Special thanks to Antoinette for her speedy-quick beta work!
Soothing country music played from the speakers as Chris waited at the light. With the coming Veteran's Day holiday, Travis had given them all an early afternoon to get the jump on their three-day weekend. Buck was jotting down a grocery list. The weather man had promised them at least one more pleasant weekend before winter descended from the mountains. They were planning to take the boys camping one last time before it got too cold. Chris knew that Vin would love the solitude of the small lake while JD was excited about the predicted asteroid shower that would be visible if not obscured by clouds.
The light turned green but before Chris could pull into the intersection, a police car flipped on its siren and sped past. Once the car was far enough down the street, Chris continued on his way, giving Buck a nervous glance.
"They're fine," Buck said, almost by reflex. It was a coincidence that a police car turned down the street that passed the boys' school. 'Isn't it?' a little voice coaxed inside of his head. Even as his heart began to beat faster, he felt the big truck pick up speed.
Chaos was the order of the day as they reached the block the school occupied. Several police cars and an ambulance were squeezed in amongst the minivans and small cars in the pick-up lane in front of the school. In the rearview mirror, Chris saw a line of cars filled with worried parents. To cut back on the vehicles trying to crowd in, he turned the truck at the end of the block, preventing anyone else from coming down the already congested street. Immediately, horns began to sound and angry parents got out of their cars. Chris turned on the strobe lights in the grill, flashing his badge at the approaching mob.
As soon as Chris put the truck in park, Buck got out and started toward the school on foot. The police had set up a barricade, tying crime scene tape to the playground fence and stretching it across the street to a tree. Hordes of anxious parents crowded the tape, calling out to the teachers and school staff. Buck edged through the tightly packed bodies until he reached the beleaguered officers at the front of the group. He flashed his badge and was allowed under the tape, causing a murmur of displeasure from the other parents. To his surprise, Chris had jogged across the lawns of the homes across from the school and was angling toward him.
The children were being herded back into the building by the teachers. Some were crying but most were stumbling into each other as they craned their heads to see what was happening on the street. Peripherally, they heard someone saying that a driver had lost control of their car and hit something. As soon as they came around the corner of the ambulance, they caught sight of the car that had collided with one of the buses in front of the school.
Seeing the paramedics working on an older man, administering CPR, Chris realized what had happened. "Were there any children on the bus?" he asked of one of the officers.
"No, thank God, they were just coming out of the building when the accident happened. The bus company is sending another bus to replace that one," the officer answered after glancing at their badges. "You got kids here?"
"Yes, two boys, but we'll wait until things calm down. You might let them know that my truck is blocking the end of the street, here's my cell number if you need it moved," Chris said as he handed off one of his cards.
Buck's relief that none of the children was involved in the accident was short-lived. "Chris!" he said, pointing beyond the rear end of the crashed car to the dark-haired child he could just see. A teacher was trying to coax him back into the building but the boy was resisting her efforts. "It's JD!" Buck said as his feet suddenly felt frozen to the ground.
Chris gave Buck a push, getting him moving. They squeezed in between the parked buses to the sidewalk and jogged over to see what had JD so upset. "JD?" Buck called as he slowed to a stop.
"Da!" JD cried out as he held his hands out to be picked up. Buck swept him from the ground, automatically checking him for injury as his son clung to him, sobbing and mumbling incoherently.
His heart leapt into his throat as Chris saw Vin. The tow-headed boy was on his knees, holding something in his arms. Tears streaked the child's face and he was rocking back and forth as he stared at something Chris couldn't see. "Vin?" he said gently as he knelt beside his son. The teachers backed away, releasing the children to their fathers and returning to the school to check on the rest of their students.
"Dad," Vin said, looking up for the first time. Chris saw surprise in the tear-filled blue eyes. "Help her, Dad," Vin urged, turning back to the sight that had him so distraught.
Between the buses, Chris could see a mangy-looking dog. A small puppy lay near the dog's nose, its little head bobbing as it whimpered and cried. Looking to see if it was safe, Chris inched forward, stretching his arm out until he was able to grasp the puppy. Immediately, the pup began to yipe, nearly causing Chris to drop it. He switched his grip, cradling the small bundle of fur in his palm and it fell silent, snuffling around in his hand and trying to suckle on the skin at the base of his thumb.
"Put her in here, Dad," Vin said, opening his bundled jacket to reveal two more puppies, whimpering and snuffling at being exposed to the light and cool air again.
When the puppy cut loose with the loud yipes, JD's grasp on Buck's neck tightened. JD's words were jumbled and pleading as he burrowed into his father's embrace. Buck soothed his son as he watched Chris lower the puppy into Vin's coat.
"I'm sorry Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington, we tried to get them back into the building but they were adamant about staying with the puppies," Vin's teacher said as she looked nervously at JD. "But once he saw the puppies, I couldn't get him to come back into the yard."
"It's all right," Chris said as he shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped it around Vin's shivering shoulders. "Do they know who she belongs to?" he asked, nodding toward the dog.
"She's a stray. The kids were slipping her food through the fence when someone told them that she was going to have puppies. We notified animal control but they could never catch her."
"Is she dead, Da?" JD asked as he lifted his head from Buck's shoulder. Chris gave a barely perceptible nod, pulling Vin against his chest as the boy began to shake with the sobs he was unable to hold back.
"Yeah, Little Bit, she's dead," Buck said as he guided JD's head back to his shoulder.
Chris came to his feet and stepped away from the boys. "Do you have anything I can wrap her in? I'll take her out and bury her," he offered. The teacher nodded and rushed back into the building.
"We takin' her home with us, Dad?" Vin asked.
"I guess so, Son. She didn't have a home."
"I know. We was feedin' her from our lunches."
"She was really friendly," JD added, allowing Buck to help him blow his nose and wipe his face. "And she was hungry."
Chris knew how the boys could sympathize with the homeless little mutt. The teacher approached with a large, paint-stained towel in her hands. Chris took it and crawled in between the buses again. From the way the dog's head flopped, he knew that the accident had broken her neck, killing her instantly. He was grateful that he wouldn't have to lie to the boys when they asked if it had hurt, he knew they would ask. By the time he regained his feet, Vin was standing, showing the teacher the three small puppies.
"What about the puppies?" the teacher asked. "Will they make it?"
"Their eyes are open, so we'll start them on soft food," Chris answered.
JD squirmed to get down so he could be closer to the puppies and Buck set him on his feet. Nodding to the teacher, the foursome started up the block toward the truck. As they came alongside of the ambulance, Buck looked to see if he could tell what had happened to the driver of the car.
"You go ahead, I'll get the boys to the truck. They'll be wanting to open the street as soon as the ambulance pulls out," Chris said. Buck admonished JD to go with Chris and stepped off of the sidewalk.
The paramedics were picking up the trash from their kit when Buck reached the rear of the ambulance. One of them looked up and, recognizing Buck, stepped closer. "The driver?" Buck asked softly so as not to be overheard by the crowd that was pressing closer.
"Looks like he had a heart attack, DOA," the man said. "What about the dog he hit?"
"She had puppies. We're gonna take 'em out to our place, see what we can do for them," Buck answered, relieved that the dog hadn't caused the accident. He thanked the man for the information and hurried down the block to meet up with Chris.
Vin allowed JD to hold the precious bundle while he was buckled into his seat. Chris pulled one of the horse blankets from behind the seat and transferred the puppies into it, not wanting them to mess up Vin's jacket. He had also rolled the mother dog in a plastic bag when he noticed that she was bleeding. Buck jogged up and directed traffic so that Chris could turn the truck around. As they were pulling away, a news truck arrived.
When the last shovel of dirt was piled on the small grave, Vin reverently placed the smooth rock at one end. Buck had helped JD to paint the name they had given the little mutt on the stone while Chris and Vin dug the hole. 'Lady' was laid to rest near the tree line along the path the horses took to the upper pasture. Vin walked to the cardboard box the puppies were in and picked up two of them. JD took the third one and they set the little ones on the ground so they could 'say goodbye' to their mom. The moment their little paws touched the cold ground, the puppies began to cry. Chris knew it was more from being taken from the warmth of the box than any understanding they might have about what the turned dirt concealed but, to the boys, the puppies were crying for their mom.
"It's all right, little guy, your momma's in heaven with my momma and JD's momma and Buck's momma. They'll take good care of her," Vin assured the two puppies as he gathered them up in his arms, wiping his tears on their puppy-soft hair.
Buck smiled as he watched Chris with the boys and the puppies. He gently explained that they needed to sleep in the box where it was warm, that they needed to comfort each other. He lined the box with a plastic bag to catch any 'accidents' and placed a hot water bottle, wrapped in an old towel, in the box to keep them warm. The puppies had to be 'coaxed' into trying the soft food, warm from the microwave, but once they got the taste, they liked it. Chris also cautioned both boys that the milk in the refrigerator would make the puppies sick. JD looked away, guilty only in his mind, after promising that he wouldn't give the puppies any milk.
There was a minor problem when JD let Ringo and Elvis in to meet the puppies. Ringo nosed them, pushing them around and making them yipe until he was pulled away but Elvis took one look at them and backed away, his tail tucked up between his legs. Chris was right there to soothe the boys, telling them that it would take some time for the dogs to get used to the puppies. It took some serious discussion before the boys decided that the puppies had to sleep in their room and the dogs would be all right in their dog house until they could all get along together. Chris looked at Buck, whose face mirrored his in the hope that they would find homes for the puppies before they became permanent additions to the household.
After the boys were tucked into bed, with the puppies' box equal distance from both beds, Buck handed Chris a much-needed cup of coffee. "Kind of blows a hole in our camping trip plans," Buck said as they sat in the living room.
"Yeah, but they'll be so engrossed in those puppies that they won't even miss it," Chris said.
"We gotta find homes for them," Buck said.
"And fast," Chris agreed.
Before he went to bed, Buck looked in on the boys. He was surprised that they hadn't heard any crying from the puppies. When he looked into the box, he found out why. Vin's cat and JD's Scooby lined opposite sides of the box and the puppies were safely curled up against them. Buck drew the blankets up over Vin's lower back, smiling as the boy snuggled into their warmth. He passed his hand over the boy's hair before turning to JD. Buck's heart ached with the love he felt for the dark-haired boy. He tucked the blankets under the edge of the mattress in a vain attempt to keep the boy under them during the night but he knew that JD would toss and turn until his blankets ended up either bunched up at the end of the bed or in the floor. He bent down to deliver a gentle kiss to the round little cheek, smiling as JD squirmed at the tickling of his mustache.
Chris banked the fire in the fireplace and carried his coffee cup into the kitchen. On his way back through the house, he looked in on the boys. Vin was lying on his stomach, his head and chest up on his pillow so he could see the puppies when he opened his eyes. Chris drew the blankets up, covering Vin's lower back. He gave the boy a gentle rub, knowing that his back sometimes bothered him.
"We're gonna have to give 'em away, aren't we, Dad?" Vin whispered.
Sighing at having wakened the boy, Chris was honest with him, "Yeah, we are."
"We gotta find 'em good homes then," Vin mumbled around a yawn, "so's they grow up happy like me and JD." Chris smiled, leaning down to nuzzle the back of Vin's neck, inhaling the sweet scent of the boy who had become the center of his universe.
"We will, Son, we will," he promised.
Only after Vin had slipped into a deep sleep did Chris move to tuck JD back under his covers. The diminutive brunet had somehow managed to turn around so that his head was at the other end of the bed. His pillow lay in the floor and one leg dangled over the edge. JD sighed as Chris repositioned him on the bed and covered him up. He carded through JD's hair gently before slipping from the room.
Buck was surprised at not seeing the boys in the living room when he got up to go to the bathroom. Curious, he eased the boys' door open and peeked inside. Vin wasn't in the bedroom and JD had pulled the box closer to his bed. He lay on his stomach, his head propped up on his hands, as he stared at the puppies. "What'cha doin' Little Bit?" Buck asked softly.
"Hi Da! I'm just watching them. You know, that big white one looks just like you when you sleep," JD said brightly. "His mouth hangs open and he snores." Buck just had to see that, so he moved to sit on the bed next to JD. Sure enough, the white puppy lay on his back, his little paws stretched up alongside of his head. His mouth was wide open and he emitted little snores with each breath. "And that one reminds me of Uncle Nathan," JD indicated another of the pups.
"Why is that, JD?"
"His hair is all curly, like Uncle Nathan's."
"What about that one?" Buck asked, pointing to the third puppy.
"He reminds me of Uncle Ezra," JD answered. Buck's eyes widened in surprise.
"He reminds you of Ezra?" he asked, looking more closely at the smallest of the three puppies.
"Yeah, he was sniffing around and he got to that spot where the other one pooped and he wrinkled up his face like this," JD said, demonstrating the expression. Buck's whole body shook with laughter as he toppled across his son's body. JD's breath exploded as Buck made raspberries on his bare back.
By Monday morning, the dogs had come to accept the puppies, after a fashion. Ringo wanted to play with them while Elvis was content to watch them, from a distance. Chris had been wrong about the boys not remembering the camping trip. Vin had been standing in the doorway when Chris awoke that next morning. Chris patted the bed in invitation and Vin had climbed in, snuggling into the warmth as he organized his thoughts.
"I know we were planning to go camping this weekend," Vin hesitantly began, "But them puppies is awfully young. I don't think we ought to be dragging them out in the woods this soon."
"Are you saying that you don't want to go camping?" Chris asked.
"No, yeah, well not exactly," Vin said. "I want to go but I don't think we could take the puppies. And they's too little to be left in the barn like the dogs," he reasoned.
"You won't be too disappointed if we don't get to go, will you?"
"Can we still sit out on the deck and watch the meteors?"
"I don't see why not. We can have hot chocolate and lay in the hammock," Chris suggested.
"Yeah, then the puppies wouldn't get cold or lonely," Vin said.
"Sounds good to me," Chris agreed, rolling on his side and curling around Vin. Within minutes, they were both asleep.
They spent Friday hanging around the house. The boys spent a considerable amount of time sitting beside of the box, staring longingly at the puppies. Chris let them handle the puppies for a few minutes at a time and they could pet them in the box but the boys didn't want to wake them.
"Puppies sure do sleep a lot, don't they, Da?" JD asked.
"Yeah, babies need lots of sleep to grow," Buck answered. He immediately flinched, expecting JD to ask the question he'd been dreading for a while.
"Do we all grow when we're sleeping?" JD asked.
Buck exhaled slowly, he'd dodged a bullet, "Well, babies do most of their growing when they're asleep. Eventually, you only grow when you need to. When you get to be a grown-up, then you don't grow anymore."
"Oh, okay," JD replied. He giggled, causing Buck to look over to see what he was doing. Just as he'd said, the littlest puppy was sniffing around the towel and discovered where its brother or sister had peed. Buck wrapped his arms around his ribs as he nearly fell out of the chair laughing. He could just see the prim and proper undercover agent, wrinkling his nose at something he smelled.
Saturday morning, the boys wanted to go in for the Veteran's Day parade. Chris had agreed to take them, since their school had a float in the parade. Vin had been offered the chance to ride on the float, along with the other children who had a parent who was or had been in the service. Vin turned down the opportunity, letting the teacher think it was due to his normally shy nature. Deep down, Vin didn't want to hurt Chris' feelings.
JD pulled the wagon around the side of the house and was trying to boost it into the truck bed when Chris came outside. "What'cha doing JD?" Chris asked, eyeing the wagon.
"Vin told me to get the wagon so we can take the puppies to the parade," he answered.
"Why are we taking the puppies to the parade?"
"Well, 'cause we can't leave them here all by themselves," JD replied.
"Of course not," Chris mumbled under his breath. Before he could find Vin and try to talk him out of it, his son came out of the house, balancing the box on one thigh as he closed the door.
"Hi Dad, we're taking the puppies to the parade, all right?"
"Wouldn't it be better to leave them here where it's nice and warm?" Chris suggested hopefully.
"No! They's just babies. You can't leave 'em by themself!" Vin protested.
"Sides, we got the hot water bottle in there and I gave them one of my old shirts," JD added. Buck came out of the house with two pieces of cardboard and a roll of tape.
"I see you're all ready to go," he said cheerfully.
"Yes, all of us are ready to go Buck. All of us," he repeated, looking directly at the box in Vin's arms. Vin was looking down at the puppies, so he didn't see the firm look his father was giving Buck.
"Yeah, there will be lots of people at the parade, Chris. Lots and lots of people," he repeated, showing off the signs he had made for the wagon. 'Puppies - Free to Good Homes' was neatly printed on each piece of cardboard.
When they reached the playground, Vin and JD were mobbed by children, eager to see the puppies. While they allowed the others to look, Vin was very quick to keep them from touching them. JD explained that they were growing in their sleep and that was why it was important not to wake them so they'd be big enough to play with sooner rather than later. Finally, the teacher came out and announced that all the children who had a parent who had been or was currently serving in the military needed to line up, Chris looked up in surprise.
"Aren't you and JD going to ride on the float?" Chris asked. Vin's head came up, guilt screaming from his eyes, then he cocked his head and his expression melted into confusion.
"Me and JD?" he asked.
"She said everyone whose parents had been in the military. Buck and I both served in the Navy. I thought you knew that," Chris said.
"You were?" Vin asked.
"Yes, that's where we first met." Chris saw excitement light in Vin's eyes for a moment, then he looked worriedly at the wagon. "I'll keep an eye on them," Chris offered. Vin smiled up at Chris before giving him a hug.
"Come on, JD, we have to go on the float!" Vin said as he dragged the brunet toward the waiting line of children. "Dad and Buck was in the Navy together, so we can both be on the same side of the float!" Vin was heard telling JD.
Standing along the parade route, Chris felt a little silly pulling the 'Radio Flyer' wagon. But several people had asked about the puppies and he had given out cards to those who seemed genuinely interested. Buck stood a few feet farther down the walk, chatting with one of the other parents. A trio of familiar faces appeared in the crowd as Josiah, Nathan and Ezra made their way along the sidewalk. Ezra had his mini camcorder ready to get footage of the boys on the float as it passed.
Chris understood what Vin meant about the boys being on the same side of the float when it passed. The children were divided by branches of the service, each proudly displaying a flag with the appropriate emblem. While the Army group was by far the largest, the Navy and Marine groups were the loudest when the teacher began leading them in a rousing rendition of 'America the Beautiful' and 'The National Anthem.' Two voices in particular stood out, one singing badly off key, as the boys spotted Ezra and the video camera. A few of the older children were waving Air Force flags and Chris was surprised to see a few Coast Guard emblems in the crowd.
Once the parade was over, Chris and Buck stood with the other parents waiting for the children to get off of the float. As they got down, each child was given a small American flag. As soon as his feet touched the ground, JD took off running, waving his flag. Buck knelt down to catch him and was nearly bowled over by the boy's enthusiasm. Vin followed at a more sedate pace, twirling the flag's stick between his palms. Chris put a hand on his shoulder to steer him out of the crowd while Buck scooped JD up and set him on his shoulders.
"Hey Da, where's the puppies?" JD asked, leaning over and trying to look into Buck's eyes.
"We left them with Uncle Nathan," Buck replied.
"And I gave out several cards to people who seemed interested in them," Chris added.
By the time they got home, after stopping at McDonalds for lunch, there were already three calls on the answering machine about the puppies. Chris returned each call, answering their questions about the puppies as honestly as he could. No, he didn't know what breed they were or how big they would get. No, he didn't know anything about the mother or the father other than that the mother looked mostly like a beagle. Yes, they were eating solid food. He made arrangements for each family to come out and look at the puppies the next day. They were all scheduled to arrive around one. When the fourth and fifth calls came, he told them that he already had three families coming to see the puppies and would call back if he still had any tomorrow afternoon.
The next morning, Chris and Buck watched the boys as they got the puppies ready to meet their new families. In spite of not seeing any on them, each puppy got a bath for fleas. Chris helped Vin as he carefully bathed each squirming, crying little body. Buck and JD stood by with towels to dry and comfort them as soon as they were lifted from the shallow plastic basin. The curly-haired puppy was treated to a gentle combing to remove the tangles from his coat.
"Oh, no! Patches!" JD wailed as the puppy squatted on the kitchen floor. Buck hurriedly grabbed paper towels and cleaned up the mess while JD admonished the puppy for his mistake.
The first two families arrived together. Vin looked out the window, barely concealing his anxiety as two older boys raced across the lawn. Behind them, their parents called out to them to settle down. In the second car, a girl from Vin's class and her younger brother were taken from their car seats and walked toward the house holding hands with their parents.
"It's Stacy!" Vin shouted to JD, and both boys hurried toward the front door.
"Don't open that door yet!" Buck warned as he came in from the back deck. Vin immediately snatched his hand away from the knob and put on a poor imitation of innocence. Buck reached down and clucked him under the chin and was rewarded with a giggle. "Hi, I'm Buck and this is Vin and JD. Come on in, the puppies are on the back deck," Buck said as he shook hands with the four adults. The kids stood, shooting looks at their parents until they were given the go-ahead to dash across the room toward the sliding-glass door.
Chris was shutting the bigger dogs into their pen when the kids arrived on the deck. Right away, Vin and JD began to inform their visitors all about the puppies. Vin was quick to warn them to be gentle with them because they were just babies. By the time Chris got up on the deck, all three of the puppies were being cuddled and cooed over.
The third family arrived about fifteen minutes later, when the kids and the puppies had moved down into the yard. Darcy Cunningham helped Laurel out of her car seat and led her around the house, following the laughter and loud, boisterous voices. Buck's face lit up as soon as he saw the pretty widow again.
"I hope we're not too late," Darcy said as she released Laurel to join the other kids.
"No, you're right on time," Buck replied, sliding an arm around the attractive woman.
The kids played with the puppies until they were exhausted. Chris noted with satisfaction that each puppy was carried back to the deck by a child from a different family. The two older boys went straight to their dad to show off 'Snooker' as they were calling the puppy. Laurel went to her mother with 'Patches' and the other girl carried the curly-haired puppy to her parents with her brother peering over her shoulder in jealous admiration.
"So, what are you going to call him?" Chris asked after the girl's mom agreed that she could have the puppy.
"Vin said his name is Nathan," the girl replied.
Fighting to hold back a laugh, Buck leaned closer to Darcy so he could reach out and pet Patches. Vin glanced away as his cheeks flushed with color. Laurel pressed closer to her mom, reaching out to kiss the sleeping puppy on the top of its fuzzy little head.
By two-thirty, everyone was getting ready to leave. The boys had given explicit directions regarding the care of the puppies to the new owners, along with an invitation to bring them back to visit. Chris managed to round up a pair of boxes and lined them with hay for the puppies to sleep in on the way to their new homes. Vin and JD got one last chance to cuddle and kiss the puppies before they went into the assorted vehicles. Darcy and Laurel were the last to leave, Buck having pulled Darcy aside to invite her to go to the show with him some time in the near future.
As the dust from Darcy's car faded, JD began to sniffle. "What's wrong, Little Bit?" Buck asked, scooping his son into his arms.
"I - I - I miss them already!" JD sobbed, burying his face in Buck's shoulder.
"Now, JD, I thought you understood. They're going to their new homes," Buck explained.
"But I wanted them to stay here!" JD wailed.
Vin watched as JD soaked Buck's shoulder with tears. He let his dad's friend try to comfort JD for a while before he went to Buck and tapped him on the elbow. Buck glanced down at the diminutive blond-headed boy for a moment before sitting down on the porch steps and turning JD around so he could see Vin. The older boy climbed onto Buck's other knee and began to talk to his friend.
"JD, do you remember when we talked about Lady? About how we wished we could bring her home with us and keep her forever?" Vin waited until JD nodded before he continued. "Remember how she was always cold and wet when it rained?" JD nodded and tucked his thumb into his mouth. "And remember how she was always hungry?" Again, the younger boy nodded. "Well, her puppies won't ever be cold and wet or hungry because they have a home and people to look after them and love them."
"Like Da and Chris takes care of us?" JD asked around his thumb.
"Just 'xactly like that. And you want them to have a home, don't you?" Vin asked.
JD looked up at Buck, who smiled and kissed him on the forehead. Chris moved to stand behind his son, giving his shoulder an encouraging squeeze. Vin leaned back against his dad's legs, tipping his head back to see the warm, loving smile beaming down at him.
Buck gave JD a little jostle with his arm to get the boy's attention before he spoke, "It takes a lot of love to let those little ones go to someone else."
"Yeah," JD agreed, "and now they gots a HOME."
Next - My Place in this World by Jeanne