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Thursday, February 25, 2016

TLR Chapter 56

Troy told Ricky he wanted to talk to Mutt this morning and thought he might join him in a seminar this afternoon. The older man gave his blessings, kissed his little Dynamite on the forehead and said, "Remember Chico, no fighting."

Troy shook his head. "Don't worry Ricky, I won't. My backside is still a bit sore and I don't want you to light another fire on top of it."

Ricky smiled and ruffled Troy's hair. "Go ahead and stay out of trouble." He squeezed Troy on the shoulder and the younger man smiled.

"I will."  Troy sauntered down one path after another trying to spot Mutt.  He finally caught sight of Mutt working on the sprinkler system again with two other men. Two really large men. Troy hesitated a moment before approaching them.

Mutt saw Troy coming from the corner of his eye and turned to the younger man with a smile.

"How's it going, Troy?"

Troy glanced at the other two big men and shrugged. "All right...how's it going with you?"

"Pretty good. We're just finishing up here. Troy, I'd like to introduce you to Tank and Cary. They're my bodyguards today." He said with a wink.

The two big men grinned and waved hello to Troy before turning back to what they'd been doing.

Troy said, "Hi Cary, Tank." He gave Mutt a look. "Body guards? From me?"

"Nah, I'm just kidding, Troy. These guys wouldn't hurt a fly. They're just helping me with the pipes. Like I said, we're nearly done and I don't have anything else to do immediately. Want to hang out for a while?"

Troy nodded. "Yeah, if it's okay with your friends."

"Unlike some people I could mention, some of us have to work for a living even if it is our day off," Cary joked, "Don't worry, we'll cover for you."

"Thanks guys," Mutt said with a wide grin. "I'll catch you later."

He turned toward Troy. "So what do you want to do? They have to finish the pipes and I have to redo the dirt and the plants afterward."

Troy asked, "Can we go somewhere a bit private, but soft?"

Mutt thought for a moment and then led the younger man to a thick, grassy meadow in the middle of a wooded area. They both sat on the grass a little gingerly and smiled at each other.

Troy asked, "How are you Mutt?"

"I'm good, my friend.  How about you?  Things went alright last night?" Mutt asked as they settled down. Other than the black eye he'd given him, Troy didn't seem too much worse for wear.

Troy blushed and nodded. "Ricky spanked me." He told Mutt quietly, not looking at the other man.

"I could tell, we brats have a certain way of walking after a good spanking, and we don't especially like hard surfaces afterward." He laughed. "I don't want to say I told you so, but I told you so. Beatings and whippings aren't allowed at the resort. He went easy on you?"

Troy wrinkled his nose. "I don't think so, but I can't be sure, it sure burned a whole lot more than the strapping and he let me keep my sweats on."

Mutt smiled. "Believe me, he went easy on you. It's important, especially the first time.

Troy gave Mutt a look. "It can be worse?"

"There are times when Jeff will give it to me on the bare, or uses a paddle or something else like that danged wooden spatula he has. Those sting like crazy, but he only uses them when I've really done something out of line."

Troy gave Mutt a look. "I thought they weren't supposed to hurt you!"

"A spanking hurts, sure, but it doesn't cause any lasting harm. That's the difference. It's just a spanking." Mutt replied in a matter of fact tone. He didn't want to scare Troy any more than the boy already was.

Troy frowned. "Those things sound as bad as the strap or the switch. What's the difference, paddle, spatula, strap or switch? They're probably all the same. I ain't letting Ricky use nothing on me ever again!"

Mutt sighed a little. "That's for you and Ricky to discuss. If he's learned anything while he's been here, he'll have learned to compromise when it's needed. I mean, I allow Jeff to use the paddle and the spatula, if you don't mind my using that word. I agree to it, and I even admit to deserving and needing it sometimes, but he doesn't always use them. You can negotiate the terms of your agreement, if you choose to go down the DP path."

Troy had started to become agitated and he looked at Mutt. "I can say no?"

"It's a partnership, not a dictatorship, unless that's what you're into, but I can tell you're not. And it doesn't seem that Ricky is either. At least, not now that he's gone to some of the classes."

Troy nodded. "I guess Ricky was right and I should have gone to some of the seminars or classes or whatever you call them." The younger man sighed. His green eyes reflected disappointment.

Mutt could see that something was bothering his new friend. "Talk to me. What's wrong?" He asked softly.

Troy said, "I guess it's too late now to go to the seminars. I guess I'll have to trust Ricky to know what to do."

"What do you mean, it's too late? I thought you were here for two weeks, it's only been a few days."

"We are, but Ricky's already gone to most of them so I guess I missed out except for the one he wants to take me to this afternoon.

"Nah, come on, there's plenty of time and you'll learn a lot about what it means to be in a DP. My friend Adam has a few days off this week, I'll see if he doesn't mind switching hours with me.  Then you and I'll go to some of the intro classes. Sound good?"

Troy smiled and looked hopeful. "Yeah, if it's not too late to go I'd like to go with you."

"Hang on, I'll call him now. He's probably home playing video games, the slacker." He joked. He pulled out his cell phone and made the call.

"Yeah, O'Neill, how's it going?...What do you mean, what do I want?...Can't I just call my best friend for the fun of it?...Well, yeah, ok, you got me, I do want something," Mutt laughed.

He paused and listened to whatever Adam was saying then laughed. "Yeah, I need to attend a few of the intro courses and I was wondering if you'd mind switching shifts with me for a couple of days. I'll explain it later, just say you will and I'll love you forever."

 "Ok, great, start tomorrow?...Cool. Thanks O'Neill…Talk to you later." Mutt said as he clicked the off button.

"It's all set, I'll start classes with you tomorrow. Sound good?"

Troy looked at Mutt. "Your friend agreed?"

"Yep, he was actually pretty happy about it. He likes days off as much as anyone but he doesn't like having to do the chores that go with it." Mutt laughed.

Troy frowned, "Chores? I don't understand."

"We all take turns doing the chores in our houses. When Jeff is off, he'll do the cleaning and cooking, same when I'm off and he's working. Don't you do chores on the ranch?" He asked, confused. He'd always thought that cowboys did almost nothing but chores in a normal day.

Troy laughed. "Yeah, but it's taking care of the livestock and checking fences and stuff. We have someone to do the cooking for the bunkhouse. We just have to do our own laundry and keep our rooms clean.  I have to clean and repair tack, care for any injured or sick animals, help with the branding and birthing stuff like that.  You know, clean the stalls, water and feed the animals, make sure the steers don't get stuck in the mud and if they do get them out and move them from pasture to pasture."

Mutt laughed, "Let me tell Adam that, he won't complain about having to wash dishes ever again."

Troy laughed. "I guess not, but I like the ranch work. It keeps me outdoors and I'm not real fond of house chores."

"None of us are crazy about the house chores, but they're a necessary evil." Mutt joked as he stretched out on his stomach on the grass. "Sorry," He said sheepishly, "My butt still hurts from yesterday."

Troy, seeing Mutt stretched out followed his example. "Mine too. A necessary evil hmm?"

"Yeah, I mean, what would happen if you didn't muck out the horses' stalls, right? It's the same thing at home. No one wants to live in an un-mucked out stall." He laughed.

Troy grinned. "Least of all the horses."

"So, I can't imagine that mucking out stalls is your favorite thing to do, but you do it because it has to be done, same as all the other chores you do. That's one of the reasons I like to work outside too. I like the fresh air and the physical activity. If I had to sit in an office all day like Jeff does I'd go insane."

Troy nodded. "Mucking out stalls is a dirty job, but I don't think I could be cooped up inside. I had enough trouble with that at school." He grinned.

"Did you ever fall asleep in class?" Mutt laughed again. "I fell asleep in one of my classes and actually started snoring. The next thing I knew I was awake and staring at the face of the professor, who apologized profusely for keeping me awake."

Troy laughed. "Yeah, but I got rudely awakened by getting smacked with the ruler."

Mutt blinked back a memory of coming home one day to be greeted by his irate mother who beat the tar out of him because she'd gotten a call from his teacher to complain about him. He swallowed back that story and smiled again.

"I have to get going, Troy. I still have to re-sod and replant that area. Check out the classes and let me know which one you want to go to first tomorrow, ok?"

Troy nodded. "All right and Mutt...thanks." The younger man said, getting to his knees and then standing up.

"Anything for a friend." Mutt smiled as he got up and brushed grass from his clothing. He held out a hand to his new friend. "I'll talk to you soon then. Jeff and I are in the directory so just give me a call."

Troy took Mutt's hand and shook it. "Okay, I'll do that." He told his new friend.

<<<<>>>> 

Troy wasn't feeling so sore anymore after his spanking for fighting with Mutt but was a bit bored and had heard a lot from Mutt that he wanted to think about. He wandered down to the stables to look at the selection of horses. He decided he needed to go riding to clear his head.

Jacob heard a noise in the stables and went in to see what was going on.  He saw the new guy, Troy, checking out the horses.  He smiled and approached the other man.  "Hi. I hear you work at a ranch.  So, what do you think of our horses?"

Troy shrugged and said, "Not bad. You have some decent mounts here."

Jacob grinned. He was very proud of the horses in the TLR stables.  "Here, let me show you my favorite.  His name is Taz... he's a bit of a wild one, hard to ride if you don't know what you're doing, but I love his spirit, and he's a beauty, isn't he?" He asked, leading Troy to the last stall in which a huge palomino stallion stood, pawing the ground gently and snorting.  Jacob took a handful of oats and fed the big horse who nibbled gently, tickling the young man's hand.


Troy approached the big horse slowly and reached out a hand to stroke the soft nose. He crooned to the animal and offered a handful of oats which the huge palomino took carefully. "He's great...I'd like to take him for a ride." Troy told Jacob.

"He's a handful, though. Maybe you'd like to take one of the gentler ones to start.  Taz is named appropriately, he bucks out of the blue, just for the fun of it." Jacob warned.  He was pleased to see that the big horse wasn't shying as he usually did with strangers.

Troy gave Jacob a look. "He'll be no problem for me. I've busted a few broncs during roundup. I'm no stranger to a buckin' horse."

Jacob screwed up his face in thought.  "Yeah, maybe you have, but I think Shorty would have my hide if I let you take Taz out.  He only lets the most experienced riders take him, and even then you'd have to prove to Shorty that you could handle him.  I don't know..." Jacob trailed off.

Troy said, "Let me show you." He began to work at gaining the horse's trust, saddled him up then adjusted the stirrups for his shorter legs and mounted.  "See? He’ll be just fine. See you later." Troy kicked Taz and rode off down one of the trails.

Jacob's jaw dropped and his eyes went wide.  "Oh, crap." He muttered.  "Shorty's going to kill me."

Just then, Jarrod arrived to help Jacob and saw his brother in an agitated state.

"What's wrong, Little Jake?"

"That new guy, Temple, he took Taz." Jacob said, clearly upset.  "I told him not to but he wouldn't listen.  Now if something goes wrong it's my fault and Shorty'll have my hide."

"Listen, I'll do what I can here.  You take one of the horses and go after him. Maybe you can get them back before Shorty gets back.  I'll put the horses out into the corral and finish up mucking out the stalls.  Then I'll come out and help you look if you're not back by then."

"Thanks Jare," Jacob said gratefully as he saddled up the chestnut and white appaloosa and rode off as quickly as he could.

An hour later Bo made his way to the stables.  He had spent the morning out on the trails with some of the less experienced riders and just wanted a break and some quiet.  He entered the stables and called to Little Jake and Jarrod to help him curry down the horses then clean the saddles and tack but the twins were nowhere to be found.  Sighing mightily, he began to unsaddle the horses, putting them aside for the twins to clean once they returned.

As he finished each horse he put it into the corral with the horses that hadn’t been ridden today so that it could drink and get some sunshine before he put them back in their stalls to feed, muttering under his breath about the missing twins.  Even though he was angry that they weren't around to do their jobs, he couldn't help but to feel that something was wrong. 

After he finished currying the horses he went into the stable to check on the mare who was due any day now. She was fine and he offered her a slice of apple, which she took gracefully from the palm of his hand. He went stall to stall, checking to see if they'd all been cleaned properly before he put the horses back inside for the evening. 

That was when he noticed that Cappy, the chestnut and white appaloosa, was nowhere to be found.  He checked the sign out sheet and became worried when he saw that no one had signed the horse out, as was standard operating procedure whenever someone wanted to ride.

He stopped and looked in disbelief at Taz's empty stall.  The big palomino was hard to miss, and he certainly hadn't been out in the corral.  No one else had called to request a trail ride to the best of his knowledge, and no one had signed the big horse out.  He could feel the blood rushing from his face as he realized the implications of the missing horses.  The only thing he didn't know was who had taken them.

"Jake?!  Jacob?" Bo called. He knew that Jacob loved Taz and took him out every chance he got, but he'd never just gone for a ride during work hours and never without telling someone.

"Bo? What's wrong?" came Jarrod's familiar voice. He'd just finished checking the water troughs and fence in the pasture and was coming back to put the horses in their stalls.

"Taz and Cappy are missing, and so is Little Jake.  Did he take them out somewhere? And what did he need two horses for?"

"Nah," Jarrod said, "Little Jake is the most responsible guy I know. I don't think he'd have just taken Taz and gone out like that." He said, unwilling to get his brother into any more trouble

"Well, Taz is gone, his saddle and tack are gone, and Jacob is gone.  No note, no sign out." Bo replied.  "If Shorty finds out he's taken the horse for a ride during work hours, he's going to be in a world of trouble."

"I'll go look for him." Jarrod said quickly.  "I'm sure there's an explanation."

<<<<>>>>  

Ricky came back to the bungalow and found Troy hadn’t returned to join him for the seminar they were going to attend that afternoon. He frowned, not knowing where to start looking for Troy, but began to search the grounds for his Chico.

Ricky came across Mutt. "Mutt have you seen Troy? He left the bungalow this morning to talk to you and he was going to meet me to go to the afternoon seminar. I don't know where he is."

"No, sorry Ricky. He came by and we talked, but I haven't seen him for at least an hour now.  He said he needed time to think."

Ricky frowned. "Wonder what he needed to think about?" He asked out loud to himself. He said, "Thank you Mutt." He continued on his way. When he had searched all the common places with no luck he headed toward the stables.

Shorty was just walking up the path to the bunkhouse when he saw one of the new guests heading for the stables.  He continued up the steps and into the building knowing that Bo would be with the mare that was due to foal.

Ricky saw the veterinarian so he went up to the building and knocked on the door frame. "SeƱor?"

"How are you enjoying our little resort, Ricky," the vet asked as he came to the screened door.

Ricky smiled. "Muy bueno, muchas gracias. But I’d enjoy it more if I could find my little Chico."

Shorty frowned. "How long has he been missing?” he asked.  "We have a lot of missing brats in the first days of their initial visit.”

Ricky said, “For a while now. I went to the lodge to inquire about having dinner brought to our bungalow tonight because I wanted to surprise him and have some time together. When I came back I waited for a bit because he was supposed to meet me to go to a seminar this afternoon. I’ve been searching for about an hour and a half now. I've been searching all over the resort for him."

"Is there any place you haven't checked?"

Jarrod stood at his bedroom window listening to the conversation on the porch.

Ricky said, "I thought I'd check the stables, after all we're vaqueros and horses are our living."

"Come in and I'll see if I can round up one of our stable hands and see if he has seen your wandering brat." Shorty said holding the door open for his guest.

Ricky nodded. "All right."

Jarrod listened as long as he could and then ran down the stairs intending to go to the stables to saddle up and find his little brother before he got too far.  Any missing horse was a huge deal but Taz wasn’t any horse and him missing was an even bigger deal.  

Shorty and Ricky entered the bunkhouse and heard the not so little pitter patter of someone's footsteps on the second floor.  Before they knew it, Jarrod had run down the stairs and nearly run the two men over.

"Oh! I'm sorry." He apologized nervously.

"Jarrod, have you been to the stables this afternoon?" Shorty asked.

"Well, yeah.  Little Jake and I finished up the stables a while ago."  He replied, hoping that Shorty wasn't going to ask him if he knew where Jake was.

Instead, Shorty asked, "Have you seen Troy, Ricky's partner?"

"No sir, I haven't seen Troy at all." He answered honestly.

Shorty felt something wasn't right as his eyebrow rose, "Are you sure?"

"Yes sir, I'm sure I didn't see Troy at all." He answered, hoping that Shorty wouldn't pick up on the emphasis he put on the word ‘see’.  He tried to slip by the two men but Shorty put a hand out and stopped him.

“Where are you headed is such a hurry, little boy?" Shorty asked, turning the young man around so that they were looking at each other.

Always a quick thinker, Jarrod stammered, "I was just headed outside.  I remembered I left the water running behind the stables.  I have to go turn it off before it swamps the corral." 

Ricky listened as Shorty asked the questions.  He found it interesting watching the other Top in action.

"Ok, you better hurry then before James hears you're wasting water again." Shorty chuckled knowing that this was a habit Jarrod was trying to break.

Ricky looked at Shorty as the young man ran off, “Well I suppose I'd better move on and perhaps see if he's down at the lake."

Jarrod ran as fast as he could through the stables toward the corral to get one of the horses.  

Heart pounding, worry for his brother first and foremost on his mind, he ran smack into Bo, landing on the hard packed floor.  Jarrod found himself looking up at the taller man with wide eyes.  "Bo, thank God it's you.  We have a problem, I think." he said breathlessly.

"What's wrong?" Bo asked, concerned.

"What isn’t wrong? Troy Temple, the cowboy, took Taz out against Little Jake's protests.  Little Jake went out after him, now Troy's top and Shorty are looking for Troy and any minute now Shorty is going to realize that Little Jake’s missing as well."

"We have to go after them!" Jarrod said, getting up and dusting himself off as well as he could.  "Anything could happen.  What if that Troy guy gets lost? They've already been out for a couple of hours. We need to find them before Shorty finds out.  Please, Bo."

Bo thought for a minute then grinned, his brat side showing itself.  "What are you waiting for let's go then."

The two men didn't waste any time saddling their mounts.  They walked the horses quietly away from the stables until they were out of sight of the bunkhouse and mounted up.  Jarrod led the way down the closest trail.

<<<<>>>>  

Meanwhile Troy continued riding down one narrow trail after another relishing the horse's smooth gait.  He hoped he would come to some kind of meadow where they could gallop.

He continued deeper into the woods enjoying both the powerful horse beneath him and the day, completely ignoring that  he was supposed to meet Ricky to go to a seminar that afternoon. After all  he was going to go to the seminars with Mutt anyway. Riding out here was so much better than being cooped up in some classroom.

Troy grinned as they came across a small stream. He jumped Taz over it and continued on and finally saw a meadow. He let the powerful palomino have his head and grinned as they pounded in an all-out gallop across it.

Troy pulled Taz up at the end of the meadow and looked back thinking about riding back across it once again, but the horse was breathing heavy and he didn't want to do anything that would harm him. He walked him down another trail and began to bite his lip as nothing in the woods looked at all familiar. 

The young cowboy stopped at the next stream he came upon and dismounted, allowing the horse to drink and rubbed his backside. He wasn't fully recovered from his spanking he could tell, but it wasn't anything unbearable, just an uncomfortable soreness.

Troy after a while realized he had gone further than he had intended. He shrugged and led the horse into another lush meadow where he tied Taz to a tree and allowed him to graze while he relaxed for a while.

<<<<>>>>  

"I only hope he stuck to the marked trails." Jarrod said worriedly.

"I hope so too.  The more experienced riders get cocky and tend to stray wherever they like." Bo replied.  "Let's see if we can pick up his trail."

Jarrod nodded and the two men rode off carefully watching the trail for freshly kicked up dirt.

The trail wasn't hard to find, and as expected, one set of hoofs stuck to the trail and the other veered off.

"Should we split up?" Jarrod asked the older man.

"No, let's see if Little Jake took his radio with him first and try to meet up with him.  I don't know why I didn't think of that before."  

"Me either, I was so worried." Jarrod admitted.  "Go to channel 4." Jarrod admitted sheepishly.  "That's the channel all of us resort brats use when we don't want the tops to know what we're up to."

Bo took his radio off of his belt and switched to channel 4.  "Little Jake. Jacob. Come in Little Jake. Over."

It only took a few moments but it seemed like forever before Jacob answered.  "I'm here. Bo? Over."

"Yeah, where are you? Over."

"I'm following trail 8.  I'm um... well..."

"Following Troy, I know. Jarrod told me.  Come back to 6 and meet up with us here.  It looks like Troy might have gone off the trail around here. Over."

"Will do. I'll be right there. Over." Little Jake answered, relief evident in his voice.  The sooner they found Troy and got the rider and horse back to the stables the less chance there was of Shorty finding out.  At least, that was his hope.

"I'm fairly certain he went this way.  He's going to get lost for sure." Jarrod said as soon as his brother had caught up with them.

"Does Shorty know?" Little Jake asked, trying to hide his dread.

"I'm pretty sure he does. He definitely will if we don't find Troy and Taz soon. He didn't just fall off the turnip truck yesterday."  Jarrod replied, trying to cheer his brother up.

Mutt had been talking to Jax on his walkie talkie using channel 4 when he heard a conversation between Little Jake and Bo.  "Mutt to Little Jake or Jare.  What's going on guys? You never use this channel unless you're up to something. Over." He joked.

"We have a little situation, Mutt.  That guy Troy is missing. He took Taz and we can't find either of them.  And there's no way that Shorty isn't going to notice soon. Over." Jarrod answered.

"Need a hand? Over."

Jarrod sighed in relief.  Mutt knew the resort better than just about any of them, having been there longer than either of the twins.  "Yeah.  Thanks Mutt. Grab a horse and meet us at trail 6 close to where trail 8 crosses it as soon as you can. We think that's where he wandered off. Over."

"Will do.  Jax, I'll talk to you later, ok? Over."

"Sure thing, Mutt." Jax answered.  "Good luck. Over and out."

"Thanks, we'll need it. Mutt out." Mutt said, dropping what he'd been doing and running toward the stables.  
"Who are you wishing good luck too?" Heath asked as he walked in to the room.

"Um, ah, Mutt, um, he's going fishing."

"Great maybe we can get a fish dinner out of him," Heath chuckled and headed for the kitchen.

Jax breathed a sigh of relief.

Mutt approached stealthily just in case Shorty was anywhere nearby.  Not seeing the veterinarian he headed for the buckskin he usually rode.


 Ryan was home again after going to Shorty’s office in the bunkhouse to feed Castiel.  The kitten was sleeping in his carrier when he left and now Ryan was bored to death.  He had been flipping through the channels on his walkie trying to listen to any chatter about the resort when he heard the conversation and grinned to himself, shut off the radio and headed for the stable. He saw Mutt go inside and followed closely.  Mutt looked surprised as he saw Ryan who also grabbed a saddle and blanket, following Mutt to the corral to pick out a horse.  They saddled and bridled the horses quickly and mounted up.  "Not that I'm not glad to see you, Ry, but..."

"You didn't think you could leave security out of searching for a lost brat did you?" He teased as he rode alongside Mutt.

"Whatever was I thinking," Mutt joked back, "the game's afoot now!" He said, tapping the horse’s sides to make it go a little faster

Ryan grinned and kept pace with Mutt until they arrived at trail six.

They met up with Jarrod, Little Jake and Bo in record time.  "Glad you could make it, guys.  We'll need all the help we can get."

Ryan grinned. "That's what security is supposed to do, right?"

"The more the merrier... that is until Shorty catches up with us." Jarrod tried to joke.

"That's why we have to get a move on." Little Jake replied, frowning slightly. "The longer we're gone the more obvious it's going to be... plus he can't help but to notice half the horses are missing. Especially Taz."

"This is not going to end well for us, is it?" Jarrod asked nervously.

"It doesn't look good." Mutt replied. 

They all followed the narrow trail that led into the woods, keeping an eye out for fresh dirt that would indicate the passage of the horse and rider.

Brian, the younger of the two rangers employed by TLR, watched the action from up on the ridge through his binoculars wondering what the heck was going on.  It looked like a meeting of the brats and he didn't want to miss out so he carefully turned his horse, Patch, back down the trail.

"Hey! Bri!" Mutt grinned suddenly.  "Where'd you come from? Man it's good to see you!"

"Looked like a party from where I was sitting." Brian answered with a smile.  "Since when have you ever known me to pass up on a party?"

"Unfortunately it's a search party, not a kegger." Mutt replied, still grinning.  "Where's Con?"

"He's up at our base camp. I just happened to be up on the ridge and looking in the right place at the right time."

"You mean you didn’t tell him where you were going?" Mutt asked, surprised.

"Didn't think I had to. I was already out on patrol so he won't miss me for a while yet." Brian answered.  "So what are we searching for?” he asked.

"One of our guests took a horse and rode off the trail." Jare answered. 

"Not good." Brian agreed.

"Yeah, he made off with Taz." Little Jake replied.

"Taz! Does the guy have a death wish?" Brian asked, astounded. 

"He stole him?" Mutt questioned surprised.

"He's an experienced horseman, and he didn't have any problems saddling or mounting him." Little Jake replied.  "No, I was there. I was showing Taz off and he decided he could ride him and so he did. I told him he needed Shorty's ok.  I never got the chance to sign him out, and now Troy's Top is looking for him, and I think Shorty is looking for me. 

"And none of us are going to fare well if we don't get the two of them back to the stables before dark." Bo added.

<<<<>>>>  

Troy waited for Taz to cool down and then mounted and just wandered down one trail and then another. The young man was riding slowly, making his way back to the resort by the position of the sun when Taz, startled by a rabbit that had jumped in front of him, reared and threw an unprepared Troy off.

The young cowboy surprised by the power under him, landed on his back, the wind knocked out of him, unable to do anything as he heard Taz run off.

'Great. Just freakin' great.' Troy thought to himself as he tried to get his breath back.  He knew he had a long walk ahead of him if Taz hadn't stopped somewhere ahead.  He laid there for a while, unwilling to move.

In the meantime, the other men were still searching for Troy. The sun would be setting in a couple of hours and there was still no sign of the man and everyone was getting worried.

"Look! Over there!" Brian said, pointing to the long grass in the meadow.  "See there? There's some trampled down grass.  Something's been out that way, could have been Troy.  It's as good a place as any to start looking."

"Maybe we should call Shorty," Bo said.  He was the horse wrangler and he was regretting not talking to Shorty to begin with.

"No!" Little Jake said, "Please. I'll be in so much trouble if Shorty finds out I let Troy take Taz, and even more trouble because he's lost.  We have to find him and bring him back, ok?" He asked, plaintively.

Bo chuckled to himself then said, "I guess this bone head move is proving I'm really a brat."

Mutt laughed at the horse wrangler's words.  "Was there any question about that fact?" he joked as the group followed Brian through the path in the long grass.

"Well, I seem to be the only one questioning it," Bo laughed.

"We brats know our own when we see them." Mutt grinned.

“Little Jake, I'm pretty sure we are all in trouble for not getting our tops involved so stop worrying and let's find this guy." Ryan said trying to comfort the younger twin.

"Thanks, Ry. I knew I could count on you guys. I'm glad you came along. You too, Mutt."

"Yeah," Jare added, “And we did bring help.  Sorta.  We have a ranger and a cop."

"And Bo's big enough to scare a bear off." Mutt laughed.

Everyone got a good laugh at that.  Bo blushed, a pleased smile on his face.

Jarrod drew up alongside his brother and patted him on the shoulder.  "We're still in for a world of trouble when they catch up to us," He added.

"Look, down this way," Brian said, pointing to their left.  "He must have led Taz to the spring to drink. We should find fresh prints in the mud.

"Let's stop too and rest and water the horses," Bo ordered.

Mutt looked down at the horse he was riding.  The pinto looked a little wilted and he quickly agreed.  He'd lost track of how long they'd been riding but it must be close to six now. The day had been hot and the horses were feeling it.

Brian led the rest of the way to the spring where they all watered their mounts then drank while the horses rested.

It had taken time to work out the trail but Ryan didn't realize how late it was getting and hoped Shorty had been feeding Cas.   "I think one of us should check in before the resort calls search and rescue."

Unknown to him, Shorty had already gone to James with the news that men and horses were missing.

<<<<>>>>  

Jax listened to James and Shorty talk.  Worry coursed through him.  "James, I think I can help." He told his older partner.

Just then Jeff came up to the house.  He was poised to knock on the jamb when he heard Jax’s declaration and just walked in nodding to James.

"How can you help, little boy," James asked.

“Um, well, Mutt and I were on the radios when we heard Little Jake and Bo talking, and, um..."

Jeff, hearing that the boys had been on the radio, picked up Jaxon's and began to key in to see if he could contact them when he noticed that it was set to channel 4.  He frowned, wondering why they would use that channel when... suddenly the truth hit him.  No one used channel 4...except for sneaky brats, apparently.  He showed the walkie to James, pointing out the channel number wordlessly.

"I haven't heard anything from them in a few hours." The young man quietly said.  "They would have called if something was wrong, right?"

"Unless they're out of range. We'd better call Con and Brian to keep a look out for them." Jeff suggested.

"Who did you hear on the radio, Jax," James asked.

"Um, Little Jake, Bo and Mutt.  Then Mutt left to help them find, um..." Jax trailed off.

"Troy." Jeff said without hesitation. "I just ran into Ricky and he's beside himself because he can't find Troy." He said to James.  "That's why I stopped by here, to tell you."

"Jax, how about you tell us everything you know?" James requested in that tone Jax could never ignore.

"Um, ok, well, Mutt and I were killing time on the radio when we heard Bo and Little Jake.  Little Jake said Troy had Taz and he was worried about Troy getting hurt." Jax started his explanation.

"I doubt Troy will get hurt, he is a bronc rider." James added.  "Go on, little boy."

"Mutt, um, well..."

"Mutt offered his services," Jeff filled in the blank.  "Not thinking things through again."

"Yeah, he went to help." Jax said.  "After that I haven't heard anything."

"Jeff, see if you can get ahold of Con or Brian maybe one or both of them are at their cabin," James ordered.  "No telling how far out our guys are."

"Jax, I want you to try and call Mutt."

"Me? But..."

"Jaxon," his lover simply said.

"Yes, sir." Jaxon agreed taking his radio from James.  "Mutt, come in please. Over."  They all waited for the radio to come to life then he tried again.  "Mutt, Mutt this is Jax.  Come in please. Over."

Jeff said, "They probably have their walkies turned off to save the batteries. Let me call Con and Brian and tell them to keep a look out for our missing brats."

"Yeah, do that and then we better get the tops together." James answered.

Jeff promptly got on the land line phone and called Constantine, the senior ranger, to fill him in on the situation.

Just then there was a knock on the door.  James looked out the window and saw an agitated looking Coral on his front steps.  He opened the door.  "Hello Coral.  What's wrong?"

“James, have you seen Ryan?" the security guard asked.

"Ryan's gone missing as well?" James asked unnecessarily. "This just gets worse and worse."

Jeff's ears pricked up.  "Ryan is gone too? What is going on?" he asked rhetorically.

"And I'll bet Jarrod is with his brother," Shorty added. “And Ryan didn’t make the last couple of feedings for Castiel. I thought he’d got called in to work or something.”

Con picked up his phone and Jeff filled him in on what was going on. He turned toward the other men and said, "Brian is missing as well. Con said he hasn't checked in in a while and he's not answering his radio."

"Maybe they are all out looking for Troy and Taz," Jax suggested.

"Without telling any of us where they were going or what was wrong." Jeff added tightly.

He'd always prided himself on being the sort of Top that people could talk to, and he was disappointed in Mutt for not confiding in him.

Jax shrunk back in his chair not liking the testosterone flowing in the room.

Jeff turned on his speaker so all could hear the ranger.  "He may be with the others, Con."

"If that's true then they're in good hands." Con replied.  "Brian is carrying standard supplies so they'll be able to make a shelter and a fire if I don't find them soon.  I'll keep trying them on the walkie and in the meantime I’ll pack a mule and head toward the last location Brian called me from."

Jeff said goodbye to Constantine and turned toward the newcomer.  "Looks like our brats have taken off to find a lost guest."

"Without telling anyone?" Coral stammered.

"Yes, and we wouldn't even know half of it if Jax hadn't told us what he knew." James said.

"I think they thought they could find him and be back before anyone noticed... as if I wouldn't notice half the herd gone from the stables." Shorty said.

"Hey, guys," Heath said as he came in through the kitchen.  "I didn't get an invitation to the party," He chuckled.

Jeff sighed and explained the situation to Heath as quickly as he could.

The doctor took one look at James and then at Jax and went to stand behind his younger partner.  Resting his hands on Jax's shoulders he asked, “What are we doing about it?"

"I called Con, he's going to be on the lookout for the boys.  I suggest we head out and search for the search party." Jeff quipped.

"Before we go off halfcocked let's give Con a chance to find them," Shorty said.  "They do have their radios and they're all experienced woodsmen, so let's give them time for their fun and then when they get home we can deal with it." Shorty said.

"I hate to put a damper on your confidence, but with their radios turned off it's going to be harder to find them.  But yes, I guess you're right.  We'll let Con do what he does best. He said he'd contact us if he found anything." Jeff replied immediately regretting his own words.  He was worried about Mutt and the others and hated the idea of sitting around and waiting for God only knew how long.

"If Brian is with them then they are pretty far out so even if we did go after them we'd probably miss them in the dark." Shorty surmised.

"That makes sense, Shorty," James said.  "But if we don't hear something by morning we will be going after them."

"Coral can you find Ricky and bring him here?" James asked his security guard.

"Of course.  Let me try their bungalow first, if he's not there I'll put out the word and we'll find him."

Shorty pushed his large frame off the counter he was leaning on, "I'll go feed Castiel and the horses we have left in the stables," He said.  “Call me if you hear anything.”

"Will do." Jeff replied.  There was nothing else he could do until they mounted the search party in the morning so he went home to pack up some food and water.  He was sure that when they caught up with their missing brats, the boys would be starving.

Coral left to find Ricky, asking resort personnel as he went along to keep an eye out for him and contact him by radio.

Heath squeezed Jax's shoulders.  "Don't worry, Babe, they will all be ok." He told the younger man.

"Yeah, until they get home and then they're all dead." Jax sighed


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