"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
After searching the house, Josiah checked the barn. He looked in Vin's secret place in the hayloft, chuckling at the idea that it was secret. Everyone knew where it was, but they left it as Vin's special place and didn't invade it unless it was in Vin's best interest. Vin was not in the barn. It was dark out, and Vin didn't like the dark, so Josiah figured he hadn't gone far. He walked around the house to the back yard and what he saw caused him to stop suddenly.
Vin was lying on his back in the middle of the yard, not moving. Josiah instinctively scanned the area for danger, but could see nothing that would have caused harm to the boy.
Pressing down the surge of fear, Josiah crossed the yard in a jog. "Vin?"
He knelt beside Vin and almost laughed in relief as Vin turned his head to look at him. Josiah took a breath to calm himself before asking, "What are you doing Vin? Are you all right?"
Vin toyed with the stalk of daisies in his hand. "I'se watching the stars."
"Mind if I join you?" asked Josiah.
Vin patted the ground next to him and Josiah stretched out on the grass. It had been a warm day, but it was springtime and the mountains cooled off quickly at night. Vin had on his warm jacket, but it wouldn't be long before the chill would chase them back inside. Josiah said nothing as he looked up at the stars, leaving Vin the space he needed. It wasn't long before Vin began to talk.
"See those three stars in a row?" He pointed to the night sky. "That's called 'Rian's belt." Vin inched closer to Josiah as he pointed out the stars. "And those over there? The one's that look like a cup with a handle? That one's called the Big Dipper." Vin edged closer to Josiah. "That's what they called a cup with a long skinny handle in the olden days. A dipper." Vin settled back and was now snuggled against Josiah with his head resting on Josiah's shoulder.
"You know a lot about stars, Vin," said Josiah softly. "Who taught you?"
"Momma," said Vin softly. He liked the way Uncle Josiah's chest rumbled when he talked. "When we had the little house, Momma and me would lay in the backyard and look at the stars." Vin pointed to the Big Dipper again. "That really bright star on the handle of the Big Dipper, that's the North Star. If you get lost at night, you can follow that star 'cause it will lead you home. Momma told me that's where Daddy lives. Not Walter, but my real dad. Momma said Walter couldn't stay out of jail long enough to go to heaven."
Vin shivered, but Josiah couldn't tell if it was from the cold or from where Vin's thoughts were taking him. "I don't like Walter," Vin whispered.
Josiah shifted the arm Vin was resting on, so that he had his arm around Vin and hugged him closer. In a few short sentences, Vin had told him more about his past than he had in several months. Vin's father was dead, or at least his mother had told Vin his father was dead. Walter, apparently some sort of father figure in Vin's young life was bad and probably in prison. Josiah tried to keep at bay the terrible scenarios that raced through his mind. It was tragic enough that Vin had lost his parents at such a young age. He hated to consider what else the seven-year-old had experienced.
Vin pressed against the warmth of Josiah's chest. "When I get sad for Momma I try to come look at the stars. You can see 'em really good here."
They both smiled as a shooting star streaked across the sky.
"Is this where my Momma is?"
Josiah swallowed hard. Talking to a child about death was a difficult task, not something he relished, but not something he would avoid. When a child was ready to talk, you talked.
"I mean the stars are called heavenly bodies so is that where heaven is?"
Josiah smiled. This seven-year-old didn't need a theological discourse on whether heaven had a physical location, or even if there was a heaven. He needed to know his mother was safe.
"What do you think, Vin?" asked Josiah.
"I think, yes."
Josiah smiled. "I think, yes, too."
"Do you think she's happy there?"
"Heaven is a place where there are no more tears, or pain, or sadness," answered Josiah trying to determine the question behind the question. He took in a slow, deep breath, giving himself time to sort out what Vin really needed at this moment.
Vin clutched his drooping daisy and sniffed it. He wished he could give it to his Momma and tell her he was sorry. He took a shuddering breath, fighting back the tears that wanted to come.
"Uncle Josiah?" Vin asked softly.
"You talk to God lots?" Vin leaned his head back so he could see Josiah's answer. When Josiah nodded, Vin pressed on with his thoughts. "Could you ask Him to tell my momma something for me?"
"Sure, Vin. But why don't you ask Him?" Josiah squeezed Vin's tummy.
The pure despondency in Vin's voice stopped Josiah cold. "Why not, Vin?"
"He don't listen to me."
"I asked Him for my momma to get better. She didn't." Vin sighed. "I asked him to let her come back. She didn't."
Josiah brushed his hand over Vin's hair soothingly. It intrigued him that Vin didn't think that God wasn't listening at all; rather that God didn't listen to Vin. He wondered what Vin felt he had done that was so bad that God wouldn't deem him worthy to hear.
"What did you want me to ask God, Vin?"
The world seemed abnormally silent as he waited for Vin's answer. Vin involuntarily let out a small sound. Josiah couldn't describe it as a cry or a whimper or even a gasp. It was simply Vin's broken heart trying to express itself.
"Ask him to tell Momma, I'm sorry."
Josiah closed his eyes, praying silently for wisdom. "You're sorry for what, Vin?"
Vin's tiny whisper seemed to ring loudly in the darkness. "I made Momma die." Vin took a deep breath and squeezed the tears away. "Momma got sick 'cause of me. I had 'monia and she was taking care of me and I made her get sick."
Josiah sat up, pulling Vin up onto his lap and into a tight hug. "You didn't cause your mom to die, Vin."
"I didn't want her to go." Vin's voice broke with emotion. He wrapped his thin arms around Josiah as far he could reach and held on as Josiah rocked him gently. As he rested his cheek on Josiah's chest, he let the reassuring thump of Josiah's heartbeat soothe him.
Josiah rubbed circles on Vin's back. "You didn't make your mom sick. Sometimes people just get sick, and sometimes, no matter how much we want them to stay, sometimes they die, Vin."
"It's not fair," whispered Vin.
"It isn't fair, but there isn't anything we can do to change what happened. We have to go on from here," Josiah said.
"That's what Doctor Will said too," said Vin.
"Did you tell all of this to Doctor Will?" asked Josiah.
"No," gasped Vin, suddenly fearful. "I didn't even tell Chris. I should'a telled Chris, but I was afraid. I thought he might not like me anymore if he knew I made my momma die."
"It's all right, Vin," assured Josiah. "First of all, remember, you didn't make your momma die, right?" Josiah waited for Vin's hesitant nod before continuing. "Second, you never have to be afraid to tell Chris anything. Chris loves you and nothing hear me, Vin nothing will change that."
Vin reached up and gently touched Josiah's cheek. "But he'll be sad that I told someone else first."
Josiah smiled. "No, Vin. Chris will be proud." Josiah took Vin's small hand from his cheek swallowing it in his own comparatively huge hand. "Chris will be proud that you were brave enough to share this with someone, and I am honored that you shared it with me."
Vin smiled. He still missed his mom. He still wished she would come back, but now someone else shared the heavy burden of his guilt. He'd be able to talk to Josiah when he felt bad and Josiah would listen.
Vin shivered. With the release of the emotions, he had finally realized it was cold.
"I'm cold," he declared.
Josiah chuckled. The declaration had announced Vin was finished talking for now. "Me too. What do you say we go inside and get some hot chocolate?"
Vin squeezed Josiah once more and then got up. He waited until Josiah stood, then reached out and took Josiah's comforting hand in his own as they walked towards the house.
Sunday morning finally arrived and Buck was now certain that the boys were up to something. Despite Vin's emotional week, he had expected Vin to be excited today - Chris was coming home. But he didn't expect that JD would be so wired. The dark haired boy hurried through his breakfast and his chores then came back to the kitchen where Buck was finishing the dishes.
"Can I take a bath, Buck?" implored JD.
Buck looked at him in surprise. It was a very strange request. Neither JD nor Vin liked baths, and they certainly never asked to have one. They could be caked with mud an inch thick and still say "I'm not dirty!" Truth be told, this time JD didn't even look dirty.
"Please?" asked Vin as he walked up behind JD.
"All right," said Buck warily. This was odd - both boys willingly taking a bath. "Get your towels." Buck walked to the bathroom and started the water running in the tub. Moments later two boys appeared in their skivvies with bath towels. Buck smiled, "Ducks or boats?" he asked referring to the bath toys.
"Both!" said JD as he removed his underwear and Buck lifted him into the tub.
After making sure JD was settled, Buck turned to Vin. "Next?" Vin blushed and Buck smiled indulgently. He could never understand how Vin could be so shy before he stepped into the tub and after he stepped out, but while in the clear water he seemed to forget his reticence and enjoy playing in the water with JD. It wasn't like the water hid anything. Buck suppressed a chuckle and held up Vin's towel between himself and Vin for a semblance of privacy. He heard a rustling of clothing, then the squeak of Vin's foot against the wet tub as he stepped in and his foot slid. At the sound of a hard thump and splash, Buck dropped the towel.
"You all right there, Vin?" He chuckled at the shocked expression on Vin's face. He had landed rather hard and splashed a good amount of water out of the tub. Buck looked at JD as the younger boy sputtered and wiped off his face. He looked upset for about two seconds then both boys began to laugh.
"Let's try to keep some water in the tub this time," said Buck.
Vin nodded. "Will you wash my hair, Buck?" he asked.
Buck locked eyes with Vin. He was serious. Vin would let Chris help wash his hair, but if Chris wasn't there to help, Vin would do it himself, no matter how long it took. "You betcha," he smiled.
"Me too, Buck!" shouted JD.
"All right. All right. One at a time."
Buck helped the boys finish their baths in record time. Just one more odd piece added to the puzzle. Once in the water it was almost impossible to get the boys out. They loved playing with the water toys. Today they had hurried through, playing very little.
Two boys wrapped in bath towels streaked to their bedroom to get dressed. When they emerged, Buck was in for another surprise. Both of the boys were dressed in nice slacks, polo shirts and their good shoes.
"Wow, you two look slick," said Buck, "Are you sure you want to wear your good clothes? You can't play in those, ya know."
"We know," said JD. He looked at Buck's jeans with the holes in the knees and the old worn work boots. "Are you going to wear those?"
Buck looked at JD in surprise. "You've been spending way too much time with Ezra," he joked.
"It's a party, Buck. You's supposed to dress up," insisted JD. He wanted Buck to look his best. "Pleeeeeease," begged JD.
"All right. I'll change before the guys get here, but I've got some work to do first." He looked at the two boys. Their hair was perfectly combed and their clothes were neat. "You sure you don't want to put those on later?"
"Nope," said JD. "We won't get dirty."
When Buck finished his chores and headed back to the house, he could see that the boys had been hard at work. The picnic table had a purple "Happy Mother's Day" tablecloth draped over it, nearly straight. The cake box was in the middle of the table. The plates and the red and black "Welcome Home" napkins were in piles at the end of the table weighted down with a rock so they wouldn't blow away when the breeze kicked up. They had even tied the helium balloons to the back of the lawn chairs. It looked very festive. He scanned the area looking for his two party hosts, finding them as they came out the door again with the flowers.
"Boys, you've done a great job," he praised. JD beamed. Vin shrugged.
"What time is it, Buck?" asked Vin.
Buck felt like it was the thousandth time Vin had asked, but instead of being irritated about it, he was grateful. It was a good sign of how far Vin had come in accepting his new family. He checked his watch. "One more hour," he reported. Vin smiled. Buck loved that smile.
"You should go get dressed, Buck," advised JD.
"What? Do you think you're Chris now, or something, ordering me around?" Buck smiled at JD as he deposited his bouquet on the table.
"I just wants you to look nice, Buck," answered JD as he carefully tucked the homemade card under the bouquet.
"It's a s'prise, Buck. You know that!"
Buck wandered toward the house wondering what JD had in mind for his surprise. He hoped that it was simply that JD was trying to surprise him, but he felt something wasn't right and he was missing it.
When Buck finished dressing and walked outside, he scanned the yard for the boys and found them on Waiting Rock. That was what the boys called the big boulder between the corral and the driveway. It stood about five feet high and was somewhat flat on the top. A couple of adults could sit easily atop the rock, but in this case, two little boys had climbed up the corral fence and climbed onto Waiting Rock to wait for Chris. They were sitting quietly, each of them holding flowers in one hand and an envelope in the other.
Buck started the barbeque. He'd have everything ready to grill as soon as Chris, Ezra and Nathan stepped out of Josiah's vehicle when he brought them from the airport. As he came out of the house a second time with a plate of hamburgers to cook, he caught sight of the edge of the tablecloth flapping "Mother's Day" in the breeze. He looked at the two boys on the rock with flowers and cards and his breath caught. The baths, the nice clothes, the flowers. Buck closed his eyes and groaned inwardly. "Please let it be for Chris," he whispered, but he was pretty sure it wasn't. At least not for JD.
Both JD and Vin sat up straighter as Josiah's Suburban rumbled up the driveway. Buck watched the boys shift their flowers and cards into one hand so they could wave at the vehicle, but his heart sank as neither boy scrambled down to chase the Suburban up the rest of the driveway. Vin kept turning to watch it, seemingly torn between whatever they were looking for down the road, and running to Chris.
Buck walked to the gravel area and greeted the men as they exited the vehicle. "Welcome home, boys," he said.
"Good to be home," growled Chris wearily. It had been a long week and he had missed the boys.
"My sentiments as well," added Ezra. He looked curiously down to the rock where he had seen the boys. They were still on the rock. "Who are Master Tanner and Master Dunne waiting for?" he asked.
Chris looked at Buck, trying to hide his disappointment that Vin hadn't come running and thrown his arms around him welcoming him home.
"We may have a problem," sighed Buck. He went on to explain all the cryptic things of the past few days. "Chris," Buck finished, "I think they're waiting for their mothers."
Chris swore aloud. No one put out a hand demanding a dollar for the swear word. They all felt the same way. Two little boys were about to have their world crushed once again.
"I was sure that Vin understood, but Ezra, when you told me this week what he said when you we're recovering "
"Chris, Vin understands as much as he can at his age," said Josiah. "We talked about it last night." The men watched Vin turn and look at Chris again, then at JD, then turn back to the road. "He was almost begging me to tell him he was wrong when he said his mother was dead." Josiah laid his hand on Chris' shoulder. "He knows Chris, but there's a faint hope with in him, a desperate hope that he is wrong and his mom will come walking down that road."
Both boys suddenly stood up on the rock as they spotted another vehicle. The Taxi rounded the bend then pulled up beside Josiah's Suburban. Buck and Chris watched two dejected boys settle back down to their seats atop the Waiting Rock when Maude Standish stepped out of the cab.
"Mother?" said Ezra in surprise.
"Dear Lord, this is really in the boonies," answered Maude. "Pay the driver dear, and give your mother a kiss."
"Mother?" said Ezra again. He was truly shocked to see his mother in Denver, let alone at the Larabee Ranch.
"Ezra, it is Mother's Day, and where else would I be but with my darlin' boy?" said Maude. "Mr. Wilmington was so kind to invite me to your quaint welcome home party."
Ezra pulled out his wallet and paid the driver. Maude observed the somber expressions of the men around her. "Have I come at a bad time, Ezra?" she asked softly.
"Mother," said Ezra, "Apparently this little soirée was not intended as a welcome home for Mr. Larabee, Mr. Jackson or myself." He looked at the two boys on the rock. Vin wrapped an arm around JD's shoulder and pulled him closer. Ezra swallowed hard, fully understanding the pain of waiting for your mother to come. "Apparently Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne planned this party for their mothers."
Maude opened her mouth to say something, but decided against it. She knew how much these two little waifs had come to mean to her son. He spoke of them frequently in his letters. The concern on his face was obvious as he watched the pair. In an uncharacteristic display of affection, Maude slipped her delicate hand into her son's and squeezed. Ezra squeezed her hand back and kissed his mother on the cheek.
Chris nodded to acknowledge Maude's presence, but had bigger issues on his mind than pleasantries. "You talked to him about this?" he asked Josiah.
"Not about this," said Josiah, nodding to the two boys on the rock, "but we did talk about death, and heaven, and " Josiah paused deciding whether what Vin told him was in confidence or not. " and that his mother's death was not his fault. He believes that since he was sick first he made his mother sick and she died."
Chris tore his gaze from the two boys holding desperately to a hope, and stared at Josiah trying to take in what he had just said.
"He was afraid to tell you, Chris. He's still so insecure. He thinks that any bad thing he does will make us not like him anymore. Somehow he's equated that displeasure with sending him away."
Chris shook his head as the other's stood quietly.
"Chris, he was upset with himself that he told me first. He thinks you'll be hurt by that," said Josiah. "I told him you'd be proud of how brave he was."
"Damn straight," said Chris with a tight edge to his voice. Chris turned his attention back to the two boys. Vin glanced back at him and then pulled JD into a hug. JD's arm's hung limply, the flower bouquet dangling dangerously. "If he understands, why is he sitting on that rock waiting for her?"
"He's being a good big brother," said Buck, knowing that Vin was sitting there because JD needed him. He started down the driveway to try to piece together a broken heart.
"Thanks, Josiah," said Chris. "Sorry about the party guys."
"We're not going anywhere," said Nathan. "We're family. We'll help however you need us."
"Thanks," said Chris again. Chris walked slowly to the rock as the others busied themselves with finishing the lunch preparations. Vin glanced back and saw Chris coming. He sat up straighter and gradually let his arm fall away from JD's shoulder as Chris stepped to his side of the boulder and Buck stopped at JD's.
JD looked up at Buck with tears in his eyes. "She's not coming, is she?"
"No, Little Bit. I'm sorry, you're momma can't come," answered Buck. JD lifted his arms and Buck scooped him from the rock, pulling him into a tight hug. He whispered assurances to the boy as JD sobbed.
Vin practically leapt into Chris' arms. He didn't say a word; he just hugged Chris as tight as he could.
"Are you all right, Cowboy?" asked Chris as he hugged Vin.
"I didn't know what JD was plannin'. I should'a known," Vin mumbled with his face tight to Chris' shoulder. "Now he's hurtin' bad."
Chris pushed Vin away slightly and when Vin looked at him, Chris nodded to the card and the daisy Vin held. "Looks like someone else was hopin' too?"
Vin nodded as Chris set him on his feet. "I knew she couldn't come, but I still hoped."
"I can understand that," said Chris. He knew the feeling all too well. He knew his wife and son were gone forever, but had wished for their return. Chris took Vin's hand and began to walk toward the house. Vin pulled on his hand as he turned to look back at JD.
"What about JD? I need to help him," said Vin.
"We'll let Buck take care of JD right now. Then, when JD needs you and me, we'll help him, all right?"
Vin nodded and leaned his cheek against Chris' arm as they walked back to the house, still gripping his flower and card in one hand.
Buck's heart broke at JD's wail. He was kicking himself for his part in allowing things to go this far. He should have recognized what JD was doing, but he had thought that JD understood as much as a five-year-old could that his mom couldn't come back.
"I got you," he soothed. "I got you." He refused to say, "It's okay," because he knew it wasn't. It wasn't okay that JD was heartbroken. It wasn't okay that his mother had been murdered. It wasn't okay that a five-year-old faced so many traumas.
Buck didn't leave the Waiting Rock. JD needed to let out his grief and Buck didn't want him to feel pressure to be quiet or be good.
"She said She said " JD hiccupped between sobs.
Buck sat down with JD in his lap and rubbed his back until he quieted some more.
"She said Mommy would come," JD sniffed.
"Who did, JD?" asked Buck.
"Shannon." JD scrubbed the tears from his face with his fist, still gripping the card.
"Shannon's real smart. Smarter than the whole class." JD wiped his nose on his sleeve. "When we made the cards for Mom's Day, the teacher told us about having a party for people we love. I asked Shannon if Mommy would come if I had a Mom's Day party and she said, 'Yes.'" JD sniffed as tears leaked from his eyes again. "Well, what she really said was, 'Of course, Dummy. The party is for her."
Buck growled a little. He didn't like that this Shannon girl had called JD a dummy, nor that she had misled him. But he knew she hadn't known JD's situation and most kids his age would figure that a Mother would come to a Mother's Day party.
"I want my Mommy," JD sobbed. Buck pulled him close and just held him. He had been an adult when his own mother died, but he remembered feeling the same way. There were no words to make it right. All he could do was show JD he was loved no matter what.
After another round of sobbing, JD quieted. Buck crooked his neck trying to see JD's face to see if he had fallen asleep, but JD was watching the others up in the yard.
"Uncle Ezra didn't know his mommy was coming," said JD, but it was more of a question than a statement.
"No, he didn't," replied Buck. "His mom called when she came to town and couldn't find him. So I invited her."
"So he didn't know to get his mommy a present?" asked JD.
Buck leaned his chin on the top of JD's head. "No, JD. I guess he didn't." Buck smiled as JD looked at his flower bouquet, then back to Ezra.
"She's the only mom," said JD. "She should have a present." JD squirmed out of Buck's lap and waited for Buck to get up, then he walked up to the yard.
Vin was sitting with Chris, rocking on the porch swing. Nathan and Josiah were manning the barbeque grill. Maude was sitting on a lawn chair, next to Ezra, near the picnic table. All eyes were on JD as he walked directly to Ezra. JD motioned for Ezra to lean over so he could whisper to him.
Ezra smiled a bittersweet smile at JD's suggestion. The child had just realized his mother was gone forever and he was worried about Maude. "Master Dunne, I think that is a wonderful idea, but I think you should do it," said Ezra softly. He was mildly concerned at what his mother's reaction would be, but sensed that she realized the seriousness of the situation and would respond carefully.
JD approached Maude tentatively. "Mrs. Standish?" he asked.
"Stand up straight, dear," said Maude as JD addressed her. Maude smiled, as JD stood up as tall as he could. "Now, what may I do for you?"
"Well, today is Mother's Day," said JD.
"Yes, it is," replied Maude.
"And you're a mom," JD continued.
Maude nodded as JD showed her the bouquet. "I got these for my mom, but but " JD's lip trembled and Maude found herself struggling with her normally unflappable composure. "But my mom can't be here anymore."
Maude nodded to the boy, encouraging him to continue.
"And you're a mom and moms should have presents on mom's day but Uncle Ezra didn't know you was coming, so here," JD blurted in a single breath, thrusting the bouquet toward Maude. "This is your present from me and Uncle Ezra."
The awkward presentation made everyone smile. Maude lived in high society. She had grown accustomed to wealthy men, fancy houses and cars and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. She was out of her league with a five-year-old boy, grocery store flowers and a backyard barbeque.
Maude straightened JD's collar before graciously accepting the bouquet. "Thank you, Master Dunne."
JD smiled. Ezra's mom was pretty and he was glad he had given her the flowers.
"What is this?" she asked, tapping the card in his other hand.
Everyone froze. Leave it to Maude to bring JD right back to facing his trauma. Buck took a step closer, preparing to try to calm the tears again, but JD surprised them all.
"It's a card I made for my mom, but she's in heaven," said JD simply.
"My mother is in heaven as well," said Maude. Ezra leaned back in his chair in surprise. He had never heard his mother speak of his grandmother.
"Really? Do you think she knows my mom?" asked JD.
"I would think all the people in heaven know each other," said Maude. "My mother had beautiful blonde hair and could sing like an angel."
"My mommy has black hair like me," said JD. "We have a picture of her on the family wall in the den." JD reached out and tugged on Maude's hand. "Come see."
Maude graciously followed JD. Vin stood up when they reached the porch.
"Can I show you my momma too?" Vin asked Maude.
"Certainly, Master Tanner," said Maude. "Ezra, darlin', you are joining us, aren't you?"
Ezra had to smile at his mother's pleading look. She had opened the door for JD to talk about his mother, but she wasn't going to do this alone. He followed her inside, accompanied by his teammates.
JD showed Maude the family wall. It was the picture wall they had made when Vin came home from the children's center. A wall that reminded of the fact that each of them were part of a very unique family. JD eagerly pointed out the picture of his mother and then began to tell Maude who was in each of the pictures.
"That's Vin's momma when she was in school," said JD.
"It's from her year book," added Vin.
When JD showed Maude the picture of Buck's mother, JD turned and looked at Buck. "Tell Mrs. Standish about your mom."
Buck smiled. "My mother was a saint. She loved me and taught me to love life."
"And she's in heaven?" asked JD.
"What about your mom, Uncle Nathan?" asked JD.
"My mother died when I was seven, but I remember the stories she told me, and the bread! My mother baked the best fresh bread," said Nathan.
"My mother was a good cook too," said Josiah as he touched the frame of his mother's picture. "She was sick a lot, but we would spend hours reading together when she was bedridden. I learned a lot at that bedside school."
"Uncle Ezra," said JD as he pointed at another picture, "I can't remember her name."
"That is my great-aunt Grace," responded Ezra wistfully. He looked at his mother as she hooked her arm through his elbow and rested her hand on his forearm. He covered her hand with his. "When Mother had to travel, I stayed with Auntie Grace. She loved me as a mother when my mother couldn't be there."
Maude swallowed at the kindness in Ezra's words. The accusations and bitter resentment of a child being left behind were absent. Perhaps Ezra finally understood that she had never intended harm. She loved him and had done what the best she could for him. She had pursued the men and money that provided for his every need. Sometimes that meant that he had to stay behind, but it was for his benefit.
Maude looked at the dark haired boy examining the pictures. Perhaps the kind words had been for the benefit of the child, but the almost imperceptible caress of her son's fingers on the back of her hand told her otherwise. Ezra had found a family with these men, something that she had never found in all her pursuits.
"I have an aunt, too," said JD. "I stayed at her house for awhile."
The thoughts of five men were drawn to the traumatic time when JD and Vin had been removed from Buck and Chris' care. JD had lived with his mother's sister's family but had returned to Buck when his aunt realized that Buck had become JD's family. She had put aside her feelings and chosen to do what she believed was best for JD, and that was to return him to the place he recognized as home and family.
"But then I came home to Buck," said JD. "This one is Chris' mom," said JD as he pointed to another picture.
Chris smiled. Each member of his team was private in their own ways, yet they had all shared a piece of their hearts for the sake of two small boys. He could do no less.
"My mother was a strong woman. She worked on the farm right alongside with my father." Chris smiled as a memory flashed through his mind. "Mom taught me to fish." His smile broadened at the obvious disbelief on the boys' faces.
"Nuh-uh!" Vin finally said. "Girls don't like fishin'."
Chris laughed. "Well, this one did." Chris looked down as JD pulled on his hand.
"So so " JD frowned as he tried to think of what he wanted to say.
"So all of our moms are in heaven, 'cept Uncle Ezra, and his other mom is?" JD asked.
"So my mom's not lonely 'cause she has all the other mom's to be her friends, and and and I gots all you to be my friends?"
"That's right, Little Bit," said Buck as he lifted the five-year-old into a hug.
"Would our moms like it if we still had our party?" asked JD.
"I'm sure they would," answered Buck.
"I think that's my cue to start the grill again," said Josiah.
The meal was completed and dessert was served. Despite his protests in the grocery store, Vin appreciated JD's choice of the chocolate cake for mother's day. Chocolate was his favorite. Vin wiped his face with his napkin, unintentionally smearing some of the chocolate frosting above his lip.
JD looked at his best friend and started giggling.
"What?" asked Vin.
"Buck, look!" said JD teasingly.
Vin looked at Buck as Buck broke into a big grin.
"What?" asked Vin again, feeling self-conscious as everyone looked at him with smiles on their faces.
"You look like Buck," JD teased. "You got a choc'late 'stache."
Vin looked at Chris for confirmation, and seeing Chris nod, Vin did what any chocolate loving little boy would do. He stuck out his tongue and tried unsuccessfully to lick the frosting off his upper lip.
JD giggled again. "Little Buck, Little Buck," he taunted.
When Vin jumped out of his chair, JD squealed and ran, laughing as Vin chased him around the yard.
Buck shook his head. "How do they do it?" he asked no one in particular. "How do they go from the pain of losing their moms to giggling and playing?"
"Children are resilient," said Josiah. "Play is their method of coping. Some adults pour themselves into work, sometimes alcohol, or sometimes other vices in their efforts to deal with trauma. Kids play." He paused as Vin tackled JD and they fell over a lawn chair. Both boys sat up giggling. "It's cyclical. They will continue to grieve and play as they grow and as they come to a better understanding of death."
The adults watched Vin and JD as the boys set the chair upright. In the process, a balloon that was tied to the chair broke free and began to float away.
"Get it Vin!" called JD. Both boys chased after the balloon. Vin jumped as high as he could but it was out of reach. Vin and JD stood still and watched the bright yellow balloon rise up into the sky and float away on the breeze. When it was out of sight, both boys looked at each other as if the same thought occurred to them at the same time. Vin and JD raced back to the picnic table.
"Chris, can I use your pocket knife?" asked Vin, puffing for breath.
Chris pulled his knife from his pocket and opened the blade. "What do you want to do?"
"I need to make a hole in something," said Vin.
Chris shook his head. He didn't want Vin digging in the dirt with his knife. Vin walked over to his spot at the table and picked up the card he had made at school. He brought it back to Chris and showed him.
"I need to make a hole here." Vin showed Chris a place near the top of the card.
Chris was momentarily confused until JD walked up behind Vin with his card and two of the balloons. Suddenly it made sense. He accepted the card from Vin and started to punch the hole in it.
"Don't cut through the top," Vin instructed.
Chris hid his smile. He carefully punched the hole in the card as Vin requested. He looked at the project that had caused Vin to end up in the principal's office. The hearts were glued meticulously straight. In a familiar scrawl he read, 'I love you, Momma'. Feeling tears spring to his eyes, Chris kept them at bay. "Do you want help tying it?"
Vin shook his head. He took one of the balloons that JD offered and went back to his place at the table.
"Me! Me!" said JD, shoving his card at Chris. Chris took the card and punched a hole in it. "Thanks, Chris." JD snatched the card and ran to Buck. "Help me, Buck?"
"Sure," Buck answered. He took end of the ribbon of the balloon and strung it through the hole on the card.
JD looked at Vin and saw that Vin had slipped the card onto the ribbon and was tying the ribbon to his wilted daisy. He looked at his bouquet lying on the table in front of Maude. He looked back at Vin. He didn't have a flower for his mom.
"Master Dunne," said Maude. JD smiled as Maude held out the bouquet to him. "I would be most honored if you would use one of the flowers you gave to me."
Instead of reaching across the table to take the flower, he ran around the table. He picked a bright yellow daffodil, then stood on his tiptoes and kissed Maude on the cheek. "Thank you," he said as he raced to the other side of the table.
Ezra smiled at the expression on his mother's face. She rarely ever showed her surprise, but JD had stunned her with his pure expression of gratitude.
"Like Vin, Buck," said JD, tugging at the ribbon. Buck checked what Vin was doing and followed suit, tying JD's flower to the end of the ribbon.
Vin looked towards the waiting rock, then back to Chris. Taking his balloon, card and flower carefully in one hand, he walked over to Chris. He offered his empty hand to Chris, imploring the blond to join him.
Chris stood and took Vin's hand. Vin clutched it tightly as he waited for Buck and JD to finish.
"There ya go, JD," said Buck.
JD frowned. "You made me lose count!" He started over, pointing at each of the adults as he counted out loud. "Six! There's enough." JD smiled as he started untying another balloon. "We had twelve. Me and Vin lost three when we was tying them to the chairs. That makes nine." JD's math skills were exceptional for a child his age. "And we lost one when we fell on the chair. That makes eight." He looked up at Buck, with the newly freed balloon ribbon. "Me and Vin have two more, so there are six left." He handed the balloon to Buck.
There was no question what JD intended. The remaining five, including Maude, began untying balloons.
"Gentlemen," said Maude, "My flowers are yours." She extracted a rose from the bouquet and tied it to her ribbon. One by one, Chris, Ezra, Nathan, Buck and Josiah chose a flower from the dwindling bouquet. After securing the flowers to their respective balloons, they followed Vin and JD to the middle of the yard, awaiting the boys' lead.
Vin clutched Chris' hand tightly with his left hand. With his right, he pressed his card and flower to his chest. He looked up at the sky and slowly pulled his hand away from his chest. He held the card at arms' length. "Happy Mother's Day, Momma," he said softly as he let go of the card.
"Here's mine, Mommy," said JD. "Love you." He let go of his ribbon and clutched Buck's hand. "I'm okay, Momma. I got Buck to take care of me."
There were murmurs of "I Love you" and "Happy Mother's Day" as each person had a private moment surrounded by friends. Six adults and two boys stood and watched the balloons dance into the sky, floating higher as the breeze lifted them to the heavens.
"Now they can have their own party," said JD.
Later that evening, after their guests had left, the foursome enjoyed the peace and quiet of the ranch. Just as Chris reached for the leftover cake, JD declared that since the moms couldn't come and they had no more balloons to send them cake, that he should eat his mom's piece. The two men agreed with identical grins and slid two fresh pieces of cake in front of the kids. JD and Vin sat at the picnic table eating their extra pieces of chocolate cake while Chris and Buck finished putting away the leftovers and cleaned the yard.
JD got the giggles as he looked up and caught sight of Vin's chocolate mustache. "You still look like Buck!" he laughed.
Vin grinned and stuck his finger in JD's cake. Before JD could voice his disapproval at the action, the older boy reached over and rubbed the chocolate frosting across JD's upper lip and laughed. "Now you look like Buck too!"
Chris smiled when he heard the hearty laughter coming from the table, causing him to stop his self-appointed task of putting away the folding lawn chairs and watch the boys act like boys. Buck was occupied with cleaning the barbeque grill and didn't hear them over his duet with the radio.
JD stood up; pretending to stroke his mustache, then frantically patted his pockets as if he was searching for something.
"What's wrong, JD?" asked Vin curiously.
"Nuthin'. I'm just lookin' for my little black book so I can call me a girl for my date."
Chris snorted, grateful that he had just swallowed his coffee and hadn't spewed it out his nose. He watched as the two boys sneaked around behind Buck. Buck scrubbed the grill with two little boys mimicking every movement. When Buck stretched and rolled his shoulders, the two shorter versions aped the same motion.
Chris' chuckle caught Buck's attention and he glanced over to see what was so amusing. All he could see was his old friend looking past him with a huge grin. "What?" He spun around quickly, finding two boys trying their best to look innocent. Seeing the chocolate mustaches, he had a pretty good idea what was going on. He turned back to his work, whistling a tune and adding some hip action to his scrubbing, knowing that Vin and JD were copying each movement. Buck took in the delight on Chris' face, something that was all too rare for his friend. He thought about Vin and JD missing their moms all day long, yet they were standing behind him, playing as if they didn't have a care in the world. Nothing meant more to him than this family, his family. Buck bent down and wiggled his behind at the boys, then spun quickly, catching the boys mid-wiggle. They squealed as he grabbed them both and spun them around once.
"What do you think you're doing?" he teased.
"We're being you!" JD and Vin chortled as they tried to catch their breath.
Chris walked over and rescued Vin from Buck's grasp, swinging him into a light fireman's hold. "Okay boys, bath time!" He walked over to the back door and looked back at Buck, adding, "You too, Bucklin. You have a very big day tomorrow!"
Buck laughingly protested Chris' pronouncement but followed Chris and Vin into the house, carrying JD like he would a football. The four of them made their way into the house, shutting the door and turning the lights off behind them. None of them had their mothers with them any longer but they would never be without them. They carried them inside their hearts. Theirs was a unique family, but a family nonetheless.
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