By Gina D
"Vin, do you want to wait for JD before we start?"
"We can start without him? Buck is giving him a bath and he said it was okay."
"Very well then, what do you want to talk about?"
"I want to tell about the football game. It was fun to eat outside."
"I am pleased that you still think yesterday had some fun moments."
"Yeah it was real fun until the last part."
They call it the Border War, that annual game between the University of Wyoming Cowboys and the Colorado State University Rams. The prize? One bronzed combat boot plus a year's bragging rights. It had been around since 1967 when a CSU instructor decided there should be some sort of a prize associated with the long-standing rivalry. Accordingly he had one of the boots he'd worn in Vietnam bronzed and thus a tradition was born.
Buck was a die-hard CSU fan and proud of it. Chris preferred Wyoming more because it drove Buck nuts. In the past Buck had always treated the day with almost as much fanfare as the Super Bowl and Chris humored him. So when Josiah got a chance to get his hands on tickets to the game in Laramie he didn't hesitate.
"Hey guys guess what?" Hanging up his phone Nathan waited until he had everyone's attention. "Josiah just got tickets to the CSU Wyoming game in Fort Collins this weekend."
"The lucky dog!" Buck moaned. "He'll have to wave to us poor losers watching from home."
"Well you can watch from home if you want," Nathan shrugged. "But you'll probably be by yourself cause he's invited all of the team to go." He smiled widely, "He said something about gladiators in combat."
Buck's, "Well all right!" overrode everyone else's acknowledgement.
"Yeah, Josiah thought we could make a day of it. Go up early enough for a tailgate party." Nathan looked over to Chris. "The boys will love it."
"Sounds like fun," Chris agreed. "I'm sure they will."
"Gentlemen, I fear I must beg off," Ezra started to say only to have Chris cut him off.
"Oh no you don't. The boys will be disappointed if you don't go."
"If I do not attend that will free up a ticket," Ezra tried again. "Nathan could invite Rain."
"Can't. She's attending a weaving retreat this weekend," Nathan said.
Chris held back the sigh he wanted to let loose, focusing on his undercover agent. Ezra had been slightly off ever since his last undercover assignment. He almost seemed hesitant about things, something the team had never seen before. Chris figured what the other man needed was a day with two little mischief-makers. The only time the southerner seemed himself lately was around Vin and JD. "Ezra forget it, you're coming. I'm not spending the day listening to, "Wish Unca Ezra was here." Chris mimicked JD's pronunciation perfectly making everyone smile. "Vin of course won't say anything, he'll just give me the big eyes." Leaning forward over Ezra's desk, Chris said very seriously and slowly, "I hate the big eyes Ezra. They make me feel like someone has ripped out my heart and beaten me with it." He leaned closer lowering his voice even more. "I will take pictures of the big eyes. Every time you turn around there they will be. On your desk, in the break room, everywhere."
"Ah yes, well I suppose a football game sounds like fun." Ezra looked almost scared. "I, uh, I need to check something in the file room." He disappeared down the hall.
"Nicely done, Chris," Nathan accompanied the praise with a pat on the back. "He needs to relax some." He then glared at Buck who was shaking with laughter.
"Yeah, Chris, you could give guilt lessons to a neurotic mother," Buck finally gasped.
"Buck, I know where you live."
"I can't wait to see the clowns at the football game." JD was very excited by the idea of watching football outside. He'd been peppering Buck with questions all through dinner. Buck had been wonderful about answering, but this latest comment threw him.
"Clowns? Why would you think there were clowns at the game Little Bit?"
"Last weekend you were yelling 'look at those clowns' at the TV." JD replied innocently. "I looked but I couldn't see any. So will we see the clowns, will we?"
"No, JD," Chris answered shooting Buck a glare. "This football game won't have any clowns."
"Oh." JD looked less enthused now.
"But they will have mascots," Buck added in an attempt to rekindle JD's eagerness.
"What's a mascot?" Vin spoke before JD for a change.
"Each team has a special name," Buck tried to explain. "The mascot dresses up like the team name."
JD and Vin exchanged solemn glances before pinning Buck with their eyes. It was clear they didn't understand.
Chris took pity on the other man. "Mascots are like cartoon characters. They wear funny costumes and entertain the crowd, like Dinger the Dinosaur from the Rockies baseball game."
"Cool!" JD enthused. "What kind of cartoons? I like Arthur, will he be there?" He was practically bouncing in his seat again.
"Uh no, no Arthur. CSU's mascot is a Ram and Wyoming has Cowboy Joe." Chris ignored Buck's silent amusement.
"Neat!" JD was back at full tilt. "I'm gonna root for the cowboy. What about you Vin? Who you gonna root for?"
Vin smiled shyly at Chris, "I like the cowboys too."
Chris smiled understanding Vin's reference. Buck on the other hand looked dismayed. "Now JD most of the folks there will be cheering for the Rams, not the Cowboys."
"I don't care," JD said stubbornly. "Who wants to be a smelly ole ram when you can be a cowboy?"
Chris shook his head at Buck in a silent warning, stopping the other man from saying anything else. Reaching up Chris rubbed his ear. It was their signal for: we'll discuss this later, after the boys are asleep. Chris knew that JD would only get more fixated on the issue if they pushed it now. He also didn't want Vin thinking there was something wrong with his own choice. Buck subsided but it was clearly hard for him. After the boys were asleep he brought the subject up again. The two men were collapsed in the living room enjoying the quiet.
"Chris I don't like it. What if someone makes a comment or gets angry when the boys cheer for Wyoming? Our tickets are on the CSU side."
"We'll put them in the middle of our group," Chris said calmly. "I really doubt they will understand much of the game. Look at them when we watch at home. They cheer because we do. It will be the same thing there. When everyone around them yells so will they."
"You wouldn't be saying that if they thought the Ram was cool," Buck paused then winked, "Cowboy."
Saturday was a clear sunny day, temperatures in the sixties. Buck and Chris were as eager as the boys when it came time to leave. Both boys were in high spirits, making them unusually loud. Since the game was in Fort Collins it had been decided it would be easier to meet somewhere along the way and convoy from there. It would save time especially for Chris who could skirt Denver entirely that way. Ezra and Josiah were riding up with Nathan in his Explorer. Johnson's Corner, a well-known truck stop along the way, was set as the meeting place. Chris wasn't surprised when they arrived first. He parked the truck and looked over at Buck. "So I guess we wait."
"I need to go to the bathroom," JD's clear voice stated from the back. "I need to go bad."
"I'm coming," Buck got out and started unbuckling JD. Chris opened the back door on his side, leaning in to release Vin. "What about you, Pard? Need a bathroom break?"
Vin nodded, letting Chris pluck him out of his seat without comment. It was only as they started across the parking lot that he said, "I can walk."
Chris smiled down, "Do you mind if I carry you? There are a lot of people and cars here. Okay?"
Vin considered the words solemnly before nodding and tightening his grip around his father's neck. "Okay."
Once bathroom duties had been taken care of Chris and Vin came out to find Buck and JD in the back of the huge store area. They were looking at all the different touristy things on sale. JD was enthralled by the bright gaudy colors of everything. He especially loved a child-size dinner service adorned with a cartoon figure of a rabbit dressed as cowboy. JD oo'd and ah'd over the set of plate, bowl and cup, pointing them out to Vin. "Look it's a cowboy. Isn't he neat?"
"Sure JD, he's nice," Vin said agreeably but Chris could tell the set didn't excite him like it did JD. Instead he reached for different set a bit further down the shelf. This set was still plastic, but was made to look like old-fashioned campware. Dark blue with white specs it was even shaped like the metal kind that had been around for years. Vin turned the box all around admiring it, then quietly put it back, not noticing that Chris was watching him. He then took JD's hand giving it a tug, "Come on JD." Vin then leaned closer whispering in what he thought was a quiet voice. "We don't really need those."
Buck and Chris exchanged glances. "Do we say that a lot?" Buck asked.
"Probably no more than any parent," Chris assured him.
Josiah and Ezra were waiting for them when they returned to the truck. Ezra's presence brought a quick return of the boys' high spirits. They launched themselves at him with JD talking a mile a minute.
"Unca Ezra, you came!"
"Of course JD, how could I miss an opportunity to network with my favorite nephews?"
"Huh?" JD studied Ezra. "How can we network Unca Ezra? We don't have a computer."
Ezra opened his mouth to explain but Josiah cut him off. "Never mind boys, do I get a hug too?"
"Yeah!" twin voices yelled transferring their grasps from Ezra's legs to Josiah's. The big man laughed reaching down to scoop both boys up. "So you guys ready for the game?"
"Yeah!" JD shouted. "We're gonna root for the cowboys. Who you rooting for Unca Josiah?"
Josiah looked at Buck strangely, the other man was shaking his head in a frantic motion. Deciding it was best to ignore such silliness Josiah turned his attention back to the boys. "Well, if you're rooting for the cowboys then so am I." Buck threw up his hands in an exasperated motion, which luckily the boys didn't see and Josiah found amusing.
Ezra, seeing a way to dig at Buck, leaned over to tickle Vin while saying, "I must concur the cowboys are the superior team." He scooped the giggling boy out of Josiah's arm, "Wouldn't you agree Vin?" Ezra then hung the boy upside down and swung him a bit before pulling him back up.
Vin and JD's happy laughter at Unca Ezra's foolishness greeted Nathan as he pulled up next to Chris' truck after gassing up. He was greeted with his own hugs and laughter before everyone piled back into their respective vehicles and headed toward Fort Collins.
"You look much improved, JD. I hope you now understand the danger of opening a can of pop after shaking it."
"I guess, but it was still fun. What are we talking about?"
"I just told about John's Corner."
"Oh did you tell about the dishes?"
"Yeah, I told."
"I want to tell about the next part about Bubba."
"Okay. Heavy sigh."
Vin and JD's eyes looked as if they might pop out of their heads as they surveyed the CSU parking lot. It was still a bit early but already groups of people had gathered around various vehicles enjoying the time honored tradition of tailgating. From alumni to college age, the groups were varied in age, sex and activities. The smell of meat on the grill mixed with laughing voices. Chris and Nathan pulled into a couple of spaces side by side and everyone got out. As Chris unbuckled Vin he said, "Pard, I need you to stay in the back of the truck while we get set up. That way I'll know where you are and not have to worry about you. Okay?"
"Sure thing, Dad," Vin promised nodding solemnly. He seemed more comfortable using the 'D' word ever since finding out about his father. Dr. Lowery had told Chris that Vin probably felt he could relax now that he knew more about his birth father. Knowing the other man would have wanted him happy allowed him to turn more to Chris.
"That goes for you, too, Little Bit," Buck said as he lifted JD out of his seat an into the truck bed. "Just stay there for a while."
"Okay." JD didn't mind. He loved to play in the truck bed. It could be anything and had the extra advantage of raising him up off the ground.
While the men set out food and fired the grill the two boys happily played in the front of the truck bed. There was plenty to see and when Ezra climbed up with them they were allowed to stand on the truck box while he pointed out various things. One of the most interesting things, as far as the boys were concerned, were the men on horseback patrolling the parking lot. It was Vin with his sharp eyes who identified a familiar dun horse with black mane and tail.
"It's Bubba! Look Uncle Ezra, it's Bubba." Vin pointed over toward the north side of the parking lot.
"Where?" JD lunged toward Vin's side of the truck box, forcing Ezra to grab at him quickly. "Bubba!! Bubba!!" he started yelling which drew the attention of the others.
"JD, what is it?" Buck moved to the side of the truck just in time to catch the excited little boy.
"It's Bubba!" JD pointed, in his excitement in the wrong direction. "He's here."
Ezra, from his higher perch and with Vin's help, had spotted the buckskin. "I do believe they are right. It is hard to miss that health insurance nightmare. He's a few cars over."
"Well, the guy I sold him to is in the Sheriff's Posse," Josiah said reflectively.
"Can we go see him Da? Pleeeaaase," JD pleaded while Vin just gave Chris the big eyes. Nathan almost laughed when Ezra flinched a bit at the look.
"I think if we're patient the mountain will come to us," Josiah said as he waved at Bubba's rider.
"I don't want a mountain Unca Josiah, I want Bubba," JD informed him.
"And here he comes," Buck said putting JD back in the truck bed as horse and rider rode up.
"Josiah, good to see you." Ben Jacobs, the man who now owned Bubba leaned down from his saddle to shake hands. In height and build Ben strongly resembled Josiah. He was a cheerful man with an even temper despite his carrot red hair.
"Likewise," Josiah made the introductions. "Ben, you remember everyone."
"Sure," Ben nodded and smiled letting Bubba get closer to the truck. The buckskin eagerly stuck his head over the side so that JD and Vin could pet him. "Guess Bubba remembers you guys."
"Yeah," JD chirped, "he couldn't forget us."
"How's he working out for you?" Chris asked quietly once he was sure the boys were busy with the horse. JD was telling Bubba all about his friend who had lost her leg while Vin just indulged his love of horses in general by scratching Bubba's ears.
"You were right, he's got some strange habits," Ben laughed. "Can't keep him out of the irrigation ditch, but he's sure got stamina. I used him just last week looking for a couple lost kids. He walked every other horse into the ground and found the kids. He's almost better than a hound dog at sniffing them out. Heck, I've got a standing offer for him from two other guys on the Posse if I ever want to sell him."
As kids will do, JD and Vin heard only the last few words. "You're gonna sell him?" JD turned to Buck, "Please Da, now that he's fixed can we buy him?"
"Easy JD." Buck picked the little boy up settling him on his hip. "Bubba isn't for sale, Ben was just saying other people liked him enough to want to buy him."
"Oh." JD looked downcast. "I don't want Bubba to be sold to anyone but us."
"JD," Ben leaned over to the little boy, "I have no intention of ever selling Bubba. When he gets too old to work he'll get to retire on my place. He's part of my family now."
JD's face cleared at the big man's words. Laying a hand on Bubba's head he informed the horse in a solemn tone, "You'll be okay Bubba, you got a new family now. An' new families is the bestest thing in the world."
Six grown men could then be seen blinking their eyes, coughing, shuffling their feet and generally trying not to show how emotional the small boy's words made them feel. It was hard and got harder when Vin chimed in with, "Yeah, family is always there for you."
"Um well, I supposed I'd better get back to work." Ben cleared his throat.
"Are you gonna chase the bad guys now?" JD asked curiously.
"Well not unless I have to," Ben replied cautiously, not sure what the young boy meant.
JD looked at Vin as if seeking confirmation that he was right, "On TV the Posse always chases the bad guys."
Vin turned a serious gaze on the adults who were all showing various degrees of amusement. Finally, he focused on Chris, "JD's right, they always do on TV." He then looked at Ben in a rather stern way, "How can you be a Sheriff's Posse if you don't chase anyone?"
Ben swallowed his mirth and leaned over to ruffle JD's hair. JD was starting to think everyone was making fun of him so he wasn't too happy with the attention. Ben, who had three boys of his own, recognized the look and hurried to explain. "You're right JD, chasing bad guys is what a posse did in the old days. But now days most crooks use cars to get away. Bubba would look pretty silly trying to catch a car wouldn't he?"
JD nodded cautiously, still not sure if he was being made fun of or not.
"In the bad old days a posse was a group of volunteers that helped the sheriff," Ben continued. "And that is what we still do today, only instead of chasing bad guys we do lots of different things."
"Like what?" Vin asked.
"Well, we help look for people when they get lost. We help out with crowd control at events like this one," Ben said.
"They also help during accidents and natural disasters. If need be they can also arrest someone," Josiah chimed in. "Everyone on the Posse is a volunteer too."
"Cool!" JD exclaimed. Vin didn't say anything but his eyes were shining.
"Well, you boys take care." Ben started backing Bubba up. "I have to get back to work."
"And we'd better eat so we can get inside before the game starts," Nathan said. "Who wants a hot dog?"
"Yeah!!!" JD yelled and screamed along with everyone around him. Once everyone sat back down he turned to Buck, "Buck, I'm thirsty."
"Okay JD, we'll get you something in a minute," Buck replied absent mindedly as he focused on the game.
"But that's what you said a huge long time ago," JD whined, not without some justification.
Buck looked down. "I did, didn't I? Sorry, Little Bit."
"May I offer a suggestion?" Ezra said. "Perhaps I might be trusted to take JD and Vin to use the facilities and get a drink."
"You wouldn't mind?" Buck asked hopefully.
"Not at all," Ezra smiled reassuringly. "I could use an opportunity to stretch my legs."
"Neat!" JD was already standing in his chair arms up. "Come on, Unca Ezra, I want a Pepsi and some nakos."
"Aren't you the young man who ate two hot dogs?" Ezra asked as he scooped him up. Settling JD on his hip he held out a hand to Vin, "Come Master Tanner, let us see what sort of refreshments are procurable at yon snack bar."
After a quick glance at Chris for permission, Vin happily grabbed on. As the three walked away he could be heard saying, "Can I have extra jalapenos on mine?"
Chris turned to Nathan, "Explain to me how that boy can't stomach antibiotics, but he can eat a jalapeno straight from the plant."
"He's your kid," Nathan laughed, "you figure it out."
"Yeah, he is, isn't he?" Chris turned in his seat to watch the three disappear. What he saw made his gut clench. "Boys, we've got trouble. John Dane just followed Ezra inside."
"The John Dane that escaped us on that last bust?" Josiah asked rhetorically. "The same guy who knows Ezra as Eric Simms."
"Yes," Chris hissed already on his feet. The four men made a quick huddle in the aisle while he issued orders. "Josiah, go find us some help, preferably armed. Anybody carrying?" He was met with all negatives. "Okay, Buck you, Nathan and I will follow Ezra. The important thing here is to get him and the boys safe. Dane is secondary, if he gets away I don't care." Chris' words were met with grim focus and agreement. Save their own, and then worry about the bad guy. "All right, let's move."
Josiah took off toward the exit while Chris led the others toward up toward the inner part of the stadium where the snack bars and restrooms were located.
Even as Chris was spotting Dane, so was Ezra. He felt his gut clench. The man was a homicidal maniac with no morals. Something had to be done quickly because Dane had also seen him and was working his way through the crowd. Ezra knew whatever happened he had to keep Dane from getting the boys. Darting quickly around the corner he stopped in front of a small area set with tables. It was crowded with people and kids grabbing a bite before heading back to their seats. Crouching down, Ezra stood JD next to Vin making sure he had their attention before speaking. "Boys, I need you to do something for me, it's very, very important." Ezra almost cringed at the knowing look that came into two sets of eyes as they recognized his tone. Still there wasn't time for anything fancy. Buck and Chris would just have to deal with whatever trauma later. At least the boys would be safe so they could. "I want the two of you to go back in the far corner over there and hide. There is someone here that I met while I was undercover and I do not want him to see you. Vin I want you to count to a hundred, you remember we worked on that?" Vin nodded. "Good, after you finish counting do you think you can find your way back to Chris and Buck?" Again a serious nod from Vin. JD had his thumb in his mouth and was giving Ezra his own version of big eyes. He pulled it out long enough to ask, "Is the trolls after you Unca Ezra?"
Ezra closed his eyes in pain at the question as he whispered, "Yes JD, but I will be okay as long as I know you are safe." Opening his eyes he continued, "Vin, tell them I went to see Dane. Okay?" Vin nodded, clutching JD's hand tightly. With a quick squeeze of both boys' shoulders Ezra stood and moved off quickly.
"Vin, is Unca Ezra going to meet the troll now?" JD whispered.
"Yeah, JD, I think so." Vin pulled JD away from the tables toward another area. Uncle Ezra had the right idea hiding, but his choice was too exposed for a cautious little boy. Along the wall there was a sort of tall bench where condiments and napkins were available. Underneath the open space had been filled with large garbage cans for people's rubbish. Behind the cans was just enough space for two little boys to hide and count. By the time Chris and the others rushed by, that's exactly where they were, eyes tightly shut.
Ezra stood in the beer line trying to look casual but he was ultra aware of his surroundings. Therefore, when John Dane clamped a heavy hand on his shoulder he was able to react in a relaxed manner.
"Hello Simms." John Dane was as ugly on the outside as he was on the in. Ezra had seen him do some truly hideous things while undercover. Things he'd been unable to stop and was still seeing in his nightmares.
"John, what a, dare I say, unpleasant surprise." Eric slipped back to the front of Ezra's personality with ease. "I figured you'd be long gone by now."
"We need to talk." John jerked a head toward a quiet spot. "Now."
"Well let's hurry, I don't want to miss the final quarter," Eric sighed.
"See you lost the beard and earring," John said as soon as they were alone.
"When the cops bust most of the people you know, it's a good idea," Eric said sarcastically. "I can't believe you want to share fashion tips John, so what do you want?"
"I want the money you were gonna pay Chasen," John said threateningly. "I figure you owe me."
"How can I possibly owe you for guns that were never delivered?" Eric snarled back. "If anything, you owe me, since I almost got arrested thanks to your incompetence."
"Listen punk," John grabbed Eric, slamming him against a cement support post. "You obviously ain't hurting. I lost a big stake when that deal went south and you're gonna help me get a new start."
"I'm afraid that will not be possible," Ezra gasped.
"You'd better make it possible," John slammed him again.
"My associates will never permit it."
"Well they ain't here now, are they?"
"I wouldn't say that," a new voice said. "Let him go. Now."
John froze then turned around to find Chris, Buck and Nathan arranged in a half circle behind him. Chris was giving him the death glare, "I said, let go of him."
"Better do what he says," Buck said. "Ole Chris don't let anyone pound his men except him."
"Very true," Nathan agreed. "He gets very testy about it."
John let go of Ezra then made his final mistake. "Your boy owes me money, what are you gonna do about it?"
"What am I gonna do boys?" Chris asked his team while staring down Dane.
Buck put his hand in front of his face, "I can't watch. Nathan, tell me when it's over."
"Huh?" John looked at him confused then focused back on Chris. "Look, mister, you do not want to mess with me."
"Oh, now you did it," Nathan said oozing fake sympathy.
John opened his mouth to snarl something only to have Chris close it with a well placed fist. Another jab to the chin sent the creep to the ground. Chris calmly stepped over his groaning body as he went to check on Ezra. Buck looked down saying helpfully, "I'd just stay there if I was you. You don't want to get Chris really mad. And oh yeah, you're under arrest."
"You okay?" Chris studied Ezra closely.
"I will live, thanks to you." Ezra drew a deep breath then his brain clicked back in. "The boys!"
"Yeah, where are they?" Chris asked.
Vin and JD had followed Ezra's instructions to the letter and were currently staring at the empty seats where they had expected to find Chris and Buck.
"Vin, are we losted?" JD asked.
"No JD," Vin assured him.
"Vin, what if the troll is looking for us?" JD was getting frightened.
Slipping back into the roll of protector Vin made a quick decision. "He won't find us JD, I promise. We'll go find Chris' truck and hide under it. Chris has to come back there."
His trust in Vin absolute, JD nodded. "Okay. How do we do that?"
"Follow me," Vin led JD away from the empty seats toward an exit sign. He took care not to let the younger boy see how scared he was.
After a few twists and turns the boys found themselves outside. What they hadn't been prepared for were the changes that had taken place since they'd first gone in. There were a lot more vehicles, a lot. Not wanting JD to get any more frightened, Vin swallowed his own fear leading the way through the lines of vehicles as if he knew exactly where he was. But that only worked for a while before JD decided enough was enough. Plopping down in the middle of the dirt he started to cry.
"Don't cry JD," Vin implored. "I'll find it, I promise."
"We're losted," JD wailed. "We're losted and the trolls are gonna get us."
"No they ain't," Vin assured him. "Uncle Ezra led the troll away."
"The trolls is gonna get Unca Ezra," JD only cried harder.
Vin was close to tears himself when he heard a familiar sound. In their wandering the boys had made it all the way to the farthest side of the lot where the Sheriff's Posse members parked their trucks and trailers. While the game was going on many of the Posse members had tied their horses up while they went inside the stadium to work. There, nickering happily at them, was Bubba, a big goofy bit of familiarity just when they needed it most.
"JD, JD," Vin had to call a couple of times before he was heard.
"What?" JD sniffed and wiped his eyes still ready to burst into tears.
Vin pointed toward the nearby trailer, "Look, it's Bubba."
"Bubba!!!" JD stood up and ran toward the horse, throwing his arms around one leg. Bubba stood like a rock only lowering his head to nuzzle JD's hair. Vin had a new plan now, one he was sure would work.
"See JD, we can hide here. Mr. Ben will know where Chris and Buck are. An he helps catch bad guys so the troll won't get us."
"Okay," JD agreed, his faith in Vin restored. Plopping down on the pile of hay by the trailer he sighed. "I's tired and cold."
"Yeah," Vin looked around trying to decide what to do. "I know JD, we'll lay in the hay and use Bubba's saddle blanket to cover up." In a short time the resourceful boy had made a cave in the hay. Curling up with JD, he pulled the saddle blanket over them along with the rain slicker from the back of Ben's saddle. The slicker covered everything, protecting them from the elements and trapping the warmth. JD fell asleep quickly. Vin had planned to stay awake, but the excitement of the day caught up with him. Soon he, too, was asleep. After a few careful sniffs, Bubba went back to eating, an oversized watchdog.
"I was real glad to find Bubba. Weren't you glad Vin?"
"Yeah, cause you were crying."
"So after we found Bubba we went to sleep."
"Vin made us a cave, it was cool."
"Oh god, they aren't here." Ezra stared at the empty seats in horror. "I swear I told them to come straight back here after counting." He turned to Chris. "Where could they be?"
"You looking for two little boys? One dark hair and one with brown?" a college aged kid asked.
"Yes." Chris said around the lump in his throat. "Did you see them?"
"Yeah they were here about ten minutes ago," the kid pointed toward the exit. "They talked a bit, and then went that way."
"Thanks," Chris was already moving.
"This is my fault. I should have thought of something else. I know the words don't mean much, but I am so sorry," Ezra apologized as they walked. He expected Chris to agree with him and wasn't surprised when the other man wheeled on a dime and grabbed his shirt.
Chris' words were a surprise, "Do not apologize for doing what you had to, to protect those boys. Dane's a monster. If he'd have caught you with them, this could have gotten a lot uglier." Ezra stared at him mouth open. Seeing he still wasn't getting through, Chris shook Ezra a bit, "I mean it. You did the best you could under the worst of situations, both here and while undercover. Now think, you and I both know Vin. He's got his own plan going here and all we have to do is figure it out."
"I, uh, yes, of course." Ezra ran a hand through his hair, "Think like Vin. Think like a seven-year-old." He hadn't told Chris that the last assignment was still bothering him. It was a shock to have Chris read between the lines and figure it out anyway.
"No," Chris corrected him. "Think like a seven-year-old survivor." He started toward the exit again.
"Trolls!" Ezra exclaimed, "JD asked me if Dane was a troll." Chris stopped and waited for him to finish the thought. "If they think he's a troll and they couldn't find you they probably hid."
"And no way are they going to trust a stranger." Chris was nodding in agreement. "So we have two little boys, expert at hiding and an entire stadium to hide in." He groaned, "We'd better go back and hook up with the others. We'll need help."
Buck hadn't exactly been happy when Chris made him stay and deal with the police while he retrieved the boys. So when Chris and Ezra charged back up without them he knew it was bad news. He held it together though because he'd halfway been expecting it. JD and Vin found trouble too easily. "They weren't there, were they?"
"No." Chris sighed, "We think they probably decided to hide from the troll." His glare at Dane left no doubt as to whom the troll was. "I doubt they'll come out for a stranger so we need to canvas the stadium."
Ben Jacobs had been one of the Posse members to respond to Josiah's request for armed assistance and was still there helping with crowd control. He stepped up, "The boys might come out for me or another Posse member. That is if you think they'd recognize the uniform. We also know the stadium."
"Let's split into teams then," Chris said, accepting the help gratefully. "One of us with a Posse member. That will give us five teams." A massive roar from outside drew everyone's attention.
"We'd better work fast," Ben said. "Wyoming's winning which means some people are gonna start leaving soon. Also means we're gonna have to be back in the parking lot ready to maintain control. Just in case anyone takes loosing badly."
Team Seven nodded grimly, understanding, even if none of them could have cared less about a football game at that point.
Two hours later a group of tired frustrated men gathered in the parking lot. The game was over, the lot empty except for Nathan's Explorer, Chris' truck and the Posse members' vehicles. Ezra was slumped on the tailgate of Chris' truck, his voice raspy from calling. He'd pretty much self-destructed from guilt and nothing anyone could say helped. Chris and Buck weren't much better, eaten alive with worry. Posse members, supplemented with police officers and some student volunteers, were re-checking the stadium one more time. Josiah and Nathan had moved in to protect mode running interference between the other searchers and the rest of Team Seven. While Nathan tried to get some hot coffee into three men with knots in their stomachs, Ben drew Josiah aside to talk.
"Josiah, we've issued an Amber alert. Somebody is sure to find them. We'll check the stadium again but then," Ben paused looking uncomfortable. Josiah knew what he didn't want to say, after that there wasn't much they could do. As an officer he knew that, as an uncle it was cold comfort.
"Thanks for everything," Josiah sighed. He was dealing with his own guilt. If he hadn't bought the tickets they'd all be sprawled around Chris' living room right now, safe and sound.
Just then the radio on Ben's belt squawked. "Uh, Ben come in, this is Josh."
Ben made an apologetic face as he stepped back to key his own mike, "This is Ben, what do you need?"
"Uh, yeah, Ben, that buckskin of your is acting real strange. I was gonna borrow some of your hay and he tried to take a piece out of me. He won't let me near the trailer," Josh replied. "Oh, and did you leave your saddle blanket and rain slicker over on the hay? Horse won't let me touch them either."
Ben and Josiah shared a slightly hopeful look. "Josh, stay there, but get far enough back Bubba settles down."
Chris and the others had already heard. As a group the men started toward Ben's truck and trailer at a running walk. There was Bubba giving Josh the evil eye while protecting a pile of hay. For a moment it looked like he wasn't going to let Ben close either, but after some soothing Bubba allowed himself to be untied and led back. Chris and Buck dropped down on their knees beside the strange pile. Carefully, holding their breaths, afraid of disappointment, they lifted the slicker and blanket. Underneath was the most beautiful sight in the world, two grubby little boys sleeping.
"Vi-" Chris had to stop and clear his throat, "Vin, wake up."
"JD," Buck laid a careful hand on the little boys shoulder, "wake up champ."
Blinking a bit, the two boys looked up at the circle of men around them. Finally JD woke up enough to realize where he was and more importantly who was leaning over him. "Buck!" he shouted full voiced ,launching himself in the air.
Buck caught him up in a bear hug, crooning, "I got you Little Bit, I got you."
Vin was still sort of waking up, but Chris couldn't wait any longer, reaching down to scoop the boy into his arms. "You all right, Cowboy?"
Two small arms wrapped tightly around his neck, "I was scared."
Chris closed his eyes, heart breaking at the admission. "Me, too."
They hugged for a minute before Vin suddenly stiffened in his arms. "Uncle Ezra!" He pushed back so he could see Chris, "We got to help Uncle Ezra. The trolls is after him."
JD heard him and cried, "Don't let the trolls get Unca Ezra."
"We took care of the troll," Chris assured both boys. "See, Ezra's right there, safe and sound."
Ezra knelt down on the ground rushing to reassure, "Indeed, here I am safe as could be." He immediately ended up with an armful of little boys as both Vin and JD launched themselves at him. In fact the force of their attack would have sent him over if Josiah hadn't been standing directly behind. As it was, Ezra rocked back against the other man's legs half strangled by two sets of arms.
"Unca Ezra, I'm glad the troll didn't get you," JD informed him.
"We tried to do what you said," Vin explained. "Please don't be mad."
"Never, never," Ezra replied in a choked voice.
The three hugged for a moment then JD said, "Unca Ezra, I never got nakos. I's still hungry."
"We can't have that." Ezra managed to stand still holding the boys. "We will find the best nachos this town has to offer. Then you can tell us all about your adventure today."
"Can we Da, can we go get nakos?" JD turned an eager gaze toward his father.
Chris and Buck moved to flank the trio. "Sounds good to me." Buck ruffled JD's hair, then reached over and did the same to Ezra. The foursome walked toward the truck leaving Josiah and Nathan to say good bye.
"Ben, I can't thank you enough for all the help." Josiah held out his hand.
"Just glad it turned out okay." Ben looped an arm over Bubba's neck."Guess I'll take this fella home and give him some extra oats."
As Josiah and Nathan walked back toward the Explorer, Josiah murmured, "For want of a nail a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe a horse was lost."
"Only in this case, the horse found the shoe," Nathan replied.
Josiah gave him a big toothy grin, "The Lord does work in mysterious ways."
"Come on partner, I'll buy you some nakos," Nathan laughed.
Over nachos, with extra jalapenos on the side, JD and Vin explained what had happened. At first they were a bit afraid that Buck and Chris were going to be mad. When it became clear that wasn't the case, they relaxed. All the men were pleased to see the boys felt safe enough with them to almost brush off the troll part of the adventure.
After a big dinner and a quick wrap up with the local police, everyone was glad to head for home. JD and Vin were already buckled in when Ezra came to say good night and give each a kiss on the forehead. After promising to visit the next day he turned to Chris and Buck.
"I can't say enough how sor..,"
Chris cut him off, "Enough Ezra, you didn't do anything wrong. Neither did the boys. Right Buck?"
"Yep." Buck looped an arm around Ezra's neck. "You did good, Unca Ezra, and don't you forget it."
Chris and Buck messed around long enough to let Nathan get a head of them. The boys fell asleep quickly leaving the truck a quiet place. Only the sound of the hum of tires on the road was heard while both men processed the day.
As they approached the exit for Johnson's corner, Chris flipped on his blinker making an instant decision. As he took the exit, Buck whispered, "We low on gas?"
"No," Chris whispered back. "I'm stopping for those dishes."
"Not that I'm arguing, but I gotta ask why. Those boys are dead to the world and they didn't even ask for them," Buck grinned.
"No, they didn't, and maybe they don't really need them. But after today, I need them." Chris looked over, his whisper-level voice strained, "They didn't do anything wrong today, Buck. Not one thing. So I'm going to buy those dishes and tomorrow when they come down I'm going to have them waiting. Just because we still have a tomorrow with them." He rubbed his face, "We were so lucky today."
Buck turned back to look at the two boys sleeping in the back. "We sure were." He then look over at Chris, "Go make your purchase. I'll keep the truck running. In fact, why don't I drive home? You're looking a little tired."
"Sounds good," Chris said as he got out.
"Hey," Buck called after him. "While you're in there, pick up the ugliest shot glass they have. Ezra deserves a little something too." Buck slid over into the drivers seat, taking the time to check the boys again. Both were dead to the world. "Sleep tight, little cowboys," Buck whispered before turning back to watch for Chris.
"I love my new cowboy plate and cup and bowl. Don't you love your plate and cup and bowl Vin?"
"Yeah, JD, they are neat."
"Chris made us pancakes this morning to put on them."
"I know that, JD."
"I was telling Uncle Ezra."
"That's okay Vin. I'm hungry."
"Me too, wish we had some nachos."
"Yeah ???? Hey why didn't it spell it for me?"
"Your pronunciation confused the computer."
"Never mind JD, let's finish."
"Okay, bye computer."
The actual Border War game this year was 11/1 in Laramie WY. For the purposes of this story the game has been moved both date and location wise. But the outcome is based on who won this year. Though I have to admit if the other team had won I might still have Wyoming winning. :)
The Larimer County Sheriff's Posse is real. I am privileged to know two members. Ben is based on neither of them. If you'd like to see the real posse patrolling the CSU stadium here's a link. http://www.co.larimer.co.us/sheriff/posse/posse.htm
Thanks to Joy for all her help and encouragement. Also thanks to everyone who loved Bubba and wanted to see him again. The big goof is still a fictional horse based on several I have known or heard true stories of.
Next: Thanksgiving Melee
Things We Learned (Index)