Vin called the name tentatively, hopefully. His uncles had come over to spend the day with him and JD, but none of the adults had been in a very good mood. Chris had been mad at Uncle Ezra even before he arrived, and had taken his mood out by replying with snapping and sarcasm to everything Ezra said or did. Ezra had quickly become irritated and had responded by saying some things back at Chris that Vin knew must not have been very nice from the look on his father's face. Their mood seemed to infect everyone else, and soon Buck and Uncle Nathan were snapping at Ezra too, while Uncle Josiah did his best to ignore the combatants and stay out of their line of fire.
Vin had tucked himself into a corner of the sofa, worried that someone might finally say something that they could never take back. Just when it looked like that was exactly what was going to happen, Ezra announced that he was going outside and disappeared with a slam of the back door.
Upset by the emotion raging through the room, JD had started to cry.
It wasn't right to gang up on somebody, Vin thought. That hurt, and it wasn't right to leave a friend all alone when they were hurting. With Chris mad and everyone else siding with him, Vin knew that it was up to him to set things right with Ezra.
He had slipped out the back door, following the last course his uncle had taken.
"Uncle Ezra, are you out here? It's me, Vin."
He paused a moment, listening. Ezra could have gone for a walk but some instinct told Vin that the man was still somewhere close by, and there were not that many places to hide. The latch was down on the barn door, so he probably hadn't gone in there. The storage shed appeared to be locked and there definitely wasn't anyone in the empty corral. That left only the double-wide doghouse, which seemed unlikely, or . . .
Vin looked up as a stray leaf detached itself from the large tree next to him and fluttered down to lay at his feet. Of course! Without hesitation, the boy scrambled up the ladder built into the thick tree trunk and poked his head inside the hatch built into his and JD's tree-house floor. Spotting his uncle sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up and his arms crossed over the top of them, Vin shyly asked, "Can I come in?"
"If you're certain you want to be keeping company with the condemned, be my guest," the southerner replied sourly. At Vin's uncertain look, he forced a smile. "Please do."
The lanky boy hoisted himself through the opening, accepting the helping hand that was offered. "You okay?" he asked quietly, sitting down next to Ezra and copying his folded pose.
Ezra nodded, the smile less forced this time. "I hope you don't object to my borrowing your private sanctum, Master Tanner."
Vin shrugged. It was okay with him. "What'cha doin'?"
"Having a time-out."
Vin's blue eyes widened. "Who made you?"
"I did," he admitted. "It seemed like a good idea to vacate the premises for a short time and give tempers an opportunity to cool. I had intended to take a walk but the moment I left, I remembered that I was not appropriately shod for a hike."
Raising the toes of his thin-soled Italian loafers, Ezra clicked them together. Vin nodded. "The tree-house is good for thinkin'. I come up here all the time when I want to be . . . alone . . . oh!"
Seeing him glance guiltily at the exit, Ezra put out a hand to stop him. "I'm glad of the company, Vin. I didn't come up to escape from you boys. It's just that the other adults and I . . ."
Vin offered an understanding nod. "If you can't play nice with the other kids, you best play by yourself for awhile. That's what Buck says when me and JD don't get along."
His uncle smirked. "That's just about the size of it. I'm afraid yesterday was as much of a FUBAR as any work day is ever likely to get, and responsibility for it came to rest squarely upon my shoulders. I don't care to repeat that experience today, so a break seemed wise."
"Yeah . . . what's a FUBAR?"
Ezra looked a trifle embarrassed, as if he had not actually realized what he was saying until Vin repeated it back for him. He cleared his throat. "It's an acronym. Short for 'Fouled up beyond all repair'. In this case, it means that yesterday I could not seem to manage being in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, at any given point."
"Bad day, huh?"
"An unmitigated disaster." Seeing the look on the little boy's face, he amended, "Very bad."
Vin considered this for a moment, leaning against his uncle in an attempt to offer sympathy through physical contact. Ezra's arm automatically came to encircle his shoulders, making Vin smile. "I've had days like that, too. The kind when nobody listens to you and nothing you do goes good, and the more you try to fix everything the more of it goes wrong."
Patting the despondent man on his arm, Vin said, "Don't worry, Uncle Ezra. You just got to say sorry for whatever you done wrong, or whoever's feelings you hurt, and then you can start again fresh. That's what Chris and Buck always tells me and JD when we have that kind of day."
"I wish it were that easy."
"It is. You didn't mean to mess anything up, did ya?"
Ezra shook his head, lips tightening in a grimace.
"And you said you was sorry for whatever you did, right?"
He sighed. "Well, I certainly tried."
Vin was appalled. "You mean, you said 'sorry' to Chris and you really meant it and he still didn't forgive you?"
In an attempt to prevent an emotional rift between father and son, Ezra squeezed the thin shoulders and explained, "I'm afraid this transgression may be a bit more serious than a simple 'I'm sorry' can fix."
"What happened, 'zactly?"
"Vin, I really cannot . . . "
His eyes became pleading. "You don't have to tell me any secret stuff. Just the regular parts. It helps to tell somebody about your feel-bad thoughts, Uncle Ezra. Sayin' 'em out loud makes 'em not so scary sometimes. Chris knows that. Maybe he just didn't understand what you tried to tell him." The boy turned, looking his uncle squarely in the eyes and asked again, "What happened?"
Ezra squirmed under the power of that pleading stare. Haltingly, he admitted, "Because of my tardiness in arriving at a designated meeting place, a very bad man became angry and suspicious that he was not being told the truth. He threatened Mr. Jackson with bodily harm."
"Somebody was gonna hurt Uncle Nathan?" Vin gasped.
"He was enacting the role of my bodyguard and when I failed to show up at the meet on time, our contact grew somewhat unstable. Luckily, Mr. Jackson was able to calm him enough that he could attempt to contact me by phone." He shook his head. "Unfortunately, he was unable to reach me and was forced to improvise. He had no choice but to try and conduct the transaction by himself."
"How come he couldn't call you?"
Ezra grimaced. "The battery in my cellular phone was drained. I had charged it only the night before but it appears to be defective. I was completely unaware of Nathan's attempt to reach me. I only learned of the problem when I, in turn, attempted to phone Mr. Larabee and let him know that I was running late due to a flat tire."
"Ain't your fault that happened. What did the bad guy do?"
"In spite of Mr. Jackson's best attempts, he simply does not possess the gift for obfuscation. For telling lies," he amended. "Our perpetrator was unimpressed with his performance and he and his associates departed the premises before the deal could be completed. I had hailed a taxi and managed to arrive on the scene just as our suspect was pulling away. I managed to stop him temporarily and though I tried my best to convince him that I had merely had a misfortune with my car, this contact is not a trusting soul. He accused me of being late because I had stopped to speak with the authorities."
Vin hugged his own knees. "But you really didn't, 'cause your phone was dead."
Speaking more to himself than to Vin, he said, "I suppose I'm lucky to have avoided violence, but nothing I could say would convince our suspect to conclude the deal. All of my much-vaunted skills at verbal manipulation proved worthless and a lot of people's time and hard work was utterly wasted."
Vin shook his head sadly. "The troll got away."
Ezra slumped. "I'm afraid so. I'm sorry, Vin." The boy's wording seemed to utterly deflate him. All five of the ATF agents knew how much it meant to the children to know that their fathers and uncles were instrumental in making the streets of Denver safe from bad men or 'trolls', and took a little extra pride in their achievements because of it.
"Chris was really mad, huh?"
"He wasn't overly pleased," Ezra agreed, "but he would have let the matter go if the rest of the day had improved at all. Unfortunately it did not. If there was coffee to be spilled, paperwork to be misfiled, authority figures to be irritated or reports to be forgotten, it was my day to do them. Mr. Larabee and I finished our day with a rather heated shouting match and honestly, had it not been for my promise to spend this afternoon with you and JD . . ."
Vin nodded, eyes sad. "You wouldn't 'a' come."
"Your father and I had quite enough of each other's company yesterday. I do not believe that either of us was quite ready to forgive and forget just yet. My coming here was a mistake." He sighed deeply. "Another mistake."
"You're really good at your job, right?"
Ezra looked up at the question, brow furrowing slightly.
"What I mean is, stuff like what happened yesterday usually don't?"
"And you've arrested lots and lots and lots of other bad guys 'cause you're smarter than them, right?"
Ezra's lips twitched at Vin's earnest face and choice of wording. "I suppose that's true."
"And you didn't mean to get a flat tire, or have your battery not work, and it's just bad luck that you got a sneaky troll instead of a dumb one this time."
A soft laugh relaxed some of the tension from Ezra's frame. "You know, perhaps we should have you do all of our future negotiations, Vin. You're quite convincing."
Assuming that this meant his uncle was agreeing with him, Vin nodded. "So, if I know that's true, and you know it's true, then Chris has to know it, too. He won't be mad forever. He's probably already sorry for yellin' at you."
"Think so, do you?"
The boy nodded solemnly. "I had lots of bad days when I first come here but Chris and Buck never tried to send me away. They always forgave me, even when I messed stuff up or said mean things 'cause I was mad. Chris is the most understandingest person in the whole world. He won't let all your good days get erased 'cause of one bad one."
When Ezra reached out to embrace him, Vin wrapped his thin arms around his uncle's neck and hugged back with all his might. He wondered if Uncle Ezra was crying when he heard the rough sound of his voice as he said, "You're a special boy, Vin Tanner."
No tears were apparent when the hug came to an end, but Vin suspected they might have been there anyway. "I love you, Uncle Ezra."
Ezra's face tensed in that funny way it sometimes did when he or JD expressed their feelings for him, like somebody had just given him something special that he was not quite sure what to do with. "I love you too, Vin."
"Want to come back inside?" Vin invited, already scooting out of the floor hatch. "Bet we could talk Uncle Josiah into making that lemonade he promised earlier."
Ezra smiled at him. "Tell him to save me a glass, all right?"
"Okay. I'll tell JD you'll be back real soon."
Vin nodded. "He was cryin' because he thought you left for good and was too mad to say goodbye to him."
"I shall amend my behavior forthwith," Ezra promised, looking guilty enough to give Vin a slight twinge of that emotion himself. JD would not hold a grudge but Vin was counting on the mention of his little brother's tears to guarantee that Uncle Ezra did not linger here, alone with his feel-bad thoughts.
Scrambling down the tree trunk, Vin's eyes widened at the realization that his father was standing at the base of the tree waiting for him. He glanced up. "Was you listenin'?"
Chris nodded. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop. I came out here looking for Ezra, hoping to straighten things out with him, and I heard your voices. Sounds like you set him straight better than I could have."
"You should tell him anyway," Vin advised seriously. "He thinks you're still mad at him, 'cause of yesterday. He's feelin' bad because of what happened. Uncle Ezra didn't mean to let you down, Dad. He was just havin' a FUBAR day."
Chris's brows twitched at the unexpected term. "Vin, do you know what that word means?"
"Uncle Ezra says it means one of them days when nothin' goes the way you want it to."
"Ah, well, he's right but don't go using it too freely, okay? It's not really meant for kids."
Vin frowned. It hadn't sounded like a bad word when Uncle Ezra said it, but maybe it was just one of those words his southern uncle used that nobody else could understand. "Okay. But you know he's sorry for yesterday, right?"
"I know. I'll be sure to tell him that I'm sorry, too, and then maybe we'll just start again fresh," Chris promised, giving his son a smile and a warm hug. "Ezra's right, you know. You are one special kid."
Vin hugged him back, then scampered back toward the house, pausing with one hand on the back door latch as he watched Chris climb part way up the ladder and say something. After a moment, Ezra climbed out of the hatch and both men dropped back to the ground. They spoke for a few moments more, then both of them reached out and solemnly shook hands. Vin grinned to himself when he saw them both smile.
Everything was going to be all right.