck choked and coughed as he tried to swallow a mouthful of food. Finally clearing his airway, he wiped his mustache with his hand. "Sure, kid. Ain't much to tell. Ma owned the bar, 'Rosie's Saloon' and that's where she met Linc. Chris's mama had been killed in a car wreck a few months before. He would stop by in the evenings. They were together a year, year and a half, before they broke it off. I was born a few months after that. They had a good relationship, just weren't in love. Linc treated me like a son, though." Buck looked at the others when he said that and felt a little guilty, but he continued. "Chris and I grew up pretty much together. We had sleepovers at each other's houses, went places together with Linc or Rosie. Chris and me got into some pretty good scrapes defending one or another of our parents. Then Nathan came along and the fights turned to defending him." Buck grinned at the lanky man he called brother. "Hell, 'til he was sixteen, he didn't weigh more than a hundred pounds don't seem like. Not that either of us needed an excuse to fight. 'Born scrapers' Linc used to call us. Anyways, but sixteen, he shot up to six feet four and filled out. By then, I was living here. Ma had died the year before; robbery at the Saloon. Linc hired someone to run the place until I got to an age to inherit. Been running that and working here ever since. That's about it." The silence was heavy.

Chris decided to break that heavy silence. "Look's like we all about finished. Why don't we clean up and go to the front room?"

The seven made quick work of clearing the table. Nettie had made enough food for a barn raising, so it took them a while to make room for all the leftovers. After the table was cleared, the dishes washed, dried, and put away, each man grabbed a beer and joined the others in the front room. Though were plenty of chairs, JD lay down on a rug in the front of the large fireplace. Chris had banked the fire to knock the March chill off the Nevada night

Buck, Chris, and Nathan settled into, what the others assumed, to be their normal evening positions. Ezra and Vin chose to sit at a bar, located on the wall next to the fireplace. Josiah made himself comfortable in a large sofa. He placed his stockinged feet on the edge of a coffee table made of heavy, ripped logs. The furniture was large, well worn, and comfortable. As oversized as the furniture seemed, it was dwarfed by the cavernous room. The house was old and solidly built. Linc had bought the house just before Colleen had died. He completed the house as they had planned, with a lot of rooms for the children they had planned on having. Colleen had been raised in a modest home and had longed for a family room that would allow for parties and dances and a huge Christmas tree. She had died before realizing any of her dreams and Linc had never followed up on them. Birthdays had been celebrated with Rosie and Buck at their home and were never a big affair. Clara Jackson had only been with Linc for a couple of months before Christmas in '68 and felt uncomfortable with decorating 'Colleen's' home. After she returned in January '70, there had been no days to celebrate except for the Fourth of July one month before she died.

Chris's wedding to Sarah had been the first celebration in the house. Sarah and her bridesmaids had decorated the front room with chairs for seating and flowers all around. After the wedding, the chairs were cleared for dancing and the party had continued for hours even as the happy couple left for the honeymoon. Sarah had left the heavy furniture after she and Chris returned. She elected to make a more feminine room upstairs near their bedroom. Her 'daydream room', she had called it. So the masculine front room had remained unchanged for years-dark and roughhewn.

JD finally turned to Josiah. He had tried to remain still, but to no avail. "Josiah, is your mom still around?"

Josiah stretched out, never opening his eyes. "No. She died about twenty years ago. Just got tired, I believe. Too much travel and hard work on the revival circuit. Pappy passed two years before. He was her anchor. She traveled with others, but her heart wasn't in it anymore. I had seen her a couple of weeks before she died. I buried her next to Pappy in a family plot on Oklahoma."

JD played with the label on the beer bottle on his stomach.

Chris watched as Josiah peeked at JD through eyes that were mere slits. The sparkle they cast in the firelight gave the only hint they had opened. "You weren't with the revival show anymore I take it?" Chris queried.

"Nah. I got drafted in '68. Did a couple of tours in 'Nam. Returned to the 'world' in '74. I drifted for a while, then entered the seminary down in Texas. Preached for a while at some churches in the southwest." Josiah shifted uncomfortably. A scowl marred his strong features. Silence descended once again.

"I take it, events did not bode well in that region of our fair Union?" Ezra asked quietly. His gentle southern drawl was pronounced in the quiet night.

Josiah looked up, his eyebrows raised, as if suddenly made aware of his companions. He smiled, embarrassed. "You might say that, brother. The Lord and I lost touch with each other for a while. A situation arose that I was unprepared to handle in a pastorly manner." The big man shook his head. Clearing his throat, he continued. "Drifted around doing odd jobs for a while then. Learned that to teach, you have to listen, not talk. Made peace with myself. Best of all, found that God was still standing with me. I live a peaceful life. I preach some and work odd jobs to pay my way."

He looked around to find his audience intact. "I'm a good preacher. I try not to judge people. I like a good fight, but find I can get carried away-be it vocally or physically. You have been warned, my brothers. If I go running off at the mouth, it just means I'm passionate about the subject."

The men all laughed. The earlier tension seemed to have left the room. The silence was more companionable now. Ezra and Vin moved to a table near the bar and Ezra began shuffling a deck of cards. Nathan joined them for a game of poker. Chris and Josiah discovered they were both football fans and entered into a discussion on the morals and responsibility of the players.

Buck got up to stoke the fire. The hour was nearing ten, not late on a usual night. He debated on putting more wood on the fire, but he decided that stoking the fire would be enough heat for the reminder of the evening. He worked the fire, exposing the hot embers under the ashes. Turning, he took a seat on the low hearth. He finished off the beer in his hand, glancing down at the young man lying on the rug at his feet. He watched as the half empty beer bottle rose and fell with each breath. He knew the boy was asleep. It was only a matter of time before his hands relaxed and slid away, freeing the bottle to tumble off it's flat perch. He grinned at the pure innocence that radiated off the kid. In the tranquility of sleep, he looked all of fifteen, certainly not twenty-three. Buck glanced up to see Chris watching him, a frown on his face.

"Buck," he growled.

"I ain't going to let it fall." Buck threw back at him. "I'm watching."

"What do you think, Mr. Wilmington, five more breaths?" Ezra queried.

Buck threw a glance in Ezra's direction. "Buck. Call me Buck, Ezra."

The southerner solemnly said, "Not yet, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck studied the younger man's face. He heard a soft 'Buck' from Chris and turned back just in time to snatch the neck of the bottle as it tilted toward the boy's waist. Buck grinned. "I figure that was about three breaths."

Ezra put two fingers to his forehead and saluted Buck. Chris just shook his head and took another drink of his own beer.

Buck grabbed his empty bottle and crouched beside the slumbering youth. He placed his hand on the boy's chest and shook him. "JD. Come on, boy. Let's call it a night."

"Hmmm..." JD's eyes slowly slid open. He blinked several times as he tried to orient himself.

"Bed. Let's go," Buck said as he stood. He reached down with his right hand, holding both beer bottles in his left. JD reached up and took the offered assistance. Stretching, he looked at the men sitting around the room. "Night," he mumbled sleepily.

Buck put a hand on JD's shoulder, guiding him out and up the stairs. Nathan reached out to take the bottles as they passed the table.

"Night, boys," Buck said as they turned toward the staircase. Five responses of 'night', 'see ya tomorrow' ran over each other as the men acknowledged the two's departure.

Chris looked back as Josiah levered his large frame off the sofa. He stretched and Chris noticed for the first time how much space the man seemed to occupy. While not overly tall, Josiah possessed a massive chest and thick, well muscled limbs. He was not a man you would choose to fight.

"I believe I'll retire also. Evening, brothers," Josiah chuckled under his breath. He stopped in the doorway and turned halfway toward the room. ""That certainly takes on a new meaning now." Shaking his head, he tossed another 'goodnight' over his shoulder.

Slowly, each man bid the others good night, until only Chris was left. He watched the fire die and thought about the day's events. He tried to remember anything, any clue, Linc might have let slip that hinted at the day's revelation. All he came up with was a headache and more questions. With no answers forthcoming, he decided bed did sound good. He closed the screen on the fireplace and went through the house locking the doors and turning out lights. His bedroom was on the ground floor, at the back. As he passed the back staircase, he paused and looked up. The Larabee clan had more than doubled in the span of one minute with Linc's admission. Chris wondered if his father had any idea of diversity of his sons. Josiah-the part time preacher and full time handyman. JD-a kid, still wide-eyed and innocent. Ezra-a man of the world, whose words hinted at one thing, while his eyes told another story. And Vin-a man totally closed within himself. He observed everything, but revealed nothing. Shaking his head, Chris headed to bed, wondering how long they would last together. He doubted they would still all be here in the one-year span Linc had requested.

The next few weeks slowly revealed more about each man. Chris found that Vin had experience with horses. They worked together exercising and training the animals. Though Vin had never worked off a cutting horse, he learned quickly. JD also learned to work with the stock. Chris was surprised that the kid had never been around horses after seeing the affinity the boy had for them. He seemed to read them, knowing what them thinking and wanting. The animals seemed to calm under his hands. JD beamed at the praise Chris awarded him.

Josiah kept busy doing things around the ranch and working at a shelter downtown-the same shelter Clara Jackson had volunteered at, while Ezra seemed to keep busy doing business over the phone. Chris wasn't too sure exactly what kind of business that was.

True to his word, Vin helped JD repair his motorcycle. JD seemed apt at learning about horses and ranching, and he tried hard at mechanics, but was all thumbs. Vin teased the younger man about his inability to grasp the inner workings of the engine. The two young men ended up in a friendly wrestling match that left both of them laughing and breathless before they were through. It had been one of the only times Chris had heard the young Vin laugh.

Each evening found all seven men together at the dinner table, talking about the day's events. Mr. Samuels had come out and gone over more legal documents with them all. Each man was made aware of the operations and businesses of the ranch, along with the assets and debts that each accounted for. JD helped Chris to update the computer that occupied a corner in the large front room. The boy had entered all the business information concerning the ranch. He set up accounting, profits, losses, everything the computer was suppose to do, but had never been utilized. He set up passwords and personal files for each brother to keep their private information on, though Vin asked JD to handle that for him. Buck had the books for the Saloon put on computer which JD helped him put together.

Casual conversations revealed things about each man; things that helped to explain who they were. It was revealed that Ezra had lived in as many different countries as Vin had foster homes. And JD's IQ was in the genius range. Josiah and Vin had both been in armed forces, but Vin went on to Seal training while Josiah had been in the Rangers. Ezra had been a dealer at several different casinos. He moved up to pit boss, before starting his own business running security for the casinos as well as training their employees to spot scams and cheaters. Ezra's mother, Maude, was the only woman left from Linc's past. Nathan had a talent for art. He drew pictures of each brother that left them speechless. Chris discovered Vin had a wonderful talent for delivering a joke; his dry delivery catching you off guard. And though Chris hadn't decided what good it was, they had found Ezra could spin a tall tale and never give a hint as to it's validity, or lack of. He had caught JD two or three times in one of his tales, much to the boy's chagrin. They learned the little things about each other that were only revealed with familiarity. The weeks passed and they grew comfortable with each other. And that comfort was were the trouble began.

They relaxed and things were said that were not ready to be heard. JD had wondered aloud that since Ezra had money of his own and family, why did he stay. Ezra had walked in and overheard. He simply looked at the embarrassed young man and stated "I have no idea." He then turned and left the room. The question had been asked in innocence, but left the young man stammering an apology. Chris had expressed his distaste for Vin's current profession of bounty hunter. Their relationships had progressed into a brotherly mode that only Buck, Nathan, and Chris were used to. Brothers that had grown up together were used to comments that had to be ignored or fought over. Josiah ad JD had loving homes, but no siblings to argue with. Vin and Ezra had grown up without siblings and no stable home. None of the seven were prepared for the fierce battle that was brewing.

The trouble started innocently with Vin showing JD some martial art moves. They had finished cleaning up the stable area and bedding the horses down against the cold Nevada night. JD had asked Vin to show him some defensive moves. Vin had started with some basic moves, but, boys being boys, it had escalated into a battle which JD was bound to lose. Buck walked in and leaned against a stall door watching. He didn't help the situation by yelling encouragement to both of the younger men. Chris arrived a few minutes later as Vin pinned JD yet again. As he entered, he could hear Buck admonishing the kid for not trying hard enough. Chris saw JD wriggle out from under Vin and stand quickly, but he lost his footing and slipped down. He went down hard and caught the still kneeling Vin in the back with his elbow. Reflexes kicked in and the training Vin had received dictated his actions. He quickly rolled over and elbowed JD in the face, blooding his nose. He instantly realized what he had done and jumped up, reaching down to assist the youth up.

"God, kid, I'm sorry," he said. He reached down as Chris came up. Buck grabbed a rag from the tack room and joined them as Chris took Vin by the arm.

"We'll get it. Just back off," Chris growled, as he glared at Vin. The wiry bounty hunter returned the look without flinching. The two men stood toe to toe, neither one prepared to give in.

Buck bent down as JD rolled onto his hands and knees, blood dripping on the floor. Buck lifted the boy's head and placed the rag under JD's bloody nose. The kid's eyes were watering as he tried to move away from Buck's hand. "Don't. Hurts."

Buck laughed. "I know, kid, but we got to stop the bleeding." He pinched the bridge of JD's nose. Looking up, he saw Chris and Vin square off. "HEY!"

They both glared down at him. Buck frowned back. "Can we get some help here?"

Chris and Vin looked properly abashed and Chris reached down to help JD stand. The two older men started walking him toward the house with Vin following close behind. Chris glanced over his shoulder his shoulder. "Why don't you clean up that mess first?"

Buck threw Chris another frown, but Chris avoided his eyes.

Vin stopped and looked back at the bloody floor. Mad as he was, he knew it was his mess to clean up. He had been taken off guard and reacted without thinking. He was thankful he hadn't hurt JD anymore than he had. In the same breath, he told himself Chris had no right to talk to him like that. He took his anger out on the floor with a scrub brush. He took his time and slowly regained control of his temper. Closing the doors, he started toward the house just as Buck arrived.

"We were beginning to think you got lost." Buck put a friendly hand on Vin's shoulder as he fell into step beside him.

"Nah. Just thinking." Vin glanced over at the taller man. "How's JD?"

"Oh, he's fine. Goin 'a look like a raccoon for a while." Buck felt Vin shudder his hand. "It's okay, Vin. He ain't really hurt. You brought yourself up real good. "

Vin stopped and looked at Buck.

"You said you was trained in the Navy."

"Yeah, but I knew we were horsing around. I should have never let it go that far," Vin's voice grew soft.

Buck laughed and, clasping Vin on the shoulder, started toward the house again. "Ask Nathan, our good natured, easy going doctor someday about what he did to Chris once. I promise you, you do not want to piss Nathan off. Be down right dangerous."

Buck could feel Vin relax as they neared the house. They entered the back and pulled off their boots. They passed through the kitchen to find Nettie preparing to leave, the meal laid out on the table. She patted Vin on the arm as she passed.

"Don't you fret none. Chris always was a fierce protector. Don't let him rile you none." She smiled and gave Buck a peck on the cheek. "You make sure that hot headed brother of yours doesn't run off at the mouth. Accidents happen."

"Yes, ma'am." And she was gone. Buck followed Vin into the front room. Nathan sat beside JD on the couch, who had an ice pack laying across his face. Ezra and Josiah sat at the small table, watching as the drama played out. Chris stood at the hearth.

"JD, I'm sorry," Vin apologized as he squatted down in front of the couch. "Is it broke?" he asked Nathan.

"Nope, just bruised. You must have pulled your punch." Nathan patted JD on the knee. "Come on, kid. Let's go eat."

JD leaned forward, removing the ice pack. He saw Vin rock back on his heels. He laughed lightly. "I look that bad?" Vin shook his head. "Shoot, this ain't nothing. You should of seen me in the tenth grade. Three guys jumped me. Even my mom had trouble recognizing me."

Vin just sat and stared. "Damn, kid."

JD tossed his hand up. "Don't blame yourself, Vin. It's as much my fault as yours. I did hit you first."

Josiah had walked up behind Vin. He reached down and lifted the smaller man to his feet. "Action creates an equal reaction. It's natures law, Vincent."

Ezra stood at the doorway. "Gentlemen, let us go partake of the wonderful meal Miss Wells had graciously prepared for us. Mr. Dunne, tonight I'll wash for you in consideration of your injuries." Ezra turned away and then turned back to the gathering. "No, I have a better idea. I believe Mr. Tanner should have that honor as he created this situation."

"Thanks, Ezra. I'm sure Vin appreciates being volunteered to do the dishes," Buck said.

Vin smiled and shook his head. Vin along with Josiah, JD, and Nathan followed Ezra out of the room.

Buck moved to stand behind Chris. "Come on, Chris. Let's eat." Chris didn't move.

Buck reached up and kneaded the tight muscles at Chris's neck. "Let it go, bro," he whispered in Chris's ear. "Let Vin be. He scared himself pretty good. He don't need you chewing on him, too."

Chris slowly turned and Buck saw the fear in his eyes. "Buck, he could've.." He paused. "How did they get to me so fast? One minute, they're strangers just living here. The next, they're brothers; men I want to know and protect. " Chris's green eyes implored Buck. "I've already lost so many people. Now, I've got four more to fear losing. I don't know if I can do it."

Buck took Chris by the shoulders. "Chris, you can't run 'em off because you're afraid you're going 'a lose 'em. Just treat 'em like you do me and Nathan." Buck thought about it for a minute. "Nope, maybe you better not. We're use to ya," Chris laughed. "Just enjoy the time we've got with 'em. Whether it's two months or two years, or even more. They're all good men. Linc would be proud."

Buck started Chris in the direction the others had gone. "Now, let's go eat. Talk to 'em. Don't glare, don't advise. And don't tell 'em what to do."

Chris turned and looked at Buck. The furrow between his eyes was deep and his mouth was tight. "Hell, Buck, maybe you best bring me food in my room." Chris backed into the dining room. Low, he growled, "You think it'll be all right if I answer direct questions?"

Buck clapped him on the shoulder. "Only with one syllable answer," he laughed

Chris had to smile at that. The two men sat down. Chris looked at the six men gathered together. "Sorry to hold up supper, boys. Josiah, do you mind if I say grace tonight?"

Josiah held up his hands in consent.

The seven bowed their heads as Chris started. "We give thanks, Lord, for the blessings You have bestowed on us. Thank You for the beautiful land and warm home, but especially thank You for the family that resides in that home. We pray You will watch over and guide us as we strive to develop this family You have given us. Thanks for this food and all Your Blessings. Amen."


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