??? How may times do I have to tell you JD it's just a machine.
But I like it, it plays games with me.
You's not supposed to say that, I heard Chris tell you.
Everyone says it at school.
Chris said it was dis dis pect ful.
??? Tell the story.
Okay, Chris made these really cool pictures of a tree house, he
Them kind of pictures are called plans, Buck said it's like a map, to tell you what to do when you build something.
Okay, they were real good plans but I didn't understand them to start with so I didn't understand about the ladder to start with. Joey is my best friend that isn't in my family and I wanted her to come and play but she couldn't play in the tree house 'cause
Breathe Little Bit!
??? I am breathing Da!
Hey there, Junior. You guys alright?
Okay, well come into the kitchen when you're done, maybe I can find a cookie - if I look real hard.
Joey has a new leg and she can walk good now but she can't climb a ladder. I didn't mean to make you sad, I'm sorry.
It's okay JD you had a good reason why you didn't want the fort and Chris said it's a place to play so we can pretend it's anything we want, right?
Chris had found that working from home was highly productive, without the distractions of the office, he was able to work uninterrupted and finished in half a day what at the office took all day. True he was eating at his desk and starting a lot earlier, but it did leave him almost three hours of free time before the boys got home. On one such afternoon he took a walk on his crutches across the yard to check on the horses. As he did, he stopped, and stared at the large cottonwood tree growing close to the barn. It had always been there, had no doubt been there long before anyone settled the land. At some time early in it's long life, the main trunk had divided in two. Now, not much more than six feet off the ground, it split into two huge branches. And as he stood and stared at the familiar but often ignored landmark on his land, an idea came to him.
After several days research he told Buck his idea. The next Saturday the boys watched, fascinated, as Buck climbed up into the tree with a tape measure. He began to shout numbers down to Chris, who wrote them in a book.
"Why's Buck in the tree?"
"It's just something we need to do."
"Why?" JD responded with his favourite question.
Chris knew better than get into a 'why' question marathon. "I can't tell you right now, but if you guys let us get on with it you might just get a surprise." He saw the suddenly excited faces stare up at him even more eagerly. "But not if you ask too many questions."
"Hey! I'm not up here fer the good of my health you know!" Buck suddenly shouted out from the branches.
"Sorry pal, go ahead."
The next day, to add to the boys curiosity, Josiah arrived and then the three men spent a lot more time looking at the cottonwood tree, and looking at some papers and at the computer. Weeks went by and the boys forgot about it, until one Monday night. Chris and Buck got the boys ready for bed and settled down for the 'Pow Wow' as normal. Everyone had had an uneventful day and so the nightly talk didn't take very long.
"Now boys I've got an idea I and I want your opinion, alright?" Chris asked.
"Us?" Vin asked.
"Yes you two."
"Yay!" JD sat up eagerly.
"Well I was looking at that cottonwood tree, out back, by the barn?"
"The real big tree?" JD asked.
"Yes that one. How would you guys like a tree house?"
The two boys didn't exactly react in the way the men expected. JD just frowned and Vin looked worried.
"Boys, what's wrong?" Buck asked. "We thought you'd like it."
There was no response.
"Come on guys, remember if something is worrying you or you don't understand, you need to say something," Chris reminded.
Vin chewed on his lip for a while, looking alternately at the floor or his father. Finally he spoke. "Can't we live in the house no more?"
Buck had to stop himself laughing, while Chris just smiled regretfully. Even now it was so easy to forget that these boys had missed out on so much that other children took for granted.
"Yes, of course, you can live in the house," Chris assured. "A tree house is just for playing in, for fun."
Vin's eyes brightened. "Like a den?" he asked.
"Yup, just like a den, but up in a tree."
JD had been looking from one adult to another and then at his brother in total confusion. "How can we have a house in a tree?" he asked.
"Well, see, Little Bit," Buck began. "it's just gonna be a little house for little people and we build a platform in the branches and put the house up there."
JD thought about it for a bit, clearly he'd never seen a tree house and was having trouble visualising it.
"Like 'George of the Jungle', JD," Vin explained.
The light of understanding dawned over the little boy and his look of confusion was replaced by joy and excitement. "Just like George's ?" he asked.
"Well no, not quite that big, I thought you guys might like it to look like a cowboys fort." Chris explained hastily. "Look, I made some drawings."
Everyone gathered around the table while Chris rolled out his plans and started to explain them. Vin caught on quickly, but JD couldn't visualise the house at all just by looking at the flat plans. Never the less, he liked the idea so he wasn't bothered that he didn't know what it was going to look like. A house in a tree like 'George of the Jungle' sounded exciting and Vin thought it as a good idea, so that was good enough for him. As the others looked at the plans, he began to yawn.
"Looks like someone's ready for bed," Buck observed.
JD began to protest, but was asleep in Buck's arms before they reached the bedroom.
For the next few days the tree house was all Vin could talk about. He told all his friends that his dad was going to build him a tree fort. JD was also excited and on Wednesday he was painting a picture of what he thought it would look like.
"JD, that's a great picture," Mrs R commented, as she came over. "Can you tell me about it?"
JD, of course, launched into a long and detailed description of his tree house picture.
"That's wonderful," she commented. "How will you get up into the tree house?"
JD frowned, he wasn't sure. 'George of the Jungle' had a lift, but he was fairly sure their tree house wasn't going to have one. "D' know," he admitted.
"That's alright, why don't you ask Buck or even Vin?" she suggested.
JD decided not to wait until he got home and decided to ask Vin, who was only to pleased to tell him.
"It's gonna be so cool, we're gonna have a ladder, and Chris says when we're older we can have a rope ladder."
When Chris and Buck got home, Gloria Potter took them aside. "I can't find out what's going on but JD is sulking and Vin is mad at him."
"Did something happen at school?" Chris asked.
"I asked, but no one could remember anything. Sorry, I hate to leave you with a problem, but I need to get home," she apologised.
"No need to worry, I'm sure we'll get it sorted out," Buck assured.
Vin was sitting at the dining table doing his homework, there was a glass of juice beside him, and an empty plate, the few remaining crumbs on it indicating it had once held cookies. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he chewed on the end of his pencil.
"Hello champ," Chris greeted as he sat down next to him. "What ya working on?"
The frown disappeared as Vin greeted his father. "Hi Dad, math," he said by way of explanation of his homework.
"Need any help?"
"Nope, I c'n do math. See " he pointed at his work book. " I have the answers, but one of the numbers in the sum is missing, I have t' find out what it is - the one that's not there."
Chris peered over his shoulder and quickly scanned the work Vin had done so far, it looked like he had most of them right so far.
"Good for you." Vin's head turned back as he returned to his work. "Anything happen at school today?" Chris asked casually.
Vin shrugged. "I guess."
"Gloria said you were mad at him about something."
Vin didn't respond for a while, then he replied. "It's okay." Then he went back to studying his maths book.
JD was no more communicative with Buck. His homework was to draw ten things that began with the letter E, he was colouring an Easter egg when Buck arrived. Happy as he was to see his Da, he wasn't talking and he wasn't his normal self, especially around Vin. The only thing the men could work out was that it had something to do with the tree house project, because that topic was conspicuous by its absence. After days when they could talk of nothing else, now neither boy mentioned it. After an evening in which the two boys barely spoke to each other, the men had had enough. Dr Will had suggested the nightly talks to make sure things like this didn't get out of hand and the adults were determined to get it sorted out before bedtime.
Chris decided to set an example and go first.
"Today I mostly felt bored, I had to do something called the 'budget report'. It's very boring and I'm not very good at it." Vin immediately began to protest that Chris was good at everything. "Well, not this. Your Uncle Ezra is better at it than me."
"So why don't Unca' Ezra do it?" JD asked.
"Because I'm the boss, so I have to do it," Chris explained with a sigh of resignation. "What about you, pal?" he asked Buck.
"Me? Um, well today I was bored, too. You were in meetings all day and I had to do reports. I don't like doing them, but they have to be done." Then he winked at JD. "Besides my boss made me do it."
JD leaned past Buck to give Chris a hard stare.
"So, guys," Chris began, "who's gonna go first out of you two?"
The boys were sitting together on the couch, their fathers in the two recliners. Vin suddenly found his shoes very interesting, while JD just shrugged, and looked pleadingly at Buck, clearly not wanting to speak.
"Come on cowboy, tell me what's been going on?" Chris encouraged.
Vin gave a big sigh. "I was happy, 'cause we was gonna get a tree house," he began in a quiet voice. "Then I got mad at JD when he told me he didn't want one. I really, really wanted a tree house." There was an audible crack in his voice.
"You can still have it," JD piped up. "I don't want you not to have it," he sniffed.
"But you said you wasn't gonna play in it, I don't want it if you ain't there, that wouldn't be no fun." Now Vin was sniffing and backhanding tears away.
Almost as one, both men moved, picked up their sons and sat down side by side on the couch, each with a boy on his lap. JD instantly wrapped his arms around Buck's neck, while Vin leaned in close to Chris.
"So why don't you want to play in the tree house?" Buck asked
There was no answer, mainly because JD now had his thumb in his mouth.
"Come on, Little Bit. If it's bothering you, you need to say something, so maybe me an' Chris can sort it out?"
"You can't fix it," JD stated in a small hitched voice.
"Maybe we can't but we won't know unless you tell us."
JD tilted his head back to study his father's kind face, so full of love and concern.
"I didn't under'tan Chris' drawings of the tree house but it sounded exciting an' Vin said it'd be fun. Today I did a painting of the tree house and Mrs R said it was real good but she asked me how we got into it an' I didn't know so I asked Vin an' he said we was gonna get a ladder." There the narrative stopped, as if that was all he needed to say.
"JD, I don't understand. Why'd ya changed yer mind?" Buck asked softly. "Are you scared of the ladder, do you think the house will be too high?
"No, I ain't afraid."
"So what's the matter son?"
"'Cause Joey can't go up a ladder. She's got a new leg now an' she can walk good on it, but not up stairs and I don't think she can climb up a ladder." He looked up at Buck again. "She's my best friend 'cept for Vin, I don't wanna play in a tree house if she can't play too."
Buck gave him a hug, unbelievably proud of his son. JD had accepted Joey's disability very well, making it his job to look after her at school, not tolerating anyone making fun of her. He had become very aware of how accessible the school was, and didn't hesitate to tell the principle if he thought something needed to be changed.
"JD, that's very thoughtful of you," Chris commented. "Don't you think so?" he asked Vin.
Vin gave a half smile, then looked over at JD. "I understand why you don't wanna play in the tree house if Joey can't but she isn't here very often, can't we just not play in it if she comes?"
JD frowned. "But that's not fair, it's not fair if she can see a really cool tree house an' she can't go play in it, so if it was just yours then I'm not allowed in it then she won't mind that she can't get up in t' it."
The two adults just stared at the small boy. They knew JD was exceptionally intelligent, but most of the time it didn't have any bearing on their everyday life, JD was just JD. Then he would say something, like now, that brought it home to them just how bright he was. And along with that intelligence came a strong sense of justice. They all knew Vin wanted to be a lawman when he was grown up, but somehow no one had thought about how JD was affected by his exposure to his fathers' and uncles' profession. JD had a heart as big as Buck's and a passion for justice as strong as Chris' and they'd barely even noticed.
JD looked over at Chris. "I'm sorry, Chris, you made real good drawings."
"That's okay, JD, I understand, I'm not upset."
Vin looked at his brother for a long time, then he turned to look at his father. "I don't want a tree house now, if that's okay?"
Despite his brave words, Vin's disappointment was clear to both adults.
"Boys, let's not be too hasty, alright?" Chris announced. "Let me and Buck and your uncles think about this, maybe we can find a way around the problem."
Vin visibly brightened.
"What do you say, Little Bit? Give us old guys a chance to see if we can fix the problem?"
"Okay Da," JD replied with a yawn, leaning against Buck chest.
Very little actual work was done in Team Seven's office the next day, various solutions to the tree house dilemma were suggested and dismissed, either immediately or after some thought, even considerable research. In the end they came back to one suggestion and it was decided that since it was Josiah's idea, he should be the one to present it to the boys.
The atmosphere at home was less fraught but still tense when Chris and Buck got home, Gloria assured them that there had been no arguments, which was something at least.
"Hey guys!" Buck greeted.
"Hi, Buck," Vin greeted, looking up from his homework. "Where's Dad?"
"Just unloading some stuff from the truck. Hey there, Little Bit, what ya doing?" He peered over his son's shoulder, as he sat at the table.
"H'llo Da, I'm colouring a picture of steam train, see, they had them in the old days, when there was cowboys and stuff, see this bit?"
"It's called a 'cow catcher' an' if the dumb ol' cow stood in front of the train and it got hit the 'cow catcher' scooped " He waved his arms up in sudden sweeping motion, barely missing his father's nose. " it up so it don't make the train crash, 'cause that would be bad 'cause lots of people would get hurt or even die!" he explained, emphasising how bad this would be, but then his shoulders slumped. "But the cow would get killed, even if it didn't die when the train hit it, 'cause there wasn't no one to take care of it and the wolfs and the coyotes would most likely eat it, and they have to eat too, so it's not so bad after all, 'cept fer the cow an' the man what own it."
"So now you know," Chris announced with amusement from the doorway. "Aren't you glad you asked?"
Buck shot Chris a withering glare.
"Hi, Dad," Vin greeted.
"Hi, Chris, do you wanna see my train picture?"
"I can see it from here and it's a mighty fine train. Now boys, when you're done with your school work, I want you to set the table for six."
"Six?" JD asked.
"Who's coming?" Vin wanted to know.
"Your Uncle Ezra and your Uncle Josiah, and before you ask, Nathan had to go home to Rain."
Gloria's pot roast, with the aid of a few extra potatoes, stretched to feed six, and once everyone had eaten their ice cream and helped to clear the table and load the dishwasher, all six gathered in the den.
"Now boys," Chris began. "We me, Buck and your uncles are all mighty proud of the way JD was prepared to give up the tree house because his best friend couldn't share, and we're just as proud of Vin, for being prepared to give up something he wanted, because his brother couldn't share it."
"I want to second that, it was a big sacrifice for two small guys, and I'm so proud of both of you," Buck confirmed.
"It was very honourable of you," Josiah added.
"Indeed, you are both very fine young gentleman, but I would have expected no less from nephews of mine." If it was possible, Ezra's words made the boys' smiles grow even bigger.
"So we had a think about the problem and your Uncle Josiah came up with an idea." Chris nodded at the big man sitting in the recliner.
Two eager faces turned to their uncle, awaiting his words of wisdom. Josiah had recently had to deliver a speech at a profiler's conference, and he had been nervous, but those nerves were nothing compared to now. The weight of expectation he could see in those two young faces was enough to make any grown man run.
"Well," he began hesitantly. "We thought about a lift, Buck told me that JD remembered one in the tree house in one of his favourite movies."
"George of the Jungle!" JD piped up.
"That's the one. I know you guys would like it, and we looked into it, but to build one, and make it safe for you and Joey, would be too complicated and the tree house wouldn't look much like a tree house anymore."
JD's shoulders slumped a little.
"And then we thought about a ramp, but cowboy forts don't have ramps do they?"
Vin shook his head.
"So take a look at these." He picked up a folder he had retrieved from his briefcase after the meal. The two boys moved forward to take a closer look at the pictures that were now spread out on the low table. "What if we made a tree house that looked a bit like one of these with a ramp so Joey can play in it too?"
JD thought it was a wonderful idea, Vin was still a little disappointed it wasn't a cowboy fort but a castle was better than no tree house at all.
"Remember cowboy, a tree house is for playing in, so you can pretend it's anything you want it to be," Chris reminded his son.
Vin looked up, amazed that Chris knew exactly what he was feeling, then he smiled. "Yeah I know." He looked over at JD. "We can still pretend it's a cowboys' fort sometimes, can't we?"
"Uh huh it can be a ship too or a pirate cave or it can be an ATF office," JD enthused.
Vin grinned back at him, he liked the idea of an ATF office.
"While it may serve time as locations other than that of a castle, there is something that every castle needs," Ezra announced.
"Uncle Ezra told us the knights in the castle all had shields and the patterns on the shields all meant something, so we should have our own, not just me an' JD, but Dad and Buck and uncle Ezra and Uncle 'Siah and Uncle Nathan too. He found some plain wood ones on the in er net. We got to help choose what some of them looked like. Dad put all the names in Buck's big cowboy hat and me and JD pulled them out, but if we pulled out our own name we had to put it back."
"Yeah. I got to choose what Da's looked like."
"I wanted to make Dad's but I got to make Uncle Ezra's, he helped me and he said he liked it lots, but I would've liked to make Dad's. Uncle Nathan made one for Dad, he said he would swap with me, but that wouldn't be fair and anyway he did this real good one for Dad. We had a tree house raising party and everyone helped. Uncle Nathan was meant to help build the tree house, but he was too busy because he had to fix everyone up all the time."
"Da said some bad words and had to pay lots of money for it."
??? "Even Uncle 'Siah said bad words, lots of them!"
The boys were very excited about designing their shields, Vin hid his disappointment at not getting to design Chris' very well. They called Nathan, to tell him he was going to have to come up with a design for Chris by the end of work the next day. Nathan instantly offered to swap with Vin and complained he didn't have an imaginative bone in his body, and wasn't even vaguely artistic. Rain shouted from behind him, that if they needed proof they should come around to take a look at his choice of colour for the spare bedroom. Chris told him he was just as bad and since he had drawn Nathan's name out of the hat, they would just have to do their best. Buck told him it was okay for Rain to help him with his homework.
Ezra had produced some pictures of heraldic shields to give them an idea of what was needed, he noted that Chris and Buck were listening just as attentively.
"What do you see in this one?" he asked.
"They look like mountains," Vin stated, pointing to the three inverted 'V' shapes.
"Very good, that is what they are, what about this one, in the middle?"
"It's bigger than the others," JD stated confidently.
"These look like baby rattles." JD pointed to the three symbols that looked like drums on sticks.
"Indeed they do, but they are in fact what are called prayer wheels and, as your uncle Josiah can no doubt tell you, they come from a country called Tibet. This shield belongs to a man who climbed the highest mountain in the world "
"Very good, Master Dunne, indeed, and Mount Everest is in Tibet."
"So the shield shows a high mountain and something from Tibet and people know it's his 'cause he's famous for climbing the mountain," Vin reasoned.
"Very good, but see it's all very simple. So, boys, lets start thinking about the person you will be creating a shield for, what can we draw that will make people think of them."
JD turned and looked up at Buck and frowned, while Vin did the same to Ezra. Both men tried to stand still while they were scrutinised but found the examination uncomfortable. Finally JD looked away.
"I got an idea, Unca' Ezra, willed you help me?" he announced.
"Of course. I just happen to have some outlines of shields so you can practice you idea." He produced the shield shaped outlines. "Now do you have some colouring implements perchance?"
"Go get your colours, JD," Buck instructed by way of explanation.
"Oh, okay." JD scooted down
"Will you help me too?" Vin asked.
"Naturally." Ezra handed over some of the shield outlines to Vin.
"Hey buddy, reckon you could let us old guys have a few of those?" Buck asked.
The next evening, Josiah returned with Buck and Chris and spent most of the evening in the workshop. Vin and JD were in heaven. They fetched and carried; they held things and even got to hit the odd nail. The tree castle was being created by placing a platform between the two big branches and surrounding it with a wooden wall mimicking castle battlements. The actual 'castle' was going to be a prefabricated playhouse, which would be painted to mimic a castle. By nine o'clock Chris and Josiah had made the support frame and the main platform was finished, but in sections, ready to be screwed to the frame. Buck had made three of the four castle walls. Vin and JD, dressed in their oldest pants and each wearing one of Chris' shirts backwards, had painted two of these walls grey. Buck was propping the third wall up, ready to be painted, when he noticed Vin standing and watching him. Even though he was smiling, he was unable to stop yawning.
"Time to call it a night, champ," Buck decided.
"No," Vin whined, "I can do the next one."
Buck shook his head, just getting the paint smudges off the boy's hands and face was going to mean it would be nearly ten before he got the boys in bed.
"It'll still be here in the morning, come on. Where's JD?"
"He hasn't finished his bit," Vin explained.
The boys had insisted each panel be divided in two, so they each had their own bit of wall to paint. Buck looked over at the second panel. JD was kneeling in front of it, brush still in his hand, head resting on the newly painted panel.
"Oh no," Buck sighed softly as he watched his sleeping son.
Once JD ran out of steam, that was that, nothing and nobody could wake him. He removed the brush, placed it with Vin's in the paint remover and lifted the slumbering boy onto his shoulder, noting the grey streak that now coloured his hair. **At least he won't be awake while I try and get that out,** he mused to himself.
"Vin, go say goodnight pal."
Vin knew he was beaten when his response to Buck's instruction was another yawn. So he shrugged his shoulders and went in search of the other adults. The rule in the workshop was - if a power tool was being used - that you waited until it was switched off before you went in. Josiah was using the drill, so Vin stood silently in the doorway until it fell silent.
"Uncle 'Siah?" he called.
Josiah pulled his safety goggles off and turned around.
"What can I do for you son?"
"Buck says I gotta go t' bed now, so I come to say goodnight."
Sanchez squatted down to Vin's level. "Well, goodnight then; thanks for all the help."
Vin stepped in closer and gave him a hug, knowing he'd get a huge hug in return. He wasn't disappointed. Eventually Josiah put his nephew down. "Where's your brother?"
"Goodnight, thanks for helping to make our tree castle."
"You're welcome. Goodnight Vin, sleep well. Chris is outside by the way."
Wandering tiredly outside, Vin found Chris speaking to Buck, he watched Chris ruffle JD's hair and give him a gentle kiss. Then Buck said something he couldn't hear and pointed at Vin. Chris turned instantly and smiled affectionately at his tired son.
"Hi there, champ, time to say goodnight?" he asked.
"Yeah, I guess." Vin stepped in closer as Chris began to squat down and then stopped as his newly healed broken leg protested the action at the end of a long day.
Vin moved faster to stand close to his father. "Does your leg hurt?" he asked.
"Not really, just aches some," Chris assured, bending over rather than squatting. "You did good work today, I saw the way you helped Josiah." Vin smiled, lifted as ever by his father's praise. "And Buck tells me you did some very thorough painting, not to mention keeping JD out of trouble."
"Didn't do much really. He 's 'joying paintin' " he yawned again.
"Give your old dad a hug and a kiss goodnight, and I'll see you in the morning," Chris instructed gently.
Vin happily did as he was told. "Night Dad," he called one last time as he turned to follow Buck inside.
Come Saturday, the whole family turned up bright and early, which was to say eight in the morning for Josiah and Nathan and eleven for Ezra; who claimed his late arrival was due to the need to stop and pick up seven toy wooden shields and the materials to paint them. By then, most of the preparation work was done and all four sides were complete and painted.
JD spotted Ezra unloading his trunk first. Still dressed in his improvised painting overall, he started to run toward him.
"H'llo Unca' Ezra!" he shouted as he ran.
Before Ezra could do anything about it, JD wrapped his arms around his legs, and instantly covering him in grey paint. Buck and Nathan both looked up and visibly winced as Ezra disentangled himself. Looking down at what appeared to be a very nice pair of khaki pants, he found the face of a very excited five year old grinning back at him, his dark hair still streaked with grey paint.
"Well, hello to you, too," he greeted his nephew.
"Sorry about that Ez!" Buck shouted over.
"Have no fear, these are my decorating clothes," Ezra called back.
Buck and Nathan both peered more closely at his clothes, apart from the fresh grey paint, they looked spotless, but then that was Ezra all over, even his work clothes were immaculate. Both men shrugged and went back to work.
"Is we gonna make the shiel's now?" JD asked, bouncing on the spot in excitement.
"Indeed we are, where is Master Vincent?"
"He's in the shop with Chris, I'll get him!" With that, the small, dark haired boy took off at a run.
Josiah, who had been in the house, came out to stand beside Ezra and look at all the materials he had assembled for his art project.
"Are you sure you're ready for this - with them?" he asked.
"Probably not, but I'm sure I'll survive, somehow."
Josiah clapped him on the back. "You're a braver man than me, Ezra P Standish." With that, the big profiler strolled off in the direction of the tree.
The two boys stood and awaited Ezra's words of wisdom in excited anticipation.
"Now boys," he began. "There are those who say that just because you are young, you cannot be trusted with grownup tools and paints. I am not such a person. I believe that, if you listen carefully, and promise to do only as I tell you, the three of us can produce very fine heraldic shields for our family, and these can be hung on the side of your castle for the duration of the summer season. Do you agree?"
Vin frowned, trying to work out what he was being asked, JD looked at Vin and waited to be told what was happening.
"You mean we can use grown up tools and paints, not kids' stuff?"
"Yes, if you promise, on your honour as a Tanner, and as Chris Larabee's son to do exactly as I tell you. Will you do that?"
Vin stood taller, his heart filled with pride. "I promise, Uncle Ezra, I'll do exactly what you tell me." He looked down at JD. "You got to promise JD."
"I'm not a Tanner an' Chris ain't my Da," he protested.
"No indeed." Ezra knelt down to look JD in the eye. "The paint we are going to use is very strong, and it doesn't come off easily, it's even more difficult to remove than the paint that is currently decorating your hair."
JD lifted a hand to finger his still slightly grey streaked hair.
"That wasn't JD's fault," Vin explained. "He fell asleep."
"I am aware of what happened, Buck informed me his morning when he called. JD I want you to say after me. I promise "
"I promise "
"On my honour as a Dunne "
"On my honder as a Dunne "
"And as Buck Wilmington's son "
"And as Buck Wilmington's son "
"To do exactly what my Uncle Ezra tells me "
"To do zactly what my Unca' Ezra tells me "
"And not to fool around "
"An' not t' fool around "
"And to concentrate, so no one gets hurt "
"And concen'rate so no one gets hurt "
"Cross my heart."
JD grinned and copied Ezra as he crossed his heart with his index finger, before repeating the pledge.
"Very well," Ezra stood up. "Come, gentlemen, we have work to do."
By lunchtime, the frame to hold the basic platform was safely secured on the tree, the supports for the ramp were attached, and Chris had gouged a chunk out of his hand with the drill. He was still having it bandaged up when the boys came around the side of the house with Ezra. Vin instantly ran along the porch to see what had happened to his father.
"It's okay," Nathan assured. " just looks worse than it is, okay?"
Vin nodded, while still staring with a mixture of anxiety and curiosity, as Nathan finished closing the wound and then covering it. Chris just concentrated on not swearing and making sure he looked confident and relaxed - for Vin's sake. Finally, Nathan was done and Chris held up his left hand and flexed his fingers.
"See, good as new," he announced, grinning at Vin.
"Is you alright, Chris?" JD asked as he ran up to join Vin.
"I'm fine, see?" Chris showed his hand to JD.
"Oh," JD shoulders slumped, there was evident disappointment in his voice.
"You don't sound too happy about that," Chris observed, with a wry smile.
"I wanted t' see the blood," JD explained.
"JD!" Vin gasped. "You ain't meant t' say that when someone's hurt."
"I didn't laugh," JD protested. "Don't you want to see the blood?"
Vin couldn't help it, a mischievous grin appeared. "I did, before Uncle Nathan put the bandage on, it was a big hole with lots of blood," he explained.
Nathan was trying very hard not to laugh as he packed up his things, then as he stood he slapped Chris on the back. "Hey! At least you made Vin happy."
As they lunched on sandwiches, chips and sodas, Buck and Chris quizzed the boys on their progress.
"We done all the prep work," JD announced.
"Prep?" Buck asked.
"Careful preparation is the key to successful painting," Vin parroted Ezra's mantra.
"I see, but did you do any of the painting?" Chris asked, surprised to see both boys looking so clean.
"Me and JD is doing two each and Uncle Ezra is doing three, 'cause he's really fast."
"In fact," Ezra cut in, "the boys and I wish to request that you gentlemen stay away from our work area until we have finished. We think that the person who designed the shield should present it and explain their design to the rest of us - tomorrow." He looked around at the other. "Do you agree?"
If they had been inclined not to agree, the two angelic, expectant faces staring at them would have changed their minds.
"Well, I'm in," Buck admitted.
One by one the others agreed.
"You got to promise not to sneak out and look tonight," Vin insisted, looking at Buck and Chris and giving them the 'baby glare' while JD did the 'puppy dog eyes' beside him.
Chris held up his right hand. "I swear."
"Cross my heart and hope to die," Buck affirmed, backing his words with actions.
In the afternoon, the platform frame got a deck and battlements, while the ramp grew. The shields got their first coat of the paint that would make up their designs. Ezra's mantra of preparation had meant that, once he had everyone's design on Friday, he stayed up almost all that night making stencils so that the aerosol paint he had purchased could be used easily by small boys - so long as they were supervised. He had also purchased face masks, goggles and gloves for the boys - who thought they were the 'coolest things ever'. He even put plastic bags over their boots and secured them with elastic bands, so with their shirt overalls coming almost to the ground there was little chance of getting paint on themselves or their clothes.
The boys finished their 'job' for the day early, so they headed off to see what else they could do while Ezra retired to the porch to watch. He was joined by Rain, who had arrived to start cooking the evening meal. As she cooked, Ezra snoozed and the boys painted the 'castle' grey, the air suddenly turned blue. Josiah's booming baritone suddenly started bellowing four letter words, as he grabbed his right thumb and walked in erratic circles.
Nathan put his brush down and ran across to him.
"What's up?" he asked.
"What kind of question is that? I hit my fu "
"Hey! Little ears," Nathan warned, nodding his head toward the two boys.
"I hit my thumb," Josiah explained slightly more calmly.
"Well, it's not the end of the world, let's get some ice on it."
The boys had been helping Nathan give the 'castle' a second coat of grey paint and now, brushes in hand, they watched Nathan walk with Josiah into the house. Buck and Chris also straightened tired backs and watched them go. Josiah was an experienced carpenter, he didn't hit his own thumb unless he was tired.
"Time to call it a day, pal?" Buck asked.
"Reckon so, smells like Rain's got the grill going."
"Boys!" Buck called.
"Yeah?" came the joint reply.
"Put them brushes down and take those dogs for a run in the back field, we'll give you a call when it's time to wash up for supper."
After a morning run, Ringo and Elvis had been shut up in their run for the day. They had been remarkably quiet, considering, but had started to yap in earnest now.
"Come on, Vin, we can go an' see Torkus as well, I bet he's been missing us, too," JD announced, heading for the barn were Torkus was spending the day, out of harm's way.
While helping the boys to clean up for supper, Buck tried to get some more of the grey paint out of JD's hair, but only succeeded in spreading it around more. He was coming to the conclusion that he's just have to let it grow out, which, considering how fast the little brunet's hair seemed to grow, wouldn't take long.
As they gathered for the evening meal, it was clear that Josiah's thumb was bothering him.
"Let me see it, again," Nathan instructed firmly as he came over.
Josiah reluctantly held out his hand.
"Still don't reckon it's broke."
"Ewww," JD breathed, as he peered over Josiah's shoulder. "Unca' Naf'an why is Unca' 'Siah's thumb all black?"
"Well, when he hit it, it bled "
"Yes, blood." JD's fascination with blood was fairly new, but boys being boys, was probably due to last a good few years yet. "But the blood can't get out, because of the nail. "See? It's all trapped." Nathan looked up at his friend. "I need to release the pressure - okay?"
"I'm in your hands, my friend," Josiah admitted, then he looked over his shoulder. "I suppose you want to watch?"
JD nodded vigorously. "Can Vin watch, too?
"Why not, come one, come all." JD frowned at him. "Sure, go get him."
Nathan went in search of the tools he needed to do the job, namely - a candle, something to light it with and a paper clip. Once the candle was lit, he straightened out the paper clip and wrapping a Band-Aid around the one end, he held the other in the flame. Once it was blackened and hot he pulled it out.
"Now, remember, it's not going to hurt," Nathan assured, as much for the boys benefit as his patient's. Then he carefully lowered the hot end of the straightened clip onto the base of the nail, where it was most black. There was a slight whiff of smoke and then there was a bubble of blood, which hissed and boiled before Nathan could pull the improvised hot iron back. Then blood began to well up out of the hole.
"Man, that feels so much better," Josiah admitted.
"Wow, look at all the blood," Vin gasped.
"Cool, do it again," JD requested a little too eagerly.
"Sorry, this is one shot deal, no repeat performance." Nathan winked at Josiah as he said it.
It was getting dark before they ate. JD managed to get halfway through his second burger before he fell asleep, his head on Buck's lap as he sat on the porch steps. Chris knew Vin had reached the end of the line when he had the same uneaten chicken leg in his hand for half an hour. In truth, all the adults were beginning to think their beds were looking very welcoming.
Despite their long day, the boys woke early as usual on Sunday, and with so much to do, their fathers gave up their usual extra couple of hours in bed, as well. By the time the workers arrived, the various animals had been fed, watered and stalls cleaned out. Buck and JD put the horses on the walker while Chris and Vin made a quick trip to the local Home Depot for all the things they had found they needed but didn't have the day before. There was one thing in particular Chris realised they needed but had neglected to buy. Once he showed it to Vin, he was rewarded with what was always his most precious gift - a huge smile from his son.
Ezra arrived just after ten, which gave the boys plenty of time to play with the dogs and pet the horses once they were off the walker. But once he arrived, they hurried to their secret workshop to finish the shields. The tree castle progressed rapidly, so that as they sat and ate the huge picnic lunch Rain produced, it was almost done, all that remained was the safety rail on the ramp. The boys were also somewhat mystified by the fact that the last section of ramp appeared to be missing, leaving it hanging some three feet off the ground. When Vin asked Chris why, he just pointed at Josiah.
"You uncle's got a surprise for you."
The boys instantly asked what it was, but the big profiler refused to tell them.
"You have your secret and I have mine," was all he would say.
It was decided that at four o'clock, everyone would gather for a kind of opening ceremony. At a quarter to, Ezra and the boys, their shields carefully covered, assembled on the porch.
Buck was up in the tree, clambering over the branches, he seemed to be checking the outside of the tree castle. Suddenly, there was a shout of alarm and every head turned to the tree to see Buck slip. There was a collective intake of breath and then, the watching men winced in unison as Buck landed astride a branch with some force.
"That is going to hurt." Ezra observed, forgetting he had company.
"Buck!" JD squealed in alarm, running forward.
Nathan and Chris were already standing below the tree.
"Buck! Da!" JD shouted as he ran, closely followed by Vin.
"God damn it all to hell!" Buck bellowed.
"Guess you're still breathing then?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, ah shi "
"Da?" JD had arrived.
"It's okay, Little Bit, I'm okay. Just let me get down from here."
It took some time for him to extricate himself from the branch and come down the ramp, which had now acquired its bottom section. He was limping heavily, favouring his left leg.
"How are the family jewels?" Chris asked with a barely disguised smirk.
"Fine. They ain't the problem," he admitted, turning to Nathan. "Think you and me need to take a trip inside."
"Well, I'm a bit " Nathan held up his very dirty hands. "Rain can fix you up," he offered.
"No! I can wait until you're cleaned up."
"Thought you said they " he nodded his head at the Buck's crotch. " .were okay?"
"They are, but I reckon I got me a splinter."
"A splinter? Is that all?" Chris asked.
"It feels kind of big and I need it out."
"Well, Rain can take a splinter out."
"Nathan, please, it's in, well let's just say I don't want Rain - fine medic though she undoubtedly is - taking it out, okay? Please?"
The adults got the picture, even if the boys didn't.
"Okay, just give me a moment to get cleaned up." Nathan turned to head into the house.
"Is you okay, Da?" JD had had a splinter under his nail once and he remembered how much it hurt. He took his father's hand and gave it a good squeeze.
"Yeah, I'm gonna be just fine, soon as your Uncle Nathan gets this splinter out. Why don't you stay here and help Chris tidy up?"
"But I wanna stay with you," JD protested.
"Please, son, stay here and I'll be back in no time."
"Come on, JD, Chris needs help." Vin took JD's hand.
Looking from one to the other, JD finally let go of his father and moved over to stand with Vin. While the adults started to tidy up, Josiah showed the boys that the bottom section of the ramp could be lifted like a drawbridge with the use of a simple rope and pulley. They instantly spent a happy few minutes raising and lowering their drawbridge, but not going all the way to the top of the ramp - not yet.
Buck had this huge splinter in his butt.
JD you can't say butt.
Well what can I say? That's were it was, he tolded me.
I d'no but not that word. But it was a big splinter wasn't it?
It was jie norm as!
I don't think that's a real word.
Must be 'cause the computer spelled it - look.
Well I guess, anyway we got to see the splinter after Uncle Nathan pulled it out an it still had blood on it, that was so cool.
And Uncle 'Saih made us a draw bridge, just like a real castle so we can pull it up an no one can get in our castle. Then we all showed our shields and explained them. It was kind a scary, standing up and talking to everyone but I
Well I liked telling everyone why I made Uncle Ezra's shield the way I made it, an it was nice, what Buck said. Did you like what 'Siah said about you?
Uh huh, I liked it lots.
Once Buck was back, albeit moving somewhat carefully, it was time for what Ezra dubbed the 'Grand Tree Castle opening ceremony'. With everything safely tidied up, the dogs were let out, and instantly started running around greeting everyone excitedly, tails wagging madly and yipping with the sheer joy of it all.
"Well, boys, are you ready?" Chris asked.
"Dumb question, Larabee," Buck called. "Are they ready? Hah! Course they're ready - right, guys?"
"Yeah!" both boys shouted.
"Cowboy, you know what to do?" Chris asked his son.
"Off you go then."
With that, off they went, running like the wind for base of the ramp, dogs at their heels. That was something none of the adults had thought of, any ramp that Joey could get up, the dogs could get up as well, but it was too late to stop them, and in truth, they were as safe up there as the boys were. In no time at all, they were at the top and waving down enthusiastically. Then Vin moved to the flagpole Chris had bolted to the corner of the 'battlements'. For a few moments Vin ducked down, and then the newly acquired 'Stars and Stripes' rose up the flagpole, to huge cheers and applause from below.
"Come on down, it's time to show us your shields," Buck called up.
Everyone sat on the edge of the porch as Ezra distributed the shields and revealed the artist responsible for it's painting. Everyone held them against their chest, so the design remained secret.
"Who's going to go first?" Ezra asked.
"A good leader leads from the front," Josiah pointed out.
Chris didn't comment, he just stood and turned to face the others.
"Nathan, this was painted by Vin," he stated to begin with. "When I think of you, lots of things come to mind, but what I kept coming back to, was that you're always there to help us, and fix us up. Not just when we're working, but all the time, just like today. It means a lot to all of us."
He turned his shield around, it was plain green with a white cross on the front, just like the one on Nathan's medical bag.
"I know it's not very imaginative, sorry."
Nathan smiled. "No need to apologise. Being an EMT may only be part of my job, but it is the most important part. And " He looked at Vin. "it is exceptionally well painted."
Vin ducked his head. "Thanks," he acknowledged softly.
As Chris sat down, Nathan stood up. "As you know, I designed Chris' shield, and it was painted for me by JD. I tried to think about what would represent Chris. He is our leader, so I considered a number one, but I know that here, at home, he's an equal partner."
"True enough," Chris admitted, giving Buck a smile and a wink.
"So then I thought about what he looks like," Nathan continued. "This is what I came up with."
He turned the shield around.
"Yup, that's Chris," Buck admitted, as he regarded the black shield topped with a wide yellow strip.
"I painted that," JD piped up.
"And you did a very good job, too," Nathan complimented.
Ezra stood next, he had designed a shield for Josiah.
"When thinking of Josiah, I kept coming back to one word - wisdom. Whenever one of us has a vexing problem, be it personal or professional, it is to you we look for sound advice. That advice is, in my own experience, always well considered, practical and informative. There is of course a universal symbol for that gift." He turned the shield around to reveal a simple owl design on a pale blue background. "I have to admit I was unsure what colour to use for the background until JD reminded me that - and I quote - 'Unca' 'Siah has pretty blue eyes'."
The others all chuckled and smiled as they congratulated Ezra.
"What about you going next?" Chris asked Vin, as he sat next to him.
"Do I gotta?" Vin whispered.
"No, not if you don't want to, but it's just us here, just family, it won't be so bad, I did it."
"Okay." Vin walked hesitantly to the front and faced his family. "I got to make a shield for Uncle Ezra. He's a real good uncle, he helps us lots. I didn't know what to do, but he's got green eyes and not many people do so I painted it green. And he's got a special car, I wanted to paint the car but I can't draw it good and I can't draw the big cat on the front. Uncle Ezra always looks real nice so I did his favourite tie."
Vin turned his shield around. It was a deep sea green colour and in the centre was a fair representation of a grey tie with a single diagonal red stripe. Vin gave a small smile as everyone congratulated him. Finally, Ezra spoke.
"Thank you for my shield, I, of course, have seen it before, but how - pray tell - did you know that was my favourite tie?" It genuinely was his most favoured, an Italian silk tie given to him by his mother many Christmases ago.
"It's the one you wear mostly," Vin explained.
"You are a most observant and perceptive young man," Ezra congratulated.
Even before Vin had sat down JD was on is feet. "Me next?"
"Sure thing Little Bit, if you wanna," Buck encouraged, not that JD needed any encouragement.
"I made a shiel' for Buck!" he announced joyously, instantly turning it around. "It's blue like Buck's eyes and it's got a big heart on it 'cause Buck's got a really big heart I know 'cause I heard Unca' 'Siah tell Chris that he had the biggest heart of anyone and I know that's true 'cause he's my Da and he loves me lots and lots and he loves Vin too." JD stood there grinning, having delivered his speech without apparent benefit of oxygen.
Buck wasn't able to respond, he didn't trust his voice, instead he just held out his arms, knowing JD would run to him. After he'd hugged his son, he looked at his shield, amazed at the quality of work.
"Did you really do all this yourself?" he asked his son.
"Yup, Unca' Ezra helped us and we had t' swear on our honder to do zactly what he said and we got to wear these goggles and a mask like doctors wear it was cool."
Buck decided this was something that needed to be discussed with Ezra - later. Josiah had risen to his feet and now faced the group.
"I had the privilege to design a shield for JD. When I think of JD, I think of movement, he's always moving, I arrive here and he's moving, all that dark hair flying toward me, he's like a whirlwind. But like a whirlwind, he can suddenly run out of energy and come to an abrupt stop." He turned the shield around. It was red, with a top stripe of black and a grey whirlwind in the centre. "This is you, JD," he addressed the boy directly. "Black hair, whirlwind and then stop."
JD looked a little puzzled, he looked up at Buck. "What's a whirlwind?"
"You know, like in the cartoons? When Taz gets mad and spins around and around?" his father explained.
"Like this?" JD leapt his feet and began to spin on the spot.
"Yes, Little Bit, just like that."
JD stopped, staggered slightly and then ran, somewhat haphazardly to Josiah, wrapping his arms around the big man's leg.
"Thank you Unc'a 'Siah," he announced.
"You're welcome." Josiah reached down and ruffled his hair.
"Buck, I'm a whirlwind!" JD announced spinning his way back to the porch.
"That you are." Buck looked up at Josiah, giving him an 'I'll get you for this!' look.
Buck stood - carefully from where he'd been perched on the porch edge on one cheek - and took his place in front of his family.
"Guess I'm last, and as you know I had the great honour to design shield for Vin. When I think about Vin, I think of a fine looking boy, who loves his family, is mature and trustworthy and very smart." Vin looked a little embarrassed. "He's also got a wonderful sense of humour, but the characteristic that most describes Vin, is courage, he's quite simply the bravest boy I know." All the others immediately agreed, making Vin press himself closer to Chris, but he was smiling. "And there is something every brave boy deserves," Buck continued. Then he turned the shield around. On it was painted a medal, hanging from a red, white and blue ribbon, on a pale blue background. "This is for you, buddy."
Vin wasn't sure what to do, it wasn't the first time Buck had called him brave and he was still coming to the terms with the concept that you could be brave and scared at the same time. Buck walked over to him and squatted down.
"Remember, junior, the most courageous people are the ones who are scared and do the right thing, anyway."
Vin let go of Chris and leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Buck's neck in silent thanks.
Dad and Buck put all the shields up the next day, and we didn't have to go to school because all the teachers had to go to school instead of us. Mrs Potter said it was a wonderful tree house, 'specially as we played in it all day with the dogs and we even had our lunch in it 'cause Mrs Potter made us a picnic.
An in the afternoon Joey's dad brought her over and she played with us for a long time, then Da an Chris came home. It was a really good day.
Yeah, bet no one at school as a real tree castle.
'Specially stinky Freddie.
Ours is the best
Everyday Heroes Index
Next: The Writing On The Wall