"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
The clothing selection left much to be desired. After rejecting several of the boy's proffered choices, Ezra had narrowed it down to two less than desirable options. JD's choice was a vibrant purple tee shirt bearing the image of a cowboy on a bucking bronco with the phrase "I'm a little buckaroo." JD liked it because it had a cowboy on it and it said Buck's name.
Ezra leaned toward Vin's more subtle choice of a beige shirt with a bull rider and the phrase, "Cowboy up," which the older boy liked because it had the word "cowboy" on it. After much discussion, they decided on the "Cowboy up" shirt, which of course clashed with Ezra's slacks, necessitating the purchase of a pair of jeans as well.
Josiah and the two boys walked back toward the arena while Ezra headed to the restrooms to clean up and change clothes.
"Who's that?" asked JD, pointing to the rider dressed in a colorful oversized striped shirt and red pants. His suspenders were rainbow colored and were worn over the top of a protective vest. He wore a rainbow colored wig and a red ball nose, with face paint completing his outfit.
"I think that's Mr. Jack," said Vin as he watched Chris talking to the cowboy clown. Jack hadn't been wearing the costume earlier, but this man was riding the same horse.
JD giggled. "Buck was right. He is a clown and a cowboy! Why's he dressed like a clown?"
Josiah smiled. "He's going to help the bull riders. His job is to distract the bulls so the riders can get to safety when they finish their ride."
"Do the bulls like clowns?" asked JD innocently.
Josiah chuckled. "I don't think so JD, but the outfits are fun for the crowd."
"Oh," said JD. He waved at the clown as they continued their trek past the stock pens.
Josiah stopped to admire the bulls.
"Don't touch the fence!" warned Vin.
"Yeah!" agreed JD. "Bulls don't like to say hello. They's not nice."
"Sounds like good advice," said Josiah, taking a step back from the fencing.
"There's Mr. Ezra!" said Vin, as Ezra walked in their direction, in his new blue jeans and tee shirt.
For some unknown reason, JD started to giggle. He whispered something to Vin, bringing a smile to the older boy's face. By the time Ezra reached them, both boys were giggling uncontrollably and Josiah just stood there shaking his head, having no clue what had set them off. Josiah looked around trying to see what was so funny to the boys.
"I appear to be missing something," said Ezra, curiously.
Vin crooked a finger, inviting Ezra to come closer. The seven year old stood on his tiptoes as Ezra stooped down, whispering something in Ezra's ear. Ezra straightened up with a dimpled smile gracing his face.
"Are you gonna let me in on it?" asked Josiah.
Ezra's grin broadened. "Mr. Sanchez," said Ezra, "I believe you have been en-riched." Ezra drew out the last word syllable by syllable in a deepened southern accent."
"Enriched?" repeated Josiah.
"Enriched," Ezra affirmed with a nod toward Josiah's feet.
"You's standing in cow poop!" JD pointed out before laughing whole-heartedly at the senior agent.
Josiah looked down as the boys began to laugh harder. He was standing in cow manure. He shook his head with a grin. Leave it to little boys to think standing in bovine waste was humorous. But he had to admit, their laughter was the sweetest sound.
"Well, Ezra, you know what they say. Money is like manure. Not good except it be spread."
Ezra laughed as Josiah scraped off his boot on the bottom rail of the fence, as the foursome headed back to the arena.
Settling back into their seats in the bleachers, the boys cheered for the Junior Event, and the Senior Event, which followed Vin's division. But Ezra and Josiah had to literally hang on to Vin and JD to keep them off the arena fence when the Wild Cow Milking Contest was announced. The boys were eager to see Chris and Buck in action.
Vin smiled and waved at Chris. Chris waved back at Vin, and then turned his focus to the milking event. It was a fun event, but if you didn't pay attention, you could get hurt. Jack would rope a wild cow from horseback. Chris would then "mug" the cow, controlling it by grabbing it around the neck and wrestling it into position to stand still momentarily for Buck, who would try to get some milk into a milk bottle. If he didn't get kicked. It was a timed event, and whoever had the most milk in the bottle at the end of the event would win.
The whistle sounded and the gates to the bucking chutes were opened, releasing eight "cows" into the arena. Six teams of three charged after the cows, eighteen men, six on horseback and twelve on foot, six horses and eight cows creating a chaotic scene in the arena. Chris dodged out of the way as one of the ropers nearly ran over him with his horse.
"Get a good one, Jack!" cheered Buck as he grabbed Chris' elbow, steadying his partner.
Jack's lasso snaked forward and landed perfectly over the neck of the ugliest cow Buck had ever seen. Chris sprang into action, mugging the cow before it could regain its balance from being stopped in its tracks by the rope.
It was going well. Too well.
"It's a bull!" shouted Buck with a laugh. The rodeo workers always threw in a few bulls to the mix for good humor.
Chris wanted to laugh, but he was sidetracked by holding onto the cow... bull. Buck certainly wouldn't get milk from this animal. He could hear the laughter of the crowd as he loosened Jack's lasso and freed the bull.
Jack just shook his head and went after one of the two remaining animals. This time he snagged a cow. Chris mugged it quickly, and Buck began to attempt to milk it.
The cow was not happy about the situation and let Buck know with a kick. He dodged the kick and went back to business. He had only a few squirts of milk in the bottle.
Other teams weren't fairing much better. Cowboys flew as cows kicked the milker or threw the mugger off of their necks. The crowd cheered as one animal was dragging her mugger around the arena as he dug ruts with his heels trying to stop her momentum.
Buck dodged another kick and Chris moved his face just in time to avoid a head butt. Buck kept milking as the cow danced around anxiously. He had managed to avoid the flying hooves, but let out a shout when the cow stepped on his left foot. He threw his shoulder into her hip, forcing her to move off of his injured foot, praying she hadn't broken it. Finally the whistle blew and the muggers and milkers limped their way to the judging stand, while the ropers wrangled the cows out of the arena.
"Shh, JD," soothed Josiah. "Buck's fine." He brushed away JD's tears with Ezra's handkerchief.
"Bad cow!" scolded JD. He folded his arms across his chest and glared at the creature that had stepped on Buck.
Ezra winced and gently pried Vin's fingers from his forearm. For a small child, Vin Tanner had a vise-like grip. "Mr. Larabee is fine as well, Master Tanner." The freed fingers twined themselves into Ezra's, gripping for some semblance of security. Vin's eyes refused to leave Chris, unwilling to trust until he could see for himself that Chris was unharmed.
It had started out quite funny to the boys. JD was amazed to find out where milk came from, giving Josiah and Ezra a good chuckle. JD had then wanted to know if chocolate milk came from brown cows. Vin and JD had laughed as the cowboys chased the cows and fell down. They even laughed when the cows kicked at the cowboys, but for two little boys who had seen more ugliness than many adults, the humor was quickly gone when the cow's antics threatened their family. JD had yelled at the cow and started crying when he heard Buck yelp. Vin had become silent, grabbing Ezra's arm with a death grip when Chris was tossed around by the angry animal. Ezra and Josiah both tried to keep it humorous, but the boys failed to see anything funny in the possibility of injury to the men who had become their family.
Ezra looked at Josiah, imploring him to say something to ease the boys' fears.
"Look, JD," said Josiah in an attempt to distract. "Buck is showing the judge how much milk he got."
JD watched as the judge measured the amount of milk in the bottle. His shoulders slumped as the judges announced the winner. Buck was going to be sad that he didn't win. He watched closely as Buck limped over to their spot in the stands. Buck had barely cleared the fence when JD launched himself into Buck's arms, hugging him tightly.
Chris noticed Vin's tense posture, his hand gripping tightly to Ezra's. There was no celebratory smile on the seven-year-old's face.
Vin let go of Ezra, sitting down on the bench next to the southerner and closed his eyes, shutting Chris out.
Chris looked to Ezra and Josiah for guidance. Ezra looked to Josiah, but the profiler remained silent.
"Apparently the boys did not appreciate the humor of the event," said Ezra.
"That so, Little Bit?" asked Buck.
"Bad cow," JD mumbled into Buck's shoulder.
Buck smiled in spite of the situation. "Well now, JD, she was just scared. Maybe a little mad. She didn't hurt me."
JD pulled back and looked at Buck. "It stepped on your foot!"
JD frowned. "You was limpin'."
Buck grimaced. Great. All he needed was another mother hen to check up on him. "All right, Little Bit. How about me and you heading over to the medical tent and visiting Nathan? He can check my foot and prove to you that I'm fine. Okay? And we can get your scrape checked too."
JD nodded, and then patted Buck's shoulder. "I'se sorry you didn't win. You can share my cou... my cou..." JD sighed, unable to come up with the word 'coupon'. "You can share my prize."
"I had fun," said Buck as he carried JD off the stands towards the medical tent. "And that's what counts."
Chris sat down next to Vin, who was anxiously watching JD and Buck walk away. Doctor Lowery had been working to get Vin to verbalize his fears, and although Chris knew he needed to try to get Vin to talk, he just wanted to hold him and drive away the fears.
"They'll be back," said Chris.
Vin looked away from JD and Buck, staring at the knees of his pants, not ready to meet Chris' eyes.
"You all right, Pard?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded, but didn't look up.
"Kinda looks to me like you put some new bruises on Ezra's hand."
Vin looked up in alarm. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ezra!" he said anxiously.
"No harm done, Master Tanner," said Ezra with concern. "I'm glad to be available." Ezra looked to Josiah. "I believe Mr. Sanchez and I will take a walk to the closest eatery and see what's on the menu for our noon meal."
Josiah nodded and followed Ezra, leaving Chris to talk with the reluctant child in relative private.
"Did me being in there with the cows bother you?"
Vin shook his head. It had scared him, but he wasn't going to make waves. He had already drawn too much attention to himself and that was never a good idea. His mama had taught him a long time ago to stay quiet and blend in so Walter wouldn't notice him.
The day Vin and his mama moved to the shelter he had not stayed quiet. He had jumped on Walter when he hit his mama and Walter had thrown him against the wall, breaking his arm. His mama had held him, trying to comfort him until Walter left. Then she had grabbed what little they could carry and had taken Vin with her to the battered women's shelter.
No, Vin knew the costs of drawing attention to himself and he would not do that now. It would cost him even more than a broken arm. It could cost him his new home. It could cost him Chris.
"Then what scared you?" asked Chris.
Vin shook his head.
Chris grimaced and looked up at the sky for a moment before continuing. "It's okay to be afraid, Cowboy." He rested his hand on Vin's shoulder. "And it's okay to tell me anything. It won't change how I feel about you."
Vin turned his face away and slid a few inches away from Chris. Was Chris telling the truth? This was all so confusing. He wanted desperately to believe Chris, but Walter had long ago proved that men couldn't be trusted. And those men on the streets, who stole his food, reinforced that fact. Sometimes he trusted Chris without a second thought and it felt really good. He knew that Chris was not like Walter, but sometimes he couldn't stop the fear. In the few weeks he had lived at the ranch, Chris had never given him a reason not to trust him. Vin took a deep breath. More than anything, he needed to trust Chris. He needed someone else to shoulder the hurts and fears that were far beyond his years. Vin looked up at Chris with a sideways glance.
"They were mean."
Chris smiled inside. It wasn't much, but it was a start.
"Hello there, JD," greeted Nathan warmly. "What can I do for you?"
"Buck got stepped on by a bad cow!" reported JD.
"He did? Well, we'll just have to check that out." Nathan grinned at Buck. "Have a seat."
Buck sat on the gurney and JD sat beside him, swinging his feet. "That mean cow tried to kick Buck, but he was too fast," JD added with pride.
"That right?" asked Nathan as he nodded to Buck to remove his boot. Buck complied, and removed his sock as well. Nathan took Buck's foot in his hands to examine it.
"The cows was jumping and kicking and mooing," said JD. "But Buck got milk in his bottle. Do you know where milk comes from?"
Buck smiled. JD seemed to be relaxing simply by recounting the event. He winced as Nathan touched the bruised spot.
"See!" said JD anxiously. "You're hurt."
"No, Little Bit," said Buck, putting his arm around JD. "It's just tender, isn't that so, Nathan?" Buck raised his eyebrow, expecting agreement from the medic.
"I don't think it's broken, but you can't tell without x-rays," said Nathan. "It's a few hundred more pounds than you're accustomed to having stand on your feet," he chuckled.
"Oh! Does Buck have to go to the hop-sital?" asked JD with concern.
"No, JD. They have a machine in that building, see the white one right there?" Nathan pointed to the building outside the tent flap. "They can x-ray Buck's foot right there and let us know if it's broken."
"It's not broken," said Buck.
"Chad, give me a hand here?" asked Nathan. Another medic came over and stood by Nathan. "We need to take Buck over for x-rays on his foot." Nathan lifted JD off the gurney and set him on the floor. "Okay, Buck. We're going to do this the old fashioned way. Use Chad and I for support, and don't put weight on that foot."
Nathan turned at the tug on his pants leg. "Can I come, too?" asked JD.
"Of course. Just stick really close to us, okay?" answered Nathan.
JD nodded and followed as the three men made their way to the building.
JD's next event was the pig race, but his heart just wasn't in it. He kept looking over to the stands checking to be sure that Buck was okay. JD figured that Buck would be sad because Mr. Nathan said he couldn't do the wild horse race, so he wanted to stay with Buck. But Buck had told him to go and have fun. Everyone kept telling him that the piggy wouldn't be someone's dinner, but just to be safe, JD figured he had better catch the pig.
Before he was ready, the whistle blew, the pig was released and moments later two dozen kids raced after the frightened pig. Diving, falling, laughing, yelling kids ran around the arena after a squealing pig.
After a couple of failed attempts, JD stopped running and looked around the arena. Piggy would get tired and want to hide. He chewed on his lip as he tried to decide where the pig would hide. Making his decision, JD ran the opposite direction of all the other kids.
"JD! You're going the wrong way!" called Buck with a chuckle.
"Huh-uh," disagreed Vin with a grin. JD was running to the same place Vin would have picked to hide.
"Junior, the pig is over there," said Buck, "and JD went that-a-way."
Vin nodded. "Babe will run to him."
Buck watched as JD climbed through a fence rail and squatted down. He looked at Vin and wondered if two small boys had played hide-n-wait when they lived in the warehouse. These boys knew how to hide too well. A pig's squeal broke through the somber thought and Buck grinned. The pig was heading straight for JD's hiding spot.
JD squealed with glee as he stood up with the struggling pig in his arms. Buck grinned as other children groaned at losing the game. "Way to go, JD!" he shouted.
Buck and Chris walked over to the arena fence while Vin stood carefully on the bench by Ezra and Josiah.
"How did Master Dunne know the pig would run in that direction?" asked Ezra.
Vin shrugged in response. "We know how to hide when we get tired. Maybe he thought Babe would too."
Ezra looked at Josiah not wanting to acknowledge any of the reasons why two little boys might have to hide on the streets.
Vin yelped in surprise as his foot slipped off the bench. Chris spun around in time to catch him and prevent him from crashing into the fence. It was disappointing but not surprising when Vin shrugged away from him. The seven year old was slowly learning to trust, but hugging and touching had to be on his terms, even if the touch was intended to keep him from falling.
Chris looked at Vin with concern. Vin had been pretty upset over the wild cow milking and Buck had told him about Vin and the backpack, and that Vin seemed really tired. Even though it had come to light that a piglet was the reason that Vin had been struggling with the backpack, it still had only been six weeks since they had found the boys. Though Vin's bullet wound was healed, he still favored his side and had a long way to go before his body was fully recovered from the malnutrition.
"Mutton Bustin's up next, Cowboy," said Chris. "Are you sure you're up to this?"
Vin frowned. "I'm fine," he answered defensively. "I can do it."
Chris rubbed his lip with his forefinger, thinking of all the reasons why Vin would do this even if he wasn't 'fine'. Vin would think that he had to do it because Chris would waste the registration fee if he didn't, and perhaps Vin would feel like he was failing if he didn't finish what he started.
"Vin, you really don't have to do this if you're too tired," said Chris as he knelt down in front of the boy. "It's just a game. It's supposed to be fun. Jack will even refund the fee if you don't, so don't worry about that."
"I want to!" insisted Vin even though he wasn't sure he could hold on to a sheep for six seconds. He would prove to Chris and Buck and JD and everyone else that he really was a cowboy, he wasn't too little, and he was good enough to keep.
"All right. Let's get you ready."
Vin walked with Chris to the ready area, where Chris fitted him with a safety helmet. He showed him the strap that he would hold onto and introduced him to the sheep he would ride. Vin petted the sheep and spoke softly to it.
When it was his turn to ride, Chris helped him into the bucking chute, helping him onto the sheep and showing him how to hold on. Now that he was on the sheep, Vin was having second thoughts about being there. What if he couldn't hold on?
"Are you ready, son?" asked the gate man.
Vin nodded and the man opened the gate. The sheep ran, with Vin clinging to the strap. He didn't hear the cheers of the crowd. He didn't see the cowboys running along side the sheep ready to help him if he fell. All he could think was 'hold on!' He didn't hear the whistle blow signaling the six seconds, nor did he hear the cowboy beside him telling him to let go. He just held on with all his strength.
"Go, Vin!" shouted JD, bouncing on the bench beside Buck. "Look, Buck! Vin's sheep is running in the air!"
Buck chuckled at JD's description, but it was in fact accurate. Vin was holding on so tightly to the strap that when the cowboy tried to take him off the sheep, he actually lifted the sheep a few inches off the ground and the animal was running on air.
"Let go, Vin."
Chris' voice broke through the exhilarating fear, and Vin let go of the strap. The cowboys around him chuckled as the sheep found its footing and ran.
"Did I do it?" asked Vin.
Chris smiled widely. "You sure did, Cowboy."
"Great ride, son," said the cowboy who pulled him off the sheep. "You're quite a cowboy."
Vin smiled as Chris helped him remove the protective helmet. It didn't matter anymore that Buck had said he wasn't a real cowboy. Chris said so, and so did this cowboy who didn't even know him.
"Is it time, yet?" asked JD.
Buck grinned at the five year old and checked his watch. "Five more minutes."
"Oh boy!" cheered JD. "Hey, Vin!" he called to the older boy as Vin returned from his Mutton Bustin' ride. "Buck says five more minutes and then we get to play together!"
Vin and Chris sat down on the bench next to Buck and JD. Josiah and Ezra were seated on the opposite side of the dark haired pair.
"You boys understand the rules for this event?" asked Buck.
"Yep!" chirped JD. "We has a basket and we catch the chickens and put them in it."
"Right," said Buck, "And you try to keep them in the basket."
Chris smiled as he watched Vin's face. The seven year old was already contemplating a strategy for the event, his concentration evident as he chewed on his lower lip. Vin was definitely a competitor and didn't take anything lightly. And even at his young age he had an eye for planning, something very evident in the structure of crates that he and JD had made into their home in the warehouse. He was a strategist in the making.
"Is it time yet?" asked JD.
Buck laughed. "All right, Little Bit. Let's get you two over to the round up circle."
Vin whispered something in JD's ear as they stood in the circle awaiting the instructions. JD nodded eagerly. They had a plan.
As the event started, JD and Vin tossed their basket toward the fence and raced after chickens. The other teams had one child holding the basket and one chasing the chickens.
Chris and Buck laughed. There were no rules against the participants leaving the basket and chasing the chickens. JD captured a chicken and held it above his head with both hands, proudly shaking it toward Buck, showing him he had succeeded. He ran to the basket and put his chicken inside, letting go, then letting out a cry as the chicken jumped out of the basket and ran away.
Vin reached the basket with his chicken and pushed it in, while listening to JD's loss. "Hold this one while I catch another one," he instructed. JD grabbed the chicken, feathers flying, as Vin raced off to catch another.
Vin deposited the second prize into the basket, but it was obvious that JD would not be able to hold both of the chickens. They were cackling and flapping, protesting their capture.
"Ow!" yelped JD. "It bited me!"
"Grab it, JD!" yelled Vin, as the chicken flapped toward the rim. JD caught the chicken and pushed it back down inside the 20-inch wide wicker basket.
Vin glanced around at the other competitors. They weren't faring much better. How could they keep the chickens in the basket without getting scratched and pecked?
The men in the stands watched in fascination as Vin stuffed his protesting chicken in the basket and helped JD shift so that the younger boy could hold both chickens against the bottom of the basket. Then Vin stood up and stripped off his new cowboy shirt that Chris had purchased the previous day.
Chris shook his head, and Buck chuckled. Using a shirt wasn't against the rules either. They watched as Vin tied one sleeve to a handle on the basket, then draped it over the basket. The older boy reached inside the basket and relieved JD of his chicken holding duty. They spoke to each other and then JD took off his shirt and copied what Vin had done. Chris laughed as JD held the shirts over the basket, keeping the chickens inside without getting pecked or scratched, as Vin ran bare-chested to catch another chicken.
"Dear Lord, their shirts will be filthy," said Ezra.
"But they are having a great time," Josiah pointed out unnecessarily. The huge smile on Vin's face as he chased a chicken told the story.
When the whistle blew, the children were allowed to put any chicken in their possession into the basket to be counted. Vin tucked their fourth chicken into their 'covered' basket.
Chris and Buck both stood at the arena fence anxiously watching the judge examining Vin and JD's basket, each man hoping the judge wouldn't disqualify the boys for their resourcefulness.
"Yes!" said Buck softly as the judge raised his hand indicating Vin and JD were the winners.
The two boys practically danced their way back to the fence where Buck and Chris were waiting. They boys were cheering and waving their shirts like flags as the men lifted them over the fence.
"We winned!" shouted JD.
"You sure did!" exclaimed Buck.
Vin grinned at Chris as the blond set him on the bench.
"You were great," said Chris. "That was really smart thinking to use your shirts."
Vin looked at his shirt, with dirt and bits of feather covering it. He hadn't thought about what would happen to his nice, new 'cowboy' shirt. It was very dirty, but Chris seemed to be happy, not upset about it. Vin started to slide his arm into the sleeve.
"Master Tanner," interrupted Ezra, "Do not put that back on." His tone softened when he saw Vin's fearful look at the perceived rebuke. "We'll go get cleaned up and you can wear these." He pulled two matching tan t-shirts out of a plastic bag, identical to the shirt JD and Vin had picked out for him after the pig incident. "After all, I am experienced with this."
Vin looked at Chris, who nodded his agreement. "Boys, you go with Ezra and get cleaned up a little. We've got a little more to do, then we'll meet you at the medical tent and have lunch with Nathan."
"Yay! Can I use my cou.... cou... my prize?" asked JD, struggling for the word 'coupon.'
Buck nodded. "See you in a little bit, Little Bit." He roughed up JD's raven hair as the five year old giggled.
As they went around the corner of the stands, Vin stopped. "My backpack!"
"Go get it," said Ezra, knowing that Vin felt it necessary to have it with him. Vin's stuffed cat had resumed residence in said backpack, and it was Vin's security. "We'll wait right here for you."
Vin trotted back to the seats. Buck, Chris and Josiah were standing at the fence looking across the arena with their backs towards him. Vin wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but he couldn't help but hear the discussion.
"...This separation seems to be working better than I thought," said Buck. "They both seem to be having fun without each other."
"I just hope it makes it easier when the real separation comes," said Chris.
Vin rubbed his finger in his ear, not wanting to believe what he had just heard. Separation. That meant they were going to have him and JD not be together anymore! He didn't want to be separated from JD and he didn't want to be separated from Chris and Buck and the guys.
Forgetting his backpack, Vin ran back to Ezra and JD, fighting back the tears.
Ezra made his way through the crowd from the snack bar towards the medical tent. He was carrying two drink holders with beverages for not just the two boys, but for Josiah, Nathan, Chris and Buck as well. He carefully balanced the drinks and two bags of food. Ezra was not thrilled with the limited menu at the snack bar. He shuddered at the thought of hotdogs and curly fries, but would not deny the boys the simple pleasure of spending their prize coupons as they chose.
With tiny fingers hooked through a belt loop of Ezra's new jeans on either side were Vin and JD. Each boy held his special hotdog purchased with his prize coupon with one hand, while the other hand hooked on to Ezra's jeans to keep from being separated in the crowd.
JD sniffed his hotdog as he walked along. It smelled good and the five year old was proud that he had earned the prize himself. He clung to Mr. Ezra's jeans with his other hand, not wanting to get lost. There were so many people here and with everyone getting lunch, it seemed like the whole world was here. He peered behind Ezra as they walked, seeking his best friend and smiled at Vin, who was frowning. Sometimes Vin worried too much.
His thoughts were interrupted as someone bumped into him. JD gasped as his hotdog was knocked out of his hand and fell to the ground. He let go of Ezra's belt loop, dropping to his hands and knees trying to recover his precious prize.
He nearly burst into tears when someone's foot kicked his hotdog further away. JD scrambled after it, stopping only when a cowboy boot stepped on the hotdog.
Vin released his grip of Ezra's belt loop and turned to look behind them when he noticed JD was gone. He screamed in fear, catching a brief glimpse through the crowd of a man grabbing JD's arm and pulling him away.
"JD!" he screamed a second time as he disappeared into the crowd, leaving a stunned Ezra holding the food.
Ezra couldn't believe it. They were less than two yards from their destination and he had lost the boys. He literally dropped the food on the table by the door, joined by his teammates emerging from the tent, having heard Vin's scream.
"What happened? Where are the boys?" Demanded Buck.
Ezra said nothing. With distress clearly evident on his normally unreadable face, it was obvious the boys had been separated from him. Ezra vanished into the crowd to find his lost charges.
"Nate? Call security," ordered Chris, always the leader despite his own distress.
Nathan nodded. "I'll stay here in case the boys show up. They know we were going to eat here, right?"
Chris nodded and then headed into the crowd with Buck and Josiah, splitting into different directions. Within minutes they heard an announcement over the loud speaker calling for Vin and JD to meet their family at the Medical Tent.
Buck's stomach churned with fear. Anything could happen to the boys. He tried to calm himself mentally telling himself that the likelihood was that they just got separated, but the ATF agent in him, who had seen too much of the horrible things men could do was winning that emotional battle. He tried to push aside the fears that the boys had been taken.
He glanced at Ezra, who he had caught up with a few minutes ago. The southerner looked positively stricken. This was no case of self-preservation fear, worrying what Chris or he might do because Ezra had lost Vin and JD. The undercover agent was truly frightened for the boys. In spite of his own churning emotions, Buck rested his hand gently on Ezra's shoulder.
The southerner looked at Buck, slightly surprised by the undeserved understanding, barely able to fight back the tears that threatened to spill down his cheeks and expose his heart.
"Ezra, you go search this side. I'll head over there." Buck pointed to the opposite end of the concessions area. "Use your cell phone if you find anything." Ezra simply nodded and they continued their search.
Moments later Ezra shouted for Buck and waved to the tall agent while speaking into his cell phone. The crowd caused him to momentarily lose sight of Ezra, but Buck closed the distance between them in a few quick strides. At the same time, Chris and Josiah, recipients of Ezra's call, came around the end of the grand stands to where Ezra was kneeling in front of Vin, holding onto the boy's arm. Instinctively the men formed a protective circle around the pair.
"He took him!" Vin gasped between sobs, tears streaming down his face.
Buck dropped to his knees, his heart sinking at the words. He turned Vin to face him and asked, "Who took him, Vin? Where?"
"I...I..." Vin stammered, too upset and frightened to get the words out. Chris rested his hand reassuringly on Vin's shoulder. The seven year old looked up at his foster father, and then turned back to Buck, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. Chris' simple gesture gave him the calmness he needed to tell Buck what happened. "I saw a man take JD by the arm. I couldn't see where they went. There's too many people."
Buck swallowed hard knowing that Vin's terror was just as great as his at that point. "Vin, did you see what he looked like?"
Vin shook his head and kept shaking it as big tears rolled down his cheeks.
Chris lifted Vin into his arms, holding him against his chest. He could feel Vin settle his head against his shoulder. He gently stroked Vin's back, trying to ease the seven year old's distress. "You keep looking," Chris nodded to Buck, Josiah and Ezra. "I'll take Vin back to the medical tent and then join you."