"They're here!" Seven-year-old Vin Tanner had been watching the road for two hours, two hours past the normal arrival time for Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington. He had sat, legs tucked under him, on the bench under the front window, unmoving the entire time. Jumping up, he headed for the front door.
"Don't step a foot off that porch until the engine is turned off, young man." Gloria knew the boy was anxious due to the unplanned change in the daily routine. Even though he had spoken to his father on the phone, the somber child would not relax until he had seen the two men of the house for himself.
Vin pulled the door open even as he called out, "Yes, ma'am."
He stood on the wooden porch, watching closely as the black truck rumbled down the road toward the house. The woman's voice calling out had him turning as the screen door banged shut.
"Vin! Watch JD, please."
A slender arm snaked out and wrapped around the younger boy's shoulders, holding him on the porch. JD clapped and bounced in anticipation of the men's arrival.
The truck slowed and finally stopped at the garage, and both doors opened. Only when he heard the engine quietly shut down, did Vin release the younger boy. Both of them leapt off the porch and ran to greet the two men.
Vin slowed as he got closer. He could see the scowl on the blond's face and it made him hesitate briefly. It was a hesitation that Larabee did not miss and he pasted a smile on his face to relieve the boy's uncertainty.
With a deep sigh, the boy read the signs. Chris was upset but it had nothing to do with him. The boy approached and wrapped his arms around the man's waist in support.
Ruffling the boy's fair hair, Chris asked, "So you have a good day?"
Vin nodded in response before turning his attention to the scene on the other side of truck.
"BUCK! You're finally home. What'd do to your face?" JD's voice hitched. "Does it hurt?"
The pair were coming around the back of the truck as Wilmington responded to the question, the boy riding in the man's arms. Vin could see the scrape along the left side of the dark haired man's face.
"Well, would you believe I walked into a door? Just flat didn't look where I was going."
JD rolled his eyes as he said, "Daaaa! Did Uncle Nathan scold you?"
Wilmington laughed. "No, luckily he didn't see it."
"Last time I runned into the wall, he told me that I needed to not run in the house. I bet that's what he'd 'a telled you, too, Da." He nodded sagely as he imparted the team medic's advice.
"I'll try to remember that, Little Bit."
Vin had sensed Larabee tense at Wilmington's words, but didn't say anything. The boy looked up as the man patted his shoulder. "It's past time for supper, boys. Let's get inside so Miz Potter can get home."
The foursome headed into the house where the woman was waiting at the door.
"Evening, Gloria." Buck greeted her as he entered, the boy still in his arms. "Thanks for staying late."
"No problem. I didn't have anything planned tonight except for watching a bit of television. I was more than happy to stay." Her eyes took in the scraped face, but the slight shake of his head had her quelling the question on her lips.
"Gloria" Chris said.
"Good evening, Chris." She slipped the strap of her purse onto her shoulder as she informed the men that supper was ready and warming in the oven. Saying goodnight and stating that she would see them in morning, she left the family to their supper.
The evening passed quietly as the boys played games with Buck while Chris was in the office, paying bills. After he was finished with the monthly chore, he joined the others in the front room. Tired of the board game, the boys asked to watch a video which the men agreed to but only after the boys got ready for bed first. Pajamas on and teeth brushed, the two kids trotted back to the front room.
Vin got to select the video, while JD turned on the TV and the DVD player. As the movie began to play, JD climbed into Buck's lap and squirmed around until he got comfortable. Chris had propped his feet up on the coffee table and stretched out on the couch. Vin crawled onto the couch next to him. The man dropped his arm around the boy and drew him in close. He smiled at the sigh that issued from the seven year old.
They made it halfway through the movie before both boys surrendered to sleep. JD was lying across his father's lap while Vin's head rested on Chris' leg. Looking at each other, the two men shook their heads, smiling. JD mumbled at being shifted as Buck dropped the footrest of his chair but didn't wake up. Chris had to wriggle out from under Vin and then turn back to pick him up. The boys were carried to their room and deposited on their beds.
Vin woke up and sleepily said good night as Chris stepped back. Buck straightened and patted the young boy on the leg. "Night, Junior. Sleep tight."
The two men moved out of the room, pulling the door almost but not totally closed. Buck paused and glanced back to make sure the nightlight was on. Satisfied, he headed down the hall. Larabee meet him at the kitchen door, a beer in each hand.
The two men headed out to the porch and sat on the stoop, their backs resting against opposite posts. They sat silently for a while, just enjoying the cool night and the sounds of the mountains that surrounded them.
Buck had leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Chris sat hunched over, the bottle gripped loosely in both hands. The sound of the pups wrestling in their pen drew his attention and he smiled, listening to the playful growls. As they settled down, he turned back to look at Wilmington.
"About today "
Buck pulled his head up to look at the blond. "Come on, Chris. We ain't going to get into this again, are we?"
Larabee turned and propped one leg on the porch, draping his arm over his knee. "Yeah, we are. It was a dumb move, Buck. You don't run from cover out into the open."
"The guy had a bead on Ezra. What was I supposed to do? Hide while he got shot?"
"No. But you could have called out. Or fired at the guy."
"I didn't have a shot."
"Why not? If you could see him, wouldn't you have a shot?"
The mustached man looked away, taking a swig of beer. Chris' eyes narrowed. "You could see him, right?"
Blue eyes glanced over and away quickly.
"Dammit, Buck. You had no idea where that guy was, did you?" Chris' eyes flashed at the risk the man had taken.
"Hell, Chris, I knew he was over there somewhere. Somewhere behind Ezra. I was only trying to get Ezra to a more protected area."
"You can't be taking chances like that."
"It was a calculated risk. Besides, I didn't get shot, did I?"
"No, you didn't. You just rammed your face into a concrete wall. You would have gotten shot if Ezra hadn't pulled you back."
Wilmington shook his head and looked away as he took another drink from the bottle.
"You have to think about JD, Buck."
The normally jovial man scowled furiously at his long time friend. "Don't, Chris."
It was the Team Seven leader talking now. "I'll use whatever motivation I have to get my team to think about their actions and reactions. You have responsibilities now, Buck."
"I know what I have. And I know what I need to do. But I'm also an ATF agent and it's my job to protect my teammates as well as the public."
Chris pinched the bridge of his nose before running his finger and thumb outward, across his eyelids. "You're right. You have a responsibility to the team. But you need to temper your responses. You don't have to jump in front of a gun to protect the others."
"Hell, Chris, its second nature to me to just react. If I have to think of 'alternate responses', someone is going to get hurt."
"Then maybe we need to run some practices to work on those reactions. Training is a good thing, Buck."
Wilmington shook his head. "Chris, I know what I'm doing."
The blond's knee dropped as he leaned forward. "Did you know what you were doing when you decided to take JD in? Do you recognize the responsibility that you've taken on? YOUR responsibility, Buck. Not mine. You made that choice when you decided to request to foster care the boy. Your life isn't your own, anymore. Something happens to you, then what happens to JD?"
Buck's face blanched and then turned dark in anger. In a barely controlled voice, he growled, "I know that he's my responsibility. I " His anger dissipated as he considered Larabee's words. "I guess I just forget in the heat of a firefight. It ain't like I plan on getting' hurt."
Chris sat back. "Good. Then you know that you need to be careful." He reached out and slapped Wilmington's knee. "I know you love that little boy; that you'd do anything for him. I'm only asking you to slow down and think before you put yourself in more danger than is called for."
Larabee watched as Buck slowly nodded. "No more John Wayne heroics, okay?"
"I'll try, Chris. I can't just sit around and see someone get hurt if I can stop it."
"Yeah, well, I wouldn't want you to. I understand about today. But I don't want to be to one to come home and tell that little boy that his daddy is dreaming of angels."
Buck chuckled slightly. "Yeah, well, just remember your own words, cause I don't want to have to say the same thing to Vin. I'll be more careful if you will. Deal?"
They looked at each other for a moment before the beer bottles were raised to clink together. "Deal."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Buck asked quietly, "Chris? If something were to happen, you'd take care of JD, right?"
Chris shook his head, not even bothering to look at the man. "Asshole," he mumbled.
"You tell 'im?"
Vin sighed. "You said you were going to tell Buck goodnight. Couldn't ya find 'im?"
"Oh, yeah, I forgot."
The little blond looked over the edge of his upper bunk. "You crying?"
"NO. Leave me alone."
"JD, you mad at Buck?"
The little boy sniffed as he shook his head. "I's just sleepy, Vin. Can we just go to sleep? Please?"
Vin watched as the younger boy curled into a tight ball under the sheet. Rolling back over he sighed as the sounds of crying drifted up from the lower bed.
Buck glanced up as Vin wandered into the kitchen the next morning, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Morning, Junior. You awake?"
The boy nodded as he took a seat at the table even as he yawned.
Chris was at the stove, finishing the eggs. He turned and smiled at the little blond as he asked, "You wash up for breakfast?"
Vin sat frowning as he considered the question and finally shook his head.
"Well, go wash your face and hands." He watched as the boy took a deep breath and sighed before slipping out of the chair and heading for the door. "Vin, tell JD to get up so we can eat."
"Okay" he mumbled as he disappeared around the corner.
A few minutes later he returned much more alert. "Morning, Dad. Morning, Buck."
"And morning to you," Chris said. He had finished the eggs and had fixed plates of food while Buck had poured milk for the boys and coffee for the men.
"JD up, Vin?"
The seven year old shook his head as he swallowed a mouthful of milk. "I tried to get him up, but he just mumbled and turned back."
Vin didn't look at the man as he spoke, prompting Buck to ask, "Is he okay?" Usually JD would respond to the older boy faster than any of the adults. It was unusual for him to ignore the commands of the boy that had sheltered him for months on the street.
"I guess," Vin answered but again he avoided making eye contact with Buck.
Frowning, Wilmington stood. "I better go check on 'im. Be right back."
As the tall man left the room, Chris turned a questioning eye on his son. "Vin?"
Guiltily, the boy glanced up and away quickly. Larabee waited. Finally, Vin put down the fork he was fiddling with and sat back.
"He was crying last night. But he wouldn't tell me what was wrong." He looked up, waiting for the man's reaction. His shoulders relaxed as Chris nodded and smiled, gently.
"Don't worry. Buck will take care of it. Eat your breakfast before it gets cold."
Vin nodded and brought a fork full of eggs to up his mouth. Chewing, he made appreciative noises. After swallowing, he scooped up some more as he said, "I like 'em scrambled with cheese, Dad. Buck likes to fry 'em till they's too dry."
"Yeah, he's not too fond of 'chasing' his eggs, is he?"
Vin giggled as he recalled the last time Chris had made eggs over easy and Wilmington had made the mistake of complaining that the eggs were still raw. It had taken JD a split second to pick up on the man's distaste and refuse to eat his own eggs until they were cooked again.
"Nah. And now JD won't eat 'em runny either. He liked 'em that way until Buck said he didn't."
Chris smiled, thinking that Vin had also expressed Larabee's own views on some things to be more like the man, but he didn't say anything to the boy, only nodded and instructed him to finish up.
Buck entered the room to find JD still curled up under the covers. He sat down on the edge of the bed and patted the little lump.
"Hey, Little Bit, time to get up."
Incoherent mumbling issued from the bulge but it didn't move. The man tried again. This brought on a response of one leg kicking out slightly.
Worrying that the boy was ill, Buck peeled back the covers to reveal the dark mop of hair.
"JD? Come on, son. It's time to get up."
Divested of the warmth, the little boy rolled over, rubbing his eyes. Buck frowned at the red eyes and crusty nose. His hand reached out to caress the boy's forehead. Though warm, it wasn't overly hot and he relaxed, realizing that there was no fever.
"You feel okay?"
JD nodded even as he climbed into the man's lap for security. Buck rubbed the small back with one hand as the other cradled the boy's head close to his chest. They sat quietly for a couple of minutes.
Finally, the man leaned back to look at the boy's face. "Breakfast is getting cold. Why don't we get you washed up and go eat?"
The boy shrugged but didn't move. With a sigh, Buck gathered him into his arms and stood up, heading for the boys' bathroom. Minutes later, they entered the kitchen where he sat the child in his chair and moved it up to the table.
Vin and Chris were finished eating but remained at the table working on their drinks and talking about their plans for the weekend.
"Good morning, JD," Chris greeted. The little boy squinted at the man and nodded but didn't speak as he sluggishly forked some eggs into his mouth.
Larabee glanced at his partner and received a shrug in response. Well, everyone's entitled to a bad morning, he figured. Even effervescent little boys.
As JD and Buck ate, Chris inquired about their plans for the weekend in two days.
"Dad and I are going on a ride. We're going to the waterfalls and spend the night," Vin informed the new arrivals.
"You are? Camping sounds like fun. But I think JD and me are going to do the town. Right, kiddo?"
JD sat with one hand supporting his head and looked up at the man's comment and nodded.
"JD, take your elbow off the table, please," Chris instructed as he took a drink of coffee.
The boy eyed the man for a moment before complying then turned his attention back to his plate. Frowning, Chris glanced at Buck who sat watching the dark haired boy with a questioning look on his face. The boy's behavior was out of character and made the man think that he might be getting sick. Blue eyes moved from the boy to his young friend. Vin just sat there, his hands folded in his lap and his face composed into a noncommittal expression.
The two men glanced at each other and then back to the boys. They wondered silently if something was brewing and if there was the trouble was between the two kids or something else. The sound of an approaching vehicle and the greeting howls and yips of the two pups announced the arrival of Gloria Potter. Whatever the problem was, it would have to wait until after they got home from work. Both men mentally made notes to have a family pow-wow that evening.
Buck shoveled in the last of his eggs as he stood and headed to the sink. By the time the woman had parked and entered through the mud room, the table had been cleared of the breakfast dishes except for the plate that JD was still working on.
After greeting the housekeeper, the men gathered phones and keys. Vin returned to his room, JD in tow, to dress. Chris had gone out to start the truck as Buck grabbed JD's half full plate and scraped the remains into the trash. He rinsed the plate quickly and turned to the woman even as he glanced over his shoulder to the doorway.
"Gloria, I think JD might be coming down with something. Could you keep a close eye on 'im for me? Call me if he gets worse?"
"Of course. What's wrong?"
Buck shook his head as he shrugged. "Nothing that I can put my finger on. He's just acting funny."
She patted the man's arm. "Don't worry. I'll watch over him. If anything comes up, I'll call immediately. You go on. Chris is waiting."
"Thanks, ma'am." He pecked her on the cheek and hustled out the door even as the horn tooted outside.
The woman turned and headed to the bedroom to check on the two little boys.
Thursday progressed slowly for JD. The morning was spent feeding the various animals. The boys had to clean out the dog pen and the aquarium that housed Torkus. After a snack midmorning, Gloria asked the boys to straighten their room and the two headed off to the back of the house. The housekeeper made note that Vin had eaten all the fruit on his plate, but the younger boy had left half of his untouched. With a sigh, she cleared the table. She removed the vacuum cleaner from the closet in the mudroom and started cleaning the bedrooms.
JD and Vin picked up the toys and books that were spread around the floor and the desk. They pulled the bedding off for washing which the housekeeper did each Thursday. Together, they got clean sheets onto JD's lower bunk, but the upper one was left to Vin. He tossed the bottom sheet onto the bed and crawled around tucking it in.
"JD? Toss up the other sheet."
Giggling, JD tossed the sheet up and watched as it came straight back down.
Vin rolled his eyes and sighed. "JD, stop messing around."
The younger boy grabbed the sheet and climbing onto the ladder, he went up two rungs and handed the wad of cloth to the blond boy.
The little boy dropped to the floor as he answered back, "You're welcome."
Plopping on the lower bed, JD lay back and watched as Vin crawled around, finishing the chore.
"Do you think Buck loves you as much as me?"
Finished with the bed, the blond lay on his stomach and looked over the edge of the bed at his friend. "Well yeah."
The boy's shoulders lifted to meet the dark, shaggy hair.
"Is that okay with you?"
Vin's voice had an edge to it that drew JD's eyes up. "Well, sure. I think it's cool that we have two dads to watch out for us."
"So what's with the questions?"
Again, JD shrugged.
Rolling his eyes, Vin flipped over and climbed down. Starting toward the door, he glanced over his shoulder, stating, "Dad and Buck love us equal. I don't know why you're acting so weird today." He exited the room, mumbling under his breath.
His quick exit caused him to miss the tears and shaking head. "I don't think so. I'm Buck's 'sponsiblity, not Chris'."
He wiped his eyes and swiped his arm across his nose and then stood and dejectedly followed the older boy.
The boys played outside with the dogs until they were called in for lunch. The meal was a quiet affair as the normally chattering JD remained silent and unresponsive. While Gloria was accustomed to Vin's silence, it was unusual for the younger boy. She covertly checked his temperature under the pretense of brushing hair from his face. Not finding the soft skin too warm, she worried at the unusual quiet.
"JD, are you feeling okay, baby?"
She nodded. Raising the lilt of her voice, she offered a little incentive to the listless youth. "We have chocolate pudding for dessert, soon as you finish your sandwich."
JD perked up a bit, taking another couple of bites of the ham sandwich. When his progress slowed, she casually added, "With bananas."
Both boys smiled and the plates were quickly cleaned. Feeling a little better, the woman pulled the two cups of pudding from the refrigerator and set them in front of the two kids. By the time she had cleaned the dishes, the boys were finished eating and asked to be excused. At her nod, they pushed away from the table and headed to the back door.
"Wash your hands and faces, please."
They reversed direction and left the kitchen, heading for the bathroom. A minute later, they were once again heading out the back door.
Gloria followed, wiping her damp hands on a towel. She peeked out to see the two kids heading for the tree house. Once they started up the ramp, the two dogs on their heels, she turned to the washing machine to start washing the sheets from the three rooms.
"Vin, you want to play sheriff and robber? You can be the sheriff."
JD chewed his lip as he patted Elvis on the head. The pup was laying next to the boy, his head resting in the boy's lap, panting. Ignoring the warm drool as it ran down his thigh, the boy tried again.
"How 'bout we play something else?"
"Nah. I just want to sit here."
"Want to play a game? I can go get one from the house," JD offered.
"Nah. Just going to sit and relax. Quietly. Dr Will says we should not play together all the time."
"Oh," JD sighed. His head dropped and he sat unspeaking for a couple of minutes. When he finally looked up, he saw the older boy stretched out, his head resting on the stomach of the malamute pup, his eyes closed.
Finally, the dark haired boy stood to trudge down the ramp to the ground. He headed to the jungle gym and sat slowly swinging, his sneakers kicking up dust as his feet dragged the ground. Elvis sat patiently, his head cocked to one side, waiting.
A few minutes passed. JD tired of swinging by himself and stepped away from the jungle gym. He patted the dog as he fell into place at his side. Looking around, JD decided to head to the house.
The housekeeper was stooped over, pulling sheets from the dryer. She turned as the boy and dog entered. "Yes, JD?"
"Can I help?"
The woman's heart ached at the lost expression on the child's face. He looked so forlorn. "Oh, sweetie. I'm just about finished. Oh, I know. How would you like to fold the pillowcases?"
JD perked up and his hair bounced as he nodded. "I can do that."
"Good." She turned around and picked the pillowcases out. She carried them to the kitchen and sat them on the table. "Why don't you wash your hands and then climb up into this chair?"
JD ran down the hall only to return a few moments later and climbed into the chair, sitting on his knees.
"Hands clean and dry?"
He obediently held them up for inspection.
"Okay. Now, I'll do one and then you can do the others."
She slowly folded the linen, showing the boy each step. "Think you can do that?"
The boy's head bobbed and he reached for a pillowcase. He smoothed the material down and carefully mimicked the woman's moves. When he was finished, he looked up for Gloria's reaction.
Smiling, she nodded as she patted the child's back. "That is very good, JD. You want to do the rest while I get the sheets?"
"Yes, ma'am." He reached out and took another pillowcase as the woman moved off.
Within a few minutes, all the sheets were folded and ready to be put away. JD and Elvis followed the housekeeper to the closet where sheets and towels were kept. After she stored them away, she turned and leaned down.
"So. What would you like to do now?"
The boy shrugged and she glanced around. "You don't want to go outside and play with Vin?"
JD's head dropped and his arm looped over the dog's neck in comfort. "Vin don't want ta play. He just wants to be quiet."
"Oh, I see." She ran her hand through the boy's hair, pushing it back. "Would you like to watch a video?"
JD scrunched his face as he considered the question. He ended up shaking his head. The two stood thinking for a few moments when JD asked, "Can I write to Joey?"
"Certainly, JD. You mean on the computer, right?"
The boy's head nodded vigorously causing Gloria to chuckle.
"All right, then. Let's go get you set up."
They moved into the office where the computer was and she turned it on and logged onto the site the boys used for writing email to friends. After it was loaded, she raised the chair up to accommodate the short child. JD jumped into the chair and then pulled the keyboard down to sit across the arms of the chair. Using the mouse had been a problem for both boys, but Buck had alleviated the problem by getting a wireless one for the computer. Chris built a tray that hung on the arms of the office chair that allowed the boys to sit back in the chair and set the keyboard down at a level comfortable for them. The new mouse rested in a pocket on the side, ready for use.
"You all set?"
"Wonderful. You call me when you get done so I can help you with the tray. Okay?"
JD's hair swayed as he nodded, his attention already turned to the computer. He didn't notice as the woman left the room, leaving him and his dog alone.
Hi Joey. Its JD. How are you. I am good. I really miss you. Are you having fun in your new home. Its summer here and we do not have to go to school. I thawt it would be a lot of fun but its not. Vin don't want to play with me much. He says that dr will wants us to play by ourselfs but its no fun that way.
Da got a big brews on his face cause he walked into a wall but I think that he got hurt at work but nobody is telling me cause they don't want me to be scared. I herd Chris and Da talking about it. I don't think Chris wants me here cause I aint his repond I aint his son. He told Da to not take chances at work cause if something happined to Da then Chris would have to take me only he wants Vin not me. Da wanted me. Maybe that is why Vin don't play with me anymore. It makes me sad cause I thawt that Chris liked me.
I better go. Da and Chris will be home soon. Da and me are going to go to town and do some thing this weekend and Chris and Vin are going to go camping and riding. I wish I could go but they did not ask me.
But that's ok cause I get to have Da all to my self.
Bye. I will write soon. Hope you are having fun.
JD clicked send and waited until the 'sent' message came up. With a sigh, he continued to sit, looking at the screen for a few minutes as tears ran down his face. Finally, he wiped at his face, scrubbing off the salty wetness before calling to the woman.
"Miz Potter, I gotta go."
Moments later, she appeared at the door and quickly lifted the tray up, releasing the boy. JD jumped down and headed for the bathroom. The woman chuckled as the boy cried out, "No Elvis, you stay out here." Then the wooden door slammed closed. She logged off the computer and put everything back where it belonged. Making a note in the log the men requested she keep track of the boys' use of the computer in, she headed back to the kitchen to complete the evening meal. It was only moments later that the boy came into the kitchen.
"JD, why don't you go get, Vin and I'll make a snack for you both."
The boy ran out the door with the dog right behind him. They ran across the yard and thundered up the ramp to find Vin and Ringo sitting, looking out over the landscape.
"Vin!" JD huffed out. He squatted down breathing hard and Vin laughed as Elvis took the opportunity to give the younger boy 'puppy kisses', knocking the small boy on his back in the process.
"ELVIS! Don't! Yuck, your breath smells." JD's hands and feet were attempting to fend off the animal's affections without much success and only served to excite him even more. Elvis bounced around the small body, licking and barking, wanting to play after the rest he had gotten in the house.
Taking pity on his young friend, Vin crawled over and took hold of the puppy's collar and pulled him away from JD. At that point, Ringo decided to get in on the action and he joined in the fun. Soon the pups were wrestling as the boys sat and watched.
Remembering the promise of a snack, JD turned to the older boy. "Miz Potter said to come in and get a snack, Vin."
The blond nodded and stood up. "Ringo. Elvis. Stop."
Obediently, the dogs stopped playing and ran over to stand by their respective kid. The foursome trouped down the ramp and headed into the house. They stopped in the mud room to wash up while the pups moved into to the kitchen following the wonderful aromas that often meant treats for the pair. By the time the boys' hands and faces were clean, the housekeeper had juice and cookies set up in the front room.
"Would you like to watch TV for a while?" the woman asked, glancing at her watch. To the boys' nods, she retrieved the remote and handed it to Vin, saying, "Vin, it's your turn to pick the channel. I'll be in the kitchen. Your fathers are due home in a couple of hours and dinner will ready an hour after that, so you two eat your snacks so it has time to digest before dinner."
When the woman peeked in a half hour later, the two boys were asleep. Vin was sprawled on floor, his hands tucked under his head and JD was tucked into Buck's chair. Ringo was laying next to Vin while Elvis lay at the foot of the chair. The two canines raised their heads at her entrance and she held up her hand in a 'stay' motion. Both animals lay their heads back down, disregarding the woman as she picked up the plates and glasses and returned to the kitchen.
The naps lasted for another half hour with the sounds of laughter signaling their end. Gloria worked on finishing the meal preparations, leaving the final touches for the men to complete.
"Vin? JD? I need you boys to set the table, please."
The boys trotted into the kitchen. Vin pulled out the step stool and climbed up to get the plates. JD opened the drawer and gathered the silverware and followed Vin around the small kitchen table, placing the utensils next to the plates.
"Thank you, boys. How about you go outside and play for a bit? It's almost time for your fathers to be home."
"Okay, Miz Potter." Vin turned and headed to the back door, calling to the other boy as he moved, "Come on, JD. Let's go play on the jungle gym."
"Yea! Come on, Elvis."
The group headed out the door in a cavalcade of bodies and noise. She laughed softly at the energy of the two boys and change in attitude of the youngest.
It was a little over an hour later when a dust trail indicated the arrival of the two agents. Both boys were in the treehouse, which for the time served as a sailing ship with Vin as the Captain and JD as first mate. The two pups were serving as crewmen, meaning they were running around the deck, barking at the approaching truck.
"Captain Vin! Pirates off the the Vin, which way is that?"
"I don't know. It don't matter."
"Oh, okay" JD shrugged. He got back into character and pointed at the black truck. "Pirates off the port side, Captain. What should we do?"
The little blond pulled himself up straight and surveyed the surrounding area. By this time, the truck had rolled to a stop and the two men had gotten out. Having spied the boys in the treehouse, they started in that direction. Vin's eyes widened as he ran to the rope that pulled up the ramp.
"Get ready to to propel boarders."
"Don't let 'em onto the ship."
"Oh," JD replied. His voice rose as he yelled, "Hey, wait a minute. Come back here."
Seeing the trusted adults, the pups had bounded down the ramp before it was totally raised.
"The crew has 'banded ship, Cap'ain Vin."
The blond continued to haul the ramp up, tying it in place.
"That's okay. We're safe now." He leaned over the railing, squinting down at the two men. "Turn yourselves in, pirates. We're the King's men and he wants us to clean the seas of pirates."
"Yeah," JD added as he stood on his toes to peer over the railing. "You better give up."
Buck was squatted on the ground, petting the dogs and he glanced up at his old friend. Chris was glaring up, but there was a twinkle in his eyes. Still dressed in his suit, he took a step forward, his fists planted on his hips.
"I'm Captain Black and I'll not give up without a fight. My crew will board your ship and take you hostage unless you surrender now. Lower your boarding ramp and I might spare your lives."
"Never" Captain Vin called back. Turning to his first mate, the seven-year old barked out orders. "Prepare for battle, JD."
The raven-haired boy whooped with delight and ran into the tree house to retrieve their arsenal. The boys had a bucket of 'weapons' and JD dragged it out as below, Chris pulled off his coat and headed toward the tree.
"Hurry, JD, he's coming."
"I'm here. Here, you throw it."
Vin took the bundle and aimed it at his father's head. The bundle missed the blond hair, instead landing on the dark shirt. Larabee staggered as the hay bundle exploded and showered him with fresh hay.
"What the " He reached up and dusted his shirt, noticing the bit of string that had held the bundle together as it clung to his sleeve.
"Look out, Chris! Incoming!" Wilmington shouted. His howls of laughter set the pups off and they quickly joined in, running and leaping around Chris as the second bundle landed in his hair.
The man shook the hay from his hair and glanced up in time to sidestep the next assault, almost tripping over one of the dogs as he did. "Oops, sorry, Elvis."
Seeing the dog was uninjured, he sprinted to the huge tree and the shelter that it offered. Bundles of hay pelted the ground at his feet. On reaching his goal, he turned to see Buck standing well out of the boy's range.
"Come on, 'crew', thought you were going to help" he called out.
"Sorry, stud. I'm a lover, not a fighter."
"Chicken shit" Larabee muttered as he flicked Wilmington off. The man's response was to laugh even harder. Above his head, he could hear the boys moving around in an attempt to see him. He moved slowly and quietly toward the ramp.
"Ringo! Elvis! Where's dad? Where's dad?"
Seeing the dogs bound toward him, he glanced around. Spying a stick, he grabbed it and heaved it as far as he could past the tree. He grinned as the thump of small feet moved around the tree house, away from the ramp watching the dogs run. Moving quickly, he grabbed the wooden ramp and hefted himself up.
"Careful there, Chris. You wouldn't want to explain about how you fell out of a tree at your age."
Larabee glanced back to see that Buck had lowered the tailgate of the truck and sat, watching the show from his safe vantage point. The big man laughed as he was once again flipped off. The boys' voices drew the man's head back around.
"Where is he, Vin? I don't see 'im."
"I think he's trying to trick us."
Chris ducked into the tree house just as the boys started back around. As they both reappeared, he jumped out and grabbed Vin around the waist.
Screams split the air, closely followed by peals of laughter, as the boy realized he had been boarded and captured. JD stood bouncing as he watched Larabee tickle the older boy. JD wanted to join in the play, but he hesitated, remembering Chris' words to Buck, wondering if Chris would resent the intrusion. In that moment of hesitation, the two more somber members of the household stopped their horseplay and sat back, sighing.
Chris stood up and dusted the knees of his pants. Reaching out, he released the rope and lowered the ramp.
"Come on, boys. We need to change and do chores so we can eat."
Chris draped his arm across Vin's shoulders as the boy moved next to the man's side. They walked down the ramp as Vin proceeded to tell his father about their day. JD stood with his arms hanging limp from drooping shoulders, his eyes following the two before dropping to stare at the wooden floor.
"Little Bit?" a gentle voice asked. JD raised his tear filled eyes up to meet Buck's blue gaze. "You okay, son?"
Wiping his eyes, the boy pasted a smile on his face. "Chris cheated." He ran down the ramp and charged into the waiting arms of his father. He squealed as the man tossed him into the air.
"Well, that's what pirates do. They cheat. Next time you and Vin will win," the man said as he planted the small boy onto his hip. Concerned eyes looked closely at the boy's face. "That why you were crying? Because Chris won?"
Hazel eyes glanced up and away quickly. Crossing his arms over his chest, the boy said, "Not supposed to cheat. It's not nice."
Buck frowned, but let it slide. He and the boy would have most of the weekend together and he would have time to ferret out whatever it was that JD was not saying.
"No, it's not nice. But then pirates weren't nice."
He started toward and house, pausing at the truck to grab Larabee's suit coat. Seeing the dogs charging back from escorting the two blonds to the house, he tossed the jacket over the raven-haired boy and started dancing around the yapping animals.
"Hold on, JD! We're under attack" he laughed.
Laughing, the boy pulled the garment down and watched as the dogs bounded around the man. He held onto the coat with one arm while the other clung to Wilmington's neck. Finally reaching the porch, Buck staggered through the door.
"Whew!! Made it. Thought them monsters were gonna eat us alive." He grinned at the little boy in his arms, relieved to see the sparkle in the hazel eyes. He once again vowed to find the source of JD's subdued mood.
"Now, while I change, why don't you take that coat to Chris? If we hurry, maybe we can get a few minutes of riding in before supper."
"YEAH!" JD shrieked and tore off toward the bedrooms.
"No running in the house, young man." Gloria was just coming out of the kitchen as the boy rounded the corner. She reached out and stroked his hair as he slid to a stop.
"See ya tomorrow, Miz Potter. Love ya," he declared as he hugged her waist. He picked up the black coat he had dropped to hug the housekeeper and headed down the hall at a slower pace.
Gloria looked up and shook her head. Buck just shrugged.
"Dinner is almost done. Just fix the salad and you'll be ready. Meatloaf should be ready in ten minutes. You can just turn the oven down to warm and it'll sit until you are done outside."
"Thanks, Gloria. See ya in the morning."
"Have a good evening, Buck."
Buck headed to his room to change as the door slapped closed behind him. He took a deep whiff of the delicious aroma as he passed the kitchen.
" yeah, and he was making me crazy today, Dad. He's always talking and wanting to do stuff. Don't understand why he can't just sit down and be quiet."
Hearing Vin's words, the five year old stopped just outside of Larabee's bedroom.
"Vin, he's just a different personality than you. You're quiet and JD's well, JD's not."
"Yeah, but don't it make you all crazy sometimes, Dad?"
"Vin, by the time we get back on Sunday, you'll be glad that your little brother loves to talk. You'll be tired of the quiet and no one to play with."
JD heard the other boy sigh heavily. "Two whole days with no JD. No yelling. No 'what can we do now, Vin'. No 'boring, boring, boring. It'll be great."
Tucking his lip under his top teeth, the little boy stood frozen in the hallway, the coat forgotten. The sounds of Buck whistling in his room drew his attention and he started back down the hall, the coat lying on the floor in front of Chris' room, forgotten.
Buck slipped into his work jeans, he whistled merrily. Life was good. He loved his job and his co-workers. His oldest friend was finally living again, thanks to a seven-year old boy. But most of all, he had found something that he hadn't even realized he wanted a son. The mere thought of the little five year old waif caused his heart to beat faster.
Lost in his musings, he failed to notice the raven-haired boy as he entered, but a sniffling sound had his head whipping around. He frowned at the sight of the boy's tear streaked face, wondering what had happened to the happy child of a few minutes before.
"JD? What's wrong, son?"
One arm hung limply at the boy's side as the other wiped at his nose. "I don't feel good, Da."
Buck squatted down, his open shirt draping to either side of his legs. He held out his hands and the boy slowly moved between them. The man pulled the small body close and laid his head on the dark hair.
"What's the matter, Little Bit? Your tummy hurt? Or your head?" He found himself smiling sadly as the boy nodded. "Which one, son?"
There were a couple of moments of silence before a soft reply came. "Head hurts." He leaned into the comfort of his father's grip.
"Head hurts, huh?"
Buck stood up, holding the boy in his arms. "Well, maybe if you eat a little supper "
"Noo!" JD clutched at the man's shirt.
Patting the boy's back, Buck cooed, "That's okay. You don't have to eat. Let's go sit down and relax for a bit." He moved to his bed and sat down. Slowly, he ran his hand up and down the narrow back, speaking softly to soothe the child even as he continued to sniff and wipe at his nose.
Chris finished changing and exited the bathroom to see Vin splayed out across the big bed. He walked over and patted the boy's stomach causing the boy to curl up, giggling.
Sitting down on the bed, the man looked at the boy as he sat up, smiling. "Vin, those things you said about JD "
The boy's blue eyes dropped, causing Larabee to reach out and lift the young face up.
"I know that you don't really mean anything when you say those things, but they're still hurtful."
"I'd never, ever say that to JD. I love 'im and I'd never want to hurt 'im."
"And I know that, but words have a way of getting back to people." Chris saw the pain of realization in the blue eyes of the young boy and he draped his arm over the slender shoulders in support. "Vin, I realize that JD's enthusiasm can be aggravating at times, but that is one of the things that makes him the 'JD' that we love. So no more talk about how nice it'll be to not have him around for a while."
Tear filled blue eyes blinked, pushing the tears out to run down the slender face. "I understand, Dad. I won't do it again."
Larabee hugged the boy as he said, "Have I told you lately what a great kid you are?"
Vin's answer was to return the hug.
Breaking apart, Chris slapped his hands onto his knees. "How about we go get the chores done?"
"Yeah." And the boy hopped off the bed.
Larabee followed him out the door but stopped to stoop and retrieve his coat. Tossing it onto the bed, he wondered why Buck had dropped it there instead of tossing it into the room.
Moving down the hall, he glanced into the younger man's room to see JD huddled in Wilmington's lap. He started in but the big man waved him off with a shake of his head. Feeling a warmth at his leg, he looked down to see a worried Vin leaning in.
He leaned over and spoke softly into the boy's ear. "Let's go outside. Buck'll take care of JD."
As they moved into the family room, Vin glanced back, asking, "Is JD okay?"
"I'm sure his is. Let's go take care of the animals so Buck can stay with JD."
"Okay. Buck's good with 'im."
Chris nodded as he pushed the door open and they moved outside where they were greeted by the pups. "You feed the dogs and I'll head to the barn."
They were both in the barn when Buck came out thirty minutes later.
"You boys got all the work done yet?"
"Buck," Vin turned at the voice. " Is JD okay?"
Wilmington finger combed back the fine blond hair that was stuck to the boy's face as he smiled down at the boy. "He's fine. He's sleeping."
Chris had finished checking the tack for that weekend's trip and he joined the other two at the front of the barn. "What's going on, Buck?"
"JD said he had a headache. I gave him some children's Tylenol. He's asleep now."
Chris stood with one gloved hand on his hip and the other one gripping a stall rail. "He was fine in the tree house."
Wilmington nodded. "He doesn't have a fever. I figure he just got too much sun today and once he slowed down, it hit him."
The blond nodded. "Well, we'll let him sleep 'til dinner's ready. See how he's doing then."
Buck rubbed his hands together. "So, what's left?"
The three went back to work. There were the daily chores as well as preparations for the weekend trial ride to be done. Working together, they made short work of the chores and headed back inside. After removing their boots, Chris and Vin washed in the mudroom while Buck headed back to check on JD. He found the boy curled up in the middle of the bed, still sleeping. He continued on into the bathroom to clean up before waking the boy.
Sitting on the side of the bed, he leaned over the boy and stroked the black hair back from his forehead, checking the temperature of the skin. The boy felt warm still, but the man knew that happened when the boys napped during the day. He sat just watching the child sleep, his eyes roving over the small body, and a smile tugged at his lips. With a sigh, he moved his hand from the dark hair to the boy's hip and he patted his hand.
"JD? Wake up, Little Bit."
Black eyelashes fluttered and finally pulled open. He smiled as he stretched and then jumped up to hug the man's neck.
"Well, I guess you're feeling better?"
JD's smile diminished slightly, but he had his head buried in Buck's neck so the man didn't see, only felt the boy nod.
After returning the hug, Buck asked if he was hungry. His answer was another nod from the boy causing the man to relax a bit. JD being hungry was a good sign that he was feeling better. So, clutching the boy to his chest, he stood and headed to the kitchen.
Chris and Vin were finished setting the table and placing the food on the table. They both looked up and smiled to see the five year old up and apparently ready to eat.
Buck set JD in his chair and then took his own seat.
"You want some juice or milk?" Chris asked.
"Could I have Sprite, please?"
"Sure," Chris said. He poured the soda into a glass and set it down in front of the boy.
JD glanced over to see Vin watching him as the men put food on the kids' plates, but he just turned his attention to his meal and didn't acknowledge the other boy's glance.
The meal was a quiet affair with the boys answering direct questions but not adding to the conversation. After they were done, the table was cleared and the leftovers put away. The family then moved to the front room. Without a conscious plan the two sets of sons and dads moved to different areas of the room to go over their plans for the weekend.
Chris and Vin worked on where they would ride and what they would take. While they wanted to be comfortable, Chris was trying to avoid having to take a pack horse.
Meanwhile, Buck was telling JD about his plans for them to enjoy the amenities that Denver had to offer for children's entertainment. JD had already requested that Buck and he go to see 'Garfield'. Buck also wanted to take the boy to a new pizza place that had arcade games for the patrons to play on Friday night.
Giggles and soft voices filled the evening and before anyone realized, it was time for baths and bed. Chris and Vin had gone to the kitchen to pick out food for the trip, so Buck took JD in for his bath.
When the two blonds headed to bed, Chris was surprised to see JD in Wilmington's room, already asleep. Buck was just coming out of the bathroom as Larabee stuck his head in the door.
Gesturing toward the bed with his chin, he asked, "He okay?"
"Yeah, just asked if he could sleep in here." He shrugged at the other man's expression. "I know, I know. I shouldn't baby 'im and I don't plan to make it a habit, but he's still a little off. I hate to think that he's getting sick right here at the weekend. "
Chris nodded. "I better go check on Vin. I'll see ya in the morning. Don't forget, we're taking separate trucks tomorrow, so I can leave early."
"I won't. Night, Chris."
Buck pushed the door closed and headed to bed. He shook his head as he looked at the little body sprawled out across the middle of the bed, hoping he would be able to find a comfortable position.
The next day didn't pass fast enough for Vin. In a total role reversal, the normally shy seven-year-old babbled all day while the usually effervescent JD was subdued and quiet.
Vin was busy grooming Peso when JD came in to ask Gloria if he could use the computer. Getting it logged on for the child and seeing him settled, she returned to the kitchen. JD checked and found an email from Joey. Opening it, he began to read, his lips moving as his eyes took in the words.
Hi JD. I got your letter and I think that you are wrong. Mr. Larabee was scary looking when I first met him, but he was nice. If he did not want you and your daddy to live at his house, he would say that.
I'm having a lot of fun. We are out of school to and I have been taking riding lessons. I can ride by myself now. I hope that you and Vin can come visit me some day and we can go riding.
I have to go now but I think that Mr. Larabee loves you like he loves Vin.
Have a good week.
At four o'clock, thirty-five minutes late, the black Dodge Ram wheeled in and stopped, a cloud of dust rolling over it. Chris jumped from the truck, ignoring the dust cloud and headed for the house. Vin met him halfway, his eyes wide with excitement.
"Sorry, I'm late, cowboy. I got caught in some traffic. You ready to go?"
"Yeah. Well, almost. I got my clothes together."
Chris ruffled the blond hair and laughed. "Well, that's a start. We better hurry, Horses aren't even saddled and we're already running late."
They entered the house where Gloria was vacuuming. She nodded an acknowledgement as the two passed through. Chris peeked in to see that JD was in the office, at the computer.
"Hey, JD" he called. The boy glanced over his shoulder.
"Hi, Chris. I'm writing to Joey."
"Well, that's nice. Tell her hi for me."
"K" the boy responded. He turned back to his letter.
Chris moved down the hall, Vin following in his wake. The boy sat on the bed while he changed.
"Let's get the horses saddled. Then we'll come back and get the supplies," Chris said as he tucked in his shirt.
JD sat quietly as the two passed by the office door once again. Even though he was still hurt from the words, the chance to pet the horses was calling to him and he followed them out.
Gloria watched as first Chris and Vin, and then JD, trooped out the door. She sighed at the sight of the five year old. He was definitely not acting like himself and, try as she might, and she did try, she could not get him to tell her what was wrong. The housekeeper had thought about asking the older boy, but Vin was too excited about his weekend to even notice that his little 'brother' was unhappy. Knowing that Buck would have two days to discover the problem, she decided to not ruin the little blond's good mood, he was so rarely exuberant.
She returned to the vacuuming, saying a quick prayer for the unhappy five year old. The noise of the vacuum cleaner prevented her hearing the phone as it rang.
Chris led Pony out the gate with Vin following with Peso. They tied the animals to the fence and headed back to get their packs.
"JD? You coming?"
"Yes, sir." Dropping off the lower rail of the fence, the little boy followed behind.
They entered the house and began to gather their things. JD returned to the office and his email to Joey.
"Mr. Larabee, I missed the phone ringing. The light is on on the machine."
"Oh, thanks. Gloria."
He headed to the office to check the message. As he entered and reached for the play button, JD ran past him, the slamming of the bathroom door revealing his destination.
He started the machine.
Chris stepped out into the hall. "Yes, Vin.?
The man rolled his eyes as the boy's voice faded. Moving down to the boys' room, he missed the voice on the machine.
"Hey, stud. Travis called. I have to do a stakeout with Team Eight tonight. Couple of the guys were involved in a car wreck. They're okay, but can't work tonight. You'll have to take JD on the camping trip. Tell 'im I'll make it up next weekend. Okay? Sorry about the late notice. I'll see ya'll on Sunday."
"Vin, you sure you don't want to take Cat?"
"Nah. I wouldn't want anything to happen to him. JD can take care of 'im for me."
Chris glanced around. "Where is that boy? JD?"
The boys' bath opened and a dark head peeked out.
"We're heading out." Chris squatted down, holding his arms out. JD moved out and into the clasp. Hugging the small form, the man whispered to him. "I'll miss you. Have fun this weekend. Okay?" The boy nodded slightly and the man placed a kiss in the raven locks.
Vin moved forward and hugged the boy next. "See ya on Sunday, JD. I hope you and Buck have fun."
Once again, the boy nodded, but didn't say anything.
The two blonds headed out through the mudroom, telling the housekeeper goodbye as they passed through the kitchen. JD moved to the front window and watched as the pair rode off. Gloria stood just inside the door, shaking her head.
"JD? How about we watch a video? You want to pick out your favorite?"
"Okay" he said as he slipped off the bench under the window.
Four hours later, the boy was once again at the window, watching for his father to arrive home. He had watched a video and then asked to use the computer. But as time passed, he became more anxious, worried about the tall, dark haired man. The woman tried to keep the boy calm but it was becoming harder as sky began to darken. She called the man's cell phone, but there was no answer. Next she tried the office, only to get the service. Next she called Chris' phone only to hear it ringing in the man's bedroom. She walked back to see it laying on the bed, half hidden under his work clothes.
Finally, in desperation, she rang the emergency number-Orin Travis. The man answered in two rings. After she told him who she was and explained the situation, he informed her of the assignment.
"I know he called because he was still in my office. He called Chris' cell and then the house. He was afraid he might miss Chris. I'm so sorry. Could I come get him?"
"No, I'll take him home with me. When do you expect Mr. Wilmington to be heading home?"
"Midday tomorrow. There's a meeting in the morning and then he'll be done. Again, I'm so sorry about your weekend. Evie and I would be more than happy to take the boy."
"Thank you, Mr. Travis. But my children are away for the summer. It'll be nice to have some noise in the house. Good night, sir."
As she disconnected, she went to the office and checked the machine. The light was off, indicating that the message had been played. She shook her head in puzzlement. If Chris Larabee had ignored the message and left the boy, she vowed to slap his face. But even as she thought that, she rejected the same thought. The man could be an ass at times, but truly loved the boys that shared his home and never would he abandon one of them. No, somehow the message had not reached him. With a sigh, one of many that she had issued that day, she headed in to tell the boy the news on his father.
Wide eyes filled with fear and tears turned to her. The boy's chin quivered as he moved to stand in front of the housekeeper.
"I talked to Mr. Travis and he had to send your Da on a mission. He has to help another team, but he'll be home tomorrow." Seeing the tears slide down the pale cheeks, she sat on the edge of the couch and pulled him to stand in front of her.
"Why didn't Chris take me with 'em?"
"Well, he didn't know about this mission. Your Da left a message but Chris didn't get it."
JD only nodded. He had seen Chris turn on the answering machine. The boy knew that Larabee didn't want him to go on their 'father and son' weekend.
"I was wondering if, since my kids are gone, you would like to help me? I have a party to prepare for and I have soo much to do that I'll never be able to finish. But if you could go home with me, then you could help me. That would be so wonderful. What do you think?"
The little boy wiped his eyes and sniffed. "What about Elvis and Ringo? They been locked up since before Chris got home?"
"Well, we'll feed them and tomorrow when your Da gets home, you can let them out."
"What do I have to do to help?"
"Well, I have to make the food. I need you to make sure everything tastes good."
His eyes widened and he nodded vigorously as he said, "I can do that. I 's afraid I had to clean or somethin'."
"Nope, no cleaning. Let's go get you some clothes and we'll head to my house."
"Okay." For the first time that day, he genuinely smiled. Together, they moved to the boys' room. The woman got his pj's and a change of clothes while JD decided which toys he 'had' to have. It took almost an hour, but finally the dogs were fed, toys selected, the clothes packed, and the house secured.
The next day as Wilmington was arriving home, Chris was realizing that he had left his cell phone at the house. He knew that he would have to cut the weekend short. He couldn't be out of touch for forty-eight hours. He and Vin had a wonderful evening, had risen early and gone fishing. After the man explained the dilemma to the boy, Vin had nodded and told him that going home was fine. He knew JD had been upset about something and now felt guilty to have abandoned the younger boy.
In the meantime, JD was enjoying being the 'official' test taster for Mrs. Potter's party food. He had tried finger sandwiches, potato salad, and cookies, brownies, and fudge. By the time it was time to head home, he had a full belly and a light heart.
Buck had come home with the intention of sleeping the afternoon away, but found that he could only manage a couple of hours of napping. He had finally given up and gone outside. He worked in the barn for a while, the pups bounding around, burning off their pent up energy. The sound of approaching horses had him grinning like an idiot and he trailed after the dogs to greet his returning family.
"Hey, Junior. Ya'll are back early." He took hold of Peso's reins, slapping at the animal's nose as he snapped at his hand. "Stop showing off."
"Buck," Chris greeted as he stepped off Pony. "Had to come back early; forgot to take my cell phone; didn't feel comfortable being out of touch."
As if on cue, the two men glanced around and asked, "Where's JD?"
Chris looked confused while Buck looked stunned.
"What do you mean 'Where's JD'? Ain't he with you?"
"Why would he be with me?"
Buck took a step toward the slighter man, his brows pulled down in anger.
" 'cause I had to work last night. I only got home a little while ago. Didn't you get my message?"
"What message?" Then Chris slammed his eyes closed and moaned. "Oh, God. I started the machine, but I didn't hear the message. Vin called God, Buck, I'm sorry."
"Well, then where's he at?"
Before panic could really set in, the sound of an approaching car drew the trio's attention. As Gloria's car stopped, Buck handed the reins in his hands absently to Larabee and moved to the car.
The woman got out and reached inside to lift the child out. JD's feet were moving before they touched the ground.
The big man squatted down onto trembling knees and held out his hands. "JD" he whispered. The little body plowed into him and he wrapped his arms around the boy and clung to him. They stayed that way for several long moments before
"Da, you're squishing me."
The man huffed out a breath to relieve the tightness in his throat and then brought his hands up and wrapped them around the boy's head to place a kiss on his forehead. Looking up, he saw Gloria Potter standing behind the child.
"Gloria thank you."
She held up a hand. "He was no bother at all." Her voice was light, but her eyes warned that she was not happy with him. And he understood. It was his responsibility to protect the boy, to make sure that he was taken care of. He hadn't even known that he didn't even know where his son was only moments ago. He had assumed the boy was with Chris but he didn't confirm that. And he knew that he had failed the boy.
JD was oblivious to the exchange, to the accusation and the guilt. He only knew that he was home. And his Da was home also.
"Da, I 's a 'ficial tester. Miz Potter told me."
Wilmington smiled, his hands clasping the boy's arms. "You are? What were you testing?"
"Ever'thing. Miz Potter is having a party and I had to made sure that all the food tasted okay."
Buck's eyebrows went up in appreciation of the job. "Wow, that's quite a job."
The little boy glanced over as Chris and Vin approached. He moved forward, closer to his father and tucked himself in between the man's legs. With his back against Buck's stomach, he grasped the strong arms and pulled them close. Plucking at the hairs that covered the tanned limbs, he continued his narrative.
"Miz Potter made san' wishes." He dropped his head back, looking up at the man. "They was finger san' wishes. Only they didn't look like fingers. They was just little and didn't have crusts," he said, his head nodding.
Returning his attention to the arms surrounding him, he continued. "And there was tater salad. Did you know there was pickles in tater salad? I got to add 'em and then I 'fo'ded' 'em in."
"So, now when I want potato salad, I know who to come to?"
JD nodded vigorously.
"And there was brownies and cookies and fruit and "
Buck hugged the boy tighter and laughed. "Well, now I know why your stomach is sticking out." The man's hands tickled the boy's sides.
JD giggled and twisted within the clasp.
Buck dropped his arm and lifted the boy up as he stood. He looked at the woman, his face a mixture of emotions.
"Gloria, thank you so much. I want to apologize for the confusion. It won't happen again."
Her face was stern as she nodded. "These things happen. But I don't believe that Nettie would be too pleased with it." Her words hit the man hard and he nodded as she continued. "I have no problem keeping the boys at any time, you know that. My problem with the situation was the boy's apprehension when you failed to come home."
He bounced the boy as he nodded in agreement. "We'll work out a plan for the next time something like this happens."
"Good. Now, I best get back home. I have a party to host."
Chris walked the woman back to her car, opening the door for her and then closing it behind her.
"Gloria, I have to offer my apologizes, also. If I hadn't been in such a hurry, I wouldn't have forgotten about the message, or left my phone. Thanks for picking up the slack."
"He was so upset, frightened. The child was upset before all of this and the miscommunications only aggravated his distress." She started the vehicle, but before shifting into gear, she added, "I hope you can find out what is troubling the boy. I miss the rambunctious child that stole my heart."
"We'll do our best, Gloria. We miss him, too."
She dropped the vehicle into gear, called a goodbye to Vin, and drove off.
Larabee dropped his arm around the boy's shoulders and pulled him in close.
"Well, kiddo, we better get the horses unsaddled and fed." Nodding, they headed to the corral to take care of their mounts.
After they were finished, they gathered their packs and entered the house to find JD chattering away at Wilmington. Both looked up at the entrance of the blonds. The dark haired boy stopped talking and looked down as Chris approached.
"JD." He placed a broad hand on the narrow back. "I'm sorry about the mix up. I didn't get Buck's message or I'd have taken you with Vin and me."
The boy didn't look up but he nodded at the man. The two men looked at each other and Buck said, "I'm thinking that the day is still young. How about we go to eat and then take the boys to the movie or the arcade?"
Chris smiled and stood up, his hands on his hips. "Sounds good to me. How 'bout it boys?"
"Yeah. That'd be fun, Dad. JD, want to do that?"
"That'd be fun," he answered, though it was a subdued response.
"Well, all right. Let's get this weekend going." He stood up, still holding the child in his arms. He started down the hall, followed by the others. After emptying the packs, the four loaded up and headed into town. Several hours later, two very tired men carried two sleeping boys to their beds. Neither boy stirred as he was changed and laid down for the night.
Hi, it's me, Vin. JD is outside and said he didn't want to talk yet. I had a lot of fun this weekend. Dad and I went camping, but we rode a long way before we stopped. Dad said we were five miles away from the house, not like when JD and Buck went. We didn't fish like they did. We just walked around and sit real quiet and watched the sunset. It was real pretty.
Dad forgot his phone and we had to come home early. He didn't want Mr. Travis to get mad if he couldn't get a hold of him. We were going to go back out but Buck was home and we found out that JD wasn't there. I was getting real scared but then Mrs. Potter came and JD was with her.
We went to the pizza place last night and played the games and then we went to the arcade and I beat Dad at the water pistols and I got some tokens so I got a yo-yo. Dad said that Uncle Josiah knew some tricks and that I should ask him to teach me.
JD played the gopher whacking game and he got some tokens too. He started to get a whistle but then put it back and got a little drawing thing for when we're in the truck.
Okay, Dad. So that's what happened this week. I got to go now. Bye
Everyday Heroes Index
Next: Salt & Pepper - Part 2