Author's Notes: Thanks to LaraMee, for giving the boys Elvis and Ringo, and to all of the wonderful Little Britches writers out there.
Buck would be the first to admit to the fact that when it came to what he called 'book learning,' there were some areas in which he was decidedly deficient. He'd been an indifferent student in school. When it came to those subjects that interested him like math and science, he'd devoted the necessary time and effort to perform at an 'A' or 'B' grade level. For those subjects that he found boring, like English, he had accomplished the bare minimum required to pass the course. He and his mother had had many a long discussion on the subject.
"Buck, just knowing how to read and write isn't enough to get ahead in this world. I want more for you in this life than a career as a bouncer or a bartender."
Buck countered with his own argument. "You're always talkin' about how we should make the best of what we got, and enjoy it while we're doing it. I can tell you right now, I don't see how anyone can enjoy diagramming sentences or stringin' fancy words together and calling 'em a poem."
"Buck, those fancy words and poems are what writers use when they put together the lyrics for some of your favorite songs. Think about it like this. When you're working on an engine, in order to get it running, you've got to understand the individual parts that make up the whole. It's the same with the English language."
Buck smiled. "Nice try, Ma, but I ain't buyin' what you're selling. English has about as much to do with engines as science does with religion."
His Ma had tried over the years, but she'd never managed to convince Buck of the value of applying himself to all of his schoolwork. Now that Buck had two boys of his own, he could finally see the point of her argument. It was hard to teach your kids good study habits when you didn't experience them first-hand.
Buck sighed. His current circumstances gave him too much time to think. He and his partner, Chris, were currently sharing space in Chris' SUV. Since young Vin and JD had entered their lives, more often than not the two men drove to and from work together.
Usually, Chris insisted on driving. He'd argued, "I've been driving since I was fourteen years old. I'm not saying you're a bad driver."
Buck's "Thank you for that," held little sincerity as Chris continued. "It's just that I'm better."
Buck disagreed. "Driving your Uncle's farm equipment is a far cry from dealing with city traffic. You just think you drive better. You poke along following all the speed limit and traffic signs like some little old lady. I, on the other hand, drive at a safe and reasonable speed and keep up with the traffic on the road. Nobody is better than me at ducking and weaving to get through rush hour traffic." He added, "It wasn't me who wrecked our police cruiser when we were working for the Denver PD."
Chris angrily reminded Buck, "That wasn't my fault! The perp we were chasing lost control of his stolen vehicle, and you damn well know it."
Buck raised his eyebrows, disbelief written on his face as he falsely agreed, "Sure, Chris, whatever you say."
Buck had remained silent while Chris maneuvered them through the rush hour traffic in the city. He knew that his friend did not want to be distracted with conversation when he needed all of his concentration focused on the kamikaze idiot drivers who invariably made up part of the rush hour crowd.
Some people accused Buck of not knowing when to shut up. It wasn't true. Sometimes he liked to talk for the pure joy of getting a reaction from his listener, even if the reaction was a negative one. Most times, he liked to talk in order to practice what he considered one of his best skills. He had a real way with words, even if they weren't always the right words. Time and time again, Buck would watch his friend Chris stewing silently over some injustice or insult. Rather than let the man sit there and get angrier and angrier to the point that he was either going to blow up or give himself an ulcer, Buck would voice some inane comment or joke. It seemed that the worse the joke, the easier it was to get Chris to focus on Buck and off of whatever happened to be troubling him. Before long, Chris' tension would ease and Buck would notice the grin Chris couldn't quite hide.
Now that they'd left the stress of the city behind, Buck judged it was time to break his self-imposed silence. He could see the tension evident in his friend's body language: the tense shoulders, the narrowed eyes, the fingers wrapped tightly around the steering wheel.
Buck shared the subject of his musings. "Hey Chris, I finally figured out that my Ma was right." Buck leaned back, a slight smile upon his face as he waited for Chris to take the bait. He wasn't disappointed.
Chris' shoulders relaxed fractionally as he responded, "Right about what?"
"About the importance of doing what teachers wanted."
Chris responded with the hint of a smile lurking upon his face. He knew the truth of his next words but decided to say them anyway. "You mean you weren't the teacher's pet?"
Buck laughed. "Not hardly. Actually, I see Vin and think of myself. That boy finds school a pure trial some days and he wonders, 'Why do it?' And I understand exactly where he's coming from. I don't have the words to really convince him why. I don't have the words for a lot of things I might want to say, and that's a damn shame. The thing of it is, I remember my Ma trying to convince me that I should put more effort into studying English. She sure used a lot of words talking about it over the years, but Ma never did manage to persuade me to spend more than the absolute bare minimum of time on studying. I don't think I ever got better than a 'C' in the subject after second or third grade. Once I knew the basics of reading and writing, in my ignorant little kid's brain I figured that was all I really needed to know. It's taken me a lot longer than it should have to realize that I was wrong and my Ma was right." He sighed. "I sure hope it don't take Vin as long to figure out."
Buck was pleased to note Chris' grip on the steering wheel loosen as he smiled and half-turned to reply. "Don't worry. I got a feeling Vin is a lot smarter than you were when you were his age."
Buck smiled in return. "I don't doubt it." He added, "He's probably smarter than the both of us." His smile disappeared as he began to remember. "When I think of everything that little guy went through before we took him in, I still don't know how he managed to survive. I just thank God that he did."
Chris nodded. "Amen to that."
The little bit of tension that Chris had managed to eliminate came back immediately when he exited the main highway and turned onto the two-lane road that was the only route open to the turnoff for the ranch. Chris cursed as traffic began to slow. "What the hell? Damn, I knew I should've moved when they put in that new subdivision. There used to be no such thing as traffic out here, and now look!"
Buck replied, "Well, I'll agree that when you first moved out here this was all undeveloped country. But you gotta admit, with two young boys, it's better to be living near a subdivision with school friends and a playground that you don't have to do an hour's worth of driving to get to, rather than bein' back beyond of nowhere."
Chris was currently in no mood to agree. "You're just saying that because you're a city boy at heart."
Buck teasingly warned, "Your next words better not be: 'Thank God I'm a country boy.'"
Chris cursed again as they entered a series of switchbacks and the speed of the vehicles on the road dropped to ten miles below the posted thirty-five mile per hour speed limit. Buck offered, "I'll drive if it's startin' to get to you."
Chris declined the offer. "No thanks. I'd like for us to make it home in one piece." Chris silently fumed as the cars on the road continued to slow until they came to a stop. He beat a fisted hand on the steering wheel in frustration, just stopping himself from futilely pounding on the horn.
With nothing better to do, Buck stated the obvious. "I expect there must be some kind of accident up ahead." The way the road curved, they were unable to see beyond a few feet as the gravel-covered surface rose out of sight.
It was in neither man's nature to remain idle in the face of a possible crisis, so when Buck reached for the door handle and stated, "Guess I better see if I can find out what's going on," Chris was right behind him.
They had just walked past the car in front of them when the driver of the second car forward in line waved and pointed to his cell phone in greeting. The friendly stranger explained, "You're never gonna believe what the holdup is. My wife is up ahead in her car, and she says a couple of idiot dogs are out there playing in the middle of the road."
Chris and Buck exchanged silent looks. Buck voiced what they were thinking, "You don't think . . .?"
Chris shook his head. "No. Absolutely not." He silently added, It better not be.
Buck pulled out his cell phone, waving it in the air as he spoke. "I could call home and check?"
Chris continued walking. "In the time it takes you to call, we can probably walk up to the damn dogs."
Buck replaced his cell phone. "Yeah. You're right. Even if they're not. . . I mean, I know they're not our dogs, but maybe we can help round 'em up."
Chris and Buck rounded the next bend in the road and came upon a scene of utter chaos. Half a dozen people were out of their vehicles and out on the road, trying to chase down two rambunctious dogs. The men's worse fears proved to be all too real: the dogs causing all the trouble belonged to none other than Chris and Buck.
Chris had just opened his mouth to call angrily after the dogs when one of the good Samaritans hurried to join him. The man panted, "I hope you're here to help." He fanned a hand at his sweating face. "Whew! I need a minute to catch my breath after chasing after those two dogs. My car's at the front of the line. I'm the one who stopped traffic, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat to save those dogs. I nearly wasn't able to stop in time. I almost ran over the littlest one. Some people shouldn't be allowed to own pets. What kind of an idiot leaves their dogs to run loose in the street?"
The man was startled when Buck reached out a hand to clap Chris on the shoulder. "This kind of an idiot. Come on, Chris, let's go round up our dogs." He turned to the good Samaritan to add, "I swear, Mister, those dogs should've been penned up right and tight at home. I don't have any idea how they could've gotten loose."
Chris interrupted, "Buck, let's get a move on. . ." Chris paused to survey the chaos of cars and people surrounding them courtesy of two furry four-footed terrors named Ringo and Elvis. He rolled his eyes heavenward in a silent prayer for an extra measure of patience as he concluded, ". . . so we can get this mess cleaned up."
While Chris silently fumed, Buck couldn't help but smile at the behavior of both the dogs and the people. Ringo and Elvis seemed to consider the frantic activity going on around them to be some sort of extended game of tag. Ringo, in particular, seemed to delight in seeing how close he could lure one of the strangers. When he judged his pursuer to be nearly at arms-length, the Malamute would suddenly dart out from under the reaching hands, tongue hanging out of his mouth as he displayed a doggie grin that to Buck seemed to say, "Nyah, nyah, you can't catch me!"
Chris was in no mood to see the humorous side of the situation. It was just as well. All it took was Chris' forbidding presence and his shout of, "Ringo! Elvis! Heel!" for both dogs to come running. They took one look at Chris and began to slink forward, bellies downward, tails tucked between their hind legs, eyes mutely declaring submission and begging for forgiveness.
Chris scolded, "Bad dog!" as he wrapped his fingers securely through Ringo's collar, letting the dog know that he was in the doghouse with his Master. Chris had to make a conscious effort to relax his grip so that he would not strangle the beast.
Buck did not have a similar problem. It was in his nature to be slow to anger and quick to forgive. The dark-haired man did appreciate Chris' verbal scolding. It reminded Buck that he needed to do the same. He declared, "Bad dog! Heel!" as he retrieved Elvis. Even though he knew that the dog would not leave his side once he'd been ordered to heel, Buck removed his belt and looped it through the Golden Retriever's collar, creating a makeshift leash. He figured that the stranded motorists watching them would appreciate the gesture. Buck waved a friendly hand at the would-be rescuers, saying, "Thanks, all of you. There's gonna be two little boys pretty happy to see their dogs when we get home. Thank you. Thanks, all of you. Trust me, it won't happen again."
Chris was totally humiliated by the fact that he and Buck now had to parade past the line of waiting cars, silently declaring themselves to be the owners of the dogs who'd caused all the trouble. Chris dealt with the crowd of people by trying to ignore them all. He kept his eyes fixed forward, never once turning to acknowledge the onlookers.
As if to make up for his friend's rude behavior, Buck spent his time on the walk back nodding his head toward the onlookers, a steady stream of apologies flowing from his lips. "Sorry. Sorry about all this. So sorry. Thanks for your patience. Sorry."
Knowing that they were only five minutes from home, Buck gave Chris what little time and space he could to rein in his temper. When they returned to the truck, Buck headed for the rear seat, stating, "I'll sit in back with the pups."
Chris was more than happy to hand Ringo over to his friend. He didn't want to have to look at the liquid blue eyes begging for forgiveness. He had too good of a mad on. He cursed. "Damn stupid dogs. Damn it!" He fumed as traffic proceeded to move. "Whose idea was it to get the dogs in the first place? You'd think one would be bad enough. But two?"
Buck almost reminded Chris that it was the Team Seven leader himself who'd lobbied Buck to add the dogs to their extended family. He kept quiet, knowing that anything he said right now would just give Chris an excuse to explode.
Buck turned his attention to his chastened seatmates. Ringo was slumped along the floorboards, uncharacteristically still, a silent picture of depression. Elvis shared the seat with Buck. The Retriever would intermittently squeak out a pitiful request for forgiveness which Buck forced himself to ignore. The end result was that the damn dog was beginning to make Buck feel like the world's biggest monster. Elvis butted his head against Buck's hand, pleading for forgiveness in the form of a pat on the head. Buck shoved Elvis away, reminding himself that the dog needed some time to contemplate what he'd done. The stupid animals could have been killed, or caused an accident bad enough to cause someone's injury or death. Buck stiffened his resolve and turned away from Elvis' soft brown eyes and pathetic whimpers.
Buck remembered back to when Chris had first brought up the idea of getting the boys a dog or two.
His oldest friend began to speak, trying and failing to seem casual. "Now that the boys have settled in, I've been thinking about adding to the family."
Buck's curiosity was immediately aroused. It wasn't like Chris to beat around the bush instead of coming straight to the point. Buck figured that, whatever this was about, it was important to Chris so he gave his friend his full attention.
Chris continued, "I'd like to get them each a dog. With Christmas just around the corner, I can't think of a better present. Not to mention the fact that the boys need all the love they can get." Chris' gaze drifted away from Buck to focus on nothing in particular, his expression growing sad. He sighed. "God knows Vin doesn't need the lesson in responsibility that some folks use to rationalize dog ownership."
Chris' words reminded Buck how Vin had freely taken the job on his too-young shoulders of caring for both himself and JD, when both were forced to fend for themselves on the streets.
Chris continued, "I had a dog when I was growing up, and it's one of the happiest things I remember from my childhood. To this day, I miss Old Yeller." Chris turned a stern eye on Buck and admonished, "And don't you start in on my choice of names. I wasn't the only kid who loved that movie. Besides, I seem to recall a certain kid whose initials were B.W. who named a couple of pet frogs Hip and Itty-Hop, so I would think you'd be the last person to criticize."
Buck held a hand to his chest, trying and failing to look innocent. "Now, Chris, would I make fun of someone just because they called their dog after some brave, heroic, make-believe movie mutt? It's not my fault Hip ran away and left me with a frog named Itty-Hop." He wiped away a make-believe tear. "I still miss ol' Hip."
Buck smiled, his grin so wide that Chris couldn't help but smile in return. "After taking on the care and feeding of two small boys, two dogs should be a piece of cake."
After dwelling on past events, Buck ruefully recalled his words in the present day. He decided to share them. "Hey, Chris, remember when I said that taking care of two dogs would be a piece of cake?"
Chris frowned. "You said that?" Buck watched as his friend's frown faded, finally giving way to a half-smile as he remembered his long-ago conversation with Buck. He said, "Yeah, I guess you did." He shook his head, letting his half smile-become a full-out grin as he stated, "And I guess I'm the damn stupid idiot who thought that two dogs would be better than one." He relaxed as he turned onto the winding road that led to the ranch. He remembered the awe-struck, grateful expressions Vin and JD had worn the Christmas day they'd received their dogs. He recalled days of rough-and-tumble friendly play between boys and dogs, the tugs of war, the endless games of fetch, all accompanied by two deliriously happy little boys. "And you know what?"
"I don't regret it." Both men knew the truth of his words.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch. . .
Gloria Potter was doing her best to console two very upset little boys. A typical day had turned into a potentially disastrous one. Gloria had allowed the boys to conduct a limited search for their missing dogs, but had forbidden a more extensive hunt. She'd cautioned, "I don't need you boys running off, too, and leaving me to deal with your fathers. In my experience, dogs are pretty good at finding their way home. When they get tired and hungry enough, they'll turn up; you wait and see." Gloria silently prayed, Please turn up.
JD's eyes filled with tears. He could all too easily imagine himself in the dogs' place: lost and alone. He stared out the window, overwhelmed by the vastness of the world out-of-doors. His words were choked by sobs as he stated his greatest fear. "What if they never find their way home?"
Gloria wished with all of her heart that she could make the dogs appear for the boys' sake. The poor things had been through so much already in their short lives. It was inconceivable that fate would be so cruel as to allow something to happen to their beloved pets. She tried to reassure herself as well as the boys with her words. "They'll turn up. You've just got to give them a little time."
JD stated, "They've been gone forever. I think we need to call Da. Can we, please?"
Gloria shook her head. "No, dear, your father is probably on his way home. It won't do him any good to be worrying about the dogs while he's trying to drive. If the dogs haven't returned by the time your fathers get home, they're good enough detectives that I'm sure they'll come up with something."
JD boldly corrected his caretaker. "They ain't detectives, they're ATF agents."
Vin disagreed. "They is, too. Part 'a their job is detectin'."
JD crossly replied, "You don't know anything. You still think it was me that left the gate open, and I know it wasn't so it had to be you!"
Vin angrily pushed his brother away. "I didn't do it! You did! It's all your fault!"
Gloria stepped in between the two upset boys. "Now, boys, fighting isn't going to solve anything. It doesn't matter whose fault it was."
Vin shook his head, tears gathering in his eyes. He declared, "It matters to me."
JD yelled, "It matters to me, too. I hate you!" then turned and ran out of the room.
The fight went out of Vin as he quietly declared, "It's not my fault. It can't be."
Gloria hugged the distraught child. "Oh, Vin, I'm almost positive they'll be all right." She sat down, pulling Vin up onto her lap. She continued, "After all, those dogs stick together like you and JD. They'll look out for each other."
Vin's eyes sadly turned to follow the path his brother had taken when he'd angrily left the room. He sniffed. "Hope they do a better job 'n me and JD."
Gloria rubbed a comforting hand gently along Vin's tense back. "Oh, honey, JD didn't mean what he said. He's just upset. So am I. If you don't mind, I think I need a good cuddle." Vin nodded his head where it leaned on Gloria's shoulder, glad to have something to do as he returned her hug with one of his own.
Vin once again reviewed the events from earlier in the day in his mind. When he and JD had returned home from school, they'd followed their usual after-school routine: they'd freed the dogs from their pen. Both boys and dogs played together, happy to be freed from their confinement.
The time flew by quickly and before they knew it, Mrs. Potter called to them. "Boys! Your TV show's on!" The boys had been watching the promos for their favorite show for the past week, anticipating today's promised new episode.
They hurried to confine the dogs to the dog run. Vin checked the door from the outside while JD was inside with the dogs, presumably checking the door on his side. Vin had done a quick check before hurrying into the house. Try as he might, he couldn't remember accurately enough to be absolutely, one hundred percent certain that the door had been securely latched.
At five o'clock, the program ended and JD announced, "I'm gonna go get Elvis."
Vin jumped up, the enthusiasm evidence in his voice and step. "And I'm gonna get Ringo!"
Both boys stood shocked when they arrived at the dog run: the door was wide open, and the dogs were nowhere to be found.
Earlier. . .
Ringo was not happy at finding himself once again confined. It seemed like he had only just been released from his pen and now here he was, stuck in the dog run. He missed his boy. He paced the length of the fenced-in space, reflecting that he was bored, bored bored!
His attention was drawn to his companion by an inquisitive "Woof!" He joined Elvis, who was intently watching a distant object. Ringo gave a bark of disapproval when he followed Elvis' line of sight to find the intruder on their property. It was a rabbit!
Elvis whined and began pawing at the fence, hoping to find a weak spot and thus gain his freedom. Ringo headed to the gate and stood on his hind legs, pawing at the latch he had watched being fastened time and time again. He knew that freedom waited just beyond the gated entrance. To his delighted surprise, after a few minutes of work the door suddenly gave way, tumbling him out of the dog run. He gave a happy "Woof!" and ran off in pursuit of the small brown intruder. Elvis followed, the Retriever's instinct giving him the impetus to catch up to and then pass his companion. The rabbit led them on a merry chase before it disappeared into the brush.
The dogs were enjoying their freedom and instead of heading for home, set off down the road to explore their newly expanded territory. They eventually made their way to the gravel road, where they began a spirited game of tag. Much to their delight, cars and people soon joined them in their game. They would have been content to continue to play endlessly were it not for the appearance of a couple of familiar faces and voices. The way Chris shouted, "Ringo! Elvis! Heel!" they knew that he was angry. They didn't really know what he was angry about, but did their best to let him know that they were truly sorry. It didn't seem to matter. Even Buck, usually the less stern of their owners, failed to display any affection toward the dogs. They were heartbroken.
Chris drove up to the house, glad to be off the road and done driving for the day. He was curious to find out if the boys knew that the dogs had escaped. He was not long in finding out. Vin and JD had left the house when the SUV pulled up the drive. Once the vehicle came to a complete stop, they ran toward it at top speed. The shouts of "Ringo! Elvis! You found them!" told Chris all that he needed to know.
He watched as the boys and dogs interacted, the dogs dancing in their excitement as they bestowed kisses on their small companions, happy to find that they were still loved. They let the boys know that the message was received and returned tenfold. Ringo stood to put his paws on Vin's shoulders, the increase in height making it easier to lick his boy's face. Vin's steps wavered under the sudden onslaught, the result being that both boy and dog tumbled onto the ground. Chris was saddened by the sight of Vin's blotchy face with its tell-tale evidence of tears having been shed. Despite his happiness at being reunited with his dog, there was still an air of dejection surrounding the boy. Chris announced, "Let's take this party inside. I think we all have something we need to discuss."
Mrs. Potter said her goodbyes as the reunited family settled down. They gathered around the kitchen table, the dogs sticking close to their boys. Chris had the attention of everyone in the room so that he did not have to raise his voice; not that he had any desire to do so. In the face of Vin's depression, Chris had let go of the last of his anger. He quietly asked, "How did the dogs get out?"
JD looked down at the table as he answered, "I dunno."
Chris turned to his other son. "Vin?" His only answer was a silent shrug.
Buck stated, "Somebody must know something."
JD looked up into his father's eyes. "Da, I'm sorry. Me and Vin had to hurry to watch our show. Today was the day they finally, finally started the new shows and we had to hurry or we was gonna miss it so we put the dogs in the dog run, and I thought I was pretty sure the door was shut really, really good, but now maybe I'm not so sure 'cause Vin wouldn't lie." He turned to his brother. "Vin, I'm sorry I said I hate you."
Vin shrugged. "S'okay."
Despite Vin's dismissal, JD could see that his earlier words had hurt his brother. He got out of his seat so that he could wrap both arms around Vin. He gave his brother a quick hug as he apologized. "It was a mean thing to say, an' I'm sorry I said it, but I was worried and scared but it's okay now 'cause Miz Potter was right and the dogs came back even if Da had to bring 'em back."
Vin sighed. "It's okay, JD, maybe I didn't check the door so good myself." JD didn't seem as if he was going to return to his own seat anytime soon, so Vin scooted over to allow both boys to share the same chair. JD took him up on his silent offer.
The dark-haired boy turned toward his father. "Da, how did you bring back Elvis and Ringo when you didn't even know they was missing? I wanted to call and tell you but Miz Potter wouldn't let me."
Both boys turned their full attention on Buck, curious to know the answer to JD's question. Chris was glad it was Buck who'd have to answer and not himself. How do you explain to someone that their carelessness nearly ended up getting their dogs killed?
Buck knew how close the dogs had come to getting themselves run over. He figured letting the boys know about it would make them extra careful in the future; however, he didn't want them to have nightmares about it. He silently cursed, Damn! This fatherhood business ain't easy. Aloud, he said, "Darn fool dogs thought it would be fun to play in the road. Lucky for them, the cars on the road saw 'em in time to stop so they didn't get run over."
"I know how scared you boys must've been when you found out the dogs were missing." Buck silently apologized, And I'm sorry I couldn't be here to help you look. "And I also know that from now on you'll double check to see that the dogs can't get out of wherever you put 'em." He looked to Chris for confirmation of his next words and received a nod as he spoke, "So I don't think we need to talk anymore about this, unless you all need to."
He turned to the boys, asking each in turn, "You got anything else you want to say? Vin? JD?"
While Vin remained silent, to no one's surprise JD spoke up. "I promise to be really, really, really careful from now on."
Buck nodded, "Alright, then. I believe it's time for dinner." Buck rose to retrieve the casserole Mrs. Potter had prepared.
JD joined his dad, announcing, "I can help."
Chris silently contemplated his son. The boy was punishing himself more than Chris ever would have. The older man smiled fondly, putting out a hand to gently finger-comb Vin's disheveled hair. "You okay?"
Vin nodded, turning a tremulous smile toward Chris. Vin could still feel the place in his heart where he'd hurt at the thought that he might never see the dogs again. Chris pushed his chair back from the table, stating, "How about you come keep me company?"
Vin left his chair for the comfort of his father's arms. They sat in silence, both giving and receiving warmth, reassurance, and above all else, love.
Ringo lay at their feet, content in the presence of his humans as his doggie brain tried to remember just what he'd done to gain his freedom earlier in the day. His tail thumped the ground in a slow wag of happiness, looking forward to the chance to try it again.