Diego was just finishing grooming Domingo when his phone rang.
"Hey, Diego. It's Steph, can I talk to Luka? He must have left his phone in the car."
"Luka is not here, Stephanie."
"You're kidding. He left here an hour and a half ago. He was going to stop at the tack shop and then head out to the ranch; he should have been there by now."
"Maybe he had car trouble," Diego suggested, trying to keep Steph from worrying. "You know that he always forgets to charge his phone. He may be stuck somewhere. I will get one of the other boys to drive me to the tack store to find him."
"Ok. Let me know when you find him."
"I will. I am sure he's ok."
Diego put Domingo back in his stall and went to the house. There was no one around. CJ, Danny, Dylan and Jesse were in the city for Dylan's and Cole's procedures and Mattie and Spin were out. Diego pulled out his phone and called one of his speed dials.
"Hello, Devon. Are you busy?"
"Nope. TJ and I are just hanging around."
"Can you drive me over to the tack store? Luka was supposed to stop there and then come over here and Stephanie is worried because he has not arrived here yet."
"Sure. Come on over and we'll take you."
"Thank you. I will be right there."
Diego quickly changed from his riding clothes into jeans and a t-shirt and left the house to meet Devon and TJ.
Devon drove them to the tack shop with TJ and Diego scanning the road for signs of Luka's car.
"There it is," Devon said. They were at the stop light across from the store. Luka's car was parked on the side. "He must have just gotten tied up looking around."
He pulled his Mustang into the space next to Luka's car.
The three boys exited the car and went into the tack shop. Other than the man behind the counter it was empty.
"Hey, Mr. Brown," TJ greeted the man behind the counter.
"Afternoon, boys. Something I can help you with today?"
"Actually, we're looking for Luka," Devon explained. "His sister said he was stopping here before coming to the ranch and he never made it and his car's still here."
"It is?" Mr. Brown had a confused look on his face. "He was here...must have been over an hour ago. He bought a few things and then left."
"Was anyone else here when he was here?" Diego asked.
Mr. Brown shook his head. "No. It's been a pretty slow day."
"Let's go take a look at his car," TJ suggested. "Maybe he did have car trouble or maybe he decided to go to another store."
They thanked Mr. Brown and went out to the parking lot.
TJ stood in front of the store and looked around. The shop faced the road with two huge plate-glass windows, but the area that Luka had parked in could not be seen from the store.
"TJ!! Look at this!" Devon called from where he and Diego stood on the other side of Luka's car.
TJ ran over and saw Diego holding a plastic bag with the tack shop's logo on it.
"Where did you find that?" TJ asked.
"It was lying on the ground," Devon replied.
"Dev, call Sarge," TJ instructed. "Diego, call Steph and see if she's heard anything."
Chris stood in shock as he looked at Luka's unconscious form lying on the bed.
Carter stood holding the hood in his hand. "Don't you like your present?" he asked with a menacing grin on his face.
"I figured you'd love a chance to get back at one of these ranch fags," Carter explained. "We saw him this morning and grabbed him for you. Sam and Ethan wanted to take him out there, but I made them go easy on him so that you could get your turn."
Chris felt a wave of nausea go through him. Luka's pale face was bruised and bloody--he had obviously been beaten. Chris could only imagine what damage had been done to his body.
Chris' mind was whirling. It was three against one and there was very little room to maneuver and he had to worry about Luka as well. He could only hope that Ace and Maddy were close by and listening to the conversation.
Chris took a deep breath and steeled himself to continue. "Looks like you guys already worked him over pretty good," he laughed.
Carter grinned. "They softened him up, but nothing too bad. We saved him for you. I was actually hoping for that little red-headed shit so I could finish what I started, but when I saw this one, I figured you could get yours in."
Chris' mind quickly registered Carter's confession and he prayed the earbud was picking up everything.
"So, do I just get my licks in or can I cut him and finish him off?" Chris asked, trying to sound as over the edge as Carter seemed to be.
"We'll finish him off before we dump him," Carter replied. "For now we can play with him. No one knows about this place and it's pretty secluded. We don't want him identifying us, so we'll take care of him."
"That other kid never ID'd you?"
Carter shook his head. "Nope. I got him from behind." He held up the burlap hood in his hand. "Got this over his head and then beat the hell out of him."
Chris smiled. Carter interpreted it as approval, when in actuality Chris was happy that he had heard Carter's confession.
Chris again looked at Luka. "Can we at least wait till he wakes up?" he asked. "It's not gonna be any fun to beat the hell out of him if he can't even feel it."
Carter laughed. "I knew I was right about you. These two..." he gestured towards Evan and Sam, "they have their doubts, but I told them you were one of us, you wanted to get rid of these fags just like we do."
Chris nodded and smiled. He silently willed Luka to stay unconscious; he knew that he could keep Carter and his friends at bay as long as Luka stayed quiet.
His heart dropped as he noticed Luka start to stir.
"Where is he?" Ace asked as they drove down yet another road.
"I don't know," Maddy replied. "I'm not getting the signal from his tracker. He was in this area and then we lost it."
They had been tailing Chris since he had left the apartment with Carter and his friends. Ace had made sure they had kept a safe distance, but they had lost sight of Sam's car. Neither Ace nor Maddy was familiar with the area, so they were lost. Ace kept driving them around but they could find no sign of the boys or the car.
"Maddy, are you hearing this?" Ace asked excitedly as he pulled the car over.
She nodded. They could hear Carter talking about a present and it was obvious that one of the ranch boys was there with them. They also heard Carter's full confession about Spin's attack.
"We've got to find them," Ace said as he pulled back out. "Chris can't handle three of them and we have no idea what shape the other guy is in."
"Wait. Chris just said something about him being unconscious. Hopefully, he stays that way to buy us some time. I'm going to call your dad, we need the police."
She picked up her cell and placed a quick call as Ace continued to drive around.
When she disconnected she sighed. "It's Luka."
"What?!" Ace asked. "How do you know?"
"They found his car at the tack shop and no one's seen him," Maddy explained. "Sarge is calling the police and sending some guys so we can do a grid search. If only Chris would hit his panic button."
"It sounds like things are pretty tight in there," Ace said. "He's probably trying to be careful."
As if on cue, a chime went off on both Maddy's and Ace's phones.
"There he is," Maddy said as she looked at the small flashing light.
The three boys all looked at Luka as he started to wake up. While they were distracted, Chris reached into his pocket and hit his panic button. He didn't know how long it would take Ace and Maddy to get here, but at least he had gotten the signal out, now he needed to keep Luka safe.
Luka's eyes fluttered open and he scanned the room slowly. "Where..." He saw Chris. "Chris?" he whispered. "What are you..."
He was cut off by a sharp slap across his face.
Chris grabbed Carter's wrist. "He's mine," Chris said. "If you're going to give me a present, you have to let me play with it." He grinned at Carter.
Carter smiled and dropped his arm. "Sure. Sorry."
Chris had an idea.
He reached down and started to help Luka up.
"What are you doing?" Sam asked suspiciously.
Chris grinned. "He's mine, right? Well, I'm gonna use the fag." He laughed as he lifted Luka off the bed. "Maybe if you're good, I'll let you have some before we finish him."
Carter laughed and nodded as he watched Chris drag Luka into the adjoining bathroom.
Chris turned and locked the door. He gently set Luka down on the toilet.
"Luka?" he whispered. "Luka?"
"Chris, what's going on?"
"Listen carefully: those guys out there are the ones who attacked Spin. How did you get here?"
"I don't know." Luka shook his head. "I was at the tack shop and was putting some stuff in my car and then I woke up here. "
"Does it feel like anything's broken?"
"I don't think so, just sore; my face hurts like hell."
"They worked you over pretty good," Chris said apologetically. "Look, Ace and Maddy should be on the way; I sent them a signal, but I don't know where they are. I have a gun on me, do you think you are strong enough to make a break for it?"
Luka looked at Chris and nodded. Chris had never seen such a determined look in Luka's eyes.
"I'm good," Luka said, his voice cold.
"Luka, we're gonna be good," Chris said gently. "We're gonna make it out of here."
"Let's do this," Luka said standing up.
"Take a few minutes," Chris instructed. "Turn on the faucet and splash some water on your face."
When Luka turned the water on, Chris started yelling. "Fucking faggot!! Take it!! You know you love it!!" Chris slapped his own arm hard several times so that the sound echoed in the room.
Luka turned and grinned at Chris. "Oww!!" he yelled. "Please stop...please..." he cried.
Chris nodded. "Shut up and take it!!" he hollered. "Uh, uh, uh," he groaned.
Luka shook his head and stifled a laugh. He knew they were in danger, but Chris' performance was funny from this side.
Luka leaned forward and whispered in Chris' ear, "I'm ready when you are."
"Ok," Chris whispered back, pulling the small pistol from his waistband. "Hold on." He pulled up his pant leg and pulled a ka-bar knife out of the sheath he had strapped to his calf. Luka's eyes went wide. Chris shrugged. "Ace is a bit over-protective." He grinned as he handed the knife to Luka. "We'll walk out of here and keep the three of them on the other side of the bed. Just run for the door; if anyone gets too close then use the knife, but don't stop running."
Luka nodded. "Ok."
"Here," Chris instructed as he wrapped his arm underneath Luka's. "Lean into me like you are about to collapse; it will keep them off guard."
Chris opened the door and practically dragged Luka back into the bedroom. Ethan and Sam were sitting on the bed while Carter was pacing on the other side of the room.
When he heard the door open, Carter turned and grinned at Chris. "How was it?" he asked.
Chris nodded and smiled at Carter. He was less concerned with him than he was with Ethan and Sam. He had no doubt that he could take Carter, who was athletic, but roughly the same size as Chris. Ethan and Sam on the other hand were heavier and more muscular.
Chris saw the bedroom door right next to where he and Luka stood. He tapped Luka's back. Luka nodded slightly.
Chris was about to move when they all heard a loud crash from somewhere in the house.
"POLICE!!" they heard as another crash came from outside the room.
"Run, Luka!" Chris ordered as he pushed Luka towards the door.
Luka was out the door in a flash with Carter in hot pursuit.
"Stop!" Chris yelled at Carter leveling the gun at him.
Carter slipped through the door and Chris turned to see Sam launch himself in his direction.
"You son of a b..." Chris heard Sam yell as he landed on him. He fell backwards. He felt a sharp pain in the back of his head and heard a noise like thunder and then everything went black.
Dylan was lying in the bed in the pre-op room. Normally, visitors would be limited to immediate family, but the doctors had given special permission for Jesse to stay with Dylan until he was brought in for his procedure.
"How are you doing?" Jesse asked. He was perched on the side of Dylan's bed.
"Ok," Dylan said absently.
"You're not ok," Jesse replied. "Something's bothering you."
"What if it doesn't work?" Dylan said quietly. "What if we go through all this and get our hopes up and it doesn't work."
"It's going to work," Jesse said emphatically. "You heard Mama O: Seb sent me to you so that we would be together and you would save Cole."
"Do you really believe that?"
Jesse nodded. "Yes. I believe that Seb is my guardian angel and that he is watching over me. He sent me to Ocala, he sent me to Danny and brought me to you. He brought us together so we could heal each other and be happy. He brought us together so that you could save Cole and I could have the love of my life and a little brother. We'll both have a little brother."
"Do you ever think what would have happened if..."
"If you hadn't..."
"If I hadn't found Danny?"
"I can't think about that," Jesse said. "That's another reason I know Seb was looking out for me: I had so many narrow escapes as it was, but without Seb watching, eventually my luck would have run out."
"Do you still miss him?"
"I miss him every day," Jesse replied sadly. "But he was my past and you are my now and my future. We're gonna get you through this and then get Cole healthy and then start on this adventure in New Hampshire."
Jesse grinned. "That's what's bothering you, isn't it? New Hampshire?"
Dylan shrugged. "I just keep wondering if we made the right decision. I'm gonna miss everyone so much."
"Dyl, listen: I'm gonna miss everyone too, but we did make the right decision. This is the best thing for us and for our future; we get a great education, we get to be kinda independent and we get to compete. We'll still see the guys and still have our families, but we'll make new friends too."
Dylan smiled shyly. "As long as I don't have to do it alone."
Jesse took Dylan's hand and kissed the back of it. "You'll never be alone."
"I love you so much."
Chris' head was throbbing and there was an incessant beeping all around him. He slowly opened his eyes.
"Hey." Ace's smiling face greeted him. "Welcome back."
"Where am I?"
"You're in the hospital."
"Hospital?" Chris asked as he tried to sit up. A sharp pain went through his head and neck. "Oww!" he cried as he laid back down.
"Easy there, Cowboy. You gotta pretty good bump on your noggin."
"What happened? How's Luka?"
"I'm fine," Luka said from behind Ace. He stepped around to the other side of Chris' bed holding Diego's hand. "Thanks to you."
"I'm glad you're alright, but what happened?"
Ace explained. "Well, after Maddy and I got your signal we were able to track you down to that house, but we had to wait for the police before we could get in. When the police busted in, they saw Luka running out of the back bedroom being chased by Carter. Carter grabbed Luka and Luka swung around and cut him good with your knife."
"You did?" Chris asked.
Luka blushed and nodded. "Must have been the adrenaline. I just nicked him."
"But he stopped Carter in his tracks and the cops grabbed him. Then we heard the gunshot."
Ace nodded. "Looks like Sam made a jump at you and the two of you fell to the floor. You hit your head on the dresser and were knocked cold and the gun went off."
"He's alive," Ace said. "You got him in the chest. He's in surgery, but the doctors say he'll live."
"How long have I been out?"
"A couple of hours. The doctor said you've got a concussion and are gonna have a nasty headache for a few days. They're gonna keep you overnight and then they'll let you go home."
"Did you get the recordings?"
Ace smiled and nodded. "Every word. Even if we hadn't, we'd have gotten all of them on kidnapping and beating up Luka, but we'll get Carter on Spin's assault too. Speaking of which, are you up for some visitors?"
"I guess so."
"Well, be prepared," Ace laughed as he went to the door.
When Ace opened the door a flash of red ran through and was at Chris' side. Spin was hugging Chris tight.
"Oww, easy Spin," Chris moaned.
Spin stood back. "Sorry," he said sheepishly. "I'm just so grateful to you. If you hadn't done this they'd have never caught him."
Mattie came up and stood next to Spin. "Yeah, Chris, thanks. I know Spin will sleep easier knowing that Carter's been put away."
"Glad I could help, guys."
"You did more than ‘help', Chris," Sarge said as he came into the room with Maddy, Devon, TJ, Zak and Dusty. "You handled this afternoon with courage and professionalism. None of us expected what they pulled with Luka and you stayed calm and thought on your feet, getting Luka out of that room and figuring a way out. It was just dumb luck that the police got there at the same time."
After a few minutes, one of the nurses came into the room; she took one look at the assembled crowd and shook her head. "Ok, folks, this hero needs some rest, so let's clear out for now."
Everyone filtered out of the room until just Spin and Luka remained.
"Thanks for what you did today, Chris," Luka said. "Those guys were going to kill me."
"I'm glad I was there and they can't hurt anyone else."
"C'mon, Spin, let's let him get some rest," Luka said as he ushered Spin out of the room. "We'll see you later, Chris."
Dylan woke up in the recovery room. His parents and Jesse were staring down at him.
"Hey, sleepyhead, nice of you to join us," his mother said.
Dylan grinned weakly. "Di..." He croaked.
"Wait a second," Jesse instructed. He took a few ice chips from a pitcher and brought them to Dylan's lips. Dylan parted his lips and the chips slid into his mouth.
"Mmm," he moaned as the cold ice melted and soothed his dry throat. "Thanks," he whispered. "Did everything go alright?"
Jesse nodded. "Everything went fine. They're getting Cole ready for his procedure. It will be a while before we know that everything has taken, but your part's done."
"So now we just wait?"
Jesse bent down and kissed Dylan forehead. "That's all we can do," he said quietly. "Wait and hope and pray."
The rest of the summer flew by.
Cole's transplant was ruled a success by his surgeons and his cancer was soon in remission. Within a month of the transplant he was ready to return home to Florida with his parents and the new puppy which was a gift from his brothers. Cole was sad to leave, but Jesse and Dylan both promised to come and visit when they had a chance.
Carter, Sam and Ethan were all charged as adults. After hearing the tapes that had been made of them, their attorneys strongly recommended they accept the prosecutor's plea deal, which they did. All three young men were sentenced to prison time.
Second Chances Ranch was thriving. Danny was becoming a popular trainer. He had enjoyed working with Tony over the summer, but had worked to find several replacements since Tony would be moving on soon.
The rescue had also become a success. Donations and volunteers continued to come in. By the end of the summer they were close to capacity and Dusty had started to develop a network of ‘foster homes' that could take in horses that needed homes but were not in as dire conditions as some of the horses they rescued. This helped with some of the cases that Animal Control called him about.
The second Saturday in August, the ranch was closed to the general public. Dylan and Jesse would be leaving for school the next day. Danny and Ace would be driving up with them and Tony would be driving the horses up. Zak and Dusty would also be leaving on their trip to visit his grandmother. CJ had decided that there would be a going-away party for Dylan and Jesse combined with a birthday party for Zak, whose birthday would be while they were in Arizona.
Instead of a big ‘do', the boys had all insisted that they wanted the party limited to the immediate ‘family'.
About noon a line of horses and riders started down the trail to the lake. Maxie and Scout led the way followed by a column of boys riding side by side.
They spent the afternoon at the lake swimming, playing touch football and goofing around.
"So you guys already to go?" Brandon asked as he and Erik came up to Dylan and Jesse who sitting on the lake shore.
"As ready as we're gonna be," Jesse replied.
Dylan nodded. "We'll miss it around here, but it'll be a fun adventure."
"You guys will have fun," Erik said. "The Lancaster Academy is supposed to be one of the best in the country. My parents were very impressed that I had friends going there."
"So, Brandon, did your dad make up his mind yet?" Jesse asked with a grin.
Brandon beamed and nodded. "Finally!! As of now, Chance is MINE!! He kept going back and forth, cuz my birthday was in May; he wanted to make me wait till Christmas, but I kept going at it and he finally gave in. Now we just have to work on Erik's parents so he can adopt Sammy."
"How's that going?" Dylan asked.
"Pretty good," Erik answered. "My dad is all for it: he thinks the ranch has, as he puts it, pulled me ‘out of my shell'; my mom is still a work in progress, but I think she's coming around; and Dusty's promised Sammy's not going anywhere."
"No, he owes you after the way you helped him with Rain," Dylan said. "She's so far ahead of where she would have been."
"He'd have done a great job with her anyways," Erik said indignantly.
Dylan laughed. "Yes, he would have, eventually, but he was busy with the rescue; he still is and you took on a lot of the saddle time with Rain. If he hadn't had you things would have gone a lot slower, so he's definitely gonna make sure you get Sammy if there's any way to make it happen."
"What time are you guys leaving for the airport?" Devon asked. He and TJ were sitting at the picnic table with Zak, Dusty and Ace.
"Mattie and Spin are driving us over," Dusty said. "We're gonna leave about 8:00--we have an 11:15 flight."
"Your grandmother must be excited to see you," Ace said.
Dusty nodded. "She is. She sounds kinda tired the last few times I've spoken to her, but I'm sure once we get there she'll be her usual self."
"Ace, what time are you guys pulling out?" Zak asked.
"The caravan leaves at dawn."
TJ shook his head. "How many kids head off to private school with four horses in tow?"
"I know," Ace agreed. "But, the whole reason Trevor gave them Jupiter and Grey Wind was to compete and you know they ain't about to leave Val and Dodger behind. Jess is gonna drive his car, Danny and I are taking one truck and trailer and Tony's taking the other. We'll leave one trailer there with Tony's truck and Danny and I will drive the other one back."
"How long is the drive?" Zak asked.
"Well, I guess we could do it in one long day, but since we've got four drivers for three vehicles and four horses we're gonna take two days. We'll get there late morning on Monday. The guys don't have orientation until Wednesday. "
"Why are they going so early since we don't start classes for a few more weeks?" Spin asked as he and Mattie walked up to join the others.
"Cuz they are student athletes," Ace answered. "They have to be there early to start working with the team, though at this point they don't know how big that team is going to be."
"Doesn't Tony know?" Mattie asked.
Ace shook his head. "Naw, he's just going to be a riding instructor and the assistant coach; the coach is some guy they just hired. He sent the guys a letter, but other than that they haven't had much contact with him yet."
"Well, even if the team is just the two of them, they'll kick ass," Spin declared.
As afternoon rolled into evening, a large barbeque dinner was laid out for all to enjoy. After dinner they all sat around the campfire and told stories, sang songs and enjoyed their last few hours together.
Early Sunday morning everyone was up and gathered in the compound driveway. Jesse's car was loaded with his and Dylan's belongings and the horses had been loaded into their trailers.
Jesse and Dylan stood by Jesse's car as everyone said their goodbyes.
Both thought they were holding together pretty well until Mattie and Zak stepped up to them. Soon the four were openly crying and embracing each other.
Zak took Jesse aside. "I'm counting on you to watch out for him," he warned. "Dyl's like a brother to me. You may be my ‘nephew', but I'll kick your butt if you don't take care of him." He tried to sound stern, but he and Jesse just grinned at each other.
"You know I will," Jesse said as he hugged Zak. "Thank you so much, Zak. If you hadn't helped him to heal, he wouldn't have been here for me to find."
"I'm just glad you guys have each other."
Devon came up and wrapped his arms around Dylan's and Jesse's shoulders. "I'm gonna miss you guys. You are the closest things to little brothers I'm ever gonna have."
"We'll miss you, too," Jesse said as the two hugged the older boy.
After a few more goodbyes, the boys stood by Jesse's car.
"Ok, are we done?" Jesse laughed as tears streamed down his face.
"Never," Spin said as he ran at the two, who soon found themselves at the center of a group hug.
"Ok!! Ok!!" Danny yelled. "We need to hit the road or those horses are going to bust out of the trailers."
Everyone got into their cars and started them up. The two trucks pulled out first. Jesse and Dylan waved to everyone from Jesse's car. The gathered crowd all waved back. Mattie held Kaya's collar so she didn't try to follow the car down the drive.
Jesse reached over and grabbed Dylan's hand as he turned onto the main road. Both boys still had tears filling their eyes. Jesse squeezed Dylan's hand tight.
"It's all good," he said.
"I know. As long as we're together."
"We always will be. I love you."
"Me, too. Forever and always."