For all of you who have written, let me just say a big thanks! I seem to have touched a nerve.
For the next couple of weeks, it was calm at the ranch. Steven seemed to be settling in and there were no major confrontations. Which was a good thing because events at work were getting hairy. Team 2 was involved in a sting, which would take down a major supplier of illegal alcohol in the midwestern region. Absinthe, outlawed because of its poisonous nature, was being smuggled in from Mexico and mixed with bootleg whiskey. It had become a favorite among the underage set. Marty Schwin, the head of Team 2 requested additional backup for the bust.
Gloria Potter kept the boys busy well into the evening to keep their minds off of the fact that Chris and Buck had not come home yet. She knew that they might not make it home until after the boys bedtime. Vin, always the more sensitive child, was worrying quietly. He barely touched his supper and spent the rest of the evening staring out of the window that faced the driveway. JD was clingy and demanding, requiring the housekeepers undivided attention for brief periods of time. Steven was the only one not affected by the mens failure to arrive at the regular time. He was content to sit and watch TV on the couch.
A vehicle came up the driveway and Vin jumped up from the floor. Fear blazed in his blue eyes as the doorbell rang. Mrs. Potter opened the door and greeted Nathans wife, Rain.
Aunt Rain, what are you doing here? JD asked.
I thought Id sit with you until your fathers get home so Gloria can get home, she answered as she knelt down in front of the brunet. JDs shoulders began to tremble as he ran from the foyer toward the bedroom.
Ill go talk to him, Gloria offered.
No, you go on home. Youve been here all day. I can handle this, Rain insisted. Hanging her coat, she held out her hand for Vin and drew him along with her to the bedroom. JD had thrown himself across his bed and was sobbing inconsolably. Rain crawled into the bottom bunk and pulled the boy into her arms.
I want my Da! I want Buck! JD wailed as he buried his face in Rains neck.
Theyll be home in a few hours, JD.
How do you know? Vin asked. He wanted to believe Rain, she had never lied to him, but he sensed that something bad had happened.
They called me from the hospital and, she began to explain.
Unca Ezra! Did something happen to him again? JD asked.
No, not Uncle Ezra this time, she assured the boys. Your Uncle Josiah had a little problem during the bust and he had to go to the hospital.
Did he get shotted? JD asked.
No, he had a problem with his heart.
Is he gonna be all right? Vin asked.
We hope so. Now, dry your tears and lets get you ready for bed, she said as she nudged them toward the dresser. Ill go and send Steven in to get ready too.
All three boys were soundly asleep by the time the men arrived a couple of hours later. Nathan followed them into the house and caught his wife as she hurled herself into his arms. He buried his face in her shoulder and clung to her. When he let her go, she turned to face the other two men.
How is he?
The open heart surgery went well. The doctor expects him to make a full recovery. Howd the boys take the news? Chris asked.
Vin and JD cried at first. I got down their Human Body book and explained the procedure to them and they were better about it afterwards. Oh, you might notice some changes in their eating habits. JD asked about cholesterol and I explained it to him, she said with a gentle smile.
Thanks Rain, for everything. We appreciate you coming all the way out here, Buck said as he hugged the pretty woman. We dropped the Jimmy at your place so you two can ride in together.
Ezra stay at the hospital? Rain asked.
Yeah, he wouldnt leave the ICU. I hadnt realized how close the two of them had gotten. He nearly got into a fistfight with the paramedics who tried to stop him from doing CPR. We had to pull him off so they could take over, Chris explained.
After the Jacksons had gone, both men peeked in on the boys. Not surprisingly, Vin was in bed with JD. The boys were tangled together in a knot of bare arms and legs. Chris leaned in and pulled a blanket up over them before ghosting a gentle kiss on Vins forehead. Buck tucked the blanket around Steven before leaning down to kiss JD. The little brunet murmured softly before settling back into the warmth of Vins body.
True to Rains words, the boys were busy reading the boxes of their breakfast cereals and comparing the cholesterol and fat content. Mrs. Potter was put on the spot trying to find suitable substitutes for their lunches. Chris promised them that they would go to the hospital after school if Josiahs doctor said it was okay. They hugged the boys before leaving for the office. They had to get the paperwork done on the bust so they could go to the hospital. Nathan went to relieve Ezra and sent the exhausted southerner home to rest.
Just as they were finishing up and getting ready to leave for the hospital, they got a call from the school. Vin and Steven had gotten into a fight on the playground and the principal wanted them to come down right away. When they arrived, both boys were sitting on opposite ends of the bench in the hall outside of the office. Vin burst off the bench and hurled himself into Chriss arms, sobbing. Steven only glared up at Buck before dropping his gaze to the floor. After peeling Vin off and setting him back on the bench, Chris entered the office.
What happened? He asked as soon as he entered the principals office.
Gentlemen, have a seat. Its complicated. I sent JD back to class because he was too upset to stay here in the office. I understand that one of the boys uncles is having difficulty? The woman said as she looked over the playground monitors report of the fight.
Josiah had a heart attack yesterday. They did bypass surgery on him yesterday evening, Chris replied. What has that got to do with the boys fight?
One of the other kids had a birthday party today in Mrs. Roquettes class. His mother sent in cupcakes for the children. Vin and JD both refused to eat theirs at first. Later, JD decided that he wanted his and went back to get it. Vin objected and Steven saw him trying to take the cupcake away from JD. He tried to convince Vin to let JD have the cupcake and Vin shoved him, she explained. Ill call the boys in and we can discuss the situation with them.
A couple of minutes later, two very sad looking boys walked into the office, being nudged along by the principal. Vin tried to go to Chris but was steered to another bench along the wall. Steven dropped on the other end of the bench and sighed resignedly. After the principal restated the facts, she asked the boys if what shed said was true. Neither boy met her eyes.
Vin, is that true? Chris asked softly. Tear filled blue eyes met hazel ones and the little Texan nodded. He wrung his hands in his lap as the tears rolled down his cheeks. Why, Vin? If JD wanted the cupcake, why?
I dont want him to have heart tax like Uncle Josiah! Vin yelled.
Oh, son, Chris said as he held out his arms. The little boy flew off of the bench and into his fathers grasp. He stood and carried the sobbing child out of the office. Buck watched them until the door closed before addressing Steven.
Are you all right, son? Buck asked as he reached out and tapped the boy on the knee. Startled blue eyes came up and filled with tears.
Youre not mad at me?
You didnt hit Vin when he pushed you?
No, my mom told me not to hit kids that are littler than me. I just told him to leave JD alone. He wanted the cupcake, Steven said before his throat closed up around his voice. Buck held out his arms and the boy slipped off of the bench and shyly moved into the embrace. The principal stood and quietly left the room.
Down the hall, Chris sat down and turned Vin to face him so that he could talk to him. Son, I know youre worried about JD and about his health but youre overreacting. One cupcake wont hurt JD or you. What happened to your Uncle Josiah is caused by decades of cholesterol building up in his heart and his age and other things. Ill ask Dr. Jake to sit down with all of us and explain it to you but you dont have to give up sweets completely. And you know that you shouldnt have pushed Steven, dont you?
Yes, sir, Vin said as he tried to blink back tears. But JDs supposed to listen to me!
Weve talked about this too, havent we? Unless JD is in immediate danger, you need to let the teachers take care of him.
But Steven is going to be his big brother and he wont need me anymore! Vin cried.
Hell still need you. JD loves you! After all youve done for him, he loves you! You must never doubt that. I know its hard for you having to adjust to Steven and everything feels like its changing and slipping away but you just have to hang on. Can you do that?
Yeah, I can do that. Now I hafta apologize to Steven and JD, dont I?
That would be a good place to start, cowboy.
Buck pulled Steven back so he could look the boy in the eye. He let a smile spread across his face as he looked at the boy. Im proud of you. Your mother taught you very well. He patted the boy on the shoulder a couple of times before coming to his feet. They stepped into the hallway just as Chris and Vin rounded the corner. Vin stared at the older boy for a moment before he spoke.
Im sorry I pushed you, Steven. I was wrong.
Thats okay, I know you didnt mean it. You wanna play together at lunch recess?
The boys smiled at each other before Steven draped an arm around Vins shoulder and they walked toward their classrooms. The principal stepped into the hallway and looked from Chris to Buck. She glanced down the hall and smiled as Vin waved to Steven before they went into their classrooms.
I take it they worked it out between them?
Yes maam. Are they in any trouble? Chris asked.
No, we understand the tremendous strain the boys are under with the adoptions and their Uncles having medical problems. If this is the worst we have to deal with, we consider our day blessed, she said before shaking their hands.
When they reached the hospital, Josiah was resting comfortably. He had been moved out of the ICU first thing in the morning and the nurses had already had him out of bed once. Chris checked with the doctor to see if it would be all right to bring the boys in for a brief visit. He agreed as long as they didnt overtire or overexcite Josiah. Buck found Dr. Two Eagles and asked him if they could make an appointment with him so he could explain to the boys about cholesterol and a healthy diet. Once he understood why the doctor was happy to meet with the boys. He promised to bring some brochures that they could keep and he would stop by while they were visiting with Josiah.
The boys were waiting eagerly when their fathers arrived to pick them up after school. After waving enthusiastically at the remaining children, they ran for the truck.
How was the rest of your day? Buck asked as he fastened JDs booster seat straps.
It was okay. Vin pologized for pushing Steven and not letting me have the cupcake. We played together at lunch and afternoon recess, JD said.
On the other side of the truck, Chris tipped Vins head up and smiled warmly at the boy. He got a brilliant smile in return. Glancing at the older boy in the middle, he also smiled warmly. Steven smiled shyly.
Are we gonna see Uncle Josiah? Vin asked.
Yes, but you have to remember that he had an operation and hell be in some pain. You have to be calm and quiet when we visit. I also arranged for Dr. Two Eagles to come and talk to you about what happened with Josiah and why. I dont want to have any more incidents like we had at school today, Chris said as he met each childs eyes.
At the hospital, Vin and JD went quiet, clinging to their fathers hands. Steven followed behind closely, seemingly unaffected by the environment. They bumped into Ezra on their way up the hall. JD dropped Bucks hand and hurried to the southerner.
Uncle Ezra! Are you going to see Uncle Josiah? He asked as he hugged the mans legs.
I am on my way back to his room. He asked for a newspaper to alleviate his boredom. Would you like to take it in to him?
JD eagerly took the paper in one hand and Ezras hand in the other. He slowed his pace to match the southerners as he glanced into each room they passed. When they reached the room, JD peeked around the doorway.
Josiah happened to glance toward the door just as the little brunet peered into the room. In spite of the pain in his chest, he smiled warmly. Pulling his pillow to his chest, he called to the boy.
JD? Come in. Im glad to see you, the profiler called cheerfully. He watched as the boy pulled Ezra into the room with him and then approached the bed without touching it. Large hazel eyes stared up at him before making the rounds of the assortment of machines and bags of fluids. Seeing the fear in the small face, Josiah held out one arm. Can I have a hug?
Ezras eyes widened in surprise, he knew that one misplaced elbow or knee could be unbearably painful to downright dangerous. Seeing the hesitation in the southerners face, Josiah nodded encouragingly and motioned for him to lift JD to the bedside. Ezra reluctantly lifted JD and held him firmly as he reached out to encircle Josiahs neck gently. Buck bit back a startled gasp as he watched his son on the hospital bed. He relaxed slightly as JD backed away and turned for Ezra to take him down.
Vin was too intimidated by all the machinery to be lifted to the bed, he settled for holding Uncle Josiahs hand as it cupped his face. Steven plastered his backside against the wall and nodded his greeting. A few minutes later, Dr. Two Eagles arrived to talk to the boys. He pushed a wheelchair that he had piled his props on. One was a plastic heart that could be taken apart so that each quadrant could be displayed separately. The larger veins on the outside snapped off and could be held up to the light to view the various kinds of blockages. After the boys had each had a chance to examine the heart, he showed them some kid friendly pamphlets about heart disease. Vin absorbed most of the information in silence, letting JD ask his questions. Steven asked only a couple of questions, focused on how much was too much. Finally, the doctor gathered up his things and ruffled the boys hair before he left. Josiah yawned widely and Chris took his cue to begin urging the others to leave. The boys nuzzled their uncles hand and assured him that they would say a prayer for him before they left.
While Josiah was recovering at home, things around the ranch began to grow tense. Chris was cleaning the counters one evening when he noticed some odd scratches on the cabinet front. Passing the washcloth over the scratches, he bent over to examine the damage. Deep grooves had been carved across the grain, resembling letters. As he stared, they looked like Vins initials, a lot like Vins initials. Not knowing how long they had been there, he tried to reign in his temper. For all he knew, they could have been there for months, or not.
As Chris dropped the cloth on the counter and headed for the door to call Vin in, Buck came through the front door, seething with rage. He stormed across the width of the house and out to the deck before bellowing for the boys. Grabbing his coat, the blond followed.
What happened? Chris asked as they watched the boys slink across the yard from the tree house.
Scratches on the side of my truck and rocks on the running board! Buck growled.
We live on a gravel road.
Buck thrust out his hand, laying in his palm were three rocks bigger than any that lay along the driveway. They were the size and coloring of the larger rocks that lay in the flowerbeds. Chris swallowed hard and ran a hand through his hair as the boys reached the deck. Vin sidestepped Buck and sidled up to his father, snaking one arm around a jeans clad thigh.
Do any of you know how these rocks ended up on my running boards? Buck asked as he thrust the rocks under the boys noses. Vin shook his head and grabbed Chriss hand for comfort. Steven took a step back, shaking his head in denial.
I didnt do it, he said quickly.
JD? Buck asked as the little brunet dropped his gaze to the tops of his shoes.
I did it.
It was a contest, to see who could get the closest, JD answered.
You threw rocks at my truck to see who could get the closest?!? Buck yelled. He stepped closer to the child and JD cringed. Vin suddenly broke from Chriss side.
It wasnt his idea! Dont hit him!
Whos idea was it? Buck demanded. Vin didnt speak. JD glanced up at his father before he began to cry. JD? Son? Whos idea was it? Steven?
Well, I didnt think hed actually hit it! The older child said.
Buck advanced on the boy until a calm voice called him back.
Buck, dont touch him! Steven, go and sit on your bed, Chris said as he pointed toward the house. The suddenly sullen child spun on his heel and stomped past the men and into the house. He tossed a venomous glare back at the boys as he hung up his coat before rounding the hall and disappearing from view.
JD, son, why would you do something like that? You know what that truck means to me, Buck said as he collapsed on the picnic table bench.
Steven dared me. He said if I didnt try that I was a baby. The first one I threw didnt hit the door, it landed right on the running board. He said it was just lucky, JD mumbled softly.
Is it bad, Buck? Chris asked.
The whole door panel will have to be sanded down to the metal and painted from scratch, Buck replied. Go and sit in the time out chair while I show Chris the door, he told JD. The little boy sobbed openly as he trudged across the deck. Vin followed JD and sank to the floor beside the chair.
Chris ran his hand over the scratches and dings on the drivers side door panel. Walking away from the vehicle, he saw the footprints in the snow where the two boys had been standing. Shaking his head, he sighed. Buck commiserated over the damage to his beloved truck for several minutes before heading back toward the house. He bypassed JD and headed for the bedroom. Steven jumped when the door opened and thrust his hand down along his thigh.
What have you got there, son? Buck asked as he sat on the end of the bed.
You hid something when I came into the room. Let me see it.
Its mine! Steven yelled as he shoved his hand down more tightly against the mattress.
Buck stood up and moved to stand in front of the boy. Steven clenched his fist and worked it under his thigh. Holding out his hand, Buck waited.
Its mine! My mom gave it to me for protection!
For protection? What did she give you? Buck reached out and took hold of Stevens arm and pulled it up. With his other hand, he tried to unroll the curled fingers. Steven resisted, whimpering as he dug his nails into Bucks fingers.
Buck had been a cop for long enough that he learned all kinds of ways to disarm a person. Shifting his grip on Stevens wrist, he applied pressure to the tendon. The boy tried to pull back and raised his other hand to try to push away his fathers hand.
Let go! Its mine! Steven screamed. Buck applied a little more pressure and finally, the small hand opened. In his palm lay a small switchblade. The boy tried to snatch the knife with his other hand and Buck grabbed that hand and held it firmly. The knife fell to the floor and he covered it with his foot. Its mine! Its mine! Give it back! the child yelled as he tried to kick.
Chris stuck his head in the door. Need a hand?
Under my right foot, Buck said through clenched teeth. Chris stepped closer and bent over to pluck the item from under the other mans foot. He tried not to let his surprise show when he saw what he had in his hand. Pocketing the knife, he stepped back. Buck released Steven, letting the boy stumble to his feet.
Give it back! Its mine! the boy demanded.
You dont need a knife like this, Chris said calmly. Ill hold on to it for you.
I hate you! I hate you! I wish you were dead! Steven screamed as he stood with his fists clenched. His shoulders heaved as he looked from one adult to the other. Finally, something in him gave and he threw himself on his bed, sobbing hysterically.
Buck and Chris left the room, closing the door behind them. Buck sagged against the door, wiping tears from his azure eyes. Chris leaned against the opposite wall, fingering the knife in his pocket. He suspected that Steven was the one who carved Vins initials in the cabinet but he had to know for sure.
What am I gonna do with him, Chris? Buck asked.
Hes just a scared kid, Buck. He needs help, he needs counseling.
Ill call Nettie in the morning. I need to talk to JD.
Im taking Vin with me tonight. You do what you need to do, Chris said as he walked away.
Walking out to where Vin sat beside JD, Chris motioned for the boy to follow him. Vin looked back at JD and hesitated, it was as close as he had come to outright defying the blond. Chris sighed softly and walked over, scooping Vin into his arms and carrying him into the bedroom.
Left without his protector, JDs tears renewed. The little brunet was quaking with fear when he heard the footsteps stop in front of him. Looking up, he cringed as if he expected to be slapped.
Oh, JD, its going to be all right! Buck said as he gathered the boy into his arms. JD hadnt even removed his coat as he sat in the chair and the cold, damp material gave the man a chill. Here, let's get your coat off and sit over here so we can talk.
In the bedroom, Chris settled Vin on the corner of the mattress and stood in front of him. The childs pale eyes were drawn. Reaching into his pocket, Chris took out the knife. He saw the flash of recognition and then fear that leapt into Vins face.
Youve seen this before?
Uh-huh, it belongs to Steven.
Have you touched it? Chris saw Vin swallow hard before nodding, his eyes welling with tears. You carved your initials into something? The child nodded, sniffling softly. The kitchen cabinet?
Vins eyes snapped up and he shook his head vehemently. NO! I wouldnt do that, Dad! It was in the tree house, Vin said softly.
You didnt carve your initials in the cabinet next to the dishwasher?
No, Chris, I didnt!
Fear electrified the boy as he looked up at the blond man. For months and months, Chris had reassured him that nothing he did would cause the man to send him away. In that moment, he thought maybe he had found the one thing that might.
Pocketing the knife, Chris sank to his knees. He had seen the emotions scrolling across Vins face and knew that the boy was terrified. His own emotions were tied in a knot as he thought about the recent turn of events. Everything was changing and it all felt out of control. While it was just the two boys, sure theyd had their share of troubles, but they had always managed to work it out. Now, with Steven in the mix, Chris began to worry about the future that had seemed so smooth before.
I believe you, son. Come here, he said as he opened his arms. Vin slipped off of the bed and wrapped his arms around Chriss neck. The blond felt the shudders that wracked the boys slender frame. After a couple of minutes, he pulled away and came to his feet. Turning to the safe built into the wall, he swiftly dialed the combination, Sarahs birth date, and opened the door. Depositing the knife in the safe, he locked the door again. Come on, let's go check on Little Bit, he said as he held out a hand to Vin.
In the living room, Buck was kicked back in the recliner. JDs tear streaked face was relaxed, as the child was asleep. Vin padded silently to the side of the chair and rested his head on Bucks shoulder as he reached out to wrap one arm around his neck.
Im sorry about your truck, Buck, Vin whispered.
Thanks, Junior, I appreciate that. Itll be all right, the damage can be repaired.
Chris stood, silently watching the exchange. He loved Buck like a brother and hated to see him so torn. From the large damp spot on his shirt, he figured JD must have been really upset.
You want me to put him to bed? Chris offered.
No, Ill take care of it, Buck said as he patted Vins back. Coming carefully to his feet, he carried the rag doll-limp child to the boys room.
Steven appeared to be asleep when Buck opened the door. Shifting JD to one arm, he rummaged through the dresser drawers to find pajamas. Stuffing the clothes in between himself and JD, he also retrieved Scooby and Cat. Glancing around the room once more, he pulled the end of the blanket up over the older child. Turning out the light, he left the room.
It was an uneasy night at the ranch. Chris lay awake for most of the night, agonizing over the situation. He didnt like the conclusion he kept reaching and it was making him nervous. Vin was also fretting in his sleep. The boy twitched and mumbled off and on while he slept. In the other room, Buck felt as if his heart was being ripped in two. Sprawled across his chest was the child he loved with all of his soul and in the other room was a child that he ought to love. He debated turning Steven over to Nettie for her to find him a foster home. He just didnt know if he could bear the thought of abandoning the boy the way his mother had abandoned him. In his sleep, JD whimpered. A softly mumbled phrase floated around the room, unintelligible except for the end, love you, Da.
In the morning, Vin shook Chris. Even before his eyes were fully open and his brain was in gear, he heard the boy say Stevens gone. Rolling out of bed, he grabbed his jeans and slammed his legs into them. As he started out of the room he saw something that made his blood run cold. The door to the safe was standing open. Crossing the room in quick strides, he felt a moment of relief that his gun was still there. But Stevens knife was gone!
Buck, wake up, Stevens gone! Chris called into the room as he passed the door. Vin hugged the wall to stay out of the way as both men rushed up the hall. Sure enough, the bedroom was empty. The duffle bag the boy had brought with him was gone. Buck raced out of the room and looked on the shelf in the living room. The swear jar was gone!
Hes got money, Buck said as he came back into the bedroom.
And he has his knife, Chris returned.
No idea, the safe was open when I woke up.
Ill go call the sheriffs department and then Nettie if youll get the boys dressed, Buck said.
After phoning the sheriff and Mrs. Wells, they piled into the truck to go looking for Steven. They could see where he had trudged down the driveway. Following the route the bus took, they headed for Denver.
He could be hitchhiking, Chris suggested.
Who would pick up a ten-year-old boy? Buck countered.
Hes tall for his age, he looks older. Im just trying to figure out where he could have gone.
In the back seat, the two boys exchanged glances. They were keenly aware of the dangers of living on the street. Vin was torn. On the one hand, he was almost relieved that the older boy was gone, on the other hand, he was scared for him. He wouldnt wish life on the street on his worst enemy. Not even on Eli Joe Chavez.
Call the guys and have them start checking, Chris said.
Ezra parked the Jag and crossed the lot at the bus depot. His sharp eyes took in every dirty mound of snow, looking for Steven to be hiding behind one of them. He didnt figure the kid could get a ticket on his own so he would probably try to stow away. After circling the lot, he headed for the terminal building.
Nathan used his height to his advantage at the train station. He could see over the heads of most of the people milling about on the small train platform. The ticket agent hadnt seen anyone fitting the description of the boy but he admitted that he had only been on duty for an hour or so. Giving one last look around the platform, he headed into the terminal to check the restrooms.
The rusty, beat up old Chevy rolled to a stop. The man driving looked at the youngster one more time. He had picked the kid up walking along the highway. He said his name was John and he was trying to get home to his mother. The driver offered to take him to the highway patrol but the boy refused, saying that his father had connections and would get him back. He said that his father was involved in a homosexual relationship and that he was afraid to stay there any longer. Against his better judgment, he agreed to take the boy to the bus depot.
You sure about this, kid? Whats to stop your father from reporting you missing? The cops will look here first, you know?
He wont look for me. He has his other son, Steven said sadly. He fished a twenty from his pocket and offered it to the driver.
Keep it, kid. Take care of yourself, he said.
Trudging across the parking lot, Steven scanned the list of possible destinations. He doubted that his mother had returned to Baltimore. Dallas and Phoenix sounded like good choices, both were large communities where he would not be easily found. Mentally flipping a coin, he chose Dallas.
Excuse me, I need to buy a one way ticket to Dallas, he said to the ticket agent.
How old are you, son? The man asked suspiciously.
Thirteen, sir. Heres a letter from my mom, shes sending me to live with my dad, Steven said as he held out the envelope with the cash. The man looked at the letter. Fingering through the money, he realized that there was over a hundred dollars in the envelope. From the determined look in the boys face, he decided to believe him.
Thatll be ninety-eight dollars, kid, he said as he printed up the ticket. He licked his lips nervously as the boy pulled money from another pocket and counted out the bills.
Steven took the ticket and checked the departure time. He still had an hour and a half to wait. Following his nose, he headed for the counter where he saw he could get something to eat. Climbing up on one of the stools, he picked up the menu and buried his face in it.
I sincerely hope you have given this a lot of thought, Ezra said as he rested his hip against the stool next to Steven. Vin and JD will tell you that its awfully hard to live on the street.
Startled blue eyes leapt out of the menu. The southerner made no move to try to hold him and Stevens gaze darted around, searching for a way out. His heart sank when he saw the two security guards at the far end of the counter.
What could be so bad that you would try to run away like this? Ezra asked.
I want my mom, Steven said firmly.
How many times has she left you like this, son?
Im not your son! Steven spat venomously. He was puzzled by the smile that appeared on the southerners face.
Forgive me. I, too, have an aversion to that particular appellation, especially from someone who could not possibly be my sire. Correct me if Im wrong but your mother has left you before, hasnt she? With relatives and complete strangers? I know how that feels. My own sainted mother did the same thing to me when I was a child.
Your mom went off and left you with complete strangers?
On more occasions than I care to remember. I was an inconvenience at times. Especially around the holidays, she would drop me at some relatives house and tell me that shed return for me when she could, Ezra answered.
Did you hate her for it?
No, I loved her too much to hate her. But I spent many a night laying in bed crying and trying to figure out how to be a better son so she wouldnt leave me again. I guess I never figured it out, because she left me at boarding schools when I was old enough.
I miss her. And Im worried about her, Steven confided.
Like your father is worried about you?
Anger colored the childs face suddenly. Im not going back there!
Because they hate me there! They have their perfect little boys already! I cant do anything right! And they took something that belongs to me! I showed them, though, I got it back. Im leaving and you cant stop me!
Do you really think shes in Dallas? Ezra asked. He saw the defiance begin to crumble. Thats a very large metropolis to be all alone in.
I just want my mom, Steven said as he began to cry.
What makes you think shes there?
She said shed like to live there. Shes a big fan of the football team.
Then you and Vin have something in common, Buck said as he stepped up behind Steven.
I dont want to go back, Steven said.
Its up to you, son. If you prefer, I can ask Mrs. Wells to find you a foster home.
I want my mom!
I know you do, Steven, and well try to find her. But you have to go back to the ranch or into a foster home until we do, Buck explained.
Can I keep my knife?
Its yours, son. Chris wasnt going to do anything except keep it put up safely. Its not a toy and the other boys are too young to have it around them. Ill put it in my safe and you can have it back when youre older.
I spent the money from the swear jar, Steven said as he looked at his father.
You let me take care of that, Buck said with a smile.
The ticket agent was only too happy to return the money for the ticket and the envelope with the bribe in it. He pleaded and begged them not to turn him in because he would lose his job. Chris had called Nathan and Nettie to let them know that they had found Steven. Buck and Ezra came out of the bus station with the boy between them. The southerner paused, stopping Steven while Buck continued on to the truck.
If you want to talk about this, you can always call me. Sometimes it helps to share things like this with another person who understands. Or you could talk to Buck, he really does care about what happens to you, Ezra said as he stared into the dark blue eyes.
Ill think about it, Steven said as he tentatively took the outstretched hand. Thanks.
There was no conversation on the way home. Chris and Buck sat staring out the windshield. Vin, taking his cue from the adults, sat silently. JD reached across the seat and rested his hand on Stevens shoulder, smiling. Steven returned the smile curiously before leaning against the booster seat and drifting off to sleep.
#5: Soul Searching