JD, stop sticking your tongue out at the computer.
But I can see myself in the glass.
Look it still don't know how to write a sigh. I thought computers was supposed to be smart.
They are, but I guess a sigh isn't a word.
I gets to start this time. We gots to ride in a ambulance.
JD you're supposed to start at the beginning. Dad and Buck, and Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah had to go to El Paso so Uncle Nathan said he would stay with us.
Yeah cause Mrs. Potter was gone too
"Damn!" Chris Larabee swore as he hung up the phone.
"Awwwmmm, Chris. Swear jar!" JD looked up from where he was sprawled on the floor in Chris's office playing with his Legos with Vin.
The ATF agent sighed and ran his fingers through his hair while casting a guilty glance toward the two small boys. Without a word he reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He held out a dollar bill, and JD jumped up to take it to add it to the others in the jar on one of the lower shelves of the bookcase. At this rate they wouldn't need a college fund for the boys, the swear jars here and at home would fund both their tuitions to Harvard. Sometimes he wondered what had possessed him to bring one of those jars into the office.
"What's up?" Buck asked as he came through the door. His pint-sized foster son's reaction had caught his attention. "Judgin' by the look on your face, I don't think I'm gonna like the answer."
"The date's been set for our testimony in the Wilke's trial."
"I thought that had already been set for next month?"
"It had, but his lawyer has been pushing the issue of his right to a speedy trial and managed to get the trial date moved up. Jury selection was today and we have to be there tomorrow," Chris explained. "Would have been nice to have had a little advance notice."
"All of us have to be there tomorrow?" Josiah asked from his place in the knot of men crowding inside the office door.
"All of us but Nathan. He wasn't involved in the actual bust on this one, so they don't need him to testify. Chris watched the two small boys as he talked and saw the uncertainty in Vin's expression. He really hated the idea of having to pack the boys up and take them along, only to have to leave them in daycare at the hotel, but he didn't see any other alternative. It was bad enough to have to put them in daycare here at work while Mrs. Potter was away, but at least here they got to go home at the end of the day and not to a hotel room.
Vin picked up on Chris's mood, and although he had no idea what the grownups were talking about he knew it was going to affect JD and him in some way. He scrambled up off the floor and went to his foster father's side, needing a little reassurance that his world wasn't about to be turned upside down.
Larabee wrapped an arm around the slight frame of the child and hugged him close to his side. "Hey, Pard. Don't you go worrying. Everything's fine. It just looks like you and JD get to take a little trip with us is all, since Mrs. Potter isn't here."
"Indeed, it is quite the inopportune moment for her niece to be on the verge of giving birth," Ezra observed.
"Well, it's not like she's got much choice in the matter," Nathan added. "Babies don't arrive according to our schedules."
"I didn't mean to imply that they do. I was merely pointing out the bad timing. Although in this instance, considering the method of delivery, there is a little control over the date. But regardless of that fact, Mrs. Potter's place is at her niece's side, considering the health issues she's had."
"That's fer sure," Buck agreed, as he reached down to pick up JD. His small charge had picked up on his sibling's unease and now stood there holding his arms up for his father to lift him up. "Gloria's been so worried about Shelly. She's had a rough time of it. I just hope everything goes okay."
"We all do," Chris agreed. "So, it looks like you two," he said as he tweaked Vin under the chin, "get to go with us to El Paso."
"Yea!" JD squealed, when he realized he wouldn't be separated from his Da. "We gets to go on a trip, Vin."
Vin still looked a little unsure about this sudden turn of events, and he turned questioning blue eyes toward his dad. "Who's gonna take care of Ringo and Elvis and Torkus if Mrs. Potter ain't here?" His concern for his pets outweighed the excitement of a possible trip.
"We could take them to the kennel to stay while we are gone. Remember, you liked that place after you saw it, and the pups were well taken care of," Chris reminded him. "I'm sure they would take Torkus too. They had all kinds of animals there. Then Mr. Cochran could take care of the horses."
"Chris, there is another option," Nathan said, drawing their attention. "Raine is out of town for a medical conference this week, so I'm here alone. Since I'm not needed in El Paso, why don't I stay with the boys?"
"You sure you know what you'd be gettin' yourself into?" Buck asked. One brow arched in question and a tone of skepticism tinged his voice. "These two can be a handful at times."
"I've watched the boys before," Nathan said in his own defense. "It just seems like such a shame to have to take them and leave them in daycare while you are all in court. At least here they would have all their toys and be able to play outside. You wouldn't have to board the animals, either. Besides, I would like a chance to spend some time with them."
Chris exchanged a knowing look with his oldest friend. When it came down to it, Nathan got a lot less one on one time with the boys than any of their uncles. Of course, part of that was because of his own obligations, being the only married man among them, but they both knew that Jackson loved the boys as much as Josiah and Ezra did. This really would be a perfect time for him to spend some quality time with them.
"Are you sure about this?" the blond asked.
"Don't you trust me to take care of them?" the black man asked tentatively. "If that's how you feel "
"Now, hold on, Nate. That isn't what I meant," Larabee interrupted. "Buck and I both trust you. It's just that we have no idea how long we will have to be gone."
"That doesn't matter. Even if Raine does get back before you do, she could just come on out to the ranch with us. I know she wouldn't mind that a bit, and I have some personal leave coming, so I could take some of it now."
Wilmington looked at JD and cocked his head as he studied the child for a few moments. "What do you say, Little Bit? Would you like to have Uncle Nathan stay with you for a few days?"
"We don't gets to go to Paso with you?" Sad brown eyes searched the big man's face.
"Wouldn't you like to be able to stay here where you can play in your own yard and have all your own toys? Ringo and Elvis could stay home too."
Vin's expression was hard to read as he watched his younger sibling struggle with the idea of staying home with their Uncle Nathan, and Chris waited to see if the seven-year-old would speak up. When he stayed silent, Chris held his breath for a few moments wondering what the child's response would be. Finally, Larabee prompted him with a similar question. "What about you, Cowboy?"
"Do we gots t' eat broccoli?" Vin asked as he eyed his surrogate uncle suspiciously.
Nathan chuckled and shook his head at the boy's question. "I'll make you a deal. If I make broccoli and I can't doctor it up in some way so that you like it, you don't have to eat it." He felt pretty safe in making that promise since he knew that the boys would eat just about anything if it was smothered in cheese sauce.
"Sounds like a pretty good deal to me," Buck said with a wide grin. "What do you think, Little Bit? You and Vin could teach Uncle Nathan all about livin' on a ranch."
"But Unca Nathan's a grownup. He already knows everything," Vin responded before JD could.
"It would appear that our nephews hold your cognitive abilities in high esteem," Ezra teased. "Perhaps you might want to reconsider so that you don't tarnish your image with the younger generation."
"Like you know all that much more than I do about livin' on a ranch," Jackson snorted.
"Ezra let it go," Chris warned. "This would be a perfect chance for Nathan and the boys to have some time together, and I am sure I can get Mr. Cochran to come and see to the horses."
"I can do that too," he team medic insisted. "I've helped before and if you leave me instructions on how much to feed them and when, I can handle it."
"There's more to it than just food and water," Larabee pointed out.
"I know. Just tell me what needs to be done and if I find out I need help, then I'll call Mr. Cochran myself."
"All right, but if we're going to get packed and get ready to catch the plane on time, we need to get going now. It's nearly 5:00 and our flight leaves at 9:45." Chris tousled the hair of the boy that still leaned against him. "Help JD pick up your things so we can go."
The men all scattered to clear their desks and get ready to leave. The two boys quietly picked up their Legos and loaded their backpacks.
JD Watched Vin for some clues about whether this new set of plans was a good thing or not, but he couldn't tell what the older boy was thinking. Dr. Will had told him it was okay if he didn't feel the same as Vin about things, but when something new came up he still looked to Vin first, before he decided how he really felt about something.
Two hours later, two sad-eyed boys watched their foster fathers set their suitcases next to the front door. They knew the men weren't leaving them for good, but each time they were called away like this, some of the old fear of abandonment resurfaced.
JD clung to Buck's leg as he sat the suitcase down. "Da, do we gots to stay home? I wanna go with you," the child pouted.
Wilmington scooped up his boy up in his arms and went to his chair where he settled with JD on his lap. "Don't you want to spend some time with Uncle Nathan?"
"But you's gonna be gone a long time," the little brunet whined. "When's Mrs. Potter gonna come back? Did she get mad at us and wanta leave us too? Was we bad if we was bad I can be real good I don't want Mrs. Potter to go away "
"Whoa there, Little Bit. I thought you understood why Mrs. Potter had to be away for a while." Buck watched the child's expression and glanced over toward his older sibling. It was evident that they had misjudged how well the two youngsters had understood the situation. "Vin, why don't you come over here, too, and let me see if I can explain it a little better."
Chris looked up from where he was writing out instructions for Nathan. He gave Vin an encouraging smile as he watched the boy edge closer to Wilmington. He listened intently to what was happening across the room, curious about the explanation that was forthcoming.
"Why don't you come up here, too?" Buck patted his free leg and waited while Vin climbed up. "We told you two that Mrs. Potter had to go help her niece when she had her baby, but I guess we didn't make it clear enough that she isn't leaving forever."
"She didn't want t' leave us?" JD asked.
"No, of course she didn't, but Shelly needs her help right now. She doesn't have a momma to come and stay with her when she gets home from the hospital."
"Is her momma dreamin' with the angels?" JD asked, wide eyed.
"Yes, Little Bit. Her momma and her dad are both dreaming with the angels. Shelly went to live with Mrs. Potter when she was about Vin's age."
"Like we came here to live with you and Chris?" Vin asked.
"Just like that," Buck agreed.
"How comes she needs help t' have a baby? She's a grownup. Can't she do it by herself so Mrs. Potter can stay here?" JD's innocent question caused Chris to pause and look up at his old friend, expecting to see him squirming over an answer.
"Well, she didn't need Mrs. Potter to actually help her have the baby, but she needed help when she got home from the hospital. You remember when you got to see the baby goats being born?" He paused and watched the boys nod in response. "Well, women have their babies something like that too, but sometimes some women have a little trouble and they need the doctor to help get the baby out. Shelly couldn't have her baby like she should, so she had to have surgery to help her baby be born."
"Surgery?" Vin's brows furrowed in thought. When he reasoned through what he had been told he turned wide eyes to the big man. "You mean the doctor had t' cut her belly open?"
"Yes, and that's why she needs Mrs. Potter to be there when she comes home from the hospital. She is going to have to get well from the surgery, so she needs someone to help her take care of the baby for a little while," Buck explained. "If you had to have some kind of surgery wouldn't you want Chris and me to be there?"
Both boys nodded emphatically. "Yeah! But we ain't gonna have a baby," JD announced.
Buck grinned and tousled the boy's hair. "No, kiddo, you're not. But do you see why Mrs. Potter had to go?"
"Yeah. I bet Shelly was really scared," Vin answered in awe. He remembered how much it hurt and how scared he had been when he got shot, back when Chris and Buck first found JD and him. He didn't remember anything about the operation to remove the bullet, but he knew he wouldn't want to go through any kind of surgery without Chris being there with him. "Will Mrs. Potter have t' be gone a long time?"
"She'll be gone at least a week, maybe two. It all depends on how fast her niece gets well enough that she can take care of the baby on her own, and how soon Shelly's husband can get time off work to stay home with her for a little while. Mrs. Potter promised she would be back as soon as possible."
"And don't you two worry, Buck and I will be back just as fast as we can too. We both know you want to be with us; we want you with us too, but you'd be stuck in daycare with people you don't know. You couldn't go outside to play or do the fun things you can do here at home," Chris added. "I know the two of you and Uncle Nathan can find all kinds of fun things to do."
"He is really looking forward to staying with you," Buck offered. "It would hurt his feelings if he thought you didn't want to stay with him."
"I don't want t' hurted Unca Nathan." JD puckered up and started to cry as he hugged his Da around the neck.
"I know you don't, Squirt. So, instead of thinking so hard about the fact that Chris and I won't be here for a few days, why don't you and Vin try to think of things you can do with Uncle Nathan while he's here? You can make a list and then check things off as you get to do them," Buck suggested.
Vin climbed down off the big man's lap and tugged at JD's arm. "Come on, JD. Let's get some paper to make a list. Maybe Chris and Buck can help us before they have to leave," he suggested.
"That sounds like a good idea, Cowboy," Chris chimed in from where he sat. "We still have about half an hour before we have to leave. I bet we can come up with a really long list."
"Why can't we ride the horses?" Vin asked, half-pouting.
"Vin, we've been through this already," Chris explained again. "Nathan doesn't know how to saddle them or get them ready for riding."
"Couldn't you teach him?"
"I would, if I could, but there just isn't enough time for me to teach Uncle Nathan before we have to leave," Larabee answered with more patience than he was actually feeling. He hated to disappoint the boys, but they just didn't have a well-developed concept of time yet, so it was hard to get them to understand.
"Don't have time to teach me what?"
"Unca Nathan!" JD squealed and ran to hug the big man's legs. "Guess what " he started, and paused only half a heartbeat before plunging right in. "We maked a list of things to do we can play in the tree house, an' play with the dogs, an' have a weinie roast, an' "
"Breathe, Little Bit," Buck interrupted.
"I am breathin'," JD insisted but still took time to take a deep breath.
"Well, then save some of the things on the list for a surprise."
"Oh, okay." The little brunet looked up at his uncle and grinned. "We gots lots of things on the list."
"It sure sounds like you do," Jackson said as he picked up the smaller of the two boys. "You did leave us time to sleep in there somewhere didn't you?"
Vin giggled from where he stood leaning against his father's leg. "Yeah, and we gotta list of stories we like too." Sometimes he tried to act like he was too old for things he considered to be 'kid stuff', but he loved stories at bedtime. "Uncle Ezra always reads us a story at bedtime when he's here."
"He makes up silly voices too," JD added with a giggle of his own.
"Ah, then I will do my best to be as entertaining," Nathan promised.
"It's okay if you can't do the voices," Vin offered. "Buck says Uncle Ezra can do the voices because sometimes he has to make up voices when he works undercovers."
"Boys, we have to leave if we are going to get to the airport in time to check in," Chris announced.
"It sure is a pain in the a uh..backside having to get there two hours early," Buck grumbled. "You'd think with us bein' federal agents we could skip some of that extra stuff."
"Yeah, well, we wouldn't be setting a very good example if we expected special treatment. I miss the old days though, when you could get there almost at the last minute," Chris agreed, as he picked up his suitcase and waited for Buck to join him.
The boys and Nathan walked behind them to the truck. After they had put the bags inside, they scooped the boys up for good-bye hugs. It was hard to tell who was having the hardest time letting go, the boys or the men.
"You two be good for Uncle Nathan," Buck instructed, as he reluctantly handed the smaller boy to Jackson.
"We'll call every night before bedtime," Chris added, as he set his young charge down next to his uncle. Before he had a chance to change his mind, he hurried to get in the truck and start the engine. Buck joined him just as quickly, and they waved and smiled as they pulled away, although both fought hard to swallow the lumps that had formed in their throats.
"You sure he can handle this?" Buck asked.
"Yeah, he can handle it," Larabee said. "The question is, can we?"
The trio stood and watched until the truck was completely out of sight. The sound of a soft sob and a pair of little arms hugging his neck drew Nathan's attention to the small child he held. "It's okay, JD. They'll be back as soon as they can." He reached down with his free hand to rub the back of the second boy that leaned against his leg, staring silently at the empty lane. "You know, it's too late tonight to get a good start on that list of yours, so I have an idea. Why don't you two go ahead and get your baths and get into your PJs, then I'll fix us some popcorn and we'll watch a movie. What would you like to watch?"
"Brother Bear," JD answered, sniffing loudly as he lifted his head from his uncle's shoulder.
Forty-five minutes and one soaked bathroom later, the boys were settled on the floor in front of the TV, each with a juice box and a bowl of popcorn. Nathan got the movie started and settled into Chris's chair with a diet soda and his own popcorn, as the coming attractions started to play.
"I haven't seen this one before," Jackson announced. "You think I'll like it?"
"Yeah! It's gots bears in it, an' it's got a man that turns into a bear "
"JD, you ain't supposed to tell about it. You're supposed to let him watch it hisself," Vin admonished.
"Oh, sorry, Unca Nathan." JD looked slightly crestfallen.
"Well, I'm glad you told me," Nathan reassured the child. "I might've gotten scared if you hadn't warned me."
"You get scared?" Vin asked in awe. "I didn't think you got scared of anything."
"Sure, I do. Even grownups get scared sometimes."
"I'll p'tect you, Unca Nathan," JD promised as he picked up his popcorn and juice and sat them on the table next to the chair so he could crawl up on his uncle's lap. He snuggled up against Nathan and clutched the bowl that was handed back to him, just as the movie started.
Vin, do you member going to bed?
Nope. I think Uncle Nathan carried us like Dad and Buck do if we fall asleep watching TV.
Oh. I got to help Uncle Nathan make pancakes for breakfast.
Yeah and you made a mess in the kitchen too.
It wasn't a big mess
Whatever. Uncle Nathan took care of the horses and thought he hurt his side, but it turned out he was really bad sick.
Vin opened his eyes to the familiar sight of the ceiling over his bed. He didn't even remember going to bed. A heavy sigh escaped his lips when he remembered that Chris and Buck were gone, and he forced himself to be strong and not to cry. He rolled over and looked at the clock in the room and saw that it was already eight o'clock. It was so quiet with everyone gone; there were none of the usual sounds in the house. Finally, he climbed down out of the top bunk, and padded quietly toward the bathroom, before he went into the kitchen to get some juice and wait for Uncle Nathan and JD to wake up.
The lists on the table caught his attention, and he went to look at them after getting his juice from the refrigerator. One was the list that Chris and Buck had helped them make of things to do with Uncle Nathan. Another was a list of emergency information and the last one was the list of things that had to be done everyday, such as taking care of the horses and the pups. He wasn't allowed to go outside even to get the pups until an adult was up, so he resigned himself to watching cartoons until his uncle was awake.
Vin turned the volume down on the TV and sat on the floor to watch Sponge Bob. It wasn't long until JD joined him and they sat giggling over the antics of the colorful cartoon characters.
"You two been up very long?" Nathan asked around a jaw-cracking yawn as he joined them in the great room.
The boys shook their heads no, both engrossed in what was happening on TV.
"Well, then I guess you two are more interested in TV than in having breakfast. Guess I'll just go eat alone," he said as he started toward the kitchen, only to be passed by two balls of energy in PJs.
"Can we have pancakes?" JD asked. "Pleaaaasssssseee?"
"Pancakes sound good to me too. Let's see if we can find the stuff to make some." Nathan started opening cabinet doors, but paused when JD jumped up on a step stool to open one and point to a box of pancake mix inside.
"There it is!" he squealed as Nathan lifted him up so he could grab the box from the shelf.
"So, how hungry are you two?"
"Starving," Vin answered and hurried to do his part by setting the table, and getting out the butter and syrup.
"Can I stir?" JD asked from his perch on the stepstool next to his uncle. "Buck lets me sometimes."
"Yeah but then he's gotta clean the whole kitchen," Vin tried to warn his uncle.
Nathan smiled and winked at the older of the two and then turned back to hand the spoon to JD. "Sure you can but let's try to keep some of it in the bowl."
After stripping two sticky pairs of PJs off the boys and taking them straight to the washer, Nathan went to work on the mess in the kitchen while the two youngsters got dressed. He sighed as he looked at the pancake mix all over the counter and the floor and shook his head. Vin had tried to warn him. "Just lookin' at it won't make it disappear," he muttered under his breath and went to get the broom. By the time he got it cleaned up, the boys were back and dressed in old clothes for working outside.
"Come on Unca Nathan. The horses is hungry too," JD urged as he tugged the big man toward the mudroom. "You can wear Unca Ezra's boots."
"Ezra has a pair of boots here?"
"Uh huh," the little brunet said as he pointed out the boots in question. "He don't like t' get his all dirty, so he uses an old pair of Chris's."
Nathan looked at the boots and down at his own feet. "I don't think those will be big enough for me. I'll just have to wear my old sneakers."
"Try Buck's," Vin suggested. "He gots bigger feet than Chris does. He won't care if you use them all he keeps them for is workin' in the barn."
Nathan walked a bit gingerly and grimaced at the snug fit of the boots, but they would do all right - for no longer than it would take to take care of the animals. The boys raced on ahead and were already standing on the rail of one of the stalls petting Peso when he caught up to them. "Okay, let's get this show on the road."
It didn't take long for Jackson to realize that helping to clean up after the large animals was much easier than doing it all. Even with the boys' attempts to help, it was a big job and took considerably longer than he thought it would. But once it was done, he stood back and smiled in satisfaction. He leaned the pitchfork back in its place against the wall and grabbed up a bucket of grain to feed the horses. A sudden stab of pain in his side caused him to wince and catch his breath. "Guess I'm more outta shape than I thought," he muttered to himself.
"Did you say somethin', Uncle Nathan?" Vin asked from where he sat playing with one of the barn cats.
"Nothin' important. I was just talkin' to myself," he answered and winked at the boy.
"Sometimes Uncle Ezra and Buck do that too," Vin said matter-of-factly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
"Yeah I noticed that 'bout those two," Jackson agreed. He finished feeding the horse and then rounded up the boys to head back to the house. "So now that this job is done, what do you want to do until time for lunch?"
"JD, you are dripping water all over the place," Nathan informed the wet, naked child as he dashed from the bathroom to his bedroom.
"Sorry, Unca Nathan," the youngster called back.
"Yeah, I'm sure you are," Jackson grumbled as he knelt down to mop up the puddle on the bathroom floor, and felt another twinge in his side.
"You mad at us?" Vin asked from the doorway, where he stood with his pajamas sticking to his still-damp body.
"No, of course not. I'm just a little tired is all," Nathan said honestly. He hadn't been this physically active in a long time; he was just glad that Ezra wasn't around to see just how worn out he really was. Standish would never let him live it down. He winced and pressed his hand to his side as he stood up. "Ow."
Vin watched his uncle and recognized the signs of pain. He had seen them often enough in Chris and Buck. It seemed like they got hurt a lot. "Did you get hurt?" he asked, concerned.
"Nothing bad, don't you go worryin' any. I think I just pulled something a little bit today when I was cleaning the stalls. It will be fine by morning, probably." He hung the wet towels over the towel bar and herded the boy out of the room in search of his younger sibling. "JD," he called out. "You get to pick the story tonight. Bring your book with you."
"This one, Unca Nathan." JD handed him the book as he crawled up onto the couch and across Jackson's lap to snuggle up on the other side.
"Uncle Nathan, you said a bad word," Vin said as he looked up from his place next to the big man. "You gotta pay the swear jar .Uncle Nathan?"
Jackson sat with his eyes closed and his teeth clenched in pain from where JD's knee had hit him right on that sore muscle. It took a minute for it to ease enough for him to speak. "It's okay, Vin." He smiled shakily at the boy and reached out to tousle his hair. "I'll pay the jar. That's only fair since everyone else has had to pay it for saying bad words."
"Buck says you don't gots to pay if yer hurt bad. Are you hurt bad?" Vin asked. "You look like Buck did when he cutted his leg."
"I am not hurt so bad that I should get out of paying for my bad word," Nathan said and tickled the boy in the ribs to try to lighten the mood a little. "I just pulled a muscle is all, so you get the job of putting my dollar in the jar."
Vin took the dollar his uncle pulled out of his wallet and carried it to the swear jar, but he couldn't help glancing back and wondering what was really wrong. Uncle Nathan never said bad words around them.
JD crawled up onto the top bunk and shook Vin awake. "There's somethin' in the house, and it's got Unca Nathan," he said frantically.
"What? JD, yer dreamin' again," the older boy said as he tried to turn over to go back to sleep.
"No I ain't! Somethin's hurtin' Unca Nathan!" JD shook Vin again, more insistently this time. "Viiiiiiiiiin!"
"JD, you know I don't like it when you say " He paused in mid-sentence and listened to the sound coming from down the hall.
"See, I told ya!" JD said. He sniffed loudly and raked his sleeve over his eyes to wipe away a tear.
Vin wasn't really sure what to do. What if something really was after his uncle? He listened harder but couldn't hear anything but the moans coming from the other room. "Wait here," he said as he climbed down the ladder. He started out into the hall and then turned back.
"Whatcha doin', Vin?"
Young Tanner looked up and could see his brother looking down at him in the gray light of pre-dawn. "Just gettin' somethin," he answered and picked up his baseball bat. He was scared, and having something he could hit with helped to calm him a little.
Small fingers clutched the bat and held it ready to swing as Vin crept down the hall toward the guestroom. Cautiously, he peeked around the doorframe to see that his uncle was still alone in the room. A soft sigh of relief escaped him as he lowered the bat. Another groan from the man in the bed set Vin's heart to pounding, and he moved to the side of the bed and reached out to shake his uncle's arm to wake him.
"Uncle Nathan, wake up." He shook him again. "Are you having a bad dream?" He'd heard JD moan in his sleep sometimes when he had bad dreams about the trolls.
Nathan heard the timid voice and forced his eyes open. He had awakened to more pain than he could remember. Even a bullet wound hadn't hurt like this. He turned his head to try to focus on the source of the voice and instantly regretted the move. "I think I'm gonna be sick," he said breathlessly.
Vin hurried into the bathroom and grabbed a small trashcan. He had barely made it back to the bedside when Nathan rolled to his side and started to wretch. He held the can until his uncle had rolled back onto his back and lay there gasping for breath.
"Is Unca Nathan gonna be okay?" a tentative voice asked from the doorway. "Vin, I's scared."
The older boy went over and hugged his younger sibling. "It's okay, JD. He's just gotta upset tummy. I'll take care of him."
"Like you used to take care of me when I was sick?" When he saw his brother nod, JD relaxed. Vin had always taken good care of him, so he would take good care of Unca Nathan too.
"You go get some 7-Up. That's what Chris always gives us when we are sick." He was scared too, but he knew he couldn't let JD know that. When the younger boy dashed off to the kitchen to get the soda, Vin headed to the bathroom to get a cold wet washcloth. Chris always wiped off his face for him when he was sick, and it always made him feel a little better. He climbed up on the bed and awkwardly wiped the cool cloth over Nathan's face. He gasped when he hand touched the hot skin, because he knew that wasn't good that his uncle was so hot.
The easing of nausea after losing the contents of his stomach and the soothing coolness of the cloth on his face allowed Jackson to slip back into a fitful sleep. Way back in the back of his mind he knew that he shouldn't go to sleep, but his body betrayed him.
It was full light when he opened his eyes again to see two small boys watching him expectantly. The pain had grown in intensity again and had forced him from the haven sleep allowed. Almost instantly, he found himself leaning over the bedside, heaving into the trashcan again. He moaned as he rolled back, the movement causing the pain in his side to become excruciating. This was definitely no pulled muscle, and he said a quick silent prayer that it wasn't what he thought. But whatever it was, he couldn't stay here like this, not with the boys alone in the house with him.
"Vin, I need the phone." Nathan tried not to scare the boy, but he could see the fear in his eyes as he scrambled off the bed and ran to get the cordless phone. When the child crawled back up beside him he smiled at him weakly. "Can you dial 911 for me?"
JD started to cry when he heard the numbers 911. That always meant something bad. He felt Nathan's hand on his knee and looked at his uncle. He could see the fear in his uncle's eyes that he was trying so hard to hide, and he started to cry even harder.
"Come here, Little Bit." Nathan deliberately chose Buck's pet name to try to soothe the frightened child and he wrapped an arm around him. "Everything's gonna be okay," he said and hugged the small body to him.
"Here, Uncle Nathan," Vin said and started to hand the phone to him, just as another wave of sickness overtook him. The child could hear the voice on the other end of the phone; he could hear JD sobbing and Nathan getting sick, and he didn't know what to do. Finally, the urgent tone of the voice on the phone caused him to put the phone to his ear. "Uncle Nathan is really sick," he told the disembodied voice.
We got to ride in a amblance with Uncle Nathan.
Yeah, and it was fun.
JD that isn't nice to say you was having fun when Uncle Nathan was sick.
It wasn't fun 'cause he was sick. It was just fun to ride in the amblance. Didn't you think it was fun?
Yeah, I guess so.
Vin was you scared when they tooked Unca Nathan away?
You didn't look scared an' you taked care of me like you used to.
"I can't stay!"
"Mr. Jackson, you have no alternative, and you know you don't," Dr. Forester tried to reason, with his irrational patient.
"I have a responsibility to those two boys," Nathan insisted. "I'm the only one here with them, and there's no one else to call. The guys are in El Paso testifying in a federal case, and they can't come back until their testimony is finished. Their housekeeper is halfway across the country with her niece who is having a C-section tomorrow, and you know Raine is out of town too."
"What about their social worker?"
"It's the beginning of summer, Doc. She's on vacation. Chris and Buck said she told them it was the first real vacation she has taken in three years. Even if she happened to still be home, I couldn't interfere with that." Nathan fought the grogginess he was starting to feel from the pain medications that they gave him soon after he arrived at the emergency room. "Can't you just give me something for the pain for a few days and do this when someone gets home?"
"No." The doctor stood with arms crossed and glared at the man on the cart. "You know we can't do that. We'll help make some arrangements for the boys, but you'll not be doing anyone any good if you're dead."
An anguished wail drew their attention to the door of the emergency room, where one of the paramedics stood holding JD on one hip and holding Vin by one hand. He had kept the boys occupied as long as he could, but he was needed for a run, and that meant finding someone else to watch these two little guys. He couldn't have chosen a worse time to step through the door; the child he held sobbed uncontrollably and wrapped small arms around his neck. He caught sight of one of the ER nurses and waved her over to where he waited with the boys.
"I hate to do this, but I have a call. I have to go." He handed JD to the nurse and bent to say a few quick words to Vin. "You hang in there. Everything will be fine."
Vin watched the man hurry out of the room and felt panicked. Tears started to pool up and then slip down his cheeks as he cried silently, a striking contrast to JD's loud sobs. When he felt the nurse's gentle hand on his shoulder he looked up into a pair of kind blue eyes and felt some of the panic subside.
"Gail, can you take them back to the waiting room?" Dr. Forester asked. "This really isn't a good place for them right now."
"Nooo I want Unca Nathan," JD whimpered and reached for the man on the gurney.
"Give him to me." Jackson held out his hands to accept the distraught child, who immediately wrapped his arms around the black man and buried his face against his shoulder. "Hey come on now." He rubbed small circles on the small tense back under his hand and murmured soothingly. "Everything is gonna be fine."
"Nuh uhhhh " JD shook his head and sniffed audibly. "I don't want you to dream with angels."
"I'm not going anywhere. I promise," Nathan insisted.
"But the doctor said "
"The doctor was trying to make me cooperate better," Jackson said with a wink. "I need to have an operation, and I was being stubborn and trying to get out of it."
"You mean like Dad does when he don't want to do somethin' the doctor says?" Vin asked from his perch, where Gail had set him, at the side of his uncle.
"Yes Like Chris does," Nathan agreed and chuckled, only to stop suddenly when his belly shaking caused a stab of pain. He looked up at the doctor with resignation. "How long do you think I'll have to stay?"
"Well, if you're a good boy," the doctor said with an exaggerated wink at the boys, who started to giggle, "you can probably go home this evening."
"Seriously. If we get you into surgery before that appendix ruptures, so it can be done laproscopically, you will most likely be home before the boys' bedtime." Dr. Forester had to smile at the look of shock on his patient's face. "More and more gall bladder and appendix surgeries are being done that way. It is so much easier to recover from, and most patients are in and out on the same day if the surgery is done early enough in the day. Most stay about eight to twelve hours."
"What about the boys?" Nathan kept a hand resting on each boy, needing the reassurance of that physical contact as much as they did.
"I'll take them to the staff lounge, and as soon as word gets out that they are here, they'll have more people watching out for them than Planter's has peanuts," Gail answered with a grin. "They will be fine. A lot of the staff here know them from taking care of one of them or their fathers, and the ones that don't, know them by reputation." She slipped an arm around Vin's slight shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze. "I bet you two didn't know you are famous around this hospital. Between the times someone in your family has been a patient here, and all the bragging your Aunt Raine does, almost everyone knows who you are."
Vin blushed and ducked his head shyly, but his brother was never one to be known for being bashful. "We're famous! Did you hear that, Vin? Wait 'til Da finds out," the pint-sized brunet practically bounced in his excitement.
"Then let's get going. The sooner it is done, the sooner we can go home. Come on, you two give me a hug, and promise you'll be good for Gail and the others."
"I promise," JD said as he hugged his uncle; the excitement of a moment before suddenly forgotten. His bottom lip started to tremble as Gail lifted him off the gurney and held him while his sibling took his turn.
"I promise, Uncle Nathan," Vin said, with a slight quiver to his voice, "and I'll take care of JD too."
"I know you will." Nathan hugged the boy tightly to his chest. "Because, you did a good job takin' care of me."
Dr. Forester lifted Vin down and instructed the orderlies to go ahead and take the patient to surgery. He had to turn away for a moment to swallow a sudden lump in his throat that caught him off-guard when he watched those two little boys waving goodbye to their uncle. He had every confidence that Nathan would be just fine, but for those two little guys this whole thing had to be terrifying.
"Okay, guys, let's get you set up in here," Gail said, as she took the boys into the staff lounge. "Did you bring something to play with? It looks like those backpacks couldn't hold much more."
"We brunged our Legos an' colorin' books and crayons an' some cars an' " JD glanced at the exasperated look on Vin's face and paused. "I know 'Breathe, Little Bit,'" he said in a passable imitation of his Da, causing both of his companions to laugh. He grinned, clearly quite pleased with himself, and then continued his list. "An' we brunged some books too," he concluded.
"Wow! It sounds like you planned for everything."
"Yeah," Vin agreed. "We been at the hospital lots of times before."
"An' it is boring, boring, boring if ya don't got lots to do," JD added.
"It sure can be boring when you don't have anything to do but sit and wait. But with all you have brought and all the people that will be in and out of here, the time will just fly by," Gail promised. "I am going to ask you to keep all your things in one area and not all over the room, okay? That way nothing will get stepped on, and you won't forget anything when it is time to go. How about over here in this corner? It's close to the TV too."
"Can we watch the TV?" JD asked.
"Sure you can." She turned to Vin, acknowledging him as the eldest of the two. "Can I count on you to see that JD doesn't watch anything that your fathers wouldn't approve of?" sure that that would eliminate him watching things he shouldn't too.
"I'll be back in just a few minutes. I need to go make sure everyone knows you're here. Will you be all right until I get back?" Gail hated leaving them unattended so soon, but there were arrangements to be made. She certainly didn't want any of the staff coming in saying things that might be upsetting to JD and Vin. Some of the tales medical personnel told would scare an adult, let alone two already-frightened little boys.
Vin nodded as he settled on the floor in front of the TV and pulled out his coloring book. "Come on, JD. Let's make pictures for Uncle Nathan for when he's done with his surgery."
"I won't be long," Gail promised.
Vin stopped coloring as soon as the nurse left the room and laid the crayon down with a sigh. Everyone kept telling him he was brave, but he sure didn't feel brave right now.
"Vin, is Unca Nathan gonna be okay?" JD asked nervously. "I wish Da was home."
"I wish Dad and Buck was home too," Vin agreed, "but the doctor said Uncle Nathan can go home today, so that has t' mean he's gonna be okay," he reasoned.
"Okay." JD accepted the explanation. "Vin, I'm hungry."
"Me too." He looked around and noticed the snack machines. "JD, do you got any money in your pack? I think I got a little bit," he said as he started digging through the pockets of his backpack.
JD followed his older brother's example and between them they dug up four quarters, three dimes and three nickels. They counted it together and came up with $1.45. When they checked the machine they had a decision to make. They could either get one bigger thing and share it, or each get something smaller.
"Now what are you two up to?"
Vin jumped guiltily at the sound of Gail's voice, and he turned to look at her, sure that he was in trouble.
"We's hungry," JD said, and edged closer to his sibling.
"Oh boys, I'm really sorry. In all the commotion I didn't even stop to think that you probably hadn't eaten yet today. You don't need junk food; you need real food. Come on," she said as she reached out a hand to each of them. "Let's go to the cafeteria and get you some breakfast."
Vin gasped and his eyes grew wide. "Breakfast! Oh no!"
"Oh no?" Gail frowned as she tried to puzzle out the older boy's reaction.
"The animals got no one to give 'em breakfast." If his voice hadn't already been dripping with worry, his expression would have left no doubt that this was a situation that just was not acceptable.
"I'm afraid I can't help you there, at least not now. I can't leave the hospital until later. But, when your uncle can leave, I am planning to drive you all home, and I can help you then. They will be a little hungry by then but they really won't starve," Gale promised. "Your Aunt Raine and I are good friends, so I know she would want me to look after you two and Nathan tonight, and I don't mind taking care of your animals too."
"Your gonna come to our house an' stay?" JD asked. Thoughts of the animals were pushed aside at the thought of an unexpected overnight guest.
"Yes. Your uncle will be really sleepy this evening and through the night. So to be sure he rests like he should, I'll stay and sleep on the couch tonight in case any of you need anything. Then I'll come back in town tomorrow when he is more awake."
"Cool!" JD said, but his enthusiasm didn't carry over to his brother.
"Vin, don't you want me to stay?" Gail asked. She watched him shrug noncommittally. "You're still worried about the animals, aren't you?"
Vin nodded and wiped a hand quickly over his eyes to stop the tears that threatened to fall. "Mr. Cochran would feed 'em, but I can't call him."
"Why can't you call him?"
"I don't know his phone number."
"Well, that should be easy enough to fix. Let's check the phone book and see if we can find it. Do you know his first name?" She tried not to lose hope when she saw both boys shake their heads no. "Would you know it if you heard it?"
"Maybe," Vin said, and his eyes brightened with hope.
"Hummm well there's Andrew, David, Warren, Zaphram "
"That's it!" Vin announced. "I remember hearin' Chris call him that."
"All right, I'll get him on the phone and then you can talk to him."
The phone rang several times and then the answering machine picked it up. Gail sighed, knowing that would not set well with her small charge. She left a quick message and asked Mr. Cochran to call the hospital and ask for Gail Sanders in the Emergency room regarding Chris Larabee's boys. "I'm sorry, but they weren't home, or maybe they were just outside. Do they have animals to take care of too?"
"They got lotsa animals," JD replied, somewhat in awe. "They even gots more that we do."
"That must be a lot then." She looked back to the older child, who was once again looking dejected. "If he doesn't call back by the time we get back from the cafeteria, we'll try again." With that plan of action settled, she led the boys to the cafeteria to make sure they had a good breakfast and to lay in a supply of healthy snacks in case they got hungry before the next meal.
Vin's chin dropped to his chest when he heard Gail leave a second message on Mr. Cochran's answering machine.
"Don't worry. Even if we don't get to talk to your neighbor, the animals will be okay when we get there. They won't starve from being a few hours late for one feeding," she insisted.
"But, it hurts t' be hungry," he said softly.
"Yes, it does." She wrapped her arms around the sad child and hugged him close. "We'll wait another hour or two and try again, okay?"
Vin sniffed and nodded. "How much longer until Uncle Nathan can go home?"
"It hasn't been much more than an hour since they took him to surgery, so I would say he won't go to the recovery room for at least another hour," she explained. "Do you know about the recovery room?"
"Yeah, it's where you go an' sleep after you get done havin' surgery," Vin said. "Dad always feels better when whoever's hurt gets to go to the recovery room."
"That's right, and when your Uncle goes to recovery he will have to stay there for a couple of hours. Then he will be taken to a regular hospital room to spend a few hours so he can be watched to be sure he is doing okay before he can go home. When he gets to that room we'll see if we can fix it so you can go there to wait with him. If he is in a room alone you might be able to." When she saw Vin visibly brighten at this news she hurried on. "That isn't a promise, but remember, each time he goes to a new room, he's one step closer to going home."
"Hey! Give 'em back!" Vin reached out to try to snatch the Legos from the younger boy's hand.
"No!" JD snapped and yanked his hand. "You's usin' all the white ones. I wanna use some white ones too."
"I'm buildin' an amb'lance, an' amb'lances gotta be white. Give 'em back!"
"Let go!" JD pulled harder and finally pulled free, but he ended up dropping the Legos when he tumbled backward. "Ow!"
"Boys!" A sharp voice got their attention. "What's going on in here?"
They looked up to see an older woman that they didn't recognize standing just inside the door with her hands planted firmly on her bony hips, her face marked by a deep network of frown lines around her eyes and mouth. Instinctively, the two boys moved closer to each other as they watched the woman drop her hands to her side and start toward them.
"Well? Cat got your tongues?" she asked.
Vin felt JD press even closer and the younger boy's fear fueled his own determination to protect his sibling. His chin lifted and a spark of defiance flared in his eyes, turning them a steel blue. "We ain't doin' nothin'. We're just playin'," he said defensively.
"It didn't sound like just playing to me," the woman said as she moved to sit on the couch next to where the boys huddled on the floor. "Why don't you try telling me what was really going on?" She leaned forward and looked at the boys expectantly.
Vin frowned and watched the woman warily, but when she looked at him like she was now there was something familiar about her. She had kind eyes, and something about her voice tugged at his memories. Vin's jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide when he finally remembered. "Dr. Flora?"
"I wondered if you would remember me," she said with a smile that transformed the lines of her face into marks left by years of laughter and smiles.
Vin scrambled up from the floor to stand by the doctor who had helped take care of him after Chris had found him in the warehouse. There had been so many people around him then, and he had been scared most of the time, but he had never been afraid of Dr. Flora. She didn't treat him like a baby like most of the others had, and she always told him what was going on. He hadn't seen her since Chris had found a pediatrician in private practice for him. "I remember you now," he said with a shy smile.
"I look a lot different, don't I?" She watched Vin nod and then continued. "I was really sick for a long time, and I've lost a lot of weight since you saw me last."
"But you're a doctor; can't you make yourself better?" Vin asked, eyes wide in surprise.
"Sometimes. But there are times when there's something wrong that you need a special kind of doctor for," she explained.
"Are you all better now?" JD asked as he joined his brother at her side.
"Yes, I'm better now." She smiled warmly at the boys and then quirked one eyebrow in question. "So, what were you two fighting about when I came in here?"
Vin hung his head, his face flushed with embarrassment. "JD tooked my Legos," he confessed, but then quickly set out to defend his actions. "But I needed 'em. I'm makin' and amb'lance and they gotta be white."
"I needed some white ones too," JD snapped back, suddenly remembering that he was mad at Vin.
"What did you need the white ones for?" Dr. Flora asked, and watched the boy fidget as he tried to come up with an answer. "You didn't really need them did you? You just wanted them because Vin had all of them, right?"
JD pouted and started to pucker up to cry. "But, I mighta needed some."
"True, you might have." She turned her attention to the older of the two who was wearing a smug look, being sure that Dr. Flora was taking his side. "Vin, why do you think that all ambulances have to be white?"
"The one that brung us here was white, and the ones I seen drivin' around is white," he explained, like it was such an obvious answer that there had been no need to even ask the question.
"Well, the ones around here are white, that's true. But, not all of them are. There are some cities where the fire-trucks and ambulances are yellow, and in other places they are red. I remember one place I visited where they were a bright yellow-green color. Sometimes, if it is a private ambulance company and not the ones the city uses, they are painted so you can tell what company they are from. There used to be one private company around here that painted theirs sky blue."
"Really?" Vin was amazed at the wide variety of colors she was describing.
"Really. They can be any color you want them to be. It isn't the color that makes it an ambulance. It is what it is used for and what's carried inside."
Vin considered this for a moment, before he went to get a handful of the white Legos and hand them to JD. "Sorry," he said quietly. "I didn't mean to yell at ya; I thought I needed 'em."
"I don't really need 'em, Vin. You can use 'em." JD handed the small plastic blocks back.
"You know what I think?" Dr. Flora asked, and waited until both boys' attention was back on her. "I think you're both worried about your uncle, and you're a little scared about waiting here alone."
"We been alone before," Vin reminded her. "We lived alone for a long time."
"Yes, you did. But since you went to live with Mr. Larabee, you haven't really had to be alone like this, have you? Not for this long, at least."
Both boys shook their heads and looked at her sadly. "Chris and Buck's always there," Vin answered for them.
"Nu huh sometimes it's Mrs. Potter, or Unca Ezra, or Unca 'Ziah, or "
"But they're there 'cause Chris an' Buck want 'em to be," Vin interrupted. "If they have'ta be gone they always make sure someone's with us."
"It is a natural reaction to be a little scared to suddenly be alone, while the only adult with you is having surgery. Sometimes, worry and fear make us do thing we wouldn't usually do, like fight with someone we love." Flora watched as Vin digested this bit of information and was pleased to see him nod slightly when he had thought it through and decided she was probably right.
"Is Uncle Nathan gonna be okay?" he asked. "It's been an awful long time."
"Would you like me to call and check on him?" She knew the answer, but she wanted Vin to make the decision.
"Yes!" JD piped up first and then looked to his brother to see if this was all right.
When Vin nodded, Flora reached for the phone on the table next to them. She dialed and waited for someone to pick up on the other end. "Sandy? This is Dr. Hanson. Could you find out about how things are progressing with Nathan Jackson? There are two little guys here who really need an update." There was a long pause while she waited for and then listened to the report. "Thanks, Sandy. I appreciate it."
"They are just finishing, and he should go to the recovery room in about fifteen minutes," she told the two boys who looked up at her."
"Ya hear that, Vin? That's another room," JD announced.
"Another room?" Her brows furrowed as she tried to find the significance to that statement.
"Yeah, Miss Gail said every time Unca Nathan moves to another room, he is gettin' closer to goin' home," JD said. "What's a 'covery room like?"
"It's a big room where all the people who just had surgery are taken so the doctors and nurses can watch them until they wake up. There are all kinds of medical equipment in there that help them tell how well each patient is doing, things that show their heartbeat and how many times they breathe, and other things to check their blood pressure or to hold bags of IV fluids or medicines."
"Huh? What's IV" JD asked. "I know about the heart ones, we seen them before."
"JD, that's like the stuff they gave me. It's stuff that goes down a tube and into your arm through a needle," Vin said and looked to Dr. Flora to see if he was right.
"That's it. So don't be surprised to see an IV hooked to your uncle when he first comes out of recovery. I am sure that someone will take you to see him, even if you can't stay there with him the whole time." She wanted to prepare them for what they might see so they wouldn't be even more scared by seeing the only adult they had at the moment so incapacitated.
"We seen all that before," Vin said almost casually.
For a moment Flora Hanson had forgotten just what the two men that had taken these two waifs in did for a living. Of course they had seen these things before. One of their surrogate fathers or uncles seemed to always be in here. Well, maybe not all the time but sometimes it sure seemed like it. "Then you know just what to expect," she said with a wink that made the boys smile.
"Do they have to cutted Unca Nathan open? They gots to cut Shelley open to gets her baby out. That's why Mrs. Potter is gone, an' Unca Nathan said he'd stay with us 'cause he wanted some callity time with us, and Da said we wouldn't be bored at home 'cause we gots all our stuff there." JD paused for a breath and was distracted by a soft laugh from the door.
"Miss Gail," Vin greeted her. "Can we try t' call Mr. Cochran now?"
"We don't need to. He called right after I got back to the emergency room, but I couldn't leave right then to come up here to tell you. He said he'll go feed the animals, and if you and JD need them, or if Nathan does when you get home all you need to do is call. Mrs. Cochran offered to come in here to stay with you, but by the time she could get here your uncle should be getting close to going into a regular room. I checked, and we got permission for you to go wait with him once he gets settled in." Gail was sure that would be a relief to the two boys.
"Yea!" JD shouted. "Will he be all sewed up like Da was when he cutted his leg?"
"Nope. They have a way of taking out an appendix now that doesn't take a big cut. Now you get three or four little cuts about this big." She held up her and with the thumb and forefinger about a half inch apart. "He's still going to be really sore though, and you'll have to be careful not to jump on him or climb around on him for a while." Gail looked to the doctor sitting there with the boys for a little reinforcement. The boys would never do anything to hurt their uncle on purpose, but their natural exuberance might make them forget. "I have to get back to the ER. Dr. Hanson, are you going to be here with them for a while?"
"For a few more minutes. I have rounds to do. But if you two imps have any questions about your uncle's surgery, I can stay for a little while to answer them," she said as she glanced at her watch. "Have these two had lunch yet?" she asked.
"They had a really late breakfast. I thought I would take them to lunch when we find out Nathan is being moved to a room. By the time they eat, he'll be settled in. She turned her attention to the boys and asked, "You two going to be okay here on your own again when Dr. Hanson has to leave?"
"Yeah. We'll be okay," Vin responded for them both. "And we won't fight no more either," he added with a glance at Dr. Flora.
After Gail left, Dr. Hanson answered all of JD's questions. She had to laugh at Vin's exasperated expression when his younger sibling kept chattering non-stop. Finally satisfied that he had run out of questions, at least for the moment, she took her chance to excuse herself to go make her rounds.