Chris stood up, glancing around the graveyard. "That was a couple of weeks ago, Sarah. Things seemed to get better for a few of days," he sighed and looked back to his parents' headstones. Walking around to Adam's grave, he distractedly plucked at the weeds that grew on the small plot. "Two days ago, Ezra announced he was leaving. Just up and told us in the middle of dinner. Everybody just sat there, didn't say a word. Then Vin says he was planning on telling us later, but 'since Ezra done said he's leaving tomorrow, might as well tell you I'm going, too'. I thought things were going pretty good and then the bottom falls out. I didn't know what to say. Poor, JD." He looked pained as he remembered. "Ah, Sarah, it would tear your heart out. Poor kid shaking and pale. Suddenly, he jumps up and excuses himself and tears off up the stairs. Buck started after him, but I stopped him. Felt the boy needed a few minutes."
Chris walked back around and squatted down again. "We talked both of them into staying until tomorrow. Thought I might come up with the words to get 'em to stay, but.." Chris sat down on the ground, heedless of the damp morning dew that lay on the blades of grass. He covered his face with his calloused palms and silently wept.
"Why can't I just ask 'em to stay? JD's all torn up thinking it's his fault that Vin's going. Buck and Nathan, all of them, walking around the house on eggshells. Nobody talking to anybody."
He scrubbed at his face with the calloused hands moist with his tears and ran his fingers up through the short blond hair. He reclined back on his palms. Stretching out, he crossed his ankles and dropped his head back. The sun warmed his face and chest even as the morning moisture dampened his pants and chilled his legs. He heard a rustling noise off to his left and, turning, he saw JD wandering around. He drew a deep breath and released it as a sigh. "JD!" he called. He waved as the younger man looked in his direction. JD smiled and waved. He slowly approached.
Chris turned back to the graves. "Kid's been down for two days, so I thought I'd take him to the stock sell today." He stood, dusting his jeans, as JD joined him.
"Sorry, Chris. I hope you don't mind. I thought I could meet Sarah and Adam." JD looked at the graves and glanced back at Chris.
Chris slowly smiled. "JD. I'd like to introduce you to Sarah and Adam. Sarah, Adam, please meet JD."
Chris watched as JD walked to the graveside of his wife and lightly brushed his hand across the name engraved on the stone. He sat for a moment and then went around to Adam's and did the same thing. He leaned into the stone and whispered something. Slowly, he stood and joined Chris on the far side.
"I wish I'd had a chance to meet them both. I'm sure we would have been good friends," JD told him.
Chris put his arm around JD's shoulders. "I'm sure you would have been. Ready to go?"
They got back in the truck and left the cemetery. Chris headed back to the main road. They had a stallion that he and Buck had wanted to buy at the horse sell. Buck had called Mattie the night before to confirm the stallion's availability They rode in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Chris asked JD, "What did you tell Adam?"
JD smiled. "I told him I liked his room, but that I would like to change it some, so I asked if he'd mind."
Chris's eyebrows rose. "And what did he say?" He stole a glance at the young man sitting across the truck.
"Well, he didn't say no," JD giggled.
Chris shook his head, smiling. Then he thought to himself. 'Good. He's going to stay.'
Suddenly, JD stiffened. "CHRIS!"
Chris looked up to see the hillside sliding toward the road and the black Dodge. He slammed on the brakes and the big 4x4 skidded to a shuddering stop, but the rush of rock and mud swept the vehicle across the road. It hung on the guardrail for a moment. Chris turned to JD. The younger man eyes were huge in his pale face and focused beyond Chris. Chris had time to turn and recognize the tree before it impacted the Dodge. Chris's world went dark to the sound of the shrieking metal and a plaintive voice saying, "Oh, God."
They tipped slowly as the metal tore and rolled down the steep slope. The only sounds came from the breaking glass and the crashing of trees as the Dodge sheared off the small saplings and bounced off the larger trees. Ten seconds later, the crashing stopped and the big engine sputtered and died. The only sound was the ticking of the hot engine as it cooled. A deadly quiet settled on the mountain.
Vin polished the chrome on the Indian for the fifth time, looking not at the bike, but down the road. Chris had told him that he and JD would be back in the early afternoon. The seven were gathering at the Saloon for a last evening together before Vin and Ezra left the next day. It was four o'clock and they were due at the Saloon at seven. Vin's brow crinkled as he thought 'Where are they? Should have been back two hours ago.' Unable to contain his worry any longer, he stood and pushed the machine back into the garage. He closed the door and headed for the house. As he approached, the door opened and Ezra stepped out and onto the porch. He thrust his hands into his pockets and glanced down the road, much as Vin had done minutes before.
"Still no word of our wayward brothers?" he asked as Vin stepped up beside him.
"No. I got to say, I'm a little worried.." Vin dropped his head slightly, then cut his eyes around to Ezra.
Ezra stood, staring out across the yard. He appeared to be staring at the mountains. "It's rather an odd sensation, is it not, Mr. Tanner." It was not a question, but rather a statement.
Vin leaned against the porch railing. He wrapped his arms over his chest, his hands encompassing his ribs. His boot toe kicked at a knothole in the porch floor. "Yeah, I got to say it is. Never had anybody to worry about." He looked over at the sharply dressed man who he knew as a brother. "Can't decide if I like it or not."
Ezra removed his eyes from the scene that lay in front of him as he pulled his hands from his pockets. "JD asked, or rather, he voiced the question aloud to no one in particular, as to why I have remained in residence if it were not monetarily advantageous.." Vin eyes narrowed and his brow creased.
Ezra smiled gently. "Why do I stay if I do not need the money," he restated. Vin's face relaxed. "I believe I now have an answer. Family. I believe I just wanted to belong somewhere and be a part of something greater. The fear gnawing at my digestive tract about our missing brothers tells me that I have found that."
The two men looked at each other. The words were not spoken, but they both know that neither man would be leaving the Double L ranch.; at least not any time soon.
Vin grinned. "Damn" He took a deep breath and pushed himself off the railing. "Okay. What first? Who do we call?"
"I believe we should start with Buck. He can point us in the direction Chris would have taken."
They went into the house and headed for the phone. As Ezra dialed the Saloon, he looked at Vin. He stood with his thumbs hooked in his belt, a crooked smile on his face. Ezra raised his shoulders in a silent question 'What'
"Buck? Chris?" Vin inquired.
"Yes, Vin," Ezra said, "We are brothers. It is time I started acting like one." He turned his attention back to the phone. "Inez? Ezra. I need to speak to Buck. It's important."
Vin turned his head. "Someone just pulled up. I'll be right back." He quickly left the room.
Ezra watched as Vin disappeared into the kitchen. "Oh, sorry, Buck. Would you mind holding for just a moment?" A pause. "Thanks."
Ezra heard the back door open and close. He watched as Vin strode in, followed by Josiah. Vin shook his head. "Damn," he swore. "Buck? Ezra. Listen, Chris and JD are not back nor have we heard a word. Vin and I are beginning to grow concerned."
He listened for a moment. "I do not have the number." A pause. "Excellent. Call when you ascertain that information." Ezra placed the phone back on the cradle. He looked up to see Vin and Josiah looking at him. "Buck is going to call Mr. Matthews to see when they left the sell."
Josiah looked at the two younger men and smiled. "I believe you've decided to stay, haven't you?"
Vin's mouth twitched into a smile, while Ezra's blue eyes met Josiah's. "It would appear that we have become transparent, Vincent."
The phone rang and Ezra grabbed it. "Double L."
Vin and Josiah had stepped closer. Buck's voice was loud enough that they could hear him talking as Ezra pulled the phone away from his ear a couple of inches. "Mattie said Chris never showed up. He just figured we'd changed our minds about the stallion. We better go looking for them two."
"Agreed," Ezra stated as he looked at the two men before him. "Where do we go?"
"I'll call Nathan. Ya'll go down to the main road and go left. Turn right on 2318. There's a cemetery on the left, three miles up. Chris was stopping by there to put flowers on Sarah's grave. Go straight past and follow that road for about fifteen miles. You'll turn left again at 723. We should met you around there if we ain't found 'em."
"I have it, Buck. I'll have my cell and will call if we find them. We'll be in Josiah's truck. Good luck, Buck."
"Same. Ezra, be careful."
"We shall." The receiver went dead as Buck hung up. "Let's go, gentlemen. We have a family to reunite."
Chris came to slowly. He thought his head was going to fall off when he tried to sit up. 'Man, I must have really tied one on last night.' He brought his hand up to his face and felt a warm stickiness. He opened his eyes and saw blood on his hand. "What the hell.," he said out loud. Slowly, he turned his head to the left and saw the headliner of his trunk and then the window, but there was no glass. A dusky sky showed through the opening. He had a flash of a tree and the memory came rushing back much as the mud had rushed toward them earlier. 'Them?' Chris thought. 'Who was with him?' He turned his head to the right, but he was looking at an empty seat. He thought he was mistaken about someone being with him. He was headed where, he wondered. Oh, yeah, a stock sell at Mattie's place. He wanted to buy a stallion Buck had convinced him they needed.
'Chris, mind if I go?', a voice intruded on his thoughts. Who? Not Buck. No it was someone else. A kid, dark hair. "JD!" Chris yelled as he tried to sit up again. Pain slammed into his head. He ignored it, but the numbing pain from his left leg would not be ignored. He pulled himself up slowly, looking past the steering wheel. He could see the stark white of the bone against the black of his jeans just below his knee. He sank back against the seat. Moving only his upper body, he twisted to see the passenger seat better. This time he looked past the seat and into the floorboard. He could see the light gray jacket and some dark hair piled up in the small area, but he couldn't tell anything else.
"JD?" He waited. No response. "Hey, kid! Come on. Wake up." Chris held his breath. There was no sound, no movement from the boy. Panic clutched Chris's heart. 'Please, God, no. Please. No more.' He prayed as he leaned across the console, trying to make a connection with the boy. Momentarily forgetting the vision of white bone, he applied pressure to his legs to lever himself closer to his brother. Chris screamed as pain shot up his leg, numbing first the leg, and then the whole body. He fell across the console, unconscious, his fingertips within inches of the dark haired prize.
Josiah drove slowly as night descended on the mountainside. Vin and Ezra sat on opposite sides, playing strong beams of light on the undergrowth on either side of the road. They had been looking for any sign for over two hours. Nathan had phoned once as he and Buck had left the town limits. They had made better time on the wide, well traveled roads, but had been slowed as they approached the more thickly overgrown mountains. The Suburban was rounding a bend when the phone rang again.
"Ezra. Any luck?" Buck's asked.
"No, I am afraid not. Progress is slow in this darkness."
"Yeah, I know. We're about to the cutoff, so we should meet up soon. Nathan has the hospital on alert. Just in case," Buck's voice cracked.
"Keep the good thought, Buck. We are not done yet." Ezra noticed the vehicle was slowing. "Just a moment. We are apparently stopping for some reason." To Josiah, "What is it?"
"Mudslide across the road," Josiah answered.
Vin reached up and gripped Ezra's shoulder. "Ezra, the guard rail's torn down." Vin slid across the back seat and got out. He walked to the edge of the road, playing the flashlight down the incline.
Ezra remembered the phone in his hand. "Buck, we can not go any further on this road. It is totally blocked by a mudslide." He looked up as Vin suddenly jumped over the railing and disappeared. "VIN!"
Ezra was aware of Buck's voice screaming his name over the phone, but ignored it as he and Josiah leapt from the vehicle and ran to the spot Vin had disappeared.
"Ezra? Ezra! What the hell is going on? Ezra?"
Ezra brought the phone to his ear. "Buck. We found the truck. We are going to need help. Now, Buck."
"We're on the way," Buck's voice sounded small in Ezra's mind.
The two men watched as Vin Tanner threw himself down the mountainside to the black 4x4 lying at the bottom of the incline. Vin's cry echoed eerily in the night. "CHRIS!"
Vin slid up to the driver's side of the big Dodge. It sat at an angle, with the left wheels off the ground. The roof was crushed down and the bed twisted around so that Vin could see the bed floor. He reached up and tested the stability of the vehicle. Finding it steady, he hefted himself onto the door and balanced on the windowsill. Peering in, he could see Chris stretched across the center of the vehicle. Hanging on to the steering wheel, he wormed his way in until he could reach Chris's neck. He took a calming breath and felt for a pulse. Yep, there it was. Weak, but steady. Vin looked over, but saw no sign of JD. Vin feared the young man had been thrown from the vehicle. Remembering the flashlight in his other hand, he turned it on and shown it into the vehicle. He saw JD folded into the floorboard, but he could not reach him. He backed out of the vehicle and looked up to the road. "They're here. Chris is alive. I can't reach JD."
Josiah ran back to the truck and grabbed some rope and blankets. He hoped that Buck and Nathan had brought more equipment to help extract the two men from the vehicle and get them back up to the road.
Ezra took the rope and started tying it off. He took off his jacket and took Josiah's gloves. "I will go down. If you do not mind, take my phone and relay messages to Buck and Nathan. Perhaps you could ascertain their estimated arrival time."
Ezra backed cautiously down to the mangled vehicle and his three brothers. When he arrived, he looked up at Vin, still perched on the window.
"JD's on the floor. See if you can reach him through the windshield. Looks like the other side is against a tree," Vin told him. Ezra went around the front of the truck.
"No entrance from the front. Door is against a tree and the roof is crushed down too far." Ezra came back around. He looked at the bed of the truck. "I may be able to enter from the back. How steady is it?"
"So far, she ain't budged."
"Okay, hang on." Ezra climbed into the bed of the vehicle. The truck rocked, but not much. He crawled in through the back window and squatted on the rear seat. "Vin, turn on the light. Where is JD?"
Vin illuminated the interior again. They could clearly see the boy crumbled in the floor.
"Okay. I think I can reach him." Ezra braced his hand next to Chris's inert body and gingerly reached down. His fingers brushed JD's dark hair. Pushing forward, he braced his hips on the back of the broken seat and found he could more forward enough to reach the crumbled figure. He stretched out and fingered the dark hair. He could smell the coppery odor of blood and could see the crusted mats of hair on the boy's head. His fingers worked around JD's head until he contacted the neck. Ezra held his breath. He smiled at the steady pulse he found. Turning his head, he looked at Vin. "We have got them both." Vin relaxed and nodded.
"Okay. So how do we get 'em out?"
"I believe that we should wait," Ezra started. He reached for the light Vin was holding. He aimed the light into the floor under the steering wheel. "As we are not qualified to ascertain their injuries, I propose that we wait for assistance. I do believe Chris has a broken leg. We can not move him until that bone is secured."
Both men turned and saw Nathan start down the incline. Buck and Josiah were securing equipment to a backboard. Nathan reached them in seconds. Buck started down, slowly, holding one end of the board as Josiah lowered it.
"How are they doing?" Nathan asked as Vin indicated the truck bed.
"They're alive, Nathan. You can get inside through the back window."
Nathan climbed into the truck as Ezra crawled out the window to allow the physician some room.
Buck released the rope from the backboard as Nathan climbed in the back window. Ezra illuminated the interior with the light. Nathan checked Chris's pulse.
"His left leg is badly broken, Nathan. The bone is sticking out." Ezra moved the light down to show him.
"Okay. Buck, we need some more light. Ezra, shine that thing on JD." Nathan, like Ezra before him, used the seat back as a brace and inched forward. He was able to reach farther because of his height. He checked JD's pulse and breathing, then probed his extremities for breaks. Finding none, he began examining the boy's head. He found a gash and a large bruise on the right side. "Buck, hand me a small light outta my bag."
The light was passed from Buck to Vin to Nathan. He turned it on and checked JD's eyes and ears and then examined the gash on his right temple. "Eyes are sluggish, but equal. No blood in his ears." Next, he turned to Chris. Nathan lifted him and sat him up straight in the seat. He repeated the procedure on Chris. "Pupils are dilated. He may have a concussion. No bleeding, though. He checked for more broken bones and finding none, he had Buck pass in some bandages. "Vin, you hold him while I wrap that leg."
"Don't you need to set it first?" Vin asked as he placed his hands on Chris's chest.
"Can't. Not here. Need to clean it good. He's goin'a need surgery to fix this," Nathan told Vin as he wrapped the leg-trousers and all.
Chris hissed and struggled to sit forward. Vin held him in place. "Easy, cowboy. We're here to help. Nathan's wrapping your leg. You broke it." Chris fought to focus on the voice and the face that shimmered above him.
"Yeah, it's me. Just be still. You're okay."
"What.. what happened?" Chris shook his head. He tried to bring his right arm up, but found he couldn't. "My .. my arm?"
"Easy there, Chris. I'm lying across you. Just hold still another minute." He heard Nathan's voice, but could not locate him. Vin pushed him back again.
"Nathan's under the steering wheel. You keep wriggling around, you're goin'a hit him," Vin told him.
"Steering wheel?" Chris tried to think. He couldn't seem to focus. Suddenly, he remembered and his eyes flew open. He found himself staring into the cool blue eyes of Vin. "JD?"
"He's alive. Nathan done checked him. You need to calm down." Vin felt Chris relax under his palms.
"I think I'll rest now." Chris's eyes slid closed.
"Nathan?" Vin's panicked voice rang out.
Nathan squirmed out from under the steering column. He reached up and checked the pulse of the unconscious man. He nodded. "He's just passed out. Probably best thing for when we start trying to get 'em both outta here."
Nathan looked up to the road to see emergency equipment arriving. He sighed in relief. It was too hard on him to work on family. He checked both men again to reassure himself and then crawled out the back window. He joined Ezra at the side of the wrecked truck out of the way of the rescue workers. They brought down equipment to remove the roof of the vehicle. Buck had to physically pull Vin from the vehicle. Vin didn't resist as the larger man pulled him back to join Nathan and Ezra. The four watched in silence as the rescuers cut and removed the roof of the Dodge. They established IV's on both men and put on cervical collars. Chris was carefully moved to a backboard and strapped in securely for the trip up the mountainside. Vin and Nathan helped carry him up. He was loaded into the ambulance. And with lights flashing, it pulled away. Nathan told Josiah that he and Vin were following Chris to the hospital.
Buck and Ezra waited as the paramedics examined JD. He was still out and could not tell them if he was hurting. There was no choice but to move him carefully onto a backboard and hope they did not aggravate any injury. As Chris before him, JD was carried up the mountain and loaded into an ambulance. The three brothers climbed into the Suburban and headed to the hospital.
Both ambulances had arrived at the scene of the accident on the same side of slide as Buck and Nathan. They made good time getting to the hospital. Josiah, being on the other side, took longer to get to the hospital. He parked and they entered the emergency entrance. Buck was about to ask the nurse about his brothers, when Nathan appeared and led them to a waiting room.
Nathan turned when they got inside the door. "Chris is on the way to surgery. They have to pin the leg, get it cleaned up where the bone came through. He's in pretty good shape. Some blood loss, but not so's it's life threatening. They did a CAT scan, but there's no skull fracture or swelling. Mild concussion. He's got a lot of bruises. But, aside from the broken leg, he's pretty good. "
"For the shape he's in?" Buck laughed.
Vin frowned. "I don't see nothing funny about this, Buck."
Buck put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "I don't take this lightly, Vin. Chris is my brother and I love 'em. Humor's just my way of dealing with the tension." He bent his knees in order to lower his eyes to Vin's and smiled. He was rewarded with a crooked smile in return. Patting Vin's shoulder, Buck turned to Nathan. "What about JD?"
Nathan shook his head and Buck left the blood drain from his face. "Still out. They're doing a CAT scan on him now." His gaze had moved to Ezra and Josiah as he spoke. He turned back to Buck and saw how pale he was. "Jesus, Buck. Sit down before you fall down." He took Buck over to a chair and pushed him into it.
"Damn, Nathan. When you shook your head, I thought.." Buck swallowed hard and lowered his head into his hands.
"I'm sorry, Buck. I didn't think about that. The kid'll by okay. You'll see," Nathan stated.
Ezra moved to stand in front of Buck and then squatted down, placing his hands on Buck's wrists. "God would not be so cruel as to take the lad from us after so short a time as we've had." Buck raised his eyes to stare into an equally pale face. He laughed softly as a tear ran down his face to disappear into his mustache..
"He got to you, too?"
Ezra smiled. "Oh, I do believe so, Buck. JD's heart is so big, I do believe he has corralled us all in there."
"Amen to that, brother," Josiah stated as he took a seat beside Buck.
The five gathered together and Josiah offered up a prayer of thanks for the two lives spared that day. They knew in their hearts that both men would be all right. It might take some time, but they would recover. Movement at the door drew their attention.
"Nathan," said the white coated man that had entered. He held out his hand, which Nathan took .
"Jack. Glad it's you on tonight. How are they?" Nathan asked, then added. "Oh, sorry. These are the rest of my brothers. Vin, Josiah, Ezra, and Buck."
Jack smiled and nodded to each man. "I heard about the additions. Damn lucky man, Nathan. I was an only child. Use to beg my folks for an older brother," they laughed. Then Jack turned serious. "First, both men should recover completely. Chris is in surgery at this moment. I know Dr. Jacobs told you there is no skull fracture. The leg was the only broken bone. It is a bad break, but, with the surgery, he shouldn't have any lasting problems." Nathan nodded his head as Jack spoke. "The youngster's X-ray showed no fractures, no swelling either. He is still unconscious, which has us a little concerned. Chris was able to tell us a little when he woke up. He said the boy was out when he came to and in the floorboard. That was apparently a couple of hours before they were found, judging by what he said. It appears that the young man has been unconscious since the accident, but we don't know sure. He could have come around, but not been coherent enough to get up from the floor. You're well aware, Nathan, the longer he's unconscious, the less likely that he'll wake up."
"But you said they would be okay," Buck protested angrily.
Nathan turned to see three pair of eyes glaring at him and the doctor. "What he said was they should recover. JD has no trauma that would prevent him from waking up. Sometimes people knocked unconscious do not wake up and they slip into comas, but we're not goin'a let that happen. We'll take turns talking to him, stimulate his mind, so he wakes up. Okay?"
"He's being transferred to a room-203, Nathan. Chris will be surgery for a while. I'll tell the nurse where to find you when he goes into recovery."
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