ATF "Little Britches" Universe
The dark haired boy bounded into the kitchen at full speed. JD ran around the table and plopped into his usual chair, grinning. If he noticed the disapproving looks from both Vin and Chris, he chose to ignore them. He placed the napkin on his lap and then half stood in his chair to reach for the box of cereal sitting in the center of the table. The napkin floated to the ground.
"JD, where's your manners?" Buck asked as he slapped the boy's hand away from the box. "If you can't reach it, ask."
JD turned wide eyes to the big man sitting at the end of the table. "But, Buck "
Chris spoke quietly from the other end of the table. "JD, sit down."
The dark head dropped as he sat back in the chair, his arms folded across his chest, and bottom lip stuck out in a pout.
Vin rolled his eyes at the younger boy's act. "JD, you better be nice, or Buck and me will leave you out in the woods when we go fishing." Vin watched as the younger boy's eyes grew wide. "Yeah, and the bears will eat 'ya." The younger boy's eyes grew even wider as Vin stared at him, never cracking a smile.
Vin was reaching for his milk when he felt a presence at his elbow. He looked up into Mrs. Potter's disapproving frown. The eight-year-old felt the heat of his blood as it rushed to his cheeks and he quickly turned back to the table, placing his folded hands in his lap.
Buck, undeterred by the woman's disapproval, commented. "No bear is going to eat JD. He's too small to make a good meal." Buck turned an eye to the woman and saw the shake of her head.
Mrs. Potter came around the table to the trembling youngster. "Sweetie, they're only joking with you. No one is going to leave you in the woods." She wiped the tears from the little face and pushed his hair out of his eyes. She patted his shoulder as she asked, "What kind of cereal would you like?"
She poured the cereal and wet it with milk. Moving the juice into arms length, the woman started back to the kitchen. As she walked behind the man at the end of the table, she reached out and pinched his ear. "You shouldn't tease the child like that." Releasing the ear, she glanced at the man at the other end of the table and saw the smirk. "And you can just wipe that smirk off your face, Chris Larabee. You sat there and let them do it. You are just as guilty as these two."
Chris shook his head as he blushed. "Yes, ma'am." He reached over and ruffled the thick black hair of the young boy. "Sorry, JD. Buck and Vin were only joking. They wouldn't really leave you in the woods."
The hazel eyes looked up from the bowl of cereal, sparkling with youth and good humor. "Oh, I knowed they was kidding. Miss Nettie would never let them do that." And he went back to eating, the incident totally forgotten. The two men laughed at the pure innocence of the statement. Vin just put his hand to his head and watched the other boy, shaking his head the entire time.
The blond eight-year-old turned to Chris as the meal was finishing up. "Chris, how come you ain't coming fishing?"
Vin smiled and corrected himself, "How come you aren't coming with us?"
Chris smiled at the young boy in his foster care. "Because I have to be in court one more day. Tomorrow, I'll start my time off and we'll have the rest of the month, two whole weeks, to go fishing."
"Yea!" JD proclaimed. The others just smiled at the boy's cheerfulness. He wiped his mouth and jumped out of the chair. "All done. Can we go fishing now?"
JD had run over and hung himself over Buck's arm. Buck reached down and, gripping the waistband of the boy's jeans, tossed him up into his lap. With a light swat on the upended behind, he informed that boy that they would leave as soon as the chores were done. Backing off Buck's lap, the child announced his plan to go wash and left the room as fast as he had come in.
Chris' voice followed the mini-tornado, "Don't run in the house, JD."
Buck cocked his head to one side, as if to say, 'You've got to be kidding.'
Chris looked at his partner and shrugged his shoulders, "It was worth a try."
+ + + + + + +
Chris pulled on his jacket and headed for the door. Buck was just coming in from the barn.
"Well, you have fun today, partner. Tell the judge that he owes you the next two weeks off."
Chris made a guttural sound in his throat. "I'll be sure to pass that on to him."
"I don't understand why one of us have to be at the sentencing anyway. Ain't like you can do anything, but listen to the lawyers argue."
"It's all show. Orrin knows that. It just seems proper to follow the process through to the end." Larabee opened the door and then turned back. "When you planning on leaving?"
"Ahh, I figure we'll leave out around ten. Mrs. Potter packed us a lunch. Don't plan to stay a long time. If I was just taking Vin, I'd probably stay a while, but having JD with us will make for a long day. But we'll have fun. I already packed some games and books for him, hopefully that will give me and Vin a little extra fishing time."
Laughing, Chris shook his head. "I wouldn't count on it. Have fun. I'll see you this afternoon." The leader of Team Seven exited the house and headed to Denver and the courthouse.
Buck turned at the sound of a crash. "JD!"
"I didn't do nothing."
+ + + + + + +
Buck put the phone down and turned to the two boys. "Jack's on the way. He's going to bring us another car."
JD pouted as they sat in the truck. The trio had only gone about ten miles when the old truck started to overheat. Buck had tried to baby the vehicle to a garage, but she just wasn't having it and he had to stop before he seized the motor and caused major damage to the big block engine.
He could see the disappointment in the boys' eyes. He smiled and reassured the kids that they would get to the fishing as soon as the mechanic showed up with a tow truck and a replacement vehicle. Thirty minutes later they were on their way. Jack had towed a Grand Prix out and towed the Chevy PU back. The boys cheered as they once again sat off for a day of fishing.
+ + + + + + +
Later that afternoon, Buck was busy rounding up the fishing gear as the boys ran around chasing each other and anything else that moved.
"Okay, guys, let's pack it in. We're already late and Chris will be getting worried." He tossed the gear into the trunk of the car. The boys were still running around and Buck called again. "Vin! JD! Let's go."
They ran up to the car and JD jumped in the front. "I get to ride in front!" he yelled. Buck watched as Vin sighed and started to climb into the back. Buck reached out and took the boy by the shoulder.
"Hold up, Vin. JD, you had front coming out. Vin gets to ride up front on the way home."
JD crossed his arms and thrust out his lower lip. "Pull that lip in, boy. Fair's fair. Vin, get in front."
The older boy stepped back. "It's okay if he rides up front."
JD turned hopefully eyes to the big man. But disappointment clouded his eyes as Buck's head started shaking. Grudgingly, he crawled into the back of the small car. Buck reached down and ruffled the blond hair of the older boy.
"Jump in front, son." Buck grinned as Vin hesitated. Buck swatted the skinny butt as he went around the car. Vin climbed in as the man opened the door and got in. "Buckle up, boys. We got fish to fry."
"Buck, are we having fish for Thanksgiving? Did we get enough for everybody?"
Buck glanced in the rearview mirror at the inquisitor. Smiling, he told the boy that the fish was for tonight, not Thanksgiving.
"Can we open the hole in the roof again?"
"It's getting dark, little bit. It'll get pretty cool."
Vin turned and looked at the young boy in the back. "We could turn on the heater," he said hopefully.
Buck laughed as he cranked the sunroof open. He turned up the heat and turned up the radio as they reached the paved roads. All three joined Garth Brooks in Standing Outside the Fire, singing at the top of their lungs and enjoying the cool, evening air.
+ + + + + + +
Chris pulled up to the ranch house and parked next to Gloria Potter's battered minivan. The woman was just coming out the door.
"Afternoon, Miz Potter."
"More like evening, Mr. Larabee. I have the vegetables cut and in the fridge as Mr. Wilmington requested. I hope those boys caught some fish, but I have to say I'm glad that I don't have to clean any that they bring back."
Chris chuckled as he envisioned the scene of the young boys helping the older 'kid' clean fish.
"See you next week, Miz Potter. You enjoy your vacation. Tell the kids hello for me."
"Good evening, Mr. Larabee. Happy Thanksgiving. Tell the boys I'll see them next week." The van started with a belch of black smoke and a squeal of the fan belt. She smiled and waved as she backed out and left.
Chris glanced at his watch and figured he had an hour before Buck and the kids got home. He went into the house and changed clothes to go feed the animals.
+ + + + + + +
Chris glanced at the dark drive again, still no lights to indicate the arrival of his family. Larabee turned back and entered the house. He was reaching for the phone when he heard the crunch of the gravel in the drive. 'I'm going to kill Buck'
He heard heavy footsteps as he approached the door. Pulling the door open, he started, "Buck, where the hell.." He stopped short when he saw Josiah and Ezra standing on the porch.
"Sorry, boys. I was expecting Buck and the kids."
Josiah nodded. "Yes, we know, Chris. We got a call at the office. Buck had his card in his wallet."
"A card? His wallet? I don't understand." But Chris did understand the implication of what they were saying. He was simply afraid of what was coming, not knowing if he could survive it again.
Ezra stepped in to stand by Larabee's shoulder. "There was an automobile accident, Mr. Larabee. They have been taken to the hospital. We have very little information, other than they are alive. If you would tell me where to locate your jacket, we can be on our way."
Chris remained immobile. Josiah reached out and gripped the man's arm. Shaking gently, he spoke only after he was sure he had the blond man's attention.
"They're still alive, brother. Hold onto that."
Chris drew his eyes up to meet those of the team profiler. With a nod, he turned and, reaching behind the door, grabbed a jacket. He placed a hand on the undercover agent's back. "Thanks, Ezra. Gentlemen, let's go. Has Nathan been called?"
Chris pulled the door closed as Josiah answered. "He's on the way to the hospital. He'll meet us there."
+ + + + + + +
The three agents entered the emergency room doors and were heading for the nurses station, when Nathan Jackson waved them over.
"I don't have much information" he told them as they approached. "I only got here a few minutes ago. The nurse said the doctor should be out soon."
"Do you know what happened?"
Nathan shook his head. He started to say something when two highway patrolmen approached them.
Chris stepped forward. "I'm Larabee."
"I'm Alan Henley. This is my partner Warren Stewart. We were first on the scene. We didn't have a phone number for home, so we called the number on his business card."
"Buck lives at my house with me and the boys. What happened?"
"Apparently, a truck pulling a goose neck trailer pulled out in front of them. The man driving the truck said he lost control, but the other witnesses claim that he was driving too fast and tried to pass a line of vehicles stopped for a car making a left hand turn."
Chris listened to the man as he recounted the incident, each word like a dagger plunging deep into his heart. Try as he might, he could not stop the visions that played in his head.
Officer Henley continued. "In trying to get back to his side of the road, he jackknifed the trailer. Mr. Wilmington ran into the back of the truck and front of the trailer. They were lucky that car had air bags. The injuries could have been much worse, according to the EMT's."
"Air bags? Buck's truck is thirty years old. It doesn't have air bags. It barely has seat belts." Chris argued. "Are you sure it was them?"
"Sir, we got the information out of his wallet. I don't know why, but they were in a late model Pontiac."
If they had Buck's wallet it must be him. Chris decided he would worry about the truck later. "Any idea how bad?" Chris pinned the officer with a look that begged for something, anything.
Henley looked at his partner, who shrugged, and back to the four men standing in front of him. Taking a deep breath, he met Chris' gaze.
"The car was jammed under the trailer. They had to cut the roof off to extract the victims. Mr. Wilmington was pinned under the steering column. The boy was in the worst position, but he did come to and tell us his name." The patrolman flipped through his notepad. "Vin, he told us his name is Vin Tanner. His side took the brunt of the blow. Roof was crashed down and the dash was pushed down on his legs." Seeing the blood drain from the Chris' face, the officer was quick to add, "The EMT's didn't work like there were any life threatening injuries. After their preliminary examination, they seemed to slow down and take their time. The medic's didn't request a care flight for either Mr. Wilmington or young Mr. Tanner "
Chris nodded as the man talked. All four men seemed to relax some at the news. "What about JD?"
"JD?" The two patrolmen glanced at each other, frowns on their faces.
"JD. The younger boy? He's five. JD went fishing with them." Panic was beginning to take hold in Chris' heart again.
"I'm sorry, but there were only two people in the car. We checked the vehicle." Officer Henley assured them.
Officer Stewart spoke for the first time. "Alan, remember that pair of sneakers?"
"Sneakers?" Chris asked.
"Yes, sir. After the victims were transported, we examined the car and found a pair of wet sneakers in the floorboard of the back seat." Stewart turned to his partner. "I didn't think about it before, but the boy, Vin, was wearing boots. And those sneakers were a little small for a child his age."
Ezra stepped alongside Chris. "Could the boy have been anywhere in the vehicle?"
"No. We searched the car-front, back, trunk. We found fishing gear, fish, and the shoes. No child."
Chris growled in his fear. "Didn't you look around? There must have been some evidence that there was another passenger. If he was thrown out, there must have been a broken glass or open door, something."
The two men looked at each other for confirmation. With confidence, Officer Stewart looked Larabee square in the eye. "No, sir. Nothing. That car was closed-windows, doors; none were open or broken, at least not outwardly. We had to pry the doors open. The only broken glass was broken inward. Nothing went out of them. About the only way out was through the sunroof.." The man's voice trailed off. All the men had the same thought. If the small boy was sitting in the middle of the back seat, he could have been thrown through the opening and out of the car.
Ezra voiced the fear they all felt. "If young JD were expelled from the automobile, where is he? You saw no sign of the child, at all?"
"No, sir. None. Could he have stayed with a relative or sitter?"
Chris was shaking his head before the statement was finished. "No, Buck would have called me. He would not have left JD with someone else without letting me or Mrs. Potter know. No, JD was with them. And, if he's not here or in the car, then he's out there, somewhere-alone and possibly hurt."
After a moment's hesitation, the men moved as one toward the exit. Chris stopped and turned to Josiah and Ezra.
"I know you want to go help look, but I really need someone to stay here for Buck and Vin, for when they wake up. They need to know that someone is here for them."
Without hesitation, Ezra spoke up. "I would be only too glad to undertake that task for you, Mr. Larabee. I can control the situation here and Mr. Sanchez will of more value in the field than I."
Chris nodded his head at the undercover agent. "Thanks, Ez."
Good naturedly, Nathan clapped the fastidiously dressed man on the back. "You just don't want to soil those fancy Italian loafers." Nathan's soft smile took the edge off his statement. Ezra recognized it for the tension breaker that it was intended to be.
"Why Mr. Jackson, we are all aware of my lack of wilderness prowess. You and Mr. Sanchez will serve the purpose much better than I. I will relay information on our friends as soon as I hear anything."
Chris fixed Ezra with a grateful look. "Let's go, Nathan. Ezra, we'll call as soon as we find him." Chris' voice left no room for failure. He would not return without the boy.
Ezra watched as the five men left on their mission. "God's speed, gentlemen. I pray that your search is a fruitful one."
+ + + + + + +
After reaching the scene of the accident, the men spread out, trying to cover as much area as possible. The shoulder of the road was overgrown with weeds and a stand of trees stood a short way past the weeds. Henley explained that as the pickup towing the trailer jackknifed, the car had impacted both the truck and trailer. The height of the trailer was what caused the most damage to the much smaller automobile.
Chris and Josiah headed up the road to the north, the direction Buck would have been traveling. Henley and Stewart headed down the south edge of the road and Nathan split the difference. Each man grabbed a flashlight from the patrol car and began their search.
They had been looking for over a hour, with no results. Chris and Josiah had carefully gone over the weeded area, but found no sign of the young boy. Chris grew more apprehensive as the time worn on. Josiah stayed close to the leader of their team. Larabee was known for his outburst of temper and one was rapidly growing within the man.
It was nearing ten and the temperature was dropping. There was little doubt in each man's heart that, if the boy were alive by some miracle, he would not survive the cold November evening in the high country of Colorado. Chris' frustration soon found an outlet as the two patrolmen approached. Nathan followed close behind them.
"Excuse me, Mr. Larabee."
Chris turned glared at the men and then slowly walked to the edge of the road to join them. He knew what was coming and he didn't like it.
"We just got the call. We have to report back. The OIC is saying that.. well, he feels.." Henley didn't want to say the words out loud. The grief of the man standing in front of him was all too evident. No one believed that they were going to find the boy alive if he had indeed been in the car. The small body of a five year old would likely have sustained severe injuries. The time lost in getting medical treatment would have been too great. If the child was in the area, chances were great that they were working on a recovery operation and not a rescue.
Chris' voice was barely audible, but the anger was clearly heard. "He feels that we're wasting our time? That JD is dead? And this will wait until daylight?" The ATF team leader's eyes blazed. And, in the heat of that gaze, the patrolmen felt their blood run cold. There would be hell to pay tomorrow when Larabee unleashed that fury on the OIC and anyone else that dared get in his way.
"There is a child lost out here. Nothing that you can be doing is more important than finding that boy, one way or another."
Though both highway patrol officers looked remorseful, they had orders to follow. "Please believe me when I say that I truly understand. I have two boys of my own, sir, but I have to follow my orders. I will try to get back out here and assist you as soon as I'm off duty at midnight. But for now, he wants us back on patrol. Please try to understand."
Chris moved to step towards the two men, but was halted by a hand on his arm. He turned and looked into the gentle eyes of Josiah. The solemn look on his face caused Larabee to clamp his mouth closed. He turned away from the four men as tears of frustration welled in his eyes.
"Gentlemen, we understand perfectly. You have your duty to perform, just as we do. We do not harbor any ill will toward either of you. Your assistance this afternoon with the accident and, again, this evening, is much appreciated. Chris is not angry at you, only at the situation. Thanks for your help." The man shook the officers hands.
Nathan reached out and clasped the arm of Officer Stewart. "We'll return the flashlights tomorrow, if that is alright?"
"That will be fine. If we don't hear anything, we'll be back in a couple of hours, anyway. I don't have any kids, yet. But I have younger siblings. I could not go home, knowing the boy hadn't been found. If you DO find him before we get back here, please call and let us know. We'll like to meet you at the hospital to check on him and the others."
The two men turned and left. Chris wiped his eyes before turning back to the others. He gave them a weak smile. "Thanks. Good thing I have friends to keep my ass in line."
"Always glad to help a brother in need." Josiah told him.
They stood for only a moment, then Nathan looked around. "Anybody got any ideas?"
Chris turned and surveyed the area. "Nathan, what are the chances that the boy wasn't badly injured and climbed out and then wandered off in a daze?"
Nathan shook his head. "I talked to Stewart before you all showed up. There were five cars involved. Someone would have noticed if the boy had climbed out of the sunroof. He would have had to climb out of the car and then crawl over the trailer. No, I doubt that he crawled out."
Chris looked out into the dark vegetation and shuddered. "So, he was probably thrown into the weeds and unconscious. If no one saw and the accident was cleared before he came too.."
Josiah placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "Come on , brother. Let's go back to work."
The three men stepped back into the weeds and began again.
+ + + + + + +
Thirty minutes later, they had still found no sign. Nathan joined Chris and Josiah.
"My flashlight is giving out. Do we have any spare batteries?"
Josiah nodded. "I think there are some in the truck. Let me go get them."
Nathan and Chris stood quietly. The team medic saw the fatigue in the slump of the blonde's shoulders, the deep creases around the eyes and mouth. He watched as Chris rolled his head to relieve the tension in his shoulders and then look around the search area. Nathan took a deep breath. "Chris.."
As if he did not hear Chris simply started talking. "I think we need to move the search area outward."
Nathan glanced at Sanchez as he returned. Turning back to Chris, the medic replied, "Chris, there's no way the boy was thrown that far. It's just not possible."
"He could have come to and walked to the trees."
"Why would he hide in the trees? We have called him. He knows us. There is no reason for him to hide." Nathan reasoned.
Slowly, Larabee turned back to face his two team members. "I hadn't thought about it until now, but Buck and Vin were kidding around with him this morning. They were joking about leaving him in the woods for the bears to eat. I just remembered it. If he woke up alone, he might have thought that they did just that."
Josiah frowned. "Do you think JD would believe they would do that?"
Turning back to face the trees, Chris responded. "Josiah, he's five and very susceptible to suggestions. Yes, I think he would believe that's what happened. We need to move the search area out."
The three men moved toward the trees.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was torn between the two people he was there to keep an eye on. It would be so much easier if the two people concerned were at least on the same floor. He had spent the past three hours moving from one room to the other, though neither patient had regained consciousness.
He had just left Vin Tanner's room. The little boy was sleeping peacefully at the moment, so the agent headed to Wilmington's room. He pushed the door open and was greeted by a glowering Buck holding a nurse at bay with his eyes. And Buck never glared at women.
"Just tell me and I'll take that pill" he told her.
The undercover agent cleared his throat as he entered the room. "Mr. Wilmington, must you alienate the medical staff each time you are incarcerated in this establishment?"
Buck turned to the other agent, a protest on his lips. Standish held up a hand to silence the words. He turned to the nurse. "May I inquire as to the nature of the treatment that glass contains?"
"It's only a pain pill, for the bruising around his chest and abdomen. He is refusing to take it until he finds out about his passengers."
"All I asked is to know if the boys are alright. I can't go back to sleep until I know that they're okay." Buck's voice was rough and he looked around for water. The nurse extended her hands, one, which held a glass of water, and the other held the pills. She tightened her mouth and cocked an eyebrow at him.
Buck took a deep breath and took both from her. He tossed the pills into his mouth and tossed the water in after them. Swallowing them, he handed the two containers back to the nurse. "Thanks."
She took the containers with a 'humph', turned, and left the room. Buck watched her go and then glanced at Ezra. The undercover agent wore a contemptuous look. Buck looked unabashed as he asked, "What? I asked a simple question. She could have answered and saved us the hassle."
Ezra continued to stare at the older man. Finally, Buck had the good graces to look embarrassed by his behavior. He looked away. Ezra decided to allow him a little slack.
"So, what do you want to know?"
Buck's expression became apprehensive as he asked, "The boys, no one will tell me about the boys. I want to know if they're alright."
Ezra placed his hands on the foot of the bed and cleared his throat. "I have only just now left young Mr. Tanner on another floor. He is sleeping quietly and is not expected to awake until morning. He is in relatively good shape considering the extent of damage inflicted on the automobile that you were driving. Do you remember anything about the accident?"
"Not much" he admitted. "We were coming back and a truck pulled out in front of us. He was pulling a trailer. I..we..hit..I couldn't avoid him." Buck looked at the bed as he plucked at something only he could see on the blanket.
Ezra came around and sat on the edge of the bed. He placed his hands in his lap after pulling his sleeve down to relieve a wrinkle. "No one is blaming you, Buck. All the witnesses said that there was nowhere for you go. You were not at fault."
Buck looked at the undercover agent. His face wore a look of gratitude. The look fell away as Buck tried to look into Ezra's eyes. The undercover agent was the best liar that Buck had ever met but, at the moment, the man was an open book.
"What aren't you telling me?" Buck suddenly sat up straight, ignoring the sharp pains in his chest as he did. "Oh, God. JD. You haven't said anything about..." Buck's voice broke as tears filled his eyes. He fell back against the pillow and threw an arm over his face.
"Young Mr. Dunne is.. missing. He was apparently thrown from the car and no one witnessed it. Mr.'s Larabee, Jackson, and Sanchez are searching for him at this very moment." Ezra glanced away at Buck's hitched breath. Ezra was unsure of how to comfort his teammate. He could handle a lot of situations, but a 'father's' grief was not something he was use to dealing with. The two men had only had the boys in their custody for a few months. Ezra sat and waited for Buck to gather himself together.
After a few minutes, the man drew his hands across his face and looked at the friend who sat close at his side. "I need to go help." Buck said quietly. He moved to throw the covers off, but was stopped as Standish placed a hand over his.
"Mr. Wilmington, you cannot leave this establishment. Mr. Larabee would have my head if you were to depart here without a physician's release." Ezra reached down and pulled the covers back and smoothed them down as he spoke. "All that can be done, is being done. You will needed here if young JD is not located. Vin does not know yet. You may be called on to assist with him, if Chris is not back when he awakes."
"But, I should be out there, looking. I left him..it's my fault, Ezra. I'm responsible for that boy."
"Buck, you are not at fault. The man that attempted to pass a line of cars waiting for someone turning left is at fault. And he is the only one at fault."
Buck knew the man was right, but he hated to wait. He felt he should be doing something, but the pain in his chest told him that was not possible. He nodded in agreement and lay back. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer for the dark-haired boy that had come into his life.
Ezra pulled out his cell phone and dialed Josiah's number.
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