The coffee did help somewhat. The thing that helped the most was lifting the heavy burden of guilt from Chris's shoulders. Nathan insisted that Josiah go home and get some rest. After the profiler left, Nathan took off for home to grab a shower and a few hours of sleep, leaving Ezra to deal with everything. While it was quiet in the room, the southerner went over the documents left by the man from the utility company. When he found the line he was looking for, he underlined it and handed it to Chris.
"What does this mean, 'agent of your choice'?"
"It means that you can appoint someone else to deal with getting your home rebuilt and refurnished, to supply them with all of your bills and to act as your liaison so that you don't have to be bothered," Ezra explained.
"And I suppose you're offering?"
"Unless you know someone else you would rather have."
Chris knew that the shrewd southerner would be just the person to negotiate with the utility company. He was too apt to lose his temper and end up in jail. After filling out the appropriate form, Chris asked Ezra to stay with Vin while he went to look in on Buck.
The room was silent except for the machinery surrounding the bed. Chris pushed his IV pole out of the way and reached out to take up one of the still hands. They had shaved Buck's head for the surgery, he couldn't suppress the grin at the sight but he quickly sobered at the thick line of bandages surrounding the newly bald head. He lowered his head until his forehead rested against Buck's knuckles.
"Come on, Big Dog, you gotta come back to us. JD needs you. Hell, I need you. I can't do this by myself. You gotta get better so you can get out of here," Chris whispered urgently. "And just wait until you see what they did to you. You're gonna flip." Giving the hand another squeeze, he rested it carefully on the sheet and slipped out of the room.
Ezra was just hanging up the phone when he returned to his room. "Who was that?"
"A friend of mine. He'll be bringing by some blueprints for you to consider. I also took the liberty of calling a company that specializes in fire restoration to go to the house and pack up anything that can be salvaged. I'll need the combinations to the safes so I can go and retrieve your weapons and move them to my place for safe keeping."
"Wow, I hadn't even thought of that."
"Of course not, that's why we're helping out. Have you decided whether you will take Josiah's offer of a place to stay in the interim or mine?"
"I don't know yet, Ezra. I haven't thought it through yet. Someone needs to be there to see after the animals," Chris answered as he carded his fingers through Vin's hair.
At the Potter house, JD was a mess. He cried off and on all night. When the other kids went off to school, he cried to go with them. Gloria wisely suggested that he stay with her for the day. She coaxed him into sitting with her in the rocker and he dropped right back to sleep. She managed to settle him on the couch for a couple of hours. When he awoke the next time, he wanted to go to the hospital. Accepting a phone call instead, JD talked to Chris for a few minutes. He asked quietly if Vin was going to be alright. When he hung up the phone, he was still sad and withdrawn. Gloria took him down to the barn to help her feed the chickens and gather the eggs. For as long as she let him scatter the cracked corn on the ground for the hungry hens, JD was happy. He watched her with wide eyes as she reached under the chickens to gather the eggs. When he tried to reach for one, the hen clucked at him and tried to peck his hand.
Back inside the house, Gloria suggested that they make cookies for when the others were released from the hospital. For the rest of the afternoon, she kept the boy busy with cookie cutters and sprinkles and icing. She baked in small batches to prolong the soothing activity.
In the hospital room down the hall from Chris, Buck began to waken. His head hurt, along with his throat and chest. He tried to figure out what had happened. It wasn't something at work, he was fairly sure. Something nagged at his mind and he struggled to remember. His agitation translated itself in elevating his heart rate and blood pressure, bringing the nurses to his side. An image slammed into his mind, causing him to struggle to sit up in spite of the hands holding him down. It was dark and he wanted to tell them to turn on the lights but he couldn't because of the breathing tube in his throat.
"Go get Larabee, now!" The nurse shouted. She didn't want to have to sedate Buck again but he was so agitated that she might have to.
"Mr. Larabee, can you come with me, please?" the nurse spoke quickly from the doorway. Chris and Ezra exchanged puzzled glances before the blond grabbed the IV pole and hurried after her.
"Mr. Wilmington, please try to calm down. I can't remove the tube until you calm down," the nurse was saying as Chris entered the room. The monitor boards were lit up like a Christmas tree.
Pushing his way through the tangle of medical staff, Chris managed to take hold of Buck's hand. "Calm down, Buck. You're going to be okay. Just settle down for a minute. I'm right here."
The familiar voice penetrated his frightened mind and Buck stopped thrashing. The nurse checked the IV and catheter lines to make sure that they were still secure. She mopped the sweat from Buck's face and raised the head of the bed several inches.
"Buck, listen to me now. The boys are fine. I got them out of the house. JD's with Gloria right now and Vin's down the hall," Chris explained. The instant that Buck processed the information, he began to panic again. "Settle down! Vin's not burned; he's just got a touch of pneumonia from breathing in the smoke. You have got to settle down. I'll bet your head hurts, doesn't it?" Seeing Buck nod, Chris continued. "You knocked yourself out. You have a severe concussion. They had to operate to drain the pressure from inside of your head so you have to lay still."
Absorbing all that his friend said, Buck raised his hand and felt for the bandages that covered his eyes.
"Leave that alone. Your head is held together with bailing wire and gauze. The doctor wants to take the breathing tube out, okay? I'll be right here," he assured Buck before stepping back to make room for the nurse.
As soon as the tube was removed, Buck coughed until he threw up. The doctor ordered inhalation therapy for him as soon as possible. When he got the cough under control, Buck asked the question that had been burning in his mind since he woke up.
"What's wrong with my eyes?"
"Buck, I told you, they operated on your head," Chris quickly explained.
"Don't lie to me, Chris. I've seen enough head injuries to know that they don't bandage your eyes. Besides, there isn't anything covering my eyes."
Chris's shoulders dropped at having been caught in the obvious lie. He sighed as he sank gratefully into the chair the nurse nudged against his legs.
"You're right, Mr. Wilmington. I was hoping that you would be able to see after we relieved the pressure inside of your skull. The fact is that you struck your forehead just above your eyes and fractured the bone. The pressure that we had to relieve was behind your eyes and around the optic nerve. Your vision should return as part of the healing process," the doctor explained as he washed his hands and approached the side of the bed.
"How long?" Buck whispered.
"Could take several days or weeks depending upon how your body repairs itself."
"JD, Chris, I need to see JD," the ladies man begged.
"I know Buck, and you will," Chris began.
"No! I need to talk to him now, to let him know I'm alright. I don't want him thinking that I'm going to leave him like his momma did. I have to talk to him!"
"He's at Gloria's. I'll call so you can talk to him," Chris promised, "as soon as they bring you a phone."
Ezra appeared at the doorway, Vin securely in his arms. Seeing Buck upright in the bed and talking, he entered the hospital room. "It's good to see you awake, you gave us quite a scare," the southerner said.
"Ez? Are Josiah and Nathan here too?"
"Uncle Nathan sent Uncle Josiah home 'cause he snored all night and keeped us awake. Uncle Nathan went home for a shower 'cause he smelled," Vin informed Buck.
A sob caught in Buck's throat and he reached for Vin. Ezra looked to Chris for permission before allowing the child onto the bed. Buck drew Vin to his chest and buried his face in the long, golden brown curls. The lights on the monitors lit up again and the nurse slipped into the room. Working around the men standing beside the bed, she turned on the oxygen and slipped the cannula over the bandages, settling it in position against Buck's nose.
"Perhaps I should pay a visit to Mrs. Potter and bring the rest of your family," Ezra offered.
Seeing Chris nod, Ezra mouthed that he would call Nathan. He hurried down the hall and out of the hospital. After calling the medic to inform him that Buck had wakened, he called Josiah.
The pediatric nurse looked in on her patient and found the Larabee room empty. Catching the regular ICU nurse, she found out that they were both up the hall with Mr. Wilmington. She entered the room and frowned at the sight. Vin was draped across the other patient and she could see that he was struggling to breathe.
"Excuse me, Mr. Larabee, but your son needs to return to his room. I have his next breathing treatment ready," she said.
"I wanna stay with Buck! Uncle Ezra's bringing JD and I want to be here to see him!" Vin protested, wheezing as he spoke.
"You need the breathing treatment, son. Come on, I'll sit with you. Buck, we'll be back in a little while, okay?" Chris squeezed Buck's shoulder and waited for him to nod before lifting Vin from his arms.
As soon as the others were gone, Buck began to think about the fire. He remembered pulling some pieces of wood out of the flames and wondered if that had somehow been the cause of the fire. As he drifted off to sleep, his mind dwelt on the subject. His dreams were filled with fire and the plaintive calls of the boys when he couldn't find them.
JD was thrilled to see Ezra and find out that his Da was awake. He and Gloria packed several of the cookies into Ziploc bags to take to the hospital for Chris and Buck and Vin. The southerner cautioned JD that he would have to be calm and quiet at the hospital or they would not let him stay. JD promised that he would be quiet.
Arriving at the hospital, JD refused to walk, begging for Ezra to carry him. The southerner understood that the request was brought on by fear and uncertainty and willingly gathered the boy into his arms. When they reached the door of Buck's room, Ezra saw that Wilmington was sleeping.
"He's asleep, JD, why don't we go down the hall and see Chris and Vin for a few minutes?" Ezra suggested. Immediately, JD's eyes welled up with tears and he whimpered.
"I want my Da!"
In the midst of the tortured dreams, Buck heard the softly voiced plea. It only added to his agitation and he squirmed uncomfortably in the bed, murmuring his son's name. "JD, where are you?"
"Da? He's awake! Lemme go, Uncle Ezra, I wanna see my Da!" JD yelled as he struggled to get down.
"JD!" Buck called as he tried to sit up and get out of bed. Still trapped in the dream, he was trying to find the child.
"Buck! No, you must not try to get up!" Ezra cautioned as he hurried to the side of the bed. Only the raised rails had kept the big man from tumbling to the floor. The nurses, hearing the commotion, rushed into the room and quickly pinned Buck to the bed. JD, afraid that they were hurting him, began to yell louder.
"I want my Da! You leave him alone! I want my Da!"
The panicked cries finally snapped Buck out of the dream and he gasped in pain. One of the nurses hurriedly increased the oxygen, as the numbers on the machine showed his SATS were falling. The other nurse grabbed a washcloth and returned to wipe Buck's face, to calm him and help him come fully awake.
"Mr. Wilmington, do you remember where you are and what happened?" the nurse asked.
"Hospital. There was a fire. I thought I heard my son's voice," Buck answered, still a little confused.
"You did hear his voice, Buck. JD is most worried about your wellbeing," Ezra said as he approached the bed and took Buck's hand to place on JD's back. The dark haired child crept nervously over the rail and gently settled himself across his Da's chest before giving in to the sobs he had been holding back. Buck raked his fingers through JD's hair with one hand while the other rubbed up and down the little back.
"Shh, it's okay Little Bit. It's okay. Calm down. Don't cry," Buck soothed as the tears rolled down his face. He desperately wanted to see the boy, to confirm with his own eyes that JD was alright, but he couldn't. He could only touch him and try to assure him that it would be alright. Chris and Vin appeared a few minutes later. Vin was allowed to sit on the side of the bed and he rubbed Buck's arm as Buck continued to try to calm JD. Nathan and Josiah arrived only a moment later. The nurses smiled as they watched the group offer and receive comfort from each other.
Ezra's cell phone vibrated and he excused himself from the room to take the call. Several minutes later, he returned, smiling. "That was the mobile home dealer. They are going to deliver a doublewide modular home to your ranch for you to live in while the house is being rebuilt. They will take care of the utilities and tying on to your septic system and everything. It should be ready for you to move in within a week."
"A mobile home?" Buck asked, his voice dripping with disdain.
"A modular home, Buck. It isn't the same thing," Ezra answered. "And it's only until the house is rebuilt. As soon as you and Chris approve a blueprint, I'll have the construction crew begin the demolition."
"Who's paying for all of this? Chris? Does your insurance cover all of this?" Buck asked, his head turning toward the last place he'd heard the blond.
"Don't worry about it, Buck. It's all being taken care of."
"Just like that! I burn the house down and you all get everything fixed up and rebuilt and I'm not supposed to worry about it?"
"You didn't burn the house down Buck," Chris said sternly as he sat on the side of the bed. Vin, nervous at the anger in Buck's voice, scooted closer to his dad. "And neither did I and neither did Josiah. The utility company said that they think a faulty converter caused it. You remember when they were making the upgrades for that new subdivision down the road? They installed a new converter on the pole at the house and it overloaded. They're paying for everything."
Drawing a shuddering breath, Buck went to pieces, sobbing uncontrollably as he embraced JD. Vin crawled back over and soon he too was being held and showered with tears. The nurse slipped in and pumped a dose of pain reliever into Buck's IV and stayed until he began to drift off to sleep. Once she was certain he was completely asleep, she told the others that the doctor didn't want him going through the big emotional upheavals while still recovering from the surgery.
Peeling JD off of Buck, they returned to Chris's room. Ezra explained that he had been in touch with the adjuster and would be getting a credit card to buy clothing for the four of them. He was going to pick it up that afternoon and would take JD shopping. The doctor came to check Chris and announced that he could be discharged the next day. The pediatrician wanted to keep Vin at least another day to give the antibiotics a chance to kick the infection in his lungs. He volunteered to have the child transferred to Buck's room so that they could be together.
Josiah and Ezra took JD shopping that evening. The child was thrilled to be getting new clothes. The southerner was tempted to indulge his tastes but he knew that the more sturdy and practical clothing that Buck usually picked out was more appropriate. After underclothes and socks, Ezra steered the child to the shoe department and got him a couple of pairs of tennis shoes and a pair of boots. They bought jeans and shirts and a couple of jackets and a new coat. With the trunk of the Jag and the back seat loaded with their purchases, they returned to the southerner's home. After making a brief visit to Buck at the hospital, JD was bathed and tucked into bed in the guest bedroom.
Chris was discharged the next day. Nathan drove him out to the ranch to pick up his truck. It was the blond man's first chance to see the place. He staggered, nearly going to his knees, as soon as he saw what was left of his home. His last connection to his wife and son was destroyed.
"Are you alright?" Nathan asked as he saw the tears glistening in the hazel eyes.
"It's unreal. This was Sarah's dream home, the only home our son ever knew. This is where he took his first steps," Chris's voice trailed off.
"She's still here. She's in the tree you planted on your anniversary, the fence posts she helped you set for the corral, those flower beds over there. She hasn't left you, Chris."
Hearing the horses nicker, both men moved around the burned out hull of the house, they headed for the corral. Peso and Pony stuck their heads over the rails, seeking treats and attention. They tossed out some more hay and refilled the trough before Chris went to the Dodge. Ezra had contacted the dealer and gotten a spare set of keys, it seemed that the southerner thought of everything. He had brought the team leader the change of clothes he kept at the office and taken the sizes so he could begin to acquire a replacement wardrobe. Returning to the hospital, Chris curled up in the bed with Vin after his last breathing treatment.
The modular home was set up in front of the house, far enough away that the construction equipment could still get around. Electric and water were connected and the septic system was connected. They had delivered a four-bedroom unit. It came with just the basics of furniture. Mrs. Potter went with Ezra to the store to get groceries. When Vin was discharged from the hospital, it was ready for them to move in.
Although the boys were thrilled at the idea of having their own rooms, Chris found them curled up together the first morning. After dressing the boys and sending them off to school, the blond went back to the hospital to sit with Buck. He was having the world's worst headaches and still couldn't see anything. The doctor assured him that it would take time. He descended into despair. The doctor sent a therapist in to talk with him.
"How in the hell am I going to do my job blind? How am I going to raise my son? What am I going to do?" Buck railed at the therapist.
"If this should become a permanent situation, you are still a strong, healthy man. You can learn a new vocation. Denver has an excellent Vocational Rehabilitation Training program. VRT will teach you the skills you need to begin a new job," she told him, refusing to allow him to pull her into pitying him.
"I'm an ATF agent, for God's sake! How in the hell are they going to teach me to do something else? What about my son? How am I going to raise him? What if something happens to him?"
"Blind people do successfully parent children, Buck. VRT will help you with the skills you'll need to run your home, too."
Three days later, Buck was discharged from the hospital. Chris and Nathan picked him up and brought him home. To say that his oldest friend was depressed was an understatement. The therapist warned them not to baby him too much. There would be a trainer sent out to the house to begin to acclimate him to his new surroundings.
The unrelenting darkness left him feeling dizzy and disoriented. Buck overcompensated by making exaggerated movements. No matter how many times Chris assured him that he could move around in the room without running into anything, he remained planted in the recliner where he had been seated. Nathan brought him lunch on a tray table. The medic brought Buck his drink in a broad based cup that was nearly impossible to tip over. He explained the location of the food on the plate and sat back to give Buck a chance to feed himself.
Things he could stab with his fork were easy to eat and he finished those first. The peas and carrots were tricky because they wouldn't stay on the silverware and he refused to consider using the spoon he had felt next to his plate. When he dropped the second fork full of vegetables in his lap, Buck got frustrated and pushed the tray away, refusing to eat any more.
The boys arrived home from school, eager to see Buck and thrilled that their family was together in one place again. Chris watched them as they raced up the driveway in their brand new clothes. Ezra seemed to have thought of everything, right down to book bags. The blond met the boys outside of the house and warned them that Buck was still not completely recovered and that they needed to try not to over excite him. JD's little eyes welled up with tears.
"Does this mean I still can't give him all my hugs and kisses?"
"No, JD, you can hug and kiss him but remember that he can't see so you have to let him know that you're there so you don't surprise him, okay?" Seeing the brunet nod, he swatted him on the behind and sent them both into the house. Mrs. Potter was cooking supper in the kitchen and had already made their favorite after school snacks.
"Da, are you awake?" JD asked as he tentatively approached the recliner.
Sighing, Buck opened his eyes, frustrated at the unrelieved darkness. "Yeah, come on over here, Little Bit. How was school today?" He held out his arm and JD stepped into the embrace.
"We don't got any homework today, so you don't have to check my bag. Oh! I forgot! Wait right here!" JD slipped out of Buck's lap and ran back to his book bag. He pulled out the folder of graded papers the teacher had given him. "These need to be signed and returned tomorrow, Da. See, I got a hundred on my spelling and my reading test! We're learning about subjects and pred'cats. Did you know that every sentence has a subject? The rest of them words is all the pred'cat."
Buck felt the papers in his hands and trembled slightly. The lunch he had choked down a few hours before began to churn in his stomach and a bitter gall rose in his throat. "Excuse me, JD!" He pushed the child off of his lap and surged to his feet. Instantly, he was struck by a wave of vertigo and became disoriented. He tried to remember where the bathroom was as he started across the room. Vaguely, he heard his son speaking but missed the words.
"Da? Where are you going?"
In the kitchen, Chris heard the dual thumps and then JD's excited cry.
"Da! Are you alright?"
Rushing into the next room, Chris saw that Buck had tripped over JD's book bag and fell, hitting the folding table and upending it. The brunet barely made it onto his knees before he began to throw up. Chris quickly picked JD up and moved him out of the way. Gloria muttered a startled 'Oh my!' before rushing to get towels to clean up the mess. Vin sidled around the perimeter of the room and snagged JD, pulling him toward the door to the yard.
Running his hand up and down Buck's back, Chris soothed his friend through the dry heaves. When the damp washcloth appeared, he used it to wipe the tears from the blue eyes before wiping the rest of his face. Other damp cloths replaced the first as he wiped Buck's hands and arms. Finally, he manhandled his friend up from the floor and guided him carefully back to the chair. Once he was seated, Gloria began to clean up the mess on the carpet.
"Leave that, Gloria, please. Go check on JD and Vin, I'll clean it up."
Alone with Buck, Chris pressed his handkerchief into his friend's hand and pulled him close. He sensed that the man was more ashamed than hurt. From the tension in Buck's shoulders, he knew there was a torrent of emotion roiling inside.
"I can't see. He's showing me his test papers and I can't see them!" Buck managed before he began to sob. When Buck's weight against him indicated that the big guy was falling asleep, Chris coaxed him to his feet and led him to his room. Settled in his bed with the blanket tucked under one arm, Buck slept.
"I didn't mean to hurt him, Vin! He just jumped up and before I could get my book bag out of the way, he fell down!" JD lamented as he wrapped his arms around his knees and rocked. They had retreated to the tree house.
"I know, JD. But we have to remember that he can't see no more and we can't leave our stuff layin' all over the place no more. Remember what Uncle Ezra told us?"
When it became apparent that Buck would leave the hospital before regaining his sight, the southerner had taken the boys aside to talk to them. Using a blindfold, he showed them how it was for Buck. Just walking across a room was hard when you couldn't see anything. JD had bumped into the table and the back of the couch in Ezra's living room several times before he made it all the way around the small room. Vin had done better on his turn, but only because he kept his arms out and took smaller, more hesitant steps. When he tripped over Ezra's shoes, falling into the southerner's embrace, he got the message.
"Vin? JD? Where are you?" Mrs. Potter called as she walked around the plastic orange fencing that surrounded what was left of the burned out house. She saw the top of Vin's head over the wall of the tree house and headed in that direction.
"Is my Da gonna be okay?" JD asked tearfully.
"Yes, I'm sure he'll be fine. Now, you two need to come and get cleaned up for supper," the housekeeper said as she held out her hand for them. Both boys scrambled down the ramp and to her side. They were as quiet as mice when they went into the modular home. Chris was on his knees, scrubbing up the carpet cleaner he had sprayed on the stain.
The next few days were stressful for the small family. Chris had to go back to work, at least for a few hours each day. The team had been assigned a case and he had to be there to oversee the investigation. Mrs. Potter volunteered to stay with Buck. On the second day, the VRT counselor arrived at the house to begin teaching Buck how to deal with his blindness.
"I don't need this. My vision will come back eventually," he told the man, Dave Sinclare.
"Mr. Wilmington, for however long your disability continues, you need to learn how to navigate in your surroundings. Suppose there was an emergency and you needed the phone, what would you do?" The poor man had no way of knowing about the cell phone tucked out of sight in Buck's pants pocket. He blushed at the triumphant look on Buck's face when he pulled out the phone.
"I already thought of that."
"Suppose one of your children needed something?" Dave suggested.
"Housekeeper," Buck answered snidely.
Having seen the burnt out remains of the ranch house when he pulled up, the counselor pulled his final punch. "What if this place catches fire?"
A cold sweat bathed Buck as he remembered the night of the fire. He remembered his terror at not being able to find the boys in their room. He remembered the thick, choking smoke. "Oh, God!" He whispered as he shuddered.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Wilmington, I shouldn't have said that. I only wanted you to realize that you need these skills, for however long you remain blind. Will you let me work with you?"
Gloria wrung her hands in her dishtowel as she heard the exchange between the two men. Her first instinct was to rush out there and throw the counselor out on his ear. That thought was immediately followed by the realization that Buck needed to do more than sit in that chair and be helpless. Nodding curtly to herself, she returned to the kitchen and started lunch.
By the time the counselor left, Buck was exhausted. When Gloria opened the door to see him out, Elvis bounded through the open door. He raced into the house and leapt up on Buck, wiggling and licking every place he could reach. Ezra smiled an apology to the woman as he stepped in behind the dog. Both he and Gloria turned to watch as the exuberant dog greeted Buck. Elvis was greedily lapping the salty tears from Buck's face as he climbed into his lap.
"Elvis, down," Ezra said firmly when he decided that Buck had had enough. The dog immediately got down and went around the new place sniffing and searching.
"Hey, Ezra. Come in and sit down. The VRT counselor just left."
"And how did it go?"
"Well, I can probably make it to the bathroom without help," Buck said with a smile.
"That's a relief," the southerner replied in a teasing tone. "I will cancel the case of Depends."
"That's low, Standish," Buck admonished. "How's Ringo doing?"
"The vet has the infection under control. He'll have to stay for a few more days but he should recover fully. Josiah and Nathan are coming out this evening to help construct a new pen for the dogs. The architect sent some drawings for the new house. Would you like to peruse them?"
"That's not funny, Ezra," Buck said with a scowl.
"I was not attempting humor. The prints are designed so that you can feel the layout of the plan. If you would care to join me in the kitchen, I'll lay them out for you." Ezra watched as Buck carefully came to his feet. He pulled a folding cane from his pocket and loosened the elastic holding it in a small bundle. The shock corded cane dropped and snapped together smoothly. Buck slid his hand down its length before taking the handle in his hand and tapping the corner of the recliner.
"Lead on, my good man."
Running his hands over the raised images, Buck tried to picture it in his mind. The small-scale drawing was easy for him to 'read' because the interior wall lines were smooth and the outer walls were rough. It wasn't all that different from the way the ranch house had been except that it had four bedrooms, two large ones for the men and two smaller ones for the boys. It was larger than the ranch had been, covering nearly a thousand more square feet of floor space.
"How long will it take to build?"
"Only a couple of months, once the site is ready."
"What do you mean by that?"
"They will have to tear down and haul away the remains of the original house and pour a new foundation. Once that's done, the construction should progress fairly quickly," Ezra explained.
When the boys arrived home, they were subdued. JD carefully hung up his bag and gave Buck a hug before asking if he could go outside and play with the dog. By the time the others arrived, Buck realized that something was bothering his son. Supper was better, since it was hamburgers and fries and corn on the cob. Buck could eat without having to be paranoid about dropping anything in his lap. He had gone outside to be near the others as they worked on the new dog pen. Ezra brought one of the deck chairs out for him to sit on so he could talk to them while they worked. In the distance, he could hear the boys playing with Elvis.
That evening, Buck offered to give JD his bath. He was quickly rebuffed. JD was terrified that his Da would fall in the bathroom and hurt himself badly. Chris patted Buck on the shoulder and told him that he would take care of the baths. Feeling shut out of his son's life, Buck went back to the living room and flopped into the recliner.
The next week was a roller coaster for all of them. Buck was eagerly learning the skills he needed for his dark world and feeling more confident. At the same time, JD was slipping farther and farther away from him. Chris was thrilled that they were beginning construction on the new house and despondent about seeing the old one bulldozed into the ground.
On Wednesday, JD came home from school feeling a little sick. He was lethargic all afternoon and turned down supper. Gloria took his temperature and said it was just a degree or two higher than normal. The little boy went to bed early. Just as the news was going off, both men heard the strangled cry from JD's room. Chris got there first, finding the brunet child hanging over the side of the bed and vomiting. When he took hold of him, JD was very warm to the touch.
"What is it, Chris?" Buck asked from the doorway.
"He's throwing up and burning with fever. Can you call Nathan and ask him to meet me at the hospital?" the blond asked as he stripped the soiled pajamas from JD.
"Meet you there?"
"Yes, I'll take JD to the emergency room, you stay here with Vin."
It sounded so simple, so reasonable, and so God damned much like he was losing his son that Buck balked. He slammed his fist against the wall in anger.
"Don't wake Vin up," Chris admonished him.
"He's my son! I should be there with him."
"Fine, call Nathan and have him meet us at the hospital. I'll get the boys ready to go."
Buck's ruffled feathers were soothed when he got into the truck and heard JD's whimper.
"I want my Da!"
Reluctantly, Chris placed the blanket wrapped bundle in Buck's arms. Vin snuggled into the small pillow stuffed next to him in his booster seat and went back to sleep. Chris had only put house shoes on his little feet and wrapped him in his bathrobe. At the hospital, things got difficult. Buck wanted to carry JD but he had forgotten his cane in their haste to get out of the house. Chris couldn't carry both children. Nathan came running out and solved the dilemma by steering Buck while Chris parked the truck and brought Vin.
Chris filled out the paperwork while Buck and Nathan went with JD. A little while later, Nathan came out to say that it wasn't anything serious and they wouldn't even keep him overnight. It was a virulent little bug that was randomly striking kids all over the school. Clear liquids and rest were prescribed and the family sent home.
Mrs. Potter rang to say that she would be late getting there because of a water pipe leak at her house. Chris wanted to stay home but Travis had called a big meeting and he had to be there. To top things off, Vin's temperature was beginning to climb.
"I'll see if Josiah can come out and stay with you until Mrs. Potter gets here, okay?" Chris asked. Buck's unseeing eyes widened in horror.
"You're going to go off and leave me alone here with two sick kids?"
"Buck, you can handle this. It's only for a little while until Josiah can get here. You know I can't miss this meeting. With you being on leave, we're all spread a little thin."
"But what if something happens?" Never in all of his life had he felt as weak and vulnerable as he did right at that moment. Buck was absolutely terrified of being left alone with the boys.
The VRT counselor had met with Chris and voiced his concerns that although Buck was doing very well with his lessons, he was depressed over being excluded from JD's life. He needed to be responsible for caring for the child, as any blind parent would be. Setting his jaw firmly, Chris took up his briefcase and headed for the door.
"I'll be home as soon as I can. Josiah will be here as soon as he can and you will be alright. I have to go!" Chris opened the door and forced himself to walk out.
Silence descended on the house. Buck swore that he could hear his hair growing. The boys were both in their beds and he decided to check in on them. First, he had to find his cane. That was one of the big lessons, remembering where he put things down. 'A place for everything,' Dave had told him. After bumping into the wall a few times, he finally found his door. Cane in hand, he went to check on the boys. JD was still feeling warm to the touch but he was sleeping soundly. Vin was warmer and awake.
"Can I watch TV in the living room, Buck?"
"Sure, Vin. You go on out and I'll bring your blankets. Did Chris give you anything for your fever before he left?" Buck hoped that he had because he didn't know where the boy's pain and fever reducer was.
"No. Can you give it to me?" Vin asked innocently.
"Do you know where it is?"
"In the medicine cabinet in my Dad's bathroom, I think."
Buck reluctantly followed Vin into the bathroom and lifted him up onto the counter. Vin opened the cabinet and pulled out the bottle. It was the liquid kind that had to be measured in a dropper.
"Are they're any of the chewable kind in there?"
"No. Why?" Vin asked as he waited for Buck to give him the medicine.
"Because I can't see to measure this, Vin. I don't want to give you too much."
"I know how much I get. It's just to the first line on the dropper."
"Are you sure? Maybe we should wait for Josiah to get here." As much as he hated leaving the boy without medication, he was more afraid of giving him too much.
Josiah glared at the traffic in front of him. A multi-car accident had closed the highway. Pulling his cell phone, he called to let Buck know that he would be delayed.
"For how long?" Buck demanded to know.
"Until they get the highway opened again, I don't know."
Closing a cell phone with a snap doesn't give the same satisfaction as slamming down a handset but it was all Buck could do. In a moment of inspiration, he dialed Nathan's house, hoping to catch Rain. After explaining the situation to her, she talked to Vin. Carrying the cell phone, they went back into the bathroom and looked in the medicine cabinet. Buck felt truly helpless as he listened to Vin reading off the letters on the medicine bottles. Finally, the boy handed him the phone.
"Buck, Vin has the regular Tylenol. Can you break one in half and give it to him?"
"That won't be too much?"
"No, half of a regular one won't hurt him. You can give him the other half later."
After breaking one of the caplet shaped pills, Buck gave Vin the smaller half with a glass of water. In no time at all, the boy was sleeping on the couch, swathed in his blankets. A few minutes later, JD came out of his room, dragging his blanket.
"Da? Can I sit with you, I don't feel good," JD said in his whiney tone.
"Come on up here, son," Buck said as he gathered the fevered child in his arms. It took some figuring, but he managed to get the blanket folded and tucked in around JD.
That was how Mrs. Potter found them when she arrived. Vin was cocooned in his blankets on the couch, his fever was coming down slightly and JD was burrowed in his blanket in Buck's arms. Buck was also sound asleep, his head tipped back and snoring softly. Josiah arrived an hour later, just as Vin was waking up again.
"Hey, Uncle 'Ziah, what're you doin' here?"
"Your dad called and asked me to come out and sit with you. How are you feeling?"
"My tummy is all upsetted and I'm hot and cold," the child admitted as he climbed into the older man's arms and snuggled. "Mrs. Potter gave me some Sprite a little while ago."
Buck awoke at hearing the soft conversation. JD still lay across his lap, a comforting, if slightly too warm, presence. "Josiah? What time is it?"
"Nearly eleven. How are you feeling?" the profiler studied the look on his friend's face
"Headache, do you think you could find my pain pills?"
Gloria arrived a moment later with a cup of water and a pain pill. Buck smiled warmly in her direction after washing down the 'horse pill.' JD stirred, clawing at his father's clothing and whimpering softly. A light touch on his back soothed him right back to sleep.
"Vin? How are you feeling?" Buck asked.
"Better. Mrs. Potter bringed me a Sprite for my tummy," the boy answered as he slid off of the couch and walked over to the recliner. Buck felt a warm little hand touch his and he wrapped his hand around Vin's. He felt the child's head come to rest against his shoulder and pressed his cheek against it.
That evening, Chris arrived home late. The case was progressing faster than expected and he had to go over a large stack of files to be ready for the next day's meetings. He knew he wouldn't be able to get much done at home, so he stayed at the office. By the time he got home, Buck and the boys had eaten and, in a rare show of newfound confidence, Buck had sent Mrs. Potter on home. Both boys were bathed and all three were cuddled on the couch together when he walked in.
"Well, it seems you managed to get along alright without me this evening," the blond said as he surveyed the trio. Vin smiled and held his arms out to Chris to be picked up. He was still a little warm and his eyes were a little glassy but his smile showed he wasn't too uncomfortable.
"Buck sat on the commode while we took a bath. We was real careful not to splash any water on the floor and Mrs. Potter got some chewable tablets for our fevers to go away," Vin said in a bragging tone.
"He sat on the commode while you took a bath?" Chris asked, confused by that fact being so important to the chain of events.
"They were afraid I'd bump my head or something so I had to sit on the toilet while they bathed so they could watch me. We're taking care of each other," Buck explained.
That night, Buck was tossing and turning in his bed. He hated innerspring mattresses because he had trouble getting situated on them. A muffled thump and a cry of pain caused him to shoot out of the bed and into the hall. Without even thinking about it, he zeroed in on JD's cries and threw open the bedroom door. Stubbing his toe on the bedstead wasn't part of the plan but he made it to the side of the bed and reached out to gather the boy into his arms.
"I got you, Little Bit. It's okay," he soothed.
"Fire!" JD murmured as he thrashed.
Chris stood quietly in the doorway, watching to see if Buck needed any help. It took some wiggling and he bumped the wall a few times before he got situated, but he finally managed to get turned around and leaned against the headboard with JD draped against his chest. As the blond prepared to return to his bed, he heard the softly spoken 'thanks.'
"For what?" Chris asked.
"For letting me take care of the boys today, for making me do it," Buck answered.
Things went more smoothly over the next two weeks. Buck was adjusting to his world of darkness. The air was filled with the sounds of construction Monday through Friday. Ezra had a three dimensional model of the new house built so that Buck could begin to familiarize himself with the layout. Mrs. Potter didn't have to stay with him during the day anymore; he was comfortable staying by himself. He got to know a few of the workmen, recognizing their voices as they talked during their lunch break. One afternoon, out of sheer boredom, he went outside and turned the Elvis out of his pen and started throwing him a tennis ball. The dog were thrilled to be out when he would normally have been shut up in his pen and he enthusiastically chased the ball and brought it back. Hearing the phone in the house ringing, he turned and made his way back. One of the construction workers had left his lunch box sitting where he'd eaten. Buck's red tipped cane missed it on both sweeps but he found it with his foot. Crying out as his arms gyrated wildly, he hit the ground, hard.
Jeff Trivers shot off of the ladder and raced over to the downed man. He glared angrily at the co-worker's lunch box that had caused the fall. They had all been warned, repeatedly, about the blind man and children on the site and that everything had to be kept inside of the orange plastic fencing that surrounded their work area. The man was out cold and blood was pouring from his nose. Jeff pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911.
Chris's cell phone rang and he pulled it from his pocket without looking to see who it was. A moment later, he burst from his office and into the bullpen. He announced that Buck was in the hospital and that he would be in touch. The others exchanged worried glances.
At the hospital, the doctor had stopped the bleeding by cauterizing the area. He sent Buck for an X-ray. He was concerned that his patient hadn't regained consciousness. While he was staring at the film in the light box, a blond man was escorted into the room.
"Hey, Doc, my name is Chris Larabee. How is he?"
Consulting the chart to see that the man was listed as next of kin, he turned to answer. "I cauterized a spot in his nasal membrane that was bleeding profusely. His X-ray looks fine. I'm waiting on the neurologist who treated him last month."
Buck twitched and moaned softly as he raised his hands toward his head. He couldn't understand the anvil chorus that was playing inside his skull. He also couldn't figure out where he was and that set him to panic.
"Easy there, big guy. Just lay still for a minute," Chris said as he steadied his friend.
"Chris? What are you doing here? By the way, where am I?"
"Denver General," a strange voice answered, causing the sightless man to flinch. "Sorry, I'm Doctor Lewis. You were brought in by ambulance. Do you remember what happened?"
"I was outside playing with the dog. I heard the phone ring and started to the house. I must have tripped over something," Buck answered as he squinted his eyes. Hope swelled in Chris, as he hadn't seen his friend make that face since before the fire. The doctor noticed it too and pulled his pen light from his pocket. He shined the light into Buck's eyes and Buck blinked hard and turned his face away.
"You can see that? Buck, can you see the light?" Chris asked eagerly as he clasped Buck's hand.
"Oh my God! Chris, I I saw it! I saw the light. My head hurts! Can I get something for this headache, Doc?"
"Not just yet, Mr. Wilmington. I need to examine you further. Can you sit up?"
Chris backed away, into the hall and pulled out his cell phone. When the view screen blurred, he reached up to wipe away the tears that rolled down his cheeks. He punched the speed dial for Josiah's phone. After telling the profiler what little bit of news he knew, he asked for one of them to make sure the boys were looked after. He wanted to stay with Buck until they knew something more. When he put away the phone, a construction worker approached him.
"Mr. Larabee? I'm Jeff Trivers; I'm working on your new house. I came in with your friend. How is he?"
"He'll be fine. Did you see what happened?"
"He tripped over a lunch box that one of my men left out. I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am. I fired the guy before the ambulance got there. If there is anything I can do "
"I appreciate you telling me the truth. I'll let you know when I know something."
The boys raced up the driveway and into the modular home. Mrs. Potter was there with their after school snack. Chris had called her and told her about the situation with Buck and cautioned her not to raise their hopes. As soon as they hung up their book bags, they raced in to tell him about their day. Not seeing him in the living room, they tiptoed into his room to see if he was resting. The housekeeper intercepted them.
"Boys, come here and sit down. Buck had to go back to the hospital today. Chris is with him. Now, it isn't serious, don't worry. As soon as he knows anything, Chris will call you and tell you, okay?"
JD's eyes filled with tears and he leaned over to cry into Gloria's lap. Vin reached out to comfort the younger boy, running his hand up and down the shaking back.
Nathan and Josiah questioned the nurse at the desk and found out where Chris and Buck were. They were surprised when she told them that he was about to be discharged. Rushing into the exam room, they almost knocked down the very men they were looking for.
"What are you doing here?" Chris asked.
"Looking for the two of you. How is he?" Nathan asked.
With a big grin, Buck answered him, "It's coming back! I can see light and dark."
"Praise the Lord!" Josiah said.
"We were just on our way home. Where's Ezra?" Chris asked as they stepped into the hall.
"He went out to be with the boys," the medic explained.
JD was still crying when Ezra arrived. Gloria clucked over him and tried to get him to eat his snack with no success. Vin sat beside his friend, patting his shoulder. They both looked up hopefully when the door opened. Seeing the southerner, JD leapt from the couch and shot across the room. Ezra caught the little human missile and swept him up against his chest. As soon as he reached the recliner, Vin climbed in with them. Gloria brought him a glass of iced tea and set it on the table. For the next half hour, the two adults offered comfort to the two small boys.
The Dodge pulled up next to the Jag and Chris got out. Buck opened the door on his side and stepped down to wait for the blond to lead him to the house. The light colored blob, he identified as the modular home they had been living in. Beyond it, a larger shape had to be the new house. The suburban rolled to a stop behind the truck and Josiah and Nathan got out. The four men moved together toward the door. Gloria greeted them with a nervous smile.
JD looked up and his face lit up with a smile. "Da!" He pushed out of Ezra's lap and raced across the room, slowing only when he got within arms reach of the man. Buck knelt down and wrapped his arms around the little brunet.
Everyone gathered in the living room so Chris could explain what they knew. Buck's fall had jarred him hard enough to cause bleeding. The bleeding relieved the pressure on the optic nerves and the doctor was hopeful that he would regain his vision again. They celebrated by ordering out pizza that night.
Over the next few days, several things happened. First, Ringo was released from the veterinary clinic with only a single, silver dollar sized spot where no hair would grow. The boys were beyond thrilled to have the dog home and Elvis seemed pretty glad to see him too. Second, Buck insisted that the man whose lunch box he tripped over be hired back. It was an accident of providence. Third, Buck's vision continued to improve as he took the new medication the doctor prescribed to help break up the blood clot. Every day, his vision improved a little.
Chris adjusted his tie and removed his weapon from the temporary safe. As he was coming down the hall, he heard Buck bellow.
"Oh my God! What did they do to me?"
Reaching the bathroom door, the blond suppressed a laugh. Buck was squinting at the mirror, studying the military buzz style haircut he now sported. He ran his hand over his head, avoiding the tender, still healing line of the incision.
"Think of it as a small price to pay for saving your life. They wanted to shave off your mustache, too."
Shocked indignation filled Buck's face as he leaned closer to the mirror and squinted at his reflection.
"It'll grow back, Buck," Chris assured him.
Something like six weeks after the horrific fire destroyed their home, the new house was finished and they were getting ready to move in. The boys were thrilled about the separate rooms but decided that one would be better as a play room for their toys and that they would sleep in the same room, at least for the time being. The new house had central heat and air conditioning, an improvement on the prior house, which was built without ductwork. All of the salvageable furniture from the old house was delivered and set up so that they could figure out what they still needed to buy. Ezra eagerly helped with the new purchases.
The first night in their new home, the family hosted a party for their friends. The southerner catered in the meal so that no one had to cook. Although still not able to see well enough to read or drive, Buck could see enough to identify faces. Nathan and Rain brought Lisa to play with the boys. Mary Travis and Billy came with Mary's newest beau. Her father and mother in law stopped by for a brief visit. The children ran and played in the yard while the adults watched from the deck. Chris stood in the family room, staring at the wall of photos in new frames. To his surprise, there were pictures of Sarah and Adam mixed in with the newer pictures of he and Buck and the boys. Ezra and Buck had gone through a box of negatives that escaped the inferno and had chosen the ones to be reprinted. In spite of the difference in the way the house looked and felt, he could still feel his wife and son there, it was good.
The next day, after breakfast, Chris and Buck sat down with the boys and came up with an escape plan. If ever they should have a disaster in their home again, they wanted to have a plan in place. They discussed how they would get out of the house and where they would meet. Chris asked a fireman to come out and explain to the boys about how smoke affected things. The boys eagerly learned how to feel the doors and knobs to see if it was safe to open the door. They learned how to open the windows and get out safely. They practiced crawling below the dangerous smoke to get out and they practiced with blindfolds on because it might be dark when they needed to get out. So that they wouldn't forget, they put stickers on the calendar so they could have a 'disaster practice' once a month.
The boys eagerly shared what they learned with their classmates and Mr. Beidler arranged for the fire department to bring a display to the school so all of the children could see and practice. It turned into a whole school project. Each child was encouraged to draw a floor plan of their home and map out their escape route. The children enthusiastically embraced the idea. JD and Vin got a special ribbon for bringing the topic to everyone's attention. Uncle Ezra had it framed to hang on the wall of their new family room.