Epilogue – Saving Daniel

First of all, thanks for all the reviews! Especially May7fic, Mcat b, twomoms, Christy Zachman, Willful Redhead, Connie Gibbs, and all the Guests, especially the one who said they've read my story 20 times! It was for you guys that I pushed through each chapter and finished the story. I didn't want to let anyone down and know how frustrating it can be to not get to finish a story you are reading. I hope this last chapter ties up any loose ends. I am so happy that you all enjoyed the story.

Daniel led his horse through the far pasture, gingerly stepping over a fallen log in the long grass. He marveled at the beauty of the place; of the feeling of home. In the two weeks since he'd been home he'd been relishing in the all–encompassing feeling of love, family and security that surrounded him. After all the confusion and fear that occurred during his time in the city, he was glad for the healing peacefulness of home.

His injuries to his body and his mind were gradually getting better. The cuts and bruises were gone and the symptoms of the concussion were slowly fading. He still had some trouble with his short term memory and paying attention, but those things were better every day, and he'd learned to carry a small notebook with him. His family had gotten used to him stopping to jot things down so he wouldn't forget.

The healing of his spirit was another story, however. He was troubled by distressing thoughts that kept him awake at night and distracted him during the day.

He breathed in the fresh mountain air. He was glad to be alone; he's barely been by himself at all the last two weeks. It felt good at first to be surrounded by family, but as time wore on, he found himself increasingly annoyed and irritated with them. He just craved a break to process his thoughts.

So today he confronted Adam and told him straight out that he was going riding, by himself. He wasn't about to sneak off and worry his family again. Adam was reluctant to let him go, after all, he was still having some memory problems. But Daniel swore to him he could find the way home even in his sleep. When Adam had seen the determined look in his brother's face, he knew he had to let him go. To assuage Adam's fears, he told him exactly where he'd be going, and then he left without any further goodbyes.

And now here he was, looking out over the meadow, not sure what he was feeling. It was as if he was in a limbo now between two worlds and he wasn't sure where he would end up. Was he a rancher, part of the Circle Bar 7 for life; or was he a musician? Could he be both or was that impossible? He'd had two chances at the big time already and he'd blown them. Maybe it was time to face the facts and recognize that he wasn't good enough to make it in the music world. The thought of going through an audition all over again left him chilled and with a sick feeling. He didn't know if he could go through that again. But could he be happy living the life of a rancher? Would he find a wife like Hannah and settle down, raise some kids and stay near his family? Daniel didn't know if he could do that; all his life he'd dreamed of a career as a musician. How could he just throw it away?

And his family. He needed to make some things right again with them. He knew he'd caused them unbelievable pain and anguish when he ran away and then got lost. How could he ever earn their forgiveness? The only way he knew was to stay on the ranch with them and throw his energy into being a rancher. That was the only way he'd ever feel he earned back their respect and trust. Maybe it was time to throw away his childish dream of being a professional musician and grow up and be a man. Take his rightful place beside his brothers and work this ranch. After all, Adam and Brian hadn't had a choice had they? Crane had gone off to school for awhile, but he was back to stay, too. His brothers had all accepted their role as providers to the family. Now it was time for him to give up his foolish dreams and join the real world. Besides, maybe if he did this, Evan could have a chance at his dream of rodeo, or Ford and Guthrie could pursue whatever they wanted. He could help his older brothers to give his younger brothers a chance in life to fulfill their dreams. It sounded so right, so perfect a solution, so why did he feel like something was dying inside him? Why did the load on him seem to grow instead of shrink? The dark feelings pressed on him like a dead weight. He bowed his head under the burden of his thoughts. A tear traced its' way down his cheek, then ran down his neck. The death of his dream brought a wave of depression over him.

He sat, unmoving, in that spot for a long time, lost in his thoughts. He was so absorbed that he never even noticed Brian riding up behind him.

"Dan'l?" Brian called out as he spotted him. He was glad he'd found him, all in one piece. It'd been hours since he'd left and the family was getting worried, although no one wanted to admit it. Brian had finally convinced Adam to let him go talk to Daniel.

Daniel turned towards Brian, twisting in the saddle. His brother pulled up his horse beside Daniel's. Daniel's visage looked sad and lost, but there was a hint of resignation in the way he sighed when he saw Brian and let his shoulders sag as if he knew Brian was here to make him talk. "Hey, what'cha been doing up here all this time?" Brian asked nonchalantly, his voice soft, concerned.

Daniel shrugged, hoping that would be enough of an answer. It wasn't.

"Come on, Daniel. I know something's bothering you. So did Adam when you told him you were coming up here. Just spill it." He leaned in towards Daniel with a cocky grin, hoping to make Daniel smile back, "Maybe I can help? You never know."

Daniel managed to flash him a small smile, but he still struggled to find his voice. He did want to tell Brian; it would feel good to get someone else's opinion on things, but it was hard to know how to start.

He finally decided to just drop the bomb, "I'm giving up on a music career." He held up a hand to ward off Brian's inevitable protest. "Look, Brian, I've been thinking about it a lot. I had two chances at the big time and I didn't pull either one off. Maybe I'm just not cut out for it. Besides if I stay and help out here, maybe Evan or Ford or Guthrie can have a shot at whatever they want to do. Maybe they can make it…" His voice trailed off toward the end and Brian saw him choke back a swallow while blinking away some tears. He waited while Daniel steadied himself and pulled his emotions back under control.

"Is that really what you want to do? Seems like eighteen is awfully young to be throwing away your dreams."

Daniel's eyes teared up again. "Adam did it. He was supposed to go to college, be a doctor. He threw that all away. And what about you? You never had a choice either. Your choices and Adam's were taken away from you, and you guys acted like real men, stepping in to do what you had to." He sat up straighter, "Well, it's my turn now to be a man. It's time to stop chasing silly childhood dreams and do my job, here." He jabbed his finger towards the earth to make his point clear.

Brian took his time in answering. He was quiet for awhile, thinking. He was quiet for so long that Daniel got tired of the silence and turned towards him, saying, "Well, aren't you going to say something?"

Brian tossed the piece of grass he'd been chewing to the ground and took his time swinging his gaze around to meet Daniel's. He finally said, "I just want to know, is that really what you want to do? Giving up your music and becoming a rancher, could you be happy doing that? That's all this family really wants for you, you know, for you to be happy." He paused, then continued, "You are right though, me and Adam did have our choices taken away from us to a degree. Oh I suppose if we'd really wanted to, we could have gone on to school, let you guys stay in foster care or something, but there was no way that was happening, Daniel. We did make a choice. We chose you guys. It was the best choice either of us ever made. Neither of us could have ever been happy with any path we took if it meant leaving you guys behind. Besides, could you really see Adam in a hospital? He'd have been miserable. Big brother needs the fresh air, his family around him and a horse under him to be happy. Could you see him in an office all day? He'd never have lasted – he'd have been miserable. So things actually worked out for the best for Adam. And me? Well, you know I had my chance to leave, back when Shep was here. I thought about it, you know? Leaving, being on my own, free from everything. Everyone thinks like that sometimes, Daniel. But you know what made me stay?" He waited for Daniel's full attention.

"What?"

"Someone said to me, that I had more than most. More people that care about me. It made me realize that I didn't really want to go it alone. I liked the feeling that you guys all had my back. I realized if I wasn't here, I'd miss all the little things that happen every day. Like when Evan rode that horse last week or when Guthrie made up that silly song. That shook me out of my escape fantasies. I want to be here, Daniel. I made that choice to stay and I'm happy with it. I like to be here with all of you."

"Well, that's what I'm doing too. Making the choice to stay and become a rancher. Maybe I can help Evan become a rodeo star or Ford go to college by staying."

"Maybe you can, but Daniel, Adam and Crane and I are happy with our choices. We are happy staying here and ranching. Are you? Are you going to be truly happy, with the choice you're making? The boys will appreciate your sacrifice, but they won't want it if it comes at the expense of your happiness. And you don't look none too happy right now."

"Brian, what should I do?" His voice was barely above a whisper now.

"You've got to make that decision yourself, Daniel, but it doesn't have to be today. It'd be terrible shame to make that choice now at eighteen. You've got your whole life ahead of you. Is it going to be music or ranching? Who knows? But your options are wide open right now and I'd hate to see you closing them already. Besides who says it has to be one or the other? There is a third choice – you can be a rancher here with us whenever you aren't working on your music. There are so many ways this could work out for you. And whatever you decide, me and the boys are right here with you."

"But am I good enough?"

"Hell yeah! You're a great musician and I ain't just saying that. So what if Trevalow didn't work out. There are tons of producers out there. And Daniel, you don't have to make a record to make your music. There's plenty of musicians who never cut a record. "

"Daniel, you aren't alone, man. We're all here behind you. That's what family is. Whatever you want to do, wherever you want to go, we are behind you. We would have stood by you in L.A., too if you'd have let us. Don't you know that's why we wanted to go with you so bad? Not that we didn't trust you by yourself, but that we just didn't want you to be alone, ya know?"

Daniel was silent, processing all his brother had said. Finally he turned towards Brian and gave him a weak, small smile. It was all he could manage, but he wanted to convey that he'd understood all Brian had been trying to tell him.

He didn't feel as if his troubles were magically gone, but some of the weight had been lifted with the sharing of what was bothering him. He still didn't have the answer to his dilemma, but at least he knew he wasn't alone anymore. And that did feel better.

"Let's go home, brother." He said to Brian, flashing him a real smile. Brian returned the grin.

"Yeah. Let's go. Adam and Hannah will have the troops out searching soon if we're gone any longer."

Daniel actually chuckled at his brother's attempt at levity. "Yeah, and you're probably worn out from that speech you just made."

Brian grinned at the jab. "Well, I may not often talk that much, but this was too important not too. Come on, brother." He wheeled his horse around, Daniel following.

I t was a quiet, thoughtful ride home. Daniel only knew one thing for sure that he had to do, and he'd do it as soon as he got home.

Once at the barn, they removed the horses tack and brushed them down. No one else was out here anymore; they'd all gone inside for dinner. When they finished with the horses, they started towards the house, still silent. Brian threw an arm over Daniel's shoulder and pulled him closer for a one armed hug. They bounded up the porch steps together, hearing the laughter and voices from inside. They entered the kitchen and the chatter died off one by one as each family member noticed their arrival.

Now it was quiet and the whole family was looking at them expectantly. Adam was visibly relieved to see Daniel home, and Guthrie was grinning away, wiggling in his seat.

Daniel knew what he had to do. He stepped forward, away from Brian, and cleared his throat. "Hey everybody. I …um… have something I need to say to all of you." His gaze flickered down to his hat, which he was nervously twisting in his hands. "I'm really sorry for all the pain I put you guys through when I took off. I promise never to do something like that again. I hope someday you can forgive me."

"We already forgave you for that, Daniel." Hannah assured him.

"Just don't ever do it again." Crane scolded playfully, and then turning serious, "Our hearts couldn't take it."

Daniel nodded at their acceptance and continued, " I been doing a lot of thinking and Brian," he looked back at him, "has been doing a lot of talking," he grinned, "and I don't know yet what I want to do about my music, but I do know one thing, that you guys have always got my back. I guess I just forgot that for awhile. And Guthrie," He looked at him, "Don't you ever run away like I did. That was the wrong thing to do."

"I know that, Daniel."

"Guess you're smarter than me, than."

"Guess so!" Guthrie flashed him a huge grin. Daniel looked around at his family then. Something was off, every one of them were smiling at him like it was his birthday or something.

He quirked an eyebrow at them, puzzled, and asked, "What's going on? Why are you all looking at me so weird?"

Adam stepped forward and put his hand on Daniel's shoulder. "I know you're mixed up right now and you aren't sure what you want to do, and this may not be the right time for this, but we have something for you." He waited a moment, "And if I don't give it to you now, Guthrie's gonna explode." He smiled at Daniel and signaled to Crane.

Crane left them and went into the laundry room, only to reappear with a guitar case. A very familiar looking guitar case. He held it up and presented it to Daniel with a big smile across his face.

Daniel's mouth hung open in shock. It was his guitar, the one he'd lost in L.A.! He gingerly took it from Crane and set it on the table, snapping open the latches. He flipped back the lid and gasped at the sight. There it was-his parents' guitar! He ran his hand over the smooth wood, marveling at the feeling of it under his hand once again. "What...how…where..." He couldn't form a complete question or take his eyes off the instrument.

Adam and the rest of the family chuckled at his loss for words. "We had Sergeant Hastings checking the pawn shops in L.A. for us. We figured the theives'd want to unload it sometime for the cash. Well, he happened to come across it one day. The fact that dad had the Circle Bar 7 logo stamped in the back helped identify it. Flip it over."

Daniel did as instructed and gasped. Beside the logo of their ranch, was a gleaming new nameplate with the words Daniel McFadden on it.

"It's yours Daniel," Crane interjected, "After all you've been through, we all felt that it should officially belong to you."

Daniel found his voice. "But, Crane, it's not right, you play, too and Guthrie and-"

"We've got other guitars around here. But this one is special and it only belongs to you now." Crane assured him. Guthrie nodded his acquiesce.

Brian stepped up and gripped his shoulders, "Dan'l, maybe this is the sign you've been looking for. Us finding this guitar was as improbable as us finding you in that city. But here you are and here it is. Maybe that means something."

Daniel just kept rubbing his hand over the wood. The same guitar his dad had taught him on, the same one mom had played him lullabies on. He couldn't believe it was here. He looked around at the faces staring at him, emotions building up in him. His eyes filled with tears and he didn't even try to keep them from rolling down his cheeks. He grabbed the nearest brother, who happened to be Evan, and hugged him. The room exploded in joyous laughter and soon the whole family was hugging everyone and dancing around.

"Well, don't just stand there hugging and crying all day. Play us something!" Crane chided, smiling like a loon.

Daniel wiped away the tears, and couldn't hold in his enormous smile. He felt so free and light, so forgiven and all the stress was washed away in a sea of love from his family. He still didn't know if he'd ever play professionally, but suddenly it didn't matter. What really mattered was what was here in front of him right now. His family.