by Joy K
|The second night at North Pass
Ranch was smoother than the first. The boys were more familiar with their
surroundings and despite reservations, they were beginning to believe that
they could trust Chris and Buck.
It was a bittersweet moment when JD brought one of Adam's favorite books to Buck and wanted him to read them a bedtime story. In spite of his discomfort, Chris gamely sat with the boys and listened as Buck read each line that he'd long ago memorized in his own recitation of the book to his son.
Vin slept under the bed again, but this time Chris had no hesitation in sending Sam into the room to sleep with the boys.
JD's cries awakened both men during the night, but when they approached the room, a yawning Ezra seemed to have the comforting handled. It was no wonder the oldest boy was so tired in the morning if he spent the nights soothing away the nightmares of his 'brothers'.
Early morning found JD and Vin following Chris as he cared for the horses, while Buck started some laundry and prepared his world famous waffles for breakfast.
Buck hid his chuckle as Ezra wandered into the kitchen, still in his makeshift pajamas, his hair mussed, and leading Sam by the collar. He'd never reveal that he'd sent the dog in to wake the boy.
"Good morning, Ezra," said Buck.
Ezra blinked, still trying to clear his sleep muddled mind. "I think Sam needs to go out."
The dog whined pitifully.
Buck nodded. "Just let him out through the mudroom. Chris and Vin and JD are out there. Sam will find them when he's done."
He could hear Ezra maneuver the dog through the mudroom and let him out the back door. He heard a yawn and turned to see the weary boy running a hand through his hair.
"Did you sleep okay?" Buck asked unnecessarily. He knew Ezra was up during the night.
"It feels like the nights are too short," Ezra complained mildly. His eyes widened as if he'd just realized he'd said something wrong. "The room is very nice, thank you."
Buck was torn. He wanted to go over and hug the boy and tell him he didn't have to try to give the right answer every time, but he was also aware of Ezra's defenses.
"Nights can be very short when you aren't sleeping," Buck said calmly as he stirred the waffle batter. "You're doing a good job of taking care of JD and Vin."
He stopped stirring and set the bowl of batter aside, turning to face Ezra.
"I bet you've hardly had any sleep since the flood," he said.
"They're scared," Ezra admitted softly.
"I think we all are," said Buck.
Ezra looked surprised.
"Come here," said Buck, moving to the table and sitting down. He nodded to a chair and was pleased that the eight-year-old sat down.
"A flood is a frightening thing for everyone, even if your house isn't damaged by it," he explained. "It reminds you that there are things that are beyond your control. And in a way, that is good because it makes you stop and think, and maybe take the time to do what you can to prepare. You might not be able to stop bad things from happening, but you can do your best to be ready to handle them when they come."
"I don't know how to help them not be scared," Ezra said.
"You're already doing it," said Buck. "You're being there when they cry. You're being their brother. About the only thing you could do different would be to let us help."
He could almost see Ezra's defenses go up at the suggestion of helping. "I know that you don't trust us, and you probably have a very good reason, but we really are the good guys, Ezra. We just want to help."
Buck watched Ezra as the boy considered his words. At least he was open to thinking about the possibility that they weren't going to harm him. That was miles beyond his outlook two days ago.
"Maybe Chris and I could spell you once in a while, you know, give you a break so you can sleep all night," suggested Buck. "We could take turns. That way no one will get sick from too little sleep."
Ezra chewed on his lower lip contemplating whether he could trust these men or not.
"Think about it," said Buck. "But for now, how are you with waffles? I could sure use some help."
"I can set the table," Ezra said, eager to be of value. "But I should probably get dressed first."
"Well, all right," said Buck with a smile. "Get yourself ready and come back and rescue me from this mess."
Ezra grinned and then walked quickly down the hall to get ready.
"Why you doin' that, Mr. Chris?"
The blond man bit his lip. Paybacks. That's what it was. God was getting even with him for laughing at Buck when JD riddled him with "Are we there, yet?" on the way to the ranch from the shelter. The five-year-old had peppered him with questions from the time they had entered the barn.
"Because it needs to be cleaned," said Chris, reminding himself that these boys had not been on a ranch, so everything was new to them. "It's dirty and it's not good for the horses to stand in it."
"And 'cause it stinks?"
Chris chuckled. "That, too, JD." He dumped the full shovel into the wheelbarrow.
"Can me and Vin help?"
"Uh..." Chris stammered, "Uh, you can help put the new straw in the stall when I'm done mucking." He could just picture the disaster that could happen if JD had a shovel full of manure. "Just stay there on the bin until I finish up here."
"Okay," said JD. "Hey, look! It's Sam. Hi, Sam!"
The old dog picked up his pace and trotted happily towards the boys. He nudged Vin's leg, bringing a grin to the seven-year-old's face. Both boys patted the dog as they waited.
Finally Chris invited them down off the storage bin to assist with the straw. He finished three stalls while they worked on their first.
"Mr. Chris? Did we do it good?" asked JD.
Chris smiled at the little urchin. He was covered with bits of straw from head to toe, eyes begging for approval. Vin stood beside him, covered with nearly as much straw and a slight grin on his face.
Larabee made a big show of inspecting the stall, checking every corner as two breathless boys waited.
He looked at the trail of straw from the wheelbarrow to the stall that he would have to clean up. He looked at the two little boys that he would have to clean up. "It's perfect," he announced. "You are great helpers."
Their beaming smiles were worth the extra work.
"We've got a few more to do," Chris added.
"We'll do this one, Mr. Chris," said JD happily.
"All right," Chris agreed. "Let's finish up. I'm starting to feel hungry."
Thumping in the mudroom and the slap of the back screen door closing announced the arrival of Chris and the boys.
"About time," called Buck. "We thought you were going to stay out there all day."
"I had help," Chris said as JD slipped past him, mostly straw free.
Buck smiled knowingly.
"Hi, Mr. Josiah! Hi, Mr. Nathan!" said JD. "I didn't know you was here."
"We got here late last night, and didn't want to disturb you," said Nathan.
"We're staying in The Bunkhouse until we can repair our homes," added Josiah.
"Did your house get water in it?" JD asked seriously as he sidled up next to the counselor.
"Yes, it did."
"So did ours," said JD.
"Hey, boys," Buck interrupted, "Go get washed up quick. We're starving."
Vin and JD hurried down the hall to the bathroom.
Ezra remained seated quietly in his chair at the table. His place had been moved to the same side as Vin and JD so that Josiah and Nathan could join the group at the table.
Chris could see that while Ezra was wearing his new jeans, he was wearing the too big dress shirt from the shelter and his dress shoes. His hair was neatly combed, hands folded in his lap. Other than the dark circles under his eyes, he was the perfect little gentleman.
"Ezra here was a big help to me this morning," said Buck. "He set the table, picked out the toppings for the waffles, and even made a few while I was throwing clothes in the dryer."
"Thanks, Ezra," said Chris.
Ezra smiled slightly at the praise. "I wasn't sure what everyone would like so Mr. Wilmington said it was all right to put out a little of everything."
"Good idea," Chris said.
JD and Vin came back into the kitchen and climbed up into their chairs.
Sam looked at the table longingly before wandering over to the corner and lying down with a sigh.
Buck pulled the pan of waffles out of the oven where he had been keeping them warm, and placed the pan in the middle of the table.
"Dig in, boys," he said with a smile.
Josiah stayed at the ranch with the boys while Buck, Chris and Nathan went to work. He spent the morning playing with the boys and having individual counseling sessions with each of them. While still having some fears and reservations, each of the boys had been more open with him.
Chris was dealing with his least favorite part of his job - red tape. He was on the phone most of the morning with city, county and state officials following up on details and coordinating his department's responsibilities.
Buck and Nathan were out on patrol re-checking on outlying ranches for anyone who might have suffered damage and need help.
Though retired, Nettie Wells was volunteering her time manning the phones at the office. She fielded the call they had been dreading.
She knocked on Chris' half-open door and waited for his growl.
"I know you've been on the phone with bureaucrats all morning, but I think you should take this call."
Chris looked up. Nettie was no-nonsense, and the look on her face told him it was serious.
"It's about Rachel Dunne."
Chris nodded and pushed the blinking button on his phone.
"Larabee... Yes... Are you certain?" He rubbed a hand across his eyes. "All right...No. How long can you hold her body there? ...Fine. I'll be in touch."
He placed the handset into the cradle and blew out a long slow breath.
"I'm sorry," said Nettie.
Chris shook his head. "How the hell am I supposed to tell JD that his mother is dead?"
Nettie walked over to his desk and stood behind him resting her hands on his shoulders. "You'll tell him the truth as simply as possible and then you'll be there to hold him and let him know that he's safe."
"What's going to happen to them?" he asked quietly.
"What do you want to happen to them?"
"What?" Chris asked, surprised by her question.
"You already have approval to keep them until their families can be found."
"There's no reason why that couldn't be permanent."
"Nettie," Chris warned.
He shook his head and grinned. "We'll see."
"Good. Now what do you want me to do?"
"Track down Rachel Dunne's address and whatever else you can find about her. When you get an address, send Buck and Nate to check it out."
"Yes, Sir," Nettie said with a smile.
Chris shook his head as she walked out the door. His smile faded to a frown as he thought of how three boys would take the loss of Rachel Dunne.
Buck and Nathan stood in ankle deep water outside the little home on 39th Street. It had the telltale X painted on the wall indicating the date it was searched, the agency and the results. One dead.
Buck pushed open the door without much hope of finding anything they could salvage for the boys. The high water line reached almost to the roof. Rachel Dunne rested in the morgue but maybe a few mementos could still be saved.
The men moved carefully through the sludge on the floor. They wore protective clothing and gloves hopefully preventing any contamination from making them ill.
Nathan checked the first bedroom, presuming it to be Mrs. Dunne's since there was only one bed. The dresser had been upended by the water, the bedside table and lamp strewn around the room. Spying the silver corner of a picture frame he carefully extracted it from the muck and tried to smear away the goop to see if it was completely ruined. He could see water damage, but maybe part of the photo could be saved and copied. These boys would need whatever memories they could find. He carefully placed the picture in a plastic bag.
Buck was in the second bedroom. It was worse than he imagined. The bunk beds were toppled, the upper bunk resting on top of the stand-alone bed. Clothes and toys were scattered across the floor coated in mud. He thought of three little boys back at the ranch. They'd lost their mother figure, their home, all their belongs. They had nothing left of their past.
"It's going to be all right, Buck," said Nathan, startling him from his thoughts.
Buck looked at him sadly. "It's all gone."
"I know," Nathan agreed. "We'll help them start over. Let's check the rest of the house. Maybe we can find something."
Buck nodded and followed him into the hallway. Nathan maneuvered around the main room trying to find some more pictures. Buck moved toward the kitchen.
"Nathan," he called. "I've got a pull down staircase here."
Jackson slipped a few more picture frames in his plastic bag and followed Buck's voice. He stopped next to the dark haired man observing the knocked over kitchen chair next to the ladder.
"Do you think this is how Vin got out?" he asked.
Buck nodded. "I'm going up."
"Be careful," Nathan said. "Those rungs are slippery."
Wilmington made his way up the narrow steps into the attic. The small room was mostly empty, except for one corner. Buck smiled to himself. He could picture three little boys playing in the makeshift fort they had constructed of crates and boards. Putting himself into the mindset of a child, he moved toward the structure hoping that the boys had hidden some of their special treasures there.
"I'm just going to check over here... Ow!"
Nathan winced as Buck hit his head on a rafter. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Just feeling stupid," said Buck. Ducking as he neared the low end of the rafters, he crawled on hands and knees into the fort.
"Please, please, please," he said softly as he searched the crates. He found a few toys, which he promptly put into plastic bags. Then, on instinct, he started tapping on the wall. A big grin graced his face as he found a hollow sounding spot. Fumbling with the boards he got one to shift revealing a locking metal box, a shoebox and a cigar box. The shoebox was labeled with JD's name. The cigar box was labeled "Vin Tanner. Keep Out." The metal box was likely Ezra's.
"Yes!" he exclaimed. He held up the boxes so Nathan could see them before he carefully stowed them in the plastic bag.
Seeing Nathan's preoccupation with the small window, Buck carefully moved over beside him. "What do you have?"
Jackson pointed to the piece of fabric snagged on the dormer window frame.
"That's how he got out," Buck said.
Nathan nodded. "Just big enough for a boy."
"And a dog."
Nathan looked at him. "Yeah." Taking one last look out the small window, he moved back towards the stairs. "Let's get this stuff back to the office and see what we can do with it."
"What have you got?" Chris asked as he approached the desk Nettie was currently occupying.
"Copies of Court records," said Nettie. "Once we had a name and address it wasn't hard to track down some information."
Chris picked up one of the files. "Vincent Michael Tanner."
Nettie nodded. "Rachel Dunne was named his legal guardian almost two years ago. It became effective on the death of Rebekah Tanner. The interesting thing is that there is no mention of any relation between Rachel and Rebekah."
"So Vin and JD may not be blood relatives?" Chris asked.
"It's just odd that it isn't mentioned in the file," she said.
"What about Ezra?"
Nettie picked up another file. "Ezra Payson Standish. Rachel was granted temporary guardianship for an unspecified period time while his mother is out of the country."
"His mother?" Chris asked.
"Maude Standish Wingo. Whereabouts currently unknown," Nettie answered.
"What?" asked Chris, seeing the serious look on Nettie's face.
"There's a warrant out for her arrest."
Chris cursed, gaining a little more understanding of why Ezra feared Law Enforcement.
"Any other family?" he asked.
"Not yet," said Nettie. "We're running checks now."
Chris nodded. "Thanks, Nettie," he said, placing a kiss on the top of her head.
"And it's not good for them to stand in it and it stinks!"
Josiah chuckled at JD's description of mucking out stalls. "So you enjoyed helping?"
"Yep. It was fun. And Mr. Chris said we did real good and the horses will be happy." JD bounced on the couch and wiggled his feet. "He says we can help feed the horses tonight, too."
He bounced a few more times. "Can I go play now?"
"Sure," said Josiah. "Let's see what Vin and Ezra are up to."
He followed JD out the back door to find the two older boys. They were easily located. Vin was seated under an oak tree petting Sam. Ezra was on the end of the porch reading a book.
JD scampered off the porch and ran across the yard to Vin and Sam. He picked up a stick and threw it for the old dog. The Labrador obligingly got up and trotted after the short branch.
"What are you reading?" Josiah asked as he sat down next to Ezra.
"Mr. Larabee said I could read any of the books on the shelf," the boy said defensively.
Josiah let it slide. "Do you enjoy reading?"
Ezra looked at him suspiciously, but he couldn't see the harm in answering. "Yes."
Sanchez looked at the binding of the book. "Why the Black Stallion?"
"My Mother," Ezra stopped, but not before the word spilled out.
Josiah remained quiet hoping that Ezra would feel safe enough to finish his thought.
"My Mother read it to me one time when I was sick."
"Sounds like a special memory," Josiah prompted.
"I had pneumonia. I was in the hospital. She stayed with me all day and all night and read the book every time I woke up." Ezra didn't look up. "Then she had to go."
"Where is she now?" Josiah knew it was a risky question and Ezra would probably clam up, but he had to try.
"She asked Aunt Rachel to take care of me." He looked up at Josiah. "Mother loves me."
The words were said with a surprising defiance as if he were defending her actions, or that he'd expected her to be criticized. Either way it spoke of a child who had been left behind more than once.
"I'm sure she does, son," Josiah soothed. "Where is she now?"
"I have to use the restroom," Ezra said quickly. "Excuse me."
Josiah sighed as he watched the boy enter the house. At least Ezra had talked about his mother, though he had given no truly useful information. Still, it was a step in the right direction.
He stood and walked across the yard to talk to Vin.
"Hello, Vin," he said. "Mind if I join you?"
Vin shrugged and continued watching JD run around the yard with Sam.
"JD told me you got to help Chris with the horses this morning," said Josiah as he sat down in the shade.
"Did you ever take care of horses before today?" Josiah asked.
The boy shook his head, still stingy with words.
Josiah sat quietly for a moment trying to find something that would draw Vin out.
"I rode with Gran'father sometimes. But I didn't take care of Lightning."
Josiah smiled. "Did you ride often?"
Vin shook his head. "No. Only when Gran'father didn't work and had time."
The seven-year-old looked up at Josiah. "Lightning wasn't very fast. He was real old. Gran'father said he called him Lightning 'cause it made him feel young."
Josiah chuckled. "So Lightning didn't work for the Reservation Police?"
Vin shook his head. "No. He was tired."
"Yeah," said Vin. "When Gran'father didn't use the truck at work, he rode Thunder." The seven-year-old grinned.
"Am I missing something?" asked Josiah as JD and Sam ran by again.
"His name weren't really Thunder," Vin volunteered with a snicker. "Gran'father said he had to call him Thunder because all the bad guys would laugh at his real name."
Josiah grinned broadly, enjoying the humor Vin found in his story. "What was his real name?"
"Sugar Lips!" Vin giggled.
Sanchez chuckled both at the name and at the fact that Vin was laughing.
"Well, I don't know," said Josiah, "Seems to me that Sugar Lips would have made some bad guys stop in their tracks."
"Yeah," Vin giggled. "They'd fall down laughing when Gran'father said, 'Stop them, Sugar Lips!'"
Josiah laughed heartily as Vin was consumed by giggles.
JD and Sam ran over to the duo wanting to be a part of whatever was happening. "What's funny?" he asked as he climbed in between Vin and Josiah.
"Sugar Lips," said Vin breaking into another round of giggles. JD joined the laughter having heard the story before.
Ezra stood at the back door watching the laughter, with mixed emotions. He was happy that Vin and JD were enjoying themselves, but a little sad that it was with Josiah and not him. His mother said not to trust the police, yet he couldn't find any reason not to trust these men. He stepped away from the door and walked back to the bedroom.
It was all too confusing.
Buck placed the three boxes on Chris' desk. "The lab checked them for contamination and said they're safe."
"Good," said Chris.
"And Mary Travis is going to make use of some of her contacts at the newspaper office and see what can be done to preserve the photos," Buck added. "She said there's a process that can be used to salvage documents by freezing them."
Chris nodded. Buck sat down in a chair across the desk from his boss. "So are we going to tell them tonight?"
With a sigh Larabee said, "I can't see any reason not to, other than I don't want to tell them."
Buck cursed. "I don't want to break JD's heart."
"I know," said Chris, "but his heart is already broken."
"Yes," Buck agreed, "but now it's real and it's forever. His Mama isn't coming back."
"It's going to be hard on Vin and Ezra, too," said Chris, rubbing a hand across his forehead. "Ezra thinks she's probably dead, but this is going to rob him of that tiny hope that she isn't and take away what little security he has. And Vin?"
Chris blew out a long sigh.
"He was inside the house Chris, I'm sure of it. He must have seen her," Buck said sadly.
"Yeah," the blond said softly. "I think it would be best to have Josiah on hand when we talk to the boys. We don't know what Vin remembers, if he remembers, and what emotions it's going to stir up."
Buck stood up abruptly. He shoved his chair against the wall with a string of curses, and kicked the trashcan sending it's contents skittering across the floor.
Chris took a deep breath and let Buck rant. He wanted to do the same thing.
"It's not fair," Buck said as the emotion drained.
"Nope," said Chris.
"We'd better get someone to cover the early shift," Buck added as he bent to pick up the trash and redeposit it.
"Already done," Larabee said. "I scheduled the four of us off all day. Virgil's going to man the office and Gloria's back on dispatch."
"Nettie?" asked Buck. She was retired but seemed to spend more time in the office than at home.
"She's coming out to the ranch to help tomorrow. Do some cooking."
"And some mending of hearts?" Buck asked.
Chris nodded in acknowledgement.
"I suppose we should hit the road," the dark haired man said reluctantly, taking the boxes and moving towards the door.
He stopped and looked back.
"I'll be the bad guy," said Chris.
Buck nodded slowly. He didn't want the job of telling the boys, and he knew Chris didn't either. He was grateful for his friend's decision.
The three boys instinctively huddled together on the couch. When Chris said he needed to talk to them Vin and Ezra knew it was bad. JD wasn't sure what was going on but sensed the tension in his brothers.
JD looked from Buck to Chris to Josiah to Nathan. All of them looked very serious. Chris sat down on the coffee table in front of the boys.
JD looked at Vin and Ezra. Both of them looked upset. Mr. Buck looked sad.
He looked at Chris and asked softly, "Did you find my Mama?"
Chris closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and nodded. "Yes, JD."
Tears flooded the little boy's eyes. Even though he was only five, he could tell it wasn't good.
"Is Mama okay?" he asked with his last bit of hope.
"No, son," said Chris. "I'm sorry. She's not."
JD trembled and blinked away huge tears, letting them roll down his cheeks. "Did she go with Vin's mama?"
Chris made the mistake of looking at Vin at that moment. The boy's anguish showed clearly as tears flowed down his face. The seven year old lowered his face, unable to look at Chris.
Blinking back his own tears, Chris nodded.
"I don't want her to go!" JD wailed. "I don't want her to go!" He turned to Ezra. "Tell him he's wrong. Mama's coming to get us."
With tears in his eyes, Ezra looked at Buck for help.
Buck nodded to him trying to reinforce their pre-breakfast conversation about how to help the boys - to just be there and hold them when they cried.
"Tell him!" JD demanded.
Ezra wrapped his arms around JD. "I wish I could, JD."
"No!" JD wailed as the reality of the words began to take hold.
Buck stood, his breaking heart wanting instinctively to try to comfort JD.
Chris held up a hand warning him off. The boys needed to comfort each other first. JD would turn to Buck when he needed him.
"Vin," Ezra said softly.
The seven-year-old looked up to see Ezra's hand reaching past JD's shoulder to him. Without conscious thought he scooted in closer and wrapped his arms around JD, too.
Sniffs sounded throughout the room as each man dealt with their own emotions over the boys' loss. Several minutes passed before the wails lessened. Vin was the first to pull away from the hug, allowing his brothers room.
JD's shoulders shuddered with another gasping sob as he tried to stop crying. He saw Buck and in their short time together he had equated Buck with comfort and safety. Little arms reached toward the dark haired man. "I want Mama."
Buck stepped forward and answered the plea of the urchin. "I know, Kiddo. I know," he soothed as he swooped JD into his arms and held him tightly.
Still seated on the coffee table, Chris reached out and touched Vin's knee. When the boy looked up, the blond man asked, "Do you want to go outside with me? I need to feed the horses."
Vin gave a slight nod.
"How about you Ezra?" Chris asked.
Ezra looked at Buck holding JD. He looked at Vin. He didn't know what to do.
"You don't have to help if you don't want to," Larabee added.
Ezra shook his head. He didn't know what he wanted to do, but he did know that he didn't want to worry about having to dodge horse manure in the barn.
Buck was headed down the hall with JD. Chris looked to Josiah for help.
"Ezra can stay in here with us," Josiah offered. "Nathan's going to make some hot chocolate."
"That all right with you, son?" Chris asked.
"All right. We'll be out in the barn if you need us." He stood and waited as Vin wiped his eyes on his sleeve and then followed Chris outside.
"I'm going to start that hot chocolate," said Nathan.
Josiah nodded. He watched Ezra fold his arms across his chest, a defensive move that melted away as the position shifted into hugging himself.
Chris and Vin worked quietly in the barn, the boy following instructions mechanically. It didn't take very long for the job to be completed.
Chris sat down on the storage bin. Vin climbed up beside him and let out a soft sigh.
"Are you all right?" Chris asked.
Tears flooded the boy's eyes.
"I'm sorry," Chris said, putting his arm around Vin's shoulder as he began to sob. He gently pulled the boy close and felt Vin lean into his chest.
He shed a few tears of his own listening to the heartbroken boy as he held him tightly hoping to give him a sense of comfort and security.
"I tried," he sobbed.
Chris bit his lip wishing what he was hearing wasn't true. Wishing that this child had not seen his Aunt die.
He stroked the top of Vin's head soothingly.
"I couldn't get her out of the water."
Vin took a few quick breaths gathering strength for his confession.
"The water was too deep."
"Was she already under the water when you got there?" Chris asked quietly.
The boy nodded. "She wouldn't wake up."
"Vin, I want you to listen very carefully to me. Your Aunt Rachel was already gone when you got to her. There was nothing you could do. You tried to help her and that was a very brave thing to do." Chris kissed the boy on top of his head. "But it took even more courage to leave her."
"I was so scared." Vin's voice broke as the tears rolled in earnest again.
"Anyone would have been scared," said Chris. "I would."
"You would?" Vin asked with a sniff.
"Absolutely. I would have been scared to go in the water to get to the house. I would have been scared when I went inside. I would have been scared when I couldn't wake her up. And I would have been really scared when I had to go into the attic to get out."
Vin tipped his head back and looked at Chris. "I had to break the window."
"You did the right thing."
"I lied. I told JD and Ezra Aunt Rachel wasn't there."
"Well," Chris said, "In a way that was true, wasn't it?"
Vin shuddered remembering what Aunt Rachel looked like in the water.
Chris squeezed him a little tighter. "What you saw," he whispered, "was just her shell. She wasn't really there anymore."
"She was on her journey?"
Chris nodded. He didn't know all Native American beliefs but he had a basic understanding and it seemed to be helping Vin cope and come to terms with what had happened.
"Did Dobie go on a journey, too?"
Chris winced inwardly. How was he supposed to answer that? He looked into the hopeful blue eyes.
"I don't know, yet, Vin."
Vin took a deep, shuddering breath. He was silent for a few minutes, resting in the security of Chris' arms.
"What do we do now?" he finally asked.
"Well, for now you stay with us." Chris tipped Vin's chin up so the boy was looking at him again. "We'll keep looking for your families, but you will always have a home here."
"I don't have no family but JD and Ezra now," Vin answered.
"What about your Grandfather?" Chris asked.
"Gran'father is just Gran'father," the seven-year-old stated matter-of-factly as if that would explain it.
Chris nodded. It told him what he needed to know. Grandfather wasn't a blood relative.
Inside the house an almost nine-year-old sat on the couch alone, surrounded only by pain and confusion. Without realizing he was doing it, he began to rock slightly. And as much as he didn't want to cry, the tears came, and suddenly he was wrapped in Josiah's arms and transported into his lap in the rocking recliner.
The brave little man that he had tried so hard to project crumbled with the reality of being only eight years old, surviving a flood, losing his guardian and wanting his mother. He didn't think about the fact that it was a policeman holding him and his mother had told him not to talk to them. He only knew that the arms wrapped around him felt good.
"Let it go," the gentle voice rumbled as he slowly rocked the chair.
Ezra fought the tears. He didn't want to cry but he missed Aunt Rachel so much. She made him feel safe when his mother had to go away. She called him her boy just like she did with JD and Vin. It didn't matter to her that he wasn't her born son.
"Let it go," Josiah soothed.
It was his fault that Aunt Rachel was gone. She was sick. He should have stayed with her.
"I'm sorry," he cried softly. "I'm sorry, Aunt Rachel."
Josiah swallowed hard at the broken hearted plea. "She forgave you, son, whatever it was."
"How could she?" Ezra said with sudden anger, pushing himself away from Josiah's chest, but remaining in his lap.
"What is it you feel you've done?" Josiah asked softly trying to soothe the conflicted child.
"It's my fault she was alone."
"JD told me she was sick," Josiah replied.
Ezra looked at his hands and picked at his fingernail. "It rained for days and days and we were bored and it finally stopped raining and I just wanted to go outside." He dared a glance at Josiah's face before dropping his eyes in shame. "Aunt Rachel was sick. Her medicine made her sleep. She said I was in charge. I made Vin and JD go to the park with me. I told them Aunt Rachel would never know and we could be back before she woke up, but then the water came..."
Josiah pulled Ezra close again, feeling the initial resistance melt away as the child surrendered to his need for comfort. "What would have happened if you had stayed at the house?" he asked softly.
"Maybe I could have made her wake up."
Josiah heard the doubt in the comment. "Could you?"
Ezra shook his head. "Maybe. The medicine always made her sleep for two or three hours and even when we made lots of noise and she didn't wake up."
"Son, if the water from the flood didn't wake her up, you wouldn't have been able to either," Josiah said, hoping that Rachel Dunne had never known what happened. He gently rubbed Ezra's back as he let the boy absorb that thought. "Whether you think so or not, it was a good thing that you were at the park. It was very smart of you to get JD up high out of the water."
Ezra shook his head. "We should have been home."
"What do you think would have happened if you were home?"
The eight-year-old stilled... listening... thinking.
"You wouldn't have been able to wake Rachel. Would you have been able to get JD to leave her? Or Vin?" Josiah let the implications sink in. If the boys had been home, they likely would have been lost as well.
"Ezra, I don't know what made you decide to go to the park and take Vin and JD with you, but I'm glad you did. We can't change the fact that Rachel is gone, but if you hadn't gone to the park we wouldn't have had the chance to get to know any of you now."
"I miss her."
Josiah smiled sadly at the lonely words.
"Who's going to take care of JD and Vin?" Ezra asked.
Sanchez didn't miss the omission of Ezra's name. "Chris wants you to stay here with him. We'll keep looking for family - for all of you."
"JD and Vin don't have anyone else," Ezra said sadly.
"And you?" Josiah prompted.
"Mother will come for me," he replied, but his tears started rolling again. "Mr. Sanchez, I have to go back to the house. Please. It's very important." The desperation in his voice grew with each phrase. "I have to go back."
"It's okay," Josiah said, trying to soothe the slight panic. "Buck and Nathan found your treasure boxes in the attic."
"No!" said Ezra. "I have to go back. She won't know where I am."
"Son, you can't go back to the house."
Ezra began to struggle in his grasp, but Josiah held on.
"I have to. I have to get my book. It's in my room." He was frantic. "I can't remember the numbers in her address. I have to tell her where I am so she can find me."
"Shhh," Josiah soothed. "It will be all right. We'll tell the post office to send your mail here."
"I have to write to her..."
"Ezra, the room was full of water. Anything that was paper was destroyed." As the words were spoken he realized they were brutally honest - maybe more frank than he needed to be.
"No." The futile word cut to Josiah's core.
"Son, listen to me," he pleaded. "You can write to her as much as you want to, and as soon as we get a letter from her, we'll mail her every single letter. Okay?"
The boy stopped struggling, his small hands now clinging to Josiah's shirtsleeves instead of clawing at his arms.
"But how will she know where I am?"
Clearly in his distress he had missed Josiah's answer the first time. "It's easy, Ezra. We'll fill out a little card with your name on it and your address from the house. Then we'll write this address on the card, too. We'll give it to the mail carrier and he'll know to bring your mail here."
"Vin and JD, too?"
Josiah nodded. "Vin and JD, too."
Ezra sat quietly for a moment absorbing the strength of Josiah's grasp.
"Can we still try to find my book?" Ezra dared to ask.
"I tell you what," said Josiah, "You tell me where it was and I'll go to the house tomorrow and try to find it. If I find it, we'll have to take it to the lab and have them try to dry it out and make sure it won't make you sick."
"Okay," Ezra nodded. "It's under my mattress."
"And it might take some time," Josiah cautioned. "They have a lot of extra work to do right now because of the flood. We may have a letter from your mother by the time they can check your book."
Ezra nodded again, seeming to find comfort in the knowledge that he had another possible way to contact his mother.
Josiah hoped that she would write soon and spare her son the anguish of waiting. The likelihood was that even if he found the book, anything in it would have been smudged beyond readability or even completely washed away by the flood.
He rocked gently continuing to hold Ezra as the boy seemed to relax.
"How are we doing in here?" Chris said quietly as he entered from the kitchen.
Josiah nodded to him as he continued to rock.
Chris moved over in front of the rocker recliner so Ezra could see him. "How are you doing, Pal?"
Ezra didn't answer, but he looked at Chris.
"Vin's in the kitchen having some hot chocolate with Nathan. Do you want to join us?" The blond instinctively reached out a hand in invitation. He was pleasantly surprised when Ezra took his hand.
Josiah let the boy slide from his lap as Chris led him towards the kitchen.
"Are you coming, too, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra asked.
"In a few minutes," Josiah said. "I'm going to check on Buck and JD first."
With a smile he watched Ezra walk hand in hand with Chris into the kitchen. The little guy was still conflicted about trusting them or not, but right now his needs for comfort and security were definitely winning the battle.
Josiah walked down the hall to the guest room. Buck was sitting on the bed, JD draped over his shoulder sound asleep.
Seeing Josiah in the doorway, Buck freed one arm momentarily and wiped away his tears.
"How's it going in here?" Josiah asked.
"Cried himself to sleep," said Buck. "Kept asking for his Mama. All I could do is tell him I'm sorry and hold him."
"I'm sure you did just fine, Buck."
"I was seventeen when I lost my mom, but I can't imagine how hard it is for a guy this little."
"It's hard at any age," Josiah replied acknowledging Buck's loss. "The important thing now is to let him know he is loved and safe."
"How could you not love him?" Buck said looking at the boy snuggled on his shoulder with his thumb in his mouth.
"How could you not love any of them?" said Josiah.
Buck nodded in agreement. Each one of the boys was special in his own way.
"The others are having hot chocolate in the kitchen."
"I think he's had it," said Buck. "I'm going to keep him close tonight. Let him sleep in here."
"It's probably best," Josiah nodded, "But it would be good to run it by Ezra and Vin. Let them be a part of the decision."
"All right," said Buck, standing slowing and heading for the kitchen.
Three subdued boys followed Chris around the barn, never straying far from each other. It had been a rough night. JD bunked in with Buck and had awakened in tears several times during the night. Vin and Ezra had slept in Adam's room with a slight change in sleeping arrangements. The seven-year-old had foregone sleeping under the bed in favor of being close to his brother. Sam had joined them on Ezra's bed for a crowded but comforting night.
Ezra hadn't wanted to help in the barn but an early morning phone call from Nathan's girlfriend, Raine had let Chris know that the horses she was holding had cleared quarantine and were ready to go to North Pass ranch for boarding until the owners could be located. Chris and Buck were both working in the barn to get extra stalls ready and Ezra didn't want to be alone so he had donned his new boots and the dreaded durable Carhartt coat and followed his brothers and the men to the barn.
He helped Vin and JD carry straw to the stalls, but spent more time picking straw off his shirt than he did carrying it.
JD would work for a while, but then without warning he would run over to Buck and want to be held. Buck indulged him, holding the boy until he seemed to want down and then he would return to work.
Vin worked quietly and steadily most of the time, but every once in a while, he'd go sit down on the storage bin and pet Sam. The old Labrador seemed to sense Vin's need and would sit quietly and lean his head on the boy's lap.
Nettie arrived midmorning and split her time between hugging boys and starting lunch. Much like her older "boys," the young ones were drawn to her.
With lunch in the oven, she sat on the porch swing watching the activity around the barn and in the corral. It wasn't long before a dark haired little boy crawled up on the bench seat next to her needing another hug.
"Scoot on over here," she invited.
JD slid over and slipped under her arm, leaning against her side. Nettie pushed the swing into motion with her feet letting the natural sway soothe both of them.
"Yes, son?" she answered.
"Did you know my Mama goed on a journey with Vin's Mama?" JD asked.
"Yes, Sweetie, I did."
JD sighed. "I want her to come back but she can't."
Nettie snuggled him a little closer.
"Mr. Buck says we live here now and that Mr. Chris will take care of us."
She nodded. From all indications in the files she had gone through, there wasn't much chance of any family being found for either JD or Vin. Ezra's mother was alive, but her whereabouts was unknown.
"How do you feel about that?" she asked.
"I like it here. I like the horses and I like Mr. Buck. I like Mr. Chris, too, but Mr. Buck is more snuggly."
Nettie smiled. Snuggly was an interesting description. It wouldn't help him maintain his tough deputy image at the Sheriff's office.
"And Vin and Ezra can live here, too."
"It sounds very good to me," said Nettie.
They were quiet for a few moments as they swayed back and forth.
"I miss my Mama."
Nettie leaned down and kissed him on top of his head. "I know Sweetie. I know."
"Nathan! People are watching."
"Who cares?" Nathan answered, kissing Raine in the middle of the kennel area of the clinic.
She laughed and playfully pushed him away. "You need to get on the road with those horses."
"I rather stay here with you," he teased, and then kissed her again.
"Nathan," she protested lightly.
"What? No one's looking. Well, no one but the dogs anyway and you don't mind, do you boy?"
The Labrador wagged his tail at the attention. Another Lab in the next kennel barked.
"Any luck finding the owners yet?" Nathan asked.
"No. We've only found ID tags on two of the animals and neither of those were these Labradors," Raine said as she scratched the dog's ear.
"No," Nathan said with a gasp of hope. "Babe, is he missing a piece of his ear?"
The two trucks rumbled up the driveway pulling horse trailers behind them. Josiah was pulling a six-horse trailer while Nathan towed a three-horse model.
Chris and Buck met them at the barn with the boys. Vin, JD and Ezra were very interested about the new additions to the ranch. It was the most excitement they had shown all day. They understood that for most of the animals it would be a temporary home, but for some it could be permanent.
Nettie joined them shortly after the trailers arrived and provided supervision for the boys while the men prepared to unload the animals. Horses in trailers could be touchy at best, but add to the mix that these weren't animals they were familiar with; Chris wanted to be sure the boys were safe - no matter how much they wanted to be in the middle of things.
True to form, they had to struggle with a few of the animals, which had suffered enough upheaval in the past few days and weren't going to budge. They unloaded the six-horse trailer first, enjoying the boys' excited chatter as they hung on the corral fence telling each other what they liked best about each horse.
With the two remaining horses unloaded, Nathan called Chris back into the smaller trailer. While it had room for three horses, he'd only needed space for two, so he commandeered the remaining space for a special surprise.
"What's wrong?" Chris asked as he followed Nathan into the trailer.
"Not a thing. Take a look." Jackson nodded to the front stall.
Chris looked over the wall. "That's not?" he asked with a big grin.
"Yep. Little notch out of his ear. White toes," said Nathan, "And look at his reaction to the boys' voices."
"Guess I needed another dog," Chris said with a laugh. "Open it up."
He stepped out of the trailer and moved to the side where he could see the boys pointing at the various horses. Sam the dog sat faithfully next to Vin waiting for the boy to pet him.
A black streak shot out of the back of the trailer and barked as he raced towards the boys.
Their faces were priceless. Three boys turned in unison, eyes wide with surprise.
"Dobie!" JD shouted. "Dobie, you came!"
Little Vin's mouth moved as if he were trying to speak, but no words came out.
Ezra jumped down off of the corral fence rail with a huge smile.
Sam trotted forward, placing himself between the perceived danger and the boys. The two Labradors briefly smelled each other and then turned and ran happily to the boys.
The adults were all smiles as Dobie knocked Vin down and licked him. JD and Sam dove in as well enjoying the reunion.
Ezra stood to the side grinning broadly. His inbred aversion to dirt and his training to be a gentleman kept him from diving into the pile, but it was clear he was delighted to see the dog as well.
"How'd you find him?" Buck asked Nathan.
Jackson smiled. "I was talking to Raine and there he was in the kennel behind her. She scratched him behind the ear and I saw the notch. We'd been so busy I hadn't had time to go check for the dog earlier."
"It's about time those boys had a break," said Buck.
"They already had a pretty big one," said Nettie, looking at Chris.
Larabee shook his head slightly. "It was never really a question," he said mostly to himself. He had the means and the room to support them. The boys needed a home and North Pass Ranch was a perfect place for a boy to grow up. He sighed wishing that Adam had had the chance to grow up here, but he was gone and three hurting boys needed someone to care.
The likelihood was that they wouldn't find family to claim Vin or JD. They knew that Ezra's mother was alive and in some kind of trouble with the law. They'd have to do more digging and find out what the charges were and whether she was guilty or not. And if they felt she wasn't a good parent for Ezra, they'd fight with everything they had to keep him.
Each of the boys would have issues to deal with, but they'd take them one day at a time and help them through each one.
"I may not have said it lately, but I'm proud of you - all of you." Nettie said hugging Chris.
"Well, we're an oddball family, but I wouldn't trade it for anything," Buck said with a laugh.
Vin and JD scrambled to their feet and ran towards the adults, two dogs trailing on their heels.
"Look, Mr. Buck!" JD hollered. "Dobie's here."
Buck leaned down to meet the newest addition to North Pass Ranch as JD launched into a story about how Dobie got his name because Vin couldn't say doggy when he was little.
The seven-year-old blushed with embarrassment as he roughed Dobie's fur around his neck.
Chris smiled as old Sam turned and trotted back towards the corral leaving JD and Vin to Dobie's care. He circled behind Ezra and sat at his side. Nudging his hand he tried to get the boy to pet him. Ezra pulled his hand away at first, but then it almost unconsciously snaked its way back down to the dog and he scratched him behind the ear. Sam leaned heavily into the scratch, his weight knocking Ezra off balance. The eight-year-old giggled and hugged the dog.
Whether Ezra knew it or not, Sam had just claimed him as his boy. Ezra clearly wasn't yet as comfortable as Vin and JD with the idea of making North Pass home. But between old Sam's quiet companionship, Dobie's joyful devotion, and the love and care of the adults around them, it wouldn't be too long before all three boys realized that they were safe and this was home.