by Nancy W.

ATF "Little Britches" Universe

Author's Note: This story takes place concurrently with events in Barbretta Hayden's story Dreaming of Angels. Dr. Jake Two Eagles is her character, and I've borrowed a couple of lines of dialog from that story, also.

Thanks: to KT for her suggestions, to Joy for the beta, and to JK Poffenberger for creating these cute little guys.

Warning: There's a few bad words.

I never expected to have any kids. Not that I don't like them, mind you. I do. Just never wanted one that was my kid.

I dated women with kids, and that was okay. Play with them a little, bring them a little toy now and then, make them smile and make mama happy. If mama is happy, then, I'm happy, usually. But, at the end of the day - or night - you can say good-bye to both mama and kid and go on your merry way. Everyone's happy, especially me.

I go home to my condo where I can open a cold one, sit around in my boxers and watch the Playboy Channel and no one is there to care one way or another. A great life. Carefree, no strings, just fun. Like I said, everyone's happy.

Funny how, in one short day, everything can change.

Instead of finding the lowlife buckets of crud we were after - "we" being me and the other members of my ATF unit - we stumble over a little boy, all alone, holding a sack of garbage that he says is his "lunch." He would have eaten it, too, except things go quickly from bad to worse.

Turns out the little guy isn't as alone as he appears. There is another child - the two of them living in a stack of crates in an abandoned warehouse. How long they have been here is anyone's guess. The little guy doesn't know. Time doesn't mean much when you are little and don't have to worry about it.

The other child is almost dead when we find him. Chris pulls him out from beneath the jumble of crates and we all think the boy is dead, until he takes a faltering breath in Chris's arms. Nathan jumps in to check him out. He thinks the kid has been shot. He can't be more than six or seven years old, and someone shot him.

It's things like this that make you wonder what the hell kind of world we live in.

We rush them both to the ER at Denver Children's. Someone from social services is supposed to meet us there.

+ + + + + + +

The little one - his name is "JD" - seems okay, although he does want his lunch back. Now, normally, since JD isn't bleeding, throwing up, or otherwise losing bodily fluids, we would have been sent to the waiting area - "Chairs" they call it. But, to be perfectly honest, the little guy doesn't smell all that great, so they put him into a cubicle right off the bat. Same as they would have some wino, except, they probably don't have too many winos at Denver Children's. I've carried him in, because he doesn't have any shoes, and probably hasn't had any for a long time from the looks of it. I sit him on the sterile white gurney and then realize that there is no one around to make sure he actually stays there. Somehow, I don't think he will. His big, brown eyes are taking in everything around him, and I just know that given the chance, he'll go exploring. Not something you want a little guy doing in a hospital.

Chris and Nathan are with the other boy. The docs went right to work on him. Ezra and Josiah have gone to get the schematics of whatever's under the warehouse next to the one where we found the boys. JD told us "trolls" lived there.

Trolls with guns.

Trolls who shot a little boy.

So that just leaves me to stay here with JD.

He asks me if Vin - the other little boy - is dreaming of angels. I have pretty much figured out that this means "dead" and I don't know what to tell him. It doesn't look good. Vin is in pretty bad shape. But I tell him that the docs will take good care of him, not to worry.

Luckily, before he can ask any more questions, Nathan looks in on us, and I ask him to stay with JD while I go to the hospital cafeteria and get JD something to eat. I bring him back some fries and a burger. Nathan shakes his head at the irony that a hospital cafeteria would even sell fries and burgers. Good thing he didn't see the breaded pork chops swimming in gravy at the entree table. He'd have stroke on the spot.

Nathan has managed to scrub JD's hands. He looks like he's wearing white gloves. He had so much dirt on him that it surprises us how fair his skin is. He has dark hair - almost jet black - so I, at least, had at first thought he might be Hispanic. Then again, maybe he is. Not all Hispanic folks are brown. I knew this lovely young thing once who... well, never mind. Just say I know this to be true.

About the time JD finishes eating, the Physician's Assistant on duty shows up. She is a lovely, plump little thing with skin the color of dark coffee that is a stunning contrast to her pale blue eyes. Her name is Ebony Xavier. early thirties, no wedding ring, and - get this - wearing a "Parrots of the Carribean" tee-shirt under her scrubs! Can't get much more perfect than that. I'll have to make a whole new "X" page in my little book just for her.

She asks me to strip JD out of his clothes, just like that is something I do every day. I have never dressed - or undressed - another man in my life, and certainly not a little bitty one. But I want to make a good impression, so I give it my best shot. I tug JD's ratty tee-shirt over his head and then stand him on the gurney and pull off the rest. The teeshirt is a non-descript grey color, so dirty there is no telling what color it was originally. He is wearing a pair of shorts that were red once upon a time, with a stripe down each side that might have been white originally. Now, they are mostly black, the color of the street. His underpants - well trust me, you don't want to hear about those. Without discussing it, we throw it all into the biohazard bin.

JD isn't the least bit embarrassed to be standing there in his birthday suit. He obediently sits cross-legged on the gurney while Ebony listens to his chest and belly, and checks his ears, eyes, teeth and hair - where she finds a thriving community of lice!

I am pretty sure none of the critters has crawled onto me, but I start to itch, anyway.

Her exam includes looking for signs of sexual abuse and I hold my breath. Man who would do that kind of thing to a child... well, Hell is too high-class a place for him, if you ask me. I can't tell you how relieved I am when she doesn't find anything except a mild rash from wearing the same underwear for God knows how long.

Now, if I'm making it sound like JD was quiet all through this, that's misleading. Not that he's any trouble - he isn't. In fact, he's as calm and cooperative as a little guy can get. But that little brain of his just never seems to run out of questions. "What's that?" "What's it for?" "How does that work?" I tell you, the kid got through the equivalent of one year of pre-med before the exam was over with.

Ebony measures his height and weighs him. She thinks he's about five, but he's a scrawny little thing, not even on the charts for that age group. He's not as skinny as the other boy, but he's still five pounds underweight for his height, and that's a lot, considering how short he is. It puts him in the "malnourished" category. No surprise there. No telling how long he's been eating only whatever garbage he can find.

Ebony said they'll take some x-rays of his wrists and hands that will give them a better idea of his true age, whereupon JD obligingly tells her his actual date of birth, including his Zodiac sign. Kid doesn't miss a thing.

Like I said, I have no real experience with kids, so I admit I haven't given much thought to where JD is going to go after the ER is done with him, and when Social Services shows up, I get this uneasy feeling I can't explain. I've had dealings with Social Services before, as a kid. They were always checking on me because my ma... well, she was a saint, but they didn't see it that way. I never was taken away, but it always scared me that it could happen someday, so I am less than enthusiastic when Ebony introduces me to Nettie Wells.

She seems nice enough. An older lady with kindly eyes who actually seems to like kids.

She doesn't have good news, though. Foster homes are scarce and coming up with one on short notice is almost impossible. She vows to do what she can, but it looks like JD will spend tonight, at least, in a juvenile detention facility.

With kids who are older, bigger, and a lot meaner than he is.

Nettie goes off to see what she can do about that, and Ebony and I head for the tub room with JD. We plop him into the warm water and she heads off to the pharmacy to get some special shampoo to kill off the critters in his hair, leaving me alone again with JD.

I figure it couldn't hurt to start scrubbing some of the grime off of him, so I lather up the washcloth and get to work. Lord, he is filthy, but I can't scrub too hard because he has a lot of places where his skin is raw from the kind of sores kids get when they aren't clean. I don't know if they actually hurt or not, since my own ma never, ever would have let me get that dirty, but I assume they might be tender and I go easy.

He asks me if Vin is getting a bath, too. I wish I knew. It makes me feel all empty inside thinking that other little boy is fighting for his life. It's bad enough someone shot him, but to have just left him to die - well, I hope to God I never understand how anyone could do that.

The bottoms of JD's feet are as black as the asphalt he's been walking on, and I'm amazed at how easily some simple soap and water reveals ten little pink toes. The nails are shockingly long - it has been a long time since anyone has taken care of this little guy.

By the time Ebony returns with the shampoo, I have uncovered most of JD's face. He sure is a cute kid, with those big eyes of his. Looks just like a little Hallmark angel my mama used to hang on the little fake Christmas tree we had. How did he end up alone on the streets? Doesn't seem right. Wouldn't seem right even if he was butt-ugly. How could anyone leave a little boy like this to fend for himself?

Sure, he had Vin, who he says took care of him. But Vin is a baby just like he is. Maybe a couple of years older, but just a tiny little thing himself.

It purely breaks a person's heart.

+ + + + + + +

The shampoo has to stay on JD's head for awhile to make sure all the bugs are dead. Ebony is called back to the ER, so I end up alone with JD again. I give him the empty shampoo bottle to play with and I swipe a latex glove from the dispenser and give that to him, too. He fills the glove up with water, and thinks it's hilariously funny when the hand part bulges out. He says it looks like "cow milkers." That makes me laugh, too, although I guess you have to be five years old to really appreciate that sort of thing. It's good seeing him laugh. He has an enchanting smile, and those big brown eyes just light up. Like I said, he's a cute kid.

Miss Nettie returns about the time I 'm trying to figure out how to get the shampoo out of his hair without getting it into his eyes. She shows me a good trick - have JD lie on his back with my arm supporting his head while I rinse the suds out. That way, nothing gets into his eyes. She gives him a final rinsing with the sprayer attachment and then dries him off.

Next comes the nit comb - a fine-toothed comb that should, we hope, pull out any dead bugs left in his hair. Ebony brought one in with the shampoo, but now, I can't find it. Nettie and I start hunting for it.

That's when I get my first real lesson in child care, that being that a kid can be one place and a millisecond later, be some place else, like they have one of those transporters from Star Trek.

JD is gone.

I follow a trail of damp little footprints out into the hallway where I find him checking out a soft drink machine and not really minding that other folks are looking at him in all his natural glory.

Miss Nettie runs up with a towel and snatches him up. I ask him if he's thirsty. I didn't think to get him anything to drink with his lunch. He nods his head, so I pop a couple of bills into the machine and punch the code for orange juice. Not orange soda... I know Nathan will show up if I do that, like he has radar.

JD's hair is a tangled, matted mess, and it's long and very thick. Working that ultra-fine comb through it takes almost an hour, even with Nettie, who has experience at such things, doing the honors.

While she works on his hair, I dig my keys out of my pocket. I have a nail clipper on the key chain and set to work on JD's toenails. The fact that he hasn't had any shoes to wear for some time is probably the only reason they haven't grown completely over the front of his toes yet. I clip his fingernails, too, and try to remember if my ma did that for me when I little. Surely she must have. Funny how we take those little things for granted.

A nursing assistant comes in and she has a hospital gown for JD, who is now immaculately clean. This is when Miss Nettie gives us the bad news. No emergency care available. She'll be taking JD to one of the city's juvenile care facilities. With luck, it will be a group home. Without luck, it'll be one of the detention centers where he'll be housed with some kids who are already a lost cause and others who are outright predators.

I wonder why this kindly old woman isn't as appalled by this idea as I am. Maybe she's "been there, done that" too many times and has learned not to let it affect her.

Or maybe she knows a sucker when she sees one. "What if I take him home with me?" I hear someone say, and then realize it's me.

She frowns. I think I do, too - what the hell am I thinking?

"That's highly irregular," she says.

Okay, she's left me a way out of my offer. All I have to say is, "I understand. Too bad. Good-bye, JD. Have a nice life. Hope someone doesn't beat you up or worse tonight."

Instead, I say, "He's a material witness to an assault and possibly drug activity. I have the authority to take him into protective custody." Why I say that beats the hell out of me.

"I can go to your house, Mr. Buck?" JD looks at me hopefully, and I swear, his eyes are even bigger than they were five minutes ago.

I look at Miss Nettie, and it seems to me that the woman is trying not to laugh. "I assume you have no police record?" she asks.

And I panic wondering if she has any way of finding out about that car I borrowed when I was 14. (How do you think I know about juvenile detention facilities?) But I say, "No ma'am."

"And you have a bed for him?" she asks.

As luck would have it, I do. My condo has two bedrooms, and I use one as a den, but there actually is a bed in there. Thought it would come in handy if Chris ever got stranded in Denver because of the weather, which, as it turned out, has happened a time or two.

Miss Nettie pretends to be uncertain, but somehow, both of us know she is going to say "yes." Of course, before she does, she gives me a third degree interrogation that would do justice to an episode of Law and Order: Do I smoke? No. Do I drink? Well, I have maybe a six-pack of beer in the fridge. (I offer to pour it out). Do I have weapons in the house? Well, I am an federal law enforcement agent... but I keep my hunting rifle and antique revolvers at Chris's ranch, where they are less likely to be ripped off. I do keep my service pistol and one other handgun at home, though. I'll buy a lock for my old army locker. They'll be safe from little fingers in there.

She gives me the rules. Bedtime no later than 9 pm - preferably earlier. Three meals a day - breakfast by 9 am and supper no later than 7 pm. At least three baths a week, and he needs his own comb and his own toothbrush. At no time am I to leave him unsupervised.

Well, I wouldn't have done that last thing, anyway, but only now does it occur to me that I don't know what I'm going to do with him while I'm at work. There's a day care center in the Federal Building, but it might as well be on Mars given all I know about how it works. Do you just take your kid there? Or do you have to sign up? Do they have to "approve" your kid? Hell, doesn't he actually have to be your kid? What about a babysitter? The last time I dated a gal who did baby-sitting, I was in tenth grade. Once they get to be a certain age, gals either have their own kids to look out for, or they've realized they can make more money at McDonald's.

I tell Miss Nettie that it won't be a problem.

She hesitates still, but finally says I can take him. She says she'll be by later in the evening with the paperwork for me to sign and to do a home visit. She reminds me this is just temporary.

I know that. I've never had kids around. Don't really want to. JD will be with me a few days and then he'll find a nice foster home with a mom and a dad. Everyone will be happy. Heaven knows I don't need a kid in my life.

+ + + + + + +

Ebony returns with a small bag. Inside is some antibiotic ointment to put on JD's skin lesions, and a tube of something else that goes on that rash he has in places I don't want to think about. There's also a padded plasticky thing that she doesn't explain. She checks JD's hair one more time and doesn't find any lice, but tells me if they come back to cover his head with mayonnaise and leave it for a couple of hours. I'm not sure I hear her right, but she explains that will suffocate anything that managed to escape the pesticide in the shampoo. Kinda makes me feel all itchy and crawly again, so I decide not to think about it unless I have to.

She hands me a card for follow-up appointment with a pediatrician named Dr. Jacob Two Eagles. It has a cartoon drawing on it of two smiling eagles, one wearing a stethoscope and the other holding a tongue depressor. JD asks to see it. I am thinking he wants to look at the picture, but the next thing I know, he's reading all of the information on the card.

Nettie, Ebony and I look at each other. Kid doesn't even bat an eye at words like "pediatric" and "appointment." Okay, he pronounces "pediatric" not quite right, but dang it all, the little guy is barely old enough for school, and he can already read!

I put the card in my pocket and then ask the lovely Ms. Ebony Xavier if she has ever been to Jimmy Buffet Night at a club called the Pirate's Cove. She tells me that's not the kind of place a woman goes without a date. I take care of that in short order.

She tousles JD's hair and says good-bye. She's still on duty, or I'd ask her to join us for dinner.

I realize that dinner is a stupid thing to be thinking about when I lift JD up and set him down on the floor. He looks behind him - or tries to - at the open back of the hospital gown.

"Everybody can see my BUTT!" he announces. Now, some kids would be mortified by this, but not JD. He does this little tush-wiggle thing that causes the sides of the gown to part, revealing his little pink backside.

I quickly reach down and draw the sides of the gown together.

Miss Nettie pulls the padded plasticky thing I didn't recognize before out of the bag Ebony gave us. Turns out to be a pair of those disposable briefs for little kids. Pull-em-ups, or something like that. They don't look like briefs until she unfolds them.

She hands them to JD, who pushes them right back at her. "Those are for little babies!" he says indignantly.

I can't rightly say I blame him, but I can't have him shooting the moon at everyone we pass, either. "Just put them on for now," I tell him, "and we'll go get you some real ones."

I haven't got a clue where you buy little bitty underwear.

"You understand that it might not be possible to reimburse you for any expenses until the paperwork is signed," Miss Nettie explains.

"Don't worry about it," I say. How much can a little pair of jockey shorts cost? Right?

Nettie finds him a pair of paper slippers, says they use them for kids who are allowed to walk into surgery. I immediately have to assure JD that no one is going to operate on him.

How the hell does a kid his age even know what "surgery" means?

When we walk back past the ER, I see Chris and Nathan in the hallway, getting ready to leave.

"Hey.... look at you!" Nathan admires the now-clean JD.

Chris smiles at the little boy, but I see pain in his eyes. I know it's because of the other little boy, Vin. God, how it must have hurt Chris to hold that child in his arms thinking he was dead. It hurt all of us, truth be told. But Chris - I think he thought of his own little boy. Adam hadn't died in anyone's arms. He'd died in the middle of a busy street, and I knew Chris would sell his soul to the Devil himself to know it had happened quick, that he was already dead before the car burst into flames.

JD is showing Nathan the scrapes that the medic had taped up at the warehouse. The band-aids have been washed off, and JD wonders if he has any new ones.

With him momentarily distracted, I turn to Chris and ask about the other boy.

He's got a "systemic bacterial infection" from a gunshot wound that went untreated. He's holding his own for now, but it's a very real possibility that one at a time, his vital organs will shut down, and he'll be gone. No child should have to suffer like that.

"Doesn't look good," Chris says evenly. "They're moving him to intensive care."

I'm sorry to hear that, especially when a door opens and they wheel past a tangle of medical equipment with a tiny little body in the middle of it all. Nathan thinks quickly and moves JD out of the line of sight so he doesn't see his friend. Vin's chest is bare but the monitor leads almost cover it. You can count every rib he has. The IV line running into his arm seems almost as big around as his arm is. He's too weak to tolerate a proper scrubbing like JD, but someone has washed his face and made an attempt to clean his dirty hair. He has blond hair, like Adam.

Can someone tell me why things like this happen to little children?

+ + + + + + +

I end up carrying JD out to my truck. The paper slippers are good for about two minutes of sliding his feet along the slick, shiny hospital floors pretending they're hockey skates.

I ask him if he's ever seen a hockey game. He stops in his tracks and looks thoughtful, before he says, "Yeah. My mama liked hockey. But she's dreaming of angels now," he explains.

I think I would have picked him up, anyway, just seeing that sad look in his eyes.

When we reach the truck, JD thinks the old gal is "cool." I have to agree with that, but I'm also thinking about how I don't have a carseat for him.

There's a sleeping bag stowed behind the seat, so I arrange that so he can sit on it and wear the seatbelt without being decapitated by it.

As I'm getting him settled, he asks me if Vin can come with us and he looks back at the ER exit with fear in his eyes. He is afraid to leave Vin behind. I tell him that Vin has to stay, for now. I don't tell him any more than that. I want to reassure him somehow, but it doesn't seem right to promise him things when I don't know if they can happen.

He doesn't say any more about it, so I climb into the driver's side and start my old girl up.

Now what was I going to do?

Oh yeah... underwear. I figure my best shot at that is Wal-Mart. If they don't have it at Wal-Mart, you probably don't really need it.

JD chatters happily as we drive through the city traffic. He's a really, really smart kid. He reads signs and asks me questions like what the odometer is for and how does the gear shift work. And I can actually talk to him. He's really pretty amazing for such a little guy. I had just been making excuses about him being a "material witness" but now, I'm thinking he possibly could testify in court if he had to.

He tells me that "Mr. Chris" is scary. I get a good laugh out of that until I see that he's dead serious. I tell him that Chris is the best friend I have, but he kinda scared me at first, too.

JD seems completely at ease with me, though, and I suddenly get a cold feeling in my gut when I think of how completely he trusts me. I could be anyone. I could take him anywhere and do whatever I wanted with him, and he's completely helpless. I'm horrified to think of what could have been if someone else had found him before we did.

The "door greeter" at Wal-Mart looks askance at JD's hospital gown as I put him into the child seat of a shopping cart, but she says "Welcome to Wal-Mart."

"Thank you!" JD says and smiles. The door greeter smiles back, and I'm beginning to figure out that JD's smile is pretty near irresistible.

I ask her where I can find some little boy's underwear. She doesn't answer, just looks at me with this suspicious expression, and I realize how it must look, a man walking in with a young child in nothing but a hospital gown. I reassure her by taking out my badge and briefly explaining the situation and only then does she indicate a general direction. "Back in Children's," she says.

Easy enough, except I find out that "Children's" is divided into "Boys" and "Girls," and those are divided into infants, toddlers, children, pre-teen... well, you get the picture. I also realize that JD needs more than just a pair of briefs. Besides the hospital gown, he has nothing. Not a blessed thing. Hell, I grew up poor, but I always had clothes, and, God bless the people who donate brand new things to Goodwill and the Salvation Army, they weren't always hand-me-downs. I had toys, and books, and shoes. I had stuff. Not a lot of it, but it was my stuff.

JD has a hospital gown and pair of disposable underpants. And the hospital wants the gown back.

What the hell, a fun date could cost me $150 bucks, easy. Blown to hell and back on nothing but a good time. I check to make sure I have my VISA card.

+ + + + + + +

I find out you can't try underwear on a little kid. It's like you are supposed to magically know what size they wear. Although, I reckon if you've been raising them from birth, you kind of just go from one size to the next.

So, I grab four pairs of little jeans in different sizes and we head for the fitting room. After finding a pair that fit, I find a package of six briefs the same size. They have cartoon characters on them. JD likes them, but he doesn't know who the characters are. Says his mama never had a TV.

I realize exactly how little of a childhood he's had. Makes me sad. Makes me want to make it up to him somehow, even though it's not my fault.

I fill up the cart with three pairs of jeans, three short-sleeved shirts, three long-sleeved shirts, a zip-up sweatshirt, socks, and the underwear. I pay for them and then, receipt in hand, take JD back to the fitting room so he can get dressed. He still needs shoes, so when he's done, we head for the sign that says "Shoes." I figure they should be easy, now that I know what size he wears, except it turns out that Shoes are a whole different system. Eventually, though, we find a pair that looks like they fit, and JD says they fit. I really have no idea how to tell, so I can only hope they fit. I let him keep them on, and toss the box into the cart.

Then, I realize he needs something to sleep in, so it's back to the clothes to find a pair of pajamas. When I tell him to pick some he likes, JD seems to realize for the first time that all the stuff in the cart is for him.

"I can keep it?" he asks. "All of it?"

I assure him that's the case and then wonder how he's going to tote all this stuff around when they find him a foster home. We go off in search of something to put it all in and find a bright red nylon duffel bag in Sporting Goods that will hold it all. While I'm there, I buy trigger locks for my service weapons and a padlock to secure them. I congratulate myself for remembering the comb and the toothbrush and head off to where they have that stuff. I throw some bubble-gum flavor toothpaste in, too.

On the way back to the checkout, I grab a couple of Disney videos, because I don't really know what you do with kids when it's just you and them. Never had that experience before, you know?

We pass by a display with little Matchbox cars. Dang, I had a bunch of those when I was a kid. These are a dozen for $14.95, so I toss those in the cart, too.

Then, I remember food. Nathan has laid a guilt trip on me already about how JD has had nothing to eat but garbage in God knows how long, and that I need to see he gets real food, not burgers and pizza (although, there are those, myself included, who consider burgers and pizza real food, but there's no point in arguing that with Nathan, he won't budge.) So, I head to the grocery section. I pick up a few things that I remember liking when I was a kid, and hope I can cook it halfway decent.

All the while JD is taking all of this in without saying much about it, although he continues to ask questions about everything else. I don't think he really has a clue what's going on. His whole life has done a 180-degree in the past few hours.

Then, there we are, standing in the checkout line again, only this time, JD has on his new jeans and shoes and a tee-shirt with some Sesame Street critter on it, and I realize he looks like any other kid in the store. No one would know that this morning, he woke up hungry in a crate in a dirty warehouse with his best friend dying beside him. Kinda gives me a lump in my throat.

There's a rack of candy and gum at the checkout. Ebony said JD's teeth could probably use a good cleaning, but they were in pretty good shape. She said that was probably because he hadn't had access to a lot of sweets, living like he was.

Now, I figure I might be poking the cowpie with the toe of my boot, but I ask the kid if he wants some candy. Like he's going to say "no".

I grab us each a bag of plain M&Ms. The lady in front of us turns and smiles and tells me what a good little boy JD is, and then tells me I must be very proud of him.

And you know, funny thing is, I kinda am. I don't tell her he's not my son.

The total sale comes to $236.97. Okay, so it's a little more than I figured. Kid didn't have anything, and now, he has stuff. Like a kid is supposed to have. And he won't be eating garbage tonight.

+ + + + + + +

The first thing I do when we get home, after I show JD around, is clean the place up. I want it to look nice when Miss Nettie stops by. I gather up all the fast-food containers, toss the dirty clothes into the laundry hamper, wipe down the bathroom and run the vacuum over the carpet. JD wants to dust, and I'm surprised that he knows how. Hell, he does a better job than I do.

I heat up the pre-grilled chicken I bought for supper while JD plays with his cars. I make some Rice-a-Roni and fix some frozen broccoli to go with it. I offer to cut up his chicken, but it turns out JD knows how to do that, too, even though he's not very good at it with those little bitty hands of his. It's kind of cute watching him, though.

He eats everything I put on his plate. I don't know if he really likes it all or not, and it makes me sad to think that maybe he eats it because he's used to not knowing when he might see food again.

Miss Nettie stops by around 7:00 with the paperwork authorizing me to keep JD until a foster home is found. JD shows her his new clothes and his cars. She looks at me over the rim of her glasses like I've gone and spoiled him or something. I can tell she's not mad, but I can't really tell what she's thinking.

After she leaves, we make popcorn and watch The Lion King. I've never seen it before, and, it's a pretty darned good movie. When that's over, I get JD into his PJs after doing all the ointment things. I think that I might have to show him how to brush his teeth, but it turns out someone has already taught him. He just hasn't done it in awhile. He likes the bubble gum toothpaste. I have to tell him he can't eat it.

He picks up his new clothes and tries to fold them neatly. Something falls out of the pocket of his jeans and I pick it up to see what it is. I discover it's half the bag of M&Ms I bought him at Wal-Mart, or what's left of them. They may melt in your mouth and not in your hand, but they'll sure as hell melt in your pocket. I tell him I'll get him some more.

As I tuck him into bed, he explains that he was saving the M&Ms for Vin.

Just when I was thinking this isn't that hard, he lays a bomb on me.

"Where is he?" he asks softly, frowning.

"Well, he's at the hospital still. He's not feeling too good. They're going to try to make him better."

"Can he come and live here, when he's better?"

I thought JD understood that this was only temporary.

"Miss Nettie is looking for a mama and daddy for you," I tell him, trying to change the subject.

"But, what about Vin?"

I don't know what to say to him. It hits me that even if Vin doesn't die, JD will probably never see him again. From what he's told us, they aren't siblings, or even related to each other. They'll both go into the foster care system and no one will care about keeping them together.

"I tell you what, we'll check on that first thing tomorrow mornin', okay?"

"'kay," JD says. He knows I'm stalling. His lower lip quivers slightly.

I bend down and kiss the top of his head. It just seems like the right thing to do.

+ + + + + + +

He's slept about three hours before he wakes up, crying for Vin. I crawl out of bed and go to him. I still don't know what to tell him, so I don't say anything. I pick him up and take him into the bathroom and wash the tears off his face. Then I sit down in the big recliner in the living room and just hold him.

And it's funny how he seems to fit into my arms just right. Not too big, not too small, but just like he belongs there.

The next morning, I call in and take a day of personal leave. Chris isn't too happy about that, because the new leads we got yesterday are going to make it possible to crack this case. Even so, he jokingly asks me how I like fatherhood.

I take JD to his appointment with Dr. Two Eagles, who confirms what Ebony said, that JD is basically healthy, and just needs some nutritious food so he can gain some weight. Dr. Two Eagles thinks he might just be naturally short, and says not to worry about that unless he doesn't grow at all over the next six months. I nod my head like I actually think I'm going to be around to care about all of this. And then I wonder if anyone will care enough to notice if he grows or not.

After we're done, JD asks if he can see Vin. I have to tell him "not yet" although the truth is, I don't even know if Vin is still alive. God, I hope he is. I hope JD at least has a chance to say good-bye.

I ask JD what he'd like to do next, and he surprises me by saying he wants to go to the library. Hell, I don't even know where the library is. So, I take him to a Borders instead. We go to the pre-school section were JD opens and closes a series of books, looking on them with disdain. They are too easy, he complains.

I spot a copy of Charlotte's Web. Loved that book when I was a kid. I hand it to him and he approves. This is something he can sink his teeth into. I pay for the book and he asks when he has to bring it back. I explain that it's his, to keep. I take out my pen and write his name in it.

He hands it back. "Write that it's a present 'from Buck'!" he says, so I do. "I'll read it to Vin when he's better," he tells me.

I'm not sure what to do with him the rest of the afternoon, but we head on back to my condo and I make him some Chicken Noodle soup for lunch. He eats all of that, too, just like he ate all of the instant oatmeal I gave him for breakfast. He'll gain those few pounds in no time.

He sits down to read his book while I finish up some reports I need to get done. Around 4 pm, Nettie calls me.

"We found JD a bed in a group home," she tells me. I don't know why, but my heart sinks. She gives me the address and asks if I can meet her there and bring JD.

Now, I knew the little guy would only be with me a day or so, so why is it so danged hard to put all those little clothes into that duffel bag? The bag has four pockets on the sides and JD carefully fills one with his cars and puts his book in another one. His Spiderman toothbrush, bubble gum toothpaste, and comb go into a third. I tuck his prescriptions into the fourth. Then, it's time to go.

"How come I can't stay here?" he asks. Not whining, not accusing, he's just wondering.

"Well...." I stammer, "there are folks who take care of little boys who don't have a place to live, and Miss Nettie has been looking really hard to find some for you. I was just helping her out until she did."

"Oh," he says, and the disappointment in his voice makes me want to scream at somebody. Mostly myself.

I go to the address Nettie gave me, and I'm not impressed. The house needs paint and there's no yard to speak of, just dirt with an occasional patch of what might have been a lawn once upon a time. The station wagon sitting in the driveway makes my old truck look like a Rolls Royce.

The "bed" they have found for JD is exactly that. A small cubicle that I think must have been a walk-in closet containing a surplus Army bunk with three or four layers of bad paint jobs. There's a metal folding chair and a small, cheap, press-board night stand. The walls have fresh white paint, but are completely blank. There's no rug or carpet on the floor, just bare linoleum tiles.

The woman in charge of the place, Mrs. Peralta, tells JD he can put his stuff on the single row of shelves that line two walls of the room, except they are so high he can't reach them.

To get to his "room" JD will have to go through a bigger room shared by two boys who are about 11 or 12. They sit on their beds staring at him, and I find out that JD is five years younger than any of the 8 other kids here. I don't like this one bit. I can see Miss Nettie isn't too thrilled with it, either, but she says there haven't been any problems with this particular group home, and I can see that it's clean and the kids aren't running wild.

But it seems so cold to just leave JD here, all alone, with complete strangers.

He lifts his arm and flexes his fingers a few times. "Bye, Mr. Buck," he says. He looks so little standing there next to that shabby bed in that bare room.

Hell, he is so little....

I have to get out of there before I go getting all emotional. I tousle JD's hair and tell him to be a good boy.

I tell myself this is for the best. Eventually, they will find a real home and a family to take JD in. Cute little guy like that, who wouldn't want him? I keep telling myself that all the way home.

I stop and get a burger for dinner and find I can't eat it. It tastes like cardboard, and just doesn't want to go past this lump I have in my throat. I sit on the couch and turn on the TV and accidentally activate the DVD player by mistake. The Lion King starts playing. I hit the stop button and wonder what the hell I'm going to do with two Disney movies. We never even got to watch the other one.

I don't sleep that night. Every time I close my eyes, I see JD standing in that tiny bleak room with the blank walls and bare floors and shelves he can't reach. It looks like a prison cell. He's been sentenced to life and he didn't do anything except lose his mama, then his best friend, and everything else he ever had.

+ + + + + + +

I show up for work the next day, but only my body is there. My mind is at that group home, wondering what's happening to JD.

By noon, I can't stand it any more. Nettie warned me to just forget it and put it all behind me, but I can't do it. I can't rescue every kid in the world who needs help, but this is just one tiny little boy. I call Miss Nettie and tell her what I want to do. If she disagrees, I might just do it, anyway. I remind her that JD is still a material witness. I can still keep him in protective custody if I want to.

She tries to talk me out of it, but not hard enough. 45 minutes later, I'm knocking on the door of the group home. I flash my badge so that Mrs. Peralta will let me in.

I find JD sitting on that old Army bed, reading his book. When he sees me, he runs to me and wraps his arms around my legs. I've never had a kid do that before. Imagine that, a kid who is glad to see me, Buck Wilmington.

I notice a bruise on his face that wasn't there before. I ask him what happened. He says he got knocked down while he was playing basketball. Mrs. Peralta confirms this. I don't think either of them is lying, but I wonder why no one has noticed that JD is too small to be playing sports with these bigger kids.

"I'm taking him," I tell the woman.

"I don't think you can do that," she says cautiously. She's probably right, but I don't care. Chris can take care of whatever hot water I might end up in.

"It's a police matter," I explain to her. "Having him here might put you all in jeopardy."

That's a lie of course, but she buys it.

I start packing up JD's things and I find everything but his shoes. I ask him where they are.

"Roger hided them," he says.

"Who is Roger?"

Mrs. Peralta tries to explain. "I'm afraid Roger has a bit of a problem with..."

"Where is he?" I cut her off.

She doesn't tell me, but JD does.

I head for Roger's room with Mrs. Peralta hot on my heels. "You have to understand that Roger has issues..."

I find this little shit of about 13 sitting on his bed wearing a pair of headphones. He doesn't hear us come in, but when he sees us, he acknowledges us with a smug, bored look. I pull one of the earphones back and ask him where JD's shoes are.

He jerks his head away and says, "Bite me."

"Now, Roger, that's not an appropriate response," Mrs. Peralta says. "Let's try..."

I pull the headphones completely off. "WHERE ARE THE DAMN SHOES!?" I'll give Roger some "issues" if that's what he wants.

He continues to smirk at me. I'm not impressed. There is a dresser in his room, so I pull out the first drawer and dump everything onto the floor.

Then I do the same thing with the second drawer.

He's stunned. "Hey! Are you crazy, man!?" he asks.

I get in his face. "Son, you don't wanna know how crazy I can be."

Having once spent an entire year as a 13-year-old boy, I know that somewhere in this room, Roger has something he doesn't want anyone to see. I pull out the third drawer and dump it and then head for the closet.

"Okay! Okay! They're under the mattress!" he confesses.

He produces the shoes and I snatch them from him. "Thank you!" I say to him and then take JD's hand. JD turns around and sticks his tongue out at him. I probably should say something to him about that. I don't, though.

I realize I've upset poor Mrs. Peralta, so I use my calmest voice to tell her I don't know how she does it, looking out for these kids, some of whom are bad news. I mean it, too. The Good Lord didn't make too many like her.

But I'm still not leaving JD here.

We run into Nettie on the way out. She tells me what I am doing is against the rules.

I tell her that I will go see AD Travis and see if the rules can be readjusted. JD's not staying here.

She tells me that it could be weeks before she can find another placement for him.

I answer her by asking how I can be approved as a foster parent.

I don't know why I said that.

I never had kids. Never wanted any. And I've always been happy that way.

She tells me if Judge Travis will approve my keeping him in custody for now, she'll start the paperwork.

Who knows what I'm thinking? I sure don't.

+ + + + + + +

I take JD back to my condo and we make "pizgetti" for supper and then after a bath, and teeth brushing and pajamas, we watch 101 Dalmatians. Loved that movie when I was a kid. JD falls asleep on my lap before it's over. I know I should get up and put him to bed, but I just sit there in the dark, wondering if I'm out of my mind.

This isn't a kitten or a puppy. This is a little boy. A tiny human being. I am almost overwhelmed by the idea.

I have a meeting with Judge Travis tomorrow. I can still undo this.

But I won't.

I honestly don't know if I can live with the decision I am about to make. But sitting here, with this sweet little boy safe in my arms, I know that if I do anything else, I won't be able to live with myself.

+ + + + + + +

I take another day of personal leave and the next morning, I drive JD out to Chris's ranch so he can see the horses. He's so excited that he scares most of them away. Not Beavis, though. He's pretty mellow, which is why he's my horse. I saddle him up and take JD for a ride. Chris has a small herd of beef cattle, even though I have yet to know him to actually slaughter one of them and eat it. JD and I pretend we are cowboys herding them up. Mostly, the cows just look at us like we're crazy.

JD asks me if there are real Indians here. I tell him Dr. Two Eagles is a real Indian and he seems confused by this.

"But he's the doctor," he says, and I realize that JD thinks being an Indian is an occupation.

I laugh. "He can be both."

JD still doesn't get it, but he accepts it, because I say it's so. Imagine that?

After our ride, I take him to McDonald's for lunch. The whole time he's eating his Happy Meal, I'm watching over my shoulder for Nathan.

When we show up at the Federal Building for my appointment with Judge Travis, I know I can't take him into the AD's office with me. I can leave him in the bullpen with the rest of the team, but I check out the day care center, just in case. It turns out they have this thing called "walk-ins" and it means I can leave JD there for just a couple of hours. I am kind of surprised to find out it will cost me $20, but I figure that's so folks don't abuse a good thing.

JD is a little nervous at first, but the center staff makes him feel welcome, and I promise him I'll be back for him real soon. I think he forgets all about me when he sees how many toys they have.

When I enter his office, I find AD Travis reading from what I recognize as one of Ezra's reports. Ezra uses blue-grey paper and always covers his reports with these little binders that look like leather. There's nothing scribbled on it anywhere, because Ezra never leaves anything out and he doesn't make typos.

"Mr. Standish has already been here to plead your case," Travis says. I am not sure from his tone of voice if this is a good or bad thing.

Travis continues, "He contacted Denver PD and put this together," he tells me, and then tosses the file across his desk. I sit down and start to read. It's a case file on a "Jane Doe" although, technically she wasn't one. She had a name - Rachel Dunne, age 26, found dead in her car three months ago. No next of kin could be located, they hadn't been able to match her to any missing persons, and no one has ever claimed the body.

Inside her dilapidated 12-year-old car, they'd found a carseat, a pair of child's shoes, some toys and other kid's clothing, but no child. Among her personal effects were a birth certificate for John David Dunne, who would now be age 5, and a few pictures of her with a little boy. There are copies of the pictures in the file. No mistaking that the little boy in them is JD.

The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head which caused bleeding in her brain. They suspected she'd been murdered. The detective in charge of the case was Ken Ryan, and the investigation is still open.

I find it hard to get my breath. JD said his mom went to sleep and never woke up. Was he there when she was killed? He had to have been. Oh my God.

"I know, it's not easy to read," Travis says, using the voice he normally reserves for his grandson, Billy, not the tough-guy tone he uses with us. "However, it does mean that your 'material witness' argument has additional merit. I'm placing him in your custody indefinitely.... if you're sure you still want that."

I know what he's saying. That JD could have seen and experienced horrors that we can only imagine. That deep down, he could be seriously screwed up, and I'll be taking on a kid who is at risk of having some heavy emotional problems later on.

I'd be lying if I say this doesn't scare me. I don't know how I'd deal with that sort of thing.

But at least I know if he's with me, nothing like that is ever going to happen to JD again. There won't be more hurt piled on top of whatever that little boy has already suffered. And I gotta hope that whatever I can give him, and whatever his mama gave him before she had to leave him behind, will make him stronger than the demons he might carry inside.

"I still want it," I say.

And dang it all, I still don't know why.

+ + + + + + +

AD Travis pulls some strings so that come Monday, I can leave JD in the federal building day care center so I don't need to take any more time off. I feel a little guilty about this, because there's a waiting list, but then I stop and think that those other folks had some warning that they were about to be parents.

It's Friday night, and I remember I have a date with Ebony Xavier from the ER. I give her a call and explain recent developments, hoping she will understand. She suggests that she pick up her 6-year-old nephew and instead of the Pirate's Cove, we do pizza at one of those places that has games and rides for the kids. Sounds like a plan to me... but I promise her we will do Jimmy Buffet Night next month. By then, I'm pretty sure JD will have Nathan, Ezra and Josiah wrapped around his little finger. A babysitter won't be a problem.

A few minutes before we leave to meet Ebony, Chris calls. It doesn't surprise me when he says he's at Denver Children's. There was just something about the look on his face when he realized that Vin wasn't dead. He has good news, Vin is doing better. It looks like he's going to make it.

Finally, I can tell JD that he will probably see his friend again real soon. He thinks we mean like right now, and he's disappointed when I tell him it still might be awhile. I manage to distract him by telling him how much fun he'll have at Pistol Pete's with Miss Ebony and her nephew.

I no sooner hang up from talking to Chris than I get another call from Nettie Wells. In view of what they've found out about JD and his mom, she wants him to talk to a therapist. Some guy named Lowery. I write the appointment date on my calendar. The police won't even be allowed to talk to JD until Lowery has seen him, so for now, he and I can just concentrate on getting used to being a family.


That's a word I never thought would apply to me.

+ + + + + + +

The next day is Saturday. I know JD wants to see Vin so he can really believe his friend is okay, so I take him to Denver Children's.

We run into Nathan, Ezra and Josiah in the lobby. They had the same idea, I guess, wanting to see for themselves that little Vin is okay.

Chris is already there. Hell, from the looks of it, he never left. We find him sleeping in a hard metal chair next to Vin's bed, his hand wrapped around Vin's.

The little boy doesn't respond when we enter, and I'm wondering if Chris was being overly optimistic about his condition.

Our chatter - well, mostly JD's chatter - kid can talk a blue streak, let me tell you - wakes Chris up. Right away, I can tell from his eyes that Vin really is okay. Oh, they're tired and a little bloodshot, but Chris, that steely glare of his melts like ice when he's feeling happy about something, and I can tell he's happy now, even if he looks like sh... well, you know. I realize I have to start watching my language around JD. He's like a sponge and will learn every cuss word there is after hearing them once.

Dr. Two Eagles comes in right after us. He tells us Vin is okay, too, after he answers all the questions JD bombards him with.

JD tells Chris he's not scary any more. Chris smiles at him - really smiles, something he doesn't do very often.

He looks at me. "Material witness, huh?"

I grin at him. "Judge Travis didn't have a problem with it. Least ways, not after Ezra got through talking to him."

Ezra straightens his tie, looking pretty danged pleased with himself. "I must confess to having some small hand in the arrangement but ..."

Chris interrupts him. "Fine. See what you can 'arrange' for me and Vin."

Somehow, I knew that was coming. Still kind of warms my heart to hear it, though.

JD probably doesn't know what all this means, but he understands that he and Vin will be together again. Chris and I will do all we can to see that they stay that way, too.

You know, I never expected to have any kids. Never thought I wanted any.

I still don't really know what I'm thinking, doing this.

All I know is that now, everyone is happy.

Especially me.