New Kid on the Block
#5 - Soul Searching

by Angie

Okay, get ready for the big finale. This is the next to last story in the series. Thanks so much to everyone who has commented on the series!

The family returned to the ranch in silence. Buck’s heart clenched at the sight of Steven leaning against JD’s booster seat, sleeping soundly. JD smiled at his Da as he curled his hand around the older boy’s neck. They reached the ranch and Buck lifted JD from his seat, crushing the little brunet to his chest before setting him on the ground. He turned back and gently unbuckled Steven and gathered him into his arms. The boy squirmed and murmured before relaxing into his father’s arms. Buck carried him into the boys’ room and sank to the side of the bed with him. From somewhere deep inside, Buck shuddered and began to cry, burying his face in Steven’s coat. JD stood in the doorway for a moment before turning away.

“Where’d your dad go?” Chris asked as he hung up his coat.

“He’s in there with Steven, crying,” JD answered in a quiet voice.

Chris knelt down and gathered JD into his arms. He could see that the whole incident had shaken the boy deeply. “He was just scared for Steven, you know? He’s crying because he’s relieved that Steven is safe.” He felt JD nod and let him go. “Why don’t you and Vin put in a video and I’ll start some brunch. I’ll bet you’re starving.”

“Brunch?” JD asked, wrinkling his nose.

“Between breakfast and lunch. How about pancakes and French fries?”

The child’s eyes lit with delight. He nodded so hard that his bangs fell across his face. Chris smiled and told JD to go put in a video. He watched the child race away and heard the excited chatter as they bickered over what video to watch first.

Coming awake slowly, Steven was a little uneasy. He could tell that he was being held securely in Buck’s arms but he was puzzled at the shaking and sniffling he heard. It didn’t seem possible that his father was crying. For some reason, it made him feel good. Nuzzling against the flannel shirt, he inhaled the scent that his mind labeled as safety. Drawing up his hand, he ran his fingertips over the material.

Buck tried to pull himself together. He felt Steven moving and knew he would have to let him go in a moment. Sniffling, he scrubbed at his face, wiping away the tears. He felt the small hand grope across his chest and lowered his hand to cover it gently.

“I guess I’m in really big trouble,” Steven mumbled.

“I’d just like to know why, son. I’ve been going out of my way to make a home for you here. I know you would rather be with your mom, you’re probably worried about her and all. But I’d really like it if you would give us a chance here, you know?”

“But she’s in trouble!” Steven said, panic creeping into his voice.

Pushing the boy away so he could see his face, Buck studied the frightened expression. “How do you know that, son?”

“'Cause those men came looking for her again. They’re bad men and when they find us, we have to leave,” the boy answered, willing his father to understand and believe.

“What bad men?”

“I don’t know who they are. They find us every year or so and we have to start all over again.”

Buck hugged the child tightly and then let him go. “We’ll find her, son. I promise you that.”

Chris looked in on them a few minutes later, letting them know that brunch was ready. They shared their meal, making no reference to Steven’s runaway attempt. After the dishes were cleared away, they piled up in the living room to watch another video.

On Monday, Buck pulled Ezra aside and asked him for a favor. In an envelope, he had all the information Magda had left with Steven. On another sheet of paper, he had written down everything he could remember about her, her birth date and her parent’s names, where she had gone to school and where she had lived while she was in Paris.

“I need to find her, Ezra. Steven says she’s in trouble. He said that some bad men found them and that’s why she came here with him. These bad men find them every year or so and she moves him to get away from them.”

“If you would allow, I would like to speak to the boy again. I believe I may have made a connection with him. Perhaps I can coax other helpful information from him.”

“Whatever you need to do to help me find her for him,” Buck said, giving the southerner a hug.

On the bus on the way to school, Steven squeezed into the seat with Vin and JD. While they were waiting for the bus, he had pleaded with them not to tell the other kids about him trying to run away. They agreed, anything to stop the older boy from worrying. Before first recess, Steven was called from his class to the office. He hung his head as he walked down the hall.

“Lift your head, boy, look where you’re going,” Nettie cautioned.

“M-M-Mrs. Wells, what are you doing here?” he stammered.

“I came to see how you were doing. I was quite worried about you yesterday.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“You aren’t thinking of running away again, are you?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“That’s good to hear. I’ve arranged for you to speak with a therapist, Dr. Tavist. I think you need someone to talk out your problems with you.”

“Have you found out anything about my mom yet?”

“No, I’m afraid we haven’t. Your father is taking good care of you, isn’t he?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I was just hoping.”

“Even if we do find her, you understand that there are things she would have to do before you could go back to her, don’t you?”

On the playground, Vin and JD hurried to the corner of the playground where Steven was sitting on the mound of snow, staring through the fence.

“Steven, you want to come play with us? We got a kick ball.” JD asked as he thrust the red ball under the older boy’s nose. Getting no response, he squatted down so he could peer up into the unseeing eyes.

“Steven, are you okay? You want me to get the teacher?” Vin offered.

“No, she can’t help. Nettie came to see me,” Steven answered.

“Nettie? I wonder why she didn’t come to see us?” JD asked.

“She’s making me go to a therapist,” the older boy said sadly.

“You’re going to Dr. Will?” Vin cried happily. “You’ll like him. He helped us lots when we first came to live with Chris and Buck.”

“It’s not Dr. Will. She said it’s some other guy, Dr. Tavist. She said I have to talk to him about my mom.”

“You’re lucky, your mom’s not dreaming with the angels like mine and Vin’s. I miss my momma a lot. She used to read to me,” JD said, getting caught in the sad feelings Steven was giving off in abundance. “Do you miss your momma, Vin?”

The little Texan’s blue eyes clouded with pain and he nodded. The three boys remained together the rest of the recess period, Vin and JD trying to be supportive of Steven. They couldn’t understand why he was so worried about seeing a therapist. They had come to enjoy their visits with Dr. Will.

In the ATF offices, Buck looked up as Nathan cleared his throat softly. Seeing Mrs. Wells coming across the room, he cringed. Remembering his manners, he came to his feet, towering over the diminutive caseworker.

“Mrs. Wells, I didn’t expect to see you here today,” he said with forced cheerfulness.

“I thought we might talk about Steven. Is there some place where we can talk in private?”

“In the conference room. Right this way,” he said as he headed for the door.

As soon as the door closed, Nettie took off her coat. Buck took it and hung it on the hall tree before pulling out a chair for her. Taking a seat across from her, he rested his hands on the table and waited for the axe to fall.

Nettie smiled at the nervous posture. “You aren’t in any trouble, Buck. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve assigned a therapist to work with Steven. I feel that he needs to begin working through some of his issues. Dr. Tavist is one of the best.”

“Not Dr. Lowery?”

“No, I think that Vin and JD need to maintain their rapport with him without feeling that they have to worry about things they’ve said being shared.”

“Dr. Lowery would never do that!”

“If you were Vin and JD, would you believe that?”

“Okay, have you had any luck locating Magda?” Buck asked.

Nettie smiled and shook her head. At the puzzled look on Buck’s face, she spoke. “From the body language and the way you don’t beat around the bush, Steven could not be more like you. No, I haven’t been able to get anywhere. Every lead takes me in a different direction. Steven has been in several different schools in the past few years. The only positive thing I’ve found so far is that she hasn’t been arrested for anything that I can find.”

“When do we start the therapy?”

“After the holiday, I figured you have enough pressure in your lives right now. Here’s her card and the time for the appointment. Let me know if this is inconvenient for you, maybe I can help.”

“You’ve already helped, Nettie. More than I can say,” Buck said as he reached out and gently squeezed her hand.

Chris came out of his office in time to see Nettie being helped on with her coat and escorted to the office door. He waited for Buck to come back.

“Problem?” He asked.

“She found a therapist for Steven. He starts after the holidays.”

At the end of the day, Ezra caught Buck and asked if he could pick Steven up the next day for a couple of hours. He wanted to take the boy to the library for a chance to talk. After agreeing to pick the boy up at his school, they went home for the evening. Mrs. Potter warned them that Steven had been sulky since arriving home. The other boys didn’t seem affected by the older boy’s mood. Buck headed for the bedroom to talk to Steven while Chris went over homework with Vin and JD played in the living room floor.

“How way your day, Steven?” Buck asked as soon as he opened the door. He was surprised to see the boy sitting on the floor, holding his duffle bag tightly to his chest. “You want to talk about it?”

“She’s making me go to a shrink.”

“A therapist, not a shrink, and Vin and JD talked to one when we first got them. He helped a lot.”

“I know, they told me.”

“So why the long face?” Buck asked as he lowered himself to the carpet.

“Do you think I’m crazy?” Steven asked.

“Nope, I think you are a young man who needs someone to talk to about all the changes in your life. That doesn’t make you crazy at all. You know, there’s some pictures I want to show you. Come with me.”

In the bedroom, Buck nudged Steven to the bed and pulled a battered cardboard box out of the floor of the closet. Lugging the box to the bed, he sat down and pulled back the flaps. Inside of the box were several battered old photo albums. The spine of the first book crinkled and crackled when the cover was opened. The first page was full of a smiling, eight-year-old Buck. Steven sucked in his breath sharply as he looked at the picture. For the next half hour, they leafed through the albums, giggling at some of the pictures.

The next day, Ezra left the office early with a manila folder and picked Steven up from school. He waved at Vin and JD as he helped the older boy into the car.

“Why do you think Uncle Ezra took Steven and not us?” JD asked.

“I don’t know, JD. Maybe Mrs. Potter will know. We can ask her.”

The housekeeper said only that Ezra wanted to spend some time with Steven and she didn’t know any more than that. JD seemed to accept that bit of information but it troubled Vin. Uncle Ezra rarely separated the boys, he had always taken them together. Pulling his homework from his bag, he trudged to the bedroom and laid the papers on the table. Mrs. Potter brought him a cup of juice and a cookie to hold him until supper. Caressing his hair, she praised him for not waiting to be told to do his work.

JD stood in the doorway and looked at Vin. “Aren’t you gonna come play with me first?”

“Can’t, gotta do my homework.”

“But you always play with me after school!”

“I can’t, JD! I gotta work on my spelling homework!” Vin shouted before pushing JD out of the room and closing the door. Sagging against the closed door, he felt tears burn his eyes. Maybe Uncle Ezra wouldn’t help him with his homework any more, he worried.

Gloria wiped her hands on the dishcloth and peered out the window. She didn’t see any sign of the boys or the dogs and went to check. She found JD laying on the living room floor, nudging his Hot Wheels car with the tip of his finger. His other hand propped up his little round chin and he sighed dramatically.

“Is everything all right, JD?”

“Yes Ma’am. I’m just playing by myself.”

“I’m sure Vin will play with you after he finishes his homework,” she assured him as she went back to preparing the supper.

+ + + + + + +

At the library, Ezra settled Steven at a computer console and began pulling up information on him and his mother. By asking a few leading questions, he was able to get the boy to unwittingly provide a wealth of information about himself and his mom. He revealed which cities they had lived in before Baltimore. Under the southerner’s attention, the boy blossomed. By the end of the hour, he was smiling and telling jokes.

+ + + + + + +

Vin read over the word again and knew it was wrong. Heaving a massive sigh, he flipped the pencil around and began to erase the incorrect letters. He scrubbed the paper, obliterating the hated letters that swam in his mind’s eye. The paper tore, further upsetting the fragile grip he had on his emotions. Wadding up the paper, he folded his arms on the table and cried.

Hearing the front door open, JD jumped to his feet and ran across the room. He launched himself at Buck, squealing with delight. Chris pulled off his coat and hung it up, glancing around for Vin. Shrugging, he headed for his room to put up his weapon.

“Where’s Vin, Little Bit?” Buck asked as he settled the younger boy on the couch.

“He’s been in our room doing homework since we got home from school and it’s boring, boring, boring without anyone to play with. Why did Uncle Ezra take Steven and not us? Is Steven in trouble? He said he has to go to a therapist but not Dr. Will. Why can’t he go to Dr. Will like me and Vin?”

“Breathe, Little Bit, breathe,” Buck warned as he tried to process all the information he had just received. Vin had been in the bedroom for two hours doing his homework? That didn’t sound good. He also forgot to talk to Chris about what they were going to tell the boys about Ezra spending time with Steven. He didn’t want to tell them that the southerner was trying to covertly gather information from him. Chris came out of his room and headed for the boys’ room.

“Hey Cowboy, I was worried when you didn’t greet me at the door like you usually do,” Chris said as soon as he opened the door. Vin’s head came up, his eyes glassy with sleep.

“Hey, Dad, when did you get home?” the Texan said as he scrubbed at his eyes.

“Just a few minutes ago. JD said you’ve been in here since you got home from school. Did you get a lot of homework today?”

“No, just spelling and reading, like usual.”

“You aren’t going to wait for Ezra to help with your spelling?”

“Nah, I can do it myself, I don’t need any help.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Vin said as he pushed the chair back and reached out to be picked up. Chris gathered him up and patted him firmly on his back.

“Let’s go see what Mrs. Potter has going for supper.”

As Gloria was making her way to her car, Ezra’s Jag pulled into the driveway. Steven got out and called to the housekeeper before reaching back into the car for his book bag. Ezra got out and waited for the boy. As he rounded the hood of the car, the southerner put his hand on Steven’s shoulder and walked to the house.

Buck looked up from where he had been sitting on the floor playing with JD. He smiled at Ezra as Steven hung up his book bag. A very pointed look from the southerner had Buck coming to his feet.

“Steven, why don’t you play with JD for a few minutes until supper is ready?” Buck asked. As soon as the older boy nodded and moved to kneel beside the younger boy, Ezra headed for the small home office.

“Did you get anything out of him?” Buck asked as soon as the door closed.

“Yes, he gave me a list of cities where they lived. I also found something in the FBI database. Her passport was flagged when she returned from Paris. I suspect that the men who found her and caused her flight were agents attempting to make contact with her.”

“Why? What could they want with her?”

“I have yet to ascertain that bit of information but, rest assured, I will do everything in my power to figure out that most vital missing piece. He really is a very intelligent boy. Your former paramour obviously took the time to see that he was educated. He speaks fondly of her and it seems that he was well cared for,” Ezra explained.

“I didn’t doubt that she took care of him, but Steven is sure that she’s in trouble and I have to believe him. I have to find her for him.”

“I shall do my best to find her for both of you. Now, I must take my leave of you. I believe I have a date with Mr. Tanner and a list of spelling words,” the southerner said as he slipped out of the room. He found Vin in the kitchen watching Chris put the finishing touches on their supper.

“Vin, are you ready to work on your spelling words?” Ezra asked.

“No thanks, Uncle Ezra, I already did it,” Vin said, avoiding the southerner’s eye.

“Would you like for me to review it for you?”

“No thanks,” Vin said as he shrugged his shoulders and slipped off of the chair.

For the next couple of days, things were calm. The locksmith arrived to change the combinations on both of the safes in the house after Steven told them that his mother taught him that most people chose numbers that had special significance to them and that Chris had used Sarah’s birth date. Ezra had only smiled knowingly when he heard the team leader telling Nathan about the whole situation.

The days before Christmas were filled with rushing around to do last minute shopping and wrapping the last minute purchases. The boys were looking forward to the winter break. Buck’s budget was stretched to the limit trying to buy gifts for Steven when he had only set aside enough for JD and Vin. He found himself having to scale back on the things he had picked out for JD, he never gave any thought to taking from Vin’s gifts.

Chris came out of his office and found Buck flipping through his checkbook and sighing heavily. Moving quietly to Buck’s desk, he peered at the tablet laying in the middle of the desk. It was covered with rows of numbers and a list of toys.

“Problem?” Chris asked when Buck glanced up at him.

“No, just trying to squeeze a few more dollars into the Christmas budget,” Buck said with a sigh. “Running a little short on funds. Just trying to figure out if I can afford that remote control car Steven was drooling over at the mall the other day. I just can’t see how I can without making a payment late and I don’t want to start doing that. I suppose I could sell some of that stock Ezra insisted I buy a few years ago.”

“What’s all this stuff?” Chris asked of the bracketed groups of toys.

“Just the stuff I got for them so far,” Buck said, glaring at the woefully short list.

“You didn’t get all of that for Vin, did you?” Chris asked of the longer section of the list.

“Yeah, those are the things on the list he gave me. I still won’t be able to get him the DVD he wanted. I already pared the list down for JD and scrimped a little on the stuff for the other guys.”

“Vin doesn’t need everything on his list. It was a list of things he’d like to have, not a list of requirements. It’s okay if he doesn’t get everything he wants, it gives him something to look forward to for his birthday,” Chris said.

After returning a few of the things he had gotten for Vin, Buck was able to get the remote control car for Steven. As he was leaving the mall, he passed by a tobacco store. In the window was a collection of pocketknives. A crazy idea blossomed in his mind and he found himself standing at the counter looking at a simple knife. Shaking his head at the incredible thought, he laughed and walked away.

A couple of days before Christmas, Ezra received a certified letter at the office. The others assumed it was a missive from Maude and thought no more of it. The southerner read over the documents and immediately attacked his computer. Nathan and Josiah exchanged puzzled looks as Ezra scowled at the screen. A half hour later, the southerner snatched up his coat and charged out of the office. Buck looked up from his computer and followed the undercover agent with his eyes before going back to the research he had been doing.

On his own, he had managed to find a trail for Magda. Her credit card showed activity in Omaha a few weeks ago and again in Phoenix a week later. He was desperate to make contact with her before Christmas so she could talk to Steven. The closer they got to the holiday, the more depressed the boy became.

The phone in the team leader’s office rang and Chris picked it up. Several minutes later, he came out of his office and looked toward Ezra’s desk. Buck caught his eye and asked a silent question.

“That was Mr. Biedler. He said Vin hasn’t turned in any of his spelling or writing assignments for the last two weeks. I was just wondering if Ezra knew anything about it.”

“I thought you said he was doing it on his own,” Buck defended of the southerner.

“Yeah, but I’m just wondering what happened between them to cause Ezra to stop helping him with it. Vin was doing so much better since Ezra began working with him.”

Just then, the person in question returned to the office with a folder under his arm. He hung up his coat and turned to face the two men. Seeing them staring at him so intently, he glanced down at his clothing to see if he had picked up something unaware.

“What? Is something amiss?” Ezra asked as he dropped the file on the desk.

“No, I just got a call from the school. Vin hasn’t been turning in his spelling and writing assignments for the past couple of weeks. He told the teacher that you’ve been too busy to help him with it.”

“I have offered, he declined me every time. He said it was getting easier since we’ve been working together and he can do it himself. You know that I would never knowingly abandon that boy in his hour of need,” Ezra defended.

“I’ll have to have a talk with him at home tonight,” Chris said. “Where were you, by the way?”

“I had to go pick up some documents. If the two of you have a minute, I need to show you something in the conference room.”

The team gathered in the conference room and Ezra opened the file folder he had taken from his desk. The certified letter he had gotten earlier slid from the folder and lay prominently on the table.

“Okay, I got some more information on Mr. Wilmington’s former paramour. It seems that her passport was flagged when she returned from Europe. She was suspected of having connection to some rather unsavory characters abroad. Since nine eleven, her name has appeared on the radar again. The JTTF is tailing her, they are the ‘bad men’ Steven mentioned.”

“The Joint Terrorism Task Force is tailing Magda?” Buck asked incredibly.

“I’m afraid so. The FBI has been looking into her finances. They tracked her to Salt Lake City last week. She’s been picked up and is being held in a federal holding facility. I’m sorry Buck,” Ezra apologized as he shifted the papers across the table.

After Buck had looked over the papers, he got up and left the conference room. Chris took up the papers and read over the information Ezra had gathered. He ached for Buck. It was obvious that he had hoped to find Magda and help her in some way. His heart was as big as the great outdoors and he wanted to help everyone he encountered.

“Josiah, get in touch with Travis and see if he can arrange a visit for Buck with Magda. Nathan, arrange transportation for him. Ezra, do you mind going with him? I don’t want him dealing with this on his own,” Chris said before going after Buck. He found him in the restroom, cradling bloody knuckles.

“What am I going to tell Steven?” Buck asked, his voice tight with pain.

“Aw, Buck,” Chris said as he pulled a handful of paper towels and wrapped them around the bloody hand before pulling the taller man to him. He felt Buck shudder as he fought to hold back the frustrated tears.

By the time Buck had pulled himself together, the others had completed their assigned tasks. Ezra had left to pack a bag and Nathan had arranged tickets and a rental car. Josiah sat next to Judge Travis in the conference room. He had explained the situation to the older man and saw from his expression that he had already known. He watched dispassionately as Nathan cleaned and bandaged the self-inflicted damage to Buck’s hand.

“Now, Mr. Wilmington, I know this has come as a shock to you but I must caution you, Steven’s mother is in a lot of trouble. You really don’t want to give the appearance of any kind of relationship with her. I realize that you can’t help sharing the child but if you go in there trying to rescue her, it will look very bad for you,” Travis said.

“I’m not going for her, sir, I’m going for our son. He loves her. I just need to know that she’s all right and see if I can arrange a visit or a phone call for Steven,” Buck said, meeting the man’s eye.

“The soonest flight leaves at ten tonight. Why don’t we head out to the ranch for a couple of hours and explain this to the boys? You’ll want to see them before you go,” Chris suggested.

On the drive out to the ranch, Buck was quiet. Of all the possible reasons for Magda’s sudden disappearance, this was not one he could have come up with. Poor Steven, how was he going to tell the boy that his mother was in a federal holding area? What was he going to tell JD? Here it was two days before Christmas and he was leaving the child! He hadn’t even thought to ask when the return flight was.

“What are we going to tell the boys?” Chris asked as they reached the foot of the driveway.

“The truth. That I’m going to see Steven’s mother. He doesn’t need to know that she’s in jail.”

“How are you going to explain that she can’t come see him?”

“I don’t know, Chris, I just don’t know.”

At the house, the boys were surprised to see their fathers home so early. Chris took Vin with him to discuss the spelling homework while Buck spoke to his sons. Buck motioned both boys into his room and sat them on the bed, side by side.

“There’s something I need to tell both of you. I have to leave tonight, I’ll be back tomorrow night. I want you both to mind Chris and be good. I have it on good authority that Santa will be bringing you a sleighful of toys apiece.”

“Da? You can’t go! It’s almost Christmas!” JD protested.

“I’m sorry, Little Bit. I promise, I’ll be home tomorrow evening. I have something important to do. I need you to be a good boy for Chris. Can you do that for me? Can you be good for Chris?”

JD threw his arms around Buck’s neck and burst into tears. “I’ll be good! Don’t go, Da!”

“I have to, JD. I’ll be back. I promise. Now, can you go see what Mrs. Potter has whipped up for supper while I talk to Steven for a minute?” Buck tipped JD’s face up and stared into the wide, dark eyes that were awash with tears. When JD nodded, he set him down and patted his shoulder.

“You found my mom, didn’t you?” Steven asked.

“Yes, son, I know where she is. I’m going to see her.”

“Take me with you! I’ll be good! Please take me with you!” Steven begged as he clenched his hands in the lapels of his father’s suit coat.

“I can’t do that, son. They will only let me see her. I’ll let her know that you miss her and you love her but …”

“She’s dead isn’t she? You’re lying to me! She’s dead! She’s dead and you aren’t telling me!” Steven’s voice rose to a hysterical pitch as he sobbed and struck Buck’s chest with his clenched fists.

Buck let the boy sob out the worst of his anguish before he took hold of him and sank to the bed. He cradled Steven like a baby in his arms as he rocked him.

In the other room, a very serious Vin Tanner stared at an equally serious Chris Larabee. The little Texan knew that something serious was happening and he waited for the blond to tell him.

“I got a call from your teacher this morning,” Chris began.

“Oh,” Vin said as his chin dropped to his chest.

“He said you haven’t been doing your spelling and writing assignments. You told him that your Uncle was too busy to help you with it and you told Ezra that you didn’t need his help anymore.”

“M’ sorry, dad.”

“I’m afraid I need more than an apology, son. I need an explanation.”

“Uncle Ezra’s been spendin’ all his time with Steven. I figger’d he didn’t want to help me no more. I been study’n on it but I ain’t any good at it,” Vin mumbled.

“Oh Vin! Ezra was trying to help Buck find out more about Steven’s mom. He said he offered to help you with your homework.”

“I told him I didn’t need any help. Is he mad at me?”

“No, worried about you. Vin, I know all of this has been hard for both you and JD but Steven needs us too. He’s got some really hard times coming. I don’t think he’s ever been away from his mom at Christmas before,” Chris said as he sat down and draped an arm around the boy. Just then, Steven’s hysterical cries began and JD threw open the door and ran to Vin. “Stay right here, I’ll be back,” Chris said as he rushed from the room and up the hall. He met Mrs. Potter coming toward him, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.

Opening the door to Buck’s room, Chris saw Buck rocking Steven as the tears rolled down his cheeks. He had heard the last of the boy’s tirade. Steven’s hands were still clenched in Buck’s coat as he sobbed. Chris moved to sit on the bed and ran his hand over the boy’s head.

“She’s not dead, Steven. I know you may not believe it, but your father is telling you the truth. Your mom is in some trouble. Buck is going to see if he can help her.”

Ezra didn’t bother to knock when he reached the ranch. He found Mrs. Potter in the kitchen and she filled him in on what had been going on since the men arrived. He headed for Chris’s room to talk to Vin.

JD clung to Vin and sobbed. He begged for his Da not to leave. Vin held back the tears that stung in his eyes until he saw the person standing in the doorway.

“Uncle Ezra?” he whispered softly. JD lifted his head and flung out one arm, crying for his uncle to comfort him. Ezra crossed to the boys and dropped to his knees, gathering both of them into his arms. On one shoulder, JD sobbed for his Da not to leave him and on the other, Vin sobbed that he was sorry. Over and over, the little Texan apologized to his beloved uncle.

It took a couple of hours to get the boys calmed down. Chris and Buck finally managed to convince Steven that his mother was alive while Ezra convinced JD that he would bring his father home in time for Christmas if they had to borrow a bicycle. That drew a smile from JD as he tried to picture his dad and Uncle Ezra peddling bicycles through the snow. Ezra also assured Vin that he would resume helping with his spelling and writing as soon as the winter break was over.

They had supper together before Ezra said they needed to head for the airport. JD clung to his father and promised to be good. Steven handed off an envelope that contained the letter he had written to his mom. He embraced Buck and then Ezra before stepping back next to JD. The little brunet snaked an arm around Steven and smiled gamely.

Buck was subdued on the drive to the airport. In the back of his mind, he had almost wished they wouldn’t find Magda. Now that they had found her, he regretted his wish. It would make things harder for Steven if his mother went to prison.

Ezra didn’t say anything on the way to the airport; he knew that Buck had enough on his mind. He knew that Chris had sent him along to ride herd on the older man and hoped that his southern charm could keep him under control. When they reached the airport, Ezra nudged Buck and popped the trunk so they could collect their overnight bags. They made their way to the terminal and then to their gate. They had a brief flight out, followed by a long day and another flight back and then it would be Christmas. He hoped it would all work out for them.

#6: Happily Ever After?