ATF Little Britches Universe
Disclaimer: Not mine, never where, never will be.
Authors note: My thanks as ever to the wonderful Helen for all her hard work.
"Hey! Sleeping beauty, we're home." Buck Wilmington took his hand off the steering wheel long enough to give the sleeping form of Chris Larabee a shove.
The blonde had been slumped in the passenger side of Buck's old Chevy truck's long bench seat for the past two hours. Both men were tired and jet lagged. They had just returned on a very long tedious 'red eye' flight with one Rufus Freedman, from New Zealand. Freedman, a convicted killer and dealer in illegal plastic explosives, was one of the few felons who had escaped from the team's clutches. Caught in an undercover sting operation by Buck and Ezra, he had somehow managed to hit Buck over the head with a pipe, rendering him unconscious. With Buck lying flat on his back, and in imminent danger of asphyxiation, Ezra had had no choice but to go to his assistance and let the felon run, hoping the surveillance team would get him as he ran out of the building - except he didn't; he pulled up a manhole, disappeared into the sewers and was gone. Now, nearly six months later, he had been arrested in New Zealand of all places, for illegal possession of a firearm. The New Zealanders were only too keen to extradite him.
It was meant to be Chris and Ezra doing the pick up, Ezra to give a positive ID and Chris because he was the senior officer, but Ezra had come down with flu, as had Rain Jackson. That left Buck as the only person who could give a positive ID, and, despite some efforts on his behalf by Judge Travis, Chris still had to go as senior officer. Ever since the boys had arrived, they tried to ensure that they were never to both be away on assignment; Vin and JD got anxious when one was away too long, let alone both. But this time it couldn't be helped. Since Ezra was confined to his sick bed and Nathan was looking after Rain. Josiah agreed to move in for the six days the two men would be away. They had found the boys were better with as little disruption to their surroundings and environment as possible, and having Sanchez there at the ranch meant Chris didn't have to hire someone to tend the stock.
Chris opened one eye to peer at the dark world outside the window.
"When did it get dark?" he asked.
"'Bout an hour back, while we were still stuck in traffic on the freeway."
Chris grunted his acknowledgement and sat up in the seat, raking his finger through his corn blonde hair to regain some semblance of neatness.
"Think they'll be surprised?" Buck asked as he swung the truck into the half-mile long driveway that led to the ranch buildings.
Originally it was to be a six day trip, they were due back early on Monday, having flown out on Tuesday night, taking two days to reach their destination, and after two days in the country to collect the prisoner and make sure all the paperwork was correct, fly back on Saturday. But, when three seats became available on an earlier, almost non-stop flight, both men, each missing the boys more than they would admit even to themselves let alone each other, decided to take it. They hadn't phoned ahead to let anyone know they were arriving early other than the US Marshals who had taken charge of the prisoner.
"Buck you know as well as I do they will be very pleased to see us." Just then the truck turned the corner and the house came into view. It was dark. Josiah's Suburban stood to one side, but the Ram was missing. "Guess they must be out someplace," Chris commented, looking at his watch. It was just past eight thirty maybe they were out eating some place.
"So it would seem," Buck commented idly as he parked up. "I am gonna take a shower, and maybe unpack."
Chris decided this was a good idea and followed him wearily into the house. He flicked on lights as he went, since Buck hadn't bothered, just strolling through the familiar living room in the dark, placing the company laptop on the side table by the phone as he headed for his room. An hour later both men were cleaner, and a little more awake.
"Guess we should go check the horses, while we wait," Chris said heading for the door. Buck didn't follow; he was looking longingly at the recliner. "Pal, if we sit down now, we won't get back up, best do it now. 'Sides you know that old softie of yours misses you."
Giving a sigh of resignation but picking up an apple from the fruit bowl on the sideboard as he passed, Buck followed Chris out into the night. It was true his horse Beau was very gentle and even tempered, by far the safest mount in the barn. Chris' horse Pony was reliable if ridden firmly, but would take liberties with an inexperienced rider, Nathan's old mare, Bella, was lazy to the point of total inertia, unless it was Nathan riding her. Josiah's horse Cardinal was dependable enough, except that he didn't know he was a gelding, and at the slightest whiff of a mare in season acted exactly like any stallion. Ezra's Thoroughbred Chaucer was high strung and something of a primadonna, mainly because Ezra spoilt him rotten. And then there was Vin's pony - Peso. Peso was the most obstinate, contrary, mean, downright evil horse Buck had ever come across, unless you were a small, scrawny, eight years old named Vin Tanner. Then he was a different horse, gentle, playful, loyal, with impeccable equine manners. If Vin walked into the corral, Peso actually followed him like a puppy, his head down, just inches from Vin's back.
Chris pulled back the big sliding door to the barn. "Hi guys," he greeted the equine occupants, and moved instantly to Pony, who was the undisputed leader of the barn, and thus had to have attention first, or he would bang on his door until he did get it. Beau never did that. Buck's big grey would just stand patiently and waited his turn. Buck came in behind Larabee and instantly Peso started kicking the door of his loose box.
"Ah shut up!" Buck bellowed at the blaze-faced pony.
"Hell Buck," Chris complained, "You know that only makes him worse!" Indeed the kicking did intensify. "Just give him half that apple and be done with it."
"Why should I, didn't bring it fer the old pain the butt, glue bait."
"Because " Chris began - he was in no mood for a Buck-Peso battle of wills. " if you don't I'll tell Vin you called him 'glue bait', that's why."
Buck turned from glaring at the enraged pony; to stare open-mouthed at a smug looking Larabee.
"That is just plum evil, that is is its blackmail, is what it is."
"Yup, now give him the God-damn apple."
Buck decided to give in, truth be told he wasn't in the mood to listen to Peso kicking his door all evening either. Taking the apple he slammed it down on the edge of an empty stall, they didn't use the one next to Peso, it just wasn't worth the hassle, then handed one half, the smaller half, over to Vin's beloved horse. That done he turned, in the now quiet barn, toward the box at the end where his own much loved mount lived. He was surprised the big white head wasn't looking out over the door to greet him, as he reached the box and looked in his heart knotted up, it was empty.
"What the " he exclaimed.
"What's the matter?" Chris asked from the far end of the barn.
"He's not there Beau, he's not there."
It took another half hour to confirm that Buck's horse was indeed missing, they searched every box, the corral and all the surrounding fields, but found no sign of him. What they did find was his tack missing, along with a blanket, and, most significantly, the two horse trailer. It was clear that wherever Josiah and the boys were they had taken Beau with them.
+ + + + + + +
Back in the house Buck snatched up the phone and dialled Sanchez's cell phone. While he did, Chris picked up his own cell and, careful not to let Buck see what he was doing, the address book and slipped into the study. He could think of only one scenario that would explain the absence of Sanchez, the boys and just one horse. He dialled the number for Doctor Mackenzie, their veterinary surgeon. But the vet reported that she hadn't seen them, but given Chris' very real concern, she promised to ring around all the large animal practices in the area. When he came back out of the study Buck was hanging up on Nathan.
"Josiah's phone is off, his home phone is on the machine, same fer Ezra. Nathan doesnt have a clue what's going on," he reported.
"Doc MacKenzie hasn't seen them either," he replied. He knew Buck hadn't thought of this yet, or he had and was trying to ignore it. He watched as the emotions played across his friends face, it always amazed Chris that Buck was so good at undercover work, next to Ezra the best on the team, most of the time his face was an open book to his heart.
"You're sure, they didn't go there what about another vet?" he asked as the possibilities hit him, Buck loved his big grey more than he would ever admit.
"The doc's gonna ring around and check," Chris confirmed.
It was now nearly ten, the vet had called back to say no one had seen the big grey. It was now hours past the boys bedtime, and the first vestiges of real fear was beginning to worm its way into the two men's consciousness.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah Sanchez looked at the clock on the dashboard, it was just after half ten as he turned into the ranchs long drive. Behind him, two small, exhausted boys slept. JD had been asleep before he was even put in the car, Vin, while protesting he was wide awake and they didn't need to leave, was asleep within five minutes. The drive home was long, nearly an hour and a half, mainly because towing a horse trailer slowed you down, especially in the dark. As the house came into sight he spotted not only were the lights on, but Buck's truck was parked out front.
He smiled. The boys had already had a special day, this was going to be the icing on the cake - much of which was sitting in a box on the seat beside him.
"Vin!" he called over his shoulder. He got no response. "Hey Vin wake up!" he tried again.
"Yeah," came a tired reply.
"Look who's here."
Vin looked up, and saw the truck and the light. "They're home?" he asked.
"Looks that way, better wake up the little one."
Vin let over and shoved JD on the leg. "JD, wake up!" he shouted. JD didn't even twitch; Buck always said JD could sleep through a hurricane. "Come on JD, Buck's home!" Vin tried, but still the little five-year-old didn't respond.
By now they was drawing up outside the barn, and the frantic fathers were running to meet them. Vin was undoing his seat belt before the Ram was stopped and had the door open as soon as he heard the hand brake pulled on.
"Chris!" he shouted running to meet his father. "Youre here, you're early, was it fun, did you have a nice time?" He jumped up into welcoming arms, wrapping his legs around Chris thin waist.
Buck opened the other rear passenger door and unbuckled JD's seat belt and lifted him out. He seemed limp and unresponsive, but there was something about the feel, smell and warmth of Buck that penetrated the boy's subconscious, and without waking he his arms encircled his father's neck.
"You got my horse back there?" Buck asked Josiah, resisting the urge to shout.
"Good," Buck cut him off, "you can explain it all to me when I get this little guy in bed."
"I'll put Beau away and be right in." Sanchez confirmed.
+ + + + + + +
JD was the most energetic child Buck had ever encountered; true, that wasn't saying much, but people with a lot more child experience than him also commented on it. The trouble was when the energy ran out that was that, the boy had no reserve tank of fuel, once he was asleep you could do almost anything with him and he wouldn't wake. With now practised ease Buck removed the boys clothing and pulled on his pyjamas, before running a warm damp face cloth over the deceptively angelic features, and finally tucked him under the covers. It didn't occur to him until he was picking the discarded cloths of the floor that JD had been wearing his best cloths, even a tie. As he looked closer he noted that the little white button down shirt was marked with an unusual looking yellow stain. Chris was now persuading Vin to get ready for bed.
"But Chris I gotta tell you where we went to day, it was so cool, we "
"And I want to hear it, but, first you get ready for bed, then you can tell both of us, it was Buck's horse you took after all." Chris knelt in front of the boy and began undoing buttons.
"I 'kin do it," Vin protested.
"I know, I just want to help so we can listen to the story," Chris explained, not stopping his attentions to the shirt buttons.
"'K, I guess," Vin said with due resignation.
Buck retreated to the living room to await the explanation.
+ + + + + + +
Vin's came in with Chris, who now sat down in the recliner and pulled Vin up onto his lap. Buck sat opposite on the sofa.
"Ya see," the slight boy began, "there's this girl in my class, at school, Shanti, she's got a big brother, real big, a grown up." Vin reached his hand up as high as he could to show just how big Shanti's brother was. "And he's gettin' married, t'day - see that's were we was, at Shanti's brother's weddin'."
Chris frowned, he knew the girl in question, he just didn't think she and Vin were good enough friends for Vin and JD to be invited to her brothers wedding. Had he forgotten?
"Vin I don't remember you being invited to a wedding," he stated cautiously.
"We wasn't, not to start with. See did you know Shanti is a Sikh, that's a religion they got in India, Uncle Josiah's been t' India, he says its very colourful and they have elephants instead of bulldozers, ain't that cool?" Vin was sounding more like JD by the minute.
"Yes I knew that, tell me about the wedding," Chris needed to keep him on track.
"I's gettin' to it," Vin explained irritatedly. "Okay, you see the man got the flu, like uncle Ezra and Auntie Rain, so he couldn't bring his and it's no good without one, and I told her Buck had one, and he wouldn't mind lending it, so "
"Wait, stop," Chris interrupted. "What does Buck have, that the man with the flu couldn't bring?"
"Yeah, what?" Buck added.
"A white horse." Vin said it as if the two men were idiots. Didn't everyone know that Sikh and Hindu grooms arrive at their weddings on a white horse, he shook his head in wonderment, conveniently forgetting that he hadnt known that morning either.
"Hello, Larabee-Wilmington ranch," Josiah answered the phone, while mixing pancake batter.
"Oh hello, umm, my name is Anish Singh. And my daughter is in the same class as your son, Vin, is it?"
"Well it is Vin, but he's not my son, both Mr Larabee, that's Vin's pa, and Mr Wilmington are away on business, I'm looking after the boys and the house, Josiah Sanchez is the name."
"Oh that is most unfortunate, when will they return?"
"I'm expecting them back tomorrow evening, why? Is something wrong, has there been a problem at school?"
"Oh goodness me no, no nothing like that," Singh reassured.
He then went on to explain his problem, the man hired to supply his son's wedding with a white horse had just called and cancelled, because he had the flu. Unfortunately he didn't know of anyone else who could help at such short notice. Then his daughter, some twenty years younger then her brother, said that a boy at school had horses and he had shown her a picture of them, one was white and not only that he told her it was very gentle, because his little brother was allowed to ride it. Josiah confirmed all this to be true. He knew how important it was to Indian families that traditions were followed, and how inauspicious it would be to have change the arrangements at such short notice. He honestly didn't think Buck would mind, Beau was amazingly placid and well-used to noise, he had Buck and JD on his back a lot of the time after all, not to mention sharing a barn with Peso. After he explained that he would have to bring the two boys, Mr Singh invited all three of them to the wedding reception.
He and the boys spent all morning washing, brushing, grooming and combing the big grey until he positively shone. Then after a light lunch, because from experience Sanchez knew how much food there would be later, he made the boys bathe, but only after much protest from Vin that he was clean enough. Then he had them dress in their best clothes, he had a suit with him luckily, because none of Chris clothes would fit and even Bucks would have been very tight. Just after two they loaded a very handsome-looking Beau into the trailer and headed out.
"See, we had 't go or it would have been bad luck for Shanti's brother," Vin explained, he then tried to stifle a huge yawn. "You should have seen Beau Buck, he had 't wear this gold blanket, an' it was real gold," he added with wonder. "Not just gold-coloured stuff, it was real! Mr Singh said it was very old an' he had t' keep it in a special box, and lots of folk use it fer their weddin's. An' we got t' help him get ready an' " he yawned again.
"You know what?" Chris said stopping him mid sentence. "Why don't we hear the rest tomorrow, then JD can join in?"
Vin frowned, he looked back to try a glare at Larabee but the effect was spoilt by yet another huge yawn. Seeing he couldn't win, the little waif-like boy gave a sheepish smile.
"I guess," he admitted. Sliding off his fathers lap, he crossed to Buck. "Don't be cross with uncle Josiah Buck, we had a great time an' we looked after Beau real good," he told the tall man solemnly.
Buck smiled. "Nah, I can see it was an emergency, glad the big guy was some help." He leant forward and kissed the top of Vin's head. "Sleep tight, Junior, I look forward to hearing the rest tomorrow."
Chris was just walking back from tucking Vin in when Sanchez came back into the house carrying a huge box and an icebox.
"Forgive me?" the big man asked quietly.
"Course we do, right Buck?" Chris looked across at his friend.
Buck shrugged. "Go no problem you takin' Beau, or takin' the boys out, they obviously had a great time, but " he locked eyes with the older man. " you should have left a note, you knew there was a chance we could get an earlier flight, I was " Buck stopped as Sanchez held up a finger to silence him, as he crossed the room to the telephone, there beside it was the laptop, just where Buck had put it down in the dark, and as he lifted it he pulled out a sheet of paper. It was neatly printed and even from across the room Buck could make out his and Chris names, and at the bottom a phone number.
"I had to turn off my cell phone at the wedding, this is the number of the hall where we were, and the address," Josiah explained.
"One of these days," Chris began, as he stood and looked at Buck. "You will bother to turn on a light before you walk through this place. I am going to bed."
With that he left the other two men and headed for the bedrooms.
"Sorry," Buck said quietly.
"Apology accepted, I'm gonna put this lot away and then get some sleep." He held up the boxes.
"What is all that?" Buck asked.
"Food, cake, more food, candy, more food."
+ + + + + + +
JD woke up in his own bed, in his PJ's. It didn't occur to him to wonder how he came to be there, he was used to falling asleep in one place and waking up in bed. As far as he knew Josiah was still the only adult in the house, so, since Vin was still fast asleep he slipped out of the room without bothering to dress and went in search of food. Much of JD's life revolved around food, he was never full, always able to eat more, Buck said he had hollow legs. The sound of a deep familiar voice, softly singing calypsos called to him. Uncle Josiah was in the kitchen, that meant food.
"Go down the 'manuel road man an' boy, got to break that stone, I tell you go down the 'manuel man and boy " Josiah turned as JD joined in the song, he had learned it over the last few days, because Sanchez had been playing calypsos in the car. 'Emanuel Road' and 'Angelina' were the boy's favourites.
"Well, good morning to you." Josiah smiled broadly, "How about some breakfast?"
"Yeah, I want pancakes."
"I want doesnt get, young man."
JD turned around on the spot at the sound of the familiar voice admonishing him.
"BUCK!" he squealed at the top of his voice, launching himself at the tall man. "You're here, you was meant to come today? How did you get here now? Did the plane go extra fast for you? Was it a racing plane or the Concorde? It can go real fast you know, and it has a pointy nose like this " JD demonstrated the supersonic airliners aerodynamic nose cone on Bucks nose. " and it has these funny wings that go way back " He suddenly swept his hands back to demonstrate the crafts delta wings, and almost overbalancing out of Buck's grasp in the process.
"Whoa there, Tiger!" Buck exclaimed as he made a grab for the boy and pulled him back. "Slow down. No, the plane was just a regular plane, we got an earlier one is all. Now, about what I just heard, what do you say to your Uncle Josiah?"
JD frowned up at his father, trying to pretend he didn't understand.
"JD," Buck warned sternly.
JD turned to his uncle. "I'm sorry Uncle Josiah. Please may I have pancakes for breakfast today?" he recited meekly.
"Apology accepted, but unfortunately we had pancakes yesterday, so today we are having waffles."
"Yeah!" JD exclaimed.
"JD," Buck warned again.
JD rolled his eyes and gave a dramatic sigh. "Thank you Uncle Josiah," he dutifully said.
Buck sat at the table where Sanchez had put down a mug of coffee. JD, still on his lap, now launched into another long speech. "You'll never guess what happened to us we went to a wedding and so did Beau it was amazing they had ." JD proceeded to tell, without seemingly the benefit of breathing, his own version of the previous day, while Buck drank his coffee. But once he reached the point where Vin's narrative had ended, Wilmington stopped him.
"Why don't you go wake up Vin and have him wake up Chris, so we can all hear it together?" he suggested.
While JD was away the two men set up breakfast on the table. They heard Vin run into Chris room and pounce on him. They even heard the squeals as Chris tickled first Vin and then both boys, finally the lean blond appeared at the kitchen door. Over his shoulder he had a tousle-haired boy and dangling by one ankle from his other hand a small boy with a mop of dark hair.
"Either of you two know anything about setting these two banshees on to me?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard above the giggling coming from the said two boys.
"Us?" Buck asked innocently.
"Don't know what you're talkin' about. Never seen either of them before," Sanchez stated.
"Yes you have!" JD twisted his head so his face was visible under all the hair. "It's me!"
"Well so it is, what ya doin' down there, Little Bit?" Buck asked.
"Uh huh, it's fun."
"Fun?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, fun," JD confirmed.
"Well we can't have that." And with that he gently lowered the boy to the ground, before manoeuvring Vin off his shoulder and onto his hip. "And you?" he addressed Vin. "Were you having fun too?"
Vin nodded, still giggling.
"Well I must have failed some place." Chris shook his head.
Eventually they were all sat at the table, and while they were all enjoying breakfast the boys took up the story again.
The groom had looked at Beau, now splendidly decked out in a gold blanket and head-dress topped with red feathers, with trepidation.
"Are you sure he's okay?" he asked.
"Course he is," Shanti replied, "Vin said so."
Vin nodded, but said nothing.
"Beau is the gentlest, most sure-footed horse in the world," JD confidently attested. "I ride him," JD failed to mention this riding was done in the corral with Buck holding the lunging rein, "he's real gentle and he don't bite or kick nor nothin'"
Ravi Singh did not want to be seen as a coward in comparison to the small, very, very small, boy standing confidently before him, holding the big horse's reins.
"How do I get on?" he finally asked.
"I'll give you a leg up son, we don't want to get that outfit of yours all dusty," Josiah offered.
Despite the strange costume, the strange rider, the crush of people and the noise, Beau behaved impeccably.
Once the groom was safely in the temple, Josiah and the boys took the head-dress and the cloth off, and as Vin and Josiah carefully folded it and put it away, JD talked to the big grey.
"You was real good Beau, Buck will be very proud of you. I know you miss him, but he will come home soon, I promise. He had go all the way around the world to get a bad guy, an' Chris had t' go too. But uncle Josiah is takin' real good care of us, an' Mrs Potter, only she ain't here now 'cause she don't work on the weekend and anyways she don't looked after you guys in the barn." The big grey had dropped his head and was gently lipping at JD's pocket. "I ain't got no Lifesavers, sorry " Buck habitually carried the small mints in his jeans pockets, just for Beau, this was one treat Peso hadn't muscled in on yet. " but I bet Buck will bring you one when he gets home." Beau contented himself with just nuzzling at JD's shoulder and being stroked.
Vin looked up at his uncle. "Tomorrow, right?" he asked, trying not to sound anxious.
Josiah smiled so that all his teeth showed. "Yeah Vin, he'll be home tomorrow, now let's get this horse fed. After that they tethered Beau to the outside of the trailer, since it was a warm evening and they were parked in a quiet grassy corner of the car park, there was no reason to confine the large horse in the small trailer.
That done it was already five and the guests were filing out of the temple and into the community centre next door. Under Sanchez's direction the boys lined up and shook hands with the families as they entered. Josiah had his hand on each boy's shoulder and he could feel Vin trembling, the boy was never comfortable around big crowds, especially in such an unfamiliar environment. JD on the other hand was just bouncing with excitement. Eventually they were shown to a large circular table near the back of the hall. Josiah introduced himself and did a little bow, with his hands together like he was praying. The people at the table did likewise.
"We was with Shanti's auntie and her folks," Vin explained.
"Auntie Puja," JD added. "She's nice, she gave us food and 'splained what all the food was."
"Auntie Puja is from Bombay, that's in India," Vin took up the narrative again. "She says American men are too thin, she thinks we don't get enough t' eat an' you don't look after us right. We told um' it ain't so an' JD told her all the things he ate that day."
Buck could just hear JD counting off his usual daily intake of meals, snacks and between snacks.
"But she liked Uncle Josiah, 'cause he's a 'fine figure of a man'," Vin quoted. "An she kept whisperin' to people and then ladies came over and asked Uncle Josiah t' dance and stuff."
"Auntie Puja thinks he needs a good woman," JD explained seriously.
Vin nodded solemnly, while Sanchez turned red under his friends amused scrutiny.
"Did ya find one, pal?" Buck asked.
"No, mind you some of them were fine-looking women, there is something about a sari," he added wistfully.
"We had to stole Ravi's shoes," JD suddenly stated, changing the subject suddenly.
Buck suddenly frowned at his son. "You stole the grooms shoes, JD you know better than that."
"But Buck we had to, it's a rule."
"Vin?" Shanti came up beside her classmate.
"Yeah?" Vin was enjoying another piece of Tandoori chicken, supplied by the ever-attentive Puja.
"This is Henna," she introduced a girl a little younger than herself. "She's Namita's sister." Namita was the bride. "She's meant to steal Ravi's shoes, it's a tradition, but there's only her."
Traditionally the bride's younger sisters, cousins and nieces stole the groom's shoes and hid them until the reception was over. But among those female relatives of Namita who had made it to the service, only Henna was older than three and younger than twenty; she was six. The boys quickly agreed to help. Sanchez was dancing with yet another woman introduced to him by Auntie Puja. The first thing he knew was when he saw four small bottoms protruding from under the long 'top' table. Two were clad in bright satin dresses, and two in familiar black jeans. Before he could do anything the black clad bottoms disappeared, and seconds later the two girls ducked back out and ran away from the table squealing. Ravi, his best man and brothers instantly gave chase, that was part of the game, to get the shoes back. But when he caught the girls they didn't have the shoes. Only Sanchez spotted two former street urchins emerging from either end of the table, when the commotion had died down, each furtively clutching a shiny black dress shoe.
The shoes were then safely hidden in the horse trailer until they left, when Vin handed them over to Henna, to be returned later.
"We gave rides on Beau too, to the other kids " JD announced.
"JD!" Vin warned in a low voice.
"But we did," JD protested.
"Oh you did, did you?" Josiah interrupted. "When was this?"
"Umm, sort of after, when you was dancing," Vin began. "Chris, Uncle Josiah can dance Indian dances, all the ladies liked him," he explained, trying to deflect the adults away from the subject of the horse rides.
"No doubt, what about the horse rides?"
"They asked," JD interjected, as if that explained everything.
"Little Bit, how 'bout you tell me all about it," Buck suggested, realising Vin knew he had done something wrong and was about to clam up, probably imaging the worst possible consequences.
"Some of the other kids didn't believe we was with Beau, so we tooked them outside to see him, and this big boy, he wanted to have a ride and Vin said no, and the boy said he would pay us a whole dollar to ride Beau, but Vin said no, so he said we could lead Beau, fer fifty cents and "
"Breath, JD," Buck reminded.
JD took a huge gulp of air and then continued. "Vin said okay, but he ha' t' pay up front, an' he did."
"How did you get the saddle on?" Buck wanted to know, Beau was a big horse and his saddle was very heavy.
"We didn't," Vin admitted quietly.
"Yeah," JD continued. "We tolded them they was ridin' like Red "
"JD," Sanchez warned.
"Like Native Americans," JD corrected.
"You charged these kids fifty cents each for a bareback ride on my horse?" Buck clarified.
"If they was very little we only charged twenty-five," Vin explained. "JD took the money and I got them on, then JD led him around the grassy bit by the trailer. I walked beside them, so if they slipped I could grab their leg, so they wouldn't fall off."
The boys had clearly thought the enterprise through. Sometimes it was too easy to forget that the boys, who were now so settled, who had a home and family, a roof over their heads, food on the table and clean clothes to wear, had only a short time ago been street kids, living hand to mouth, relying on their wits and cunning to survive. There they were presented with an opportunity to make money, even though Vin clearly had reservations, they couldn't turn it down.
"We stopped when it was dark," Vin explained. "And we gave Beau some water and JD found some peppermint candy for him, as a reward. He was real good." This last statement was delivered in a very small meek voice.
"How much did you make?" Buck asked JD.
"Umm, nineteen dollars and fifty cents," JD responded.
"Where is it?" Josiah asked, knowing there wasn't that much in small change in either boy's pockets.
"In a bag, under the straw in the trailer." Vin was resigned to some terrible retribution, all he could do now was come clean and make sure JD wasn't blamed. "I knew it was wrong, but they wanted to an' well, it weren't JD's fault, I was in charge, I'm the oldest, I wouldn't have done it with any other horse, only Beau," he smiled sheepishly at Buck, "he's the only one I trust. Well 'sept Peso, I trust him, but he can be a bit mean t' other people." Admitting Peso was less than perfect was a big step for Vin.
"You did three things wrong," Chris said quietly. "Can you tell us what they were."
Both boys were silent for a long time, finally Vin spoke, his head down. "We shouldn't have given rides."
"Well actually that was quite a good idea," Buck started. "Beau is very gentle, and you knew he would be reliable, but you shouldn't have asked for money. Firstly you don't need it, I know it's hard to remember some times, but you live here now and we will look after you."
Vin nodded, but his head didn't come up. Chris reached out and placed his arm around Vin's shoulders. JD sniffed, and Buck instantly plucked him off the chair and sat him on his lap.
"Secondly," Chris continued. "You were guests at the wedding, you don't ask guests for money. What else did you do wrong?"
Vin shrugged. JD thought hard, then he looked up at Buck and then reached up to whisper in his ear. For once his whisper actually was a whisper.
Buck nodded. "That's right. You shouldn't have left the hall without telling Josiah were you were going and got his permission. You could have got lost or hurt, and what if your Uncle Josiah hadn't been able to find you? Think how worried he would have been."
JD looked around Wilmington to look sadly at Sanchez. "'M sorry," he said meekly.
Vin mumbled his own apologies.
"There is one more thing," Chris reminded.
"It was dangerous," Vin whispered.
"Yes, we all know that horse is reliable, but, he is a horse and a very big one, if something had spooked him, neither of you is big enough to hold him, it was especially dangerous without a saddle. Now, you did the right thing leading him and walking beside him." Chris moved his chair closer to Vin once he had finished.
"You kept it a secret, so you knew it was wrong," Josiah added.
JD looked over at Vin, his head was still down, tears falling all but silently on to the table. Then he turned in Buck's lap and knelt up to face his foster father. "Don't be cross with only Vin, it was me too, it wasn't just Vin, he tolded me no, but I kept asking him, please?"
Buck looked up at his friend. In response Chris lifted Vin up and on to his lap. "Have you understood why this was wrong?" Vin nodded. "No one got hurt, you looked after Beau, you were giving your new friends a good time. So I don't reckon we need to do anything more, Buck?"
Wilmington nodded his agreement.
"But we do need to do something about the money. Now we can't give it back, and it was Buck's horse who did all the work, so lets give him choose what to do with it." Four faces turned to Buck.
"I think ol' Beau would want to help other horses, so I think we should give it to Blue Wings." Blue Wings was a rest and retirement home for horses near Colorado Springs.
Finally Vin looked up, his normally clear blue eyes were cloudy and tear-reddened.
"You reckon he'd like that?" Buck asked.
Vin finally gave a small smile and nodded.
Vin looked around at Chris. Was that it? He wasn't going to have to muck out the barn for a month? No one was going to yell at him? He wasn't banned for riding his beloved Peso?
Chris frowned. "What's the matter, did you think it would be worse?" Vin nodded. "I can think of another punishment if you like?"
"No," Vin said simply, " it's okay."
"Now I think we should get those horses fed, groomed and turned out. Don't you?" Chris asked all of them.
"Yay!" JD shouted. He loved to turn the horses out, apart from Peso, who took the opportunity to jump and buck as he stretched his muscles and Chaucer who liked to prance about showing off, all the other horses immediately found a nice dusty spot and had a good roll. JD liked to watch them, he always thought it looked such fun, rolling in the dirt, and on more than one occasion had tried to join in the fun.
Taking this as an affirmative for all of them, Chris sent the boys to get their work clothes on. Once they were out of the room both men turned to face a rather shame-faced Sanchez.
"I'm sorry," he started. "I know you're mad, I know I screwed up."
"They must have been out there for at least two hours and you didn't notice!" Chris fumed.
"I know, God help me, I know! You don't have to say it, and " He took deep breath. " if you don't ever trust me with them again I'll understand, but I have enjoyed these few days and I too have learned from my mistakes. I assumed they were in the hall with me, I know better then to assume, especially with them two."
Chris continued to glare at the older man, until Buck, satisfied Sanchez had learned his lesson, stepped between them facing Chris.
"We know Josiah, and we do trust you, honest. Right Chris?"
It took a few moments, but finally Larabee nodded.
"Well we better get ready too, or they'll be back here and we'll still be standin' here jawin'."
+ + + + + + +
They all headed out to the barn. All six horses were lead out and tethered to the corral rail so they could be groomed and the boxes mucked out and fresh bedding put down. Chris watched as Vin let himself into Peso's box with easy confidence, anyone else would have been on the defensive, ready to duck out of the way of any quick bite or kick aimed their way. It never ceased to amaze Chris the way the obstinate pony would lower his head so Vin could put the head collar on and then allow himself to be lead out, meek as a lamb. While they liked to say only for Vin did Peso behave so well, it had to be said he had never tried to bite JD either, maybe he just didn't perceive them as a threat or a rival?
"What the hell!" Buck suddenly exclaimed.
JD had been grooming Bella's legs, he put his brush down and walked over to Buck and held his hand out.
"What?" Wilmington asked not looking at JD but at his precious horse, more precisely at his horse's hooves.
"You said a bad word, you have t' pay a dollar." JD continued to hold his hand out.
Buck finally looked over to him, then he sighed, and fished in his pocket. Finally he handed JD a five-dollar bill.
"Thats too much," JD stated.
"No it isn't. Josiah Sanchez get yer ass over here!" he bellowed.
Sanchez gave Cardinal a pat and then ambled over to Buck. "What's up?" he asked.
"That. What the hell is that?" Both men gazed at the big grey's hooves, hooves that were now painted gold, with red patterns on top of the gold.
"Paint, looks good doesnt it?"
"The hell it does, I can't go ridin' around on a horse with God damn sissy feet!"
"Itll grow out. Right Josiah?" Chris commented, as he and Vin came to see what all the fuss was about.
"Grow out!" Buck fumed. "Damn it! Do you know how long that will take?"
Josiah was trying not to laugh too much, finally he decided to put Buck out of his misery. "It's nail polish, Itll come off with some remover," he explained.
They all watched as Wilmington digested this information. Josiah was half expecting the tall man to protest that he couldn't go into a store and by nail polish remover. But then he reminded himself this was Buck Wilmington before him, he reckoned the man could stroll into a store and buy tampons without batting an eye.
Finally Buck stopped scowling at Beau's hooves and turned to look at the others, who had now formed a semi-circle around him, all smiling.
"Nail polish?" he asked again.
"Damn, Preacher, you could have said."
JD held his hand out.
"I paid in advance," Buck reminded.
"'S not enough, you gived me five and you said seven bad words."
"I did?" he asked.
JD nodded. "You said 'hell three times, and da " JD was counting off the curse words on his fingers.
Eager to stop the inevitable flow before JD got to the other words, Buck gave in and handed over another two dollars.
The others went back to work, then watched as the horses were turned out. Chaucer flung his head up, raised his tail and pranced around the field. Pony made one quick circuit and then headed for his favourite roll spot. Bella ambled in, and dropped to roll almost as soon as she could. Cardinal sniffed the air and then followed suit. Peso charged it and instantly began kicking up his heels, bucking, and throwing his head in what could only be seen as the sheer joy of being alive. Chris stole a glance at Vin. The joy he saw in the pony's antics was reflected on the face of the boy, who more often then not looked altogether too serious.
JD led Beau up to the gate with Buck beside him. "Buck?"
"Yes Little Bit."
"I'm sorry we used your horse without you."
"I know you are, but I think the old boy had a good time. Right boy?" He patted the horse, who instantly lipped his pocket for a mint. Buck pulled two out and gave one to JD so he could treat the horse as well. JD hated that he wasn't big enough to have a pony of his own, so Buck always tried to make sure he included the little boy in the horses care. Once he had eaten his treats, JD led the gentle horse into the field by a rope around his neck. Once he let go and ducked out under the fence rail, they all expected Beau to do as he always did, amble over to the dust patch beside Pony and have a roll. But he didn't. For the first time ever, Beau threw his head back, jumped, bucked and kicked like Peso, then pranced around the fence. You could almost see him throwing up his painted feet, as if to show them off.
Buck shook his head; maybe he could live with a horse with red and gold feet after all, for a while anyway.
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