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Buck followed Chris down the hall where they found an empty waiting room. They walked to the far side of the room and took seats.

“Okay, Buck, let’s hear the rest.”

Taking a deep breath, the man picked up the story. “This guy worked in the back. Lights, backdrops, stuff like that. He was always around. I got used to seeing him. One night, my sitter had to drop me off early. Mom was on stage, so I went to the dressing room. She always told me to stay in the dressing room. But I got bored. I snuck out and was watching the show from the wings. This guy came up and stood with me, watching. No big deal. We’d watched the shows before.”

Buck’s face blanched as he remembered that night, memories that he repressed. His breath came in ragged gasps as his mind went back to that night and the fear and guilt that it evoked.

Chris watched as the man’s eyes darted around the room. Anywhere but at him. “Buck? Buck, look at me.”

He waited a moment until Wilmington finally looked at him. “Whatever happened was not your fault. You were a kid.”

“Don’t change the feelings…the fear…”

“You. Were. A. Kid.” Chris put a hand on Buck’s arm as it rested on his thigh. “Tell me the rest.”

Buck took a deep breath, closing his eyes. He leaned back into the chair. “This guy told me that he could take me up to the catwalk and we could watch the show from above. It sounded like soo much fun. Mom had told me not to go up there cause it was dangerous, but he…he worked up there, so I figured it was okay. We went up and it was great.”

Buck’s eyes lit up as he remembered the past, the beauty of watching his mother dance and he smiled. “It was so beautiful. Mom and the girls dancing. The outfits that they wore. We had been up there for a few minutes when he put his hand around my shoulder.”

Wilmington’s face darkened as he talked, “He slowly moved his hands down and around. He was talking about the show the whole time. At first I was okay, then I got scared but when I tried to leave, he grabbed me and pushed me down. He was…” Buck’s voice dropped ta whisper as the memory flooded his mind. “Mom showed up before he did anything. I guess one of the other girls saw us up there. Mom came up there like a banshee. Some of the girls were with her. Apparently this guy wasn’t real popular with the girls. Anyway, Mom grabbed me up and left. I don’t know what happened after that. I never saw the guy again.”

Dark blue eyes turned to the blond, eyes that seemed suddenly clear of the cloud of memories. “I didn’t remember a thing about that until today. When I saw Hawkins, I got just a flash and I felt leery of the guy, but until I saw him with JD, it didn’t click. I just can’t believe I didn’t remember any of this.”

“It happened a long time ago, Buck. As traumatic as it was, you were pretty young.”

“True, but it came back today.” He slumped in the chair, looking old and shrunken. “God, Chris what am I going to do? I assaulted that guy.”

“Buck, we’ll figure out something. Hawkins doesn’t want to press charges.”

Jumping up, Buck clenched his fists. “That’s not the point. I lost control. I knew what I was doing and that it was wrong, but I did it anyway.”

“Buck, calm down. You’re still upset. Let’s just step back, get JD home, and we’ll see where to go from there.” He stood and placed his hands on the taller man’s shoulders as he spoke.

Buck nodded and, after shaking the tension from his hands, he turned and headed back down the hall to JD. Chris glanced out the window at the sunset and shook off his own tension before following his friend down the hall.

+ + + + + + +

Buck stayed in town with JD that night. The boy woke up late in the evening.

“Hey, Little Bit. How’re you feeling?”

The boy yawned as he rubbed his eyes and looked around the room. His eyes settled on his father and he smiled. “I’m fine. Why’s I in the ‘hops ‘piddle’?” he mumbled.

Buck leaned over the rail and his hand went up to push the dark hair off the boy’s forehead. His fingers lingered in the black mane as he spoke. “You got a few ant bites. Remember?”

The little face scrunched up in thought and then the boy nodded. “I couldn’t breathe.”

“Yep, but Nathan made you all better. But just to make sure, Nathan asked the doctor to watch you for the night.”

Taking hold of the man’s hand as it hung over the rail, JD played with the slack fingers, never once looking up at the man. “But I’m all right now. Can we go home?”

Buck chuckled softly and he tussled the hair in his hand. “Soon. Chris and Vin will come get us in the morning. Okay?”

The boy looked up and nodded. “Okay.” He yawned again, but didn’t release the man’s large fingers.

“Are you hungry? I bet I could round up something for you to eat.”

A slight shake of the head was the child’s response. Buck rubbed the back of his hand along the boy’s cool cheek, feeling the raised ant bites on the soft skin. The bumps caused him to shiver slightly as he remembered the terror in the hazel eyes earlier that day. The tightening around his fingers drew his attention back to the present.

“Buck, ‘s you okay?”

Quickly smiling, Buck replied, “Sure. I’m just glad that you feel better.”

JD smiled up at the man before sighing and settling back into the pillow. The boy closed his eyes and soon his breathing indicated that he was sleeping again.

Wilmington stood watching for a time, drinking in the sight of the orphan that had stolen his heart. A melancholy mood descended on the man as he thought about the events of the day. He knew that he had to work through the anger and lack of control that he had suffered today. Until he knew he could be sure of his temper, he would have to separate himself from the two boys, He could not take a chance on the state taking them away. At least if he was gone, there would no reason for the state to take the boys away from Chris.

Once the decision was made, Buck sunk into the chair and wept. The last thing he wanted was to leave the ranch, the boys, even Chris, himself. He enjoyed fatherhood. He enjoyed the camaraderie of sharing a home with his old friend and family that the four of them had become. But he would leave. For Chris, for the boys, for his family.


“Chris picked us up this morning and we took the boy home.”

“I take it that he’s okay?”

Buck smiled as he remembered the exuberant greeting of the two orphans once they arrived home. Vin had been sitting on the porch waiting and the truck had barely stopped before he jumped up and ran to greet them. Once unrestrained by a seat belt, JD had leapt down and into the older boy’s arms. Throw into the mix two bouncing puppies and you had a very joyful reunion.

“Yeah, he’s fine. He’s perfect.” Wilmington’s voice was wistful. He took a deep breath and released it slowly. Looking momentarily at the other man, Buck relaxed into the chair. “So what happens now?”

Watson gathered the papers and jogged them down square. “I’ll type up my report and turn it over to AD Travis. I’m sure he’ll be in contact with you.”

The two men stood and shook hands. Buck followed Watson out, watching as he shook hands with Chris. Josiah walked with the man to the end of the hall, talking softly. Larabee turned his attention to Wilmington.

“So, stud, you ready to go home?”

Buck’s look was one of distress and Chris frowned at the hesitation in the man’s attitude.


The tall agent turned from his friend as he began to explain. “I called Nettie Wells this morning. I didn’t want her to hear about this from someone else.”


Wilmington whirled around, his hands up in a defensive mode. “I have to make sure that JD isn’t taken from you. I told her that I was moving out.”

Chris’ face darkened. “Dammit, Buck. You don’t have to move out. JD’s not my son. He’s yours.”

Buck’s eyes narrowed. “You think I don’t know that?” he hissed. “You think I want to move out? That little boy means more to me than life itself, but I will not take a chance with his future. Nettie will be calling you. I’m asking you to please agree to foster him, Chris.”

Larabee’s stance was taut and his hands clenched into fists of frustration. “Buck, you know that…you know I will. But why? Why leave? You have any idea what this is going to do to that kid?”

“I’ll talk to ‘im, Chris. He’ll be okay.” Doubt was evident in the blond’s eyes so Wilmington continued. “He’ll be upset, but I’ll be back. This isn’t something that’s permanent. He’ll understand.”

Larabee stepped forward, his eyes intense, “He’s five. All he’ll understand is that his father is leaving him.”

Buck’s jaw clenched, the muscle flexing as he fought to remain calm, but the tears that hung on his lashes revealed the emotions that raged inside him. “I have to do this, Chris. I don’t think I could look that boy in the face if I can’t feel that I’m in control of my temper.”

The blond stood and looked at the man. He could see the conflict in the blue eyes but he also saw the anguish and he realized that this was not a decision that Buck had come to lightly.

“Okay, Buck, but you need to give that boy something to hold on to, a timetable that he can see and understand.”

Buck opened his mouth to say that he had no idea when he would be back. Chris’ raised hand froze the words in his throat.

“No. Don’t even tell me that you don’t know. You don’t have to leave, but if you feel it’s the best thing, then you need to decide just how long you’re going to go looking for answers. You can’t leave JD hanging. Pick a date, a length of time that you think will be sufficient to get your head wrapped around this. That’s the only way we’re going to do this. It gives JD something to look forward to and it forces you to deal with this now.”

The two men stood in silence, the tension evident in their stance. Finally Wilmington nodded. “You’re right. One month. Give me one month to talk to someone, to see what Travis is going to do, see if Nettie Wells is still willing to leave the boy with me. I just want to know that JD will be taken care of. And if it can’t be me, I want to be sure that I don’t do anything that would cause her to take him from you and Vin.”

“One month. That’s it, Buck.” He nodded and Chris relaxed his shoulders. “Where you staying?”

“I’m gonna go to Josiah’s.”

A deep sigh, Chris nodded and the two men started down the hall. As they walked, Chris asked, “Just when did you make all these calls, Buck? I picked you two up just after eight.”

“Called Josiah last night. Nettie too.”

Josiah joined them and the trio set out to the ranch. It was a long quiet drive.

+ + + + + + +

“They’re back.” Vin called into the house when he saw the black Dodge coming down the road. Seeing a second vehicle, the little blond squinted. “Hey, Unc’a ‘siah’s come, too.”

JD joined him, along with the two dogs. The foursome waited on the porch until the truck stopped and the doors opened, then ran out to greet their fathers.



Vin had run up to Chris only to slide to a halt as the man put out a hand to place on the slender shoulder. JD had not slowed and Buck bent down to sweep him into his arms.

“Hi, Unc’a ‘siah. Did you come to play with us?” the five-year old asked.

“Well, that sounds like fun. What do you have for us to do?” the profiler asked.

“We did everything there is inside. I want to play with the dogs, but we can’t play inside. Vin ‘n me are bored with inside. Ain’t we, Vin?”

The seven-year old nodded slowly, wanting to play outdoors, but knowing that JD was not allowed and he wouldn’t leave his friend stuck indoors while he went out to play with the dogs.

“So, Little Bit, what have you done today?” Buck asked.

Ruffling the dark hair, Wilmington listened to a rundown of the morning’s adventures. Since JD was not allowed to play outdoors until the ant bites had dried, the boys entertained themselves with videos and board games inside. They had played GI Joe and built cities with Lego’s as well as ranches to play cowboy and Indians. Miz Potter had baked cookies for a morning snack and they had already had lunch- PB and J sandwiches and chips. All this was imparted to the man before they had reached the steps of the porch.

“Did you get finished with your deputy station?”

“Deputy station?” Buck’s brow knitted together and then he smiled. “My deposition? Yes, I got finished with it.”

“Good. What are we going to do? Miz Potter won’t let me go outside and me and Vin already played with everything in the house,” the dark haired boy pronounced.

“Everything, huh?”

Black hair swayed as the boy vigorously nodded. He stopped suddenly, peering over the man’s shoulders. “Da, where’s your truck? Did you break it down?”

Buck licked his lower lip and glanced at Larabee. “Well. I left the truck in town. That’s why Josiah came out. He’s going to give me a ride.”

“Oh. Unc’a ‘siah’s nice that way, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is, son.” Buck patted the boy’s bottom as he entered the house. “Little Bit, I need to talk to you. Okay?”

Frowning the boy asked, “Did I do something wrong, Da?”

Wilmington’s large hand came up to caress the boy’s cheek. “No. Why don’t we go to my room and talk?”

“Okay, Da,” was the soft reply. Buck moved to the hall and out of sight of the others.

Chris felt a warm hand grasp his and he looked down into the worried face of Vin Tanner. Swallowing hard, the man forced a weak smile onto his face.

“Let’s go sit down and I’ll tell you all about it, Vin. Josiah, would you care for a drink? I think Vin and I could use a cool drink.”

“Sounds good, boss.”

The three moved to the kitchen where they greeted Gloria Potter. Chris told her that they were home for the rest of the day and she could go ahead and leave. After the woman had left, they got drinks and sat at the table and Larabee told the little boy what was happening. The boy’s face clouded as he listened, his mouth tightening with each word.

“Buck shouldn’t leave. His place is here, with JD and us. He told Miz Nettie that he would take care of JD. He can’t just leave cause he feels bad.” Vin was angry. He had accepted responsibility for JD for months when they had been on the streets, but since coming to the ranch, the men had slowly worked with the boys to reassure them that they had a home, here, with both men. Vin wasn’t one to take such statements lightly.

“I know, son. I tried to tell Buck that, but he has to work it out for himself. He’s not going to stay gone long. A month at the most.”

“A month? That’s like forever, Dad. JD will be sad.”

Chris took the boy’s hand in his and gently held it. “I know, so it’ll be up to us to help him through this. Okay? Can you do that for me?”

The little blond slowly nodded and wiped at the tears of anger and loss that spilled down his cheeks. JD wouldn’t be the only one that would miss the jovial man.

+ + + + + + +

Buck entered the room, closing the door behind him. He moved across the room and set the boy on the bed. Dragging over the short stool that JD sometimes used to climb onto the bed, Buck sat down in front of the five-year old, making them on an equal eye level.

“JD…son…” Buck began. He looked into the wide hazel eyes and his determination wavered. The man could see the apprehension in those eyes and the only thing he wanted to do was reassure the boy. But he knew he couldn’t. What he was about to do was make one little boy very sad.

“You know that I love you very much. Right, Little Bit?”

The little boy smiled and leaned forward to hug the man’s neck. “And I love you, Da.” Hot breath accompanied the wispy words.

Reluctantly, Wilmington removed the small arms from his neck and sat the boy securely on the bed, again.

“Yesterday I did something really bad, son.”

The boy’s mouth opened and he protested, “No, Da. You wouldn’t do anything bad.”

Buck’s hands rested on either side of the boy’s legs and he wrapped his hands lightly around the small limbs. “It’s not something that I planned to do. I just lost control of my temper.”

“Why did you get mad, Da?”

“Well, it’s a little hard to explain, Little Bit. I thought that Mr. Hawkins was hurting you and I hurt him because of that.” His voice was rough with emotion as he admitted his failure to the boy. Tears clouded his vision and he didn’t see the small hand come up to touch his face.

“Did you tell Mr. Haw’ gins you was sorry? He’ll understand cause he’s real nice.”

The man’s features softened and his hands went to the boy’s face, caressing the cool skin. “Mr. Hawkins isn’t mad at me. But I’m mad at myself. I shouldn’t allow myself to lose control.”

“But Da…”

“Let me finish, Little Bit.” Buck knew that he was losing his nerve, that he would give in if he didn’t say what he had to. “One of the rules for me having you, is that I can’t get into trouble. And the deposition? Well that was to tell about what happened yesterday and it’s going to AD Travis. He’ll decide whether I keep my job or not.”

Buck looked into the hazel eyes, saw the shimmering of tears in them, saw the quivering of the chin. “JD, I talked to Miz Wells and she’s agreed that you can stay with Chris and Vin, here at the ranch, while I see a doctor, a doctor that will help me with my anger.”

Taking a deep breath, Buck then said the thing that hurt the most. “While I’m seeing the doctor, I’m going to stay in town with Josiah.”

“No, Da. You don’t have to do that.” JD gripped Buck’s shirtsleeve. “Please, Da.” Tears ran down the boy’s cheeks and pooled within his father’s palms as he held the small face.

“I’ll be back, JD. This isn’t permanent. It’ll only be for a month or so.”

Still crying, the boy asked, “Can’t I go with you?”

A bittersweet smile crossed the man’s face. “No, I’m sorry, Little Bit. You have to stay here with Chris.”

“Can I come visit you? Please, Buck?”

“Oh, JD. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

At this, the boy began to sob. “But…you promi…sed. You prom…ised that…that you… would be… my… Da. You… can’t… leave… me,” the boy stammered.

His resolve wavering, Buck pulled the trembling body into his arms. “I’d never leave you, Little Bit. I’ll be back. I swear to you.”

He sat there holding the boy until he finally cried himself out and fell asleep in his arms. Gently laying the child on the bed, he removed the boy’s shoes and draped a light blanket over him and then set about packing a few things while the five-year old was oblivious.

He glanced around, checking that he had everything he would need for the next few weeks. Satisfied, he walked over to the bed and bent down to kiss the sleeping child on the cheek.

“I love you, JD. I know you’ll be a good boy for me.”

He carried the bags out and asked Josiah to take them to the car.

The profiler left the two men to say their farewells.

“Buck, you know you don’t have to do this.”

“Yeah, I do, Chris. I have to do it for me. I won’t feel right until I know that I am in control again.”

“What about JD?” The blond frowned as Wilmington answered.

“He’s asleep on my bed. I talked to him. He’ll be okay.” Even as the words passed his lips he knew it was a lie. Larabee knew it also, causing Wilmington to glance away.

“Buck, you’re not going to leave while he’s asleep?”

“Chris… I…I think it’s for the best.”

Larabee’s face darkened. “Best for who? JD? You don’t believe that for a minute.”

The two men stood toe to toe, glaring, Wilmington as angry as Larabee. Buck backed down first, his head dropping to his chest. He was running away. He knew it. Chris knew it. He brought his head up and opened his mouth to respond, but his dilemma was solved when the little boy came down the hall and into the living room.

JD trotted in blindly, his hands rubbing tears from his eyes. “Buck leaved me,” he cried.

Vin intercepted him and wrapped his arms around the smaller boy before he bounced off something. “Don’t cry. Buck’s here.”

Chris turned to Buck, one eyebrow raised. He saw the man’s features soften and the shimmer of tears in his eyes. He saw the slight tremor in the large hands as the man squatted and reached out.

“Hey, Little Bit.”

The five-year old pushed Vin’s hands away and ran into his father’s arms.

“Da” he sighed as the big arms surrounded him. “I woke up and you was gone. I thought you lef’ me.”

“Nah, kiddo. I was just talking to Chris,” Buck whispered. He remained squatting, one knee on the floor as he hugged the small form. He felt the warm tears as they soaked into his shirt, felt the trembling body. Closing his eyes, he bent down and placed his cheek on the dark hair. He took a deep, slow breath, inhaling the scent of baby shampoo and sweat, a smell he often found in his bed in the mornings, a smell he would miss. Steeling himself, he placed a hand under the small bottom and stood up with the boy in his arms.

“I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”

JD’s arms wrapped around Buck’s neck and in a hitching sob, he said softly, “Please don’t leave me, Da.”

Clutching the boy close, the man closed his eyes. “Ah, Little Bit. I’m not leaving you, not really.” He pulled back to look into the reddened eyes. “I’ll be back. I promise, just as soon as I can.”

“Nooo, I don’t want you to go. Please, Buck. Please.”

Wilmington turned and looked at Larabee for help. And while Chris didn’t agree with Buck’s decision, he did take pity on the man. He couldn’t stand and force Buck to hand JD over, so he reached out took hold of the child.

JD began to kick and his hands fisted as he struggled in the blond’s grasp.

“ Nooo,” he wailed. “Buck! No!”

Wilmington put his hands on the boy’s face and placed a kiss on top of his head. “I love you, Little Bit” he whispered.

Turning to a disapproving Vin, Buck leaned over and ruffled the boy’s hair. “Junior, I’ll see ya soon.”

Buck eyes’ met Larabee’s for several moments and then he turned and left. The clicking of the door had the dark haired child’s cries intensified as well as his struggles.

While JD only weighed thirty five pounds, he was compact, making him a handful to hold onto if he was intent on getting down. And that was the problem that Chris was dealing with.

“JD. Calm down, son. It’s all right.”

“No. I want Buck” he exclaimed as he fisted his hands and pushed against the man’s chest. But Chris held tight and managed to maintain his hold. He listened as he heard Josiah’s truck start and begin to move down the drive. Distracted by listening to the vehicle, he lost his grip on the boy and JD dropped to the ground. Before the man could react, the boy was through the door and running down the drive.


Arms suddenly wrapped around him and he stumbled, taking both to the ground. The boy struggled but could not get loose and finally he gave up and curled up and cried. Arms wrapped around him and held him tightly.

“It’s okay, JD. Buck’ll be back. He promised.”

Chris watched as Vin comforted the younger boy. He had seen the brake lights flash briefly down the road, but now the vehicle moved on. The man moved to the two boys. Squatting down, he placed his hand on Vin’s back. Tear-filled eyes looked up at him.

Chris’ voice was soft as he said, “I’ll take him, son. “

Vin nodded and released his hold on JD and Chris gathered him up, holding him close. He cradled the shuddering body and cooed into his ear.

“It’ll be okay, JD. I promise, it’ll be okay.”

A hitching breath drew the man’s attention. “Da left me.”

Chris hefted JD onto his shoulder and patted his back. “No, JD, he didn’t leave you. He went to find himself,” the man whispered.


Josiah glanced over at Buck. The man was huddled in the right seat as close to the door as physically possible.

“You alright, Buck?”

Both men had seen the little boy running down the drive, had seen Vin grab him, stopping his flight. Josiah had almost stopped, but continued on when the boy stopped running.


“Just drive, Josiah. Please. Just drive.” A hitched breath followed the words and the man turned away, toward the window.

+ + + + + + +

The next week was a quiet one for Team Seven. They had cleared their caseload and were due to give depositions and grand jury testimony. But the office had been quiet for more than just those reasons. There was no missing the coolness between Larabee and Wilmington. They only spoke when it was necessary and the other three men tiptoed around the two.

Thursday, Chris called Buck into his office. As the man sat down, Chris leaned back, tapping a pencil against the palm of his hand. He eyed his longtime friend and finally sighed. “So, how are the sessions going?” he asked. Buck had taken off early three times to go talk to a counselor. And, so far, he hadn’t said a word to Larabee about them.

Wilmington gave a shrug as he sat slumped in the chair. Finally, he looked up. “It’s going pretty good. I’m learning a few things.”

Chris leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. He studied his old friend’s face before asking softly, “You feeling any better?”

The man didn’t move for a moment and then he smiled slightly. “Yeah, I am.”

“Any idea when you’ll be going back to the ranch?”

“No, not yet.” His words were softly spoken, the guilt evident in the way his eyes failed to meet Larabee’s.

With a sigh, Chris nodded. Silence descended again, but after only a few moments, the blond spoke. His words were as soft as Buck’s had been only moments before. “They miss you.”

Buck’s eyes were drawn to his old friend’s.

“JD barely talks. We’re having a hard time getting him to eat. He’s attached to Vin’s hip. He started sucking his thumb again.”

Buck jumped to his feet. “All right, Chris. I get the idea.”

Larabee watched as the tall man began to pace. His hands fluttered in the air as he apparently searched for words. They finally ended up in the dark waves of hair as he said, “Chris, it’s not like I don’t know how this is hurting the boy. But I have to think about his future.”

He turned and placed his hands on the back of the chair he had just vacated. Leaning his weight onto the leather backed seat, he dropped his head. “I can’t leave any chance that they can take him away. I’m doing everything that they would demand if Nettie Wells wasn’t our case worker.”

“Buck, Travis cleared you; as long as you talked to a counselor. He knew the circumstances and understood. Hawkins didn’t press charges. That left Orin with the final decision.”

“I have to be sure. I don’t want this…incident to come up later.”

The two men stared at each other until Chris sighed and slumped back into his chair. Clasping his hands across his abdomen, the man nodded. “I can understand that. I sometimes worry…” His eyes moved away from Buck’s and the man suddenly seemed far away. “I worry about Vin; about them taking him for some reason.”

Both men became lost in their thoughts. A knock on the doorframe drew them from their musing. Turning, they watched as Josiah leaned in.

"Chris, you have a call on three."

"Thanks." He leaned forward and punched the button after he lifted the receiver. "Larabee."

"Yes, ma'am."

Buck watched as Chris frowned and reached for a pen and paper. Buck went to stand only to have Chris gesture for him to sit back down.

"Okay. Let me…" Chris paused, running his free hand through his hair. "Okay, let me make some arrangements and I'll call you back. Give Jess my best." He hung up the phone. Looking up he saw Nathan and Ezra had joined Josiah at the door.

"That was a Miss…" He glanced at his note. "…Jody Randall. She's a friend of Jess Miller's."

"Vin's granddaddy?" Buck asked.

Chris nodded. "Seems that Mr. Miller has suffered a heart attack or something. He's been asking to see Vin."

"How bad is he, Chris?" Nathan asked as he leaned in the doorway.

"Doctor says he should recover. As long as he follows orders."

Nathan snorted.

Buck glanced over at the medic and chuckled. Turning back to Chris, he asked, "What're you going to do, stud? You and me both gotta be around for the deposition and grand jury testimony for the next couple of days. Thinking 'bout going this weekend?"

Chris ran his hand along the back of his neck, his eyes closed. "I hate to wait that long. The doc says he'll be okay, but…he's old, something could go wrong. I hate for Vin to not get a chance to see the old man again."

The five men were silent for a few minutes until Ezra broke the silence. "Perhaps I could offer my services."

Chris and Buck looked at the undercover agent.

"As I have fulfilled my obligation to the judicial system, I would be more than willing to escort young Mister Tanner to the side of his great-grandfather."

"Ezra. I appreciate the offer, but I can't ask you…"

Standish held up his hand. "You did not ask; I offered. I need only to go home and pack a bag. That is…if you feel you can entrust the young man into my care."

Larabee cocked his head to one side and narrowed his eyes.

"I apologize, Mr. Larabee. Sometimes I…" Ezra ducked his head.

Chris approached him and placed a hand on Ezra's arm. "Ezra." He waited until the southerner met his gaze. "I would appreciate the help. I'm sure Vin would be thankful, also."

Ezra maintained eye contact for several seconds and then nodded. "I shall go prepare for the journey."

As Ezra left, Josiah spoke up. "Chris, since you have to stay here in case you're called, why don't you call Mrs. Potter and ask her to pack for Vin? I'll go pick him up and bring him back here. Hopefully, by then you'll know if you have to appear today or not. "

"Sounds good, Josiah. Thanks."

Buck stood and clapped a hand on Chris' shoulder. "I'll make arrangements for the plane."

The four men left the office and set about their tasks as Larabee turned back to his desk to make the phone call.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah arrived at the ranch an hour later and both boys greeted him at the door. Mrs. Potter came into the front room moments later and smiled in greeting.

“Mr. Sanchez. We’ve been expecting you. Won’t you come into the kitchen? Mr. Larabee asked that you call before you start back to town.”

“Thank you, Gloria.” His nose flared as he inhaled deeply. “Ah, a heavenly aroma. It would seem that you have been baking, ma’am.”

He could hear the smile in her voice as she moved away from him. “Why, yes. I believe that I have. Fresh bread, straight out of the oven. I don’t suppose I could talk you into sampling a bite for me, could I?”

Josiah’s deep laughter was her answer.

“In that case, you call Mr. Larabee while I cut the bread.” She moved across the kitchen and pulled the drawer open and extracted a knife. “BOYS?”

The two orphans appeared at the door and both adults noticed that the youngest was holding onto the older boy’s belt loop. Gloria smiled gently, having been witness to the same stance several times in the last week, but Josiah cocked an eyebrow at the dependence the dark hair boy was displaying. A real concern of JD’s reaction to Vin’s departure began to gnaw at the gentle man’s mind.

“Oh, yes, Chris.” The call of his boss’s voice drew his attention back to the phone. “Gloria told me to call.”

“I told Gloria and Vin about what was happening to expect you. How are things there?”

“Well, I am preparing to feast on fresh baked bread.” Sanchez glanced at the two boys as they took seats at the table as the woman set plates of warm buttered bread in front of them. She crossed the room and pulled a carton of milk from the refrigerator. He nodded as she held it up in question.

Seeing her engage the children’s attention with chatter, the profiler spoke softly into the instrument in his hand. “Chris, you want me to bring JD in also?”

“No, I don’t think that is a good idea, Josiah. He won’t like Vin’s going, whether it happens at the ranch or the airport.”

“He doesn’t seem to be handling Buck’s departure very well.”

Chris’ chuckle came through the line, but it was a humorless sound. “You’re a master of understatement, Josiah. He has clung to Vin all week. Separating them right now is the last thing I want to have to do, but Vin needs to go to Jess. The man is his only family and deserves to see his grandson.”

“Have you thought about sending JD with him?”

Yeah, but I decided against it. Ezra will have his hands full with Vin, what with being in unfamiliar surroundings as well as new people. Vin shouldn’t have to have to deal with JD as well.”

“You are probably right. I don’t envy Gloria when I leave here.”

“Well, I talked to both boys. JD and I are going to do something special tonight. Hopefully that will help. Oops, I need to go, but the plane leaves at four thirty. I’ll see you back here around three.”

“Right. See ya then.”

He placed the receiver back on the base and crossed the room. Sitting down, he rubbed his hands together, but all he found was an empty plate and a few crumbs in front of him.

“Hey!” he said in indignation. He was pleased to see both boys giggling behind their hands. “Where’s my bread?”

Vin shrugged, his hands following his shoulders up to reveal cheeks bulging with stolen bread.

“Hmm, must be bread thieves around here. Maybe I should go look for them.”

When he moved to stand, Vin spoke up to explain. “There ain’t no bread thieves, Uncle ‘siah. We didn’t want your piece to get cold, so we ate it. Miz Potter said she’d butter you another one that was still hot. It’s best when it’s hot. The butter gets all soft and runs down your arms, right through the bread.”

Sanchez’s eyebrows rose at the explanation, not failing to notice that, though JD nodded in agreement, he hadn’t said a word. He made a mental note to talk to Wilmington when they got home that night about the boy’s health, both mental and physical, then returned his attention to the kitchen he sat in.

“Well, I appreciate you looking out for me look that. I would hate to eat cold bread and not reap the full rewards that hot, buttered bread has to offer.”

Gloria set a fresh slice in front of him and as the boys watched, he lifted the plate to his face. He moved the plate around under his nose and inhaled the aroma while making admiring sounds in his throat.

“Hurry, Uncle ‘siah, before it gets cold.” JD spoke at last.

“Ah, yes. Excellent idea.” He lifted the slice and in two bites, devoured the entire piece. He chewed slowly, savoring the taste; then picked up the glass and drained the milk. “Ahhh. A feast fit for a king.”

His antics were rewarded with giggles from the boys.

“My compliments to the chef. The skill of baking bread has become a lost art. I am glad to have meet a master.” He took the woman’s hand and placed a kiss on the back of it even as she lightly swung the dish towel in her hand at him.

“You’re a sweet talker, Mr. Sanchez, but I thank you for the compliment. Now…” She turned her attention the boys. “… you boys go wash up and Vin you change into the clothes that I layed out for you.”

The boys trotted off, but not before Josiah noticed the quivering chin on JD’s face. He sighed and leaned back into the chair. “Are you going to be okay with the boy?” he asked.

Gloria lowered herself into one of the chairs before reaching out and patting Josiah’s hand. “Don’t you worry about me, dear. I am a mother and I supported two children through the loss of their father. This isn’t quite the same thing, but I will manage. I think you best worry about Chris. He is the one that will bare the brunt of this problem.”

Nodding, Josiah admitted that she was probably right. While Chris was an excellent father, he had grown to rely on Wilmington to handle JD’s problems while he attended to Vin’s. The personalities of the children mirrored the fathers and the reserved Larabee would be challenged in dealing with the more exuberant JD.

The sound of shuffling feet drew the adults attention. Vin entered the room with JD right at his side, his thumb now stuck in his mouth and flushed cheeks. The tiny wet spots on Vin’s shirt told the story and Josiah once again reminded himself to have a discussion with the absent-from-home Buck Wilmington.

“Ready?” he managed to ask around the small lump that had formed in his throat.

Vin nodded even as his arm snaked out to encircle his friend’s tiny shoulders. “I put my bag and stuff by the door.”

Josiah glanced at his watch. “We best get going. Chris will be waiting for us.”

The man squatted down and ran his large hands down JD’s arms, effectively pulling JD’s thumb out of his mouth. “Don’t you worry, John Dunne. I shall deliver your friend safely to his father. I plan to come out this weekend and help Chris with that fence the horses have been chewing on. I was wondering if you could accompany me on a trail ride after we’re finished? I’d hate to get lost out here.”

The boy’s eyes brightened at the prospect of getting to ride and he smiled shyly as his head bobbed slightly.

“Good, I shall be looking forward to our outing.” Standing, Josiah thanked the woman for the snack as the four moved toward the front door. Sanchez picked up the small suitcase and knapsack that the boys had placed near the door. He headed out to his old Suburban and placed the items in the back seat, next to the booster seat he had taken from Larabee’s Dodge. He waited, watching, as the boys said their goodbyes.

Vin turned to the younger boy and knelt down. Josiah could see his mouth moving, but not hear the words. JD stood quietly nodding, but the struggle to not cry was evident on his face. As the dark haired boy smiled, the little blond took his friend in a hug, and surprisingly, though Josiah shouldn’t have been, held on for several long moments. When Vin finally released JD, he stood and spoke to Gloria Potter, who ended the conversation with a kiss being planted on the boy’s cheek. Like a changing of the guard, Vin placed JD’s hand in Gloria’s and then turned quickly and ran to the waiting vehicle. He clambered into the back and drew the seat belt across his lap.

Sanchez made sure the belt was properly latched and patted the boy’s leg. Hitting the lock, he slammed the worn door closed and headed around to the driver’s side, hazarding a sideways glance at the porch. Gloria had picked up the small boy and both stood waving. When Josiah was buckled in, he waved to them and caught motion in the mirror as Vin waved also. Sanchez dropped the vehicle in gear and headed down the dirt road. A quick look in the mirror had him wishing he had resisted the urge. As he glanced back, he saw JD’s face dissolve into sobs and the woman’s hand came up to pat the child’s back in comfort, She turned and headed back into the house as he watched. Only their disappearance, allowed him to return his attention the road ahead, but not before glancing into the back seat to see Vin in tears also. For the third time that afternoon, Josiah practiced what he would say to the man that currently occupied his guest room.


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