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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

TLR Chapter 21

He was leaning on the seat of his bike as Duke and Dean pulled up to him.

Duke was a good 6'6", weighed at least 285 pounds, and was solid as a brick house. Mutt had met Duke’s brother before. The man was two inches shorter and maybe fifteen pounds lighter than his brother. Dean opened the tailgate of his truck, slid the ramps out, started the bike and easily maneuvered it up and into the truck bed where he proceeded to tie the bike down with Duke helping as much as he could. Frustrated when his limited movement caused him to hit his arm, Duke wished he hadn’t taken off the sling and tossed it aside when he was in the boat.

Duke kept glancing at Mutt, questions building up as he took in the split lip and pale complexion on the normally very tanned face.

"Now,” Duke began, "I know that there's nothin’ wrong with that bike. We gave it a good once over when we secured it. So why don't you tell me what really happened and why you're all the way out here instead of the resort?" He asked, a tone of command in his voice.

"I had to run an errand." Mutt explained, leaving out the reason for his presence in a town three hours away from home.

"What kind of errand ends up with you in this condition, kid?" Duke demanded sternly, taking in the bruises which were already showing on the young man's face. “Out with it. The truth now. Don't make things worse for yourself than they already are."

Blushing, Mutt outlined his reason for being so far from home.

Duke’s eyebrows almost disappeared into his hairline. He gave Mutt an appraising look. "I'm assumin’ that Jeff has no idea where you are?"

With a guilty expression, Mutt admitted that Jeff, indeed, did not know where he'd gone.

Duke gave Mutt a searching look, and finding no prevarication in the amber eyes, he nodded his head. "Take us to where this jackass lives. I'll have a little talk with him."

"No! Duke! Don't, please? I just want to go home. He said he'd have me arrested for aiding and abetting. If I go to jail I'll have to tell them where I live, and the resort will be in danger. I can't do it!"

"Don't you worry about a thing, kiddo. We're just gonna have a talk with the guy."

 "He's big, Duke. A little out of shape and a few inches shorter than you, but he's as mean as a junk yard dog."

"He did that to you?" Duke asked flatly, raising an eyebrow at the cut lip and bruising.

"Yes." Mutt replied.

"Well, let's see how he does against someone his own size. Show me where this guy lives."


 "Don't worry, kid. I won't lay a finger on him. We're just gonna have a chat." Duke replied with a dangerous smile. “Besides, Dean will be there just in case.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, big bro,” Dean hissed.

Dean drove Duke and Mutt to the area where the house was located, stopping a ways from it after following Dean's GPS. Once again, they could just see there was only the mid-sized car in the driveway.

"That doesn't mean he's not home." Mutt said nervously. "I thought he was out of the house when I went in to give Mrs. Thomas the letter, but he was somewhere nearby, listening to the whole conversation... that's when he came after me."

Dean reached over and pulled a pair of binoculars out of his glove compartment, scanning the house quickly for any signs of the vehicles Mutt had described. “Cadillac’s there in the garage, but the SUV is missin',” Dean said. Duke sighed in frustration.

"He's not home, from what I can see. We're goin’ to have to lay low and wait for him." Dean suggested.

 "We can't sit here in your truck until he shows up. Someone is bound to notice it and ask questions." Mutt warned.

"True enough,” Duke agreed. "I know of a diner a few blocks down, we can go and have somethin' to eat and come back in a little while."

Dean pulled away from the curb and the three of them went to the diner.

Dean ordered a turkey club and an iced tea, then leaned back while Duke placed his and Mutt’s order.

"I'll have the roast beef club and a black coffee, please, and my friend here will have the clam chowder and a Coke, with a glass of ice on the side." Duke told the waitress. “And a few extra napkins, please.”

"Duke, I don't want clam chowder, or another glass of ice." Mutt complained.

"You're goin’ to need the ice for that lip of yours, and the clam chowder will burn less than the chicken noodle. You need something easy to get down and somethin’ that requires little or no chewing, judgin’ from that mark on your face," the retired Marine replied.

Mutt swallowed nervously. Jeff was not going to be happy.

The drinks arrived and Duke scooped out most of the ice into a napkin and instructed Mutt to alternate holding it against his lip and face. The food arrived and Mutt's stomach growled, but he had to admit that the soup was easier to handle than a sandwich would have been. After they ate, Duke paid the bill, Dean left the tip, and the three of them headed back toward the Thomas house. The SUV was in the driveway this time. They drove another block further and walked back to the house.

"Come with me. You're goin’ to knock on the door." Duke told Mutt. “Dean just hang back and come on in if we need you.”

Mutt looked worriedly up at the much taller men. Duke laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry. I'm right here." He smiled.

Duke wasn’t wearing his sling but still had his splint on.  He had tried to go without it on Thursday but his arm always hurt so bad that he put it back on.  He hated to admit that Jake was right.

Mutt knocked on the door.  He felt a jolt of fear when Gene opened it and instinctively backed away.

"Back for more, runt? I have to admit you're the last person I expected to see on my doorstep. Are you going to answer my questions or do I need to rough you up some more and call the police?" he sneered as he followed Mutt down the steps.

"You're not gonna touch him,” came the silky smooth voice from around the corner. Duke came into view and stood beside his younger friend. Mutt knew Gene was tall, but Duke was taller, and the bully visibly shrank into himself as he looked up into Duke's steely grey eyes.

"Who... who are you?" Gene questioned, trying to regain some of his bravado. "His big brother? You gonna beat me up?” Gene looked at the splint on Duke’s arm and grunted, “You don’t look like you’re able to take on a fly.”

"No but I’m his big brother,” Duke said pointing over his shoulder with his thumb at the dark skinned man leaning against a birch tree in the front yard. “As for not bein’ able to take on a fly…well I took out a bull moose, I can take you out too." Duke grinned.

Gene stepped back but hissed, “Go right ahead! Then I'll sue both of you for assault."

Duke pinned the man with a look that he had perfected in the Marines. One that had any new recruit shaking in his boots. "Assault? You're a fine one to talk," he replied, gesturing toward Mutt. "You're nothin’ but a bully, Mister Thomas,” Duke slurred the word Mister. "You're welcome to try to do to me what you did to my young friend here.

He slowly looked the other man up and down. “From the way you’re limpin’ I’d say that you didn’t come out of things without a scratch. Perhaps I should add a few more hurts to the ones you seem to be experiencin’? I can snap a bone or two…just with my good bare hand…maybe…that could be fun.” Duke gave the man a feral smile. “Hmm…or perhaps just usin’ pressure on a vital place that could cost a man a life? I’ve done that before when facin’ the enemy as a Marine. I don’t need two hands to do that either.”

Gene backed up the porch steps, never taking his eyes off the mountain of a man in front of him. Finally getting his nerve back, Gene growled, “I don’t care if I ever see that little bastard again and you can tell him I’ll be pressing charges for the canoe he took.”

“Gene!” Katy Thomas snapped, “You will do no such thing!” She appeared suddenly behind him carrying a shoe box. She came around in front of Gene and looked at her husband with fire in her eyes.  “I've called the police and told them that Jaxon has contacted me and is alive and well. As for you, ever since Jaxon came to live with us you've made his life hell. And I stood by quietly, but not anymore on this.  You will leave my son alone.”

She turned to address the three men who were standing there on the front walkway, “Please tell Jaxon I’m sorry I didn’t protect him. Tell him I do love him and will support his choice to leave here. I wish him the peace and happiness he couldn’t find in his own home,” she quietly told the men. She turned to her husband. “Go back in the house, Gene, I’ll be there in a minute,” she said then faced Mutt. “This is Jaxon’s,” she said holding the box out to him. “Please give it to him for me. It’s the only thing he has left of his dad’s. He’s always treasured it because they made it together.”

Just as Mutt reached out to take the box, Gene stepped around his wife and knocked the box from her hands. In shock, Mutt and Katy watched as the box hit the porch, broke open and the contents bounced down the steps.  “There, give that to the little fag,” Gene hissed and he stomped on a piece close to his foot.

Without even thinking, Duke had the big jerk by the front of his shirt, his damaged right fist ready to smash Gene’s face. Dean ran forward when his brother grabbed Gene. Before Duke could follow through Dean pulled his brother off his target. “If I was you I’d get your ass back in your house like your wife said,” Dean growled at Gene not letting go of Duke.
With a last look of mingled belligerence, embarrassment and uncertain fear, Gene turned away from the two men who had humiliated him and slammed the door in their faces.
Mutt scrambled to pick up all the pieces of an obviously handmade chess set. Jaxon’s mom helped him get them back in the damaged box. “Thank you, Mrs. Thomas,” Mutt said. “I’ll make sure Jax gets it.”
“Nick, Jaxon’s dad, helped my son make a board to go with the chess men but, well,” she said looking toward the house, “this is all I could save of it.”

Mutt noticed she held a narrow strip of wood in her hand. Looking closer he saw ‘Happy Birthday, Jax. Love Dad’ along with a date burnt in to the wood. Mutt patiently waited for Jax’s mom to give him the piece. They both stood when she finally did pass the piece to Mutt.

“Like I said before, Mrs. Thomas, Jax is in a safe place now and very happy,” Mutt assured Jax’s mom. “I’ll make sure he gets this.” He added holding up the box.

“Thank you and I’m sorry for the trouble,” she said as she turned and followed her husband back into the house.

Dean looked at Mutt and Duke and grinned. “Big brother you sure put on a show.” He teased.

Duke shook his head and playfully cuffed his little brother. “Thanks for bein’ backup little bro.”

“You’re welcome.” Dean grinned.

Duke turned to Mutt and said, "All right kiddo. I don't think you'll be hearin’ anythin’ else from him... though I do have the feelin’ you'll be getting’ an earful from Jeff when we get you home."

Mutt was exhausted, and grateful for Duke's presence. He had no idea how he'd been going to safely get home after his altercation with Gene, which had left him pretty shaken, literally. Jeff was only 6' 1” and 195 pounds of lean muscle, but he'd never used his height or strength against Mutt like Gene had. He rubbed at the spots on his arms where the man's fingers had dug in and leaned his head against the rear passenger side window of Dean's green 2008 Ford F-250 FX-2. Finally the low hum and rumbling of the engine mixed with the quiet conversation between his friends in the front seat carried him off to sleep.

Duke had given Mutt some slack. He knew that the younger man was in shock, upset by the incident, so he hadn't asked as many questions as he'd wanted, but there were many unanswered. He glanced at the dashboard clock and then at his watch. Jeff had to have noticed Mutt was nowhere to be found and would have been concerned and asking around. With another glance at Mutt, who was now soundly sleeping, Duke pulled out his cell phone and speed dialed Jeff while Dean maneuvered his truck along the winding road. When Jeff answered he hit the speaker button so Dean could hear the conversation.

“Duke?” Came the perplexed answer. “What's up?”

“Well, I have somethin' here that belongs to you.” Duke said quietly so as to avoid waking Mutt.

“Mutt?! You found him! Where are you?”

“We're on our way back from Elmville.”

“Elm... what on earth is he doing out there?”

“He called me needin’ help gettin' back to the resort. Apparently he and Jaxon wrote a letter to Jax's mom, and Mutt decided t' deliver it in person.”

Jeff's dumbfounded silence was all the answer Duke needed. “You'll have to get the whole story outta him, I guess, but the long and the short of it is that he delivered the message to the kid's mother, but the step father caught up to him and roughed him up a bit...”

“How badly is he hurt?” Jeff asked, all business.

“All I can see off hand is a split lip, and a little bruising, and it seems your Mutt did some damage to the big oaf in return, he got away relatively safely. We went back and I had a little talk with the coward, but like I said, Mutt's a bit shook up. I've got his Softail in the bed of my brother’s truck and he's sleepin' in the rear seat. We're a little less than two hours out. I would have called ya sooner but I had to get as much of the story from Mutt as I could.”

“You didn’t get in a fight with him did you?” Jeff demanded.

Duke chuckled, “No, sir, I almost clocked him when he stomped on something Jax’s mom gave Mutt for her son but Dean was there for back up so he stopped me. Other than some empty threats the big oaf didn’t try anything else after that.”

“You aren’t driving with that arm of yours are you?” Jeff asked. “You know you shouldn’t be driving.”

“No, I’m not drivin’, Jeff, Dean is,” Duke answered. “I guess he won’t need clearance to get on TLR for the night?”

“No, I’ll alert Coral to let him on the grounds, although if you and Mutt are with him there shouldn’t be a problem. Thanks, Duke, for everything. I know you had plans for today...”

“Think nothin' of it. Our boy here is more important than some fish... Dean understood that, besides, we were more or less done. The fish had pretty well stopped bitin’ by the time he called. We’ll drop him and his bike off a'cher door.”

“Fishing?” Jeff asked archly.

“Did I say fishin’?” Duke mumbled.

“Thanks again, Duke.” Jeff laughed. “You’re foolishness is safe with me.”

“Any time. I’ll call ya when we get closer. Talk t' ya later.” He said before he ended the conversation. He glanced again at the young man sleeping in the rear seat his hand resting on the cardboard box with Jax’s chess set in it. He loved Mutt like a little brother and pitied the poor kid once Jeff got his hands on him.

Jeff hung up the phone and frowned. When he'd asked Jaxon if he’d seen Mutt lately, Jax had only said Mutt went to Stonemill but nothing about him going to Elmville. He'd felt that there was something a little shifty in Jaxon's eyes but he wasn't as familiar with the boy as Heath and James, and he felt he could have misread the boy's reaction. Now it seemed he hadn't.

He picked up his phone and called James, to explain the situation.

James answered on the first ring. “Hey, Jeff,” he said, “I was just about to call you. Have you heard from Mutt?”

“That’s why I called, JW. Duke has Mutt and I think Jaxon knows why Mutt was in Elmville,” Jeff answered stiffly.

“Yeah, Jaxon does know now, but he didn’t until an hour ago,” James replied. “Seems there was a write up in the Elmville rag about Jaxon possibly drowning that Mutt found online. Jaxon didn’t want his mom to worry so the boys cooked up the idea of Jax writing her a letter. The last thing Jax knew was that Mutt was going into Stonemill to mail it.”

"And my brilliant boy decided to detour to Elmville. Why am I not surprised?" he said flatly. "Duke said that Gene gave my boy a split lip, but that they handled the coward, so we won't have to worry about him showing up at our door."

"Split lip? What happened?" James asked, concerned.

"I don't know the whole story yet. Duke called and talked just long enough to let me know that he had Mutt and that they were on their way home. He said I'd have to get the whole story from Mutt. Just wait til I get my hands on that boy." He growled.

“Duke’s not driving, is he?” James asked. “I know for a fact Jake drove him to his brother’s place. If he’s driving we will be having a talk when he gets back.”

“Calm down, JW. Duke’s brother is driving and I’m just relieved he is bringing my boy home.”

"Jeff, when do you think they will get back?" James asked his friend.

"Duke said they were a couple of hours out, but knowing the way he drives, and if it runs in the family, they'll probably be here in an hour." Jeff said, trying to lighten the mood.

"Then I insist you come over here until they get back," James said throwing his rank around.

"I need to be here when Mutt gets back." Jeff replied, concerned. "He must be a wreck to have called for help. I don't want him to come home to an empty house."

"Jeff, you just said they wouldn't be back for at least an hour," James growled. "You have plenty of time."

Jeff gave a resigned sigh. "Yes, sir. I'll be right over," he retorted, an unwilling smile in his voice.

"That's more like it," James said. "Five minutes then."

Jeff saluted the phone. "Yes sir!" He smiled. He picked up a light jacket against the cool night air and made sure he was at James’s house in four and a half minutes.

James heard the footsteps coming up the walk and opened the door for his friend.

"So are you going to offer me a drink, Captain?"

They gave each other a brief hug. James saw the concern in his friend's eyes despite the smile plastered on his lips.

"And move that table will you? I'll need plenty of space to pace back and forth in."

"No, I don't think a drink will help and it definitely won't help when Mutt gets home,” James gave Jeff a knowing look.

Jeff sighed in consternation. James was right, of course. "How about a cup of coffee then?"

"That we can do," Heath said coming in from the kitchen holding Jeff's favorite mug out to him.

Jeff huffed a laugh. He should have known that James would have anticipated him. He hadn't been promoted to Captain based only on his good looks. He sat for a moment on the couch, then got up again moments later to pace back and forth in front of the house’s large bay window hoping to catch a glimpse of Dean’s truck when they brought his boy home.

Jaxon rolled in from his bedroom on his fancy wheelchair. Fresh from the shower, Heath hadn’t put the brace back on yet.
“Jaxon, shouldn't you have a brace on?" Jeff asked, concerned.

"Jeff's right Jax, let’s get you fixed up and then you can relax in the recliner with your leg up," Heath agreed and secured the brace around the healing leg and helped him move to the recliner. "There all set. I'll get you something to drink."

Jaxon gave Heath a grateful look and a smile, watching as Heath returned to the kitchen for his drink. He noticed Jeff looking at him, unasked questions all over his face, and looked sheepishly at their guest.

"Jeff, I'm sorry. I told you Mutt was going to Stonemill," Jaxon softly said, “but I never knew he went to Elmville until I called him."

"You called him? When?"

"Um," Jaxon looked at the three men looking at him.
"Why didn’t you call me as soon as you heard from him?" Jeff demanded, becoming more and more annoyed.

"Easy, Jeff," Heath said standing between Jaxon and Jeff when he returned from the kitchen with Jax’s drink.

"Why didn't you tell James to call me? Or Heath? Why not tell me what you knew as soon as you knew it and put my mind at ease?!”

Heath stood his ground, “Jaxon came to us shortly after he talked to Mutt and James called you as soon as he told us."

Jeff ran an agitated hand through his normally perfect hair. "I could stand to lose a hundred thousand dollars. I'd be devastated if anything ever happened to Mutt.”

Jaxon could see the anguish in Mutt’s husband’s face. “Mutt didn’t say much to me, Jeff. Only that he had gone to Elmville and had met Gene. I knew something had happened when he said Gene was ‘something else.” Jax relayed the conversation. “I asked if he was hurt but he only said he had to go and hung up.”

Jeff let loose a heavy sigh. He couldn't blame Jax. He couldn't blame Duke or James or Heath. Unfortunately it was his own, dear, beloved brat who was responsible for himself, and it wasn't fair of him to try to place the blame on anyone else.

“I'm sorry, Jaxon. I'm just tired and upset, I didn't mean to take it out on you."

Jaxon relaxed and gave Jeff an understanding smile. Heath put a comforting hand on Jaxon's shoulder and gave a reassuring squeeze.

"Have a seat, Jeff,” James said. "Relax while you can."

“Did you hear from Mutt?” Jaxon asked.

"I heard from Duke. He was just outside Elmville visiting his brother and thankfully Mutt called him for help. Duke and his brother Dean went to pick Mutt up in Elmville. I haven't spoken to Mutt in person yet." Jeff replied, looking out of the window once again out of concern, even though he probably wouldn’t be able to see if Dean’s truck arrived. Duke had told him they would call when they got closer to the resort and he’d have a better idea of when they’d get there, but he couldn’t help looking anyway.

“I don’t understand, why did Duke and his brother need to pick him up? What did Gene do?” Jaxon asked starting to panic.

"I didn't get the whole story, Jax." Jeff said, sitting down on the coffee table across from the young man and patting his leg. "He's on his way back and we'll find out what happened then. In the meantime, stay calm. He's alive. He's in one piece, and he's on his way home. You spoke to him yourself. Did he seem upset?"

"No, but we only talked for a second. He said he was in Elmville and had met Gene. And that he was a piece of work and he would tell me about it when he got home. I knew if he met Gene something was probably wrong so that's when I told James and Heath," Jaxon repeated again.

"Then we'll just trust that he's fine until proven otherwise. I think that if he were in bad shape, Duke would have told me. You did exactly what you should have. I'm sorry I became upset with you." He replied, running a hand through his hair.

“That bastard!” Jaxon growled. “I knew I shouldn’t have stayed here. I did this to Mutt.”

"No, Jaxon!" Jeff said sternly, “This is not your fault. You didn't force him to do anything. He has a mind of his own which he doesn't often choose to use sensibly."

"But if I hadn't of come here he wouldn't have gone to mail the letter..."
Jeff chuffed a laugh and shook his head. "If you hadn't come here, then he would have found something else to get himself into trouble. It's just Mutt." He said by way of explanation.

"He is predictably unpredictable." James added with a smile.

“Jeff's right Jax," Heath joined the conversation, "I can't tell you how many times I've had to patch Mutt up after one of his adventures." Heath laughed, "Mutt can get himself into trouble at the drop of a hat."

Jaxon looked relieved and took a deep breath to calm himself.

"Believe me,” Jeff reassured him, "Mutt would have gotten into something, whether you were here or not."

“Ok, if you’re sure it’s not because of me,” the worried young man stated.

Standing behind Jax, Heath put comforting hands on his shoulders. "It's not because of you." He said, leaning over to look directly into Jaxon's brown eyes.

Jaxon looked at Heath's sincere expression and nodded acceptance, still unable to completely exonerate himself but unwilling to argue. “Ok,” Jax whispered as he leaned into Heath.

Heath glanced over at James and the two shared a look. He didn't let go of his hold on Jaxon's shoulder as the young man tensed again when Jeff's cell phone rang, startling the men in the room at first.

Jeff looked at the caller ID. "Duke,” he explained to the others before answering the call.

"Hey Duke…Yes…OK, wonderful. I'll be waiting." He hit the off button and explained that Duke, Dean and Mutt were on their way to his place.

“Great, you better head home then,” James said.

"We’ll come over in the morning and let you know what happened." Jeff promised.

"Thanks Jeff, now get going," Heath ordered. “But remember if Mutt needs me just call.”

"I know, I’ll call if I need too. You've been hanging around with James too much."

James put a stern expression on his face and pointed deliberately toward the door.

Jeff laughed. "I'm going. I'm going!"

Jeff put on his light jacket and headed quickly back toward his and Mutt's bungalow, just managing to get the lights on and take his jacket off before he heard the crunch of tires on the gravel outside.

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