"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
The team arrived at the hospital a very long four and a half hours later. Plows had made most of the interstate passable, but it was still slow going. A good deal of that time was spent just getting out of Larabees driveway. They had taken Josiahs big Suburban, but still had to get out frequently and literally dig a path for the vehicle.
An agent from the Colorado Springs office, Diana Malone, took it upon herself to call Chris at intervals to give them updates on the boys. Josiah strongly suspected that for the sake of self-preservation, the CS FBI had been advised that this might be a prudent move.
So even before they arrived at the hospital, they knew that other than being hungry and tired, JD was OK. Vin was in and out of consciousness with a concussion. (What agent Malone did not tell Larabee was that the little boy repeatedly called for him. There was no sense in them getting even more anxious than they already were.)
They also knew that one of the carjackers was dead and the other unconscious, in serious condition, both had been shot. The police had already run their IDs through their database and identified the DOA as Kyle Davis and the other as Gerald "Ratso" Kelsey. Both two-bit hoods with long rap sheets. They were also wanted for questioning in the robbery of a liquor store and the shooting of the clerk.
Finally they pulled into the parking lot of St. Mathews. Chris and Buck were out the doors even before the car was fully stopped. Bursting through the ER doors, they ran into a sea of police, FBI agents and the media. Pushing their way to the desk, they identified themselves. Hearing their names, the mass of people began to surround them, barraging them with questions.
Chris had a look on his face that said there was soon going to be a body count, when a man and woman pushed their way through and over the cacophony of noise, introduced themselves.
"Agents Larabee and Wilmington," the woman practically shouted to be heard, "Im Agent Malone and this is Agent Sales. Come with us, please."
The two agents cleared a path, telling the reporters that there would be a press conference later. It was a blessed relief to go through the doors behind which were the examination rooms. They were guarded by police officers.
"Hospital PR is arranging a room where we can herd all the media. The FBI is preparing a statement. Dont worry, well take care of it."
Chris gave a curt nod as his eyes scanned the row of cubicles.
"Follow me," Malone said. "The staff put the boys in the same room. JD got very upset when they tried to separate them."
As she explained she lead them into one of the larger rooms, where two gurneys had been placed. JD was sitting on one where a female officer was trying to keep him distracted.
As the agents entered the room, JDs head snapped around, his eyes grew wide and he tried to stand with his arms open, "BUCK!"
The tall agent flew to the boy, gathered him in his arms and buried his face in the long dark hair. At last free to not be a brave little boy any longer, JD started crying. Buck whispered reassurances with tears streaming down his face, while holding onto his precious bundle for dear life.
Chris, in the meantime, approached the other cart with trepidation. He could see the soft rise and fall of the thin little chest, but Vin was so still and so pale underneath purple and black bruises on his face. One eye was swollen shut and there was a large white dressing over that eye. He had an IV of Lactated Ringers running in one arm.
With a shaking hand, Chris reached out to stroke the soft brown curls. As if sensing his presence, Vin blinked a couple of times then, frowning, opened his eyes just enough to see his adopted father, "Chris?"
Larabee, with tears in his eyes, took hold of the little hand that reached for him. "Hey, Cowboy," he smiled. "You OK?"
Vins bottom lip trembled, "You came."
Chris brought the hand up to his lips, kissed it, swallowed hard and said, "Yeah buddy, Im here."
A tiny smile appeared on the waxen face, his eyes slid shut. His grip on Chriss hand briefly, "I knew ya would," was the barely audible reply.
Then the hand relaxed as he slipped back into sleep. Chris squeezed his eyes tightly shut, trying hard to reign in his emotions. For several minutes he fought for control then opened his eyes to simply watch his sleeping boy and to thank God for bringing the boys through this alive and relatively safe.
His head jerked up at the sound of his name. He became aware that JDs crying had dissolved into soft hiccoughs. He glanced over at Buck, who gave him a reassuring nod.
At some point the rest of the team had entered the room, but had kept themselves at a respectful distance, allowing the two men some privacy while reuniting with their sons.
"Mr. Larabee, Im Dr. Wilson. Im the attending ER physician today. I thought you might want an update on the boys."
Chris nodded and the others moved forward to hear what the doctor had to say.
"First JD, other than being cold, tired and hungry, physically hes fine." The man paused as if to emphasize that there was more to say but not now.
"Vin, as we are able to piece the story together, was hit across the face a couple of times and thrown into a wall. He has a lot of bruising on his face, a laceration above his right eye, which we stitched and a mild to moderate concussion. He is experiencing a severe headache, some nausea and vomiting and a little disorientation. But his vital signs are good, his pupils are equal and reactive and his ears are clear. Weve done a CT of his head and it looks good. We would like to keep him overnight just to watch him. I also would like an ophthalmologist to look at his eye just to make sure theres no damage."
Chris listened intently, nodding as the doctor finished and he thanked him, but Buck saw the face set and the eyes grow cold. Hastily stepping forward, holding a drowsy JD in one arm, he put a hand on the unsuspecting doctors arm and unobtrusively guided him toward the door, thanking him profusely as he went.
In a deceptively calm voice, Chris asked, "What the hell happened?"
"Uh, Agent Larabee, maybe we should step out into the hall," Agent Malone stated, looking pointedly at JD.
Chris looked at Buck, who nodded, "You go ahead Chris, Ill stay with the boys."
Reluctantly Chris let go of Vins hand, and almost changed his mind when the little boy stirred. Ezra stepped forward, "Go ahead Mr. Larabee, Ill stay with young Master Tanner. Just so that he knows that he is not alone."
Chris placed a hand on Standishs shoulder, giving him a small smile of gratitude, the followed the officers out. Malone led them to a small staff conference room, indicated that they should sit and offered them coffee.
Chris was chafing at the bit, but was determined to keep his temper under control. He sat down at the head of the table with Josiah and Nathan flanking him. Malone, Sales and the police officers occupied the other chairs.
Malone started, "Kelsey, the wounded suspect, woke up as the ER staff was getting him ready for surgery. With what he told us and what we were able to get out of JD, we have a fairly good idea of what happened."
Chris shot her a piercing look at the mention of JDs name and before he could blow his top, she held up a staying hand, "We just ask him a few questions, Mr. Larabee. He wasnt grilled. Actually, it didnt take much, he is quite a talker," she said with a smile.
"Yeah, he is," Chris conceded.
"Anyway, in a nut shell, when Kelsey and Davis discovered the boys, Davis wanted to ditch the truck and the kids. Because of the snow, they knew they wouldnt be able to get far without the danger of getting stranded. When they reached Colorado Springs, Davis, who was somewhat familiar with the area, found an empty warehouse to hole up in. Kelsey convinced him to hold onto the boys until they left the next day. The plan at that point was just to leave them, if Kelsey could keep them alive.
Davis is reported to have a very nasty, almost psychotic temper. It is to his credit that Kelsey even suggested defying him," at the look she got from the three men, "I know, I know, hes still a slime ball, but he says he just couldnt hurt a kid." She shrugged, "go figger, a shred of decency, but it saved the boys lives. Things went OK until Davis found out about the Amber Alert. He knew the state would be swarming with cops. He went nuts. Shot Kelsey and then turned the gun on the boys, but Vin, when he saw what was going to happen, tried to tackle him. Davis fell and he lost the gun and it landed near JD. Davis grabbed Vin, hit him once but Vin still fought, then he hit him hard enough to send him across the room and into the wall," she paused noting the clenched fists and the look on the senior agents face. There was no doubt in her mind, had not Davis already been dead, he would have been after Larabee finished with him.
Josiah, seeing the same thing lay a calming hand on Chriss shoulder. Chris didnt even seem to notice but didnt act on the rage surging through him.
Malone continued, "Davis moved toward Vin, JD saw the gun, picked it up and pointed it at Davis, telling him to stop. Davis turned on JD and the gun went off."
"God have mercy," Josiah whispered.
Malone steeled her heart to finish in the face of the anguish she saw written on their faces, "Davis is dead. Point blank into the heart. He hardly knew what hit him." She continued, "You know what happened from there. JD called you, then 911."
Taking a deep breath, she said. "You know there will have to be an investigation." Seeing the protest forming, "Mr. Larabee, Chris, youre in law enforcement. You know we have to ask the questions. A child psychologist that works with the Denver Bureau is on the way. She will make the questioning as painless as possible. Well video-tape it in the hopes that we can use it as JDs testimony and he wont have to appear in court. We will do everything we can to make this as easy for the boy as possible."
She could see the warring emotions in Chris, then taking a deep breath, he said, "I know it has to be done, but " unable to continue, he blinked and looked away.
"Chris, I have three kids, I can only guess at what youre feeling, but I promise you, I swear I will oversee it every step of the way. We will be as gentle as we can."
All Chris could do was nod.
Slowly the officers got up and left, leaving the Team 7 members to be alone. Chris took a few minutes to compose himself, knowing how sensitive Vin was to his moods. Then tiredly, he rose, "I need to get back to Vin."
He started to leave but stopped when Josiah called his name, "someone needs to tell Buck."
Chris closed his eyes, knowing how Buck was going to react, "Ill do it."
"I will if you want me to Chris," Josiah offered.
"No, no I gotta do it," Then turning and facing his friends he gave them a half smile, "but stand by in case I need crowd control."
Josiah and Nathan chuckled at the feeble attempt at humor then followed their leader back down the hall.
The first place his eyes went to when he went back into; the room was where Vin was lying, to assure himself that the little boy was still OK. His gaze slid to Ezra, who gave him a reassuring nod and smile. Chris noticed that he was holding Vins hand.
Ezra started to stand but Chris motioned for him to remain where he was. He turned to Buck who was sitting in a chair, still holding a now sleeping JD. The big man was gently rocking the boy. Chris moved over to them and in a low voice said, "Buck we gotta talk."
Giving his friend a questioning look at the authoritative tone. Buck lifted JD and carried him back to the gurney and carefully laid him down, grateful that he didnt wake up.
"Ill watch him Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said.
Buck nodded his thanks then followed Chris outside. Chris moved down the hall a ways so that the impending explosion wouldnt wake the boys.
Buck started to feel sick to his stomach from dread. He knew Chris was going to tell him something he didnt want to hear. He glanced back down the hall and his apprehension intensified when he realized that though Josiah and Nathan were giving them space. They were close enough to close enough to Oh, God! What was Chris going to tell him? Buck was sure he was going to pass out.
Chris, seeing the fear in the big mans eyes, hastened to reassure him, "JD is fine." He let that sink in a moment, seeing the relief wash over his best friend, then he proceeded to tell him what Malone had told him.
Buck began to pace, the anger building, "Damnit Chris, hes only five."
Chris placed a hand on the tense arm, "Buck, believe me I know but he shot and killed a man. It was in self-defense and probably an accident, but nonetheless the man is dead."
Chris could see that the mans heart was breaking, "Buck, we have to be strong for JD, all of us. Well see him through it and well get him professional help. It wont be easy but think of what that little guy has all ready been through. And despite that he seems to be fairly well adjusted. Buck listen to me. JD and Vin are survivors and we will help them come out on the good side of all this."
Bucks rage overflowed as he shook his fists at the heavens, "God, its just not fair!"
Josiah and Nathan came to stand by their friends. Josiah put his hand on Bucks heaving shoulders, "No my friend, it isnt fair, but what is fair is that God gave those two little boys the best dads in the world. Fathers that will stand by them through thick and thin and face down the devil himself to protect them."
Buck scrubbed his face with his hands then made a supreme effort to collect himself.
"Buck, you know we are all here for you and Chris," smiling as he delivered the familiar affirmation, "weve got your backs."
Buck looked at his friends, took a deep breath, nodded once then with resolve in every step, returned to JDs side.
It was late afternoon. The boys were moved to a semi-private room on the pediatric unit, where they could stay together. Although not officially a patient, the staff thought it in JDs best interest to keep the family together.
Vin had been in and out of it all afternoon. All they were letting him have for the time being was ice chips, about which he grumpily complained. Chris assured him that he would get to eat real food in the morning but for now, they didnt want him to throw up.
The nurse brought them some videos and books, so Buck was keeping JD quietly occupied. So far JD hadnt said anything about their experience, but they noticed that his attention never strayed for from Vin. Buck and Chris both told the little boy that Vin would be OK, but JD needed to see for himself.
There was a soft knock on the door then it opened to reveal a pleasant looking, middle-aged woman. Entering the room, she introduced herself, smiling, "Hi. Im Nancy Scott. I work from time to time with the Bureau. They told you I was coming?"
Chris and Buck stood. Dr. Scott was barely over five foot, so the men towered over her. A lot of people would have found that intimidating but not Dr. Scott.
She shook their hands then walked over to JD. Sitting down on the side of the bed put her at about the same height as the boy. She made sure that she gave JD some space but was close enough that she could give all her attention to him.
JD watched her, curious, but not threatened.
"Hi JD," she smiled. "My name is Nancy Scott."
"I was wondering if we could talk a little?"
"K bout what?"
"Well, about lots of things, but you know what? Theres a playroom down the hall. Why dont we go down there so we dont wake Vin up."
"K," Then he hesitated, "can my dad come?"
"Well, I tell you what. He can wait right outside the room." She leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "We are going to play some games. If he is good well let him play with us after we talk. Do you thing he can be good?"
JD put his hand over his mouth and giggled. Eyes sparkling, he looked at Buck, "Maybe he can be good if Chris makes him."
Buck huffed in pretended indignation.
Dr. Scott winked at JD and he giggled again, "By the way JD, Ms. Nettie said to tell you and Vin Hi. She said to tell you that she was glad you are OK and that she will see you tomorrow."
After saying this to the little boy, she looked at the two men. She wanted them to know that she was aware of the boys backgrounds. They nodded in acknowledgement.
"Ya know Ms. Nettie?" JD asked.
"Yes, I do. Very well, not only do I work with her frequently, but she is a good friend." The simple statement did much to reassure Chris and Buck although both still dreaded what was about to happen.
Holding out her hand, "OK, lets go. Is that OK with you, Buck?"
Looking at Buck, who nodded his head, he good-naturedly took her hand, hopped off the bed and went with her to the playroom. The two went into the room and Buck leaned against the wall, next to the door. JD waved and grinned as he entered.
Shortly Malone, Sales, Josiah, Nathan, Ezra and two police detectives came down the hall toward him. Ezra stopped and went into the boys room. The others continued toward Buck. They stopped by a closed door next to the playroom. Malone opened the door and motioned Buck to follow. The room was actually an observation room. One wall was covered with a one-way mirror, like in a police interrogation room. It was dark and sound proof. Through the mirror they could see JD laughing and talking animatedly with Dr. Scott. Both were sitting at a low table.
"The pediatric staff, unfortunately has to deal with abused children occasionally, or children with psychiatric disorders," Malone explained, "this room is used to observe testing and evaluations. All the sessions are videotaped."
She reached over and flipped a switch and they could now hear JD talking about the horses at the ranch.
Ezra slipped quietly into the boys room and motioned to Chris. When Chris got close enough, he said softly, "I will be glad to stay with Vin if you wish to attend the session. There is an observation room next to the playroom. That is where youll find the others."
Making sure that Vin was still sleeping, he left to join the others.
Dr. Scott talked with JD for several minutes about home, school, Vin and the two men. Being a naturally outgoing child, JD quickly bonded with the motherly woman. Then, "JD can you tell me about what happened when you and Vin were in the warehouse?"
Instantly the small boy dropped his cheerful countenance, a mixture of fear and apprehension replacing it. He became very quiet, looking at the door out.
The observers in the next room immediately tensed, also.
"Its OK JD. Buck is right outside. I know you are scared but can you tell me about what happened?"
All she received was a wide-eyed stare.
Dr. Scott decided to try a different tactic, "I know you were in a big building, is that right?"
"Was it dark inside?"
He nodded, then a second later shook his head, "At at first it was real dark," a long pause, "the mean man took a flashlight from Chriss truck. He found a litler room. It had a light in it."
Scott smiled and nodded, "Good JD. After you found the room with the light what did you do?"
"I had to go real, real bad so the other guy took us to the bathroom."
"OK, then what?"
"I went to the bathroom," looking at Dr. Scott like what do you think I did?
She chuckled, "Of course, after you went to the bathroom what did you do?"
"Well, Mr. Rats took us back into the litl room an tol us t sit in the corner an keep quiet so the mean man wouldn get mad."
"Is that what you did?"
"What did Mr. Rats do?"
Trying had to remember, he finally said, "Nuthin jus walked round a lot. He looked kinda scared."
"Scared of what?"
JD shrugged, "Don know. I think maybe the mean man."
"JD, why do you call him the mean man?"
A look of fear crossed the little boys face, "Cause he was yellin all the time. He called us words Im not sposed t say and," here his voice dropped to a whisper, "he tol Mr. Rats he wanted t get rid of me and Vin."
Chris could see Buck getting more and more agitated. He laid a hand on the tall mans shoulder. Buck gave a curt nod without taking his eyes off the scene in the other room. He understood but he didnt like it, not one bit.
"What do you think it meant when he said he wanted to get rid of you and Vin?"
Wide eyed, JD shook his head, "I don know but it scared Vin. He tol me t be very quiet and not t move."
Chris tried hard not to picture how terrified Vin had to have been.
Scott nodded her head and said soothingly, "Vin is a good big brother isnt he? He takes good care of you."
JD nodded then tears welled up in his eyes, "Thas why I had a do it." His voice could barely be heard.
The tension in the next room was palpable.
"Do what JD?"
Tears were streaking down the little cheeks, "He hi hit Vin."
"Th..the mean man." Then the dam broke and between sobs the story unfolded. "H he shootd Mr. Rats. Then he pointed the gun at me and Vin. Vin hit his knees an an he fell backward. He..he lost the gun. It fell by me. Then then the mean man hitd Vin. Vin tried to fight back, but, but he was to litl. He threw him against the wall. Vin didn move. The man walkd over to him an startd to hit him agin."
The little boy started sobbing uncontrollably, "Im so sorry. I didn mean t shoot him. Buck tol me to never, never touch guns, but I didn know wha t do. Is too litl to hit him. I jus wanted to scare him an make him not hurt Vin agin. He he came at me an an the gun jus went off."
By this time the raging bull that was Buck Wilmington had slammed out of the observation room, into the playroom and gathered the totally distraught child in his arms. His eyes shot daggers at the psychologist, daring her to stop him.
With a heavy heart, she just nodded.
"Im Im sorry Buck. I didnt mean to," JD cried.
"Shhhh JD its OK its OK," murmured the heartbroken agent.
The little boy cried for a little longer before asking, "You aint mad a me?"
Buck kissed the tear-streaked face, then looked him directly in the eyes, "No JD, Im not mad at you." Taking a deep breath and glancing at the doctor, praying for the right words, "JD listen t me. I love you and even if I do get mad at you, I will still love you. But Im not mad. Understand?"
JD had stopped crying and now that Buck had his full attention, he tried to choose his words carefully, "JD, why do Chris and I tell you not to touch guns?"
"Cause sum sumone can get hurt," again JD was on the verge of tears.
"Thats right. But this one time you did the only thing you could think of. It was an accident JD. You didnt mean to shoot him, but now you know how dangerous guns are."
JD nodded, crying again.
Dr. Scott rose, patted Buck on the shoulder and left the room.
Ezra was sitting in the chair by Vins bed when he heard the boy stirring. He turned to see the still slightly dazed eyes frowning at him. "Mr. Ezra?"
Ezra rose and leaned over the side rail, "Yes Vin, its me."
Raising his head slightly to look around the room, then grimacing as the movement increased the pain in his head, "Wher wheres Chris?"
He hated to lie to the child but then in this circumstance he felt that there would be more harm than good in the truth, "He just stepped outside for a few minutes to stretch his legs."
"What happened? Why am I in the hospital?"
Ezra sighed. He fervently wished Chris were here. "What do you remember Vin?"
Vin tried to concentrate, but it really hurt his head, "I member two men took me an JD to a big empty building." Saying JDs name, Vins eyes opened wide, he tried to get out of bed, "JD! Wheres JD?"
Ezra grabbed the boy by the shoulders, gently restraining him, "Vin, JDs OK. Vin, listen to me! JD is OK. He is down the hall with Buck in the playroom."
Vin turned his frightened eyes to the undercover agent, "Hes OK?"
"Yes Vin, he.is.OK."
Vin took a shuddering breath then relaxed. Ezra gave him a moment to collect himself, offering him a few ice chips.
"I remember the big man got real, real mad. He shot the other one." Vin turned wide blue eyes to Ezra. "He pointed the gun at me and JD. I hit him in the legs. Then I don know what hapned," he said trying hard to piece the puzzle together.
"It OK Vin. You hit your head. Thats why you cant remember." Ezra was definitely not going to enlighten the boy as to what happened next. That needed to be handled by someone much more adept than he in the ways of children. "JD was able to call 911. They found you and brought you here."
Vin closed his eyes wearily, seemingly satisfied for the moment. As he drifted back off to sleep, he gave Ezra a little smile, "JD did good."
Ezra stroked his hair, "Yes he did. And so did you Master Tanner, so did you."
Chris found them like this a few minutes later. He looked at Ezra with a question in his eyes. Ezra moved away from the bed, "Vin woke up awhile ago. He wanted to know what happened."
Chris looked at him sharply.
"All I told him was that he hit his head and that JD was able to call 911. He remembers Davis shooting Kelsey and that he tackled Davis to keep him from shooting them. He remembers nothing after that."
Chris sighed, "I guess hell have to find out the truth eventually."
Sadly, Ezra agreed.
The door opened and Buck appeared, carrying a now sleeping JD. Both the man and the boy were emotionally exhausted. Buck carefully placed the boy in bed then dropped into the chair as if his legs would no longer support him.
No one said anything until Dr. Scott and Agent Malone entered the room. The adults moved to the far side to keep from waking the kids. Malone started, "I think weve got all we need from JD. Well show it to the DA, but I would be willing to bet theyll say self-defense. That will be our recommendation and the police agree."
Dr. Scott added, "That will be strong recommendation also, for what it is worth."
Chris and Buck both thanked them, then Buck asked "What now, doc?"
Scott smiled, "First of all I think JD has a very strong psyche. You will all need some professional help to get through this, but you have a good support system and I think everything will be OK. Whoever you get for a therapist will give you a list of things to watch out for. Youll need to be supportive without smothering." She smiled as Buck sighed.
"Mr. Wilmington, it will take a little time, some patience and a lot of love."
Buck gave her a lop-sided grin, "Well, mam the time and love I got plenty of, the patience Ill work on."
Scott returned his grin, patted his arm and left, saying, "I dont doubt that in the least Mr. Wilmington."
Malone was true to her word. She kept the reporters away from the boys and Team 7. There was a press conference where she issued a statement. Basically she told them that the two little boys had been recovered after one of them managed to call 911 when the two men argued and both ended up getting shot, one dead and one seriously injured. She left it at that, indirectly implying they had shot each other. She stated that one boy sustained minor injuries and that the other was unharmed. Details were deliberately left vague.
The next day the men took the boys home. The ophthalmologist had thoroughly examined Vins eye and much to everyones relief, told them there would be no residual effects from the injury.
The police recovered Chriss truck, which Nathan and Ezra drove back to Denver. Chris, Buck, Vin and JD went back with Josiah.
Vin was still experiencing a headache, but the nausea abated enough for him to eat a little without getting sick. JD while not as robust as normal seemed to be more himself after his emotional purging the day before, though he wouldnt let Buck far from his sight.
Nettie came by late that afternoon, and after spending some time with the boys, and seeing for herself that they were OK, she sat down to talk with Chris and Buck about what to do next. On Netties advice, they decided to arrange a meeting with the boys principle, teachers and counselors, Buck, Chris and Nettie. The parties involved would be told in general what happened so they could be alert for any signs of problems, but no details. The school knew the boys background.
They also decided to let time take care of some of the problems, keeping JD and Vin home at least for this week. Giving both time to heal emotionally and Vin physically. Time would also allow others to forget or at least put enough distance away from the event that other things would become more important, like Christmas.
Travis gave Buck and Chris a leave of absence. Their caseload was fairly light and a lot of the paperwork could be done at home. The rest of the team would pick up the slack.
Exhausted, the two men dropped into recliners, each with a bottle of beer. At long last the boys were tucked into their own beds. They had both needed a little extra reassurance by asking for a couple of bedtime stories instead of just one. The men happily complied.
Now, the men sat, too tired to actually even enjoy their beer.
"I dont know if I can do this."
"I know. I feel the same way but ?"
"Yeah, I know, we will," Buck finished the statement then took a long swig of his beer.
An hour later, without any further conversation, the men went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
Sorting through the stack of mail the next afternoon, Buck looked at the return address on the envelope he was holding. Frowning slightly, he checked on the boys. Vin was dozing on the sofa and JD was watching a video. Then he took the letter to Chris, who was working on his computer in the office.
"Yeah," he said without looking up.
"Take a look at this."
Chris looked at the frown on Wilmingtons face and wondered what was going on. He took the letter, noticed the return address and said, "Its from Vins teacher."
Feeling a small amount of dread, he tore open the envelope. There were two pages clipped together. He read both before uttering, "Shit."
Without saying anything, he handed the papers to his friend.
Looking at the worried look on Chriss face, he took them and read:
Im sending you a letter to Santa that Vin wrote. It was part of a class assignment to teach letter writing skills and etiquette. Vin was very reluctant to do the assignment, at first refusing. I explained that the letter and form were part of his grade but not the content. I have found that Vin basically is very well-behaved and that when he does misbehave there is generally a reason. Although, sometimes finding out the reason can be a challenge. He, as you know, does not trust easily.
I believe the letter is self-explanatory. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.
The second page was the letter itself. Written in Vins careful printing.
My name is Vin Tanner. I guess you dont know me. Maybe its because when my mom was alive we never stayed in one place long. After she died I ran away from the foster home so maybe you just couldnt find me. I live with Chris and Buck now.
I guess you might think I havent been good enough for presents, but I try real hard to be good. I try really hard to mind Chris and Buck. Sometimes I forget the rules but Chris says that is OK I will learn. I even try not to get mad at JD when he is getting on my nerves because he is just a little kid and I love him a lot.
If you think it is OK and you want to bring me something I dont care what it is. I really already got what I wanted most in the world, my dad, Chris, and Buck to take care of me and JD.
Buck put the letter down, "Damn."
"Yeah," Chris acknowledged, "that probably explains his reaction to Santa. The poor kid has never had Santa leave him a present and he thinks its his fault."
"I knew the kid had it rough, but jeez Chris we gotta make this a real special Christmas for him. We gotta get him a real special present."
"I agree, but how are we going to find out what he really wants if he wont talk about it?"
The two looked at each other then said simultaneously, "JD."
They went into the den where the boys were as they had left them. They had agreed to let Chris talk to the youngest and Buck would stay with Vin, not wanting him to wake up alone. JD was lying in front of the TV on his stomach, his head propped on his hands, his knees bent, ankles crossed. He was so close he was looking almost straight up. Shaking his head at the impossible position, he placed his hand on the boys shoulder to get his attention. With a question in his eyes, JD turned his head toward Chris.
"JD? Can I talk to you a minute?" Chris asked softly.
Putting his finger to his lips to warn him to be quiet, he pointed at the sleeping Vin, "Lets go into the kitchen."
JD scrambled up and followed Chris into the kitchen. Chris poured him a glass of milk and set some cookies in front of him, "JD?"
"Hmm?" he answered around a mouthful of cookie.
Smiling, Chris asked, "Do you know why Vin doesnt want to talk to Santa?"
The little boy looked down and started to squirm.
Chris took his reaction as a confession, "Its OK JD. Im not going to ask you to tell me. But I was wondering if Vin ever talked about something special he wanted?"
JD looked at Chris, "Yeah?"
"Well, I was wondering if you would help me with something?"
"Would you help me write a letter to Santa for Vin?"
The youngster grinned, "Yeah!"
"Good, but you know it has to be a secret. We want it to be a surprise."
The two spent the next thirty minutes composing the letter. When JD was finally satisfied, they addressed an envelope and JD put a stamp on it. It was good to see the five-year-old more like his old self.
That night brought the first of the nightmares. Chris woke up in a cold sweat. His mind conjured up another ending to the ordeal. His subconscious letting loose all the fears he had kept tightly under control.
Calming himself and needing some reassurance, he padded quietly into the boys room. From the look of the twisted covers, maybe he wasnt the only one with bad dreams. Gently he straightened them out but Vins eyes popped open, "Chris?"
"Nothin I was just going to get a drink. I saw your covers twisted, so I fixed them," he fibbed.
The little boy grinned and sleepily closed his eyes, "K, 'night Dad."
Chris swallowed the lump in his throat. Vin didnt often call him Dad, yet and when he did it took his breath away.
He kissed the soft brown curls again, thanking whatever forces had brought these special children into their lives. He checked on JD, kissing the dark spot, all that could be seen of the little boy. Feeling better, he returned to bed.
The rest of the week was spent in Christmas activities.
Wednesday, Chris and Buck met with school officials and Nettie. They dropped the boys off at the office, letting the other team members watch them. Both boys seemed to be recuperating well. Vins head only hurt when he got tired. They stopped by the pediatricians office just to make sure, but were told all was well.
While they were in the city, they had arranged for a meeting with the boys therapist. Since they occasionally saw her anyway, this didnt seem particularly out of the ordinary to them. Neither boy had mentioned the ordeal since Colorado Springs. It was agreed upon by all not to press them right now unless they wanted to talk about it.
Agent Malone had phoned that morning, and to all of their great relief, said the DA would not be pressing charges. Kelsey had plead guilty to the robbery and carjacking and since it appeared to have been an accidental kidnapping and since both JD and Vin had stated that he had tried to help the boys, the DA would let the matter drop.
It was late afternoon by the time the men picked the boys up. Vin was with Ezra and JD with Nathan, both playing computer games.
"Hey guys," Buck exclaimed boisterously as he was hit with a five-year-old torpedo.
Vin, more sedately, ran up to Chris, "You guys have fun?"
"Yeah, we gots to play games on the computer and I beat Mr. Nathan."
Nathan grinned, "He sure did. He knows a lot about computers."
"Awww, Mr. Nathan, its kid stuff."
The men laughed.
"How about you Vin? Did you have fun?" Chris asked. The little boy grinned and nodded but he was wearing a small frown.
"Your head hurt?"
Vin shrugged a shoulder, "A litl I guess."
"OK, I just need to talk to Ezra a minute in my office, then well go home."
After dinner, Chris gave Vin a large, bulky envelope and told him to open it.
"What is it?"
"Well, open it and see."
Vin carefully tore open the envelope and dumped the contents out on the table. There were several hand-made cards inside. He picked one up and silently read it, a smile slowly spreading across his face. He looked up at Chris.
"Your teacher, Mrs. Jennings, gave them to me today. Each of your classmates made you a get well card."
He could see that the little boy was very pleased. He read each one and then had Chris read them, then he neatly stacked them. It did Chriss heart good to see that he was making friends.
Friday night they had the belated tree decorating party. All of Team 7 and their guests gathered at the ranch for dinner. The boys while still not letting Chris and Buck out of their sight for long, showed little signs of their ordeal.
The large Christmas tree was duly admired and trimmed under the instructions of the two smallest. It did everyone a lot of good to just be together and participate in normal activities.
At one point during the evening, when the two agents were alone in the kitchen, Ezra reported to Chris that the assignment he had been given was proceeding well.
Christmas day dawned bright and clear. After waking Chris and Buck, the boys raced into the den. JD stopped, mouth open, eyes wide, as he spied a large digger sitting beside the tree. It was large with a seat on top where he could sit and operates the gears that manipulated the digging apparatus.
"Buck! Look! Look what Santa brought me!"
Buck laughed and made all the appropriate, admiring comments.
Vin searched the area beneath the tree but didnt see anything from Santa for him. He tried hard to hide his disappointment.
"Vin?" He turned to Chris with his head down. "Look."
The little boy brought his head up.
"Look over there by the fireplace."
Vin turned toward the fireplace, at first seeing nothing until JD, who had been sitting in front of it, picked up a note addressed to Vin. "Vin, look, its for you!"
Cautiously Vin took the note and read:
Your brother, JD, sent me a very nice letter suggesting what you might like for Christmas since in your letter to me you didnt ask for anything special. I couldnt leave it in the house so have your dad go get it. It is in the barn.
Im so glad that you have a new dad and that you are happy. I hope you like what I brought you.
Eyes wide, he showed the note to Chris. "OK, Cowboy, I guess I better go see what it is."
"Can I go too, please?"
"Vin, it is really cold out and I dont want you to get sick. Ill just slip my boots on and Ill be right back. OK?"
Chris could see he was a little disappointed, but quickly agreed. Arguing would just make him have to wait longer. It seemed like forever before Chris returned. At first Vin couldnt see anything then he noticed that Chris was holding something under his coat. Chris moved up to the little boy, knelt, and opened his coat enough to let a small black and white head pop out
Vin was speechless. Slowly he reached out to gently stroke the soft head, receiving a wet kiss in return.
JD had been quiet entirely too long. He jumped off his digger and raced to the older boy, "Look, Vin a puppy! Your very own puppy!"
Vin looked at Chris for confirmation. Chris smiled and nodded. That was all Vin needed, laughing he scooped the little dog up and was immediately showered with wet puppy kisses. The elation on the boys face truly gladdened the hearts of their foster fathers.
Buck grabbed JD and hugged him until he squirmed, "Ya did good, JD." And JD beamed at the praise.
The rest of Santas gift to Vin included various necessities for caring for the puppy along with an adoption certificate from the animal shelter, officially naming Vin Tanner as the new caretaker of the mixed breed puppy. "Look, Dad. I adopted the puppy, like you adopted me," his eyes shining.
Chris just nodded, unable to speak for the lump in his throat.
The rest of the day was a blur of activity. There was dinner with the Potters, Ms Nettie, the other members of the team and their respective guests. There were more presents to open, football to watch and just celebrating the peace and joy of a special season with special people.
Vin had received instructions on the care of his new friend, including potty training. He solemnly assumed his new responsibilities and diligently performed them despite the distractions around him. Everyone had admired the new member of the family and asked Vin what he had named the puppy. Vin solemnly told them that a name was a very important thing and that he was going to think on it.
Nighttime found a very tired but very happy household. The men allowed the puppy to stay in the boys room in his crate. Chris and Buck tucked the boys in bed and kissed them goodnight, both were almost asleep before they got to the door to turn out the light. Chris took one last look at the boys then started to leave when he heard a soft, "Dad?
Chris walked back over to the bed, "You need something, Vin?"
Vin peeked out from under the covers and gave a sleepy smile, "Thanks Dad, this was the best Christmas, ever."
Chris kissed the tousled head, "Yeah, pard, it really was."
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