by Joy K
|This is a variation of the Little Britches Universe, modern day with Vin, JD and Ezra as children. It contains references to a natural disaster and its consequences. Hankies will be needed.|
|It had been another long, hard
day on top of a long hard week of too much destruction. Too much death. Chris
Larabee and Buck Wilmington walked wearily into the emergency shelter when
it was too dark to do anything else. This Elementary School gym had started
out as a shelter for the relief workers, but as the other shelters filled,
more and more victims made their way to the only help they could find.
Even walking through the doors of the shelter brought mixed emotions for the two men. Neither wanted to see the broken lives and hurting people, and yet they very much needed the hope of seeing lives that had been spared.
Both men leaned against a wall, watching the controlled chaos as the people moved through the chow line.
"I hate this," Buck said softly.
Chris gave a slight nod, acknowledging his best friend's comment. The rescue, now recovery effort was hard on everyone, but coming into the shelter and seeing the crushed dreams and grieving families was the worst. And yet, every evening they came back to the same place and found some encouragement in knowing these lives had been spared the fury of the water.
As the line dwindled the two men stepped up and filled their plates and snagged a cup of coffee before heading to their bunk area.
Chris stopped with out warning forcing Buck to juggle his plate and wince as coffee slopped on his hand.
"Damn it, Chris," he said crossly, "What the hell..."
The angry words faded as a small dark haired boy peered up at him, tugging at his pants leg.
"Mister, did you find my Mama?"
Buck sucked in a breath at the urchin's plea. Chris closed his eyes. What could they say? The boy's mother might be in another shelter somewhere, but it was just as likely that she hadn't made it.
Before Buck could respond, another boy stepped forward and pulled the younger child away.
"Don't bother them, JD," he said.
"But maybe he see'did Mama," JD protested.
The older boy steered JD back to the bed they had claimed and sat down on the cot. Buck's cot.
Wilmington watched as the older boy tried to comfort his sobbing friend. He looked at Chris hoping for some kind of help, but Larabee was focused somewhere else. Buck followed his line of site to the blond's cot.
"Ah, hell," he muttered to himself. Huddled at the foot of Chris' cot was a third boy, his forehead pressed to knees, skinny arms wrapped tightly around them.
Chris seemed frozen in place. No doubt the combination of the flooding and the presence of the boys was stirring up difficult memories for Larabee.
His wife, Sarah and his son, Adam had died in a tragic car accident. Their vehicle had plunged off a bridge into an icy river and they had drowned before anyone could help them.
Buck would never forget holding Chris as he collapsed in grief when the car was pulled from the river still holding the lifeless bodies of his wife and son. He blinked back tears at the memory. It had been almost three years since that tragic day when he had lost not only a sister and a nephew, but also the best part of his friend. Chris was slowly beginning to regain some of his heart, but his wife and son, Sarah and Adam were gone. Nothing could change that loss.
But something could be done for the three lost children sitting on their cots.
Setting his plate and coffee on the floor at the head of his cot, he slowly knelt in front of the two boys on his bed.
"Hey there, Kiddo," he soothed.
The older boy hugged the younger tighter, uncertain of the stranger's intent.
"Ow, Ezra!" cried JD. "You's squishing me."
Ezra eased his hold slightly and JD squirmed free reaching out to the stranger with the friendly smile and kind eyes.
"JD? Is that your name?" he asked as he scooped the child into a hug and sat down on the cot with him. It didn't escape his notice that the boy named Ezra scooted a little further away and watched him suspiciously.
"Uh huh," JD replied with a nod. "And that's Ezra and that's Vin. We's brothers."
"Hello, Ezra," he greeted calmly hoping to ease some of the boy's tension. "I'm Buck, and that..." he added nodding toward Larabee, "is Chris. Don't let that scowl fool you. He's really a nice guy."
"He looks scawy," said JD.
Buck raised his eyebrows pleading with Chris to help him out.
Larabee made a half attempt at a smile.
"Did you boys get something to eat?" Buck asked.
JD nodded vigorously. "Me and Ezra did. Vin didn't. We getted him some food but he won't eat it. Ezra says he feels real sad so we saved some for later."
"Ah, I see you've found our guests," said Josiah as he approached the group. Seeing Larabee's look, he answered the unspoken question. "They were getting lost in the shuffle at the civic center."
Buck and Chris exchanged glances, both having a fair idea of what Josiah was leaving out of his comments. It would be easy for three small boys to be overlooked, bullied or even preyed upon.
"I thought they'd get a little better attention here."
"Did Nathan check them out?" Chris asked softly, his concern for their health and safety clear.
Josiah nodded. "They're all in relatively good shape considering the circumstances. A few bumps and bruises. But this one," he said as he squatted down and put his hand on Vin's shoulder, "needs to eat."
Haunted blue eyes looked up at Sanchez.
"He won't," said Ezra from the end of the Buck's cot across the aisle from them.
"Well, I can understand that," said Chris, sitting down on his cot. "Some of this doesn't look too appetizing." He looked at Vin. "Does it?"
Vin looked at him, seemed to study him, and then shook his head.
Josiah smiled and stood. It was a start. The boy had responded to Chris. That was more than he'd been able to get from Vin in the past four hours.
"Well, even if it doesn't look too good, the people who made it worked hard because they wanted to help," said Chris. "And I bet there's something here that your stomach could tolerate, hmm, like this bread or these cookies?"
Chris nodded to his plate. "Come on. You're welcome to them. I bet your plate is cold. They're better warm."
Vin looked at Ezra and JD, then back to Chris uncertainly.
Larabee held his plate out to Vin, again nodding to it.
Vin slowly stretched over to the offered plate and took a cookie, keeping his eyes locked on Chris the entire time.
"Might as well take them both," said Chris with a slight grin, "and the bread, too. Don't want them to go to waste." Again he nodded to the plate.
Vin hesitantly reached up and took the remaining cookie and the bread.
"Can I eat the cookies we saved for Vin?" asked JD. He held up a crumpled napkin, which likely contained a couple of smashed cookies.
"I think that would be okay," said Buck. "We can get some more if he's still hungry."
"Oh!" said JD with concern. "You gots to eat, too!"
Buck grinned. "My plate's right there at the head of the bed. I'll eat if you're sure you're okay."
JD nodded. "I'll sit by Ezra and we can eat cookies." He slid off Buck's lap and hopped back up on the cot next to Ezra.
The older boy still watched all the adults suspiciously. He seemed relieved that Vin was eating, but leery of the adults' intentions.
As Buck retrieved his plate and coffee, JD unwrapped the napkin revealing a pile of crumbled cookie bits.
"Uh oh," he said softly.
"It's all right," Ezra assured, taking a few pieces. "They still taste good."
JD grinned and carefully set the napkin on the cot between them, and then took a few crumbs of his own.
He looked at Vin and said, "They're good, huh, Vin?"
Vin didn't respond, but he took another bite.
"Do you rescues people?" JD asked Chris and Buck. "We flied in a hello-copter. Mr. Josiah helps people in the vacuum centers."
"Evacuee Centers," Ezra quietly corrected.
"Yeah, that," said JD. "He talks to them and helps them not to feel so sad. And Mr. Nathan fixes their boo-boos."
Buck and Chris exchanged grins. The kid was adorable, and could talk a mile a minute.
"Do you drive a hello-copter?" JD asked Buck directly.
Buck swallowed his bite. "No. Chris and I are work for the Sheriff's Department. And so do Nathan and Josiah."
None of the men missed Ezra stiffening at the announcement that they were police officers.
"Oh," said JD. "Are you going to 'rest us?"
"Now, why would we do that?" asked Buck.
"Because Ezra said-"
"JD!" Ezra interrupted. "Let them eat. They're tired and they need to eat and rest so they can help more people tomorrow."
"Oh," said JD. He was quiet for a few moments, but his busy mind wouldn't let him stay still for too long.
"When the hello-copter came it was really loud and maked a lot of wind."
Buck nodded. "They are loud."
"And a man came down an put me in a basket and taked me up into the hello-copter. And then he got Ezra. We were on the slide at the park because it was the only thing bigger than the water and the water kept making me fall down."
Buck shuddered. It would have been so easy for these boys to have been swept away by the flood.
"What about Vin?" Chris asked quietly, sensing that the boy's story was different from JD and Ezra's and was probably why he was so quiet.
"Vin went to find Mama," said JD, sniffing. "But he didn't."
At the mention of JD's mother, Vin slowly dropped his head and began to curl in on himself again.
Chris cursed silently. Was the kid feeling guilty about not finding her? Or was he traumatized because he had?
Unwanted images of the lifeless bodies of his wife and son flooded his mind. He closed his eyes, willing them away. No one should have to see a loved one like that.
"When the chopper picked up Vin off the roof of the house, he told us Aunt Rachel wasn't there," said Ezra, struggling to keep his composure.
"Dobie jumped in the water," said JD. "He was trying to come with Vin."
Vin, with face hidden on his knees, sniffed.
"Dobie?" asked Buck.
"Vin's dog," said Ezra quietly.
"And he swimmed," JD added, "and he swimmed and he swimmed, but the hello-copter took us and we couldn't see him no more." Tears began to roll in earnest as the small child recounted the loss of the dog.
Josiah, still next to Vin, lowered himself to a squat and rested his hand in a gesture of comfort on the small shoulder now racked with quiet sobs.
The boy shrugged his hand away and Josiah moved back to give him the space he needed.
JD, with big tears rolling down his cheeks, slipped across the aisle and sat on the floor next to Vin and hugged his brother. "I'm sorry, Vin. I didn't mean to make you sad more."
Ezra rose, walked over to the pair and slid himself in between Josiah and the boys, and although he was too small to do any real damage, his posture was clearly protective of his brothers.
Josiah backed off a couple more steps, allowing the boys to settle themselves.
Seeing the threat lessened, Ezra knelt down and put his arms around both Vin and JD, his wary eyes never leaving the adults around them.
Quietly Chris stood and nodded Buck and Josiah away from the boys. "We'll be back in a few minutes."
Carrying his plate to the kitchen area, he scraped the leftovers into the trash bin before putting his utensils on the cart. He'd lost his appetite and noted that Buck hadn't fared much better.
"What's their story?" Chris demanded.
Josiah took a deep breath, steadying himself to tell what little he knew.
"All I've been able to get from them so far is that their names are JD, Vin and Ezra. JD is five and as you've seen is quite a talker. JD stands for John Daniel. Unfortunately he doesn't know, or perhaps isn't inclined to give other important details. He knows his last name but won't say it because it's a secret. He says that Ezra told him not to tell."
"That boy is scared of us, that's certain," said Buck.
Josiah nodded. "According to JD, he is five, Vin is seven and Ezra is almost nine. His mother's name is Mama. He lives on the street by the park in the blue house. Ezra lived in the brown house next door but now he lives with JD's family because he's their brother."
Chris smiled and shook his head. Getting good information from a five-year-old was unlikely.
"My interview with Vin produced no information, as you would expect from his silence, except for the fact that something caused him to withdraw. My guess is that he saw something traumatic and this is his way of dealing with it."
"Do you think he saw his mother and she was dead?" Chris asked, his voice so low it was barely audible.
"It's what Ezra suspects," Josiah confirmed. "My interview with Ezra was interesting to say the least. The boy has the ability to talk in circles and distract from the original questions. He is very suspicious and very leery of giving any information. It's interesting that he won't say anything about himself, but he was willing to volunteer information to help Vin."
"Any idea who they are? Where they belong?" asked Buck.
Josiah chuckled softly. "Well, Ezra claims they are cousins. At first JD said that they were brothers, then he told me that he and Vin are cousins and Ezra is their brother."
"That would be an interesting trick," said Buck.
Josiah grinned. "I tried to distinguish between pretend and real with JD. It's a little difficult."
"I bet it is," said Chris, remembering how hard it was with Adam when he insisted his make believe friend was real and wanted them to get a bed for him.
"Well, it makes perfect sense to a five year old mind," Josiah added. "I got as far as him saying that his Mama wasn't Vin's mother, but she is now. He called Vin's mother Aunt Beckie. And Ezra told us a little while ago while speaking of JD's mother, that Vin went to find 'Aunt Rachel.' It's likely that Beckie and Rachel were sisters and Vin and JD are cousins. I think JD sees it that when Vin moved in with him, they became brothers."
"What happened to Vin's mother?" asked Buck.
"I don't know," said Josiah. "And I'm not sure at all how Ezra plays into this. It sounds like he was a neighbor and eventually moved in with the family. So of course in JD's mind..."
"That means they're brothers," Buck said, following the logic.
"Any idea why Ezra's so reluctant to give out his name? Why he's afraid of us?" asked Chris.
Josiah shook his head. "He's hard to read. I'm going to need more time with him."
Larabee nodded. "Why'd you really bring them here?"
"I..." Josiah paused trying to contain his emotions, "From what I can figure from the intake records, the boys were rescued two days ago and taken to the civic center."
"Two days?" asked Buck. "That means they were out there for better than a day." He shook his head thinking about how frightened they must have been.
"I saw a couple of teenagers picking on them," Josiah continued. "They knocked Ezra down and took food and blankets from them."
"Did you get 'Old Testament' on them?" Buck growled.
Josiah grimaced guiltily, but ignored the question. "There are so many people at the center, and no one had time to keep an eye on three little boys. They all had so many other things to do, so many people to help. I was afraid..."
Josiah closed his eyes, choking back the emotion. He felt Buck's hand on his shoulder, before the big-hearted man pulled him into a hug.
"It's not easy for anyone, Josiah," said Buck. "We may see the damage out there, but you have to deal with the broken lives in here."
Josiah nodded. "It's just that the flood doesn't care whether you're a good guy or a bad guy, and I was afraid that three little boys like that would be such easy prey for..."
"A sicko," finished Chris angrily. It was bad enough that people had lost everything, and then to have the criminal element prey on them was unthinkable, but very real.
"What are we going to do with them?" asked Buck.
"We've put them on all the lists. So far, no matches," said Josiah. "I'll recheck the lists for all Rachels and Beckies or Rebeckahs, but I've got a feeling that we won't find them."
Buck nodded. There were too many children now orphaned and too many parents who had lost their kids. A ruptured dam gave no warning. No time for an evacuation order. No chance for people in the flood's path. The fortunate ones were the ones on the fringes of the devastation. They at least had a chance to get to safety. Others, like the boys had relied solely on instinct to get to high enough ground to be kept from washing away. Still others had never seen it coming.
"What happens now?" asked Buck although he already had a good idea. They'd go into state care and hopefully be placed with a good family. Somehow that didn't set right with him. Even in the few minutes they had been with the boys HE wanted to make sure they were safe. He wanted to protect them. He wanted...
"What the hell am I thinking?" he muttered.
Josiah smiled knowingly. He had no doubt the boys would steal Buck's heart as they had his own and Nathan's. The only question was whether Chris was receptive to the idea. He'd have to take that a little at a time.
"Well, I thought they'd be safer here with some of the workers to look after them on their down time," Josiah suggested.
Chris sighed, having a good idea what Sanchez was really suggesting. "And just where are we supposed to sleep?" he asked.
"I managed to come up with one more cot and two sleeping bags."
Chris closed his eyes and shook his head. "I guess the floor isn't much more uncomfortable than the cots."
"It's only one night, Chris," said Buck. "Then we rotate out and the new crew comes in." They had been on duty since the disaster hit. Reinforcements were on the way and they would be returning home and going back to their regular jobs. Home, fortunately for them was in the foothills of the mountains, high above the flooded area.
Chris looked over at their cots. He could see Ezra dragging an uncooperative JD to Buck's cot, scooting him on to it and tucking a blanket the slumbering child. He'd evidently cried himself to sleep. The older boy looked back to Vin.
The seven-year-old was leaning heavily against Chris' cot either asleep or nearly so. Vin and Ezra were nearly the same size, so there was no way the older boy would be able to get him on a cot.
Chris walked purposefully towards the cots. "Let me help," he said gently, hoping not to scare Ezra more.
"I can't get him on the bed."
"It's okay, son. I'll do it." Chris picked the sleepy boy up and laid him on his cot.
Vin blinked owlishly, trying to figure out what was going on.
"Just go to sleep," said Chris, tucking a blanket around the boy. "You're safe now."
Vin looked around groggily. He saw JD on the other cot. He looked at the man named Chris and then the cot he was lying on. With a big yawn, he took his blanket and moved over to JD's cot and slid under it.
"You don't need to -"
"I think he feels safer," Ezra interrupted. "He's slept under the cot every night."
Larabee frowned. "Okay, but at least use the sleeping bag as a cushion," he said as Josiah brought over the two sleeping bags while Buck carried the extra cot.
"Vin?" said Ezra, shaking the seven-year-old's shoulder. He had already snuggled down and was dozing off. "Vin, they want you to have the sleeping bag."
A snort and a soft snore sounded from beneath the cot. The weary boy was already asleep.
Chris took one of the sleeping bags and unrolled it. "I just want to make him more comfortable," he said to Ezra.
Ezra nodded, but watched closely as Chris lifted Vin and laid him on the sleeping bag. With a little help from Buck, he slid the bag back under the cot.
"Do you want this one?" Chris asked Ezra, nodding toward his cot.
Ezra shook his head. "It's not necessary. JD and Vin need me."
"Son, they're safe here," said Josiah.
Ezra yawned, quickly covering his mouth. "They have bad dreams." He climbed on to JD's cot next to the sleeping boy. "They need me," he said with another yawn.
Buck tossed Chris another blanket, which the blond expertly flicked out and tucked around the eight-year-old.
Ezra watched them guardedly, not willing to give in to sleep.
"Might as well hit the sack ourselves," said Chris nodding to the wary child, knowing that he wouldn't relax until the adults were not a threat.
"At least we don't have to flip for dibs on the cot," said Buck.
Chris threw the other sleeping bag at Wilmington. He sat on his cot and took off his boots, before lying down and hoping for some sleep.
Ezra woke with a start. He jerked his head up trying to figure out where he was and what was happening.
"It's all right," said Josiah. "You're safe and your brothers are safe."
Ezra focused on him, blinked, then rubbed his eyes.
"Hey, Ezra! You're awake!" cried JD excitedly.
The eight-year-old looked at JD. He and Vin were sitting at the foot of Chris' cot, coloring in a coloring book.
Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck helped us get breakfast. We had toast and jelly and eggs. And Vin even eated the eggs!"
Vin ignored the chatter and continued to color in the book.
JD hopped up and trotted over to Ezra, crawling onto the cot beside him. "Mr. Josiah said you needed to sleep some more so we saved you some breakfast."
"I'm not very hungry," Ezra mumbled. He was tired. Between Vin and JD's nightmares, and his own, he hadn't slept well for the past few days.
"But we got your fav'rite," whined JD. "Show him, Mr. 'Siah."
Josiah held out the individual serving size box of Cocoa Puffs, a bowl and a small carton of milk.
Ezra cautiously accepted them, finding he was hungrier than he thought.
"And Mr. 'Siah got us some clothes, but he said me and Vin couldn't put them on 'til you were 'wake."
"I thought it would be easier," said Josiah, "If you all changed at the same time." He watched the wary green eyes. "That way, you boys can go in the locker room together and I can watch the door so no one disturbs you."
Ezra poured the milk on his cereal and took the spoon JD offered him. He nodded in agreement to Josiah's offer. They did need a change of clothes and a chance to clean up.
"After you eat and get cleaned up, we'll figure out something for you to do today," said Josiah. "Nathan said you can help him for a little while, and the ladies said that you could help them put food on plates at lunch time."
"Yeah," chimed in JD. "We get to wear the funny hats and them plastic gloves on our hands!"
Ezra tried not to roll his eyes. Only JD would think wearing a hair net was exciting.
"And some people brought a bunch of books and Mr. Buck said we could read as many as we want and we should share." JD bounced slightly on the cot, jostling Ezra and his cereal. Fortunately the eight-year-old compensated and the milk didn't spill.
"And Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris went to look for Mama and the other Mama's and Daddy's and kids who need to be helped." JD stopped bouncing. Even his swinging feet stilled. "Mr. Buck said he'd come back tonight and tell me if he finded Mama."
Ezra looked at Vin. His hand paused over the page where he was coloring.
"I want Mama."
At JD's plea Vin dropped his crayon and unconsciously covered his ears. He began rocking slightly.
Ezra looked at Josiah. He was torn. JD needed him. Vin needed him. He didn't know how to help either one of them, but he didn't really trust Josiah.
Seeing the lost look on the eight-year-old's face Josiah nodded to him and moved over to try to help Vin. Despite Ezra's wariness, it was clear he was asking for help, albeit unwillingly.
Ezra put down the empty cereal bowl and put his arm around JD. He patted the five-year-old's shoulder, but couldn't tell him everything would be all right. He watched Josiah with Vin.
The counselor sat down on the floor next to Vin and began talking softly to the boy. He knew it wasn't likely that the boy would talk about what was bothering him since he had yet to say anything, so he decided to try to divert Vin's attention to something else.
"That's a nice picture you're coloring."
Vin stopped rocking and focused on the coloring book. JD grabbed on to the diversion as well, slid off the cot and joined Josiah and Vin on the floor.
"This one's my picture," he informed Josiah. "I had to use the blue for the boy's hair because Vin won't take turns with the black crayon." He gave Vin a scowl of frustration, to which the older boy was oblivious.
The seven-year-old picked up the black crayon and started coloring again, his picture illustrating his fear, confusion and pain. Everything in his picture was colored black - the trees, the sun, the clouds, the barn, the horse - Everything.
Until he was able to relieve some of the trauma, Vin would not be giving up the black crayon.
"Good Morning, boys," said Nathan as he joined the group. "Are you ready to be my helpers?"
"I promised them they could clean up first," said Josiah. "We were just about to head for the locker room."
"All right," Nathan nodded. "How's everyone feeling this morning?"
"Fine," said Ezra quickly. He didn't want the medic poking and prodding. He asked too many questions.
"Me, too," said JD. "And Vin ate eggs for breakfas'."
"Well, that's great, Vin," said Nathan enthusiastically.
Vin just kept coloring.
Nathan looked at Josiah with concern.
"Vin, boys," said Josiah, "Why don't we go get you cleaned up and change into your new clothes."
JD looked to Ezra for direction. The oldest boy nodded and stood up. He still wasn't sure he could trust these men, but they needed a shower and to change their filthy clothes.
"Come on, Vin," said Ezra.
Vin continued to color, ignoring everything around him.
"Vin," said Ezra, putting his hand on the seven-year-old's hand and halting his movement. "Let's go clean up. We'll take the book and crayons with us so we don't lose them."
He gently pulled the crayon from Vin's grasp and placed it in the box, closed the coloring book and picked them up.
Vin got up and followed as Ezra led them towards the boys' locker room off the end of the gym. JD caught up to Ezra and held his hand as they walked.
"Nathan, why don't you go inside and make sure there's no one else in there?" suggested Josiah, knowing that the experiences at the civic center were part of Ezra's worries.
"Sure," said Nathan as he knocked and went inside.
"Can you boys shower on your own?" Josiah asked.
"Vin and I can," said Ezra, "And we'll help JD with his hair."
"All right," said Josiah, "I'll wait out here and make sure no one comes in, okay?"
"This bag has things you'll need for bathing - towels, shampoo, combs," said Josiah, "And this one has changes of clothes for the three of you. They may not fit exactly, but they should be close. When you're done, we can go over and pick out some shoes that fit."
"Thank you," Ezra replied. He let go of JD's hand to take one of the bags and hand it to Vin. He took the second bag himself and as Nathan exited and gave the all clear, the boys went in to wash off days of grime.
Chris and Buck were wishing they could wash off some grime of their own. They had gone house to house for the entire morning and hadn't found a single survivor. They were grateful that they had only found one body, but the damage to homes and property was overwhelming.
Every time they came across a lifeless pet, their minds strayed back to three little boys in that school gym, each man secretly hoped the boys' families would be found and a certain dog named Dobie would be reunited with his owner.
"I wonder how Josiah's doing?" asked Buck.
Chris grinned slightly. He had been thinking the same thing. Before they left the shelter this morning, Josiah had told them he'd recheck all the lists today as well as try to get some last names from the boys. He would also work on clearing the way for the boys to go and stay at Chris' ranch until family was found or if necessary, until child welfare found homes for them. The shelters were no place for children, let alone unattended children.
"Doubt he got anywhere with Ezra," Chris said.
Buck nodded. The green-eyed boy was tightlipped. JD, however, was a different matter. He was young enough that he could unknowingly tell them what they needed to know. Unfortunately, data from a five-year-old wasn't too reliable. And Vin? Well, his heart broke for the boy and whatever had affected him so deeply. He hoped it wasn't JD's mother, but with every day that passed without someone looking for the boys, it became more likely.
"Are we going to head out to the ranch tonight?" Buck asked.
Chris nodded. "I don't want those boys to spend another night in a shelter if they don't have to." He took a sip of water knowing that they would have to get back to work in a few minutes. "Are you willing to give up the bunkhouse for a while?"
"The bunkhouse! You aren't going to put them out there!" Buck protested.
"No, I'm not," Chris replied with a chuckle. When the Larabee's had inherited Sarah's maternal grandfather's ranch, Buck had come along and helped them convert the old bunkhouse into a comfortable guest house, which he had occupied ever since. Some how the name had remained "The Bunkhouse."
"But I'm going to need help supervising and you could do that better from the guest room," Chris continued. "Besides, I think we'll be having more than a few of our coworkers in need of housing..."
"And The Bunkhouse would be perfect," Buck agreed. "When'd you get so smart?" he teased.
"Shut up, Buck," Chris warned with a grin.
Wilmington laughed. He wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He hadn't expected Chris to be so willing to take the boys in. He figured Chris would let some of the guys come stay at the ranch, but three little boys were a lot more dangerous to a man who guarded his wounded heart so closely. Then again, how could anyone look at JD, Vin and Ezra and turn them away? Sure Ezra pretended to be tough, but his fear was just as palpable as JD or Vin's.
"Hey! Help! Over here!"
The woman's cry spurred them into motion, their lunch forgotten.
"How are you doing, boys?" Josiah called as he knocked on the door.
"Almost done," Ezra answered.
"I am done!" JD chirped as he opened the door for Josiah.
Ezra, unaware of the five-year-old's actions, continued to dress himself. The button down shirt was a little too big and the khaki pants were too long. He decided the shirttail looked better in, so he tucked it in before carefully rolling up the sleeves and pressing the fold with his hand.
Vin shimmied into a flannel shirt and buttoned it while Ezra primped.
The almost nine-year-old fretted over the length of the pants standing on tiptoes a couple of times before bending down and rolling them up and creasing the new cuff with his hands.
He meticulously combed his hair before carefully tucking the comb into his pocket.
He turned toward the door and flinched when he saw Josiah. Quickly covering his fear he moved to assist Vin with a particularly nasty snarl in his shaggy blond hair.
Josiah collected the two bags of dirty clothing, while Ezra worked on the snarl. JD tugged on Sanchez's pants leg.
"Mr. 'Siah," he said in a loud whisper. "Can we wash the clothes?"
Josiah thought of the filth that resided in the boys' clothes, including who knew what kind of chemicals and germs from the floodwaters.
"I don't think..."
"Please," JD pleaded. His eyes darted to Ezra then back to Josiah.
"We can try," Sanchez appeased, "but I think it would be best if we just bought you some new clothes."
JD's shoulders drooped and he sighed. "Ezra don't like Wal*Mart," he mumbled.
"Are my helpers ready?" asked Nathan as he tapped on the door and stuck his head in.
"Yes," said Ezra, handing Vin his comb.
"Except our shoes!" said JD.
"We can fix that," said Nathan. "Follow me and we'll find something that fits."
The five made their way out of the locker room and over to an area with large boxes full of shoes.
"This is for boys," said Nathan.
"Nuh-uh," countered JD. "It says ten dash thirteen and one dash six."
Josiah grinned at Nathan. JD was a smart little boy.
"That's right," Nathan agreed, "It's boys' sizes 10-13 and 1-6." He pointed to a sign, "See? We're in the men and boys section."
After five minutes of digging through the box, JD spotting a shoe he liked and then being disappointed because it didn't fit, Nathan dumped the box on the floor. "Let's see how fast we can make pairs."
JD dove in wholeheartedly. Vin would make a pair if he was handed a shoe to match. Ezra seemed not to want to touch any of the shoes unless they were brand new.
"No, Vin, that one has to go here," said JD, moving the pair Vin had matched further down the row. "See? It's a one and it goes with the ones."
Nathan and Josiah glanced at each other as bits of personality were revealed. JD knew his numbers and he apparently liked everything in order.
When JD had finished sorting the shoes he hopped around, standing by each size until the shoes were slightly bigger than his feet. Then he picked the color he liked the best - red sneakers, slightly dirty at the toes.
Vin seemed content with the navy blue sneakers that were slightly too big, but the best fit.
"Well, let's find some for you, Ezra," said Josiah. He sized a couple pair to the eight-year-old's feet before deciding which size was best. There were only two pair in the right size. Josiah frowned at the brown dress shoes. Why would someone donate such an impractical pair of shoes for a kid? Obviously they didn't want the shoes...and had found a convenient way to dump them.
"These are a little worn," he said fingering the frayed toe of a pair of black sneakers. "But they'll do until we can get you a better pair."
"What about these?" asked Ezra holding up the dress shoes.
Josiah looked at the confusing little boy in front of him. He could talk in circles, was good at diversions, feared adults or maybe authority figures... and wanted a pair of dress shoes.
He shrugged. "Okay, if that's what you want." He wasn't about to dash the first glint of hope he'd seen in the eight-year-old's eyes.
Ezra grinned and quickly slipped the shoes on and tied them before Josiah could change his mind.
Sanchez stood watching as Nathan led the boys away. He knew their 'helping' with the medical supplies would be no more than helping Nathan unload small things from boxes, but it gave them something to keep them occupied.
Ezra stopped and bent down to adjust his pants cuff, then trotted to catch up.
The boy liked to be neat. He wanted dress shoes. JD said he didn't like Wal*Mart. Josiah looked inside the two bags of clothes he still held. Inside one was a very rumpled pile of boys' clothing. Inside the other was a bundle of filthy but neatly folded clothes. IZOD and GAP. Even if he hadn't recognized the expensive labels, despite the mud and dirt, it was easy to see the higher quality of material.
Ezra's family didn't mind spending money on clothing, which considering JD and Vin's Wal*Mart attire, made it a little less likely that the older boy was physically related to them.
With a sigh, and more questions than he started with, Josiah went to see Nettie in the kitchen and see what she thought about trying to save the clothing.
"That's very good, boys."
"Thank you, Miz Nettie," said JD, placing cookies on the next person's tray as they moved through the food line. Ezra was handing out bottles of water. Vin sat behind them on the floor coloring in the coloring book.
Nettie Wells, a Red Cross volunteer and retired police dispatcher had tried to get the seven-year-old to help by asking him to hand out the milk cartons, but after a few people came through the line and told him they didn't want milk, he'd stopped helping and went back to his coloring. What he perceived to be grumpy rejections was more than he could deal with.
When the lunch line dwindled, Nettie invited the boys to come into the kitchen to eat. She had set aside meals for the food service workers before lunch began and they were warming in the oven of the school kitchen.
The boys dutifully followed her in and sat at the table she indicated. Vin laid out the coloring book and started coloring again.
"Vin," said Nettie, "I need you to look at me."
Vin stopped coloring indicating he was listening, but he didn't look up.
Knowing she had his attention, Nettie continued. "We're going to have lunch now. I need you to put away the crayons and the book. Just for now."
There was a hesitation, but slowly Vin put away the black crayon and put the book and the box on the bench next to him.
Nettie smiled to herself. He wasn't totally closed off. He just needed a lot of help to deal with his trauma.
"Thank you, Vin," said Nettie. "Now, eat up, all of you. Growing boys need a lot of fuel."
She smiled and started eating as all three boys tucked in to their lunch. She had known what to expect with Vin and JD from what Josiah and Nathan had told her, but Ezra had been a bit of a surprise. She had been warned that he was very suspicious and wary of adults, but he had readily helped her and only showed a little hesitance until he was certain that Vin and JD were safe. Perhaps his fears were adult males, or authority figures, or maybe she just reminded him of someone and he felt safe with her. Whatever the case it was nice to see him relax a bit and even smile.
When Chris and Buck returned to the shelter around dinnertime, they found Ezra dozing on the cot as Vin and JD sat on the floor reading a book. JD was reading "Green Eggs and Ham" with startling clarity. More than likely he'd heard it enough times that he had it memorized.
Suddenly he realized Buck was there.
"Hi, Mr. Buck!" he yelled, dropping the book and running to Buck. "Did you..."
Buck shook his head as he scooped the boy up, stopping his question about his mother. "No, kiddo, but Chris and I have something to ask you." He looked over at Ezra who was now sitting up, awakened by JD's greeting. "All of you."
Chris sat down on the cot next to where Vin was seated on the floor, making his size less threatening to the boys. "I have a ranch in the foothills. It has a nice big house and lots of room to play."
He looked at the boys, seeing he had JD and Ezra's attention. Vin wouldn't look up, but he was sitting still as if he was listening.
"It's up above the flood plain, so it wasn't flooded. Buck lives there, too. And we wondered if you boys would like to come and stay there until we can find your families."
Ezra stiffened slightly.
"You all could share a room. I already have bunk beds in there and we could bring in another bed."
"No!" cried JD. "I don't wanna go!"
"Hey, hey, now," Buck soothed. "It's all right."
"But the man said," JD gasped through his sobs, "We gotta stay in the vacuum center so Mama can find us."
Buck hugged JD to his shoulder, turning the child's face to lean on his chest. "It's all right, son. It's all right. Your names are all on the list. That's where everyone looks when they're trying to find someone. You don't have to be in the Evacuation Center, just be on the list and it will tell people where to find you."
Buck had to pause to control his own tears at JD's longing for his mother. "We'll put on the list that you're staying at the ranch and anyone trying to find you can call us, Okay?"
"You sure she can find us?" JD asked, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
Buck was careful not to promise JD that his mother would come. But he assured him that he would put the ranch phone number on the list.
"So what do you think, Kiddo?" he asked JD.
"Is it okay, Ezra?" JD asked.
Ezra chewed on his lip briefly. Then nodded. If they needed to runaway from the men, they would, but for now just being away from the crowds of strangers would be safest.
"What about you, Vin?" Chris asked quietly, resting his hand gently on the boy's thin shoulder.
Vin looked at him, studied him, and then nodded.
"Well, all right!" said Buck with a smile. He wanted to cheer at Vin's responsiveness, but kept it mostly contained. "Let's get your gear together and get ready to go."