THE BIRD MAN by Phyllis Loafman

ATF "Little Britches" Universe

"Good morning, gentlemen. How are you today, boys’?" Miss Wells asked the children as they entered her office. The boys were holding on to each other and Buck had a hand the shoulder of each. Chris extended his hand to the woman.

She smiled as she took the offered hand. "I was not expecting to see you and Vin today, Mr. Larabee, though I don't know why I am surprised."

She turned to the two children. "Boys, I have some toys in the corner. Why don't you go play while I talk with the gentlemen and then you can go on with your plans for the day."

Both boys looked at Chris for guidance. He nodded as Buck released his grip. He gave them a small push towards the toys as he stepped over to Larabee and the social worker.

As the boys moved off, Nettie Wells looked into the anxious eyes of both men. She had been leery of placing the young boys with the men. Larabee had had a family and, therefore had experience raising a child. Wilmington, on the other hand, had practically no knowledge of what it took to raise children. Against her normal inclinations though, she had placed the boys in the home of the ATF agent and his partner. Though originally Wilmington had been in his own apartment, Nettie had breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that the two agents would be sharing a household. Between the two of them, they might be able to cope with the care of two young boys.

She knew from experience that boys presented their own problems and could be hard to handle. Some people tended to be too strict in order to have discipline. Some people, if too lenient, created the problem of having no control of the child, as he grew older. While these two particular boys were good hearted, they were boys. That had become evident as the Larabee household began to go through housekeepers at an alarming rate. Nettie had finally intervened by sending a friend to apply for the job. She had not told the two men that Gloria Potter was a good friend, not wanting to influence their decision. They had hired the woman and things seemed to working well for all parties.

"I am sorry to had called on such short notice, Mr. Wilmington, but I received a request from the marshals office to speak to John about an ongoing investigation his mother had been involved in."

She saw both men visibly relax and smile at each other. "Apparently you are aware of the situation?' she questioned.

Buck nodded his head. "Yes, ma'am. We were pretty worried after your call; 'fraid that you had found the boy's daddy or I had done something to make you rethink letting me keep him."

Buck saw her stern look and thought back on what he had just said. Awareness sparked in his eye, "Not that finding his daddy is a bad thing. It just that the two boys get on so well together and things are starting to run smooth at home. Wouldn't want to upset the boy.." Buck stopped talking. He had the feeling he was digging his own grave with his mouth. Finally, deciding truthfulness was the best thing he had going. "Heck, Miz Wells, you know how I feel about that the boy, else you wouldn't helped me pass the test, not after that first interview we had. If his daddy showed up, I know that would be a good thing. I just..."

Nettie reached out and placed a gentle hand on the man's arm. "I understand perfectly, Mr. Wilmington. It would be a hard thing to have to relinquish the boy, though I am confident you would do what is best for the boy."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Now, let's finish with the marshal, let ask his questions, and then you four can get on with your Saturday's errands."

The two men nodded. The three adults turned and found themselves being watched. The boys stood next to the toys, but were not touching them. Vin stood with JD in front of him, his skinny arms wrapped around the younger boy. A fierce protectiveness burned in his eyes. The younger boy's eyes were huge and full of fear.

Buck stepped up to them and knelt down. He reached out and stroked the trembling chin.

"I'll bet you are going to be hungry when you get through talking with Miz Nettie. How about we let you pick the place where we have lunch today?"


Buck nodded and was rewarded with a big grin. Vin groaned dramatically and covered his face with both hands. Buck just laughed and took JD's hand. He led him over to the social worker and, patting the small head, he placed the hand into the woman's.

"We shouldn't be long, gentlemen."

Leaving the trio standing in her office, the woman and young boy went down the hall to a private interview room. She opened the door and stepped in with the child by her side. Closing the door, she felt the boy's hand tighten in hers.

"Marshal Ackers, this is John Dunne. John, this is Marshal Ackers."

David Bergman stood up and smiled. The boy's eyes filled and his chin trembled as he stared at the man.

"John, say hello." Nettie prompted. Instead of speaking, he pulled his hand from hers and backed away. The woman turned, frowning. "John, it's okay. The marshal just wants to ask a couple of questions."

The boy continued to back away until he was standing against the corner wall. He slid down and hugged his knees. "I wouldn’t say nothing. I wouldn't."

Not understanding, Nettie turned to Bergman and apologized. "I'm sorry, Marshal. I don't understand why he is so upset. Usually, he is very open and friendly." She clutched her hands and turned back to JD. "Maybe, Mr. Wilmington can help. I'll be right back."

"Please." The little boy pleaded.

Nettie turned to look at him. "You want Buck to come in?"

"I don't want to be here. Please, can I go?"

She held out her hand and he jumped up to run over. Bergman intercepted the boy and stopped him. "Miss Wells, I have to interview the boy. I will not take long. May I suggest that you get Mr. Wilmington and we can all sit down and talk?"

She nodded her head and left the room. JD turned to run and Bergman grabbed the back of his jacket, pulling him close.

"I didn't say anything. Please, I want to go home," he cried.

"Oh, I'm sorry, kid. You know who I am and you got friends that can do something about it, so you and I are leaving."

"No!" JD screamed.

Bergman opened the door and stepped into the hallway.

+ + + + + + +

Three heads turned as Nettie entered the room. Buck looked around her and not seeing the boy, asked, "Where's the boy?"

"We're having a small problem. He is very agitated and will not speak to Marshal Ackers. I was hoping you could help."

Buck did not hesitate. He was out the door in two strides. He had just cleared the doorway when he heard JD's cry. He tore off down the hallway. Seeing the man step into the hall with the child clutched to his chest, Wilmington slid to a stop, bellowing, "Bergman, stop! Put 'em down." He heard Chris' slide to a stop behind him.

Bergman turned and cursed when he saw the two ATF agents standing in the hall. He glanced over his shoulder and saw an exit sign.

"Boys, I'm leaving here now and I'm taking the boy with me."

Chris stepped up even with Buck. "The hell you are."

JD shuddered as the man tightened his grip. Looking past the two men, he saw Vin. Reaching out, tears running down his face, he pleaded. "Vin, help me. It's the bird man. Please, help."

Chris heard Nettie struggling with the child and turned to glare at the boy.

"Vin. Stay. Buck and I will get JD back."

The youth tightened his lips and stopped his struggling. Chris turned back to the scene in front of him. The sight of the boy pleading to be rescued tore his heart apart. He knew Buck was quickly reaching a breaking point.

"Why are you doing this, David?"

"I have orders to take the boy into protective custody."

"Well, I think you're going about it all wrong here, partner." Buck took a step forward as he spoke.

Bergman threw up a hand. "I have my orders, Wilmington."

"No, I didn't say anything. I don't want to go." JD slapped at the arm that held him.

"The boy doesn't know anything. He can't help with your investigation. Just let him go." Buck's voice lowered as he spoke, the threat unspoken, but evident.

Bergman started backing slowly toward the door. If he could just reach the door, he might be able to get out of this intact. But the next words spoken extinguished that hope.

JD’s little arms stretched out, his little fingers clenching and unclenching in a desperate plea. "Buck, please, he'll hit me like he hit momma. Please."

The air was electrified with the boy's pronouncement. Buck's eyes bored into the man. Chris heard the social worker once again struggling with the boy. He caught a hint of motion and turned in time to grab the lean boy as he tried to dart past. Chris spun around as he wrestled with the child. Nettie came up and wrapped her arms around the boy and lifted him off the ground.

She spoke softly into his ear. "Vin, you are distracting the men from rescuing John. Let them do their job. You trust them, don't you?" She felt him nod against her shoulder. She hugged him tight as she went into her office and closed the door.

Chris briefly watched them and then turned back to Bergman. The marshal was standing against the exit door. He pushed the bar and opened the door. Instantly, the emergency alarm sounded. Bergman stepped out the door.

Buck and Chris bolted down the hallway as people began to file down the hall in response to the alarm. They pushed their way through, yelling that it was a false alarm, as they went.

Reaching the door, they pushed through in time to see Bergman heading around the corner to the front of the building. Wilmington's long legs pulled him out in front of Larabee and he rounded the corner several seconds ahead of his partner. He caught sight of the fleeing man as he reached the front steps. Buck doubled his efforts.

Chris came around the corner and ran after them. He pulled up when he saw Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah coming down the front steps. Panting, he yelled and pointed to the corner. They looked and joined him in the pursuit.

Ezra moved alongside Chris as he asked what was happening. He stumbled at Chris' answer, ‘Bergman may have killed JD's mother and now had the boy.’

Meanwhile, one block ahead, Buck spotted Bergman down the block. He was putting the struggling child into the back seat of a dark sedan. The man went around and jumped into the car. Buck heard it start as he reached for the door handle. The car was dropping into gear as he grasped the handle. As he was pulled from his feet, he looked into the terrified eyes of the child in the back.

Uninjured, he jumped to his feet and ran after the accelerating car. It was moving toward the four agents running down the street. Buck yelled and pointed at the car. The men drew up short and ran into the street, trying to block the car.

Bergman merely pushed harder on the accelerator. He had no intention of stopping. But the human blockade served to distract the man. A car pulled out of a parking space directly into his path and he swerved to avoid a collision. In swerving though, he lost control of the car and fishtailed across the street. The car jumped the curb at the corner and slammed to a stop against the light pole.

Buck almost went to his knees at the sight of the car crashing. He knew neither occupant had been belted in. He saw Chris and the others moving across the street. Chris moved to intercept him as Nathan and Ezra climbed into the vehicle on the passenger side.

Chris held his arms wide to stop his friend. "Buck, wait, let Nathan have a look."

Wilmington's response was to shove the blond out of the way and continue on. He walked up and looked into the back seat.

"Nathan?" he asked. He glanced into the front as Ezra dragged the semiconscious man across the seat. Buck was vaguely aware of him being cuffed and his rights being read to him. His attention was focused on the back of the team's medic. The one hope Buck clung to was the sound coming from the other side of the car. JD was crying and that meant he was alive.

After what seemed hours, Nathan turned his head. A slight nod to the anxious man was the signal to move out of the way and Buck exited the door to allow Jackson out. Nathan backed out of the car and turned to Buck. The easygoing agent got his first look at the boy and his heart lurched. JD had a knot coming up over his left eye and Jackson had used his handkerchief to wrap the boy's arm.

As soon as JD saw Buck, he reached out to him, crying. Buck had to stop himself from ripping the boy from the man's arms. Taking a deep breath, he gently extracted the small body and pulled it to his chest. Tucking one arm under the little bottom, he wrapped the other around the boy and cradled the dark haired head.

"He needs to be checked by a doctor. I'm pretty sure his arm is broken and he has a good bump on his head, but I don't think he's hurt bad." Nathan reached out and stroked the exposed cheek. "He's a tough little kid. He'll be fine. Won't you, JD? You're a tough little cowboy, right?"

JD sniffed and nodded. "I'm tough little cowboy," he mimicked. Buck smiled over the boy's head at Nathan.

Chris bent down and caught the boy's eye. The ATF team leader smiled and winked at the boy. He was glad to see a smile from the child.

Josiah spoke up, "Buck, my car is right over here. Why don't I give you and JD a ride to the hospital? We'll get him checked out."

Buck pulled his head back so he could see the child's eyes. "That okay with you, little bit? "

"Can we still go to McDonald's?"

Buck laughed. "Sure, son, we can still go. Thanks, Josiah."

Chris clapped Buck on the back. "I'll see you there, Buck."

Buck and Josiah moved across the street to the car. Halfway to the car, they were met by Nettie and Vin. The boy reached up and took hold of the younger boy's leg. Josiah placed his hands on the Vin’s shoulders.

"He'll be fine, Vin. I'm going to drive them to the hospital. You want to come with us?"

Vin nodded, his eyes never leaving JD.

The group headed to Josiah's suburban. Nettie stood at the side of the vehicle as the boys were loaded in and buckled up. "Mr. Wilmington.."

Buck straightened up and looked into the worried eyes of the social worker. "Wasn't your fault, Miz Wells. You couldn't of known." He turned and climbed into the vehicle.

Chris had walked up behind her as she stood stiffly in the street, her arms wrapped around her stomach. He placed a hand on her shoulder and gently guided her away from the car. Josiah nodded as he pulled away.

"Ma'am, you couldn't have known." Chris told the woman. She was clearly distressed by the altercation with the marshal.

"He had all the correct paperwork. It looked authentic, the watermarks and stamps were there. I checked his credentials."

She looked up into the man's eyes, her eyes begging him to believe her.

Ezra and Nathan joined the couple as they stood on the curb. Standish reached out to the take possession of the hands that gestured, aimlessly, as she spoke.

"Miss Wells, you did all that you could have done. The man is a scoundrel and a liar. His credentials were genuine because he had the resources of the Marshals office to acquire any identification that he wished. The papers looked genuine because they were."

Nathan and Chris flanked the small woman as she considered Standish's statement. "He had ID stating his name was Ackers."

"If we were not familiar with the rogue in question, we would not know any different. But his true identity is David Bergman and he is a Federal Marshall. He is one of the men that assist in the witness protection program. It is most probably the place Mr. Dunne first came in contact with the man." Ezra could see the light of righteous indignation of the woman's face.

"He used that position to murder Miss Dunne and the boy saw it?"

The three men nodded. They hoped that once calm and secure within Buck's arms, JD would be able to provide them with more details.

"That is disgusting. The idea that anyone who swore an oath to serve and protect, would use his authority to the evil ends that man did, well, it is simply deplorable." She straightened her shoulders and looked each man in the eyes. "Gentlemen, I thank you for your conscientious attitudes toward your job. I still feel that I should have been more diligent in my verification of the marshal. I will, of course, be more attentive in the future. I was spared the consequences of my actions this time, thanks to your team, Mr. Larabee. It will not happen again. Now that Mr. Bergman has been apprehended and taken away, I will get back to my job."

She turned to enter the building, paused and turned back to Chris and the others. "Mr. Larabee, please tell Mr. Wilmington that I will call him and arrange a meeting with John and him to check on the boy. And, please, apologize for my lack of diligence." Before Chris could respond, she turned and entered the building.

Ezra smiled as Chris shook his head. Nathan chuckled. "Might as well face it, Chris. She won't let go of it until she can apologize to Buck and the boy."

"Yeah, I know. I just wish I could convince her that she did everything she was supposed to. Sometimes, it just isn't enough," Chris stated. The look in his eyes spoke volumes. The two agents knew the blond had come a long way in forgiving himself for the deaths of his wife and child. All of them were aware that no one could control the actions of another; they could only do their best and deal with the results as best they could.

Nathan placed a hand on Chris' shoulder. "Boss, seems we need a ride, as our driver has left us afoot."

Chris grinned. "How about we go check on Josiah and the boys?"

"Would that be 'three' boy's?" Ezra asked, a hint of a smile on his face as they walked over to Chris' Dodge and climbed in.

"Yeah. Two little and one big." Nathan said. "I wonder how Buck is holding up?"

"Hell, I wonder how the doctor is holding up." Chris speculated as they drove off.

+ + + + + + +

They arrived at the hospital and parked. Entering the emergency room doors, they looked around for Josiah. Nathan spotted him and pointed the way.

Vin and Josiah sat together near the front on the room. Vin looked wound tight as he sat forward in the chair, his hands wrapped around the front edge of the chair as if preparing to spring out. In the chair next to the young boy, Josiah looked the picture of relaxation, with his arms draped across the backs of the surrounding chairs. He was slouched down, legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed. With his eyes closed, he looked as if he were about to slide right out of the chair. But as they drew near, they were not surprised as he spoke without opening his eyes. He only looked relaxed.

"Howdy, boys. Did you get Bergman taken care of?"

Chris smiled slightly and nodded his head. Josiah never ceased to amaze him. The man was always aware of the things going on around him, even when he seemed focused on something else.

Vin's head jerked around at Josiah’s question and he flung himself against Larabee's legs, clutching him tight.

Ezra and Nathan joined Sanchez in the chairs, as Chris squatted and hugged the boy. Vin trembled slightly and leaned into the embrace.

Ezra turned away from the scene and answered the question. "Yes, ex-Marshal Bergman has been incarcerated by the local police department for transfer to federal holding after his bond hearing. He made a quick stop at a hospital other than this one to be examined and was then taken to jail. We spoke to AD Travis on the way over and there is little hope of the reprobate being allowed bond at any price."

Nathan took a seat by the team profiler as the big man sat up straight. They watched as Chris stood up with the boy in his arms. Vin wrapped his legs around the man and laid his head on Chris’ shoulder. Larabee turned and took a seat with the rest of the team.

"Are they still back there?" Chris asked Josiah.

"Yes. They took them back about an hour ago. So far we haven’t heard a word. I do not know if this is a good thing or not. But at least Buck has not been escorted out."

Each man nodded, knowing that Wilmington would get loud and verbal if he was not satisfied with the treatment the boy was receiving. The fact that he was still in the room meant one of two things-he was comfortable with what was happening or he was the only one that could keep the boy calm. Only time would give them an answer.

Thirty minutes later, they looked up as Buck walked in carrying JD. The bruise had darkened and spread downward. It was an angry dark color, but the knot had gone down some. The boy had a soft cast on his arm in a bright shade of yellow. As they approached, he smiled and waved the encased limb, calm as if this sort of thing happened daily. Buck, on the other hand, looked as if he had been through the wringer. He sat the boy down on his feet and plopped down in a chair next to the others. JD ran over to Vin, who had climbed down from Chris’s lap. The five men watched as the two boys hugged. They climbed into one chair and began a quiet conversation.

Chris looked over at Buck. "You okay, pard?"

Buck ran his hands over his face as he slouched down in the chair. "I think I’d rather face a gang of gunrunners than have to do that again. Kid was hurting, I was yelling; it’s a wonder I didn’t get tossed out on my behind. I finally got him to calm down. I asked him about Bergman to distract him. Maybe I should have waited but I couldn’t think of anything to talk about. He was a little tentative at first, but then he opened up."

"Could he tell you much?" Chris asked.

The men moved closer after Buck glanced at the boys and then lowered his voice. "Seems his mom told him they were moving and Bergman was going help them. They were waiting for him with the car. When he showed up, they got into an argument about something. Bergman grabbed her and she slapped him. That's when he hit her. He picked and put her in the back seat of the car with JD. The boy said he thought that Bergman was going to hit him, too, but he then he told him if he said anything he would come back and hit him like he hit his mom." Buck paused for a moment.

"Apparently, the miscreant must have some scruples about the murder of children," Ezra commented.

All five men glanced at the small boys and wondered what kind of personality it took to threaten a five-year-old child. The idea was so repulsive that it made them physically sick. They sat back and thought about the man that had murdered a woman and threatened her child. Each one thought the man was lucky to be in custody, aware of what their actions might be if he stood in front of them.

Chris finally broke the silence. "Well, I think we promised JD that we would take him to McDonald’s. And we still have to shop for Christmas. Buck, you think he’s up to it?"

"Hell, he’s probably more up for it than I am," he chuckled.

The men stood up and moved to where the boys were sitting. Buck reached out and placed a hand on the dark haired boy’s head. "Hey, little bit, you still ready to go to McDonald’s?"

JD nodded and smiled. Vin and he stood up and the men surrounded them, like personal security. The boys giggled as they left the hospital surrounded by their own personal wall of Federal agents.

+ + + + + + +

Christmas day dawned on Four Corners Ranch cloudy and cold. But that was outside. Inside the ranch house was nothing like the weather outside. It was warm and cheery with a fire blazing in the hearth. Chris and Buck sat amid the ribbons and paper and bows. They had worked until late into the night to wrap and put out gifts.

Chris felt that he had only just lain down when the boys started making sounds of getting up. Hearing muffled talking in the hallway, he rose and cracked open the door. He recognized Vin’s voice as he tried to contain the excitement of the younger JD. The boys were tiptoeing into the hall as he peeked out.

Vin had JD by his pajama top. "No, JD. We have to wait until Chris and Buck get up."

"But they won’t be up for hours. I want to see what Santy Claus left us." The little boy twisted and turned, trying to get loose.

"No, we have to wait for Chris and Buck. We can't start Christmas without them. That's half 'a the fun."

"But, can't we just take a peek?" JD begged.

"No. Now let's go back to our room and play until they get up, JD."

Chris had to smile. As tired as he was, he had been looking forward to this for a month. He grabbed a robe and snuck down the hall to Buck's room when he heard the boys door click shut. He opened the door to Buck's room and entered. Buck lay sprawled across the bed on his stomach, feet hanging over the edge. Chris walked over and shook him by the shoulder.

"Buck. Wake up. Time for breakfast."

Buck slapped at Chris' hand and mumbled, 'go away'. Chuckling, Chris tried again.

"Come on, pard. Up and at 'em. It's morning."

Buck rolled over onto his back. Rubbing his eyes, he struggled to sit up. "Didn't we just go to bed? I'm more tired now than when I laid down." He leaned forward with his head in his hands. "What's going on? Why we getting up so soon?"

Chris nodded his head toward to door. "Boys are up."

Buck's eyes lit up. "Really? Come on." Buck pulled on his jeans and grabbed a shirt, not bothering to button it.

The two men moved down the hall to the door of the boys room. They could hear the boys playing quietly inside. Looking at each other, they nodded and threw open the door.

"Merry Christmas, Vin, JD." Two little bodies flying across the room to latch onto their legs greeted them.

"Merry Christmas, Chris." Vin said, his eyes dancing with delight.

"Hi, Buck. Merry Christmas." JD held up his hands to the tall man in a silent plea to be picked up. After settling on the man's hip, the boy patted the stubbly chin. "Buck, can we open presents now?"

"JD!" Vin cried. "It's not nice to ask. We can wait."

Chris looked down at the overly serious boy. "I want to open presents now. What about you, Buck? You ready to open presents?"

"Sure am. What about you, little bit? You ready?"

His answer was a shrill. "YEAH!" The little boy squirmed in the man's arms. Buck sat the boy down.

"Well, let's go see what Santa Claus brought us," Buck said and they took off down the hall.

Chris looked down at Vin. "We don't want to be left behind, do we, Vin?"

"No." The child's eyes were shining. He took the man's hand and pulled him down the hall.

They caught up with Buck and JD. They stood just inside the living room. JD's eyes were huge. "Vin, look. You ever seen so much stuff, ever?"

Vin stood with his mouth open. Chris and Buck stood smiling behind them. Finally, Chris broke the spell. "Who wants to open gifts?"

"Me!" JD yelled. And he was off with Vin right behind him. The boys started to check out all the unwrapped toys under the tree. There were toys clearly marked for both boys. JD got a barnyard complete with horses and a corral. Vin got a Jeep, the non-motorized kind. Together they got a train set, already setup with stations and trees and railroad crossings.

The living room was soon littered with paper and ribbons and bows. After all the time spent wrapping and decorating presents, resulted in a pile of trash in only a few minutes. The boys tried on the new shirts and pants. They both got new boots and gloves for the winter.

The men cleaned up the mess while the boys put away their clothes and moved their toys back. Breakfast was prepared and eaten and the dishes put away.

After feeding the stock and clearing new fallen snow from the porch, they began lunch. By noon the kitchen was full of the aroma of Christmas dinner. The boys sat the table or greeted guests as they arrived.

Miss Wells showed up first. She made her apologies to Buck again for the incident that had occurred ten days earlier. She brought the boys books for Christmas and accepted an invitation to dinner. Nathan and Rain arrived shortly after noon. They brought gifts for everyone. Josiah showed up at the same time; bringing more gifts. Mrs. Potter and her children showed up to drop off gifts on their way to dinner at her sister's. Ezra was the last person to arrive. He brought gifts for the team and the boys.

After the incident ten days prior, he had been at odds on what to get the boys. He had talked to Chris and Buck; he had talked to Miss Wells. After much consideration, he decided to indulge himself and the kids. With the permission of the social worker and both caretakers, he was taking the boys to Disney world. He had already requested a two-week leave and planned the excursion down to the last detail.

Chris had protested at first, arguing that it was too much to spend on a single gift, but Ezra argued that he had friends that would put them up, saving the cost of a hotel. The transportation was the biggest expense and Ezra, again, had called in a favor. So, all he would actually be paying for would be the tickets and food. The deciding factor for Larabee was when Ezra Standish, the most autonomous and private person Chris had ever known, told him, "Mr. Larabee, I have never been to an amusement park in my entire life. I always felt at odds with the concept. But the idea of going and taking the boys is appealing beyond any realms of my imagination. I really would love to do this."

Chris had finally relented. After all, Ezra had sought and received the authorization of both Miss Wells and the court. When the boys heard, they were ready to go. At least JD was. Vin was a little hesitant since neither Chris nor Buck was going. But, after a quiet conversation with Chris, he decided it would be all right. The trip was set for the next month. Arrangements had been made with schools and teachers. Until then, the boys made do with a couple of Disney videos that Ezra had brought them.

As they all headed to the dining room, Buck dropped a friendly hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Now,, what were you saying about shelling out for extravagant gifts?"

"I only thought the young gentlemen would need some time away from your heathen ways so that they might gain an appreciation of the finer points of a refined and genteel way of life."

"At Disney world?"

"There are other points of interest to partake of. Epcot Center presents an excellent view of diverse world cultures. Universal Studios will be educational, also. Plus, the NASA facility should prove to be quite fascinating," Ezra proclaimed in defense of his gift.

Buck simply nodded and smiled. They were the last two to take their seats. As Ezra pulled out a chair and Buck passed, Wilmington leaned in and whispered in his ear. "Damn hard to resist spoiling, aren't they?"

Ezra stood for a moment, watching as the two boys in question sat eyeing the feast that lay before them. The innocence and purity of the two was evident on their young faces. They had their whole lives before them, just waiting to be savored. They deserved the best of everything. They had suffered enough in their short lives. They had a loving family now; men who would care for them and bring them up to lead wholesome and productive lives. Ezra knew he wanted to be a part of those lives. He was also aware of a selfish need within his soul to share in those lives to regain some of the childhood he had been deprived of by his mother's lackluster skills at motherhood.

Admitting that to himself, he took his seat and turned to see Buck watching him, a knowing twinkle in his eyes.

"You are absolutely correct, Mr. Wilmington. But, as an 'uncle', as with a grandparent, I have the privilege of not having to adhere to that particular rule. That falls onto your and Mr. Larabee's broad shoulders. It shall be interesting to observe the adult and 'juvenile' struggle to maintain a balance within the family unit."

"Are you calling me a juvenile, Ez?"

"My statement is, of course, open to interpretation. But, if the shoe fits.." Ezra left his statement hanging in the air. Buck tried to glare at the man, but it just didn't work the way it did for Chris, so he shrugged his shoulders, laughing.

"That's okay, Ezra. Chris makes a good dad and mom. I'm learning from the best." And he turned to his long-time friend. Chris shook his head. He doubted Buck would ever fully grow up, but that was part of his charm. And Chris would not give for the Peter Pan attitude that Buck exuded. Let him play. When times got tough, Wilmington was the one you could depend on for level-headedness. It had been proven many times. For all his childish behavior, he was a strong and able friend, who would always be there for the people he loved.

Chris looked around the table at this family of friends and, bowing his head, began grace.

"Lord, thank you for the many blessings gathered at this table…"


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