ATF-Little Britches Universe
That night it snowed, not just on Denver, but also in Washington. In Washington it wasn't too bad, nothing the city wasn't used to and couldn't cope with. But in Denver, the steady snowfall of early evening became a heavy snowfall by dawn. The forecast was for blizzards, possibly as soon as Saturday evening. As Chris listened to the radio, he began to worry. If the blizzards really came, Buck might not make it back for Christmas at all. In the meantime there was the tree to deal with. The original plan was for the four of them to go out into the woods and find a tree together. That was now out of the question. There was no way he could take the boys out in the heavy snow. As he looked out of the bedroom window, he realised some of the drifts, built up over night in a brisk bitterly cold wind, were probably deeper than the boys were tall, especially JD. But the boys had to have a tree. Just as he was contemplating what to do, the phone rang. It turned out to be Nathan. He had realised that Chris had a problem. He and Josiah were going out early to pick up a tree each and he offered to pick one up for Chris.
"Nathan you are a life saver," Chris admitted. "They'll be sorry not to choose it themselves, but there will be lots of other Christmas'. What time to you reckon you'll be here?"
Nathan looked at his watch and the snowfall outside his window. "Who knows? Hopefully before lunch."
In the morning, JD had asked what number day it was, as usual and then gone into his room to play with his Lego. He refused to help get the decorations out of the attic, he refused to help with the horses, he refused to come into the den and watch cartoons, he just stayed in his room and played Lego. Even Vin tried to get him to come and play, but he refused.
Eventually, Nathan's big four-wheel drive pulled up in the still steady snowfall. Vin was overcome with excitement, he shouted to JD that the tree was here as he pulled on his snow boots and thick padded jacket, before running out to help carry the tree inside.
Nathan was backing into the house with the heavy end of the tree when something hit him from behind.
"NO!" JD shouted, pushing on the back of Nathan's legs. "NO! Take it back, it's not Christmas, it's not! Not! Not! Not!" he shouted, still pushing against Nathan.
Since the tree was half in the house and half out, Chris had to run around and come in through the kitchen, to reach the enraged boy. He had to physically lift JD away from Nathan and carry him, still shouting and kicking into his own room. As soon as he was put down, JD ran toward the door again, forcing Chris to make a grab for him, catching him by the waistband.
"JD!" Chris commanded sternly. "Stop it."
JD did stop, but he didn't cry. He just stared angrily at Chris.
"I know you miss Buck. I know we were going to put the tree up together. But Buck doesnt want us to stop getting ready for Christmas, just because he isn't here. He loves Christmas, he will want to see the tree when he gets home, he wants you to have fun getting it ready."
JD heard him but he didn't really believe Chris. If they didn't put up the decorations yet, it wasn't Christmas yet. Buck said he would be home for Christmas, so it couldn't be Christmas yet, because Buck wasn't home yet.
"Can I go back to the bedroom?" JD asked sullenly.
Chris sighed, and nodded, he seriously doubted he could get through to the little boy. Buck was his anchor, his security, he still needed Vin and to a lesser extent, Chris himself, but it was Buck who kept the boy's demons at bay. Compared to Vin, JD always seemed to have coped better with the traumas he had been exposed to. Vin had been alone on the streets, JD had always had Vin. Vin had seen his mother dying, JD hadn't, hadn't even realised that his mother was dead when Vin found him. JD had had fewer behavioural problems, had settled faster, trusted more and quicker than the wary Vin. But JD had his demons too, more deeply hidden, more easily buried and ignored than Vin, but there none the less. Chris was struck - not for the first time - by the similarities between himself and Buck, and Vin and JD. For Buck too - unlike himself - kept his own personal demons well hidden, few people who knew the ever-jovial, easygoing man could have guessed at the traumas he had lived through, but Chris knew. Yes Buck and JD were two of a kind and they needed each other.
JD walked into the bedroom with out even glancing at the tree, which was now in the living room. Vin ran toward him, but was stopped by Chris.
"Leave him," he said quietly. Vin looked up at his foster father, trying to understand why he shouldn't go and comfort JD. "We have to show JD that life goes on, even when Buck isn't here, we can't stop everything just because one of us goes away - can we?"
Vin gazed up at him for a long time, than he looked back at the bedroom door - now shut.
"I guess not," he finally admitted.
Once the tree was secured in a bucket with rocks to hold it steady and was well watered, Nathan and Josiah left, not wanting to be out in the worsening conditions any longer then necessary.
Vin helped Chris get the decorations unpacked. They were an eclectic mix of Larabee and Wilmington taste. Larabee ones, which hadn't seen the light of day since the Christmas before Sarah and Adam died, were tasteful reds and golds mostly, plain white lights. There was a box in the attic of colourful, child friendly decorations that had once graced Adam's room, but Chris still couldn't face them. The ones in this box were a reflection of Sarah's taste, and even though it was hard, he was surprised how good it felt to see them again.
Buck's were a riot of colour, multi coloured lights, all with silver tinsel wound around the flex -four sets of them! Multi coloured and multi shaped tree decorations, garlands, banners - everything. Buck had explained that it was a Wilmington family tradition that each year, each member of the family buy a new decoration for the tree. He didn't tell them this had come about because, since he and his mom lived mostly out of suitcases, in a series of Motels and rented rooms, they often had to abandon their decorations and buy new ones each year. Their tree was - by necessity - always small and money always tight, so his mom had decorated the tree with her costume jewellery and whatever decorations Buck made in school, and the two new decorations they purchased each year. Young Buck would decorate the room with paper chains he made by cutting up and gluing or stapling strips of glossy magazines into paper chains; he always said Vogue was best, followed by Cosmopolitan.
This year, to stop the boys getting too excited, they had shopped for their four new decorations on line. Chris chose a small glass cowboy boot, and Vin, from the same section, a rearing stallion. Buck chose a patriotic glass ball, painted dark blue with a Stars and Stripes flag and fireworks on it. Finally JD had chosen one with a simple depiction of white tail stag on it. He chose it because he recognised the word 'Buck', in the title. These items were to be placed on the tree last, even after the star. So as no one felt left out, a brand new star had been chosen, this was not a Wilmington star or a Larabee star, this was a Larabee-Wilmington-Tanner-Dunne star. A simple silver star with gold glitter was the one they all liked.
Chris came to the door of the boys bedroom.
The little boy looked up.
"Do you want to come and help decorate the tree?" There was still no response. "Well if you want to, you come on in and help. Okay? Don't worry, we won't put up your special ornament or Buck's, those are for you to do yourselves."
JD nodded once and went back to his latest Lego project.
As the day went on, Chris and Vin worked to trim the tree and decorate the living room. It should have been a joyful family activity, and the two of them did have fun, but without the other half of their family, it wasn't what it should have been. Never the less, Vin was transfixed when it was do. Chris closed the drapes and turned off the lights to let Vin gaze at the tree and the decorations in the firelight and the twinkling little lights all over the tree. His horse ornament hung next to Chris' boot. To Vin, who had never had more than the barest minimum of Christmas decorations, it was magical. Logically he knew the tree was for all of them, but in his heart it was his tree.
JD trooped out of the room for lunch, which he ate quietly, clearing his plate. Neither boy - or if the truth were told Buck - was keen on green vegetables. Chris actually liked vegetables and didn't understand the other three's reluctance. But Chris had to give Buck his due; he did his best to eat the hated 'green stuff' in front of the boys. Vin tried to please Chris if he could, though had struggled at times, but JD was forever trying to avoid his veggies. Not today though, today he ate every last green bean. Chris could see he was struggling, normally they only made him eat two more after he asked be allowed to leave them. Once finished, he ate his yoghurt with none of his usual enthusiasm to scrape the last drop out of the pot. In the afternoon, the snow had stopped falling and having spent some time getting the boys into their snow gear - which they had only worn in a shop before he lead them out to help tend to the stock.
Away from the house, and its decorations, JD brightened up some. He loved the horses and, in Buck's absence, insisted on tending to his horse, Beau. Since Beau was the gentlest, most even tempered horse Chris had ever met, he let him do what he could, and that seemed to cheer him up considerably. All three played in the snow, throwing snowballs and making angels. Chris left the boys playing while he went to make supper, hoping both would tire themselves out.
Eventually, two small figures encased in snow encrusted, padded snowsuits, appeared at the kitchen door, small puddles forming around them. Deciding the simplest option was to bathe them and get them ready for bed before supper, Chris shepherded his two little animated snowmen into the bathroom. JD's mood was much better, maybe not as excited as he might have been, but better than before. But as soon as supper was over and they went into the living room to light the advent candle, then his little face fell. There was the tree; there were the decorations. It was Christmas and Buck wasn't there. JD scowled at the tree as he walked toward the sofa. He turned his back on the tree while Vin lit the candle, he paid little attention to the story Chris was telling them. For the first time, he refused to blow out the candle. Vin blew it out and, as he did JD was already headed toward the bedroom.
The long play in the snow had done its work and the two exhausted boys slept long and deep. Sunday dawned fresh and bright, and Chris encouraged the boys to be outside as much as possible, they tended the stock, helped him chop wood, and stack it on the porch, they dug the cars out of the snow and Chris put snow chains on the Ram. However, as much as the boys were enjoying the snow, Chris had seen the weather reports, and was beginning to fear Wilmington wouldn't make it back until after Christmas, and while the boys played, he made sure his small emergency generator was working.
JD avoided the living room, and so long as he did he remained cheerful. The snow returned with the darkness, and as Chris tucked the boys in for the night, the wind began to pick up.
"Chris?" Vin whispered.
"Yes," Larabee whispered back.
"Buck will be able to get here in the snow - won't he?" he asked anxiously.
"Buck, will be here, if there is anyway in hel if there is any way at all, he will be here."
"But he might not?" Vin asked.
Chris wanted to lie to him and say of course Buck would make it home for Christmas, but he couldn't. He gave a half smile. "No, he might not."
"Don't tell JD," Vin advised.
"I won't. We have to be strong for JD's sake."
"I can be, if you'll help me." Chris gazed down at the small boy. When had Vin started to look to him for strength? When had tough, independent, self-reliant Vin decided to trust him enough to look to him for strength? Whenever it was, he liked the idea.
"I'll always help you cowboy, that's my job."
By Monday, the snowfall had turned into a blizzard and no one was going anywhere. Chris rose early to watch the news reports. The heavy snow and high winds were forecast right up until Christmas day, possibly easing on the twenty sixth, the worst of the weather was forecast for Tuesday, the day Buck and Ezra were due to fly home. As he watched Chris suddenly became aware of Vin standing behind him, he was still wearing his glow-in-the-dark Scooby-Doo pyjamas, Cat dangling by his tail from one hand.
"Its getting worse, ain't it?" he asked quietly.
"Yup, come here." Chris turned the TV off and pulled Vin to him for a hug. "We can't control the weather, or the airlines, we will just have to make the best of it. Now " He looked very seriously at Vin. " I have to do some things, just in case the power goes out." Alarm flashed across Vin's face. "Now don't fret," Chris grinned. "it's happened before, I'm used to it. You gonna help?" Vin nodded. "Good boy, and we are going to have to work together to keep JD cheerful and safe, deal?"
Vin turned around and pulled back a little to extend his hand. Chris suppressed a grin as he took the formally offered hand.
"Deal." The seven-year-old agreed.
JD wasn't his old self, he was still trying very hard to be good and was unnaturally quiet, but he was no longer shutting himself off. He watched in fascinated silence as Chris used a funnel to pour Kerosene into his half dozen hurricane lamps. Chris forbade them to come outside into the driving snow and help him tend the horses, so while he was out Vin just sat by the window and watched anxiously until he came back. JD waited with him, his feelings about the Christmas tree pushed aside for the moment.
"Vin?" he asked.
"Is this a real bad snowstorm?"
"Uh-huh," Vin confirmed.
"How will Buck's plane land if there is snow everywhere?"
Vin looked around at his young friend. "They have snow ploughs at the airport, I see'd them on the TV."
JD thought a moment. "D' they have 'um in Washington too - so's it can take off?"
"I guess so."
JD didn't want guesses he wanted certainties. "Vin?" he pleaded.
"Yes JD, they have snow ploughs in Washington too."
"D' ya think them folk will really let Buck go - and Uncle Ezra - today?"
"Yup, I heard Chris on the phone last night to Uncle Nathan, and he said them men was lazy, and "self 'reserving" and they all wanted a nice long holiday. But they was only interested in themselves and they never give no thought to no one else, or they would have let them go on Friday."
JD, with his implicit trust in Vin accepted this, Buck would be home tomorrow and then he and Buck would put their decorations on the tree and it would be Christmas. The storm intensified, and as the sun when down the wind began to batter the house in earnest. The glass rattled in the frames and Chris was forced to close the shutters, the lights flickered one or two times but stayed on. Chris decided to get one of the boys' presents out early, shut up in the house all day and with the wind howling outside they needed distraction, so he produced the brightly wrapped package.
"Boys, how about an early present?" he inquired.
"Yeah!" Vin shouted, jumping up.
JD didn't look too sure. Was Chris starting Christmas without Buck?
"It's okay JD, this is just a small extra present, it isn't one from under the tree and it isn't one of the presents Santa is gonna leave you - it's an extra present."
A smile broke out on JD's face. "'K."
The present turned out to be a new, well new to the boys, video, 'An American Tail - Fival goes West'. Needless to say, the combination of cute animals and cowboys was an instant hit.
While the boys were happily watching their early present, Chris made some calls, to hear what in his heart he knew he would hear. There were no flights in or out of Denver, and there were none expected until Thursday at the earliest. His heart sank; how was he to tell JD this? Before he could even contemplate this dark task ,the phone rang.
"Pal?" Wilmington's voice was unmistakable.
"Yeah, I know about the flight," he stated, pre-empting what he knew Buck was going to tell him.
"Yeah, it's the pits. Ezra is gonna stay with Maude - she's in Richmond it seems - I've got a seat right now on a flight to Kansas City. It connects with a flight to Hays, hopefully from there we I can hitch a lift to Denver."
Chris was about to question the sanity of such action when the line went dead; it wasn't unexpected, bad storms often bought down the phone lines. Quickly retrieving his cell phone he dialled Buck again. Unfortunately, his phone told him it couldn't get a signal, no doubt the storm was responsible for this as well.
"Damn it, Buck!" he cursed the man's foolishness, not that he didn't understand why he was doing it, and knowing Buck's determination and single mindedness once his course was set, he reckoned there was a good chance he would make it home, though, when, was anyone's guess. For once, he decided not to tell the boys the truth, he wouldn't lie, he would be - what was the current saying? Oh yes, he would be 'economical with the truth'.
Buck had already heard all the arguments, he knew Chris was going to use to try and stop him, from Ezra - at least eight times already - but he was determined. Even in the worst weather, I-70 nearly always had one lane open in each direction, sometimes the traffic crawled along behind a snowplough, but most of the time traffic moved. Once in the city he reckoned he could borrow Nathan's car to get him out to the ranch. If it came to it, he was prepared to highjack a tank from the National Guard base!
The flight to Hays should have been at night, but it was too dangerous to try to land at night in the snow, so it was delayed until it could land just after dawn. Buck had left his suit and some other things with Ezra so he could travel light. He hadn't intended to be trekking about much, in such extreme weather and so, hadn't packed much heavy winter gear. Ezra, having given up trying to dissuade him from setting out at all, insisted on purchasing him a pair of thermal gloves, even though he protested that he had a perfectly good leather pair with him, a scarf and a knitted hat - all plain black. Buck had to stop him buying a new coat as well; arguing that his sheepskin lined jacket was both warm and waterproof.
As he stepped out of the terminal, Buck had the first doubts as to the sanity of his plan. Hays wasn't suffering the same blizzards as Denver, but it was bitterly cold, and steady snow fell and swirled in a wind that was getting stronger. Speaking to a cab driver he took a short trip to the city's biggest truck stop on the westbound interstate. As he ate a huge meal, not knowing when he would get to eat again, Buck surveyed the various trucks; the most likely candidate was a big rig belonging to an independent carrier from Denver. Buck reckoned the owner was as keen to be back in Denver for the holidays, as he was. And he had one more ace up his sleeve. Having located the driver, he made his play.
"I believe you are the driver of that eighteen wheeler out there?" Buck pointed to the Kenwood with the Red stripe.
"Yeah - what of it?" The man continued to eat his ham and eggs.
"I'm looking for a ride to Denver," Buck stated. Truckers - in his experience - were a direct, no nonsense breed and appreciated direct talking.
"Wait a few days and get a bus." The truck driver didn't look up from his breakfast.
"You gonna wait a few days?"
Now the trucker looked around to actually look at the man begging a lift from him. "Maybe, maybe not. Not you business."
"Thing is I got family in Denver, and I need to be back for Christmas." Buck waited to see what the reaction would be.
"Worried ya wife's gonna snuggle up t' Santa if'n you ain't there?"
"No " Buck began slowly. "I'm worried for my five-year-old son; my son, who less then a year ago was orphaned and living on the streets, will think he has been abandoned - again."
The trucker looked up at the tall man beside him. "That so?" Buck nodded and pulled out his wallet flipping it over to a picture of him and JD together.
"His name's JD, and he's the smartest kid in his school," Buck announced proudly.
The trucker looked at the little boy in the picture and frowned. "School? He don't look old enough to t' be in school."
"He's older then he looks, he's just kinda small is all, but he's just a bundle of energy, boy could talk the hind legs of a mule, I swear it." Buck looked back at the man. "If it helps I gotta commercial licence; I'd be happy t' do some of the driving.
"You got this licence on you?" the man asked.
"No, but I'm a Federal Agent " He showed the man his ID. " if that helps, I can get a cop to pull my licence off the computer if you want?"
The man stood up and extended his hand. "Name's Joe Shore, driver, owner, and grandfather." Joe pulled out his own wallet and showed Buck a picture of two girls. "And I intend to be with my granddaughters Christmas day."
"Buck Wilmington, ATF agent and father."
The two men climbed up into the cab of the huge truck, it was 9.30 A.M. they had 14 and a half hours to make Denver.
The power failed the day after the phone. JD had been disappointed he couldn't talk to Buck, but convinced Buck was going to come home in the morning, he hadn't let it bother him, but electricity was different. He knew you needed electricity to do complicated things like fly planes. There was a certain amount of excitement as Chris made the house ready to cope without power. The generator could only provide so much power. The heating was run by an oil-fuelled boiler in the basement, but the pump that circulated hot water was powered by electricity. Chris need electric light in the boys room and bathroom, since they couldn't be left with a lamp or candle, and he needed power for the fridge and freezer, and that was as much power as the generator could handle. Most of the cooking would have to be in the microwave - which they could use if all the lights were off - and the gas fuelled barbecue. Chris didn't really like to cook on it inside but, the boys needed hot food. The powerful barbecue actually functioned very well as a cooker. Both boys were given battery powered flash lights, and told firmly about not touching any of the lamps, one of which was on the mantle over the fire, which roared in the grate behind the fire guard and one on the counter in the kitchen.
JD and Vin were playing with their GI Joe's, conducting nighttime manoeuvres, when Chris turned on the small battery powered radio in the kitchen to hear the news.
"Denver airport is now expected to be closed to all traffic until after the Holidays, thousands of stranded pass "
Larabee whirled around to see JD standing in the kitchen doorway, flashlight in hand.
"What does it mean, 'closed to all traffic'? How will Buck get here if the airport is closed? Chris?" Larabee had never felt so utterly alone as he faced the small boy. "He's not coming, is he?"
"JD it's not that " Chris didn't get any further, JD turned and fled into the living room.
"It's not Christmas. NOT!" he shouted as he ran into the dimly lit room. The tree stood tall but dark in the corner. JD ran to it, grabbed hold of the nearest branch and pulled for all his worth. The tree rocked and swayed and finally toppled, the ornaments jingling and tinkling before hitting the ground, where many of them broke.
"NO JD!" Vin wailed from the doorway. "What have you done!" he too, ran to the now fallen tree. "JD you broke it!"
Vin was enraged that JD had spoiled his wonderful tree, he hadn't heard the conversation in the kitchen doorway, so he didn't know why JD was so upset.
"JD how could you?" Tears ran down Vin's cheeks as he surveyed the wreckage of his beautiful tree. "It's all spoiled, my tree..."
"Oh JD," Chris came up to the two boys. He could understand why JD was acting out, but he couldn't let it pass, it would send the wrong signals to both boys. Vin had acted out on occasion, especially in the early days and they had been consistently firm but understanding. "Vin, we can put the tree back up. JD?"
The little boy, while he, also, had tears in his eyes, was still looking defiant and angry.
"Go to your room and wait for me."
"Don't care, 's not Christmas." JD declared, as he stomped of to the bedroom.
Chris watched him go, while behind him Vin was franticly searching for his precious horse and Chris' boot ornament among the branches of the downed tree.
"Vin don't, I'll find it for you," Chris said gently.
"No, it might be broken, I have to find it." Vin continued to search franticly. "Ouch!" He suddenly sat up, cradling his left hand; blood was running freely through his fingers.
Chris dropped to his knees next to Vin. "Let me see." He gently took the injured hand. Some of the broken glass had sliced into his fingertip. "Suck it 'till we get to the bathroom," he advised. It was a deep cut and it took Chris some time to get it to stop bleeding and dress it - grateful that Nathan had made him watch when he tended the boys' scrapes and knocks.
"Can we go and look for my horse now?" Vin asked, as Chris secured the last bit of tape on his now mummified finger.
"Quickly, then I have to see to JD."
"He broke it!" Vin protested, not seeing why the villain of the piece should get any sympathy.
"I know he did, but he overheard the radio saying the airport was shut."
"Oh." Now Vin understood why JD was so upset. "He didn't have t' break the tree - did he?"
"Think how you would feel if it was me who wasn't here, think how you feel when you get bad thoughts and bad memories, I seem to remember a broken window?"
Vin had thrown a heavy toy car one day when he was upset and broken a window.
"I guess," the seven-year-old admitted with a sigh.
Once the tree was upright again it didn't look too bad and both Vin's horse and Chris' boot were mercifully intact.
JD was in bed, not just on the bed. He had his clothes off, his PJ's on and was under the covers, even though it was only 5.30 in the afternoon. Chris sat down on the edge of the bed.
"JD?" He placed a hand on the small back.
"Go 'way," came the muffled response from under the comforter.
Chris didn't go away, he pulled back the cover and lifted JD up onto his lap, pulling the comforter with him.
"John Dunne, you listen to me," Chris instructed. JD didn't respond, but then again he didn't try to leave either. "I know you miss him, we all miss him. But Buck will be coming home soon. I don't know when, but soon, maybe it won't be in time for Christmas, but that doesnt mean it isn't Christmas. You can't change the date JD, and it isn't fair to spoil it for Vin."
"Buck isn't coming back." The simple statement was so softly spoken Chris almost missed it.
"What do you mean 'Buck isn't coming'? Of course he is."
JD shook his head. "He tolded me be to be good and he would be home, I tried to be good, I did " Chris thought back to the quiet, compliant, veggie eating, non-bouncing JD of the last few days. Now it all made sense, he was desperately trying to be 'good' just as Buck told him to be. " but now I've been very bad, so he won't come back."
"Oh no, JD that's not what he meant. Buck just wanted you to be good, like always, he will come back, no matter how bad you are, because he loves you."
"My mama loved me, she said so, an' she tolded me to be good too, but I was naughty sometimes and she went away." JD sniffed as he let Chris hold him tighter.
"Oh no JD, no. Your Ma going away and Buck, none of that has anything to do with you being naughty sometimes, all little boys are naughty sometimes, Vin is, and so was Adam, I expect Buck was naughty when he was a boy, I know I sure was. Nothing you do, or could do, will make Buck leave you and nothing you did made your mom go to sleep with the angels. Please JD believe me, none of this is because you were bad."
Chris hugged the now sobbing boy close to his chest and kissed the top of his head.
"Please believe me JD, he will come home. Denver airport is shut but he got on a plane to Kansas City and from there he was going to get a plane to Hays, that's only 300 miles from here."
"Re re really?" JD managed to choke out past the tears.
"How will he get here from there?" Vin asked from the door of the bedroom where he had been watching and listening.
Chris held out his arm to bring Vin into the hug, once he had both boys held tight, he continued. "Well, he told me he was going to hitch a ride - most likely on a big truck, did you know Buck can drive one of them really big trucks?"
JD looked up through tear reddened eyes at Chris. "He can?" he asked.
"Wow," breathed Vin. "That's cool."
A small smile appeared on JD's face, as Vin showed proper appreciation for just how wonderful his Buck was.
"So you see JD, Buck is doing everything he can to be with us for Christmas."
"Will he be here tonight?" JD asked.
"No, no I don't think so " JD's face fell. " it's almost dark, he'll most likely hole up someplace dry and warm until tomorrow," Chris explained.
"'Member JD, like we used t', when it was cold?" Vin added.
"I guess so," the little five-year-old finally admitted.
Driving right into the teeth of the blizzard had its advantages. The snowflakes were carried over the truck buy the slipstream it created, and they didn't need the wipers to clear it. Since they were heading against the wind, there were no snowdrifts to block the road. Smaller, lighter traffic had tucked it's self in behind the big rig and was using it as a snowplough come windbreak, so they were setting the pace, a good, steady 40 mph. After 7 hours they, had changed drivers three times and covered nearly 250 miles. Buck stretched and arched his back as Joe took over the driving and once more pulled out into the one relatively snow clear lane.
"Man, I don't remember it being this tiring," he commented, as he pulled a coke from the cooler behind the seat.
"Bad weather really takes it out of you, it's a lot easier when there's two of you - thanks."
"No, thank you for the ride. So your son not join you in the trucking business?" Buck asked idly, they had established that Joe had a son, Pete, father of the two girls, and that Joe lived not that far from the ranch.
"Nah, I would of liked it, but he had is own plans, guess I shouldn't complain, doctor is a pretty good job - I guess."
Buck laughed. "Yeah, not as good as driving a truck into the teeth of a blizzard on Christmas Eve, but pretty good."
All of sudden the visibility dropped, it was as if they hit a wall of snow, Joe eased off the gas, dropping their speed to 20. Buck picked up the CD radio and, since they were now across the state line ,tuned into the Colorado State Patrol, and called them.
"Sir." Came the response. "This is a police restricted frequency, please clear this frequency - over."
"No shit, kid," was Buck's reply, for even over the radio the patrolman sounded young. "My name's Wilmington and I'm a federal agent, requesting urgent information - over."
"Really, sir? And how do I know you are who you say you are, sir - over."
Buck thought he could hear the lad snigger. "You with anyone else kid? Someone old enough to drink I mean? Over."
"Maybe - over."
"Ask 'um if they ever heard of Team Seven - Larabee's team - over."
There was a long silence then the young man came back to him, his tone a mixture of respect and fear. "Um how can I be of assistance Mr Wilmington sir - over."
Buck smiled to himself; Joe gave him a nod of approval as he picked up the radio again. "I'm travelling in an Kenwood eighteen wheeler on I-70, headed west toward the city, we just hit a wall of snow. The truck needs to get to Golden; I need to get to the Larabee ranch, north off 93. And I gotta tell ya there is a upwards of twenty vehicles behind us - over."
"Can you give me a more exact location? Over."
"Err coming up on Limon."
"Hold on sir while I get all the information I can - over."
Joe turned to Buck. "I'm impressed, he sounded ready to piss his pants, just who am I travelling with?"
Buck grinned. "No one special, not on my own, but, well, let's just say with my boss - and friend - Chris Larabee and three others, we make up a team with something of a rep."
"So I heard."
Just then the radio crackled back to life. "Mr Wilmington, sir, road conditions are worsening in the east, while clearing to the west. There is a snow plough ahead of you, when you catch up he will take you all the way to Golden, the CSP will help you to get up 93 from our HQ at Golden - over."
"Outstanding son, thanks for your help - over."
They did indeed meet the snowplough but it was slow going and they crawled toward Denver. By the time they had negotiated the city and were headed to Golden, it was already past eight. The CSP academy was located on I-70 so it was easy to let Buck off before Joe headed home. Unfortunately, 93 wasn't an interstate, it wasn't even a principal route, just a through road, mostly it was a shortcut used by people south of the city trying to get to Boulder and avoid the city. After a frustrating wait of over an hour, Buck finally hitched a lift on a four-wheel drive that was headed to meet a snow blower. Normally the highway department wouldn't work overnight in such weather, but crews would rather work now then on Christmas day. The 4x4 followed the snow blower as it crawled along the road until they reached the turn off for the ranch.
"Well, guess I should get out and walk," Buck announced, eyeing the snow blocked driveway."
The young patrolwoman looked doubtful. "Buck are you sure this is such a good idea?"
"I gotta be home fer Christmas, I promised him I'd be there and I will, a Wilmington's word is his bond."
"Well, okay sugar, if you're sure. Here " she handed him the biggest flashlight he'd ever seen. " take this and be sure you give it back to me 'personally', okay?"
Buck leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. "Never doubt it darlin'."
"Be careful!" she called after him. "God protect you," she whispered.
Snow was still falling but it had eased off some as he started down the track. The snow wasn't too deep yet, he only sank to his knees, but as the track turned to the north, a huge snowdrift appeared in front of him. Undaunted he set out to climb up, through or round the obstacle, nothing was going to stop him, not now he was so close.
JD refused to go to bed. He ate his meal of burgers and canned peaches and played with Chris and Vin by the fire, but he wouldn't go to bed, he wouldn't blow out the candle. He had pestered Chris into undoing the window shutters overlooking the approach to the house. Now he just sat on the window seat and watched out. Chris decided he would just leave him, and he would fall asleep. Vin was failing fast as Chris read ''Twas the Night Before Christmas', but not JD. It was if he was driven by an inner, more powerful energy, he was convinced Buck would make it before midnight. By eleven, Chris and Vin were asleep in the recliner, the fire was dying down but JD wasn't allowed to touch the fire, so he had to let it. Shivering slightly, he pulled his little blue robe with Mickey Mouse on the pocket closer to him and rested his head on the chill glass as he gazed out onto the snow. It was very dark outside, JD could only see as far as the meagre light from the house would reach, and yet, out there in the blackness, he spotted a light. It was far off and small, but it was moving. JD wondered if it was Santa, but it wasn't midnight yet so it couldn't be, then he wondered if it was the baby Jesus' star, but it was too low down for that. Finally, he realised, it was a flashlight!
"Chris! Chris!" he shrieked at the top of his voice, jumping down from the seat and running to the door. It took Chris a moment or two to realise what was going on and dislodge onto the sofa, an only half awake Vin. He only reached the door just in time to stop JD running out into the night.
"Hold up JD, where d' ya think yer goin'?"
"Look!" JD pointed franticly. Chris could see nothing. "Look, look, it's Buck!"
Larabee peered into the night and he saw, the bobbing light not far down where the track should have been, if the snow hadn't totally obliterated it.
"Ah hell." Chris picked up the bouncing JD and carried him inside.
"Nooooo," he protested.
Chris set JD down. By now Vin was awake and had come to the door.
"Boys, you have to stay here while I go help Buck. Do not!" he emphasised, " come outside, for any reason. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes Chris," Vin instantly responded.
"Okay," his response much slower in coming.
Larabee quickly donned his winter gear and, picking up a flashlight, headed out to bring his best friend home safe.
It took nearly half an hour, but finally, the door opened and Chris and Buck stumbled into the house, as Vin pushed on the door to close it behind them. JD launched himself at Buck, clamping his arms around one very cold, damp, jean clad leg, squealing in delight, talking nineteen to the dozen.
"You're here you came I said you would come before it was Christmas and you did you did look its not Christmas yet!" Buck glanced at the clock on the wall, it was indeed only quarter to midnight. "I missed you and I tried to be good but I was bad but Chris said you would come home anyway and you did you did!"
"JD," Chris said calmly. "Take a breath and let Buck sit down, okay?"
JD looked up at Buck, who was smiling down at him, than over at Chris. "'K."
Once Buck was on the sofa JD crawled up to sit next to him, only to be pulled onto his foster father's lap, for a huge hug.
"Oh boy it's good to be home, I missed you so much Little Bit." The exhausted man admitted. "And you." He reached out for Vin, who was standing beside the sofa, unsure where he fitted in this reunion. "C'um here Junior." Vin stepped into his own hug.
"You're all cold," JD announced from his position on Buck's lap.
"Well son that does tend to happen if'n you tramp about in the snow all night."
"Bedtime for everyone, I think," Chris announced.
"No!" JD suddenly looked up form his position on Buck's lap. "Not yet, it's not time yet, wait."
With that, he leapt down and ran into the bedroom, returning seconds later with his advent calendar. Not one door had been opened since Buck left.
"Looked! I wrote down the days," JD announced. He showed Buck a crumpled bit of paper with a series of numbers on it, each date that Buck had been away was carefully written in a variety of colours. " So we can do it together."
Buck just smiled not trusting himself to speak. Together they found the right doors; JD opened them and took the chocolate tablet out, carefully broke it in two, and then gave half to Buck. The two of them repeated this for each day Buck had missed their morning ritual. By the time they were done it was almost midnight, there was just time for Buck and JD to hang their special ornaments on the tree, before it was officially Christmas.
Buck was too tired to get ready for bed properly; he just stripped down to his boxers and crawled gratefully under the covers. JD stood in the doorway watching him, making sure he really was home.
"Say, Little Bit, how would you like to come on in here tonight, keep me company?"
"Yay!" JD ran forward and bounced onto the bed with alarming energy, he quickly got comfortable under the comforter and settled down for the night. "Buck?" he asked.
"Mmmm," came a weary reply.
"Will Santa still find me if I don't sleep in my own bed?"
"Hu-huh, don't worry he can find you any place."
Vin looked sadly at the empty bedroom. "How would it be if you shared my bed tonight?" Chris asked from behind him.
Vin nodded. "Chris?" he asked.
"Yes, Santa knows where you are too."
Vin woke up on Christmas morning at about seven, even though he hadn't been to bed until after midnight. He spotted the bulging stocking at the end of Chris' bed. Chris told him Santa would bring him extra presents, not the ones he would receive from friends and family. These would be extra, Santa presents. And yet, he wasn't sure it would really happen. At school, the other kids said Santa only came if you were good, he wasn't sure he had been good enough. How good did you have to be for Santa to come, he had wondered? And yet, here it was, a bright red furry stocking with a white top. It was Chris' room; maybe it was Chris' stocking? He lifted his head and looked to the other bedpost. No, there was no stocking there. Curiosity got the better of him, and he eased out from under the covers and crawled to the end of the bed, to have a better look. And he saw, there on the top of the stocking, was a red card with his name in gold letters, it said 'To Vin love from Santa'. Vin reached out with just one finger to run it down the stocking, enjoying the feel of the fur fabric under his finger, then he lent forward to peek inside, but didn't try to pull anything out. Finally, he reached out and lifted the whole stocking up and carried it carefully back to the top of the bed. He sat there looking at it.
"You can open it you know, it's for you." Chris voice beside him was soft and quiet.
"Really? I can?" Vin breathed in wonder.
Very gently he took out the first thing he came to and examined it.
JD also woke up and spotted a stocking, but he didn't move, because Buck's arm was over him and he didn't want to wake up Buck, who had been so tired the night before. Eventually, he saw Vin standing in the door of the bedroom; he was holding his stocking in his hand and grinning. He pointed to JD's stocking and JD nodded. Vin brought the stocking to his young friend and without moving JD began to investigate it's treasures. Neither boy made a sound as they shared the joy of the gifts they found. As Chris watched, video camera in hand, JD discovered a wind-up cowboy on a horse; he held it in one hand and waved the other clenched fist, as he gave a totally silent shout of joy. Chris was transfixed by the boy's self-restraint and silent communication.
JD lay patiently in bed until Buck rolled away from him, then he slipped out from under the covers, never once waking Buck. By the time Wilmington emerged, clean, shaved and but for a few blisters, aching leg muscles and somewhat chapped cheeks, undamaged, Chris had seen to the stock and the boys were playing in front of the fire, still unnaturally silent - until now.
"BUCK!" JD shouted as he leapt up and ran to him, and was instantly scooped up into Buck's arms.
"Morning boys, happy Christmas."
"Happy Christmas Buck!" they both shouted.
"Can we open presents now?" JD asked.
"After Buck has breakfast," Chris informed them as he came in.
"'K." JD accepted not entirely convinced.
They decided not to open the presents from their uncles until they could be with them, so concentrated on their gifts to each other. JD had chosen a snow globe for Buck, not just any one though, inside was a tiny figure of Elvis and it played "All Shook Up" when shaken. Vin had chosen a coffee mug for Chris, it looked plain black but, as Vin enthusiastically demonstrated, when a hot drink was put in it the image of wild mustang appeared. Those were the last gifts to be opened, at least that is what Buck and Chris thought, until the boys ran into their bedroom and returned with three more gifts.
"These are for you from us, but you have to have this too." Vin handed over a small gift to Chris that was clearly a computer disc from it's shape and size. Then they simultaneously handed over the two gifts. Filled with curiosity, the two men opened the presents. They were t-shits, Chris' was black - of course, and Buck's was deep blue.
"We made them ourselves," JD announced as Chris unfolded his and read the legend on the back. It said, "Proud to be a Cowboy Dad".
"You made this for me?" he asked Vin.
"Uh-huh, d' ya like it?" Vin enquired.
"Oh son, I love it!" And right there he stripped of his dark green shirt - Chris' nod to the festive season - and pulled it on. Then he pulled Vin up on to his lap. "And I am very proud to be a 'Cowboy Dad' any kind of dad so long as I have you for a son."
"Well, let's see what I got?" Buck wondered as he unfolded his. It read "World No. 1 Buck".
"Is it alright?" JD asked.
"Of course it's alright, you made it, so it's wonderful, come here." JD climbed up on to the sofa beside him for a hug. Then Buck also put on his shirt. "So when did you do this?" he asked.
"Can't tell you," Vin announced.
"S'cret!" JD nodded seriously.
"So, if I'm the world's number one Buck, that must make you the number one JD?"
"Yeah! I'm number one!" JD shouted.
With only very limited power, their Christmas day lunch was not the feast it was meant to be, but steak, baked potato and baked beans (not a bit of greenery in sight) followed by ice cream was enjoyed by all. With no TV and no VCR their other new video - Ice Age- went un-watched. They all found they didn't need electricity to have fun. They played games like snakes and ladders, dominoes and hide and seek -much more fun in a nearly dark house, until it was time for the men to tend the horses again. By the time they got back from the barn both boys had fallen asleep in front of the fire, their heads resting on their new colouring books.
"They look so peaceful," Buck commented.
Chris looked at his old friend, he had caught the swiftly covered look of disappointment on Buck's face when he realised JD had not put 'dad' on his T-shirt. There was nothing he could say, JD would come around in his own time, they both knew that.
"Why dont we get out the laptop and see if it has enough battery power to find out what's on that disc?" he suggested.
The disc proved to be a video file, clearly shot in the boy's bedroom. Vin was kneeling on the floor in front of the Ezra, who was also kneeling and facing Ezra's state of the art laptop, which was perched on the bed. As they watched, Vin very carefully typed each letter as Ezra said them, sometimes it took him a while to find the right key but he got there.
"You do realise, Master Tanner, that Mr Larabee is none to fond of the moniker 'cowboy'." Ezra said
"Errr?" Vin looked up at him.
"Chris doesnt like people to call him cowboy." The off screen translation was from Josiah who was clearly the cameraman.
"I know but I'm 'llowed, 'cause I'm his son," Vin confidently announced.
Chris smiled, but his smiled faded when he saw Buck looking even more sad.
The scene changed and now JD was in front of the computer, he was much faster at finding the keys. "Don't you want to put 'World No. 1 Dad'?" Ezra asked.
"No!" JD stated firmly.
"May one enquire why not?" Ezra asked.
"'Cause." JD stated.
"Because what?" Ezra prompted.
"Buck's are better than Dad's. Dad's leave and don't never come back and some of them is mean, Bucks don't do that, they don't leave and they isn't mean at alled. I don't want a dad, I want a Buck."
Chris turned to his old friend to see tears flowing down his cheek as he held his hand over his mouth. He didn't say anything he just placed a hand on his friend's shoulder, a gesture of doting dad solidarity.
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