Someone Else's Son

by Angie

This is my first ever foray into Little Britches Universe. You'll have to forgive me if I've broken any rules or goofed up any of the facts. Thank you to anyone whose words or ideas I borrowed and sorry that I couldn't necessarily find the stories again to get your names and ask first. The story is beta free, I couldn't persuade Crystal to take on LB with all the work she's been doing reading my ATF and OW stories.

The soccer ball rolled free and the boys turned and chased it down the field. JD ran as fast as his little legs would go to try to get there so he could kick the ball to Joey who would try to make the goal. Timmy and Javier were trying to kick the ball in the other direction to score for their team. From the sidelines, the screams and cheers of the parents and family members of the kids were loud and raucous.

Lance cut across the field and kicked the ball away from Scott and accidentally knocked Joey down. JD stopped to see if his friend was all right before turning to see where the ball was. Timmy and Javier had moved the ball down the field and kicked a goal. Both boys groaned their feelings, as they got ready for the next play.

When all was said and done, JD's team lost by one goal but the boys were excited for it to have been close. The other team had some bigger kids and Buck figured that JD's team would be slaughtered on the field. That the boys had held their own was a minor miracle of sorts. The coach praised the boys lavishly as they gathered around the big cooler after shaking hands with the other team. Each boy received a cold Capri-sun drink. The leftovers were handed out among the siblings of the players. Vin received the last one just as Scott's little sister wandered over. Buck smiled, as Vin didn't hesitate to hand over his drink to the little girl. He rested a hand on the boy's shoulder and leaned down to whisper softly into his ear.

“That was a very nice thing to do, kiddo. I'm real proud of you.”

Vin blushed under the praise and turned to see where JD had gone off to. Seeing his cousin sitting in the shade with Joey, he ran over to join them. Buck smiled again to see JD hand off his drink, the boys were very good about sharing. After helping the coach load the cooler and gear into the trunk of one of the cars, Buck went to gather his boys to take them home. There was another man standing with the boys when he looked and he picked up the pace of his steps. The black man was wiry and shabbily dressed, his body language was menacing and Vin was trying to coax JD away.

“Okay boys, all the gear is loaded, we should be on our way, Mrs. Potter will be expecting us,” Buck announced loudly. The other man turned and Buck recognized him immediately, Joey's dad, Winston Marshall. “You missed a good game, the boys almost beat them today,” Buck said as he took JD's hand.

“I saw it. I was sitting over there by the restrooms, watching. Come on boy, let's get going!”

Little Joey came to his feet and turned to look at JD before following his father to the bus stop. Buck noticed that both boys were a little subdued on the ride home. He turned on the radio and within moments, Vin was tapping his feet against the seat and JD was asleep in his safety seat. The breeze from the window stirred his dark hair into tickling his nose and Buck smiled at the wrinkling and twitching that the little boy did as his hair blew around his face.

“Did something happen at the park, Vin? I noticed that you looked a little uncomfortable around Mr. Marshall,” Buck prodded.

“No, nothing happened,” Vin deflected.

The rest of the ride to the ranch was made in silence. When the truck pulled into the driveway, Vin leaned forward excitedly. As soon as the vehicle came to a complete stop, he was out of his seat and out the door, running up the lawn. Buck shook his head and laughed, Chris must have finished the meeting early, Vin was giving the play-by-play of the game. JD's eyes opened as soon as Buck touched him and he looked around in surprise.

“I musta been tired, huh Da?” JD asked as he was lifted from the seat.

“Yep, I reckon all that running up and down the field completely wore you out, little bit. You feel better now?” Buck carried the boy to the house, simply relishing the feel of the familiar weight on his hip. JD wrapped his skinny arms around Buck's neck and rested his forehead against Buck's cheek.

“Yep, ready to play some more. Can I play out in the yard ‘till supper?”

“Don't you want to tell Chris about the game?”

JD's head came up and he squirmed to get down. As soon as his tennis shoes touched the ground, he was off like a shot, his high-pitched voice yelling for Vin not to tell everything and to save some news for him to tell.

When both boys had finished telling Chris about the game, they ran out into the yard to practice their ‘moves.' Buck smiled at the somewhat dazed look on the blonde man's face as he sat in the recliner and put his feet up.

“I wish I could have been there,” Chris said wistfully.

“You can do the next game,” Buck comforted.

This was the way it was between them since the boys arrived, they had to divide their time between work and chores to see after the boys. Chris hated missing the game but he had to attend the meeting on the next case they were being assigned. Orin had been allowing them a lot of leeway where the boys were concerned and they were both grateful, as it allowed them to keep their eclectic little family together.

The boys had come into their lives most unexpectedly. They had gotten some misinformation and ended up in the wrong warehouse. Vin had been shot and was gravely ill. What started out as a temporary situation had blossomed into a permanent one with the finalization of the boy's adoptions. The caseworkers had frowned on allowing two single men to adopt the boys but Chris and Buck had won them over by sheer determination. Although, on paper at least, Vin belonged to Chris and JD to Buck, each was listed as legal guardian for the other's child.

Mrs. Potter stuck her head in and announced supper was on the table and that she was leaving for the evening. The boys raced into the house and headed for the bathroom to wash up before plowing through the house toward the kitchen. By the time the two adults reached the table, the boys were seated and waiting for their meal. In the beginning, the boys had been very careful about what they ate, not wanting to take too much for fear that the men would feel that it was too expensive to keep them. As they had gotten over that fear, they now had healthy appetites.

The boys were allowed to stay up a little later on Friday nights and the family usually did something together, just the four of them. Since the arrival of the boys, the other members of the team seemed to find frequent excuses to show up at the ranch. Vin and JD had wrapped Nathan, Josiah and surprisingly, even Ezra around their fingers. The ‘uncles' would do anything, any time for the boys. Chris had finally, gently, set down the guideline that Friday evening was just for the four of them.

Saturday morning, Chris woke to the sounds of cartoons on the television. After a quick stop in the bathroom, he peeked into the living room to check on the boys. Vin was stretched out in the recliner with the remote safely ensconced in his lap while JD was draped, half on and half off, of the couch. The younger boy seemed to enjoy his cartoons better when viewed upside down. Paper towels lay on the coffee table with crumbs indicating that the boys had each gotten a Pop Tart for breakfast. There was also an empty eight-ounce orange juice bottle on the table next to Vin and an empty eight-ounce milk container on the coffee table in front of JD.

“I see you've helped yourselves to breakfast. On the next commercial, please pack out your trash and clean up the mess,” Chris commented as he headed for the kitchen.

A minute later, Vin entered the kitchen with the empty bottles and paper towels. The plastic bottles were carefully rinsed and placed in the recycle bin and the paper towels in the trashcan. Young Vin Tanner had taken the teacher very seriously when she had given the Earth Day speech about ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,' and had insisted that they begin sorting their trash. As a reward for his effort, Vin was allowed to keep any money they received at the recycling center when they hauled in their bins.

After a cup of coffee and a bagel, Chris was ready to face the day. Buck stepped out of his room, bleary eyed. He headed straight for the bathroom and a shower. Chris checked the calendar on the refrigerator to make certain they had no appointments or events planned that he might have forgotten. Mrs. Potter was very diligent about making sure that all of the boys activities were written down so as not to be missed. Seeing nothing on the calendar, he dropped on the couch between the boys and asked an open-ended question.

“What would you boys like to do after chores today?” He'd had to emphasize ‘after chores' so that the boys knew they would still be expected to do their regular activities. It took a lot of cooperation to run a ranch and work and take care of two little boys. Buck had finished his shower and had gotten a cup of coffee for himself. He was sitting on the far end of the couch watching the puppies playing out in the yard.

“Can we go for a ride?” Vin asked excitedly.

“Can we go to the park?” JD suggested.

“We can go to the park anytime, JD. We haven't been able to go for a good, long ride in a while,” Vin reminded his cousin.

“Yeah, but Joey said he would be there today and we could practice our moves! Next time we play that bigger team, we're gonna beat ‘em like a rug!” JD said.

“John Daniel!” Buck chided. “Didn't we have a talk about good sportsman behavior? It isn't important who wins or loses as long as you have fun playing.”

“Yeah, but not when you always lose, like we do!” JD defended in a grouchy voice.

“No one likes to lose, little bit, but you boys did terrific yesterday. You only lost by one point! I was so proud of you. You really did your best and you were a good sport at the end and I even noticed that you shared your drink with Vin afterwards.”

JD nodded, he still didn't want to always lose. They did agree to go for a nice, long ride in the afternoon when the rest of the team arrived so they went to the park for a couple of hours to let JD run off some of his energy.

When they arrived at the park, Joey was already there. JD took off across the field, kicking the soccer ball as he went. At one point, he got his foot tangled up on the ball and landed in the grass on his bottom. Both grownups waited to see if he was all right before they laughed at him but Vin couldn't suppress the giggles that burst out at the sight.

“Hey, JD, you looked like that cartoon! You know the one where Charlie Brown tries to kick the football and Lucy pulls it away? I bet you could even make that yell he does, ‘aaa-aaah' right before you hit the ground!”

JD looked up from where he was still sitting on the ground and smiled. Buck picked him up and dusted the seat of his pants before giving him a pat and sending him on his way. JD ran the rest of the way to Joey carrying the ball. The three boys played until nearly noon before Chris called them back to the benches.

“We have to get back to the ranch, would you like us to drop you at home?” Buck asked.

“No, thanks, it isn't far, I'll walk,” Joey said as he looked toward the street.

“Are you sure? I kind of hate to leave you here all alone, son,” Chris pressured.

The boy finally agreed to accept the ride. Vin was thrilled because he was allowed to ride in the seatbelt between the two safety seats like a ‘big' boy. They dropped Joey in front of a tiny, rundown cottage a few blocks from the park. The boy went to the door and waved without going into the house. It was only the cars behind him on the narrow street that made Chris finally drive away. He and Buck exchanged a glance that only they understood.

It was Monday morning after the boys had caught the bus to school before Buck and Chris had an opportunity to discuss the odd behavior of JD's little friend. They suspected that either the boy was afraid to go into the house because of what was going on inside or that there wasn't anyone home to let him into the house. Either way, they were going to look into the situation later in the day.

The school counselor thanked them for inquiring about Joey Marshall and assured them that she would look into the situation. Chris hung up the phone feeling like he was watching one of Ezra's magic tricks; he was missing something very important.

It was two days later when Mrs. Potter came to Buck and asked to speak to him about JD. In her hands was a small basket of clothes and an assortment of plastic wrappers.

“I don't want to get JD into trouble but I'm afraid that something is wrong. I keep finding things missing from the kitchen and I found the wrappers in the laundry. It looks like he's sneaking food. I know he eats his lunch, I've even been putting in the extra sandwich and fruit like he asked for but …”

“JD asked for an extra sandwich and fruit in his lunchbox?” Buck asked, surprised.

“Yes, last week Monday morning, he asked me to put extra in his lunchbox. He said that all the soccer practice at recess is making him hungry and he needs the extra for a snack. His lunchbox is empty every afternoon, I assumed he was eating everything or he'd bring it home like he does when he's not feeling well,” the older woman explained.

“Thanks Gloria, I'll speak to him about it,” Buck assured her.

That evening, after supper while Chris was reading with Vin, Buck gathered JD into the recliner and talked to him.

“Mrs. Potter says that she thinks you might be sneaking food out of the kitchen, little bit. Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Buck watched as JD considered his words. The little boy's eyes filled with tears and he began to look around as if seeking someone to protect him. His little hands wiggled fretfully in his lap as he chewed on his lower lip. Buck reached out and gently tipped the child's face up so he could see his eyes. JD refused to meet his father's gaze and the tears broke free and rolled down his cheeks.

“JD, son, is something bothering you? You know you can tell me anything, I won't get mad at you, I promise. I'm worried about you.”

“I tooked the food out of the kitchen, Da,” JD admitted.

“Can you tell me why?”

“I don't want him to be hungry like we was before we came here to live,” the child answered.

“You don't want who to be hungry?” Buck fought the urge to tense up as he felt the tremors of fear shaking JD's body.

“Joey,” JD whispered.

“From the soccer team?”

“Uh-huh, his daddy sometimes forgets to get stuff at the store and Joey don't have anything to eat at home, so I taked some of our stuff and put it in my backpack and sneaked it to him in the cloak room at school.”

Buck pulled JD to his chest so the boy wouldn't see the emotions crawling across his face. That his ‘little bit' should be reminded of being homeless by another child upset the big man more than he wanted to realize. After a moment, JD pushed away from the embrace.

“Can I still take something for Joey? He don't get supper very often and he's really hungry in the morning.”

Not trusting his voice, Buck nodded and kissed JD on the forehead. He carefully changed the subject and spent the rest of the time listening to JD expound on his project for art. After he had bathed the child and tucked him into bed, Buck went out onto the back deck, sat down, and cried. He heard the sliding glass door open behind him and didn't even look up. Chris sat down next to his friend and waited. When it seemed like Buck was not going to enlighten him about the problem, he asked.

“You want to talk about it?”

“JD's taking food to give to Joey Marshall. He said that he doesn't want Joey to be hungry like he was when he was homeless.”

Chris nodded. They never knew what was going to trigger the memories for the boys. Sometimes, seemingly innocuous things brought back the nightmares and the clinging and bed-wetting. They never knew until they were wakened in the night by one of the boys.

“I'll hot line it tomorrow. I know it doesn't sound like much, but it's all we can do at the moment. If we ever see signs of abuse, we can try to help him but for now, our hands are tied.”

Going through the bureaucratic process of gaining custody of the boys, Buck and Chris had become well acquainted with the child welfare system. They knew, first hand, how difficult it was to get help for any child. They also knew the proper steps to take to get the ball rolling and the first step was the hot line call.

Buck made a point of making sure that JD had more than enough food in his lunch box that he wasn't doing without to feed Joey. He also slipped JD a couple of dollars and a card with both his and Chris's phone numbers on it to give the other boy.

“You give this to Joey and tell him to keep it with him. If something bad happens, he can call us, any time, day or night and we will come and help him. I'm so proud of you, JD, for wanting to help your friend. You're a real hero, you know?”

JD blushed at the comment as he stuffed the money and card into his pocket. After collecting a hug and kiss from Chris and Buck, he hurried out to wait for the bus. Both anxious fathers watched out the door until the bus swallowed up the children before they finished getting ready for work.

After taking care of the urgent business at the office, Buck took a seat on the edge of Chris's desk as the team leader made the call to the hot line number they knew by heart.

“Thank you, Mrs. Feldman. Will you be able to let me know anything? I see. No, no, I understand completely. It's just that we're so worried about the little guy. Thanks anyway.”

Chris hung up the phone and looked across the desk at Buck.

“They won't tell you anything?”

“No, she says that we should not get involved any further. We can watch and make the calls but she doesn't want us to get too close to either Joey or his father.”

The soccer game was scheduled for right after school on Friday and both Chris and Buck were in attendance along with the rest of the team. Josiah and Ezra were there to corral the boys' fathers in case there was a confrontation with Mr. Marshall. Nathan was there to observe.

It didn't take long for Nathan to observe that there was something wrong with Joey. He had a bandage taped to his head near his right eyebrow. The coach assured Nathan that Mr. Marshall said that the boy had run into the jungle gym on the playground at the park the night before and he had been to the hospital for stitches. There was no sign of a concussion and the child was cleared to play.

It was an exciting soccer game considering the ages of the players. Scott scored a spectacular goal to put the team ahead by one point. JD and Joey were doing their own ‘happy dance' down field in front of the other goalie. Earl and Tomas brought the ball back down the field with Scott and Phon hot on their heels trying to get the ball back. Joey and JD were doing their best to protect their goalie, Paul. Tomas let go a powerful kick that caused the ball to hit Joey squarely in the face. The boy let loose a wail of pain and fear as blood poured from his nose. The referee's whistle stopped the game immediately and both coaches, several concerned parents and Nathan all rushed to where Joey knelt. The boy was crying hysterically at the sight of all the blood. Nathan got to him first and took charge.

“Joey, can I look at it for a moment? Just lift your chin for a moment. I know it's scary, son, but you're going to be all right. Let me look.”

The calm tone of voice and the firm hands soon allowed Nathan to determine that Joey's nose wasn't broken. A couple of ice cubes applied to his nose soon had the bleeding stopped. The referee called the rest of the game because of the time and announced that Joey's team had won. In spite of the bloody nose, Joey was up dancing with the rest of the team as they celebrated the win. As the next game was getting ready to start, the parents began to wander toward their cars. Chris and the others were quick to notice that Mr. Marshall was not there to pick up his son. The coach approached Buck.

“I really hate to impose on you but my wife's expecting me home on time this evening. Could you keep an eye on Joey until his dad gets here? He's usually a little late after these Friday games.”

“Sure, I'll keep an eye on him. You go on home. See you Sunday afternoon.”

It was almost an hour before Mr. Marshall showed up to collect Joey. The man didn't bother to thank them for staying with the boy or offer any explanation as to why he was so late. He simply showed up, took Joey by the arm and left. Josiah and Nathan dissuaded Chris and Buck from interfering by suggesting that they would treat the family to their favorite pizza place for supper.

“Okay, since it is Friday night and JD's team did win the game, I guess we'll go out for pizza to celebrate. Did anyone happen to see where Ezra got off to?”

After getting a matching set of ‘don't ask, you don't want to know' looks from Josiah and Nathan, Chris nodded and headed for the truck. He would just have to trust his team.

Sunday afternoon, the team gathered to watch JD's team play again. Joey showed up, but the coach pulled him after the first few minutes. The child was simply too exhausted to play. Nathan moved in to try to check him out, but Joey refused to allow the medic to touch him. He did accept the offer of the blanket Josiah spread out in the shade and immediately lay down and fell asleep. The boy did not wake up until the game was nearly over. The ATF agents decided to treat the team to burgers after the game, partially because they won again and partially to ensure that Joey got at least one, good meal that day. All of the boys were gathered on the blankets under a big shade tree when Mr. Marshall showed up for his son.

“Joseph Hamilton Marshall, what do you think you're doing?” The man growled as he approached the blankets.

“He's just sharing a hamburger with the team, they won the game. I hope you don't mind,” Chris said evenly as he glared across the heads of the children. Joey quickly wrapped his hamburger in the paper and pushed it into his pocket and came to his feet. Chris watched the pair as they walked away. Scott's mother shook her head and spoke softly.

“Some people shouldn't have children,” she said.

Monday afternoon, the phone rang. Chris looked up from the blueprint of the building they had under surveillance to pick up the call.

“Mr. Larabee, this is Mrs. Potter. I'm sorry to bother you at work but would it be possible for Mr. Wilmington to speak to JD? He came home from school and went straight into his room and won't come out. I tried talking to him and he just burrows into the pillow.”

Chris looked immediately across the table at Buck, who got up and left the conference room to take the call. When Buck didn't return in a few minutes, the meeting disintegrated and Chris headed for his office. As he rounded the doorway he heard Buck's softly pleading voice.

“Just tell me what's wrong, little bit. Did something happen at school today? JD? Talk to me.”

For five more minutes, Buck pleaded with JD to talk before Mrs. Potter drew the phone away. She relayed that he was still deeply burrowed in the pillow. Buck looked pleadingly at Chris and received a nod of permission to leave the office. He grabbed his jacket and dashed for the elevators.

When Buck arrived home, JD was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at his supper. As soon as he heard the door open, he bolted for the living room. Hurtling himself toward Buck, he wrapped his arms and legs around his father.

“Da! They took Joey away!” JD wailed into Buck's neck.

Buck dropped into the recliner and ran his hands up and down JD's back as the boy cried. Mrs. Potter looked in on them and he nodded to let her know that it was all right if she needed to leave. Vin wandered in a few minutes later and climbed into the recliner. When Chris arrived home an hour later, they were still in the chair. The blonde peeled Vin off of Buck and sat with him on the couch as he waited for an explanation. He could see that Buck had the phone in his hand.

“They took Joey into custody today. He came in to school this morning with,” Buck lowered his voice to a mere whisper, “bruises all up and down his back.”

“He saw them?” Chris inquired in the same whisper.

“Yeah, he slipped out of the classroom and down to the nurse's office before they caught him.”

“Oh God,” Chris whispered as he shook his head. Vin's grip tightened and it was apparent that he knew more than he had let on. Warm tears bathed his neck as the little Texan wept.

They took the boys to school the next day. JD was clingy and weepy as he was delivered to his classroom. Vin was abnormally silent as he ghosted into his classroom. Buck caught the teacher's eye and motioned her out into the hallway.

“He's really upset about Joey. If it gets to be too much for him, call me at work and I'll come and get him.”

“The counselors will be here all day. If he needs it, I'd like to try that first.”

“Whatever you think is best. I'll be available all day.”

The boys remained at school all day but returned home quiet and withdrawn. Buck and Chris tried to comfort them but they seemed most content to just be with their fathers. JD ended up in Buck's bed, plastered to his side like a second skin. Vin lay in a hyper alert state on the bed next to Chris until he was simply too tired to continue to fight sleep. He wakened a few hours later, screaming and clawing at his blankets.

“Vin, Vin calm down! I've got you son. Calm down.” Chris soothed.

“Don't let them take me away! Don't let them!” Vin pleaded.

“No one is coming to get you, Vin. I've got you. You're safe.”

After several minutes, Vin relaxed and went back to sleep. Chris lay awake for a long time, watching his son sleep. He would give almost anything to be able to take away the pain and fear the boy was going through. When Vin nuzzled against his chest in his sleep, Chris closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

The next afternoon, JD called Buck as soon as he got home from school. His voice was happy and filled with joy. The words spilled out so fast that he had to ask three times to hear it again before he finally understood. Joey had returned to school that day!

Chris picked up the phone and called Mrs. Feldman.

“You have to tell me what happened with Joey Marshall!” he demanded.

“Mr. Larabee, I'm sorry. The judge couldn't find enough evidence to keep him in custody. Joey denies that his father hurt him. He told the judge that he fell down the stairs after he tripped over the dog. The psychologist couldn't get him to sway on his story at all. We had to give him back. We've assigned a worker to supervise him, to make sure that there's food in the house, that he supervises the boy properly. I'm afraid it's all we can do for now.”

For the next few weeks, everything seemed to be all right for Joey. JD reported that his friend wasn't coming to school hungry in the morning anymore. Mr. Marshall showed up for the soccer games and stayed. He avoided socializing with the other parents and left as soon as the children left the field. It wasn't a perfect situation, but it was the best they could hope for. Unfortunately, it fell apart the day of the last soccer game.

JD and Joey were blocking for Scott in the goal. Javier and Timmy came down the field with the ball and tried to score. Joey's dad was on the sidelines yelling for his son to get in front of the ball and stop them from scoring. Timmy took control of the ball and approached the smaller boy. Joey instinctively shied away from the boy as he remembered the bloody nose from the last time he got in front of one of the bigger boy's goal attempts.

As soon as the game was over, Joey's father charged across the field. The slight child cringed before the man. Buck started across the field to where JD was standing behind his friend comforting him. JD understood completely that Joey didn't want to get hurt by the ball again.

“Let's go!” Winston Marshall growled at the boy.

“Mr. Marshall, the team is getting together at the pizza place to celebrate the end of the season, we would appreciate if you would bring Joey,” Buck said as soon as he was within earshot.

“I have plans,” the man replied tartly as he turned on his heel and stormed away. Little Joey cast a wistful look at JD before following the retreating back of his father.

As soon as the gear was loaded, the boys were placed in their safety seats. Nathan and Josiah waived as they backed out of their parking spaces. When the Jag didn't move, Chris looked around for the undercover agent.

“Did you see where Ezra got off to?” Chris asked.

“He was headed for the restroom a couple of minutes ago to wash his hands,” Buck answered.

“Does he know where we're meeting?”

“If he doesn't, he'll call.”

The southerner never did make the pizza place that evening. The next morning, Saturday, the phone at the ranch rang. Chris looked up from the paper he was reading as Vin handed him the cordless phone.


“Mr. Larabee, I thought you should know that Joey Marshall was taken into protective custody again last night,” Ezra announced.

“And how would you know that, Ezra?”

“I was witness to a most heinous act of abuse and was compelled to call and report what I observed. I stuck around long enough to hear them call for a caseworker to pick up the child. I recommended that they contact Mr. Jackson, as I remember that they are licensed foster parents. The woman who took the boy said that she would consider them.”

“Thanks for letting me know. I'll explain it to the boys.” Chris hung up the phone with a heavy heart. He knew it would upset JD and Vin. On an impulse, he called Nathan first.

“Jackson residence,” Rain said, puzzled that the phone rang again so soon after hanging it up.

“Rain, it's Chris.” Before he could say anything more, she interrupted him.

“Chris, I just got the call, we're getting Joey, as soon as the worker gets the paperwork together. Do you want to talk to Nate?”

“Please. And Rain? Thanks,” Chris said.

After inviting Nathan to bring the family out later in the day, he hung up the phone and went to inform Buck of the situation. They sat down with the boys to break the news. JD took the news well after hearing that Joey was going to be staying with uncle Nathan. Vin only sighed and leaned closer to Chris. JD asked if his friend could stay the night and Buck explained that it would have to wait a while.

After lunch, Nathan called to say that Joey was very upset about the situation and that they were going to give him a chance to settle in before they took him anywhere. Chris understood and went to break the news to the boys.

Monday evening, JD said that Joey was sad. He was concerned for his friend but he thought he could understand, Joey missed his dad. Chris and Buck hadn't given the boys any more information than that the boy had been removed for his safety. JD shuddered when he remembered the dark bruises on the other child. Buck encouraged JD not to pry or ask questions of his friend but to just be there if he wanted to talk.

Ezra had to appear at the intake hearing to testify about what he had witnessed when Joey's father had taken the boy into the restroom after the soccer game. The judge called him to the stand and the clerk swore him in before he spoke.

“I entered the restroom with the intention of washing my hands. When I entered the men's room, I observed Winston Marshall accosting his son. He was shaking the boy and then he slapped the child in the face.”

“How did you come to be at the soccer game, Mr. Standish? You don't have any children, do you?” Mr. Marshall's lawyer asked.

“No, I don't have children. I was there to observe my co-worker's son, who is on the same team as Joey Marshall,” Ezra answered evenly.

“Isn't it true that Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington put you up to following Mr. Marshall after they tried, unsuccessfully, to have him removed earlier this year?”

“No, I was not under any instruction to follow Mr. Marshall. In fact, Mrs. Feldman actively discouraged us from further involvement in the situation.”

“Who is Mrs. Feldman?”

“The hotline worker Mr. Larabee contacted earlier in the year.”

When it was all over, the judge agreed to keep Joey in care until a more thorough investigation could be made. He ordered Joey's father to get parenting classes and anger management classes as part of allowing him to have supervised visits with Joey. After the hearing, Nathan and Ezra returned to the office while Rain drove home.

That next weekend, Chris again invited Nathan to bring his family out to the ranch. Again, Nathan begged off, saying that Joey was still having difficulty settling in. JD was also behaving oddly. Buck tried and tried to get his ‘little bit' to tell him what was wrong, but JD only shook his head and refused to discuss the subject. Buck was becoming concerned because he kept finding Vin in JD's bed in the mornings. Vin would only say that JD was sad.

On Wednesday afternoon, Chris, Buck and Nathan were called to the school. The three men piled into Chris's truck and drove over to the school. Upon arriving in the office, JD launched himself off of the bench and into Buck's arms. Vin remained on the bench, looking at Chris with eyes that burned with intense emotion. A little further down the bench sat Joey, glaring at the three men before returning his gaze to the floor.

“Gentlemen, could I have a word with you?” The counselor asked from the door of her office. Buck peeled JD off and sat him back on the bench. When the men entered the small office, they took up seats around the room. “Okay, from what I can gather from the other children, it started between Joey and JD. Vin became involved after Joey shoved JD. None of the children will admit to what started the confrontation.”

“What are you going to do to them?” Chris asked.

“Well, since it was pretty much just shoving, and since it is the first time any of these children have been involved in any kind of altercation, I'm going to let them off with a warning. I would appreciate it if you would talk to them and try to find out what set them off.”

The men left the office and each one took their respective child for a talk. Buck gathered JD up and carried him to a nearby stairwell to talk.

“You want to tell me what happened, little bit?” JD shook his head ‘no' without raising it from Buck's shoulder. The child was shaking as he fought back tears. “You know that it's wrong to push another person?” The dark hair bobbed up and down. “You know we'll have to talk about this when we get home this evening?” He felt the ‘yes' again.

Chris and Vin took a seat in another stairwell. The little Texan rested his elbows on his knees and sighed as he waited for his father to speak.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“He pushed JD.”

“Do you know why he pushed JD?”


“But you don't want to tell me?”

Vin shook his head and Chris could see that the boy was nearly in tears. Chris reached over and wrapped his hand around the back of Vin's neck and drew him close. Vin shifted immediately and buried his face in Chris's shirtfront. Within moments, he felt the shuddering sobs begin. He smoothed his hands up and down the boy's back as he wracked his brain for a solution to the situation.

Nathan squatted down in front of Joey and caught his eye. He could see the emotions rolling through the dark eyes. Fear, uncertainty and a healthy dose of confusion and anger vied for control of the small, trembling body.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” The child didn't respond. “You know we'll talk about this when I get home this afternoon?” Again, no response. “You know that you shouldn't push other kids, right?”

“You're just mad ‘cause I pushed JD and Vin! You don't care about what they did to me!” Joey yelled as he lost control of the tears he had been fighting back. He tried to bolt from the room and Nathan wrapped an arm around his waist and gently drew him back to the bench. Joey drew another deep breath and began to yell. “You don't care about me! I hate you! I hate you for keeping me from my dad! I want to go home! I hate you, I wish you were dead!”

When the tirade ended, Nathan gathered the slight body into his arms. Joey resisted for a moment before he surrendered and allowed the man to lift him from the bench. With his free hand, Nathan pulled his cell phone and called Rain. He asked her to pick him up at the school.

Chris and Buck peeked into the office and Nathan told them that Rain was coming to get him if they wanted to go without him. The counselor handed over the boy's book bags and jackets that she had collected from the classrooms.

“See you in the morning, Nathan,” Chris called. The team medic nodded.

After calling Mrs. Potter to tell her that they were going to be home early, they headed for the ranch. Neither of the boys would admit to anything and sat in absolute silence on the drive home. Vin took his bag and went directly to the table to begin his homework. JD put his bag away and began his evening chores without being prompted. Buck and Chris sat in the living room contemplating this recent turn of events.

Supper was eaten in silence. JD kept glancing up at Buck and then at Chris before looking at Vin furtively. The older child didn't make eye contact except in response to direct questions about his food and homework. Finally, he cleaned his plate and asked to be excused.

“Take care of your chores and we'll talk about what happened at school today,” Chris said, releasing the boy from the table. As soon as Vin was out of the house, JD began to sniffle and then to cry. Buck started to go to him but Chris held him back. “Do you want to talk about it, JD?”

“Don't be mad at Vin. Please?” the tiny voice pleaded.

“Can you tell us what happened at school today, little bit?” Buck asked.

“Joey's mad at me. He doesn't want to be my friend anymore and he … he said …” JD's voice cracked and he threw his napkin down as he ran from the table toward the bedroom he shared with Vin. Buck sighed as he left the table and went after the child. Chris cleared the table before heading for the barn to talk to Vin.

When he opened the barn door, Chris heard the soft sniffles coming from the stall where Vin hid when he was distressed. Clearing his throat so as not to startle the boy, Chris leaned against the gate.

“We have to talk about this, cowboy.”

“'m sorry ‘bout the fight at school,” Vin said.

“Can you tell me what started it?”

“Joey said he didn't want to be our friend anymore. He said it's your fault that he got took from his dad. He said … he said …he hoped …” Vin's voice dissolved into gut wrenching sobs as the boy beat the ground with his balled up fist. Chris opened the stall and knelt to gather the child into his arms.

“What did he say, Vin?”

Two burning, incandescent blue beacons burned into Chris as the tears rolled down his face. Vin was shaking so hard that he could hardly breathe. His mouth opened and closed several times as he tried to force the words out.

“He said … he hoped you … you and B-buck would get … get k-killed,” Vin sobbed as he wrapped himself around Chris and clung with everything he had inside.

Chris was staggered by the remark. He sagged against the side of the stall as he tightened his arms around the boy he had come to love so much. Every day, every time he stepped out of the office, he had to wonder if someone was going to try to kill him. It was the very reason he had tried so hard not to become attached to the boys in the beginning. He couldn't begin to imagine what Vin must have felt when the other child hurled the hurtful words. His heart lurched suddenly as he realized that JD must be dealing with the same hurt and fear. Struggling to his feet with Vin wrapped around his torso, Chris raced for the house.

Buck had followed JD into the bedroom and saw the boy launch himself into the corner with his pillow. The heart-rending sobs were only partially muffled. Buck eased onto the bed and reached out for his son. JD jerked away from the touch and scrunched into a smaller ball.

“JD, please don't do this, don't shut me out,” Buck pleaded softly. “Please tell me what has you so upset.” The dark head shook ‘no' and the volume of the sobs increased. Buck reached out again and settled his hand on JD's back and kept it there. After a few more minutes, the sobbing eased and some of the tension left the small body. Buck worked his hand around and eased in under JD's chest and coaxed him off of the pillow. JD clung to his father and buried his face. Buck simply lay, holding JD and soothing him with his free hand. Finally, a tiny phrase crashed into his ear.

“I don't want you and Chris to get killed,” JD whispered as he tightened up again.

Buck felt as if someone had thrown a pail of ice water on him. His hands automatically tightened on JD as his heart raced. They had been through this in the beginning, Both he and Chris had agonized over whether or not they had the right to let the boys get attached to them knowing that they faced death everyday. It was Josiah who pointed out that they could as easily die after being thrown from a horse or from falling in the shower. When he could make his voice work again, Buck whispered into the dark hair.

“What brought that up, little bit?”

“Joey said he hoped you and Chris would get killed ‘cause you made them take him away from his daddy. That's when he pushed me and Vin pushed him back. We don't want to go anyplace else to live Da, we don't want you and Chris to die,” JD whimpered into Buck's neck.

‘Aw, Hell,' Buck thought as he shifted JD onto his chest. The kid had been through enough in his short time on Earth, why did another child have to do this to him? He knew it was wrong to blithely mouth the words to JD. The boy was smart enough to know better anyway. Sitting up, he pried JD off of his chest so he could look into the large, dark eyes.

“Little bit, you know that Chris and I love you and Vin very much. We are very careful at work so that we can come home to you every night. But you remember that we told you that if anything ever happened to one of us that the other would always be here for both of you? If something were to happen to both of us, your uncles would be here for you. I want you to understand that, son. Someone will always be here for you.”

The large, dark eyes were still swimming in tears as JD nodded before burying his face again. Buck leaned back against the wall and settled the small boy comfortably across his chest as he rubbed his back. He was helpless to control the bitter tears that rolled down his cheeks and dampened JD's hair. When Chris appeared in the doorway a little later with Vin affixed to his chest, Buck could only nod at his friend.

Neither boy slept in his own bed that night and neither adult got much sleep. Both men dreaded the thought of having to tell Nathan what Joey had said.

Nathan Jackson studied the small boy sitting in the big, over-stuffed chair in the corner of the living room. The child had not spoken since coming home from school but had stuffed most of his clothes into his book bag. They did not broach the subject over supper. Joey didn't eat much; he pushed the food around while casting worried glances at Nathan and Rain. After supper, the three of them gathered in the living room.

“Would you like to tell us what happened at school today?” Nathan asked.

“I pushed JD and Vin pushed me,” Joey defended.

“Can you tell me why you pushed JD?” Rain asked.

“I don't want him following me around all the time. I don't like him no more.”

“Are you sure that's all that happened? I know those two boys and they wouldn't just light into you without a reason,” Nathan said as he leaned toward the child.

“I just told them I didn't want to be their friend anymore. I don't like them and I don't like their dads. They think they got it so good. They don't have any parents, my daddy is still alive and he loves me and I told them that I wished …” Joey looked up suddenly as he remembered that Nathan worked for Vin's adopted dad.

“You told them you wished what?” Rain inquired gently.

Joey looked up at Nathan and shook his head. He pushed back in the chair and folded his arms tightly across his chest. He didn't see the look that Rain gave Nathan. The child flinched as Nathan came to his feet and left the living room. When the door to the home-office closed, Rain moved to the end of the couch closest to Joey. In the handful of days that the child had been in their home, he had begun to warm to the woman. She waited until he looked at her before she spoke again.

“You know that it isn't Chris and Buck that took you from your dad, right?” Seeing the boy nod reluctantly, she pressed on. “We're only trying to make sure that you are taken care of properly. Nathan and I don't want to keep you from going back home; we're just taking care of you until your dad is able to take care of you again. Now, I know you and JD were pretty close. I also know that JD doesn't have a mean bone in his body. I'm willing to bet that you said something that you wish you hadn't or something you didn't really mean and now you're feeling pretty badly about it. Would that be right?”

Joey looked at Rain. Her face reminded him of his own mother. More than anything, he wanted to curl up in her arms and let her love him but his mind was screaming that they were only foster parents and that they didn't really love him. He had heard the older kids talking; he knew that people only did this because they felt sorry for the kids. Besides, if he allowed himself to get attached to her, it would only be worse for him when he had to go back to his dad. His dad would be upset and angry with him for not loving him and not believing in him. Joey tightened his knees and clenched his shirt more tightly in his fists.

Rain wanted so badly to reach out and gather the child into her arms. He looked like he needed to be cuddled and protected. His body language was just screaming the war that was being waged in his head. She had noticed immediately that the child was starved for physical affection. When he helped her to dry the dishes in the evening, he frequently bumped into her. He would lean over the couch when she was reading or writing a letter. She sensed that he wanted to be touched but was afraid of betraying the love he had for his father.

“Can you tell me what you wished on Vin and JD?” She asked softly.

As the tears welled up in the boy's eyes, he finally whispered, “I wished that their dad's would get killed at work.”

Rain immediately went to her knees in front of the chair and gathered Joey onto her shoulder. The boy was shaking as he tried weakly to pull away from her embrace. Finally, he leaned into her and put his arms around her neck. He began to shake his head and she had to concentrate to hear the words.

“I didn't mean it. I didn't mean to say it. I don't want anything bad to happen to JD's daddy or to Vin's daddy. I was just mad ‘cause I can't even see my daddy and he must be so worried about me.”

Rain continued to hold and comfort the boy until he was able to stop crying. She started his bath and left him sitting in the tub filled with bubbles and tapped on the door to the office. As soon as Nathan opened the door, she leaned into his embrace and shuddered.

Mrs. Potter showed up early the next morning to spend the day with the boys at Chris's request. He didn't feel that either child was up to being in school that day. Both boys had been disturbed by bad dreams during the night and had only settled into relaxed sleep near dawn. Buck kissed JD on the forehead as he tucked the blankets under the edge of the mattress to ensure that the child didn't fall out of bed. Chris smiled down at Vin as he lay sprawled out in the middle of the bed. The boy had been stuck to him like a second skin most of the night. Both men left explicit instructions for Gloria to call if either of the boys needed them.

Rain also kept Joey at home that day. She wanted to spend more time with the boy. She also called the caseworker to see about arranging for a supervised visit with Mr. Marshall. After explaining the situation between the boys, the worker agreed and began to make arrangements for the visit.

Chris and Buck arrived at the office a little early. Josiah arrived a short time later. By the time Nathan arrived, the other two men had been brought up to date on what they missed when they left the day before. There was an awkward moment as Nathan stood looking at the other two fathers.

“I think we need to talk,” he said.

Josiah made a quick and graceful exit of the conference room. The three men sat down around the table and sighed. Chris looked at each of the other men before dragging his hand through his hair. Buck stared at his hands. Nathan finally decided to break the silence.

“I guess we have a problem.”

“Yeah, I'd have to agree with you about that,” Buck said, nodding.

“So, what do we do about it?” Chris asked.

“Did the boys tell you what Joey said?”

“Yeah, they did. Vin woke up crying in the night several times,” Chris said.

“JD did too. It drug up all the old fears,” Buck said.

“I'm sorry, guys. I wish I knew what to say,” Nathan said, looking uncomfortable.

“It isn't your fault, Nate. Joey is hurting and he lashed out at his friends. We've all been there before. The thing is, we have to figure out how to fix it before it's more than just yelling and shoving,” Chris told the team medic.

“Rain kept him home today. She was going to call the caseworker and try to arrange a visit with his dad. He told her he didn't mean what he said to the boys, he was just upset.”

“We kept ours home today, too. Mrs. Potter has them for the day,” Buck explained.

“Maybe we should get them together to talk. Explain to Joey what's going on and that the boys didn't have anything to do with it. I know JD will forgive him for what he said and Vin's pretty clear on saying things you don't mean when you're angry,” Chris suggested.

“Yeah, it might be good for them. Maybe if the boys were able to share some of what their life was like when they didn't have a parent to look after them, it might help Joey to understand why he was taken from his father,” Nathan agreed.

“Just as long as this doesn't become a problem between the three of us,” Chris urged.

Rain wasn't able to arrange a visit that day, but she did arrange for Joey to call his father on the phone for a few minutes. The boy seemed happier after the call for a little while but after lunch, she found him lying across his bed crying.

“Joey, what's wrong?” She asked as she sat on the bed and rubbed his back lightly.

“I don't want Nathan to be mad at me,” he answered.

“Nathan isn't mad at you, sweetie. He knows you were just upset. We both understand that you're scared and worried about your dad. You just have to take this one day at a time, okay? We'll get you through this.”

Joey sat up and wrapped his arms around Rain and clung to her. She did know that he was worried about his dad. If she knew that, maybe she did understand what he was going through. When he was feeling stronger, he asked if he could call Nathan and apologize to him. Rain asked him if he could wait and do that when Nathan came home that evening.

JD and Vin spent the day playing with the puppies. They ate lunch and went right back to playing. When Buck and Chris called to check on them, JD just had to talk to Buck.

“Hi, Da. When you see Nathan, will you ask him to tell Joey that I won't bother him at school anymore if he doesn't want me to. I don't want to hurt his feelings anymore.”

“I'll tell him, little bit. I'm pretty sure that Joey feels pretty badly about the things he said to you and Vin yesterday. Chris invited them to come over tomorrow so we can try to talk things through if that's okay with you boys.”

“I'd like that! Can we show him the horses and the puppies? Are Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah coming too? We could make a big barbeque and play in the yard and practice for soccer!”

“Slow down, JD. We'll talk about it when we get home this evening.”

The Jackson's arrived just after lunch on Saturday. JD and Joey rushed outside together as if the ugliness of the other day had not happened. Vin followed them and was soon laughing and playing right along with them. The adults migrated out to the deck to keep an eye on the boys.

They let the boys play until supper was ready and then they called them together to clean up. After a pleasant meal on the deck, they moved to the living room to talk to the boys. As soon as JD and Vin realized that this was going to be a serious discussion, they moved to sit in their father's laps. Joey moved to sit on the couch next to Rain, not touching her, but close by her side.

“Okay, we're going to talk about what happened at the school on Thursday. To be fair to everyone, Josiah brought something very special. This is called a ‘speaking stick' and whoever has it is the only person who has the right to speak. Josiah will act as our mediator. He will prevent us from arguing and guide us through our discussion,” Chris explained.

Rain asked for and received the speaking stick. After gazing into the faces of each of the boys, she began to speak.

“On Thursday, the three of you got into a shouting and shoving match on the playground. I know you two boys discussed it with your dads and I have discussed it with Joey. I wanted to begin by saying that I'm very proud of the way you have all come back together after what happened.”

Josiah took the stick back, “Okay, JD can you start by telling us what happened Thursday?”

“Umm, okay. I was trying to play with Joey. He was mad at me about something and he wouldn't tell me what I did wrong. I tried to get him to play with me on the playground and he started yelling at me. He said something that really hurt my feelings.”

When it seemed like JD wouldn't tell anymore, Buck gave him a gentle squeeze.

“You need to tell it all, little bit,” he encouraged.

“Okay, Da. But I know he didn't mean it!”

“It's okay, just say it and it'll be all over.”

“He said, umm, he said that he wished, that he wished my daddy and Vin's daddy would get killed at work.”

The child couldn't get rid of the speaking stick fast enough. He turned and snuggled up tighter to Buck. From the safety of his new position in his father's lap, JD stuck his thumb in his mouth and tossed an apologetic glance over to Joey. Rain took the stick and handed it to Vin.

“I saw JD following Joey across the playground. I saw JD start to cry and I ran over. That's when I heard Joey say he wished my dad would get killed. I told him to take it back cause he lives with Uncle Nathan and it was just as dangerous. He wouldn't take it back and he pushed JD and so I pushed him back. That's when the teacher broke it up.”

Vin surrendered the speaking stick but his posture remained tense. He was still a little upset with what Joey had said. Chris slipped an arm around Vin's waist and pulled him back against his chest. Joey stared at the carpet, his shoulders were bowed and tight and he had his heels pulled tight against the couch. When he didn't even respond to the speaking stick being offered, Josiah spoke.

“It looks like Joey is pretty upset about what happened. Would that be fair for me to say that, Joey?” Seeing the slight nod, Josiah continued. “Could you at least tell us what you were feeling when you said the hurtful things to JD and Vin?”

Slender, dark fingers curled around the speaking stick as Joey pulled himself to the edge of the couch. Sniffling back the moisture in his nose, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand before he tried to speak.

“I was mad ‘cause I got taken away from my dad. I was worried ‘cause sometimes he don't always take care of himself and I have to remind him of things. My dad told me when I got taken before that it was Vin's dad that was complaining so I was mad at him and I blamed JD too. But I didn't mean it! I really don't want their daddies to die!” Joey burst into tears as he shoved the speaking stick away.

JD pushed free of Buck and rushed to put his arms around Joey. Rain took advantage of the moment to put her arm around the boys and pull them closer to her. Chris felt the indecision in Vin's body as the child tensed up and started to pull away only to settle back into his father's embrace. Chris leaned close to the small ear and whispered something that caused Vin to nod and slide off of his father's lap. Vin cautiously approached the younger boys and slid an arm around Joey's shoulder. The dark eyes came up once and Joey smiled before pulling his arm from around JD to include Vin in his embrace.

When the boys slowly untangled, Ezra had the speaking stick. Vin and JD quickly returned to their father's laps and, surprisingly, Joey scooted over until Nathan pulled him up onto his lap. The boy didn't completely settle back against his foster father, but it was an improvement. All three boys waited expectantly to hear what the southerner had to say.

Ezra cleared his throat softly and studied each of the boys, his gaze resting longest on Joey. He fingered the speaking stick and then began to talk.

“I want each of you to understand something. Children are very precious to me. When Vin and JD came into our lives, I promised that I would protect them and look after them as if they were my own. I would never let anyone hurt them again. When I saw you, Joey, I saw that your father wasn't doing all that he could to take care of you and that made me concerned. When I saw your father shaking you and hitting you, it made me angry. No adult should ever use their size or strength to hurt a child, not even their own child. That's why I called the police. I wanted to protect you, Joey, the same way I would protect JD and Vin if anyone was hurting them. I hope you can forgive me for interfering, but I could not simply walk away.”

The solemn eyed child slid out of Nathan's lap and moved to stand directly in front of Ezra. For a long moment, brown eyes studied green ones in silence. When the southerner shifted forward slightly, Joey slipped his arms around Ezra's neck. Indulgent smiles lit the faces of the other adults as they watched the scene unfolding before them. Ezra whispered something in Joey's ear and the child nodded as he tightened his arms around the southerner. When Joey released his grip, he smiled an impish grin and was rewarded with a bright smile from Ezra. While the boy was returning to Nathan's lap, Chris received the speaking stick.

“I just wanted to ask the boys if they would be willing to share a little bit about how they felt before they came to live with us and how that changed afterwards. It might help Joey to understand why we did the things we did.”

JD climbed down from Buck's lap and moved to climb up beside Vin. Talking about the warehouse time was stressful for the boys. Vin wrapped an arm around JD as Chris wrapped both arms around both boys. Vin stared directly at Joey when he spoke.

“Before we came to live here, we lived in a warehouse. My mommy and JD's mommy are asleep with the angels and we didn't have anybody to tell us what to do. We didn't always have good stuff to eat and it was dangerous. I had to protect JD from the bad people. I even got shot!” Vin's hand went to the scar where the bullet had wounded him. He was very careful to keep it covered at all times so that the other kids would not question how he had gotten it. When Vin fell silent, JD picked up the thread of the story.

“We had to eat stuff out of the trash can sometimes when no one would give us food. That's why I was bringing extra lunch for us to share, ‘cause we always got enough to eat now. And it was scary sometimes when I didn't have my Da to protect me, even though Vin took real good care of me and told me not to talk to strangers and not to take nothing from them ‘cause they might want me to give them something back and Vin said I'm too little to give them anything.”

Each adult in the room suppressed a shudder at the implication of what the child had just innocently said but Joey only nodded. His dark eyes were brimming with tears again. Rain reached out and eased the speaking stick from Chris's hand. She knelt down in front of the child sitting in her husband's lap.

“Joey, I know you told me that you're sorry for what you said and I believe you. Do you think you understand now that we all just want to keep you safe until your daddy gets ready to take you back?”

The boy nodded and was embraced from both sides. Josiah took the speaking stick and smiled at everyone for a moment before he spoke.

“I think what we've done here is a good thing. I want to thank each of you for respecting the speaking stick so we could all say our piece without arguing or trying to talk over each other. You three boys have shown a lot of maturity in the way you've handled yourselves.”

With the serious talk over, Buck headed for the kitchen, calling over his shoulder.

“Anyone up for dessert?”

The boys quickly ditched the adults in the living room to dance around Buck as he held the ice cream bucket above his head and teased them. Nathan only shook his head as he watched the three little kids and one big kid.

The next couple of weeks were quiet for the team and for the boys. Chris and Buck worked hard to resist the urge to ask Nathan what was happening with Joey and his father. They knew that having a new child in the house was not all smooth sailing. When the normally laid-back team medic came on one morning spitting nails, they knew something was wrong.

“Anything you want to share with the group, Brother Nathan?” Josiah inquired.

“I just don't understand that man!” Nathan blurted out. “He schedules visits with Joey and then cancels them at the last minute or just plain doesn't show up! The kid cried himself to sleep last night.”

Chris and Buck exchanged a knowing look. Neither man could imagine going more than a few days without seeing their boys, much less the length of time Winston Marshall had been away from Joey. They shook their heads in sympathy. Nathan drew another breath and blew off the rest of his head of steam.

“His grades at school are slipping! Except for JD and Vin, he's picking fights with every other boy he comes into contact with at school, Rain's been down there nearly everyday this week! We've made arrangements for him to talk to a therapist but we can't get him in for another two weeks. I just feel so bad for the kid.”

“It seems callous to me to schedule visits he has no intention of appearing for,” Ezra complained.

“He always has an excuse, though. It's like he doesn't care how bad it hurts Joey to get his hopes up only to have them dashed time after time.”

“Could you wait to tell him about the visits until you're certain he'll be there?” Buck suggested.

“No, the caseworker has to supervise the visits and she picks him up to take him to the office so that he doesn't find out where we live,” Nathan explained.

Nearly two weeks later, Nathan arrived home to a police car and ambulance in his driveway. Running into the house with his heart in his throat, he found Rain on the couch, sobbing.

“What happened?” He demanded as he moved to gather his wife into his arms.

“Mr. Jackson? We responded to a call of a kidnapping and found your wife unconscious on the floor. She has refused to allow us to transport her to the hospital.”

“Rain? What happened? Where's Joey?”

As soon as Rain tipped her head up to look at him, Nathan's blood boiled. His wife had the beginnings of a horrible bruise on her cheek. Her eyes were pain filled as she relayed the story.

“Joey and I were just coming in from the car. I picked him up from the caseworker after his father failed to show up for another visit. I never saw him, Nathan, he was just there. He pushed me into the house. I tried to tell Joey to run to the neighbor's but he wouldn't leave me. Mr. Marshall hit me and I fell into the coffee table. When I woke up, Rosie was kneeling over me and the paramedics were just arriving. I'm sorry Nathan, I wasn't paying attention, I should have seen him!”

As Nathan tightened his grip on his trembling wife, the police officer picked up her story.

“Mrs. Clayton called the police to report a suspicious man dragging a screaming child from the house. She said she knew that you were foster parents and that the man didn't live in the house.”

“Why didn't someone call me?” Nathan asked as he eased Rain into the over-stuffed chair in the corner.

“We only arrived on the scene about 15 minutes ago, Mr. Jackson. We issued an ‘Amber Alert' for the boy and paged the caseworker. I was more concerned with making sure your wife was all right.”

Before Nathan could respond, the caseworker pushed her way into the living room. She rushed over and knelt down beside Rain and studied the rapidly coloring bruise. When she came to her feet, she turned to the police officer.

“Have you issued an APB for the father?” She asked.

“We issued an ‘Amber Alert' for the child. I didn't have enough information on the father to issue anything. We only have a partial license plate number and not much of a description of the car.”

Nathan pulled his cell phone and dialed Chris. Within the hour, the other four men had gathered at the house to provide support and encouragement. Not surprisingly, it was Ezra who proved the most useful. He had the entire license number as well as the make and model of the car. In his observations of Mr. Marshall, he had made extensive notes of his compatriots. The police issued a ‘wanted' on the car and the driver. The vehicle was registered to an apartment complex in a really poor section of town. A police car went by the address and couldn't find the car.

By eight that evening, Rain began nudging the men out of the house. She was especially concerned that Chris and Buck had not been home to see their own boys. Josiah announced that he was gong to drive around for a while and try to spot the car. Ezra also proclaimed that he would not go home until he had an opportunity to speak to ‘the miscreant who would abscond with a frightened child after striking a woman.' Chris warned both men not to cross the line, if they found Marshall, they were to call the proper authorities to come and arrest him.

The boys were already in bed when Chris and Buck arrived home. After briefing Mrs. Potter on the situation, the men sat on the couch and stared at the television. Buck was distraught over how he was going to explain to JD. He was afraid that it would re-awaken fear in the child. After all, if Nathan couldn't protect Joey, what if someone decided to try to take one of them away?

Chris sat on the other end of the couch thinking a similar thought. After all the times that they had assured the boys of their safety, he was afraid that this would cause the boys to become apprehensive about their own safety.

Morning came, and with it came telling the boys that Joey had been taken from Aunt Rain. Although both boys were concerned for Joey, they were equally concerned that Rain was all right. They agreed to go to school so that their father's could devote their energy to looking for Joey. After dropping the boys at school, they cautioned the teacher that the boys might be hesitant to go outside.

Josiah and Ezra called in to say that they were resuming their search of the city. Nathan called in to say that he was staying home with Rain. Everyone drove around for hours, checking every place on the list that Ezra had made of the places he had followed Marshall to when tailing him. Just before lunch, Buck's cell phone rang. He didn't recognize the number.

“Wilmington. Joey? All right, son. We'll be right there.”

As soon as Buck had said the boy's name, the truck had slowed. Chris was a coiled spring, waiting to find out which direction to go in.

“He's at the DeLancy Motor Court, that's why we haven't been able to find the car,” Buck explained. The seedy motel was a favorite for cheating spouses as it had individual parking garages for each room. Even as the truck was racing down the street, Buck called the other guys to tell them the news. As they were rounding the corner of the entrance to the motel parking lot, Buck called the police.

Both agents got out of the truck and raced into the motel office. Showing the young man at the desk a picture of Marshall, they got the room number. They moved quickly around the buildings until they reached the correct door. Drawing their weapons, they stood on either side of the door. Buck stepped around and kicked the door open as Chris leveled his weapon on the darkened interior of the room. A small, dark form hurled itself out of the corner and two small hands gripped his wrist.

“Don't hurt my Daddy! Please don't hurt my Daddy!” Joey screamed.

Buck spun into the room and quickly covered the man who was passed out on the bed in the room. Chris caught Buck's eye before he holstered his own gun and gathered the child into his arms and rushed him out of the room. The body on the bed didn't even twitch as Buck nudged the bed with his knee. He backed out of the room to check on Chris and the boy.

The Jag's tires screamed as the vehicle rounded the corner and came to a stop next to the big, black truck. The whine of sirens seemed to come from every direction as the southerner flung the door open and jumped out. A moment later, Nathan's Jimmy pulled in, followed closely by Josiah's battered suburban. The four men formed a protective circle around their leader as Chris knelt on the sidewalk holding Joey. Sensing the others, the child lifted his face from Chris's shoulder.

“Nathan! Is Rain okay? I'm sorry, I tried to stop him from hitting her! She was laying on the floor when he dragged me away! Is she okay?”

Gathering the boy into his arms, Nathan nodded. Before he could say anything, he had to hold the child tightly for a few minutes.

“Rain's fine. She was awfully worried about you, son.”

Police cars and officers came from everywhere. Chris and Buck nudged Nathan around the corner so that Joey would not have to deal with the trauma of seeing his father taken away in handcuffs. The Police lieutenant told Nathan to take the boy home and they would come by later to take a statement from him. With shaking hands, Nathan buckled Joey into the car and set out for home.

When they arrived at the house, Rain ran out the door and pulled the boy from the car, sobbing and laughing with joy at the same time. Joey wrapped his arms and legs around the woman as he cried and apologized for her getting hurt. It was a while before everyone was calm enough to listen to the child tell what had happened. Nathan asked if it was all right with Joey if the police officer came and listened so he wouldn't have to tell the story over and over.

The officer who arrived to take the statement was specially trained in dealing with child-victims. She carried in a special stuffed dog for Joey to keep. When everyone was settled in the room, Joey told the story.

“After my daddy hit Rain, I was really mad at him. He made me leave with him and he made me sit in the floor of the car so no one could see me. We drove around for a long time. My daddy was really mad at me because I was crying. He asked me if I didn't love him anymore. I told him I did love him but he was scaring me. I heard the police sirens and I thought they were going to catch us but he drove into the alley and parked behind a big dumpster. After a while, he drove out and went to that motel. I tried to get him to let me call and let you know that I was okay but he just got madder at me. Then he started drinking. He locked me in the bathroom when he went out last night. He brought me a Happy Meal. He had more beer and he watched TV and drank all the beer. I fell asleep. I couldn't brush my teeth or anything. When I woke up, he was awake, kinda. He started asking me all these weird questions and then he went back to sleep. When he didn't wake up when I hollered at him, that's when I called JD's daddy. JD told me when he gave me the card that his daddy would come get me any time I called him.”

The police officer shut off the tape recorder and nodded to Nathan and Rain, she had all she needed. Buck drove over to the school and picked up the boys. The caseworker showed up a little while later. She had important information. The three boys were sent into the yard to play while the adults talked.

“The ‘Amber Alert' on Joey had one unforeseen benefit. I received a call early this morning from Joey's uncle, his mother's brother, Clyde Livingston. After Joey's mom died, Winston cut all contact with her family. They had no idea where the boy was or how he was until they saw his picture on the news last night. Mr. Livingston lives in the neighborhood and he is very interested in taking custody of Joey. I spent the morning running the necessary background checks on him and his wife. They checked out perfectly. I would like to begin doing visits with them to get Joey used the idea. If everything works out, we're going to ask Mr. Marshall to voluntarily surrender his rights rather than put the child through a long, drawn out court process.”

The news came as such a shock that Rain found herself crying. She had gotten attached to Joey in the short time he had lived there. Nathan slid an arm around her waist and pulled her to his chest. The others began to excuse themselves to other parts of the house to allow the couple a few minutes to adjust to the news.

Joey was apprehensive about going to live with his uncle. He didn't remember much about his mother's family. Nathan and Rain assured him that he would always be able to call them and hopefully visit them from time to time. It helped that he would not have to change schools and could continue to see his friends.

The first couple of visits were awkward. Joey was afraid of his uncle. It took him a while to warm to the big, burly looking man and his small, mousy wife. When they brought his two small cousins on the third visit, things changed. Joey knew the older girl from school; she was in kindergarten and had sometimes played on the jungle gym with him and JD. The younger girl was just a toddler and Joey was immediately protective of her.

His first overnight visit was harder on Nathan and Rain than on Joey. Rain was quiet and withdrawn all evening. Nathan pushed his feeling aside as he tried to elevate his wife's spirits. When Joey returned the next evening, bristling with new clothes and stories about his family, it was a little easier.

It was nearly a month after the kidnapping before Joey left the Jackson's for the last time. His things had been packed and moved in small amounts to make the process smoother. Rain threw a big party for Joey on his last full day in their home. Vin and JD had been the first to arrive and the last to leave. The Livingston's had come to the party and met Joey's extended ‘family.' They were quick to assure everyone that they were welcome to visit Joey any time they wanted and that the boys were welcome to stay overnight with their parent's permission.

The last morning Joey was to be in their home, Rain woke up early and made a special meal of all of his favorite foods. They had a quiet breakfast together and then packed the last of his belongings into a box. The Livingston's arrived to pick him up and Joey burst into tears. He clung to Nathan and then to Rain. His aunt and uncle didn't press him; they waited patiently by the car until the boy was ready to go.

Nathan and Rain stood on the sidewalk until the car turned the corner and passed out of their sight before going back inside. It was no surprise when Nathan found Rain standing at the kitchen sink, crying a little while later. He took up the dishtowel and began to dry the dishes as she washed them.

“Are you willing to do this again?” she asked softly.

“In a New York minute, baby, in a New York minute,” he declared as he wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her hair.

A few days later, in an office not far from where Nathan Jackson worked, an overworked caseworker stared at the three children seated on the couch in her office. The children were badly neglected and seriously malnourished. Leafing through her Rolodex of possible placement families, her finger settled on a likely possibility. Picking up the phone, she dialed the number on the card.

Across town, Rain Jackson looked up from the letter she was writing to her aunt when the phone rang. Laying her pen and paper aside, she picked up the phone.


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