Special Friends

by Angie

The big, black Dodge ground to a halt and two small boys launched off of the porch. Buck barely had time to put down his briefcase before JD jumped into his arms, nearly choking him with his enthusiastic greeting. Vin’s greeting for Chris was much more sedate, he peered around the open door of the truck with an expectant sparkle in his eyes.

Looking into the face of the small boy, Chris Larabee felt his heartbeat quicken. He had come to look forward to the end of the day in a way he had not thought possible after the loss of his family. Now, there was someone who was thrilled to see him no matter how rotten his day might have been. Reaching through the open window, he ruffled Vin’s hair before rolling the window up and handing his briefcase to the child.

“And we gotted a new student today. Her name is Lor’l and she’s be-u-ti-ful,” JD gushed as he filled Buck in on his day. “She talks a little funny but the teacher said we would be able to un’erstand her in no time!”

Mrs. Potter stepped off of the porch and smiled warmly at the ‘family’ before making her way to her car. She put in the bag with the quilt top she was embroidering for her niece’s new baby. Walking back to the house, she waited until the boys had finished greeting their father’s before speaking.

“Supper is in the oven. I have a load of sheets in the dryer. If you have time to put them away, that’s fine. Ringo threw up on the deck so I had the boys shut him in his pen until you got home. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.

Buck and Chris’s eyes met over the heads of the boys. If one of the puppies was sick, it could be traumatic for the boys. While Buck ushered the boys into the house to get ready for supper, Chris went around the house to check on the dog.

Both boys disappeared into the bathroom to wash their faces and hands before supper. When they came back to the table, JD climbed into his chair. Vin slid into his chair and both boys waited for the adults to join them. Chris came out of his room after changing clothes. Buck waited until the blond was in the kitchen before slipping away to change his own clothes.

“So, boys, what did you feed Ringo?” Chris asked. Both children avoided meeting his eyes and JD began to chew on his bottom lip. The blond waited, he knew one of them would crack. Finally, Vin’s eyes came up and shame showed clearly in their blue depths.

“You know that funny play dough that Mrs. Potter made for us? Ringo got in our room and ate it,” the boy admitted softly.

“What have you been told about not leaving things out for the puppies to eat?” Chris asked.

“We was only out of the room for a minute to get our snack!” JD protested loudly. The in a softer voice, he asked, “Will Ringo be all right?”

“Yes, there isn’t anything in the play dough that will hurt him, especially if he threw up afterwards, but you have to remember to close your door if you leave things out so that they don’t eat things that could hurt them,” the blond reminded.

“We will,” Vin answered quickly.

Buck came back into the kitchen, his hair still dripping from the shower. He pulled out his chair and dropped into it with an exaggerated huff. All three of the people at the table gave him wide-eyed stares.

“What? A guy can’t grab a quick shower before supper?” he asked. He had heard Chris’s slight whisper that the puppy was all right on his way out of the kitchen. “So, tell me about this new beauty in your class.”

While the food was being dished out, JD filled them in on everything new and wonderful about Lor’l. When the little brunet paused to dig into his mashed potatoes, Vin picked up the thread of the conversation.

“She’s really pretty. She looks kind of like JD, with her haircut and all. She talks a little funny, like she’s got a mouth full of peanut butter san’wich,” Vin supplied.

For the next few days, everything was quiet. Both boys spoke about the new girl in their class occasionally. JD seemed especially taken with her. Since Joey had moved away, the little boy figured that the new girl was a perfect replacement. On Friday afternoon, Mrs. Potter called to say that there had been a problem on the bus and asked if the men could come home early.

Arriving at home, they found Vin sitting in one time-out chair and JD in the other. As soon as the front door closed, JD launched his tiny body at Buck and buried his face in his father’s thigh. Vin only scowled at the younger boy, he didn’t move from his chair. Mrs. Potter came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

“I didn’t know what else to do, they just wouldn’t stop picking at each other,” the woman explained.

After seeing the housekeeper to the door, Chris returned to the living room and held out a hand to Vin, calling him closer. The little Texan burst from the chair and clung to the outstretched hand. Both men settled in their respective recliners with a child on their laps.

“You want to tell us about it?” Chris offered. Both boys drew quick breaths and launched into an explanation, their voices blending together into a jumble. The blond man held up a hand and stopped the torrent of words. “One at a time, please?”

“He pushed me and said that he hopes I get held back again next year!” Vin announced, his voice full of righteous indignation.

“Well he said that Lor’l is a ‘tard’ and she’s not! She’s special! She just gotted down! The teacher said so!” JD defended.

A slight look of anger appeared on Chris’s face and he could tell that Vin noticed because the boy’s back tensed. The blond man processed all of the information he had heard from both boys about the new girl in the class and an idea popped into his head.

“JD? Did the teacher say she has Down’s Syndrome?” Chris asked. The little brunet nodded his head so hard that his bangs flopped into his face. “And did you say she was retarded, Vin?” The older child nodded slightly. “Where did you hear that?”

“Eli Joe said it at the playground. A bunch of the kids are sayin’ it! They’re sayin’ she can’t talk good and she can’t read or anythin’!” Vin answered.

“It’s not true! She can too read! She can read ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ and she knows her letters better than you do, Vin!” JD yelled.

The younger boy’s words hit the mark and Vin’s eyes dropped. Shame radiated from every pore of his little body. He did know that the girl could read the letters on the blackboard, she never switched her ‘d’ for her ‘b’ or any of the stupid mistakes he made regularly. Chris felt the change in the body language of his son and passed his hand over the boy’s back. Buck was quick to correct JD.

“Now you know that’s not nice, JD. Vin works really hard and he has a learning disability called dyslexia. Something in his brain accidentally reverses what he sees, he can’t help it,” Wilmington said gently.

“But Lor’l isn’t retarded! She’s special!” the smaller boy shouted.

“No, she isn’t retarded. Something happened when she was inside of her mommy that made her the way she is right now. She may not ever be able to do some of the things that you can do but people with Down’s can do a lot of things on their own. Some of them can drive, some are actors, they can have jobs and live on their own,” Buck explained. He looked at Chris and then pointedly at Vin. “And just because the other children say something doesn’t make it true. They said hurtful things about you before and you didn’t like it, did you Vin?”

Vin remembered. He had never been to school before coming to live at the ranch. JD’s momma had taught the younger boy to read before her death and he could still read better than his older friend. It had been very hard for him at the new school when he was put in with the ‘babies’ for reading. He had made progress and was now closer to where he should be in many subjects but his dyslexia still held him back. The older kids had teased him a lot at first and he remembered how it hurt.

“I won’t say it any more, JD. I’m sorry,” Vin said softly.

Usually, JD would immediately forgive his friend and they would go off and play. This time, JD continued to stare hard across the living room. Chris knew there was more to it than either boy had admitted.

“Is there something else bothering you, JD?”

“They were singing the kissing song about me at the playground!” the little brunet spat.

“The kissing song?” Buck asked.

“You know, Lor’l and JD sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. That song!” came the angry reply.

“It that true, Vin?” Chris asked.

“Yeah, they’s singin’ it. But she did try to kiss him! And she’s always huggin’ everyone!” Vin defended. As much as he liked the girl, being hugged by her was too much.

“Mrs. Potter said there was a problem on the bus?” Buck remembered.

“He started it!” both boys shouted.

When the story finally came out, JD had hit Vin for singing the kissing song under his breath. Vin had hit back because the other boys goaded him into it. He couldn’t let the smaller boy get away with hitting him in front of the others.

“JD, you know it’s wrong to hit, don’t you?” Chris asked. Getting a nod, he continued. “And you know it’s wrong, too, don’t you Vin?” The boy in his lap nodded. “Then you should both sit here for a while and think about it. I want to hear apologies and no TV tonight.”

Both boys turned shocked and dismayed faces on their fathers.

“But Da, we rented the new ‘Spy Kids’ movie to watch!” JD protested.

“I’m sorry Little Bit, you heard what Chris said. Maybe you can watch it tomorrow night. Now, I’m going to get cleaned up while Chris checks on supper,” Buck said as he nudged the boy from his lap. Both children returned to the time-out chairs as the adults left the room.

Vin scuffed at the carpet with his shoes. He knew it was wrong for him to have hit JD but he was just so mad at him. And he wasn’t singing the kissing song about JD, it was just stuck in his head. Still, it really hurt his feelings when JD pointed out that the new girl could read her letters better than he could. But he really loved JD. When he’d been shot by the ‘trolls’ while living in the warehouse, JD had done his best to take care of him. A queasy, yucky feeling set up in his stomach and he suddenly felt like crying. He sneaked a peek across the room to where JD sat.

JD couldn’t reach the floor so he swung his feet and hit his heels against the legs of his chair. He wasn’t really mad at Vin. He shouldn’t have hit him on the bus. He also should not have made fun of him about his letters. He knew that Vin tried really, really hard to get his letters right. Deep down, JD was proud of his friend. Vin had rescued him from the car when his momma went to dream with the angels and had taught him how to live on the streets. He had protected him and shared with him. Unbidden tears welled up in his eyes and rolled down his round, little cheeks. He sniffed loudly and peered out from under his long bangs.

Chris watched from the kitchen doorway as the emotions scrolled across Vin’s face. When he heard JD sniff and noticed the tears rolling down his cheeks he knew it would only be a minute before they broke down and forgave each other. Sure enough, Vin slipped off of the chair and crossed to JD’s side. He reached out and touched the younger boy on the shoulder.

“I’s sorry, JD. I didn’t mean ta tease ya about Lor’l,” the little Texan said softly.

JD jumped from his chair and threw both arms around Vin. “I’m sorry I hit you and I didn’t mean to say you didn’t know your letters. Please don’t be mad at me no more,” he asked.

From the safety of his bedroom doorway, Buck smiled at the incredible amount of forgiveness the boys showed. Both of them knew what was right and when they did something wrong, they tried to make it right.

After supper, they spread out in the floor with a board game. By the time they headed off to bathe, the boys had played rousing games of ‘Chutes and Ladders’ and ‘Candy Land.’ When they came out of the tub, they got to snuggle up with their dads for a long story.

When both boys were asleep, the two men sat on the back deck and soaked up the peace and quiet. Buck finally broke the silence.

“What are we going to do about this new girl?”

“What do you mean?” Chris asked.

“Shouldn’t we meet with her and her family? If JD’s getting attached to her like he did with Joey, we might as well get to know them,” Buck explained.

The opportunity came sooner than either man expected. On Saturday afternoon, the men stopped at the grocery store to stock up for the coming week. JD was riding in the shopping cart and Vin was pushing it along the aisles in the store. Suddenly, before either man could reach him, JD squirmed free of the cart and leapt to the floor. He ran up the aisle yelling at the top of his lungs at a child coming into the store.

“Lor’l! I’m so glad to see you! I didn’t know your mommy got her groceries here too. Come here, I want you to meet my Da,” JD said as he took the girl by the hand and led her through the store.

Buck had turned at the first yell and nearly dropped the eggs he was picking up from the case. When he saw JD jump from the seat of the cart, over Vin’s head, his heart nearly stopped. He put the eggs in the cart and hurried to retrieve his son. Chris stopped at the cart when he saw Buck’s long strides would make it to the child before he got out of sight. By the time he caught up with JD, the boy had the little girl by the hand and was dancing at her side.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am. JD, you mustn’t jump out of the cart like that! You could have been hurt!” Buck scolded as he took the youngster by the hand. JD’s smile immediately dropped and his eyes filled with tears.

“I just wanted you to meet Lor’l,” he said in a whiny voice. Buck knelt down and slipped an arm around JD and smiled. It was so hard to scold the child when he turned on the puppy dog face.

“Okay, Little Bit, introduce me to your lady friend,” he said as he came to his feet.

“This is Lor’l Cunningham. Lor’l, this is my Da, Buck Wilmington and that’s Chris over there with Vin,” JD explained.

“Pleased to meet you. And who is this?” Buck asked of the attractive woman holding the other hand of the little girl.

“Darcy Cunningham, pleased to meet you. Laurel has spoken a lot about JD,” the woman said as she offered her other hand to shake. Chris and Vin had joined them and Buck made the rest of the introductions.

Buck smiled as he watched JD with Laurel. He had her by the hand and was swinging their hands gently as he rattled off information about their plans for the day. To her credit, Laurel nodded in unison with the stream of information, smiling all the while.

“And we could go to the park later. I’ll push you on the swings and we can catch lightning bugs, right Da?” JD asked as he ran out of steam.

“Now son, you know that we have plans for the evening and I’ll bet that Laurel and her mom have plans too. If you want to get together for a play date, we need to make arrangements a little farther ahead of time. We need to finish picking up our things and get back to the ranch,” Buck reminded.

“Okay, see you at school Lor’l,” JD said with a pout.

Mrs. Cunningham hesitantly offered, “If you have nothing planned for tomorrow, we stop by the park after her therapy session, around 4:00.”

“You found a therapist that has Sunday hours?” Chris asked incredulously.

“Physical therapy. Laurel has horseback riding to help her with her muscle coordination,” the woman quickly explained.

“We have horses! Could she come to our house and ride with us? Could she? Please?” JD begged as he laced his fingers together and turned on the full power of his charm.

“The horses that Laurel rides are very specially trained and she has two people walking alongside of her at all times. It isn’t at all like you riding your own horse. If your dad says it’s all right, you could come along and watch,” Mrs. Cunningham offered.

“Can I Da? Can I please? I’ll be really, really good and I’ll do all my chores early,” the child pleaded.

Buck turned to the woman. “You’re sure he won’t be too much for you? I know that two of them together can be quite a handful.”

“Not at all. I’m sure that Laurel would enjoy showing off her riding skills. Wouldn’t you, sweetheart?” The little girl tipped her face up and smiled broadly.

“JD can come to therapy with me?” she asked hesitantly. “I’d like that!”

After finding out that the place where Laurel rode was not too far from the ranch, Buck agreed to meet her there. Phone numbers were exchanged and times confirmed before they could pry the children apart. JD gave Laurel a big hug before allowing his Da to put him back into the shopping cart.

The next morning, JD was as good as his word. As soon as he finished his breakfast, he stripped his bed and put everything in the hamper. He put away all of his toys and a good part of Vin’s so Buck could run the carpet sweeper. When the inside chores were done, he raced outside to help with the cleaning of the dog’s pen. He then rushed out to muck out the stalls. Buck had to choke back a laugh when he saw the boy struggling to lift a full rake of hay into a wheelbarrow. JD had both hands wrapped around the handle and was putting everything he had into tipping the abnormally large pile of hay without spilling it.

“Need a hand there, kiddo?” Buck called over the stall.

“Da! Help!” JD called as the load of hay began to slowly slide off of the fork.

When all of the chores were finished, JD pranced in place urging Buck to take him to see Laurel.

“Not right now, Little Bit. You still have time for lunch and a nap before you go,” he explained.

“A NAP? I gotta take a nap? That’ll be forever. I’m too excited to sleep! I wanna go watch Lor’l ride on the special horses! If I go to sleep, I’ll miss it!” JD protested.

“I won’t let you oversleep. Why don’t you go play with the puppies for a while?” Buck suggested. It was hard not to laugh at the disbelieving expression on the little brunet’s face. JD finally gave a mighty huff of disgust and turned on his heel and walked away.

While JD was busy knocking out his chores, Vin poked through his chores. He hadn’t been invited to watch Lor’l ride and he knew that JD was going to be having fun. He wanted to ask Chris if they could do something fun but he didn’t exactly know how to go about it.

Chris watched as the little Texan went about his work. He knew that JD’s friendship with Laurel was causing the boys to draw apart a little. The therapist said that it would be good for them to develop different interests and different friends but they still seemed to do everything together. Although he didn’t think that jealousy was a part of what the boy was feeling, he didn’t completely rule it out. He decided to see if he could lighten the boy’s mood.

“Hey, how about you and me slip out and do a little fishing while the others are gone?”

“Could we? I know where there are some really nice worms,” Vin replied. The chores were completed in record time after Chris agreed.

JD huffed and tossed his blanket aside. He’d never get to sleep! Buck said he had to take a nap or he’d be too tired to go watch Lor’l ride. He just knew that he’d been laying there for hours and hours. It had to be time to go.

“Da? Is it time to go yet?” he called out timidly.

Buck covered his mouth to hold in the laughter. He’d bet Chris that it wouldn’t take five minutes for the boy to begin calling. Even though JD had nearly fallen asleep at the table over lunch, he swore that he wasn’t tired. After taking a couple of deep breaths to quell the laughter, he opened the door and smiled.

“Would it help if I rocked you a while?” Buck asked. JD nodded and held up his arms to be picked up. They settled in the big rocking chair and the little brunet squirmed and wiggled for a couple of minutes until he got comfortable. Some five minutes later, he was sound asleep.

Chris stuck his head into the room and caught Buck’s eye. “Vin and I are headed out. See you around six?”

“Yeah, we’ll be back by then. I want to allow time for them to play together. Going fishing?”

“Yeah, we won’t keep them. See you later,” Chris whispered as he pulled the door closed.

Pony and Peso were already hitched to the rail near the gate. Vin had dug up the worms and was waiting patiently by the horses. As soon as Chris stepped off of the deck, the boy’s eyes lit and he unlocked the gate. They rode out across the pasture toward the big lake that Chris shared with the neighboring ranch. Both men stocked it at the beginning of spring and tried not to deplete it completely. Right now it would be full of smaller fish that would be hungry and hit on almost anything they threw in.

The rocking chair was comfortable and Buck dozed off. When he woke up, it was time to wake JD to get ready to go out. He looked down and smiled warmly at the child sprawled in his arms. JD had one hand tucked into the pocket of Buck’s shirt. The other arm was curled under his body, holding a fold of the shirt against his cheek.

“JD, it’s time to wake up son,” Buck whispered. The child had two settings, go and stop. It took only a second for his brain to send the ‘go’ signal. Little feet twitched as did the little nose. JD’s eyes opened and a huge smile split his face.

“Can we go see Lor’l now, Da?” he asked hopefully.

“Yep, soon as we get your shoes on and get washed up,” Buck said.

It took less than half an hour to reach the Helping Horses Ranch. Signs all along the fence warned that children and horses were in the area. Several small corrals dotted the nearest field. A large, modern barn proudly proclaimed the name of the ranch and showed a child with leg and body braces riding on a horse. A pair of ‘walkers’ paced along the side of a pony as they came out of the woods. Buck could see that the paths were wide, level and well maintained. Someone put a lot of time and energy into an operation like this. They spotted the Cunningham’s and JD began to squirm in his seat.

“Don’t touch that buckle, young man,” Buck warned. All too often, JD’s excitement got ahead of his better sense and he would get out of his booster seat before the truck had come to a complete stop.

“Yes, Da,” JD replied obediently.

Buck parked and undid the buckle of JD’s seat and set the boy on the ground. JD peered around before walking to the wooden fence near the front of the truck. He then took off at a run toward his little friend and her mother. Mrs. Cunningham smiled and waved after pointing JD out to her daughter. Laurel had on a pair of sturdy blue jeans and a long sleeved shirt to protect her from scrapes if she should fall. In her hands, she clutched her riding helmet.

While the children were deeply engrossed in a study of the helmet, Buck smiled at Darcy. She was an attractive woman. Nearly as tall as he was, she had a lean build. Her hair was cut in a ‘wash and go’ kind of style and it flattered her face. She blushed slightly under the intensity of his scrutiny.

“I’m sorry,” Buck said when he realized she was reddening.

“It’s all right. My mind tends to fire off a response before it thinks its way through. Your little boy is quite a charmer according to my daughter,” she said.

“Well, according to JD, your little girl is be-u-ti-ful. He goes on and on about her,” Buck answered.

“Do you mind if I ask, what happened to his mother?”

“She was killed almost two years ago,” he answered, not realizing that she didn’t know JD was adopted.

“How awful for both of you,” Darcy said softly.

Buck quickly explained the situation so that she understood that he wasn’t JD’s biological father. As he was explaining, his gaze fell on Laurel. He wanted to ask but was afraid it would seem rude of him. She followed his line of thought and answered without being asked.

“Her father and I carried a recessive gene. We didn’t know until the day she was born. We were lucky, she’s ‘high-functioning.’ Her IQ is just shy of normal for her age. Unfortunately, it won’t get much better as she gets older. I just pray that she can learn to live on her own eventually.”

“What about her father?” The words were out of his mouth before he even realized and he recoiled as he realized how boldly he was acting.

“He couldn’t deal with it. The doctors said it was a fifty-fifty thing if we were to try again. He couldn’t accept those odds. He left right after she was born. Died in a skiing accident in Aspen before she was two. She thinks her daddy loved her,” Darcy said, her voice cracking slightly. “She has so much love inside of her, I’m almost glad I can tell her that he’s dead. She won’t ever have to know he didn’t want her.”

Their conversation was cut short by the two walkers who arrived to take Laurel for her ride. The little girl stood patiently for them to check her helmet. She then allowed them to put her on the back of the sorrel.

The two adults moved down the fence to where JD was staring after his friend with longing in his eyes. Buck lifted the boy and sat him on the top rail, keeping one arm around his little waist. They watched in silence for a couple of minutes. On her second circuit of the corral, JD called out and waved at the little girl. She flashed them a brilliant smile before turning her attention back to her horse.

“She’s got a good seat,” Buck commented as he watched.

“That’s what the walkers said too. She’s only been riding for a couple of years,” Darcy returned.

“You should bring her to our house. She could ride Popcorn, Da. She’s real gentle!” JD said as he turned on the rail to drape one arm over Buck’s shoulder.

“Popcorn?” Darcy asked.

“The boys named her. She’s a mottled white, kind of looked like a bowl of popcorn when she was born. She follows the boys around like a dog, she’s so tame,” Buck explained.

“Maybe we can come out and you can show Laurel how well you ride,” Darcy told JD.

After Laurel finished her ride, the children headed for the playground that bordered the parking lot. There were a couple of swings and several gliders that looked like horses. Many of the children that came for therapy had siblings that needed a place to play, so the owner put in a playground. While Laurel and JD played, the adults talked. Buck found out that Darcy worked for an advertising agency, that gave her a lot more flexibility with her hours than some other jobs. He found out that raising a child with Down’s Syndrome was a lot of work. The little girl had been getting therapy of one kind or another since she was born. It was obvious that her mother doted on her in every way.

Buck explained about how JD and Vin came to be in their lives. They chuckled over some of the amusing things that had happened with the boys. They ended up comparing notes on what their insurance covered and comparing notes on pediatricians. As they talked, Laurel stumbled and fell. Before Darcy could get on her feet, JD had helped the little girl up and she hugged him in thanks.

“She’s a very special little girl,” Buck commented softly.

“So is your son. It was hard for Laurel at first. She was nervous about the new school and the new kids. Her therapist thought the Montessori school would give her the best chance for a normal educational experience. The first person she mentioned when she got home that first day was JD. She said he was her very best friend,” Darcy said as she smiled warmly at the children.

Both children protested when their parents announced that it was time to go home. JD walked Laurel to her car and hugged her before allowing Buck to pick him up. He waved at the little girl until the car turned out of the parking lot. He snuggled up against his Da’s neck and sighed contentedly.

On Monday, Vin watched from across the room as Laurel and JD lay on their stomachs drawing on a large piece of poster board. He huffed a little as he pressed down on the crayon he was using. It snapped under the pressure and he immediately felt guilty for breaking it. He began to pick at the paper and peeled it off in little pieces. His attention was so focused on glaring across the room that he didn’t realize one of the teacher’s aides was calling his name.

“Vin Tanner, are you all right? Do you feel okay?” She was worried that he had not responded at all to her calls. Passing her hand lightly over his head, she caught the embarrassed expression on his face. “Can you come over and read with me?”

The little boy nodded and slid out of his chair. He followed her to the reading area and took the book she held out. Vin finished the book just as the bell rang for recess. He jumped out of the chair and dodged the flood of small bodies as he tried to make his way to his little friend. JD was waiting for Laurel as she put away her crayons. She had to name each color as she put them into the box.

“Come on, JD! Let’s go!” Vin called.

“In a minute. I’m helping Lor’l,” the little brunet answered.

Rejected, Vin turned and followed the others out of the room. He slowly made his way onto the playground and sank down on the bottom step. He looked around at all the other kids running and playing and then glanced back at the door he had just come out of. JD and Laurel hadn’t come out. He folded his arms across his knees and rested his cheek on them.

The teacher knelt down and tapped Vin on the elbow. She saw the incredible sadness in the pale blue eyes. “Are you feeling all right? Do you want to go to the nurse’s office?”

“Nah, I’m waiting for JD,” Vin answered as he turned his head and rested it on his arms again.

When the bell rang, the kids filed back into the classroom. JD and Laurel were sitting in the reading area, side by side in a bean bag chair as the little brunet read aloud to the little girl. Vin stormed across the room and propped his hands on his hips.

“JD! You didn’t come outside for recess! I waited and waited for you and you didn’t come out!”

“I was reading to Lor’l,” JD answered.

“You were supposed to come out and play with me!” Vin hissed. “Not sit in here with your girlfriend!”

“I can play with you at home. I wanted to read this story with Lor’l,” JD answered with just a hint of defiance in his voice.

“You’re supposed to listen to me. Come on, let’s work on our poster for the Open House,” Vin ordered, reaching down and taking JD by the arm. He was surprised when JD yanked his arm away and scowled up at him.

“I don’t have to listen to you! I’m not in any danger here!” The little brunet glared up at the older boy. He could see that Vin was getting upset. His shoulders were going up and down when he breathed.

“You do too have to listen to me! Now get up and come help me with the poster!” Vin yelled. Before any of the adults in the room could get to them, the older boy spoke again. “I don’t want you spending all your time playing with that retarded girl!”

His words hit the target and Laurel’s dark eyes filled with tears. JD looked from her face to Vin’s and sprang to his feet. He shoved Vin as he began to yell.

“You take that back! She’s not retarded, she’s special! I like her and she’s my friend! You’re mean, Vin, and I don’t like you anymore! Go away from me!” JD shouted.

The teacher and an aide rushed over and separated the combatants. JD was sent to the far side of the room to sit in the ‘quiet chair’ for pushing. Laurel draped her arms around the teacher’s neck and cried inconsolably. Vin followed the aide to another corner of the room and sat at the table, glaring across the room at JD.

Mrs. Potter was totally unprepared for the way the boys were behaving when they arrived home from school. Vin threw his book bag down and went out to the tree house. He pulled up the ramp and glared over the edge at JD as he stood in the yard demanding to be allowed to come up and play. When Vin wouldn’t give in, JD went and got a tennis ball and began to play with the puppies. The housekeeper just happened to be looking out of the window when Vin stormed across the yard and grabbed his puppy by the collar. He dragged the yelping animal up the ramp of the tree house. Just as he reached the top of the ramp, the dog turned his head and clamped his teeth down on Vin’s wrist. The sharp little teeth broke the skin and Vin let the collar go as he pulled his arm to his chest and began to cry. The puppy yelped and ran down the ramp and back to the pen and into his doghouse.

The housekeeper ran across the yard with a clean towel in her hands. She stopped at the bottom of the ramp and called to Vin. She could hear him sobbing softly.

“Vin, please come down. I can’t come up and get you. Come on down and let me see you,” she called. JD stood wide-eyed at her side, staring up the ramp. Finally, the little Texan came down, clutching his bleeding arm against his shirt. He allowed the woman to wrap the towel around his arm and lead him to the house. Gloria called Chris to tell him what happened. They agreed to meet at the hospital.

Buck looked up from his computer screen. “What’s up?”

“One of the dogs bit Vin. It broke the skin. Mrs. Potter is bringing them in to the hospital,” Chris said. At his words, every eye in the office turned in his direction. Computers were shut down all around the room as the entire team made ready to leave.

Fifteen minutes later, they were all standing around the emergency room waiting for the boys to arrive. Chris was standing in between the two sets of glass doors watching the ambulance bay. When he saw the housekeeper’s car pull up, he raced out to get Vin. Buck followed a few steps behind.

Vin’s eyes were red and swollen from crying. He sat calmly in the front seat with his arm wrapped in a towel. As soon as the door opened, he reached for Chris and began to shake. JD was fairly calm until he saw Vin begin to cry. He then began to sob loudly as Buck pulled him from the car seat. JD buried his face in Buck’s neck.

Chris had already registered Vin and was taken directly into an examining room. The rest of the team clustered around JD. They tried to soothe him as he clung to Buck. Nathan slipped away to check on Vin. He entered the room as the doctor was unwrapping the towel. Chris stood on the other side of the table with his arms around Vin, holding him against his chest. The little boy whimpered as the doctor gently probed the small puncture wounds on the thin wrist.

“Vin, I’m going to have to wash this so I can get a good look at it, okay?” The doctor waited for the blue eyed boy to nod before he placed a basin on the table and placed Vin’s hand in it. Vin looked up and saw Nathan standing in the doorway and began to squirm.

“Uncle Nathan!” Vin gasped. The team medic rushed to the outstretched hand and clasped it tightly in his hand. The little boy was doing his best to be brave but his eyes were welling up with tears. The doctor began to pour a bottle of sterile water over the bloody limb. Vin winced and tried to pull his hand away. The doctor kept a light but firm grip on the arm and used his gloved hand to wipe the blood away from the injured area.

“This will probably sting, Vin. It’s to kill the germs and clean out the wound, okay?” The doctor waited for the boy to nod and then he gave a meaningful glance to Chris. The older man nodded and tightened his grip.

As soon as the liquid touched the raw skin, Vin hissed and began to whimper. The doctor had very wisely turned so as not to be in the line of fire when the small tennis shoes lashed out. Nathan stepped in closer and pressed his thighs against Vin’s knees to prevent him from kicking. Chris reached up and turned Vin’s face away from the sight as he felt the tremors under his hand. Finally, the doctor took up a clean, dry cloth and began to blot the area dry. After a thorough examination, he put some antibiotic ointment on the punctures and lightly wrapped the wrist.

“Do you know the dog that bit you, son?” the doctor asked.

Vin’s eyes welled up with fresh tears as he nodded.

“Was it your own dog?”

“I was just trying to get him to come up to the tree house with me,” Vin said softly. “I guess he wanted to play with JD.”

To Chris, the doctor asked, “And is it up on its shots?” Seeing the blond nod, the doctor nodded. “Then there shouldn’t be any problem. The punctures are not deep. Puppy teeth are sharp, that’s why it bled so much. Keep the wound clean and dry for the next few days. You might want to segregate the dog and keep an eye on it but I don’t think this was anything more than a warning nip. It could have been a lot worse, young man. I trust that you’ve learned your lesson?”

Vin nodded before pulling his knees up and curling into the safety of Chris’s chest. The doctor signed the chart and placed it on the counter.

“Follow up with your pediatrician in a few days. You’re free to go,” the doctor said as he left.

In the waiting area, JD’s sobs had given way to hiccups and sniffles. His eyes remained tightly focused on the door where Vin had gone. Not even Uncle Ezra could hold his attention for more than a moment. As soon as the door opened, JD slid off of Buck’s lap. The others came to their feet as Chris came out, carrying Vin.

“He’s okay. The doctor said it was just a few punctures. He cleaned it and said to keep it clean and dry. We’re going to head home with the boys and we’ll see you in the office in the morning,” Chris explained. After everyone had taken a moment to pat Vin and tell him they hoped he felt better, the others left. Chris carried Vin and Buck carried JD to the Dodge.

By the time they stopped for take out food and arrived home, both boys were dozing off. It was early for them to go to bed but they dressed them in their pajamas and tucked them in. When Buck collapsed on the couch, Chris caught his eye.

“Did JD tell you what happened?” the blond asked.

“He said he was playing in the yard because Vin wouldn’t let him into the tree house. Vin came down and tried to force the puppy to go in with him and got bit. He said that Vin had been cross with him all day and that he hurt Laurel’s feelings but he didn’t elaborate,” Buck replied.

“We’ll have to discuss this with them tomorrow. I can’t have him making that puppy bite him. If it had gotten his face,” Chris let the thought trail off, it was too terrible to comprehend.

Both men had just gotten settled in bed when they heard JD begin to cry. Buck opened the door to find the younger child sitting on the side of his bed with his arms wrapped tightly around his ribs as he rocked. Vin was pressed tightly against the wall with his pillow bunched up in his arms. The two men shared a glance before Buck picked JD up and carried him out to the living room. Chris sat on the edge of Vin’s bed and reached out to run his hand along the boy’s side.

“Are you all right, son?” Chris asked softly. He saw the tousled head nod. “Do you want to talk about it?” This time, the head shook and Vin burrowed more tightly into the pillow.

Buck eased into the recliner and settled the sobbing child on his lap. JD nuzzled and drew his knees up against Buck’s ribs as he sucked on his thumb. After a minute of soft whimpers, the boy turned immensely sad eyes upwards.

“Vin don’t want me for a friend no more,” he said around his thumb.

“What makes you say that, son?” Buck was immediately concerned.

“He’s mad ‘cause I played in at recess with Lor’l. He said I had to do what he said and I said I didn’t ‘cause there’s nothin’ dangerous at school. Then he got real mad at me and he yelled at me and he called Lor’l retarded and I said she wasn’t and I pushed him and Lor’l cried,” JD said, the words pouring out and blending together.

It took Buck a moment to process the string of words. Then something popped into his mind.

“JD, did you bring a note home from school?”

The brunet head nodded. “Vin got one too. We had to sit in the quiet chair.”

Buck hefted JD onto his hip and moved to the wall where the book bags hung. He found the envelope from the teacher and read it through. The teacher felt that perhaps Vin was feeling jealous of the budding friendship between Laurel and JD.

Chris slipped out of the bedroom and saw Buck holding JD and reading something. He moved closer and Buck tossed his head toward the other book bag. “There’s one in there for you, too.”

Carrying JD back to the recliner, Buck tried to figure out what to do. He didn’t want to get into a big discussion with the child only to have to repeat it the next day with Vin. Deep down, he didn’t know what to do. They had been treading carefully through the minefield of emotions with the boys ever since they found them. Vin had been fiercely protective of JD in the beginning. They had gone through a few ups and downs as they reconfigured responsibilities. Vin had been reluctant to give up the yoke of being responsible for the younger boy. Now perhaps, Vin felt he was losing JD completely as he took up with a ‘special’ friend. Hearing Chris sigh, he looked over at his friend.

“We have to nip this in the bud. We can’t have them fighting at school,” Chris said.

“I know. I’m gonna take Little Bit to bed with me. We’ll figure this out tomorrow,” Buck said as he came to his feet with the child dozing on his shoulder. Chris nodded and went back into the boy’s room. Vin’s eyes watched the door, expecting Buck and JD.

“He’s sleeping with Buck. You were looking for JD, weren’t you?” Chris asked. He saw the nod and heard the heavy sigh. “Do you want to talk about it? Or about the note from your teacher?”

“JD don’t want to be my friend no more. He gots that girl,” the boy said sullenly.

“That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be your friend. Can’t a person have more than one friend? I have Buck and Josiah and Nathan and Ezra and that’s just my close friends. I have lots of other friends. And it isn’t because it’s a girl because you were both friends with Joey. So what is it about Laurel that upsets you so much?” Chris asked as he leaned back against the wall. Vin sighed again and flipped onto his back. So many thoughts were swirling through his mind that it was hard to keep them straight.

“The other kids are sayin’ things about him. More than just the kissing song. They’s makin’ fun of her and him too. Eli Joe said that JD will be retarded like Lor’l if he keeps hangin’ around with her,” Vin explained.

“But you know better than that. What Laurel has is something she was born with, you can’t catch it from her. We talked about this before, didn’t we? It’s like your dyslexia,” Chris reminded him.

“But I don’t want to be retarded!” Vin exclaimed as he sprang off the mattress and flung his small weight into Chris’s arms.

Through the sting in his eyes and the tightness in his chest, Chris wrapped his arms around the trembling child. He’d give almost anything for Vin not to have to go through this at so young an age. It was hard enough for him because he had missed so much schooling before coming to the ranch. He was doing an incredible job of catching up but now there was someone whose skills Vin compared to his own and he didn’t want to be the one the other kids made fun of.

“Vin, you are not retarded! Didn’t Ezra talk to you about all the famous people, the very smart, famous people who have dyslexia like you? There isn’t anything wrong with your brain that will prevent you from learning all that you need to know. It’s hard for you when the kids say hurtful things about JD, isn’t it? You don’t want them making fun of him?”

“It’s not right! JD’s smarter than me and they’s sayin’ he’s gonna be retarded. I don’t want them sayin’ stuff about him. But he said he don’t want to be my friend any more. That’s why I was pullin’ the dog into the tree house. JD don’t want to be my friend and now the puppies won’t like me neither,” Vin murmured as he snuggled into the comforting arms of his father.

“I’m sure that JD will forgive you for whatever he was upset about and I know the puppies will too. You need to apologize for saying hurtful things to Laurel and to JD. Can you do that?” When Vin nodded, Chris smiled. “How about you sleep in my room tonight?”

By morning, all was forgiven in JD’s mind. He was worried about Vin’s arm and insisted on carrying both of their book bags to the bus. Vin apologized for yelling mean things about Laurel and for not letting JD play in the tree house. The brunet nearly knocked the older boy down with his enthusiastic, forgiving hug.

At the school, Vin waited anxiously by the gate for Laurel to arrive so he could apologize to her. When the morning bell rang and the little girl hadn’t arrived, he felt miserable. He was sure that he had hurt her feelings so badly that she was gong to move to another school. The teacher passed out their folders and he pulled out the first worksheet and stared at it for several minutes before he put it away and rested his head on his arms. After reading the note from Mr. Larabee, the teachers left the boy to rest, assuming that he was worn out from what had happened the day and night before.

Just before morning recess, Laurel arrived. Mrs. Cunningham apologized because their car had broken down and they had to wait for a rental to be delivered. Vin sprang from his desk and waited for the adults to finish talking so he could speak to the little girl. The teacher noticed the child and fixed him with a warning gaze. Vin nodded as he waited to have Laurel’s attention.

“Did you need something, Vin?” the teacher asked.

“I wanted to talk to Lor’l,” he answered. Getting a nod from the teacher, Vin spoke to the little girl. “Lor’l, I wanted to apologize for sayin’ hurtful things to you yesterday. If you don’t want to be my friend, it’s okay, but I’s really sorry for yellin’ at you.”

Instead of an answer, Laurel threw her arms around Vin and hugged him. Her brilliant smile made the boy see some of what JD said, she was beautiful. Laurel took him by the hand and headed for the reading corner where their group was gathering to read. Ely Joe nudged the boy sitting next to him and pointed at the two as they sat down near the wall. A few snickers of laughter floated up but Vin ignored them. He was going to do his best to be her friend.

Darcy Cunningham watched her daughter for a few minutes before she left the class room. The recess bell rang and she watched as JD joined Laurel and Vin and the three of them headed for a corner of the playground.

It was deadly quiet in the office that afternoon so Chris and Buck slipped out early. They managed to get home just as the bus was letting the boys off at the bottom of the driveway. The boys struck out for the house, running as fast as they could up the grass as the big Dodge went up the gravel driveway. Vin and JD were on the porch doing their ‘victory dance’ by the time the adults got out of the truck. Mrs. Potter stepped out of the door and smiled at the foursome as they greeted each other.

Chris was followed by both boys as Vin excitedly explained about his day. He had apologized to Laurel and she forgave him. The three of them played together over recess. After recess, he learned that she used some of the same learning aides that he used. He showed her some of the tricks that Uncle Ezra had shown him and she liked them!

The two men congratulated themselves on weathering yet another storm in the boys’ lives. Although Laurel continued to play more with JD than Vin, the older child no longer felt the burning jealousy he had felt at first. It also freed him to begin to make friends with some of the older kids. He never let JD feel left out but he knew he could go and play with the bigger kids without worrying that JD was sitting alone.

A couple of weeks later, Chris and Buck arrived home to find the boys waiting for them on the porch. They had gotten their report cards for the quarter and were eager to show them off to their fathers. Vin’s eyes seemed to glow with the pride he felt. He had been moved up to the next level reading group, a major accomplishment in his mind. JD’s report card showed continuing improvement and several glowing comments from the teachers about his helpful attitude. Mrs. Potter stuck her head out to see what was keeping them.

“You got a call from a Darcy Cunningham. Her number is on the board by the phone, she said for you to call her any time this evening,” the housekeeper announced before going back into the house.

Buck called Darcy. She wanted to know if she could bring Laurel over to show off her new riding ability. The therapist at Helping Horses thought that the little girl was ready to ride unassisted and suggested that a suitable mount be purchased for the child. Darcy wanted to talk to them about helping her to find a horse that wouldn’t be too much for Laurel to handle and she figured that the two men would be in a good position to help her out. Buck suggested that she bring the girl over the next day and they would be more than willing to help.

The boys rushed through their morning chores in eager anticipation of their friend’s arrival. The puppies bounded eagerly around as if sensing the excitement in the air. When the car turned up the driveway, both boys danced on the edge of the porch waiting for it to come to a stop. When the engine was turned off, they raced over to greet Laurel. The three children ran around the house with the puppies hard on their heels while the adults socialized on the porch. They eventually moved to the back deck to watch the kids play. Vin and JD had taken Laurel into the tree house and her laughter was interspersed with happy yips from the puppies.

Chris brought a couple of ponies into the corral and waited for the kids to wind down before suggesting that they watch Laurel ride. The little girl was apprehensive of the strange horses and hung back until Vin and JD showed her that it was safe by riding around the corral. Laurel allowed Chris to put her up on the pony and she sat patiently while he adjusted the stirrups for her. Feeling a little more confident, she giggled as the horse followed the blond around the perimeter of the corral. The two men traded places so Chris could observe the girl as she rode. After a couple of times around the corral, they took her down and let her run off to play with the boys.

“Well?” Darcy asked expectantly.

“She rides well for her age. She’s got a lot of confidence in her ability and she’s comfortable in the saddle. I guess the real question is what kind of horse do you want for her? Something like Popcorn would be great for pleasure riding. If you want something to show or compete, you’d want something a little flashier. I’m sure we can help you find her something nice and gentle,” Chris offered.

“I really appreciate your help. I don’t know enough about a horse to have the vaguest idea of what she needs,” the woman explained.

“Do you have a place to keep a horse? I thought you lived in the city,” Buck interjected.

“Yes, I’ll have to board it somewhere. That was my next question,” she admitted.

“Listen, why don’t you try this? You can bring her out here and ride any evening and on the weekends. We have a couple of horses that she can ride. That way, you can learn about the horses and get things in order. You don’t want to rush into a purchase like that and you definitely don’t want to rush into picking a place to board a horse without investigating it first. Nothing will ruin a good horse faster than being mistreated at a boarding barn,” Buck suggested.

The Cunningham’s stayed for lunch. It became apparent to Chris that Buck was interested in the pretty widow. He hung on her every word. When Darcy announced that it was time for her and Laurel to leave, the kids raced around the house while the adults went through the house. All three children were sitting on the edge of the porch with merry smiles on their faces for having won the race. As Darcy’s car turned out of the driveway, both men knew that it was going to be an interesting school year.

The End?