Many thanks to Pam for her speedy quick beta effort. This poor story could have been stuck in my computer for a long time if it wasn't for her.
A coyote called in the distance and Elvis tipped his nose into the air and gave a high-pitched puppy howl. The man's hand came down and rubbed between his ears. It was good when the man touched him and his tail thumped quicker on the deck.
"Come on, let's get you in your pen for the night," Buck said as he came to his feet. The pup obediently followed the man to the pen and went inside. He turned around and put his paws up on the chain link fencing and poked his nose through to try to lick the man's hand.
After latching the gate, Buck headed for the house. The sliding door was ajar and he closed it behind him. His friend Chris was kicked back in his recliner, the latest Grishom novel in his hands. The boys were staying overnight with Nathan and Rain, who had Rain's niece Lisa for the weekend. It was hauntingly quiet in the sprawling ranch house.
"I miss them," Buck said as he dropped into the other recliner.
Chris looked up from page 56, the same page 56 he had been staring at for the past 45 minutes. After all that time, he still couldn't remember what was printed there. Sighing, he reached for the bookmark; the one with the boy's picture laminated in the middle, and closed the book.
"How did we ever get along without them?"
"I don't know. You want a beer?" Buck asked.
"Nah, I'm going down to the barn and check on the horses," Chris said as he put the chair upright and reached for his boots. The boys had gone on Friday evening to the roller rink with Rain and Lisa and right to Nathan's afterward, they hadn't even seen them since leaving for work that morning. While the idea of having a night to party and carouse like they used to sounded really good in the beginning, neither man went out that night. Like an old married couple, they had done the same thing they always did, came home and did their chores and then tumbled into their beds. Buck woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, bolting down the hall to check on the boys before he remembered that they were not at home.
Sunday morning saw both men up at daylight. Buck was nervously doing the laundry while Chris had started cleaning the tack for the horses, anything to fill the time until ten when they could go get the boys. By eight o'clock, they were both staring at the truck.
"Aw, hell, let's just go get them and get it over with," Chris said as he grabbed his keys and jacket. It was turning cooler and the sky was decidedly gray. Buck laughed as he grabbed his coat and locked the back door.
"You don't have to bend my arm, let's go!"
Nathan opened the door and chuckled, "I didn't figure you'd hold out this long. I guess I owe Ezra that twenty after all."
"You bet on what time we would come to get the boys?" Chris asked as he entered the house.
"Yeah, well, Josiah didn't think you'd make it to Saturday evening. I figured you'd at least come by yesterday afternoon to check on them," the team medic said.
"Dad!" Vin yelled, seeing the men walk past the kitchen door. He leapt out of his chair and ran to shimmy up the blond. From the other direction, the bathroom door slammed and another set of little feet pounded on the hardwood floor.
"Da! I missed you so much and we went roller skating and then we had pizza and on Saturday morning, we went to the museum and then to the park and we feeded the ducks and the fishes and we had cotton candy and Lisa and me played on the playground and "
"Breathe, Little Bit," Buck said as he squeezed the rambunctious bundle of energy in his arms. "Leave something for Vin to tell."
Rain came out, wiping her hands on her apron. "Well, you might as well stay for breakfast since you're here."
"Yeah, Aunt Rain's makin' Mickey Mouse pancakes for us!" Vin added. "They's Lisa's favorites!"
Everyone migrated back into the kitchen and sat down, each man with a child in his lap. Lisa White Crow was Rain's only niece and she and Nathan both doted on her. Growing up in a neighborhood where she was practically the only girl, she was used to the rough and tumble play of boys and had little use for dolls and such. She had immediately bonded with Vin and JD. Rain put coffee cups on the table for the guys and poured each a cup.
Chris leaned forward to get his coffee and buried his nose in the back of his adopted son's neck. Vin turtled his neck and giggled as he squirmed. The little boy leaned back, sighing contentedly as his dad's arm tightened around his tummy. Nathan smiled. He had watched the child struggling with his separation anxiety the day before. He knew that Vin had picked up the phone a couple of times to call home but had hung up before dialing the last number. He had been very quiet in the evening, clinging to his cat. Now that he was back with Chris, all was right in the world again.
Buck turned JD to facing him on his lap and was listening intently as the boy detailed their weekend, his little feet swinging as he went on and on. JD's separation anxiety wasn't as severe as Vin's because he depended so much on the older boy. Nathan knew that the younger boy had awakened in the night because he found them together in the same bed that morning. Vin reluctantly admitted that JD had called out for his Da.
After stuffing themselves on Rain's pancakes, the boys gathered their things and tidied up the room where they slept. The adults finished another cup of coffee before the men thanked their friends for having the boys over. They would see them again at the ranch that afternoon when the team got together for the football game and bar-b-que. Rain promised to make her potato salad, which the boys loved.
As soon as they arrived home, Vin and JD rushed through the house to renew their acquaintance with the dogs. They ran and played in the yard until called in for lunch.
After lunch, all four of them decided to lay down for a nap. Vin cuddled up on Chris in the recliner and JD sprawled out on Buck's chest on the couch. They slept until Josiah arrived and rang the doorbell a couple of hours later.
"Uncle 'Siah, we stayed two whole nights with Uncle Nathan and Aunt Rain," Vin whispered, so as not to awaken JD.
"You did? Wow, I'll bet you had lots and lots of fun," the profiler said as he handed off the bags of groceries to the older boy. They carried everything into the kitchen and put things away while Vin talked.
Buck closed the door to the boys' room and tiptoed away from it. He had gotten JD back to sleep on his bed and didn't want to wake him too soon. Nathan had confessed that the younger boy hadn't slept well the night before. It also allowed Vin to talk to the adults without having JD interrupting him all the time.
By the time Ezra arrived, JD had awakened and the southerner pasted on a bright smile and listened as the youngster rattled off the play-by-play of the weekend. When JD relayed everything he could remember, Ezra made a point of finding Vin to ask him specific questions about the weekend to give the older boy a chance to talk.
Nathan and Rain arrived with Lisa and the three kids were off, running and rolling in the grass with the dogs. They checked out the tree house and fed dandelions to Buck's gelding for a while. Josiah fired up the grill and put on the meat he had marinated the night before. Ezra and Buck built a bonfire in the big fire pit. They would light it later for the kids to toast marshmallows. Chris saddled one of the ponies and let the children ride in the small corral. Both boys were quite accomplished little riders and Lisa had been taking riding lessons for the past few summers.
It was considerably cooler that evening and the group huddled around the bonfire, relishing its warmth. Josiah started singing and soon, all three of the children were singing along with him. The wind whipped up, carrying sparks away from the fire. The kids were soon huddled up in the arms of the adults, seeking more warmth. The party broke up and the visitors left. Buck pushed the large pieces of unburned wood out of the fire pit with the poker and poured sand over the fire, extinguishing it. Josiah had let the bar-b-que pit burn out when he finished cooking the meat.
Inside of the house, Chris built a fire in the fireplace to warm the family room. The bedrooms had radiant heat baseboard heaters that kept the rooms comfortable. After the boys were bathed, they cuddled up on the couch to watch a short movie before bedtime. Since they had all had a good nap, none of them was particularly tired. When the news came on, Chris woke Buck and they carried the boys to their beds. The blond raked the coals from the fireplace and carefully closed the screen before putting out the lights and heading for his bed.
The sound was the first thing he recognized, the insistent, high-pitched sound roused him from his sleep. The next thing he recognized was the smoke. Thick, choking smoke churned in the air above his bed. Chris broke instantly into a sweat as he realized what was happening. Rolling off of the bed, he pulled on his pants and grabbed his bathrobe. The flames were roaring like a live animal when he stepped out of his room. Holding the sleeve of his robe against his face, he ran for the boys' room. JD was sitting up on his bed, sobbing and coughing. Chris reached onto the top bunk and found the limp form of Vin curled under his blankets. He scooped the boy up and tossed him, blankets and all, over his shoulder before grabbing JD. The younger boy wrapped himself around the blond with his arms and legs as he continued to cry and cough. Chris ran from the bedroom and headed for the living room. The heat nearly staggered him as he struggled for the front door.
Once outside, he ran for the Ram. He thanked Ezra again for insisting he get the keyless entry option on the new vehicle as he opened the door and put both boys inside.
"JD? JD, listen to me! Stay in the truck! Don't get out of the truck! Do you hear me?"
Crying and rubbing his throat, the dark headed child nodded. Chris checked Vin before he went back for Buck. His heart clenched and his blood ran cold when he discovered that the child he'd adopted didn't seem to be breathing. Panic gripped him as he jerked Vin out of the blankets and shook him slightly, screaming his name. Vin gasped and began to cough. Chris hugged him briefly before putting him back in the truck and closing the door.
The smoke alarm roused Buck from his sleep. He fell out of bed and struggled into his pants. Not seeing the reassuring LED numbers on his clock, he figured that the power was out. He checked his door before opening it. The knob was not warm to the touch so he knew that the fire wasn't right outside. The heat had caused the door to swell and it stuck when he tried to open it. When he got the door open, he heard the roar of the fire. An ominous cracking sound had him looking into the living room as one of the ceiling timbers slowly crashed to the floor. It hit the puzzle frame, shattering the plastic sheet on top and collapsing the table completely. In that instant, he realized that he had to get the boys out of the house.
When he reached the boys room, he felt around on the lower bunk and found it empty. Standing, he fought to see as the smoke burned his eyes. Vin's bed was also empty, even his blankets were gone. Fearing that the boys may have hidden, he dropped to the floor and felt under the bed. Next, he crawled to the closet and opened the door. He was in a full out panic when he couldn't find them in the small room. Thinking that they might have gone to Chris's room, he ran back out into the hall.
"Chris! Chris, fire!" Buck screamed as he entered the blond man's room. There was already a thick cloud of smoke in the master bedroom and no sign of the other man.
Chris re-entered the burning house looking for his oldest friend. The family room was fully engulfed in flames, a ceiling timber had fallen and destroyed Vin's puzzle table. The sliding glass doors had shattered, allowing the fire an unlimited amount of oxygen to feed on. He dropped to his knees and crawled to Buck's bedroom door. He found the door stuck and had to stand to throw his shoulder against it. Falling into the room, he crawled to the bed. Buck wasn't there! Fearing that he had gone looking for the boys, he returned to their room. Buck wasn't there either.
Buck tripped over something and fell, striking his forehead on the solid maple bedstead, splitting the skin on his forehead just above his eyebrows. Even as he realized that the substance running down his face was blood, he lost consciousness, falling flat of his face on the floor.
In the cab of the truck, Vin finally managed to stop coughing long enough to look out the windshield. His eyes flew open and he reached for the door handle. JD screamed and wrapped around the older child.
"NO! Chris said to stay in the truck! No matter what happens, we have to stay here!"
"The house is on fire! My dad is in there! Lemme go, JD!" Vin tried to pry the clinging arms from around his chest. Something in the rear view mirror caught his eye, the red flashing lights of the fire truck pulling into the driveway. Several other pieces of emergency equipment followed the big yellow engine. Hope surged in the boys' hearts as they saw the firemen leaping to the ground and pulling on their gear.
In the house, the smoke became darker and thicker. Chris sank to the floor and crawled out of the boys' room. His heart was heavy as he weighed the options. He could get out, ensuring that at least one of them would survive to raise the boys or he could continue to search for Buck and possibly orphan them again. All of the pain and anguish he had felt when he lost his first family was revisited upon him and he reluctantly began to crawl toward the exit. His hands came across something soft and he realized that he had dropped Vin's cat when he carried the boys to safety. Stuffing the cat into his shirt, he sobbed as he crawled to the door. His head was swimming after only a few feet and he blacked out, sprawling on the floor.
Butch Coleman had been a fireman for over ten years. He had seen a lot of fires in a lot of homes. While he adjusted his oxygen tank and other gear, he surveyed the ranch house. Part of the roof had already collapsed, not a good sign. He spotted the outside water spigots and was grateful for the hose he saw connected to one of them. Grabbing one of the others, he pointed out the hose.
"See if that has any pressure and start spraying the roof, I'm going in for survivors."
The policemen who arrived ran for the barn and began to turn the livestock out into the field. The smell of the fire had the horses panicking and a couple were already lathered from their struggles. Another officer ran up to the red Chevy truck and checked to see if it was unlocked. Finding the truck open, he jumped in and put it in neutral. On the slight incline, the truck rolled away from the house.
Inside of the burning house, Butch and his partner stumbled across the unconscious man just inside of the foyer. Hefting him up from the floor and over his shoulder, Coleman carried him out and handed him to the paramedics who were eagerly waiting for patients. They ran back into the burning house and headed for the bedrooms.
Ollie Trebler threw the Chevy into park and got out; running to the big, black Dodge Ram. He tried the door and found it locked. Thinking for a moment that he had protected at least one of the vehicles, he almost turned away. At the last second, he saw movement in the front seat. Two small boys were huddled in blankets, watching the house burn. He tapped on the window with his wedding ring, getting their attention.
"JD, unlock the door, he's a policeman!" Vin said. The younger boy had gotten quite hysterical when Vin tried to get out of the truck and was holding the lock button down. Finally, Vin took hold of JD's wrist and tugged, causing his finger to slip off of the button. A moment later, the policeman opened the driver's side door.
"Hey there, are you all right?" Ollie said as he looked into the two tear streaked faces.
"I want my Da!" JD began to wail. Neither boy had seen them carry Chris from the house.
"The firemen will do everything they can. I need to move the truck. Is that okay?" He edged slowly into the seat and shifted the truck into neutral. He actually had to get back out and throw his weight against the doorframe to get the big truck moving. As soon as it started rolling, he jumped in and steered it down the drive and into the grass near the Chevy. When he put the truck back in park, he addressed the children again. "Is there anyone in the house besides your Da?"
"My dad is in there," Vin answered. "He told us to stay in here and not go out no matter what happened."
"So just your dad and no one else?" Coleman asked again. "Your mom isn't home?"
"JD's ma and my ma are dreaming with the angels. My borned daddy died and we don't know about JD's borned dad. Buck and Chris adopted us," Vin explained.
"Chris and Buck, two men in the house?" the policeman asked again to be certain he understood.
Just then, JD looked out and saw the paramedics moving the stretcher. He threw himself at the passenger door and began to sob. "Chris! Don't let them take Chris away! Vin, they're taking Chris!"
Suddenly, both boys spilled out of the truck and ran across the lawn. The paramedics were surprised at the two small boys who hurled themselves against their legs. They stopped the stretcher and the boys fell upon their patient, crying hysterically. The man was unconscious, overcome by the smoke, and they'd had to put a tube in his throat to help him breathe. The taller of the children gripped one of the man's hands, clinging for all he was worth.
"Where did these children come from?" Lucy Maslowski asked of the cop running toward her.
"They were in the truck. He said his dad put them in the truck and told them to stay there. I think he went back for the other boy's father."
The paramedic grabbed her radio and turned the channel. She relayed that there was at least one other adult in the house. Kneeling down, she pulled the smaller boy off of the legs of the man on the stretcher. The dark haired boy fought, screaming and coughing as she walked toward the ambulance.
"No! No! Don't take me away! Don't take me away! I want my Da!"
Lucy sat down on the bumper and wrapped her arms around the small flailing body. She pulled his head to her shoulder and held him as she spoke soothingly into his ear. "Calm down now, calm down. I'm not taking you away. Can you tell me your name?"
Drawing back from the woman, JD searched her face. Her brown eyes, so much like his own, seemed honest enough and he nodded.
"My name's JD Dunne, and that's Vin Tanner and that's Chris Larabee. Where's my Da?"
Seeing the little boy trying so hard not to cry, she pulled him to her chest and rocked him gently. Her partner looked up at her and then looked meaningfully at their patient. Lifting JD from her lap, she handed him back to the officer who had found them. Two other officers, one of them a female, had returned from turning out the livestock. Lucy caught her eye and nodded toward the other boy.
Vin pleaded with Chris to open his eyes. He understood that the tube in his father's mouth would not allow him to speak but he could at least wake up and look at him. The paramedic lifted something from the side of the stretcher and held it out to him.
"Does this belong to you, son?"
Cat, the first thing Chris had ever given him, the only thing that gave him solace when he was away from his dad lay in the stranger's hand. With shaking hands, Vin reached for the stuffed animal. As soon as his hands closed on it, the policeman scooped him up and carried him toward the police car.
"Noooo! Don't take my dad away! Please!" Vin screamed as he saw them lift the stretcher and put it into the back of the ambulance.
Meriwether Calvert opened the rear door of the police car and slid in with the dark haired boy. Her partner, Ollie forced the other child into the car and slid in behind him. The boy continued to scream and claw at the glass as the ambulance rolled away. When the flashing lights were no longer visible from where he was, the child threw himself at the dark haired boy, clinging to him as he cried inconsolably.
Inside of the house, the firemen found the other man. He had bled considerably and they were trying to ascertain if it was safe to move him. After assuring themselves that he didn't have a broken neck, they gathered him up and hustled out of the house with him. The first ambulance had left with the other man. They carried Buck to a safe distance from the house and put him down in the grass. He was breathing alright on his own so they called for their medic to tend to his head injury until another ambulance could get there.
Meri stroked the back of Vin's head, trying to comfort him. Finally, she thought to ask if he had any other relatives they could call.
"My Uncle Ezra would come get us. Or Uncle Josiah or Uncle Nathan," JD offered helpfully.
"Do you know any of their phone numbers?" she asked hopefully. After a minute to consult with Vin, JD rattled off the number. Pulling her cell phone from her pocket, Meri dialed.
"Mr. Standish? This is Meriwether Calvert of the Denver Police Department," she began.
"Can I talk to Uncle Ezra?" JD asked, reaching for the phone.
"Is that JD? Has something happened?" Ezra asked as he turned on the bedside table lamp.
"Mr. Standish, there has been a fire."
"Oh, dear lord. May I speak to one of the boys?" He heard the phone changing hands.
"Uncle Ezra?" Vin's voice failed him and he handed the phone to JD.
"Vin? Vin? Talk to me, please. Vin?" Ezra clutched the phone so tightly that his hand hurt. What he heard next was a timid, frightened voice.
"Uncle Ezra? The house is on fire and they took Chris away in the am'lance. They got me and Vin in the police car. Are they gonna take us away?"
"JD, listen very carefully to me. I'm on my way. No one is taking you away, I promise. Is Vin alright? He sounded really upset."
"He's really scared. Me too. I haven't seen my Da yet. I want my Da. Please hurry Uncle Ezra," JD begged before he handed the phone back to the lady cop.
"Mr. Standish, the boys are alright. They were in the cab of the black truck when we got here."
"And was young JD correct when he said that Chris was taken away in the ambulance?"
"Yes, he was found down inside of the house. They haven't yet found the other man," Meri said softly as she stroked Vin's back gently.
"Merciful Heaven. I'm on my way. I shall be there in a half hour. Do not take the children from the ranch. Is that clear?"
"We can't release them to anyone but family. Please come as quickly as you can. They will need to be taken to the hospital to be checked out."
The second ambulance arrived. The paramedics rushed to their patient. Although he was breathing on his own, he was unconscious. Skip Martinez checked for his pupil reaction and cursed softly. The man had what appeared to be a massive concussion. His pupils were unequal and sluggish in their reaction. After checking his vitals, Skip started an IV. They put on a cervical collar and rolled the man onto a backboard before lifting him to the stretcher. He attached monitors for recording his heartbeat and oxygen levels. As they were getting ready to load, a small sports car came tearing up the driveway. A man leapt from the car and ran toward the rear of the ambulance.
"Where are the children?"
Skip turned to the man in confusion. "Children?"
"The boys, my nephews, where are they?" Ezra asked again.
"I don't know anything about any children, I'm sorry."
"An Officer Calvert phoned and said that she had my nephews."
An officer rushed up and interrupted him before the southerner could get any more worked up. "The boys are over here in the squad car. Right this way, please."
Vin sat in the middle of the back seat, clutching his cat to his chest. They had brought the blankets from the truck to cover him, hoping their familiarity would be comforting. JD had cried himself to sleep, his little fists wrapped in the officer's coat collar. Officer Trebler had gotten out of the car after finding that he could not comfort the distraught children. He was relieved to be leading someone familiar to the car.
Ezra opened the door of the squad car and knelt against the doorframe. "Vin?" he called softly as he reached in and cupped the back of the boy's head. The child didn't speak; he turned toward the southerner, his face tear streaked and his eyes dull and empty. "Come here, Vin. Let me hold you."
Slowly, the boy moved, crawling across the seat until he could stretch one trembling hand around Ezra's neck. The agent pulled the boy into his arms and stood, leaning against the side of the car as he absorbed the anguish pouring from Vin. He felt the wet tears running down his neck but he was worried at the lack of sound. He wanted the boy to wail and yell, the silence was scary.
"Mr. Standish? They really should be taken to the hospital to be checked out," the female officer said. Hearing her say the name, JD awoke and began crying again.
"Uncle Ezra! I want my Da!"
Ezra shifted Vin to one hip and took JD from the officer. He couldn't possibly walk while carrying both of them but he needed to hold them. After a minute, JD calmed some and the southerner spoke to him.
"JD? Can Officer Calvert hold you for a moment?" As expected, the dark head shook no and the arms tightened around his neck. Trying again, he turned to Vin. "Would you be willing to allow the officer to hold you while I take JD to see Buck before he is taken to the hospital? I can't carry both of you at the same time. As soon as we have seen Buck, we will get in my car and follow the ambulance to the hospital." To his relief, Vin nodded and reached for the officer as she stepped in to help.
Crossing the lawn, Ezra knelt by the gurney. JD sobbed as he reached out and rested his head on his father's chest. The southerner held him tightly to prevent the child from climbing up on the stretcher too. After a moment, he peeled JD off of the stretcher. He nodded to Officer Calvert to let Vin have a moment while he carried JD to the Jag. He didn't have either of the booster seats for the boys but at the moment he wasn't too worried about it. When he finished buckling JD in the back seat, Officer Calvert handed Vin to him. He buckled the older boy in and covered both of them with the blankets.
Suddenly, Vin looked up and his eyes filled with tears again. "What is it, Vin?"
"Elvis and Ringo!"
Officer Calvert looked at him, confused. Ezra explained, "There was a dog pen under the back deck where the dogs were kept. Can you have someone check?" The woman nodded and hurried away. She returned a couple of minutes later; carrying Ringo in her arms while Elvis followed her on a short piece of clothesline.
"I'll take them to the Emergency animal hospital. This guy has a burn on his leg but that one seems to be alright. If you'll give me a phone number I can let them know who to call."
Ezra gave her one of his cards and thanked her profusely for all of her help.
"I hope their dads are alright," she said as she looked into the backseat at the boys, who were clinging to each other.
While following the ambulance, Ezra plugged in his headset to his cell phone and called the rest of the team. Josiah promised that he would be there by the time they arrived. The southerner knew that meant that the profiler would be driving like a maniac and he prayed that there wouldn't be an accident. Nathan said that he would be there as soon as possible and asked after the boys. After looking in the mirror to see that the boys were leaning against each other asleep, he filled the medic in on what he knew.
At the hospital, Ezra struggled to get both boys out of the car. Josiah came to his rescue, running over to take Vin from his arms. The little Texan dissolved into tears again, burying his face in the older man's shoulder. Ezra lifted JD out and wrapped the blanket around him as they hurried into the Emergency room. A nurse from the pediatric ward rushed to their side and ushered them into an examining room. Nathan arrived a couple of minutes later, which was a good thing because neither boy would allow the doctor or the nurse to touch them and their 'Uncles' were unwilling to stress them any further by forcing them. With Nathan, they relaxed enough to allow the doctor to listen to their lungs and look down their throats. They discovered that Vin's throat was pretty raw from the smoke he'd inhaled combined with the screaming he had been doing in the police car. His oxygen saturation was also not what it should have been and they coaxed him into breathing some medicine through a nebulizer machine. JD, because he was on the lower bunk, was not as bad, although he did have a sore throat from crying. Just to be on the safe side, they put him on oxygen for a little while.
While the boys were doing the breathing treatments, Nathan went in search of Chris and Buck. He found out that Chris was in the ICU on a respirator. The doctor was hopeful that he would be fine in a few days. Buck was still in the ER. He had a serious concussion and they were worried about bleeding inside of his skull. They were waiting for the neurosurgeon to evaluate him. The medic grilled the nurses after standing over the ladies man for several minutes.
"Mr. Jackson, are there provisions for the boys in case their fathers' are incapacitated?" the pediatrician asked.
"Yes, we have guardianship papers. The team will take responsibility for them. Are they going to be admitted?"
"No, Vin's oxygen SATS came right back up after the breathing treatment and JD's fine. I'll give each of them a dose of Tylenol for the sore throats and something to help them sleep."
"Can they see their father's before we take them home?"
It was only their long-standing relationship with Team 7 that caused the doctor to pause. He knew that it would be good for the boys to know that their father's were still alive but he was worried about what seeing them in their present conditions would do to the children.
"I know what you're thinking and let me tell you that it will be hundreds of times worse if they don't see them. I can handle the boys afterwards."
"Okay, but only for a minute," the doctor reluctantly agreed.
Josiah and Nathan went into Chris's room. Vin was tightly wrapped in the profiler's arms and shaking with fear. He studied his father for a moment as two enormous tears rolled down his face.
"Does it hurt?" he whispered, looking at the tube down his father's throat.
"No, they gave him some medicine so it doesn't hurt. They'll make sure that he doesn't hurt while he gets better," Nathan assured.
"Can I give him a kiss?"
Josiah carefully supported Vin as he placed a kiss on Chris's forehead. From in between his chest and Josiah's, he drew out his cat and let it down on the bed near his father's hand. Nathan lifted Chris's hand and placed it on the stuffed animal and pressed it down gently. Vin managed a wan smile as he brushed across the cat and Chris's hand before sniffling and burying his face in Josiah's shoulder again.
Ezra continuously stroked JD's back as they stood outside of the ER examining room waiting for the nurses to get Buck presentable. They wanted to wipe away as much of the blood as possible before the boy came in. When they were ready, they opened the door and ushered the two men and the boy in. JD whimpered when he took in the oxygen mask and the turban-like bandage.
"Will he be alright? He won't go dream with the angels like my momma, will he?"
The southerner swallowed hard as his eyes filled with tears. He looked to Nathan to handle that question, he couldn't lie to the boy and he didn't think he could speak around the lump in his throat.
"He took a nasty bump on the head, JD. The doctor is going to do what he can to make him better but he'll have to stay here for a few days."
"Can I stay here with him?"
"No, you're going to go home with one of us and we'll take care of you until you Da gets better. Okay?"
"Can I stay with you, Uncle Ezra?"
Nathan tried not to feel too disappointed that the boy had chosen the southerner as he nodded.
"Then you can stay here and tell the doctors what to do for them, right Uncle Nathan?"
The trust the boy displayed brought tears to Nathan's eyes. It wasn't that JD didn't want to stay with him but that he wanted him here to watch over Buck and Chris. Swiping his tears away with the back of his hand, he leaned over and cupped JD's little face in both hands to kiss his forehead.
"Can I kiss him before I leave?"
Nathan took JD and held him while he pressed his little hands to Buck's cheeks after putting kisses in both palms. He hugged the medic again before reaching for Ezra. In the hall, Josiah announced that he would follow Ezra to his house and stay to help him with the boys.
Back in the car, the boys whispered quietly to each other, comparing notes on what they had been told. By the time they reached the house the southerner had bought, they were nearly asleep again. The sedative the doctor had prescribed was beginning to work. Ezra put both boys in his bed and grabbed blankets for the couch for himself. Josiah offered to take the couch but the southerner would have no part of it, he didn't think he would sleep too much anyway. Not too long after the profiler closed the guestroom door, the animal hospital called. Ringo had some very deep and nasty burns that would need to be treated very carefully for a while but Elvis was alright and he could pick him up any time. He assured them that he would pick up the dog some time after lunch.
The boys slept a few hours before the sedative wore off enough to allow them to dream. Vin was the first to whimper as the images from the night danced across his mind. Ezra knelt beside the bed and soothed the boy back to sleep. Less than an hour later, JD fell out of bed, screaming about the fire and that was the end of any of them getting any sleep. Josiah slipped out and picked up food for all of them, knowing that the southerner wasn't in any shape to cook. He also took a moment to ring Mrs. Potter and let her know what had happened. She immediately offered to keep the boys so that the team could be with Chris and Buck at the hospital. Josiah thanked her and promised that they would keep her in mind.
When they finished eating, the boys asked to go to the hospital to check on their father's. Ezra assured them that Nathan would call when they were up for visitors. Then they asked about the house and the southerner told them that he didn't know about the house. When they asked about the dogs, he could at least give them some good news and some bad news. JD was overjoyed that they were getting Elvis back but Vin burst into tears and ran from the room at hearing that Ringo would have to stay at the vets. While Ezra went to check on Vin, JD went into the guest room and pulled out the clothes they kept there. They were summer clothes and almost entirely inappropriate for the chill in the air but they were also all the boys had at the moment. It took a lot of reasoning and promises and the sacrifice of one of Ezra's pictures of the family to get Vin to agree to get dressed so they could go get Elvis.
The girls at the veterinarian's office were very understanding of the boys. They brought Ringo into an exam room and let Vin and JD pet him and give him a few treats before they took him back to his cage. They found a plastic page protector to put the picture in and taped it to the wall next to the cage so the dog could see it. Elvis, pretty much unfazed by events, leapt around the boys and licked the salty tears from Vin's cheeks, garnering a smile. When they turned the dog into Ezra's yard, he raced around and around for a while before flopping in the shade with his long tongue hanging out. Ezra dug out the toys he kept on hand for the boys and tried to lift their sagging spirits.
Mrs. Potter, bless her heart, showed up at Ezra's house with clothing for the boys. They rushed to the woman, relieved and delighted to see their housekeeper. She lavished attention on them, even to making lunch for them. She offered to read to them and ended up in the big recliner with both boys in her lap. Before she'd completed one chapter of 'Trumpet of the Swan,' they were both asleep.
When the boys were tucked into bed, Gloria touched on the one subject neither man had thought on yet, school.
"Have you contacted the school to let their teachers know?"
Ezra immediately whipped out his address book and looked up the number. He told the school secretary quite honestly that he didn't know when the boys would be back to school. The school counselor told him that the boys needed to return to their routine as soon as possible. She even offered to come over after school and talk to them. He agreed and gave her his address. While the boys were still sleeping, he also called the hospital and talked to Nathan. They were going to try to wean Chris off of the respirator that evening, he had begun to breathe against it. They were pumping Buck full of medication trying to reduce the swelling in his skull. The doctor was worrying about the pressure on the optic nerves. They were keeping him unconscious in a controlled coma.
The boys woke up from their naps and everything came back to them. JD began to collate a list of all the things they'd lost, causing Vin to tell him repeatedly to shut up. When the younger boy failed to stop, Vin shoved him and locked himself in the bathroom. JD, realizing that he had hurt Vin's feelings somehow, began to cry. Ezra and Josiah had their hands full trying to soothe the two boys. They settled for calling the animal hospital and talking to Ringo. Hearing the puppy bark boosted their flagging spirits.
The school counselor arrived with some of their schoolbooks and a list of the lessons they had missed that day. She treated them as if they had only missed the day of school because of some ordinary reason, like an upset stomach, instead of the loss of their home. She acted as if she expected them at school the next day and they responded to her, agreeing that they would stop and see her the next day.
Rain and Lisa came over to see the boys and Ezra and Josiah decided to go out to see the house, mostly on the pretext of checking on the stock. Parking the car near where the police had left the trucks, Ezra and Josiah got out and surveyed the damage.
The house looked like an asteroid had hit it. The roof of the family room had collapsed, taking the kitchen and master bedroom walls with it. The fire had gutted the family room. The back deck had also burned where it touched the house. Josiah looked in the windows of the boys' room. It didn't look too bad from what he could see. The aquarium housing Torkus still sat on the boys' dresser and the turtle was digging in the wood chips that lined the bottom. He also looked into Buck's room and saw that it hadn't been too badly damaged. Chris's room, however, was bad. The police officers had turned the horses into the large field, so Ezra lugged out some fresh hay while he filled the trough. Hearing that the horses were alright would help the boys a lot.
While the southerner was occupied, Josiah carefully picked his way through the burnt out shell and rescued the turtle, tank and all. The boys would be thrilled to see their other pet. It was the least he could do. All night, the profiler had been plagued by the thought that he was somehow responsible for the fire. He had not doused the remaining coals in the bar-be-que pit, letting them burn down instead. What if an ember had fallen to the ground and somehow sparked the fire? Taking one final look around the house, Josiah felt the massive weight of guilt settling on his heart.
Ezra called home to find out what they wanted for supper and yielded to the boys request for McDonald's. After baths, the boys were again tucked into the southerner's bed. He cringed when JD begged for the dog to be allowed to sleep in the room with them. Vin seemed to recognize the nature of the problem when he asked for the blanket from their house. Elvis sniffed the familiar blanket and immediately circled three times and lay down.
A noise awoke Ezra and he lay trying to identify it before getting up. As soon as he figured out that it was softly muffled sobs, he threw off his blanket and padded into his room. On the floor, curled up around the dog, Vin was crying. The southerner knelt down and gathered the child into his arms and took him back to bed.
"I want my dad!" Vin cried as he fisted his hands in Ezra's nightshirt. It was just too much for him, having both Chris and Buck in the hospital and one of the dogs gone. Vin felt like his whole world was crashing down and he was losing everything again. He had dreamed that he and JD had to go back to living in the warehouse.
"I know you're worried about him. Try to get some rest, you have school in the morning." Ezra leaned back against the headboard and settled Vin against his chest. He lightly stroked up and down the boy's back until he fell asleep again.
Both boys were reluctant to go to school but Ezra and Josiah managed to convince them to give it a try. They called the hospital and Nathan told them that the doctor had removed the breathing tube and Chris was resting comfortably. Buck was still in the controlled coma. The medic spoke to both boys and assured them that he was keeping a close watch on their fathers and urged them to go to school. The other two men promised to come and get them if it was too much for them.
The teachers were sympathetic and agreed to be supportive of the boys. JD, with the resilience he had in such abundance, began to tell his classmates about the fire, when he got to the part about their fathers being in the hospital, he began to cry. Vin sat at his table and stared blankly out the windows for a while before putting his head down, no one heard or saw the silent tears.
Opening his eyes, Chris gasped as he struggled to sit up. Nathan grabbed him and bodily returned him to the mattress. When the blond began to cough, the medic rolled him on his side and supported him while ringing for the nurse. After several minutes and a couple of breaths of an inhaler, he was able lay back and look around. The nurse mopped the tears from his face before leaving the room.
"Nathan, Buck and the boys?"
"Ezra and Josiah have the boys, they're fine. Buck's in a room down the hall. He fell and hit his head on something and he has a massive concussion with bleeding inside of his skull. The doctor is keeping him in a controlled coma."
"My God! The fire "
"Calm down. The firemen found you just inside the door. They found Buck in your room."
Chris closed his eyes and clenched his fists. As he closed his hand, he felt something and picked it up. The stuffed cat, he vaguely remembered finding it on the floor. Tears welled up in his eyes as he hugged the toy to his chest. He remembered closing the fire screen, he was certain that he had closed it! What if it was his fault? And Buck, his friend and JD's father, was in a coma. He was still blaming himself when Josiah and Ezra stepped into the room a few minutes later.
"What are you doing here? Where are the boys?" Chris demanded.
"At school," Josiah answered calmly.
"At school? Why in the world would you leave them at school? They must be scared to death!"
"The school counselor felt that it was best to get them back into their routine as quickly as possible," Ezra explained. "We told them to call us if they wanted to come home."
"Home? They don't have a home anymore! I burned it to the ground, or haven't you heard?" Chris spat angrily.
"Chris, calm down. Houses and furniture can be replaced. Your family got out alive. You can stay at my place until you get your house rebuilt," Josiah offered. "I have plenty of room and I would love to have you."
"Or you can stay with me. It seems only fair considering how long I was at your place recovering from my injuries. I already have one of your dogs in my yard," Ezra offered.
"Only one? What happened? Oh God, one of the dogs died?"
"No, no, the dogs are fine. Elvis is at my house and Ringo is still at the animal hospital. He has some deep burns and they want to keep him there to treat him. Josiah managed to get in and get Torkus out safely."
"I need to see them. I need to see Vin," Chris said almost in a panic.
"I'll bring them by here after school," Ezra promised.
"And Buck, I need to see him."
"Not until your doctor says it's okay," Nathan quickly put in.
The teacher passed her hand lightly over the golden brown curls and paused. Vin felt warm to the touch. When she knelt down beside him, she heard the slightly raspy sound of his breathing.
"Vin? Are you feeling alright?" She took in the glassy eyes that struggled to focus before gathering him in her arms and carrying him from the room. JD looked up just in time to see the door closing. A quick look to where Vin had been sitting confirmed that the tennis shoes he thought he recognized were Vin's. Jumping up, he raced across the room, yelling at the top of his lungs.
"Vin! Don't take Vin! Where are you taking him?" He skidded to a stop outside of the nurse's office just as the teacher was putting his friend on the cot. JD's brown eyes filled with tears. "No-o-o!" he cried as he hurled his body toward the cot. The teacher caught him and wrapped both arms around the distraught boy.
Ezra's cell phone rang and he pulled it out of his pocket. The school nurse informed him that he needed to come and get the boys right away. He could hear JD's muffled cries and slipped from the hospital room to ask what happened.
"Vin is running a temperature and his breathing sounds labored. JD is just upset, his teacher is trying to calm him," the nurse said. "How soon can you be here?"
"I'm on my way," Ezra said as he ran for the elevators.
Josiah looked out in the hallway and didn't see the southerner. He turned back to let Chris and Nathan know that he was going to find him. Pulling his cell phone, he dialed Ezra's number.
In his rush to get to the school and his nephews, Ezra had forgotten to tell the others where he was going. The insistent ringing of the phone promptly reminded him of his mistake. He briefly informed Josiah that he was going to pick up the boys. The profiler insisted that he wait and take Nathan along. Ezra was already two blocks from the hospital and he realized that he couldn't handle both boys alone. With a screech of tires, he turned the car around and headed back to the hospital.
As soon as he heard that Vin was having trouble, Chris demanded to be allowed to be there when they brought him in. The doctor, realizing that the blond would check himself out of the hospital if he denied the request, allowed him to go as long as he went in a wheelchair. Josiah helped Chris to dress in the scrubs they brought him and wheeled him down to the ER.
While they were waiting for Ezra to return, Josiah decided to try to talk to Chris about the fire. Sighing and running a shaky hand over his graying hair, he began, "Chris, about the fire. I'm so sorry. I'm afraid I left the coals burning in the bar-be-que and it's my fault. I'll pay for everything. I'll get in touch with my insurance company."
"Josiah, it wasn't your fault. I must have missed a coal in the fireplace. It's my fault," Chris replied. "I nearly killed all of us."
By the time they reached the school, JD had calmed down and was sitting quietly on the foot of the cot where Vin lay. The nurse had turned the older boy to his side since it seemed to ease his breathing. Nathan checked Vin thoroughly before gathering him up and following Ezra and JD to the car.
At the hospital, Vin was sent for X-rays. They showed that he had some fluid building up on his lungs; possibly from the smoke he'd inhaled. He would have to be admitted for a course of antibiotics, followed by breathing treatments. Chris was sick at heart, blaming himself for Vin's condition. He was leaning over the bed when the boy's blue eyes opened the first time.
"Dad? What?" Vin mumbled behind the oxygen mask. His hand immediately came up to push it away. He recognized the sights and smells and knew he was in the hospital again.
Seeing his son panic, Chris began to try to calm him. He retained his grip on Vin's hand and stroked his forehead with the other hand.
"Calm down, you're going to be fine. You need to leave the mask on, it's helping you breathe."
"H-home," Vin pleaded.
It took some doing to convince the doctors but Vin was placed in Chris's room. The nurses gave up on keeping them in separate beds, seeing how much easier it was to get them both to do the breathing treatments together.
Josiah pulled yet another tissue from his pocket and handed it to JD. The doctors would not allow him into the room with Buck no matter how much his uncles begged. They were relegated to staring through the window. Nathan hadn't told them that Buck was on a respirator and JD burst into tears as soon as he saw it. The medic had tried and tried to explain that it didn't mean that Buck was dying but from the heartbroken sobs he could see that JD didn't believe it. Ezra finally suggested that he take JD home.
"What about Vin?" JD asked around his stuffy nose and mouth full of thumb.
"Vin has to stay overnight, he's sick," Ezra, explained.
"I want to stay too! Why can't I stay here? I want Chris! I want my Da!" JD yelled as he flailed and fought the arms holding him.
They decided that a brief visit with Chris might soothe JD and they headed down the hall. Vin was sleeping, draped across his father's chest; the oxygen mask nestled under Chris's chin. JD whimpered and reached for the blond. Nathan helped to ease Vin back into his bed so that JD could be held and comforted. Chris sank onto his bed and wrapped both arms around JD before bursting into gut wrenching sobs. Puzzled at first, the other men soon realized that the blond was overcome with guilt and seeing JD brought it crashing down on him. A nurse arrived a minute later and slipped a sedative into Chris's IV. When his sobs eased, Ezra and Josiah pried JD from his arms and carried him from the room.
Gloria Potter came to their rescue. She had been planning to stop and see how her employers were doing. She stepped from the elevator just as Josiah and Ezra carried JD, kicking and screaming, from the room. Rushing into the fray, she gathered the child to her chest and soothed him. JD wrapped his arms and legs around the woman, sobbing incoherently. The nurses quickly ushered them into an empty room.
It was decided to allow Gloria to take JD home with her for the night. Ezra returned to his home to tend to the dog and Josiah stayed at the hospital to help Nathan. It was an ungodly long night for all of them.
Early the next morning, three strangers showed up at the hospital. Chris was sullenly pushing his food around on his plate when the men stepped into his room.
"Mr. Larabee? I'm Chuck Walters, from the Greater Denver Utility Co-op, can I speak with you for a moment?" The man clutched his briefcase as if he feared that the man would throw something at him.
"What about?" Chris asked as he narrowed his eyes.
"The fire at your home, Mr. Larabee, we were contacted by the fire marshal after his investigation."
"And?" Chris asked, becoming agitated with the mousy looking man.
"Well, Mr. Larabee, it appears that the fire at your home may have been caused by a faulty converter installed last month."
Chris vaguely remembered Mrs. Potter telling him that the power had been out all day several weeks before. He had gotten a letter saying that they were upgrading the service in the area due to the number of new homes being built in the neighboring subdivision. He looked back up at the man, who hadn't stopped his hurried monologue.
"...will pay for everything, of course. Your hospital stay has already been covered. If your children require anything, tutoring, counseling, we will take care of that too. Our adjuster will be in touch with you later today to begin compiling a list of belongings."
"Son of a bitch!" Chris yelled as he shoved the table away from the bed. The rolling table hit the wall and the dishes crashed to the floor. The three men back up against the wall as the blond tossed off his blanket and started to get out of bed.
Josiah leapt from the chair and stood between Chris and the strangers. He could see the murderous anger in the hazel eyes. Two nurses also raced into the room after hearing the dishes break. Nathan tightened his hold on Vin, who had been jarred from his sleep by the commotion.
"My son has pneumonia because of the fire! My best friend is down the hall in a coma because of that fire! His son is terrified that he's about to lose his dad because of that fire! Can you put things back the way they were? Can you? How much do you think my home was worth? How much are memories going for these days? Can you make my children feel safe again? Can you?" Chris took a step forward as he continued to rail at the men.
"Chris, you're scaring Vin," Josiah prompted gently. Like flipping a switch, the blond changed. He turned, tears filling his eyes as he stepped toward the other bed. Josiah deftly untangled the IV lines as Vin reached for his dad. Nathan slipped off of the bed and ushered the men from the room.
"Please, extend our sincerest apologies to Mr. Larabee. We wanted to take responsibility and try to assure him that we will make things right as soon as possible," Mr. Walters said. "Would you please give him these papers? I'll ask the adjuster to wait until he's feeling calmer, to come by and speak to him."
Taking the papers, Nathan thanked the man and sent him on his way. Ezra arrived, bringing breakfast and several cups of coffee. He looked curiously at the men who hurriedly stepped into the elevator car.
"I do hope that wasn't more bad news," the southerner said dryly.
"More bad news?" Nathan asked hesitantly.
"The animal hospital called last night. Ringo has developed an infection in the burned area. They are treating him aggressively but they cautioned me that we might want to consider putting him down."
"Oh hell," the medic said as he rubbed at the taut muscles in the back of his neck.
"Indeed. I told them that they should spare no expense in tending to the dog; he is irreplaceable to the boys. They are supposed to call me in a little while to let me know how he's faring. How are things here?"
"Well, there's good news and bad news, I suppose. The good news is that those men you saw were from the utility company and they're taking the blame for the fire. They are sending an adjuster to compile a list of personal belongings that they lost."
"And the bad news?"
"They had to operate to relieve the pressure inside of Buck's head last night. The surgeon is concerned about possible damage to the optic nerves."
"Oh no. Why didn't you call me?"
"I figured you needed a night to rest. Josiah needs to go home and get some sleep and I'm whipped. I was hoping you'd be willing to stay and handle things here for a while," Nathan said.
"Of course, of course I'll stay and help. How is Vin doing this morning?" Ezra asked.
"He ran a fever most of the night. He was resting until Chris got mad and started yelling at those men."
"The Larabee temper got out of control? Imagine that," the southerner teased. "Perhaps some decent food and a good, stout cup of coffee will alleviate his anger."