Say hi, JD
Do you want to tell about Joey or you want me too.
Vin does we have to do this. now? I have to use the computer for something.
Vin, Chris said to not bang your head on the desk. I'm gonna tell.
JD, come back here.
Buck stared at the tree house, looking for a glimpse of the dark haired child he knew hid there. The man shook his head at the conversation the two of them had only a few minutes before. The big-hearted man saw how his words had caused the boy pain, but had no idea how to ease that pain. With a sigh, he leaned back in the chair and, staring out across the yard, waited for his son to come down from the hideaway.
It had all started on Sunday. Abby and Joey Granger had come out for the day. Chris had taken Vin to town for the day, so Buck saddled up Milagro for JD and his own Beau for Joey to ride around the front field. The girl had come a long way since her accident last fall. She astounded the adults in her life with the resilience she had shown.
"Buck!" The blond twosome, Larabee and Tanner, were heading to the front door. Wilmington came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishtowel.
"Ya'll fixin' to takeoff?"
"Yeah. You need anything from town?"
The big man shook his head. "Can't think of no, wait a sec." He disappeared into the kitchen only to reappear moments later. "Could you stop and get some fudge? I promised to make hot fudge sundaes for JD. He said they're one of Joey's favorites."
"Sure." Looking down, he spoke to the blond boy." Vin, don't let me forget, okay?"
Grinning, the seven year old nodded. "Okay, Chris."
The men smiled at each other, knowing that the young boy would not forget. His sense of responsibility wouldn't allow it. Opening the door, the two blonds headed out the door. Chris had promised Vin an excursion into town for trip to replace his boots. Larabee had discovered that the boy had been racing his bicycle down the drive, using his feet to slow the bike to slid to a stop and kick up as much dust and gravel as possible. Needless to say, the leather souls were worn completely through. Even the heels were worn down to the nails that held it on.
Buck tossed the dish towel onto the sink as he followed them out. He arrived just as a dark headed whirlwind ran up and latched onto the older boy. Two bounding dogs followed the boy and now tumbled over each other, barking at the group of humans.
"VIN!" JD yelled as he wrapped his arms around the blond. "Bye, Vin. Ya going to get some boots? Hope ya find some. Ya gonna get black? See if you can get some like they wear on the TV, with the steel then you can't wear holes in 'em. When are ya coming back?"
The blond shook his head at the barrage of questions. Before he could answer, JD released him and ran around to hug Larabee's dark clad legs. "Chris, don't forget Joey's coming to ride. Will you bring Vin back in time to play in the tree house? We was going to play Robin Hood and we need Vin. Pleeeeease, can Vin get back?"
Larabee's hand ruffled the dark hair. "We aren't going to be gone long. A couple of hours and we should be back." Leaning down, he absently wiped a line of dirt from the smooth cheek as he said, "We'll be back in plenty of time for hot fudge sundaes." He laughed as the boy's eyes widened and a pink tongue appeared, licking dirty lips.
Chris' head shook as he laughed, asking, "JD, what have you been doing? Eating dirt?"
"No, silly." He rolled his eyes at the rancher. "Uncle Nathan told me that's nasty. Me and Elvis and Ringo was hunting worms. Joey and me 's going to go fishing " Hazel eyes cut over to his father as his hands twisted together. "Well, maybe.." he said quietly.
After a moment's hesitation, the boy perked up again. "You have to be prepared. Just in case."
"Well, we'll see how it goes," Buck announced as he grabbed the five year old and tossed him up onto his hip. "See ya later, stud. Elvis. Ringo. Heel."
The dogs obediently fell into step with the man as he moved to the porch. He turned as Chris finished buckling the little boy into the back seat of the Ram. With a wave, the blond jumped into the truck and drove away.
"Buck, how come I can't get new boots?"
The man placed the five year old on the porch rail, seeing the little pout on his face. Cocking his head to one side, he frowned at the child. "JD, we talked about this. You don't need new boots. And don't think I haven't noticed you dragging your feet when you ride your bike."
The little boy ducked his head, his fingers twisting his father's shirt. "I was balancing."
The little boy chewed his lip, looked at the man, "I love you, Da."
Wilmington bit the inside of his jaw to keep from smiling. Narrowing his eyes, he patted the jean-clad leg of the five year old. "JD, I love you, also, but that is not the point. You know what I'm referring to, young man."
Seeing tears well in the young eyes, Buck pulled the small body into his arms and, hugging him close, sat down on the porch swing. JD wrapped his arms around the man's neck and his tears created a wet spot on the man's shoulder. Buck gently pulled the small arms from his neck and moved the boy out so he could see his face.
As his thumbs wiped at the tear tracks, he smiled. "Son, I know that getting new things is fun and exciting. Heck, I like getting' presents as much as you do. But " He raised the boy's head up to look into the tearful eyes. "But when one of you boys need something, like clothes or shoes or school supplies, you don't both get it. As much as I would love to buy you and Vin everything that you want, I can't. I wouldn't even if I could. Do you know why?"
JD's chin quivered, but his brows pulled down as he thought about it. Finally he tilted his head and looked at Buck, smiling. "Cause we don't need everything?"
Seeing the man wink at him, the boy giggled, his hands coming up to hide his face. "We only needs you and Chris, cause you loves us. And we loves you." The last part was yelled as the boy threw his arms out.
Buck laughed and grabbed the dark hair to plant a kiss in the dark locks.
"Okay. You gonna stop trying to tear up your boots?"
"Yes, sir," JD promised. The boy frowned as he searched for words. "I didn't mean to be bad. I just I I don't know."
"I know. If Vin gets something and you don't, you feel a little jealous. Right?"
JD's head and shoulders drooped. "I want Vin to get new boots. His 's gots holes."
"Do you think that you need new boots?"
The little boy looked up to study the man's face. He chewed on his lower lip as he considered the question. Finally, he smiled and shook his head. "No. I don't need new boots. Mine don't got's holes like Vin's does."
Wilmington grinned at his son. "I agree. But if you ever do need something, you know that we'll get it for you?"
"Yes, Da. I know you will."
Buck wrapped his arms around the little form and hugged him tight. "How did I ever get such a good kid?"
JD giggled and squirmed, stating as he was released, "You was in the wrong place at the right time. Thank God." Seeing the man's eyebrows go up, he added, "That's what Uncle Ezra said to Miz Travis."
Buck nodded, making a note to speak to the southerner about little ears, something he, himself, was still learning about. Patting the boy's shoulders, he stood up.
"We best get done with the cleaning if we want to go riding when Joey gets here."
JD jumped up and down with excitement.
The sound of a vehicle had them coming out of the barn half an hour later. As soon as the wheels stopped rolling, Buck released the light hold he had on the boy's shirt and JD took off.
"JOEY! Hi, I thought you'd never get here, we gots the horses saddled and ready and the fishing poles and I got worms and Da is going to make sundaes when we get back and then we can play in the tree house Vin said we could play Robin Hood."
As JD rattled on, bouncing in place, the girl climbed slowly out of the car, smiling. She held out her hand and the boy instantly stopped and took hold. Then, sedately, he walked her around the car. JD was a body in motion most of the time and the first time he had taken the girl's hand, the adults immediately opened their mouths to warn him about tugging her. But to their surprise, he had adjusted his pace to match hers and never once had JD rushed the girl or caused her to over balance on the prosthetic leg.
They came around the front of the car and JD waved a greeting to Abby Granger.
"Hi, Miz Granger. Are you going to ride with us today?"
The woman bent down and ran a hand down the little face as she said, "No, not today, JD. I brought a book and I am going to sit in that lounge chair and enjoy the sun while I read."
"Is it a good book?"
"Oh, it's very good. A murder mystery. Ohh." She shivered for affect as she spoke.
JD's eyes widened and he spoke quietly. "With blood and bad guys?"
Laughing, the woman answered, "Well, bad guys, yes, but there isn't any blood." Seeing the look of disappointment on the boy's face, she struggled to conceal the laugh.
Buck stood behind the boy, mouthing the words, 'It's a new phase" and she nodded in understanding.
"Okay, kids, are you ready to go for a ride?"
"Yeah" both children answered, clapping their hands together.
"Good. JD, why don't you and Joey head to the barn and I'll be there in just a minute."
"Okay, Da. Come on, Joey."
The two youngsters took off at a fast walk as Buck turned to the woman.
"Sure you don't want to join us? Got a really gentle little gelding you can ride."
"No, honestly. I am not into riding. I'll be just fine right here. I have my book, sunscreen and light blanket to curl up with if it gets cool. You three go and have fun."
"Yes, ma'am. I have my cell phone if you have any problems. The dogs are in their pen, so you won't be bothered by any wet tongues while you're trying to read. If Chris and Vin get back before us, just give me a call and we'll head back." Glancing at his watch, he added, "We should be back by two. JD tends to tire of fishing pretty quick."
"Don't worry about me. I'll be fine," she smiled. But the smile faltered slightly and Wilmington frowned.
"Everything alright, Abby?"
Composing her expression, she smiled again. "Yes, it's okay. I just need to talk to you when you get back." Seeing the concern on the man's face, she patted his arm. "No need to worry. It's something that we can discuss while the children are in the tree house. I'll like Chris to hear also."
"Yes. It's good news, actually."
"Well, that's wonderful. I look forward to our conversation."
He winked at the woman and then turned to the barn and trotted off as Abby gathered her things and settled in for the wait.
The two kids sat on the bank of the stream and tossed their lines into the water. Buck had baited the lines and sat quietly behind them as they laughed and talked about school. JD was telling Joey about all the things he planned to do during the summer.
When the boy finally wound down, the little blonde told him, "Mommy says that we're going to go to New York."
Joey tilted her head. "I'm not sure, but we have to take a plane to get there."
Turning to Wilmington, she asked, "Mr. Buck, do you know where New York is?"
"Sure, darlin'. It's in the Northeast part of the country. It's real pretty up there. Lots of things to do."
"Neat" JD commented as Joey beamed.
The kids lasted a half hour before they tired of 'drowning worms' and the trio decided to head back to the house.
The two horses trotted to the barn amid giggles from the kids as they bounced in the saddles while Buck sang a song that JD knew was by Elvis. They rounded the barn to see that Chris and Vin had returned and were sitting in the sun with Abby Granger. Vin jumped up at their appearance and ran over to open the gate to the corral. Milagro and Beau moved slowly into the barn, nickering to their stable mates in the adjoining pasture.
Jumping down, Buck lowered Joey to the ground where she turned to JD as he slid off his horse. Vin was there, also, holding the animal's head. Once the little boy was standing on the ground, Vin led the horse to a stall and began to loosen the cinch with JD and Joey right behind him. A hand on his shoulder drew his eyes open.
"Vin, I'll get that, son. Why don't you take JD and Joey inside and the three of you get cleaned up for lunch?"
"Okay, Chris." Stepping back, he scooted past the man and waved his arm toward the front. "Come on, guys. We have to wash for lunch." He waited as the two younger children joined him. Then the trio set out for the ranch house.
Buck and Chris made short work of the tending to the horses and five minutes later the two geldings had rejoined the small herd. The group snorted in greeting before the entire bunch took off for the opposite end of the pasture with hooves flying.
The two men cleaned up and began to bring food out to the picnic table. Abby had tried to help only to be shooed out of the kitchen. The kids set the table as she watched the activities from a comfortable chair. Chris, Buck and Abby sat at one end of the table talking while the kids sat at the other. JD and Joey were telling Vin all that they had seen and done that morning, while Vin told them about his new boots and about going through the car wash to clean the black Dodge.
" and then this big blower was blowing the water off. Only instead of falling off, the water on the front window just keep going round and round and back and forth. Reminded me of Elvis and Ringo when ya gives 'em a bone and they keep stealing each other's bone," Vin laughed and the other two joined in.
Chris smiled as he commented, "It's nice to see Vin finally relax around Joey."
Buck nodded, his eyes moving to the other end of the table.
Abby was watching also and her poignant sigh had the two men glancing her way. Buck remembered her comments earlier and asked about them.
"Abby, want was it you wanted to talk about?"
She looked at both men and then glanced down the table to confirm the kids were pre-occupied. "Matt was going to come today, but he had to go to New York."
"Yeah. Joey said something about that. Are ya'll going to meet him there? For vacation?"
Smiling, the woman nodded. "Sort of. We are going to meet him, but not a vacation." Her eyes moved to the kids once again. Turning her attention back to the men, she stated, "Matt got a job offer there. You know he's an editor?"
Both men nodded.
"Well, this magazine has been at him to come to work for them and they finally made him an offer that we just couldn't refuse."
"You're moving to New York?" Buck asked quietly, his eyes also turning to the kids. "Joey didn't seem upset about it?"
Abby sighed again. "I'm not sure she understands what it means exactly. She's just happy as a lark to be going, like it's some great adventure."
Chris had listened quietly, but now inquired, "When are you moving?"
The woman's eyes dropped and she seemed to be studying her cup. Looking up, her eyes moved from one man to the other. "Actually, we're flying out tomorrow morning."
Silence descended at the table as the men sat, blinking.
Finally, Buck spoke. "Tomorrow? Are you going out to check it out? Schools, houses?"
"No. We'll be leaving for " Their conversation stopped as the kids jumped up and approached.
"Can we go play in the tree house?"
"Sure" Larabee told the little blond, standing at his shoulder. "Throw your plates away first."
"Okay" three little voices called out. The kids quickly cleared their end of the table and threw the paper plates away. Soon laughter rang out from the large tree and its wooden castle.
Buck repeated his question. "So, you and Joey are flying to New York to meet Matt tomorrow? Are you going to look for a house?"
"No. As I started to say, Matt's new company has been 'wining and dining' him for months. This time they put a package deal together that included a home in an exclusive neighborhood, a school that compares to the one Joey is in now, plus a therapist for her as well. Someone really did their homework on this."
After a few moments of silence, Chris asked, "That's marvelous, Abby. But so soon? Does Joey understand what 'moving' means?"
"Truthfully, no, I don't think so. It will probably hit her in a few days." Turning to Buck, the woman inquired, "You say Joey mentioned going to New York; how did JD take it?"
Buck cocked his head to one side, his mouth tightening as he thought. "Actually, he was excited. But like Joey, he probably doesn't understand that she'll be going away for good."
Chris shook his head. "You never know how kids will react. One of Adam's friends moved away when he was around four, I think. They said good bye and Adam never asked about him again. Me and Sarah were all prepared to console the little devil." The man chuckled softly at the memory. Caught in his memories, he said softly, "You just never know."
Shaking his head, he chuckled. "Chances are neither of them will have a problem."
The other two nodded and smiled. "Well, let's hope so," Buck said.
The kids were allowed to play for several hours. By the time adults noticed the silence, it was after six in the evening. Chris went to investigate and found three slumbering children. He woke the kids and herded them down the ramp to the ground.
"Joey, I guess we'd better head home. Tell everyone good bye."
She turned and held out her hand to Larabee. "Thank you, Mr. Chris, for a lovely day. I had a lot of fun." She then turned to Buck, extending her hand, saying, "Thank you for the ride and the fishing, Mr. Buck."
Buck took hold of her hand and bent down to hug the girl. "Darlin', it was a pleasure having ya. You have fun in New York."
Giggling, she nodded. "I will. Thanks."
The man stepped back and the girl turned to Vin. "I had fun in your tree house, Vin. Thanks for letting me play."
"Your welcome" Vin said softly, even as he leaned back against his father's legs.
Finally she turned to JD. "Thanks for inviting me today, JD. I love the horses and the fishing and the tree house." She threw her arms around the dark haired boy and kissed his cheek.
The adults laughed good-naturedly at him as he brought his hand up to rub the spot. His cheeks were bright red and his long bangs hid his eyes as he ducked his head. He looked up at the grinning faces and fisted his hands on his hips, glaring at the two men.
"Buuucckk. Sttoooppp it."
Rolling his eyes, the boy took the girl's hand and walked her to the car. He struggled to open the rear door of the SUV, but finally managed. He stood and waited as Joey climbed in. After she fastened her seat belt, he smiled and closed the door.
Buck reached down and scooped him up, planting the boy's slight weight on his hip. The man walked around the car to where Abby Granger stood leaning against the doorframe.
She reached out and caressed the boy's cheek. "JD, I cannot express the joy that you have brought, not only to my daughter, but also my husband and I, with your friendship. Thanks seem inadequate. Please don't ever change."
JD stared at her with wide eyes, a blush coloring his face. He buried his face in Wilmington's neck as he twisted his hands together. Abby smiled at the embarrassed boy.
Saying her good byes to the rest of the eclectic family, the woman got in the car and drove away. Joey sat in the back, waving. The two boys waved back and continued to wave until the car disappeared.
Buck bounced the dark haired boy on his hip. "So, Little Bit, you have fun today?"
JD started to answer but yawned instead.
"Well," Chris started, patting the chest of the seven year old as he leaned against his legs, "I think it's time to head inside for baths and bed."
Both boys protested, as the men knew they would, so Chris 'compromised'. Baths now, a light supper, and a video before bed was agreed upon. Buck and Chris both smiled, knowing that the boys would be asleep before the movie was half over.
While Buck helped the boys bathe, Chris put together a light meal of salad and chicken strips. Figuring Buck got the messier job of cleaning up after bath time, Chris cleaned the kitchen while the others headed to the front room and the videos. The blond arrived just as the rhinos started chasing the sloth in 'Ice Age'. He shook his head, thinking that he should remember the character's names as many times as he had watched this particular video, but the only one he could think of was Manfred, the mammoth. Handing Wilmington one of the cups of coffee he had brought from the kitchen, Chris dropped onto the couch, toed off his boots and stretched out.
The two boys were lying on the floor, their heads propped on stuffed animals. Their eyes drooped as the group of prehistoric animals chased the humans across the snow. By the time the dodos made themselves extinct, the boys were asleep. The men allowed the movie to run, assuring the boys were completely zonked out. As the volcano erupted in the end, the two limp forms were lifted and carried to their room.
Neither boy stirred as they were placed in their beds. Placing a kiss on each little head, the men moved to the doorway and stood watching for several moments. It had become an almost nightly ritual since the two orphans moved in and the men both relished the quiet nightly custom. With a sigh, they moved back to the front room to watch a little TV, catch up on the news and weather before heading to their own beds.
Vin, Chris said that you couldn't bang your head or he'll make us get off.
Well the only reason I was is cause you always want to get on the computer and not play.
I sorry Vin. I'll play more. It's hard to juggle all the things that have to been done.
Da, you ain't supposed to be listening. Why are you laughing? CHRIS make Da go way.
Buck, let's go.
Sorry, little bit. I didn't mean to listen.
Buck's being silly
Yeah. What was we talking bout?
The next few days passed quickly and quietly with the boys filling their days with school and chores. They talked about their plans for the summer and the end of school that was coming up soon. When the men arrived home on Thursday, JD and Vin were playing in the tree house. Waving, the two men headed into the house.
Gloria was in the laundry room, folding the last load from the dryer and she called a greeting to Buck as he entered the kitchen.
"Afternoon, Gloria. How were things today?"
Setting the water glass he had just filled and emptied on the counter, he took the basket from the woman as she crossed the room.
"Things have been quiet. The boys came in and did their homework. They headed out to the tree house when they were finished."
"What? No milk and cookies?" He laughed as she slapped at his arm. Both men knew that the woman indulged the boys with a treat each afternoon. Winking, he headed out the doorway to deposit the laundry in the appropriate rooms. He passed Larabee as the man headed back outside.
"I'll be out as soon as I put the laundry away and get changed."
Making short work of those chores, Wilmington exited the back door just as the housekeeper was driving away. He could see Larabee in the barn and Vin was right there next to him. Buck started in their direction, but decided to go check on the younger boy. The sound of sniffling greeted him as he moved up the ramp and he quickened his steps to find the dark haired boy sitting forlornly in the tree house. Buck stooped down to enter and then moved across the floor to join the boy as he sat, crying.
Placing a hand on the child's back, the man asked quietly, "Hey, what's this all about, Little Bit? You and Vin have a fight?"
The dark hair swayed as he shook his head.
"Well, is there a problem with your school?"
Again, the little boy shook his head. The man reached around the five year old and pulled him into his embrace. Buck stood, carrying the little boy out of the tree house and over to the porch where he took a seat and offered comfort to the boy. He waited patiently, knowing eventually the boy would calm down and open up. Feeling eyes on them, Buck glanced to the barn door to see Chris and Vin watching. The two men nodded in acknowledgment.
In the barn, Chris nodded and, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder, he turned back to the work he had abandoned. As Vin joined him, he glanced over and asked, "Do you have any idea what's bothering JD?"
Vin looked up, his features soft and sad, shaking his head. "He wouldn't tell me. He was okay 'til lunch. After we ate, I went outside and JD came out a little later. He seemed sad, but he didn't say nothing. Just went and swung 'til lunch was over. And he didn't say nothing on the way home, neither." The boy looked up at the man and sighed. "I don't like it when he's sad, but I can't make him talk to me, can I?"
Chris nodded as he listened. "No, I don't expect that you can." He reached out and pushed blond hair behind the boy's ear. "Well, maybe Buck can find out what the problem is."
Vin nodded and the two of them returned to the job at hand.
On the porch, Buck sat quietly rocking as the crying continued. It wasn't too long before the boy's tears dried and he relaxed into the comforting arms. With a sigh, JD began to pick at the stenciling that was peeling off the man's t-shirt.
"So, you ready to talk?"
JD chewed on his lip as he considered what to say. Finally he nodded and began to chatter, "I was eating lunch and I was sitting near Mrs. Roquette and Mr. Beidler and they was talking about us, the kids, and how it's really hard cause we're like their kids and they get's sad when one of their kids leave or don't do as good as they know they can and Mrs. R sighed really big and said she got a 'really wonderful and sweet letter' from Mrs. Granger and how she told her thanks for the wonderful teaching and for working to make Joey feel com'fur'ble when she came back after her 'ac'e'dent' and then she kind 'a got all teary eyed and I went over and patted her on the hand and said that it'd be okay cause Joey only went to New 'Ork and she'd be back but then Mr. B said that no she moved to New 'ork and I nodded and said Oh okay but Uncle Nathan and Aunt Raine moved and we helped but then we didn't see 'em for a week cause they was unmoving "
"Unpacking, son. They were unpacking and organizing the new house."
"Yeah but then we went and saw 'em in the new house and since they moved and Joey moved and then we saw Uncle Nathan's house then we can go see Joey's new house, but Mr. B said that Joey moved a real, real, real long way away and she wasn't coming back to school and I knowed he was right cause Mrs. R hugged me and told me that she was sorry that my friend had to move to another state "
The boy stopped talking so abruptly that it took Wilmington a moment to realize. He patted the boy's leg where it hung over his thigh. "Do you know where New York is, JD?"
His head bobbed up and down in acknowledgment, "I used the map and Mrs. R helped me and she pointed out where New 'ork is and where we are." He hesitated and looked into his father's blue eyes. "Da? Do you know how far New 'ork is? Cause it's only this far " He held up his hands, his fingers about six inches apart. " on the map. That's not far. Can't Joey come back to school since it's only this far?"
Imploring hazel orbs stared up at him and the man's heart rate accelerated, knowing he was about to shatter an already broken heart. As one hand supported the boy's back, he brought the other one up to rest on the boy's stomach.
"JD, I'm sorry that I didn't explain this better to you. Sometimes when someone moves, they just move across town like you and me did when we moved out here right after you came to live with me. Or like Nathan and Raine did when they moved. But sometimes when people move, they move a long ways away. Like New York."
The boy's chin quivered as he asked, "But why, Da?"
"Well, her daddy got a new job at a very nice place."
"Joey could live here. They probably don't even have horses in New 'ork and Joey likes riding horses and the tree house and you and Chris and Vin."
JD ducked his head, fiddling with Buck's thumb for several moments, before finally nodding. "I miss 'er." Hot tears dripped on the man's hand at the admission.
Unable to resist, Wilmington pulled the little boy close and hugged the trembling body, muttering soft words of comfort. "I know, son, I know. I wish I could make it better. I'll miss her, too."
They sat that way for several minutes until JD reached up and wiped his nose as he pushed away from the comfort of his father's broad chest. "Can I go back to the tree house?"
"You get your homework and chores all done?"
"Yes, sir," was the reply.
"Okay. You can go for a while. I'll call ya for supper, okay?"
JD nodded and then climbed off the man's lap. He trudged back to the big tree and climbed the ramp before disappearing inside.
Buck sighed and sat back, running his hands through his wavy hair. 'Shit. Does it ever get easier?' he thought to himself. He sat and stared at the tree house for a while, then pushed to his feet and headed for the barn.
Chris turned as he entered, the question in his eyes. As Buck approached, Vin appeared from the tack room and joined them.
"You find out what's wrong with JD? He won't talk to me," the little blond asked.
Buck looked from one blond to the other and then answered. "He found out that Joey isn't coming back."
"But he knew she was moving," Chris noted.
"Yeah, well, so did Nathan and Raine and they're still here. He just figured that Joey's move was close, like that." Buck shook his head as he spoke, his eyes closed, tight. "I should have explained it. Or at least, made sure that he understood."
He felt a hand drop on his shoulder and looked into Larabee's sympathetic eyes. "It's never easy, Buck. You'll make mistakes " Feeling the tensing muscles under his hand, Chris finished, "but I know you you'll make it right."
"Ya got a lot of faith in me, stud."
"If I didn't, you wouldn't be in my house, much less on my team."
Patting the taller man's arm, Larabee turned back to his work. Vin smiled up at him before he also left to complete the cleanup he was working on. Wilmington sighed and pondered on how he could cheer up the dejected little boy.
Friday afternoon was a long one in Buck Wilmington's eyes. He had been on the phone and the arrangements were all made. The only thing left was to wait for the day to end so he and Chris could go home.
They arrived home a little before six thirty and Buck jumped out of the truck, headed for the house. After inquiring after the boys, he headed to his bedroom to change and then head out to the barn.
Chris laughed as his old friend fairly flew through the daily chores that a ranch and animals created.
After the chores were done, the two men cleaned up. Gloria had left minutes after their arrival, calling out that the boys were in the tree house, playing.
"Hey, Chris, how about we order a pizza?" the mustached agent asked as they closed up the barn.
"Sounds good to me. You want to order it while I grab a shower?"
"Sure. The usual?"
At Larabee's nod, Buck turned toward the large tree that housed the boys' playhouse. "I'll get the boys and meet ya inside."
As Chris entered the back door, he heard Buck yell out to the boys.
"JD! VIN! Time to come in, boys."
A blond head peeked around the top of the ramp. "Okay, Buck. We're coming." Vin's head disappeared once again. The man smiled to himself and headed to the house.
The seven year blond sat down next to the younger boy and placed an arm around his shoulders. Vin knew JD was sad, but didn't know what to do about it. He had tried to get him to play all afternoon, but the youngster only half-heartedly went along, so they had ended up just sitting in the tree house, listening to the sounds of the countryside. Even the two pups sat quietly, as if they too mourned JD's loss.
Vin tightened his grip, pulling JD closer. "We should go in before Buck comes out looking for us, JD." He waited patiently and finally the dark hair bobbed as the boy nodded. They stood and started down the ramp, followed closely by the dogs.
Buck was just stepping out the door to call again when they reached the ground.
"We're having pizza, boys. If you hurry, we can get cleaned up before it arrives."
JD smiled slightly and Vin was relieved to see his friend's step quicken. He hoped Buck or his dad could help JD not be so sad. Allowing the younger boy to get a couple of steps ahead, Vin called out, "Race ya." His reward was a giggle from the smaller child as his feet carried him away. Vin trailed behind, allowing JD to reach his father's outstretched arms first.
Buck wrapped his arms around the 'victor' and twirled around. "You won. Boy, you're getting faster everyday, son." As Vin came onto the porch, Buck dropped a hand on his shoulder and winked as the boy looked up. The young boy blushed at the man's approval and quickly opened the door for him.
"What?" JD asked, his eyes wide and bright as he clung to the man's neck.
"Well, we have a guest coming."
"Really? Who?" Vin asked.
"You don't want to guess?"
"Who, Da? Who? Pleaaasse." JD blinked his eyes several times in his version of an imploring look. "Can't you tell us?"
With a big, dramatic sigh, Buck relented. "Oh, okay, since you asked so nice. Your Uncle Ezra is coming out for a visit."
"Cool," Vin said.
"Yea." JD clapped his hands together. Ezra had promised to come out and read a story to the two boys. While they enjoyed all of their uncles and both dads reading to them, Ezra and Josiah were their favorite readers. The stories seemed to come alive with a variety of voices and accents when read by one of those two men.
Buck sat JD on the floor and told them, "Before we can have guests, though, you two have to get cleaned up, so off to the bath with you." He swatted at both bottoms as the kids turned and headed to the back.
"Whoa! Slow down, boys," Chris cried as he rounded the corner and walked head on into a two boy stampede.
"We gots to hurry, Chris."
"Yeah, Dad. Pizza's coming and Uncle Ezra is going to visit."
"Okay, but don't be running in the house. Walk. Quickly." He shook his head as the two hurried down the hall. As he turned back, Buck approached. "Did Ezra get everything arranged?"
Wilmington nodded. "Sure did. I'm going to get the boys cleaned up and then jump in the shower real quick. Pizza is due in twenty minutes."
"Okay," Chris continued to the front room as Buck headed to the boys' bath.
Thirty minutes later, the dogs were locked in their pen and the four were munching on pizza and watching 'Brother Bear'. The dual barks from the pups announced the arrival of their guest and the two boys jumped up to race to the door. Larabee caught them halfway there.
"Hang on. You don't answer the door until you know who's there, right, boys?"
They hung their heads, "Yes, sir."
A knock drew their attention, but before Chris could answer, Vin called out, "Uncle Ezra, is that you?"
Chris turned to look at the boy, a grimace on his face. "Vincent Tanner, is that how you were taught to answer the door?"
Vin's head dropped and he shook it, even as the undercover agent called back that 'Yes. It is indeed.'
JD defended his friend as he explained. "Well, who else could it be, Chris? Elvis and Ringo greeted 'em like somebody they know. They wasn't using their 'it's a stranger, beware' barks and since Da told us that Uncle Ezra was coming, it has to be him, right?"
"Their 'It's a stranger, beware' barks?" Chris looked at Buck, who only shrugged. Shaking his head, the blond opened the door and Standish walked in. The two boys flew the remainder of the distance to the door and assaulted the man as he crossed the threshold.
"Well, it is indeed a pleasure to be greeted in such a manner. How are my two favorite nephews doing this fine evening?"
"We're having pizza, Uncle Ezra. Do you want some?"
"Yeah, and we're watching 'Brother Bear', but we can turn it off if you want to read to us."
The man had squatted down to hug each boy and now rose and patted his stomach. "Alas, I have already had my evening respite, but thank you for the generous offer. Why don't we take our seats? We can watch the end of the film and you can continue with your meal."
They moved back and rejoined Buck as he sat munching on the pepperoni pizza. Waving a hand in the direction of the kitchen, he told the southerner to grab something to drink if he wanted. They settled down quickly and watched the movie. The boys sat on the floor at Ezra's feet as he reclined back on the couch.
Once the movie ended, the area was cleaned and the boys washed. Only then did they climb onto the couch to join their uncle. Vin had retrieved the book the man had started reading to them the last time he had come out. Ezra smiled, cleared his throat and picked up the tale where he had left off.
He had been reading for an hour when his attention was drawn to the fathers as they both stood and stretched. Lowering the novel, the southerner found two slumbering children laying across his legs. He moved his arms out of the way as the two men picked up their sons and carried them to their beds. Standish stood and stretched, rolling his shoulders to relax the tension that had formed from sitting in the same position for too long.
Several minutes passed before Buck reappeared.
"Are they sleeping?" Ezra asked.
"Just about. We had to get their teeth brushed. I don't think JD's eyes even opened."
"Yes, well, he has had a bad week from what you tell me. That can wear a body out fairly quickly."
Buck smiled. "Well, let's hope that this works and maybe we'll make him a happy little boy."
"Lead the way, sir."
Chris came into the room as Buck turned. "You got everything ready, Ezra?"
"I do believe that all options have been explored and I have a mutually satisfactory resolution. It is safe and protected. You have total control on who and what the boys can access as well as the reverse. All unknown communications will go to your box for approval. Only the 'highly trusted' addresses will go through without prior approval. Plus each child is allowed to pick his domain name."
Buck rubbed his hands together. "Sounds good, Ez. What about video?"
"I am afraid that at this time, it and IM, will not be available through this service. However, they are working to set it up. For now, to have those features, they will have to go through your address. Do you still wish for me to set this up?"
The two older men glanced at each other and a silent agreement was made. Buck turned to the southerner. "Yes. Let's set up both of them. Okay?"
"It would be an honor to do this small thing for both you and the boys."
Wilmington clapped the man on the shoulder and they set off down the hall.
Rising early the next morning, Buck got everything set and ready to go for when JD and Vin rose. He didn't have long to wait.
Once upon a time, before kids, weekend mornings were a lazy time used for recouping from the previous night's nocturnal activities. Now, he and Chris were lucky to sleep until eight. Not that the boys made a lot of noise, Vin made sure that they were quiet. But Buck had found that he woke earlier and had no desire to go back to sleep; that would be time wasted that could have been spent with the boys. The only weekend mornings that found him lazing around in bed were the ones that had a dark haired waif sharing the bed with him. Those early morning 'conferences' were some of Buck's best memories and he smiled at the thought of the giggles and tears they had shared on those early mornings. Little feet padding down the hall drew him from his musings.
Vin froze and then smiled shyly. "Morning."
JD was rubbing sleep from his eyes and ran into the back of the older boy, but he recovered quickly. "Buck" he squealed and launched himself into the man's lap. The man had just enough warning to move the coffee cup out of harm's way before he had a lap full of totally awake and revitalized five year old. "Are ya going fix breakfast this morning?"
"Nope. That's my job," Chris said as he entered the room. He ruffled Vin's hair as he walked past. "Anyone up for waffles?"
"Yeah" three voices cried out.
Larabee just shook his head as he continued to the kitchen.
"Okay, guys, while Chris cooks, let's go strip the beds so we can do the laundry. And you two need to get dressed."
The two boys groaned as they trudged down the hall to their bedroom. Buck moved past to Chris' room and pulled the sheets off. Rolling them into a wad, he moved on to his own room and did the same to his bed. Moving to the boys' room, he found the beds stripped but the two kids were engaged in a pillow fight instead of getting dressed.
"Hey! What's going on here?" he growled.
The kids froze in mid-swing, turning to stare, wide-eyed at him. He slowly entered and approached causing the boys to back pedal. Bending to scoop up the discarded sheets, he tossed them over the stunned boys and then grabbed them up. His fingers sought out ticklish spots as he growled, menacingly. Amid giggles, the two managed to get their arms free and plummeted the man with their soft weapons. Still holding the boys, Buck collapsed to the ground, calling for a truce. The battle had been short but ferocious.
Releasing the two boys, Buck sat up and began to gather the sheets that were close at hand.
"Get some clothes on, boys. Breakfast will be done in a minute."
Three minutes later, they were entering the kitchen. Vin and JD took their seats as Buck went to deposit the bedding in the laundry room. He started a load and then joined the others at the table.
Breakfast allowed the family to discuss the plans for the day. After everyone was finished, the boys cleared the table and Wilmington stacked the dishes in the dishwasher. He glanced at the clock as he finished and took a deep breath. Eight thirty. Time to see if his idea was going to help his son accept his friend's move.
"Boys, let's go the office. We have something to show you."
The boys headed out of the kitchen and down the hall. Buck glanced over at Chris and the blond nodded as he slapped Wilmington on the arm.
"Don't worry, Buck. This is a good idea."
His response was a cocked eyebrow and a grin. "Maybe. Just as long as it doesn't upset him again."
"BUCK! WHERE YOU AT?"
Rolling his eyes, Chris headed down the hall, commenting, "That kid has certainly got a healthy pair of lungs."
The men entered the room to find both boys by the desk. JD was on his knees in the chair, examining the new addition to the machine. Hearing the men enter, he swiveled the chair around and, pointing, asked, "What's this?"
Buck crossed the room and took the boy under the arms. Lifting the boy up, Wilmington sat down and sat the child on his lap. Clicking on the Internet icon, he talked as the program loaded.
"Okay, guys. I know you know how to use the computer. But what we have here is the Internet. Have you used it before?"
Vin nodded. "Uncle Ezra helped us do res reese "
"Research" Chris provided.
"Yeah, research. Uncle Ezra helped us research some things."
"Yeah, and we played games at school, too." JD grinned as his fingers rubbed the keyboard.
"Good" Buck said. "But this is a little different." He turned to the screen and worked around the little boy in his lap. The site loaded and he clicked it into 'favorites'.
"Now, this site is for you boys. It's called 'Kidzmail' and it's a place where you can go to leave messages for friends and to get messages from friends. You'll have an email address that you can give to friends "
"A few select friends. We'll make a list. You understand, boys?"
"Sure, Chris. Like Major Carpenter." Vin stood next to Buck's chair and glanced up to look at his father. JD simply nodded, not bothering to turn around.
"JD? You understand?" Buck prompted.
Wide eyes turned to him. JD twisted his fingers together as he said, "Yes, sir. I don't tell anyone my address unless you say it's okay."
Hugging the little boy, Buck nodded. "That's right. Now, let me show you how to get here."
The man demonstrated where to click to load the site and both boys watched closely. He let both try their hand at it before he continued.
"Okay, now let's set up your address. We're going to use the same domain name." JD frowned as he turned to his father. Buck laughed and ruffled the boy's hair. "That's the last part of your address. Here I'll show you."
He clicked the appropriate places and brought up the sign up page. "Okay, we'll keep this simple. We're going to use 'mail4kids.com', okay?"
Both boys nodded.
"Now you need to pick the name you want to use. And we prefer that you don't use your name. Either of you have any ideas?"
Vin chewed on his lip and shrugged. He moved back to stand near Chris.
JD sat nodding his head from side to side as he thought. "Buck, could I use little bit?"
Buck smiled and he nodded. He typed the new name into the space and clicked. After filling the questionnaire, he turned to the boy. "You want to try?"
JD's head bobbed up and down excited. His mouth clamped tight as he typed in 'firstname.lastname@example.org'. He giggled at the sight.
"Good boy. Now you need to pick a password." At the boy's frown, the man explained. "It's a secret word that only you know."
JD's eyes widened. "A secret?"
At the nod, the five year old turned back and, after a moment's hesitation, typed a word in the box.
"Now hit enter."
Computer paused for a moment and then acknowledged the new address.
"Okay, you're all set." Buck pushed the chair back and stood up, JD hanging off his hip. "Vin, you got something?"
The boy glanced up at the man standing behind before answering softly, "Can I do it later?"
Wilmington smiled. "Sure thing. Whenever you get ready."
He pushed back up to the desk and, reaching around the boy in his lap, Buck logged on in the parental control area of the site. Pulling a sheet of paper around where he could reach it, he began to type in the names and email addresses of people that the boys might send messages to. Between himself, Chris and the team, as well as Nettie Wells and the school, there was quite a bit of information to input, but Buck was amazed as JD sat quietly watching, not moving a muscle, until
"That's JOEY!! You gots Joey in there?" The little boy dropped his head back and gazed at his father. "How'd you get that?"
Buck was grinning as JD questioned him and he wrapped his arms around the five year old as he explained.
"Well, Abby, Mrs. Granger, left a phone number where we could reach them. So I called and asked if there was any way that Joey could write to you. We talked it out and decided that setting up an email account for each of you was the best way."
JD wrapped his small hands around Wilmington's arms where they crossed and squeezed them into his belly, wiggling back and forth in joy. They sat there for a couple of seconds, neither releasing the other.
Finally, Buck turned loose and ruffled the dark hair. "How about we send her an email right now?"
"YEAH." The boy's arm flew up and Buck jerked his head back to save his nose from being struck. He grabbed the waving arms and pulled them down. Placing the boy's hands near the keyboard, he began to show him what to do.
Within minutes, JD had it figured out and had composed a short message to the young girl.
"Okay. Just put the cursor over the 'send message' box and click."
JD followed the instructions and when the screen popped up, saying, 'email sent', he clapped and turned to face his father, grinning up at him.
"I did it."
"You sure did, kiddo. Now, let's go outside for a while and we'll come in later and see if Joey wrote back."
Several times throughout the rest of the day, JD dragged Buck back to the house to check the email, but they found nothing each time. JD was getting discouraged with each trip and finally the man couldn't watch any longer. Abby had assured the tall agent that they would watch for the email and reply as soon as it came.
After conferring with Larabee, Buck approached the boys as they groomed JD's horse, Milagro. "Hey, anyone want to go to Mickey D's?"
Both boys immediately perked up, Vin having picked up on JD's mood. They made quick work of the grooming and ran into the house to wash up. They were quickly back outside and both wondered at just how clean they were after the fast trip, but knowing that one of them could take them to the bathroom at the fast food restaurant if necessary, they kept quiet and loaded the kids into the Ram.
A trip to McDonald's was a two-hour adventure as the boys ate a bite, left to play only to return and grab another bite. The two ATF agents sat back and relaxed, watching the children that occupied the play area. Being Saturday evening, there were plenty of kids running back and forth.
Finally, it was time to leave. The half full milkshakes were melted and the greasy fries congealed. The boys moaned and dragged their feet as they returned to the table.
"But we just got here" JD whined while Vin climbed on his seat and pulled on his sneakers. Buck reached for the shoes that hung from the five-year old's hand. Taking the boy around the waist, Wilmington lifted him onto his lap and began to loosen the laces for the boy to slip the sneakers on.
"Now, JD, we've been here over two hours. Chris and I have to stop at Wal-Mart on the way home. It'll be almost bedtime by the time we get home."
"Bedtime?" Vin cried out. "But its still day, Chris."
"Vin, Buck said almost and when we get home. You'll have time to play for a while. Besides we still have to make the beds up, Remember?"
The boy nodded and finished with his shoes. Buck had gotten JD's feet into the shoes and was just finishing the knots as Vin finished with his own. They gathered the trash and tossed it in the bins on the way out the door. By the time they had arrived at the big store, both boys were asleep. Both men laughed softly, shaking their heads. Chris went into the store while Buck remained with the napping duo. Neither boy woke as Larabee returned and placed the purchases in the truck.
"Come on, sleepyheads. Time to wake up." Buck patted JD's leg to get his attention while Chris unloaded the bags. Vin's head jerked as he woke up and he blinked rapidly to clear his eyes. Smiling, he waited as the man unbuckled him and then lifted him across the younger boy.
Buck laughed as Vin hit the ground running, following the departing figure of his father. The man turned back in time to see JD look around and then slump back over.
"Nope, No, Time to get up, Little Bit." He unfastened the boy and pulled him from the seat, limp in slumber. But when he closed the doors, the boy twitched and straightened.
"Hey. We're home."
Buck chuckled. "Yep, Home."
JD squirmed and Buck sat him on his feet. The boy immediately latched onto his hand. "Come on, Da. We have to check my email."
They entered the house and headed to the office. Buck called to Chris to see if he needed any help, delaying the moment that might once again bring disappointment to his son.
"No, we've got it, Buck."
JD continued to pull and soon they were seated in front of the computer. Logging on, the man allowed the boy to pull up the site and log on. JD sat, bouncing slightly on Buck's lap. Finally the screen opened to reveal that the boy had a message. Showing him where to click, Buck held his breath as it loaded up and appeared on the screen.
"Hi, JD. It's Joey ."
There was more, but Buck didn't read it. He breathed a sigh of relief even as he wrapped an arm around the cheering boy.
"YEAH, Da, Joey wrote me." And he laughed.
Buck' s throat tightened and he swallowed, coughing slightly to clear the lump. He gripped the boy and stood as he said," Well, I told ya that little gal would write. I'm gonna go in the other room while you read. Okay?'
JD barely turned, his hand waving slightly as the man left. His eyes remained glued to the screen.
Buck joined Vin and Chris in the front room. Larabee had pulled out a tape and was slipping it into the machine as he entered. A cold beer sat on the table next to Wilmington's chair.
"What are we watching?"
"Nothing, I was going to tape the race tonight."
"The race? Oh, yeah, I forgot NASCAR runnin' is tonight."
Vin turned to glance over his shoulder. "Did JD get his letter?"
"Sure did. I imagine that we'll be hearing all about it real soon."
Vin nodded. "Yep, I 'magine." He turned back as they showed the line of brightly colored cars as the drivers climbed in.
Buck and Chris looked at each other and laughed.
"DA! WHAT'S SNAIL MAIL?"
"Gentlemen, Start Your Engines."
Joey really likes her new house and school but she misses us.
And she writes to tell ya all that she gets to see and do.
Hey, Vin, did I tell you that Joey's gots horses?
Yeah, you told me.
And she vited us to come and visit.
Yeah, you told me. ???
Vin why you sighing. Are you bored?
Me too. Let's go outside and play.
OK. Bye computer.
Vin wait. We has to close the computer.
Everyday Heroes Index
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