AU: Little Britches ATF – Little Ambassadors Series
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: This story was conceived and outlined before the tragic death of Red Arrows pilot 'Red 4' Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging in August, 2011. Betaed and added to by Sue M, additional editing by Nancy. There are lot of links, you are welcome to look at or ignore as your curiosity takes you.
It was the longest summer vacation either man had since they were boys, but if they had were worried about filling the time, those fears evaporated in a whirlwind of trips, games and exploring. Even when they did have time to themselves they had ‘homework', familiarising themselves with the British legal code and arrest procedures.
They had driven many miles on trips out, and everyone had their favourite. Buck loved their trip to the New Forest, not just because of the free roaming ponies, but because of the National Motor Museum. Vin joined Buck in choosing the New Forest as his favourite but that was all to do with the ponies, which just entranced him. Chris had chosen the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth, where the family saw the wreck of Henry the XIII's flagship the Mary Rose, HMS Warrior - the world's first ocean going iron warship and of course the world's oldest commissioned warship, HMS Victory. They decided to make a weekend of that trip, taking in the Isle of Wight as well, where the boys had particularly enjoyed Carisbrooke Castle, with its donkey powered well wheel.
“The poor donkey,” Vin had declared when he saw it in the wheel.
“Don’t worry,” the attendant interjected. “There is a whole team of them so they are only here once or twice a day, for a very short time; and when they aren't here working, we spoil them rotten.”
Just then they heard a donkey braying loudly somewhere and the little pinto donkey in the wheel answered.
“This is Jigsaw and she’s saying hi to her boyfriend, Jimbob,” the attendant explained. “Jigsaw is our youngest donkey and Jimbob is the Casanova of the bunch, thinks he's the George Clooney of the donkey world.”
Chris nudged Buck in the ribs. “Sounds like he's a four footed you, always knew you were a real ass.”
Buck had been reading the leaflet about the donkeys and tilted his head to whisper back. “Oh yeah? Well according to this you and head donkey Joseph should get on great, seeing as he's a grumpy old mule.”
JD chose Longleat Safari Park as his favourite trip.
In truth, the safari park had been such a good day Vin had been torn between Longleat and the New Forest. As soon as they arrived in their 4x4 they had headed for the drive though sections. First were the two resident prides of lions, one of which had cubs. Then there were tigers, one of which even ran beside their car and licked the windows. They were driving so slowly, it was safe for the boys to abandon their car seats; JD was on his father's lap, while Vin stood between the two front seats.
“Wow, look how big they are,” he had gasped as the tiger ran beside them.
“They are called big cats you know,” Chris reminded.
“I know but they are so big close up, they’re awesome.”
Chris had to smile at Vin's joy and awe.
They passed through the wolf pack and on into the monkey enclosure. JD was laughing so hard as the cars around them were dismantled, he could hardly breathe, then one of the monkeys jumped on their car.
“Oh no, you don't,” Chris scolded as he switched on the windscreen wipers, he'd seen what happened to one of the cars in front.
The monkey looked at them and then jumped off again.
“Aww I wanted him to stay,” JD protested.
“Yeah? Well I want the car in once piece,” Chris commented.
By the time the day was done, they had seen zebras, giraffes, camels, buffalo, rhinos, hippos, sea lions, a gorilla, rabbits, goats, otters, deer and all manner of birds, reptiles and creepy crawlies.
Longleat had been one of their first outings, having already decided to save London for later in the year when the weather would make other trips impossible, and the city would be less crowded. Discussing it with Nathan later the next day, their friend had come up with an idea to keep the boys' education on track and harness some of their abundant energy.
The boys would keep scrapbooks of their time in England; handwritten and typed accounts of days out would be pasted in along with photos, postcards, ticket stubs, and any other small token that could be stuck to a page.
“Da!” JD had called as he worked on the first page with Vin.
“Yes?” Buck answered, appearing in the doorway of the den.
“Vin choosed the tigers as his fav’rite animal, but I don't know what to choose ‘cause they was all nice, ‘cept cockroaches, ‘cause they're yucky.”
“Do you need to choose a favourite?” Buck asked.
“Uh huh. See? We made a page for our favourite animal.” He pointed to the scrapbook, there was a whole page headed ‘Our Favourite Animals'. At the top it said ‘Vin' then there was a postcard of a tiger, and the picture Vin had taken of the tiger licking the car window. Under this it said ‘JD' then nothing.
“Well I don’t know what to suggest, but which animals did you take pictures of?”
JD thought a moment then went to the computer to scroll though the pictures from his camera. Ezra had given both boys inexpensive digital camera as leaving presents. Of course Ezra's definition of inexpensive was quite a long way from Buck and Chris' but at least the cameras were robust, and simple to use. There was a long silence, as with great concentration JD looked at them. Then he pointed at the screen.
“Them, ‘specially the baby.”
“Uh,” Buck tried to remember what the animal was called. “Tapir?”
“You sure? Not the baby deer? I have a picture of you feeding it.”
JD thought about it for a while and then shook his head.
“What about old Anne the elephant?” Buck reminded. All four of them were moved by the story of Anne, the last circus elephant in Britain, now living out a well earned retirement at Longleat.
“No I want the tapir, the baby is sooooooo cute.”
“Okay then, baby tapir it is. Let's get your picture printed.”
As July moved into August the weather became a little more unsettled, nonetheless they were still enjoying their days out. Their liaison lady, Shelly, called in to see if they were doing okay.
“I'd say you're doing fine without me,” she commented.
“We’ve had a lot of help, our neighbours have been great,” Chris explained.
“Well in that case, how adventurous are you feeling?”
“Adventurous?” Buck asked.
“My little brother is in the Navy, his partner – who is a freelance news photographer – inherited a fortune a while back and they spent some of it on a holiday place down in Devon. He's very keen for me to use it when they are away, which currently they both are. The trouble is I don't have any holiday days left until Christmas, so…” she looked at both men. “I was wondering if you and the boys would like to use it for a couple of weeks.”
It didn't take long for them to decide to accept her offer. They headed out on the second Saturday in August for a two week break in Devon. Shelly's brother's place was in a town called Kingswear, on the banks of the River Dart, more than 200 miles way. To make the trip easier and more fun for the boys, they stopped on the way down to visit Stonehenge. From there 007 took them to their destination by the fastest route. Unfortunately fastest isn't always the case if everyone else is headed in the same direction. In the end what should have taken about two hours from Stonehenge took more than six, and then they found themselves on the wrong side of the river and queuing for a ferry. They might have got there earlier if they hadn't stopped for lunch, and supper not to mention various comfort stops; but at least those breaks meant the boys were comfortable enough to fall asleep in the back of the car. Following their GPS system they had passed the ‘Upper Ferry' a big, new looking craft that appeared to carry at least 20 cars. Instead of taking this they drove on along the river and then into town, joining a line of cars for the ‘Lower Ferry'. This ferry, when they finally got to it, was really small. It didn't even have its own motor, rather it was a barge lashed to a very small tugboat.
Buck, who was driving, looked over at Chris. “Are they serious? Have you seen how fast that river is flowing?”
Chris shrugged. “It looks like they know what they're doing. Hell, it looks like they've been doing it for 100 years.”
“With the same damn boat,” Buck huffed. “How much do we have to pay to ride this death trap?”
“£4.00.” With that Chris started to look though his small change for the correct amount.
Two tired boys, with full bellies and lulled into deep sleep by the rhythm of the road didn't wake for this adventure, nor did they wake as they were carried into their vacation home. Vin semi-woke as Chris helped him into his pyjamas, JD didn't even stir, not unusual for him and Buck was now an expert at getting him ready for bed without him waking. The boys' room was on the floor below the main living area and above their fathers' room. The men left the corridor and bathroom light on, and the doors open. Shelly had arranged for the caretaker to drop off some groceries, so the men hadn't bothered to pack much in the way of food. Too tired to do much more than take bags from the car, they dumped the food in the kitchen and their bags in the bedrooms, then turned in not long after the boys.
Buck sank back into the bed then glanced at Chris as he too relaxed into the other big double bed in their room.
“This looks to be a hell of a place,” he commented.
“Sure does,” Chris agreed.
“You do know we haven't seen a single feminine thing in here?”
“Can’t say as I have.”
“Well trust ol’ Buck on this one, no woman lives here, which means…”
“Shelly’s brother's partner is a man.”
“Yup, each to their own I say. It's still a hell of a place.”
Vin woke up and had no idea where he was. He looked around the dimly lit room and quickly spotted JD on the bed across from him. That made him feel better, he wasn't alone, but where were they and where was his dad? The room had a number of small, high windows all covered by heavy, embroidered curtains. He was still pondering where his father and Buck were, when he realised he had a much more pressing need. Peeking outside the door, he spotted the bathroom. He was still there when he heard a plaintive cry.
“Vin? Da?” JD was awake and alone.
“In here!” he shouted.
Seconds later JD joined him and also took care of business.
“Where is we?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, but we were in the car going on vacation, so I guess we got here.”
Now wide awake the two mini-adventurers set out to explore and find their fathers. At the other end of the corridor that ran past their bedroom there was an arch. The arch lead to a stone spiral staircase going both down and up. Past this the corridor widened out, with windows that gave them their first view of the outside world. In the corridor was a desk, printer and phone and beyond that another archway.
Vin peeked inside.
“What is it?” JD asked,
“Cool, it’s a round dinning room.”
The boys explored this unusual room and found a door. This time it was JD who ventured first.
“It’s more stairs,” he announced, immediately stepping though the door and disappearing down the stairs.
“No JD wait we need to find Dad…” But it was too late, JD was already gone.
Both boys emerged into a circular kitchen. There was a supermarket bag on the counter next to a cardboard box. A note was pinned to the box.
"What's it say?" Vin asked, knowing his little brother was a much better reader than him.
"Purr-ish-a-bles in fridge," JD sounded out.
Vin frowned. "What are 'purr-ish-a-bles?" he asked.
"D' know," JD admitted. "Why don't you look?"
JD nodded emphatically. "G' on." he nudged Vin toward the tall refrigerator.
The fridge had two doors, the bottom door proved to be a deep freeze, with three drawers. There was no way to see what was in the drawers and neither boy was prepared open one, so closed the door again, before the freezing air turned their toes to ice blocks. The upper door revealed a fridge, but apart from some milk in the door, there was just a carrier bag on the middle shelf.
"I guess the 'purr-ish-a-bles' are in the bag," JD sighed disappointedly as Vin closed the door.
Vin now peeked inside the familiar looking carrier bag on the counter and grinned. Having raided the groceries, the boys located their father's bedroom. Now satisfied that all was well in their world, they returned to their mission of exploration.
Chris opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling taking a moment to orient himself, then he turned his head to look at Buck. He expected to see him sprawled across the other bed, fast asleep. They had shared enough hotel rooms, tents, not to mention stake out dives, to know how Buck slept, something he could do anywhere, anytime – a talent Chris envied. He was therefore surprised to see him awake, true he was lying on his back, but his fingers were interlaced behind his head as he too stared at the ceiling.
“You okay?” Chris enquired.
“Yup, it just took me a while to work out where we were, and why.”
“Me too, wonder how the boys are doing?”
“Well I don’t hear them so chances are they're still asleep.”
Chris turned his head to where he had left this watch on the nightstand. “Shit!” he suddenly exclaimed.
“What?!” Buck asked sitting bolt upright.
“It’s almost ten!” Chris didn't stop to hear any response to this statement; he was already out of bed and heading for the boys' room.
Buck didn't bother to say anything; he just looked at his own watch and then leapt off the bed and ran after Larabee.
The boys' bedroom was deserted, Cat was there on Vin's bed, JD had brought his stuffed pony on this trip, it was on the floor between the two beds. The first place the men looked was the bathroom, but other than the toilet seat being up, indicating it had been used, there was no one there.
“Kitchen?” Buck suggested.
Chris just turned, sprinted up to the kitchen, but it too was deserted, however there were two juice boxes and a couple of penguin wrappers in the otherwise empty waste bin. The two fathers then searched the large living room, expecting to find the boys in front of the TV, but no luck there, either.
“Boys! JD, Vin where are you?” Buck bellowed, but there was no response. “Where else could they be?” he asked, his voice tinged with worry.
“Outside?” Chris offered.
Outside, which they had only seen in darkness until now, the men found a garage and waterside dining terrace. The rest of the outside space consisted mostly of the narrow driveway they had negotiated last night, and the steep wooded riverbank. They were about to start shouting the boys' names again, when they heard a shrill call of ‘h'llo!' from someplace above them.
“What the?” Chris began to ask.
“That’s Little Bit,” Buck stated.
“And that’s Vin,” Chris confirmed.
The next thing they heard was a boat horn tooting.
“What the hell is going on, where are they?” Chris asked.
Buck was staring up. “There must be a way up onto the roof,” he stated and ran back inside.
It didn't take them long to locate a small door at the very top of the stone spiral staircase. Outside they emerged into an open-fronted structure with a barbeque grill built into an old fireplace, a table, and four chairs. Beyond this, the roof of the square tower was covered in wooden decking. In the centre, arranged in a loose semi-circle were sturdy looking wooden loungers, steamer chairs and a parasol base, but no parasol. On the far side one of the loungers had been pulled up to a castellated wall and two small boys, still in their pyjamas, were standing on it. JD, his sun hat on his head *thanks Vin* – Buck silently praised – was standing at the lower part, while Vin stood beside him where the wall was higher. Suddenly both boys began to bounce up and down waving franticly, after a few moments they shouted together.
The two fathers looked at each other, then approached, silently. When they were close enough to look over the wall to the river beyond, they could see it was dotted with boats, everything from small dinghies to a large sightseeing boat packed with tourists, some of whom were still waving to the boys as it headed downriver.
Just as Chris was about to speak, both boys leaned forward looking down at something or someone, out of sight. Buck was already reaching out to grab JD before he toppled over when Vin's hand reached out and took hold of the back of his brother's waistband.
“H’llo' pretty ladies!” the little five-year-old called out.
“Morning!” came the response from whoever was below.
“Mornin',” Vin greeted more quietly.
“Pretty ladies?” Buck whispered, “this I have to see.”
Moving forward both men looked over the wall and there below them was a very classy looking motor yacht with at least four bikini clad young women on it. Suddenly one of them wolf whistled.
“Hey boys, who are your friends?” she shouted up.
Both boys turned to look were she was pointing.
“That’s our dads,” JD supplied.
“Very nice,” one of the other women commented.
Only now did Chris realise, that he, like Buck, was only wearing a thin pair of boxers.
“Oh shit,” he breathed to Buck, but it was wasted, the rogue was already giving the girls a show and flirting with them.
Chris shook his head and walked over to the boys. “Come on you two, say goodbye to the ladies. It's time for breakfast, well brunch I guess.”
Not waiting for a response he wrapped his arm around JD and lifted him down.
“We’s had breakfast,” Vin pointed out.
“A chocolate cookie is not breakfast,” Chris told him. He glanced at his partner. “Buck!”
“How’d you know we had Peng'ins for breakfast?” JD asked.
“I’m a professional investigator, Kiddo. Buck!”
“Yeah?” Wilmington finally responded.
Reluctantly Buck said goodbye to the women as they cruised on past to head out to sea. “I guess,” he answered with a sigh.
“Da! Da! Da!” JD began as soon as Buck joined them.
“What?” his father asked.
“We’s living in a castle a real castle it's got the...the wiggly square things on top and a spi'sal stairs and a tower and a flag pole. But it don't got a flag. Can we have a flag? And it's got a round kitchen did you ever see a round kitchen Da?”
This momentary pause in the seemingly endless stream of words gave Buck a way in.
“No I never did, how cool is that?”
“Soooooooooooo cool!” JD agreed.
“And the wiggly square thingies are called battlements, no, castellations - I think,” Buck added.
“You like it too Cowboy?” Chris asked Vin as they began to negotiate the spiral staircase back down to the living room.
“It’s awesome,” Vin affirmed. “No one at school will believe us.”
Chris's heart gave a little jump, knowing it was going to be a year before Vin would see his old school again. This gave him an idea, which he filed way for later discussion with Buck. “So what's with all the shouting and waving?” he asked as they emerged into the big room.
“We were bored and you were asleep, so we went exploring,” Vin began.
“You was snoring,” JD told Buck with a giggle.
“I do not snore,” Buck stated confidently.
“Do too,” three voices stated in unison.
Buck huffed but didn't try to contradict them.
“Yeah and Vin said we must’n go outside with out p'mission,” JD explained.
Chris ginned at Vin and ruffled his hair.
“But then we found the roof and then someone waved, so we waved back,” Vin continued the narrative. “It would be rude not to wave back,” he told his father confidently.
“He’s got you there,” Buck told Chris with a wink. “So who's for brunch?”
And so began their holiday in Britain's Southwest. When the weather was good they went to the beach. The golden sand sloped gently so the boys were never in danger of being out of their depth and waves were gentle. The two fathers had done some research on possible dangers, and while not hazard-free, the animals most likely to cause injury were a weever fish or a jellyfish. All the articles they read told them that sunburn and broken glass were far more likely to cause injury. The beach they found had been awarded a coveted blue flag for its clear water, clean sand and the presence of toilets and showers. The boys loved it.
There had been some disappointment when they learned that there was no such thing as Dairy Queen in Britain. When they asked for a dipped cone from the lady selling ice cream from a van in the beach car park, she told she knew of places that did that, but sadly she didn't have the right equipment. “But tell you what, have you ever had a 99?” she asked.
“A what?” Buck asked.
To this she leaned out a little and pointed to the picture on the side of the van.
“Ah, okay.” Chris turned to the expectant boys. “Want to try one?”
Vin looked unsure.
“For 50 pence you can have an extra flake,” the ladies offered. “We call it a Bunny Ears.”
JD giggled at this. “I want one,” he stated.
“And ‘I want' doesn't get,” Buck told him firmly.
JD looked crestfallen and looked down at the ground, hands clapped behind his back, one toe drawing small circles in the sand. “Sowwy, please may I have one, Da?” he asked respectfully, all the time peeking up past his long black locks at his father; to ensure his show of contrition had generated the proper reaction.
“You may,” Buck confirmed, with a smile.
Chris rolled his eyes, JD had Buck wrapped around his little finger, had done since day one, but then Vin's ‘big eyes' had him just as firmly in their grip, so who was he to judge?
“You too Cowboy?” he asked Vin.
“Okay looks like it’s four of those,” Buck told the lady, fishing in his pocket for some money.
“Why is they called 99s?” JD asked as he took a long lick of his whipped ice cream.
Buck looked at the bare amount of change in his palm and frowned. “Sure as he...uh, heck isn't because they're 99 pence each, that's for sure,” he huffed.
As much as they loved 99s, they quickly switched their allegiance to Feast ice cream bars. This was not just a love of chocolate but a need for the sticks. The boys, and if they where honest, their fathers, quickly became avid sand castle builders. JD and Vin had successfully lobbied their fathers for buckets and spades and they had to have all kinds of buckets, round ones and square ones - small, medium and large, castle shaped ones, medium and large – small castles were apparently not available – and flags to put on top. Union Flags, along with the symbols of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were easy to find, as were pirate flags, but not the Stars and Stripes. This was quickly remedied with the use of the Feast ice cream sticks. The chocolate bar surrounded by chocolate ice cream and a crunchy chocolate coating was very popular with all four, although JD inevitably ended up with a lot of the ice cream on his face and running down his arm, and pieces of the crunchy chocolate coating clinging to his clothing or even his hair on occasion. With the sticks, paper, glue and felt tip pens the boys made their own flags; and of course the need for more flag poles was an excellent excuse to eat more ice cream.
When the weather was less kind or they needed a break from the sun, the family headed off to explore other sites. There were caves, with mammoths in them to explore and a steam train to ride. They learned how to catch crabs– large and small – from the harbour wall, and then put them back to be caught by other children another day. They even explored a lighthouse, climbing all the way up to the top. But one of their biggest adventures was when they crossed over the River Tamar and into the county of Cornwall and drove on to the Eden Project.
The morning of their trip, Chris shook both boys awake. Long days and sea air had made for tired boys who slept late, and normally their fathers were more than happy to let them, but not today.
“Come on, time to get up Little Bit,” he encouraged.
“No, don’t wanna,” a half asleep JD muttered. “I's sleepy.”
“I know you are, but you can sleep in the car, it’s a long drive. Come on, Buck's got bacon.”
That at least had Vin sitting up in bed. “Bacon!” he all but shouted.
JD wasn't so easily persuaded, so Chris just picked him up; once he was sitting at a table with bacon and eggs in front of him, he'd wake up.
Both boys stayed awake long enough to bear witness to their crossing into Cornwall and to marvel at the strange construction of the rail bridge beside them. JD nodded off soon after this, Vin followed not long after. The early start however painful, and Buck was none too keen on it himself, did prove worthwhile, as fifteen minutes before it opened, they were some of the first to arrive at the popular attraction. After admiring the life-size horse made entirely from driftwood in the entranceway, they emerged at the edge of the old quarry and just gazed in wonder. Men and boys, were lost for words; not uncommon for Vin or Chris, almost unheard of for Buck and near impossible for JD, but there they all stood, in silence.
In the end it was Chris who broke the silence.
“Wow,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” Buck agreed.
“Cool,” Vin joined in.
“I wanna go home!” JD wailed.
Buck, stunned by this outburst, dropped to his knees to face his clearly distraught son. “Hey now, what's the matter?” he asked.
“Don’t like it,” JD told him firmly.
Buck looked over his shoulder at the peaceful garden nestling in the hollow below them and at the honeycomb patterned bio domes.
“Can you tell me why you don't like it? It's just a garden.”
JD took a deep breath, peeking past his father and then back, not wanting to look too long on the site below him.
“From outta space,” JD explained in a hushed whisper.
“Oh, aliens.” Buck glanced over his own shoulder, well maybe he had a point, they did have an ‘out of this world' quality about them.
“Yeah, they’s bad.” JD was clearly very scared.
Buck smiled and pulled his son into a hug, “No aliens here, I promise, it was all built right here on earth.”
JD peeked over his father's shoulder. “Are you sure?” he asked tentatively.
“I’m sure and anyway, I'm here, Buck's got you, so you know you're safe. Right Cowboy?” Buck asked Vin, who was watching JD with concern. He really wanted to explore the amazing world below him, but he didn't want his brother to be scared.
“It’s gonna be cool JD. See? Lots of kids is coming in now.” He pointed to all the other families arriving and walking past them into the gardens.
“Da?” JD began.
“Will you hold my hand?”
“I’ll hold your hand, or you can catch a ride on my shoulders, whatever you want.”
JD clapped his hands together and raised his arms up. “Shoulders.”
The shoulder ride lasted about 100 yards, by which time Vin had run ahead at least three times to explore whatever was around the next bend or up the next side path. This time he'd returned from a tiny trail between tall shrubs to explain that he'd found a giant.
“It’s just a pretend one,” he'd assured his family, looking up at JD. “But is so cool; she's lying down.”
That was all it took, JD was wiggling to get down. He followed Vin into the grove to see the huge grass-covered reclining woman. In truth he'd been rather apprehensive, he almost believed his Da, about the big ball things being okay. Almost, but not quite. The big grass lady however wasn't at all scary, in fact she was kind of funny, especially as she had no clothes on, which made him giggle. After this JD relaxed a little more. He didn't even find the model of an enormous bee scary. They all enjoyed the giant biomes, especially the jungle. After lunch there was just time for Buck to have a go at the 1475-foot-long zip line before Chris and Vin's pre booked session at the climbing wall.
Vin was overjoyed to discover he was old enough to try it out. Climbing was something he loved and even his recent fall hadn't dampened his desire. The instructor double-checked their helmets and harnesses and then hooked them both onto the safety line.
“Okay guys, here you go. Vin?”
“You are gonna climb here, where it’s mostly concrete, okay?”
“And your dad is going to climb right beside you on the natural rock.”
The natural side of the old quarry had been smoothed in places and coloured artificial hand holds added. Chris hadn't climbed like this since he was in the SEALs but this was going to be a walk in the park compared to the kind of climbing he did then, so he planned to take it slow in order to keep pace with Vin. The trouble was he was still thinking this as Vin set out, and damn the boy was fast! He was already above Chris' head and getting faster. Throughout the climb, Larabee never did catch Vin, the boy arrived at the top a good minute before his father and long before any of the other people in the group. There was just time at the top to admire the view before they ‘walked' back down the wall.
“Dad that was amazing!” Vin declared loudly. “Can I do it again?”
“I don’t think they let you do that. So I take it you enjoyed it?”
The instructor came over to unclip them. “Mr Larabee your son has a natural gift for climbing,” he declared.
“So it would seem,” Chris agreed.
He turned to Vin. “If you ever come back, you tell the instructor that Gerry says you can have a go at the advanced line.”
“Really, you’re very good son, I am seriously impressed.”
Vin turned to his father. “Can we come back Dad?”
“I don’t think we'll have time.” Chris looked at the instructor. “You guys are only here in the summer, right?”
“We’ll be headed home before we have time to get back here next year.”
Vin's shoulders slumped a little.
“You know guys, lots of leisure centres have indoor climbing walls, you should check online for the one nearest you.”
Vin looked up pleadingly at his father.
“Well I guess we could do that, since you seem to have a talent for it,” Chris agreed.
While one half of the family climbed the heights, the other half headed for the festival of play, JD had a go at some circus skills, most of which he was too small or too uncoordinated to be much good at, but at the hula-hoop, once he stopped long enough to listen to instructions, he proved to be a natural. Buck wasn't surprised; he always knew JD's wiggliness would prove an asset one day. From there they moved to the water fun area, and together they used pipes and tubes and buckets to transport water. Of course JD got more water on himself than in their construction, but he didn't care and Buck, now the consummate parent, had packed spare clothes in his backpack, so he wasn't bothered, either.
By the time Chris and Vin joined them for a well earned cream tea, it had already been a long day and the boys were beginning to fade, nonetheless suggestions that it was time to head home were protested. Eventually however it was home time. They strolled gently through the project's education centre, where the boys used the secret kids entrance – a tube slide – before exiting via the lift and the high bridge. The only thing left to do was visit the shop, where they picked up some things for their new garden back home; bug houses, a mini microscope to examine the bugs that came to stay, a weather station and some plants.
They were all tired the next day, so took it easy, spending some time on the roof watching the first day of the town's regatta. Friday was already set. As part of the regatta, there was to be an air show, culminating with a display by the famous Red Arrows. The boys weren't entirely sure what that meant but were excited because they could see their fathers were.
That left Thursday. Thursday was the day the men planned to surprise the boys. Setting out early, and despite the heat, for it was a sunny day, they dressed in jeans and long sleeve shirts. The GPS guided them up onto Dartmoor. The boys enjoyed the rumble and vibration as they drove over the cattle grids at the edge of the National Park and almost immediately spotted a herd of the famous wild ponies.
“Can we stop and look at the horses Da?” JD asked.
“Sorry not now, we have someplace to be.”
“Where we going?” Vin asked.
“It’s a secret,” Buck told them with a wink, “but keep your eyes open, and you never know, you might work it out.”
As they drove on they got higher and higher and the scenery became even wilder, then 007 told them to turn left onto a very narrow road. Chris commented that it was a crime to call it a road, since tarmac or not, it was a track, and barely wide enough for one car. Buck pointed out that they had driven down many lanes that were only wide enough for one car, but Chris said this was even narrower and as it too began to climb, Buck had to agree. After passing a small hamlet of cute thatched cottages, the road became, if anything, even tighter and they approached a white line on the road. Sadly the boys weren't able to see what was written on it. If they had read ‘Stables only ahead' they might have guessed where they were going. As it was, only as they pulled into the white, racing rail-edged car park did they work it out.
“Are we going riding?” Vin asked.
“You bet,” Chris confirmed.
“Woohoo!” Vin whooped in delight.
JD was clapping loudly and waving his feet up and down.
Walking up from the car park to the yard they were met by a slim woman in riding britches.
“Hello, I’m Margaret,” she introduced herself.
“Hi,” Buck greeted. “Buck Wilmington, this is my son JD.”
Chris lifted a hand. “Chris Larabee, and this is my boy Vin.”
“Oh yes, you’re on the ten thirty, two hour ride?”
Chris confirmed this. They followed Margaret to the small office to pay the balance of their fee, filled out their emergency contact details and confirmed their riding ability. Then they had to be equipped with hard hats, back protectors and boots. The men were both wearing boots that were deemed to be acceptable. The boys' sneakers weren't.
“We insist on ridged soles and a step heel, it’s a safety regulation,” Margaret explained. “It reduces the chance of your foot slipping though the stirrup and getting stuck. Don't worry we have plenty to loan.”
Vin ended up with a long pair of rubber riding boots which he thought looked very smart. They were a little wide in the leg for him but that meant there was plenty of room to tuck his jeans in. The only boots small enough for JD were leather ankle boots with elasticised sides. They took some getting on, but once on JD declared them to be very comfortable.
Both boys were fitted with back protectors, which just left the hard hats. The boys were used to wearing them. When they went out riding at the ranch, their fathers made them wear their hard hats, but they found it very amusing to see their fathers in them.
“We don't recommend you have anything in your pockets,” Margaret continued. “You can leave your car keys in the kitchen. If you want a picture, I can take one once you are all up and then leave the camera or phone with the keys.”
“Thanks, we’d like that,” Chris agreed.
“There was meant to be another family coming but they called about an hour ago to say they can't make it, so it's just us.”
Both men smiled, that was an added bonus.
Out in the yard they were introduced to their mounts. The first horse brought out was a grey pony of about 13.5 hands.
“Vincent, he’s for you.”
“Vin,” he told her as he stepped forward.
“M’ name's Vin.”
“Oh, okay. Vin this is Billy, he’s very safe and steady, so let's get you up on him, okay?”
Chris was itching to go over and help, but he didn't know much about European style tack and Vin, who struggled with shyness, was doing okay, so he held back. Horses were Vin's great passion, so maybe talking about horses made it easier for him to talk to a stranger.
“Do you know how to be given a leg up?” Margaret asked.
“Well I think that is going to be the easiest way to get you up.” In no time Vin was up on his pony, the stirrups were adjusted, and Margaret had shown him how to hold the reins in the European style that the horse was used to.
“I think you guys call it plough reins?” she asked.
Vin wasn't sure, so looked over at his beaming father. “Yup, that's right,” Chris confirmed.
Buck took a picture with his camera, then handed it to Chris, so he could snap JD.
Another pony appeared. It was perhaps only 11 hands high and was a dark brown with a pale brown muzzle. It was led over to JD.
“So what do I call you?” Margaret asked JD.
“JD,” he responded with a grin from under the peek of his hat.
“JD this is Peat and he's for you.”
JD stared at the little pony then burst out laughing.
Margaret looked over at the two men somewhat puzzled. “Did I say something funny?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” Buck assured. “JD son, what's so funny?”
JD tried to control his giggles. “But Da he's so small your legs will touch the ground!”
JD had never ridden on his own, he always rode with his father.
“JD,” Buck came over to his boy and absently neatened his son's clothing and hat. “It's time for you to ride on your own.”
The little boy gazed up at his father open-mouthed. “For real?”
“For real.” Buck could see a whoop of joy about to erupt, so quickly placed his finger on his son's lips. “Remember, horses don't like loud noises.”
Clamping his mouth shut, JD nodded enthusiastically and then turned to his pony, his very own pony, for next two hours at least.
“Are you able to lift him on?” Margaret asked Buck.
“Sure.” Buck picked JD up and placed him on the saddle. He was pleased to see it wasn’t a traditional European saddle, but had a high back, with high knee rolls and a rope handle at the front.
“It’s called a Safari Club saddle, safer for the little ones.” Everyone looked around to see who had spoken. It was an older man, his face weathered and lined, but with a big smile on his face.
“I’m Jez, this is my place,” he explained.
“Nice to meet you.” Buck put his hand out and they shook. “And thank you, for the saddle.”
“We want everyone to have a good time and mum and dad aren't having a good time if they are worried.”
The girl who'd brought out Peat stood and held onto him while Buck and Chris were mounted/ mounted up. Chris was on Imp, a 16.5 hand, thoroughbred ex-eventer, and Buck got Bud, 17.5 hands of ex-show jumper.
“Imp’s a gentleman, but he doesn't like too tight a rein, positive but gentle contact is best,” the stable hand explained to Chris.
“Bud’s a hooligan,” Jez stated.
“No he isn’t, he's an individual,” Margaret corrected. She looked up at Buck. “He's fine honestly, he just bullies the other horses in the field if he can. Show him who's boss and don't let him stop in the water.”
She patted Bud's thick neck. “You'll see.”
Then came the issue of leading reins. “I'm going to lead Peat,” Margaret explained. “Jenny is coming with us.” She indicated toward the stable hand who had brought out Billy and who was now mounted on a pinto pony. “So the question is, are we going to have Billy on a lead rein as well?” She looked at Chris. “I know you told me your son's a competent rider, but he's only ever ridden western style – yes?”
Larabee was torn; he could see Vin's eyes pleading for him to be allowed to ride alone. “You say he's a safe pony?”
“Very safe, but I am sure you know there are no guarantees.”
“But we’re only going to be walking?”
“Probably, the boys definitely.”
Chris thought some more, Vin all the time giving him the big eyes. “He's a good rider, he'll be fine.”
“Thanks Dad.” Vin beamed.
“Well I’ll have lead ropes for all of you, so we can put one on at anytime,” Margaret assured then turned to Vin. “Remember to keep the reins long enough not jab him in the mouth but short enough to maintain control, we'll show you as we go, okay?”
They left in a long line, Margaret at the front, leading JD, then Buck, followed by Chris, with Vin and Jenny behind him. As they climbed up the track that ran down to the stable yard from the moor, Jenny moved up the line, giving them all pointers where needed. They passed though a gate and out onto the open moor; grazing sheep paid them no mind, but the boys loved to see them. As they crested the first ridge a beautiful valley appeared below them. They made their way over the ridge and down to the road on the far side to cross the river. Not on the road bridge, not on the old clapper bridge, which had long ago lost one span, but by walking though the water. The entry was a shallow beach, but the river bed was made of loose boulders.
“Don’t worry, the horses are used to it. Sit up straight and hold on,” Margaret told them. “Don't let Bud stop!” She looked down at JD. “Peat was born on this moor, he knows what he's doing so you just hold on and he'll take care of you, okay?”
JD grinned, patted his pony's neck, and took hold of his saddle handle.
Buck did his best to keep Bud moving but the horse was just as determined to stop, and using his front left hoof he began to beat the water, sending plumes of spay up into the air around him, soaking Buck's lower leg.
“He’s such a show off!” Jenny muttered as she came up beside Buck. “Here use this.” She handed over her crop.
“Thanks.” Buck took the short flexible riding stick and gave Bud a quick slap on the bottom, at the same time urging him on with his legs. Finally the big horse gave up making a fountain and plodded on though the water.
“Keep the crop, we have to cross the river again on the way back,” Jenny told him as she dropped back.
They made their way in a straight line, up though the pine trees, emerging on a gravel track leading uphill.
“This is where we normally have a bit of a canter,” Margaret explained. “If you two want to,” she looked at the two men. “You can stay here with Jenny while I take the boys up and then you can follow us.”
Buck and Chris looked at each other, they were both excellent riders but they had only ever ridden western style.
“Well it’s tempting but…” Chris began.
“Jenny will give you pointers while we walk up the hill, and they are both very reliable horses, even Bud, so long as there is no water about.”
“What’s a canter?” Vin asked.
“Like a lope, but a bit faster,” Chris translated.
“I can do that,” Vin all but pleaded.
“I don’t think so, not this time,” Chris told him firmly.
Knowing from the tone his father was never going to change his mind on this matter, Vin didn't protest further.
The boys sat on their ponies and watched their fathers canter up the hill towards them. The men were standing up in the stirrups, leaning over their horses' necks like jockeys.
From the forest they emerged out onto the moor again, only now they were much higher. A huge granite outcrop towered in front of them. Margaret explained that it was Bellever Tor, and that tor is the name for the distinctive rock outcrops. She pointed to the path that ran up to and over the saddle shaped tor.
“We’ll stop at the top, so you can take in the view.”
The tor gave them wonderful views, they could see for miles. Just below them a small group of wild ponies grazed, as a huge buzzard soared over head.
“Sure is a pretty place,” Buck breathed.
“Amen to that,” Chris agreed.
The two boys just sat and gazed, their cheeks red and glowing, for despite the sun it was markedly cooler this high up.
After an all too short stop to take in the landscape; they threaded their way down the path off the tor and across the open moor, back to the forest. The path they took was narrow and steep; it skirted the edge of the trees and came out by the river, upstream of where they had first crossed.
Margaret turned in her saddle. “The bank on the other side is very steep, but don't worry. These guys.” She patted her own horse. “Are used to it. When you reach the other bank, lean forward, get your bum out of the saddle and grab some mane. Keep the reins loose and let them pick their own way up. Vin?” Vin looked up. “If you want Jenny to lead you say now.”
“I’m okay ma'am,” he assured.
“You sure?” Chris asked.
“I can do it Dad, Billy’s a good horse.”
“Okay then.” Margaret turned to JD. “JD you keep your bottom in that saddle, and I want you to keep one hand on the handle. Don't worry about the slope, little Peat is well used to this kind of ground, he'd be first up if I let him.”
JD grinned, then he leaned forward and hugged his pony. “He's a good pony,” he agreed.
“The water is deeper here, so you lift your feet up a little or they'll get wet.”
JD nodded his understanding and they set out. Bud tried to stop, but this time Buck was ready for him. On the far side their horses set off up the steep bank with confidence and the lead horses were up on flatter ground in no time. Eventually only Vin and Jenny were on the steep ground. That was when it happened.
The wind had been picking up, which might have masked the sound, but suddenly, over the ridge in front of them came a helicopter. It wasn't that big, but it was loud and very low. If the pilot saw the horses they didn't make any attempt to change course. All the horses reacted. Bud began to rear up, not high but pounding on the ground, trying to get away. Buck had his arms down low on either side of his neck, stopping him from moving forward. All the time he was talking to his horse in a soft gentle voice. Imp began to swing away from the noise, ready to race away, but Chris managed to catch the rein on the same side as the spin and keep him going in a circle. Jenny's pinto was also attempting to turn and flee but she was at the back, hemmed in by the steep banks so he had nowhere to go, and was just thrashing its head from side to side trying to get away from her grip; but she had him in hand. Margaret's horse bucked a few times, but luckily didn't try to take off, nonetheless the sudden movement had pulled the lead rein from her hand and little Peat, terrified by the sudden sound was now free. Although floose, he didn't want to leave the safety of the herd so was just bouncing slightly in an agitated way.
“It’s okay, it's okay,” JD was repeating like a mantra.
Billy, was just as scared, but was less interested in staying with the herd, than in getting away from the scary thing to get someplace safe. Vin was still forward in his saddle, letting Billy have his head, so had no chance to stop the pony as it took off past the other horses.
Little Peat might have been content to stay with the herd, but not when his stable mate shot past him, heading up the hill toward home, when that happened he took off after him.
“Oh, oh, OHHHH!” JD called as the pony took off. Normally he would have hold of the reins, but with one hand on the saddle handle and the other still holding the mane, he had no control and was too scared to let go of either to pull the reins tight enough to get any control.
Vin was already scared when the helicopter flew over, but now he was terrified. At least as the pony took off it was going uphill so his neck with its thick mane was in front of him, which gave him a chance to shorten the reins in his hand. He knew theoretically this was what he was meant to do, but his beloved Peso had never taken off with him, so he'd never had to do it. To shorten the reins he had to pass them into one hand, then take hold of one rein higher up, then repeat this until he had both the same length.
The trail up from the river was split into several channels between high banks. Billy had shot off on the trail furthest right, the furthest from the other horses, so he didn't even notice he'd passed his father. Just as he had decided to try and stop the horse, JD's little pony almost ran into the side of his and was now beside him.
“Vin!” JD wailed. “I’s going too fast!”
“It’s okay JD, they're just scared, they'll stop soon.”
He didn't know if that was true but if he could stop his pony maybe JD's would stop. Screwing up his courage, he passed both reins into his right hand, ran his left hand down the rein and took hold of it. He was about to do the same when Billy gave a little jump to the side, he almost let go of the reins but managed to keep hold and grab some mane.
“Help!” JD cried out.
Vin glanced to his side. JD had dropped the rein and now had both hands on the saddle handle.
“Hold on JD, just hold on, I'll stop them.” Vin had no idea if he could, but he had to try.
Chris had just managed to get some measure of control over his horse when he caught a glimpse of white flash past on his right.
“Oh God Vin!” he called.
Ahead of them, little Peat, with JD hanging on for dear life, shot off after the grey.
“JD no!” Buck called.
Both men were about to kick their horses after them when Margaret called out.
“No!” she shouted confidently. “Let Jenny go, she knows the terrain!”
Even as she said it, the pinto was passing them, it was still fighting for its head, but Jenny, who Chris reckoned wasn't much more than 15, was holding him fearlessly as she rode on.
“Follow me,” Margaret commanded.
Most people would have got the rough end of Buck's wrath and a Larabee death glare for that, but both men recognised that she was the expert here. So they followed her as she trotted her still very agitated horse up the hill. In truth their horses were still fighting to get away. As they crested the ridge they could see the other three horses in the distance, all with a rider still on them.
“Oh thank God,” Buck breathed.
Vin heard something. Somewhere behind him he heard. “Turn him!”
He wasn't sure who was calling but he responded. He pulled on the left rein, turning Billy toward Peat.
“Hold on JD,” he called.
As he pulled, Billy began to turn. Peat, who only wanted to be with his friend, turned with him. Since he didn't know what else to do Vin kept pulling left, turning both of them until they had done a 180 degree turn and were heading toward Jenny who was arriving on her own horse, which she now had under control. As they got closer she turned her horse side-on presenting the two ponies not only with a barrier, but with a friend.
Their stop was a little abrupt but they both kept their seat and recovered. Jenny leaned out and grabbed Peat's lead rein.
“Are you two okay?” she asked.
“I want my Da,” JD told her.
“Me too,” Vin admitted.
“Me too,” Jenny confessed. She was scared as well, but they were all still on board and all still in one piece.
“Why did the helicop’er do that?” JD asked.
“’Cause the guy flying it is an idiot,” Jenny told him.
“He better hope my dad don’t find him,” Vin told her.
“He better hope my brother doesn't,” Jenny told him.
“Our dads is Fed'al Agents,” JD told her.
“Yeah? Well my brother is a Marine.”
“Marines is tough,” Vin told JD. “Uncle ‘Siah used to be a Marine.”
“Wow,” JD breathed. “That flying guy is in big trouble now.”
Now they could see their sons were okay, the approaching men relaxed a little and that made the horses relax too.
“That happen often?” Chris asked.
“No,” Margaret told him, clearly trying to control her anger. “The military, mostly the Navy fly over occasionally, never that low and when they see us they always change course. That guy was some private idiot. Wish I got his number.”
“M Z Z Q X,” both men stated confidently.
“You guys are good. Thanks I can report him to the Civil Aviation Authority. Don't know if they can do anything, but at least he'll know that we know he's a prick.”
“That’s one name for him, I can think of others,” Buck muttered, “But seeing as there are ladies present so I won't elaborate.”
Finally they met up with the others. “You guys okay?” Chris asked.
“Yeah Dad we’re okay, right JD?”
JD gazed up at his father. He clearly wanted a hug, but he was trying to be brave. “I'm okay.”
“They were very brave,” Jenny stated. “Did just what I told them, never screamed or panicked, real horsemen.”
This made both boys beam with pride.
“Well I think we have a real horsewoman to thank for their safety as well,” Buck told the teenager.
Jenny shrugged. “It's my job.”
The rest of the trip home was at a gentle walk. Vin didn't mind that Jenny now had him on the lead rein. Thankfully they weren't that far form the stables. Before they left the men had to sign an incident report. While they did this, Jez, introduced the boys to his Rottweiler, Rosie. Rosie was about as vicious as a cushion; she just sat on her bed by the stove and let them make a fuss of her. Then they had their picture taken with their mounts and the two ladies. JD had his arms around the little Dartmoor pony.
“I know you was scared, I know you didn’t mean to scare me by running off. I think you are the bestest pony in the world.”
Vin was stroking Billy and telling him all about Peso.
By the time they were leaving the stables, everyone had calmed down. They stopped at a local pub for lunch and then set out to explore a little more of Dartmoor by car before heading home.
“Dad?” Vin began as they sat together on the big couch in the castle living room.
“Yeah?” Chris answered curiously.
“I think if a helicopter flew over Peso he'd run away from it.”
“I think any horse would.”
“I think it’s good he's going to school now, but…”
“Can I go to horse riding school too, so I can be better at it.”
Chris took a deep breath. “I think that would be a very good idea.”
JD snuggled up to Buck. “Son?”
“I know it was scary today, so, if you don’t want to ride again I understand but…”
“I can’t ride no more?” JD asked sitting up, a look or pure horror on his face.
“Of course you can, if you want to, I just didn’t want you to be scared,” Buck assured.
“I’m not scared, it was the helicop'er's fault not Peat. He's a nice horse, like Beau.”
Buck pulled JD back into his arms. “He's a bit smaller than old Beau.”
“I miss Beau.”
“Me too. So, would you like to go to riding lessons like Vin?” Buck asked.
“Yeah!” JD agreed.
Both men had been worried the day's adventure had put their son's off horses for life, they should have known the boys' horse and cowboy obsession was stronger than that.
Friday was their last day before heading home. In the morning they shopped for souvenirs. They had already sent postcards to everyone they could think of, the uncles, Mrs Potter, the Travis', the Greens, and Shelly. Chris had suggested they send one to their class back home, as a way of keeping in touch with their friends. The boys thought this was great but insisted on sending one each. The boys convinced their fathers to let them have a stick of peppermint rock to take home. Even though they had seen many sticks of the hard candy this trip, they still found a name written all they way through it, fascinating. The men then took them to the Simon Drew shop, where they purchased tee shirts for everyone, including Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra. They also picked out gifts for the Greens, and Shelley. The boys were very excited when the rather eccentric artist served them himself.
In the afternoon they returned to the roof of the castle to watch the air show. The boys loved all of it, but the Red Arrows display blew them away. They emitted squeals of delight and gasps of amazement in equal measure. When it was all over they packed ready to leave the next day, then had fish and chips from the local take out shop before they returned to the roof to watch the firework display that closed the regatta.
All in all it was a very successful vacation. Next week the little family would have to get ready for school and work, but for now they could lie back on the roof of a castle and watch the sky explode into the colours of the rainbow.
Continues in Learning Curve
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Part 1 Links
Mary Rose Please note the Mary Rose is/was not on display in 2011, but this is fiction and I can move time!
Carisbrooke Castle Donkey Wheel
Video (made in 1963 but not much as changed)
Meet the donkeys
Ponies of the New Forest
The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu
Dartmouth Lower Ferry
Part 2 Links
99 ice cream
Feast ice cream
Blackpool Sands Beach, near Start Point, Devon
Start Point Lighthouse
Eden Project Check out the Google street views.
Drift Wood Horse
Part 3 Links
Babeny Sables, Dartmoor Please note Vin and JD's ponies are made up, but the big blaze face bay show jumping is Bud and the bay with the pale muzzle and a small white star is Imp. You can click media and select video but it's old and they go in the opposite direction to our guys.
Bellever Tor The small concrete post on the top is a map maker's triangulation point.
Part 4 Links
Red Arrows over Kingswear and Dartmouth
Red Arrows Video – filmed in Quebec
The Tee shirts