Zak was running late. He and Danny were supposed to pick up Dylan ten minutes ago for CJ's party. The boys had all agreed to get to Mattie's early to lend CJ and Mattie moral support.
Zak ran out the front door and hopped into his SUV where Danny was waiting. He backed out the driveway and hit the gas trying to get to Dylan's house without getting the first speeding ticket of his young driving career.
It had been a crazy week. Starting with Monday…
"Hey, Maxie," Zak had called as he walked into the daycare.
"Zaky!!" the cherubic toddler called as he ran at Zak.
Zak scooped Max up into his arms. "Hey, big guy. You ready to go?"
Max threw his arms around Zak's neck.
"I all ready. Let's go," Max instructed.
"Ok," Zak laughed. "Let me just tell them I have you."
Zak carried Max over to his cubby and pulled his small backpack and jacket out of it. He stopped by the teacher's room to let them know that he had picked up Max and the two were off.
As he buckled Max into his car seat the little boy looked around. "Hey, Zaky, where are 'Pin and Mattie and Dyl'n?"
"Mattie's brother, CJ, picked them up and brought them to the ranch."
Zak laughed as he got into the driver's seat. "Cuz, they were in a hurry. I think they are up to something, Maxie."
"Oh, Oh, are they being bad boys?" Max asked seriously.
Zak grinned. "I don't know, we'll have to find out when we get there."
"Yeah. They better not be bad boys or they gonna get a 'pankin', s'peshily 'Pin."
"Especially, Spin?" Zak was trying not to laugh. "Why Spin?"
"Cuz, 'Pin a bad boy a lot. He needs a 'pankin'."
Zak was shaking as he was driving down the road. Max was sputtering about bad boy Spin all the way to the ranch.
Spin, Mattie and Dylan were waiting excitedly for Zak and Max in front of the main barn.
When Zak pulled Max from his car seat and set him on the ground the toddler immediately ran over to the three boys.
"'Pin!! Mattie!! Dyl'n!!" he yelled as he ran to the three. "You been bad boys!! You gonna get a 'pankin'!!"
The three older boys tried their best not to laugh at the toddler, but were failing miserably.
Mattie looked over to Zak who just laughed and shook his head.
Mattie bent down and picked up Max. "Maxie, why do you think we are bad boys?" he asked.
"Zaky said you come here cuz you up to somefin, that mean you are being bad boys," the toddler declared.
Mattie tried to be serious. "No, Maxie. We came out early because we have a surprise for you and we wanted to get it ready for you."
Maxie was suddenly very excited. "You gotta a 'prise for me?!?" he asked, bouncing in Mattie's arms.
"That's right, Max," Spin answered. "But since you think we are bad boys and should get a spanking, I don't know if we should give it to you."
Max's little face dropped and huge tears came to his eyes. "I sorry, 'Pin…" he started to cry.
Zak walked over and cuffed Spin on the back of the head. He took Max from Mattie and cuddled the little boy.
"Maxie, it's ok, you're going to get your surprise; and you were right," Zak said, shooting a withering look at Spin, "Spin is a bad boy a lot and he does need a spanking. But, I think we'll leave that to Mattie," he snickered.
Max hugged Zak's neck tight. He looked over Zak's shoulder and shot Spin a dirty look.
"Let's go see if we can find Dusty," Zak said as they all walked into the barn.
Dusty was waiting just outside the side door.
Zak put Max down and he ran to Dusty.
"Dussy!!" Max yelled as Dusty swung the little boy into his arms. "You got my 'prise?"
Dusty kissed the boy's cheek and laughed. "It might be around here somewhere. I think you need to close your eyes."
Max scrunched his eyes up tight.
Dusty watched as CJ and Danny led Scout around the corner and stopped in front of the assembled boys.
Dusty stepped forward with Max in his arms and Zak standing right beside them.
"Ok, Max, open your eyes."
Max's blue eyes popped open and he looked ahead. "Are 'J and Danny my 'prise?" he asked.
Zak shook his head and laughed, "No, Maxie, look again."
Maxie looked at the two oldest boys and the horse that stood between them.
"Down," he said to Dusty.
Dusty set Max down and the toddler walked over to CJ and Danny. He loved the two new boys because they were Mattie's and Zak's brothers.
"Danny, is that your horsie?" he asked.
Danny shook his head. "No, Maxie. You met my horse, Angel, remember?"
Max nodded. Danny had given him a ride on Angel before and he loved the big mare.
Max tentatively walked up to the Paint. Scout dropped his head down to Max's level and sniffed at the boy.
"Whose horsie is he?' he asked.
Zak came up behind Max and knelt down by him. "Max, this is Scout. He followed us home, cuz he wants a new boy."
Max patted the horse gently. "Hi, 'Cout," he said and then he turned to Zak. "Who is his new boy?" he asked.
Zak leaned in and whispered in Max's ear, "I think he wants you to be his new boy."
Max's eyes opened wide, the blue irises sparkling in the afternoon sun. "He MINE!?!?"
Zak smiled and nodded. Max grabbed Zak around the neck and hugged him. "Thank you, Zaky." He turned to Scout and wrapped his short arms around the horse's head. "I love you, 'Cout," he told the Paint.
For the rest of the afternoon, the boys all took turns leading Max and Scout around the barnyard and the arenas. Max was beside himself with glee.
When Joe came to get him it was only with the promise of being able to come back to see Scout in two days' time that he was able to get Max to go home.
Dylan looked out the window yet again. Zak was late. In the brief time he had known the boys, Dylan had never known Zak to be late, but he knew they were all distracted by the business of the past week and the looming showdown that Mattie and CJ expected with their father.
He was surprised when Mattie and CJ both insisted that he come tonight. He had assumed that it was a 'family' thing and Mattie assured him it was, but that he was family.
Tuesday had been tough…
Dylan had arrived at the ranch with Zak and Mattie. Spin was serving his first detention of the year, but, according to Zak and Mattie, not his last. So his mom had decided that she would pick him up at school and he would not go to the ranch today.
Mattie went off to look for CJ; they were going to do some work with Ash.
"Dylan, you want to see if we can find Danny and work with Angel and Apollo?" Zak asked.
"I guess so," Dylan was rather non-committal. "I really want to see how Dodger's doing first."
"Well, we can do that," Zak agreed. "Did you get to see him yesterday?"
"I went and visited him for a few minutes before you got here with Maxie, but he was very skittish. It's like most times he remembers me, but then there are times that I'm just another person and he doesn't like any of us."
"Dyl, he just got here--he's been through hell. Give him some time. You know he recognizes you; the more he sees you just being around him the more he'll accept you being back."
"I know. It's just hard seeing him like that, especially when he won't let me help him."
"Look, I'm gonna go find Danny," Zak said as he headed off towards the main barn. "Why don't you go see Dodger, spend a few minutes with him, see how it goes?"
"Ok," Dylan agreed as he headed towards Barn 3 where Dodger was currently sequestered.
Dylan came up on Dodger's stall and immediately knew the horse was not in good shape. He was thrashing around in his stall--he was obviously in pain.
Dylan watched as Dodger kicked at his belly and then tried to drop to the floor.
"NO!!" Dylan shouted as he recognized the symptoms.
He ran for the stall door and grabbed Dodger's halter and lead off the door. He pulled open the stall door and ran inside not caring about his own safety with the pain-ridden horse.
Dylan quickly slipped the halter onto Dodger and pulled at the horse to keep him from lying down.
"C'mon, Dodge," he yelled as he pulled on the lead. "You can't lie down, you have to stay on your feet and walk with me." Dylan pulled on the lead with all his might and Dodger finally gave in and walked towards the boy.
Dylan led Dodger out of the stall and started walking him up and down the hallway.
While he walked Dodger, he reached for his phone and speed-dialed Zak.
"Hey, Dyl. We're just on our way to find you."
"Zak. Dodger's colicking. I kept him from lying down and I'm walking him, but someone needs to call the vet, now!"
"Hold one. We're right outside the barn. Danny's gonna come in to help you and I'm going to run to the office and call the vet. Ok?"
Dylan disconnected his phone and slipped it back into his pocket. He kept walking Dodger up and down the hallway.
"Dylan!" he heard Danny call for him.
"I'm in here, Danny."
Danny came running up the hallway.
"How is he?"
"Well, I've been walking him for about five minutes and he seems to be in a little less pain than when I got here, but he's still keeps trying to drop and roll."
"You know we can't let him do that, right?"
"I know; if he rolls he can twist the intestine and then he might…" Dylan took a deep breath.
Danny walked alongside Dylan and draped his arm over the younger boy's shoulder.
"No, we're not gonna let it get to that point. Dodger's fought hard to survive this point and we're not going to let him give up now."
Both boys walked the horse around the barn for another ten minutes or so and then seeing that Dodger was not in as much pain they stood with him by his stall. Both boys had enough experience to know not to let the horse eat or drink until the vet had examined him.
A few minutes later Zak came into the barn leading the vet.
After a quick examination the vet confirmed that Dodger did indeed exhibit symptoms of colic. He commended Dylan on his quick thinking as he had most likely prevented a situation where Dodger would have required surgery.
The vet sent Danny and Zak to his truck to get some items that he would need. He had Dylan stay with Dodger as the young man seemed to have a calming effect on the horse.
The vet administered a pain killer to Dodger and gave it a few minutes to take effect.
When he thought Dodger was ready, the vet had Dylan and Danny hold him steady while he fed a stomach tube through Dodger's nose. Once the stomach tube was in place the doctor administered antibiotics and laxative to assist in fighting infection and moving the obstruction that was causing the colic.
When he was finished, the vet removed the stomach tube and gave Danny and Dylan instructions for observing and caring for Dodger. He was confident that Dylan had caught everything in time and that Dodger would make a full recovery.
He wanted someone to remain with Dodger for the next several hours to make sure that he passed the obstruction and did not show any more symptoms or worsen.
Dylan was emphatic that he would stay. Danny and Zak compromised. They had Dylan call his parents and get permission to stay later into the evening. Zak went to pick up some dinner for Dylan and Danny. Danny volunteered to stay with Dylan and then drive him home later in Zak's SUV. CJ would drop Zak off at home and then go to his parents' house, as they were expecting his 'arrival' tonight.
Dusty drove Mattie home, leaving before Zak and CJ so that Mattie would be home to excitedly greet his brother, who he had supposedly not seen in months.
Dylan and Danny spent the evening watching over Dodger and strengthening the bond that had begun to forge over the weekend.
By the time the two boys left the ranch that night, Dodger was well on his way to a full recovery.
CJ stood looking out his bedroom window. He was too nervous to stay in one spot. Danny was late. He needed Danny with him if he was going to survive this night.
Danny had called several minutes before to say that Zak had been running late and they were just picking up Dylan.
CJ looked around 'his' room. It was his by default since it was the one that his parents had assigned him, but since he had never actually lived in this house, it felt very much like a guest room. He couldn't wait for this charade to end and for Danny and him to finally begin their life together.
He had been going through this since Wednesday…
CJ had been awakened early Wednesday morning by Mattie jumping on his bed.
"Charlie!!" Mattie giggled as he landed on the bed. "Wake up!! Happy Birthday, sleepyhead."
CJ reached up and grabbed his little brother and pulled him onto the bed and began to tickle him. "What have I told you about calling me Charlie, squirt," he said as he continued his tactile assault on Mattie.
Mattie rolled off the bed to escape the onslaught. He took a deep breath. "I called you that cuz that's what Mother and Father expect me to call you," he explained. "I haven't seen you in months, remember?"
CJ nodded. "Ok, just remember after Friday I am never 'Charlie' again," CJ lectured.
Mattie pouted as he got up off the floor and went over to give his brother a birthday hug. "You'll always be 'Charlie' to me," he said.
"I love you, too, even when you're a pain in the ass," CJ said, his voice choking with affection.
The two brothers hugged for a minute and then Mattie pulled back. "I have a present for you," Mattie said excitedly.
Before Mattie could retrieve CJ's present there was a scratching at the door. Mattie grinned and went to open the door. Cesar, Mattie's mastiff walked into the room looking for his boy. Mattie leaned over and gave his dog a hug and then went back over to CJ's bed while Cesar lay on the floor in front of the door.
CJ looked over at the huge dog. "Jesus Christ, Mattie, I can't believe the size of that dog."
Mattie smiled. "I know. He's probably the biggest one that Grandfather had bred in years. He reminds me of the one that he had when I was really little. What was his name?"
"Diablo," CJ said with a tone of disdain.
Mattie laughed, "Yes, the Devil--you hated that dog."
CJ shook his head. "No, I was terrified of that dog--he hated me."
"He was a big ole teddy bear."
"To you--they all are to you. Zak, Dusty and Danny may be 'horse whisperers', but you've always been the 'dog whisperer'." CJ looked over where Cesar lay on the floor. "That one scares the hell out of me."
Mattie shook his head. "Why? You get along fine with Herc and Loki and Herc is bigger than Cesar."
"Herc's a Dane. Danes are big babies. Especially that one. He's not the brightest bulb in the box, you know."
Mattie nodded and laughed, "Don't let Dusty hear you say that. He knows it's true, but he'll kick your ass if you diss Herc."
CJ laughed, "So where's my present? You need to get ready for school."
"It's right here." Mattie handed CJ an envelope. "I know we're holding most stuff for the party on Friday, but I wanted to give you this in private. It's really for you and Danny. It's from me and Zak."
CJ took the envelope and tore it open. It was a gift certificate for a weekend at a little Bed and Breakfast about a half-hour away in the mountains.
"We figured after all the excitement of the past few weeks and Danny getting an instant family that you guys needed a weekend away from it all. We'll take care of everything at the ranch. You're going this weekend--that way you can get in a little break before all the construction starts at the ranch."
CJ smiled and grabbed Mattie in a hug. "Thanks, little man," he said affectionately.
Mattie looked at him. "Who are you calling little?" he laughed. "I'm almost as tall as you."
CJ wrapped his arm around Mattie's neck and started to give him a noogie. "You'll always be my 'little man', squirt," he said.
"Hey!" Mattie yelled in protest.
As Mattie and CJ wrestled on the bed they suddenly heard a low growl from across the room. Both looked up to see Cesar standing at attention and staring straight at CJ, baring his teeth.
"Whoa!!" exclaimed CJ. "He knows we're playing, right?" he asked as he released Mattie.
Mattie walked over to Cesar. "Cesar!" he snapped. "Don't growl at CJ. He's a good guy," he admonished the dog.
Mattie took hold of Cesar's collar and led the dog over to the bed.
CJ looked on nervously. "What are you doing?"
"He needs to get used to you," Mattie explained. "He's very protective of me, since I've been the only one here except Mother and Father and they just ignore him. Stick your hand out and let him sniff you."
"Oh, sure, and then I draw back a stump."
Mattie laughed, "Oh, my god, and you were my hero. Scared of a little puppy."
"Little puppy!?!" CJ exclaimed. "Look at the size of that beast."
"CJ, trust me, he's a pussycat."
CJ did as Mattie requested and put out his left hand for the dog to sniff. If he was going to lose a hand it wasn't going to be the one he used to write, and beat off, with.
The big dog sniffed at CJ as Mattie petted him and whispered to him.
After a few moments, the big dog leapt up and placed his front paws on CJ's bed and began to lick CJ's face.
Mattie laughed at the grimace CJ made as his big dog slobbered all over his brother.
Since he was running late, Mattie had to run to meet Zak for his ride to school.
CJ had his meeting at the lawyer's office to sign his trust documents.
He met his parents and their lawyer there, as well as the lawyer he had hired.
Surprisingly to CJ, everything went without a hitch when it came time to sign the papers; they were in the office less than thirty minutes and then CJ exited the lawyer's office a multi-millionaire.
Now he just had to get through Friday night.
Danny was holding on for dear life. Zak was so nervous about being late that he was driving like a madman. Danny had already admonished him for his speed and recklessness, but his pleas were falling on deaf ears.
Danny looked back at Dylan in the back seat. Dylan was almost green. His eyes were wide and terrified. Both boys were wondering if they were going to die at the hands of a kid who had only had his license for three weeks.
Of course, knowing what waited for them at CJ's parents' house, Danny wondered if dying in a fiery car crash might be the better option.
It would be the perfect end for this incredibly busy week.
Thursday had been his last chance to change the course of things…
"CJ, you got the trust, your parents didn't say anything, and they suspect nothing, why do we have to do this now?" Danny had asked for the umpteenth time this week. They were lying in bed having just made love.
"Danny, we've been planning this for three years," CJ explained. "We always said that this was how we would handle it. No more hiding in the shadows…or the closet. Isn't that what you want?"
"Yes," sighed Danny. "But that was before Mattie was in the picture. I'm so afraid for him."
"It's not my favorite decision Mattie's ever made, but the kid is stubborn and I can't talk him out of it," CJ said. "And I'm not sure I would if I could."
"He's making a well-thought-out, very mature decision. I can't take that away from him. He needs to do this."
"I'm just so afraid of the consequences for him."
"If it hits the fan, like I know it's gonna, then he comes to live with us. You're not backing out on that are you?"
Danny shook his head. "No way. You know that Mattie is always welcome in our home. Just as I know you will always welcome Zak."
"Sweetie, that was a guarantee even before I knew he was your brother," CJ smiled. "I love that kid almost as much as I love Mattie."
"And I love Mattie; I guess that's why I'm so nervous about this. I just don't want to see him get hurt."
Danny, Mattie is stronger than most kids his age. I know he plays it cool and quiet and he's very low key, but he is a rock--he had to be to survive me and Pete and Natty. I was his protector most of the time, but I was also his big brother, so there were times we went at it and believe me he may seem quiet and mild-mannered but he can give as good as he gets.
"Well, then all we can do is move forward and hope for the best," Danny acknowledged. "So, is he all ready?"
"Yep," CJ nodded. "He packed a bag with clothes and necessary stuff and brought it with him to the ranch today. It's in my Jeep. And he had Spin bring Cesar home with him, so my dad couldn't stop him from taking him."
"Would he really stop Mattie from taking his dog?"
"I don't think so, but with my dad, you just never know and Mattie didn't want to get interrupted storming out of the house by having to track down his dog and he wasn't going to leave that beast there."
Danny laughed. "Beast? You love dogs."
"Not that one. Sucker is huge and scares the hell out of me."
"I don't know. I was scared of the big ones at my grandfather's when I was a kid, too. Not Mattie. If you were looking for him he'd be in the dog kennels with those huge things all over him and him just screaming with laughter. I told him the other day that if you, Zak and Dusty are horse whisperers then he is the dog whisperer. Are you ok with that monster living with us?"
"Of course. I wouldn't ask Mattie to leave him any more than I would ask Zak to leave Onyx or you would ask me to leave Angel. You do know he wants to breed Cesar and start a new line?"
"I know, but that's a ways off. He needs to find the perfect bitch first and the only perfect bitch I know is my sister."
Both boys laughed.
"Be nice," Danny admonished.
"Wait till you meet her, then you'll see," CJ said. "So are we good for tomorrow night?"
"Yes. Zak and I are going to pick up Dylan and be at your house about 45 minutes before the party. Spin is going over right after school and Dusty will meet us there at the same time. We'll be there to support you guys and then we'll take it from there."
"I knew there was a reason I loved you," CJ said as he leaned over to kiss Danny.
"I love you, too," Danny sighed as he returned the kiss. "Tell me, did your dream of this moment include five 'little brothers'?"
"Nope. But, I wouldn't change it for anything."
"Me neither," Danny agreed as the two began round two.
Mattie knocked on CJ's door.
Mattie and Spin entered the room.
"Where are they?" Mattie asked.
CJ was still looking out the window, he turned to the two boys. "Well, Dusty just pulled up and Danny called about five minutes ago. I guess if Zak doesn't wrap them around a telephone pole they'll be here in a few minutes."
All three rushed to window when they heard squealing tires outside. Spin and Mattie giggled as they watched Dylan and Danny leap from Zak's SUV. It looked for a moment like both were considering kissing the ground.
"Well, the gangs all here, let's go get 'em." CJ instructed.
The three ran down the hall stairs and out the front door.
They greeted the newcomers and escorted everyone into the house.
"Wow!" exclaimed Danny. "I never knew it was so big."
CJ grinned. "Ours better be a lot homier and a lot less ostentatious." He whispered in Danny's ear.
Mattie led everyone into the study.
Zak looked around. "Where are your brother and sister?"
"They haven't arrived yet." Mattie explained. "Natty is driving in tonight and Pete wanted to stay at a hotel. He has never actually lived here so he doesn't feel any sentimental attachment to the place and he likes his privacy."
"Yes, my son prefers to spend his time alone in a hotel then with his family."
All the boys turned to see Mr. & Mrs. Alvarez standing in the study doorway. They entered the room and Mr. Alvarez shut the door behind them.
"Boys." Mr. Alvarez began. "Thank you for joining us to celebrate Carlos' coming of age with us."
Mrs. Alvarez greeted each of the boys she knew with a brief kiss on the cheek. Mattie introduced her first to Dylan and then to Danny.
"Daniel." Mrs. Alvarez took his hands in hers. "Finally, we meet. Carlos has mentioned you often, I'm so glad he had such a good friend while he was away at school."
Mr. Alvarez shook each boys hand, he also stopped at Danny. "Daniel, I understand that you have graduated early as well."
"Yes, sir. I had to leave school in January, but I was able to complete my final classes online and earn my degree."
"Very good." Mr. Alvarez smiled. "Then this first gift will be fitting for both you and Carlos."
Mr. Alvarez walked over to his desk and pulled a manila envelope from the drawer. He walked over to where CJ and Danny stood and handed CJ the envelope.
Both boys were naturally curious, so CJ immediately opened the envelope and pulled out the contents.
When they saw what was inside, both CJ and Danny let out an audible gasp.
Inside were pictures of Danny and CJ…partially dressed and kissing.
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