Uncle Ezra says we have to pick a hero for this week. That's hard.
No it ain't, Vin. There were lots of heroes this week.
Like Chris cause he helped Torkus. And the vet doctor.
He's just a vet, JD.
But, he's a doctor.
Yeah, but you don't say vet doctor. You just got to say one, vet or doctor.
Well, him anyway. The biggest hero was Uncle Ezra.
Yeah, Uncle Ezra knows everything.
"It's not fair!" JD huffed forlornly as his little red kid-size pickup truck sputtered along. For some unknown reason, the battery pack in the little truck always seemed to give out a few minutes before the one in Vin's miniature jeep, so like it or not, the older boy always got a little more mileage out of his vehicle before they had to be put away and recharged.
Usually, Vin would let JD ride with him until his battery wore down, too, never realizing that the process was probably accellerated by the additional weight. JD looked at the older boy expectantly.
Buck and Chris had driven separate vehicles to work that morning, because Buck needed to pick the boys up from school so that he could run JD to Dr. Two Eagles' office to get his stitches taken out. It had only taken a few minutes, so they'd arrived home a good two hours before Chris. Since the boys were grounded from riding their bikes, Buck wasn't sure he should let them take the cars out. However, it took only minimal pleading from the little guys to get him to cave under pressure. He was no match for two sets of The Big Eyes.
Now, though, his attention was on the threatening sky overhead. It had rained earlier that day, and was going to start raining again any minute, plus, it was getting dark. He hated to put an end to the boys' fun, but knew that they should probably put the expensive toys in the barn while there was still time.
"It's time to put them away, boys," he said. "It's going to rain and you don't want them to get all wet and rusty, now, do you? C'mon, JD, I"ll give you a push."
As he heaved his weight into the little vehicle - finding it surprisingly heavier and harder to push than he thought it would be - Vin timidly asked, "Can I go around the track just one more time?"
The "track" was really a path that the boys had worn in a figure 8 around the barn and house, and thanks to the earlier rain, it was muddy and slow. Buck thought about saying no, but indulged the little blond. "Just one more time," he cautioned. "But if you feel rain drops on your head you hightail it straight for the barn, okay?" He knew Vin would obey.
"'kay!" Vin said happily.
Buck managed to get JD's truck to the barn fairly quickly, and plugged it in to recharge the battery. When he went back into the yard, he noticed the boys' toys scattered everywhere. Usually, Mrs. Potter was pretty strict about having Vin and JD pick up after themselves, but, Buck had let Mrs. Potter have the rest of the day off , so now it was his job to see the toys got picked up.
Chris had arrived about 30 minutes ago so it was almost supper time.
"JD, let's get some of this stuff into the house before it starts to rain."
Buck gathered up three large Tonka trucks while JD filled his arms with as many toys as his little arms could hold. Then he bent down and tried to pick up Torkus, who was happily munching a dandelion and wanted no part of it.. "Buck! Help!" JD cried as the chunky reptile pushed with his strong legs in an attempt to free himself.
Buck laughed. "Take the rest of the toys inside and then come back for Torkus," he said.
JD followed him inside where Chris was heating up the dinner Mrs. Potter had prepared earlier. Sausage and potatoes, with baked beans and salad. The aroma made his mouth water.
JD hurried back outside as Vin's little jeep rounded the corner of the house headed for the barn.
As he walked out the door, a big raindrop hit him right in the head. And then another. He looked around the yard for Torkus, who was no longer eating the dandelion, and when he saw him, he froze in terror.
"VIN!" he screamed as loud as he could. "VIN! STOP! STOP!!!"
Vin heard JD yelling at him, but he could feel the rain pelting his face and he pushed down the pedal of his jeep to get to the barn a little faster.
"STOP! STOP! VIN!!!" JD screeched.
Vin wondered what the heck JD was yelling about. He hoped he didn't expect a ride. He had to get his jeep put away.
"VIN! STOP! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!" JD's scream was so loud and scary that time that Vin did stop. He looked around, confused, as Buck came running out of the house, followed by Chris.
JD's mouth was open like he was screaming, even though he didn't look like he was hurt or anything, and no sound came out.
Buck had feared the worst hearing his little boy's horrified screams. When he reached JD, the boy was silent, but he soon realized that it was because he was crying so hard he couldn't catch his breath. He shook him gently which released a heart-wrenching wail followed by a series of terrified sobs.
"JD... what is it, Little Bit? JD?" Buck held him close. "Calm down and tell Buck what's the matter."
JD cried louder. Chris hurried to Vin when he saw the worried look on the older boy's face. It was when he was a few feet from the little car that he noticed it....
There, in the treadmarks left by Vin's jeep, was Torkus, crushed into the dirt and unmoving, a small puddle of blood welling around his broken shell.
Chris tried to move quickly to stop Vin from seeing the dead pet, but JD found his voice and wailed, "VIN! YOU RAN OVER TORKUS! YOU SQUISHED HIM!" He burst into a new round of hysterical sobs.
Vin looked around, confused. Chris lifted him out of the car, determined to take him away from the grisly scene of Torkus' crushed body.
But it was too late. Vin's wide blue eyes had fixed on the horrifying spectacle. "I... I... didn't mean to..." the little boy choked.
"Shh.. I know you didn't, Cowboy," Chris soothed as he carried him inside. Buck followed with JD, who was beyond consolation.
"DON'T LEAVE HIM IN THE DIRT!" the little boy screamed pitifully. "DON'T LEAVE HIM OUT IN THE RAIN!"
Chris and Buck exchanged glances. Of course they would have to do something with the poor creature's remains.
Vin sat down on the kitchen floor and began to cry softly. Chris qently tossled the little boy's hair. "I'll be back in minute, okay, pal?" he said.
Vin wiped tears from his eyes and nodded miserably.
Chris pulled a cardboard shoe box from the recycling bin. The rain was coming down heavily now, so the first thing he did was stow Vin's jeep in the barn. He grabbed a shovel while he was there. He'd bury the dead pet later, but he figured he might need the shovel to pick it up if it was too badly crushed.
A twinge of nausea assailed him as he bent over the small, broken body. Deciding the shovel was not needed, he careully picked the tortoise out of the mud and to his surprise, its front legs twitched and its head poked part way out of its shell. The poor creature was still alive.
His first thought was to bash it with the shovel and end its suffering, but, he had no idea if that would kill it or just cause it further injury and pain.
Carefully, he placed it in the box and then took the box to his truck. He fished his cell phone from the dashboard. Even though Buck was just a few feet away in the house, he didn't think what needed to be said should be said in front of the two upset little boys.
"Buck, he's still alive. He'll have to be put to sleep. Can you get Susan's number for me?" he referred to the vet who cared for the dogs and horses.
He had the vet on the line in minutes. She told him about the 24 hour emergency clinic in town and assured him they would be able to humanely euthanize the animal.
Buck couldn't help but be slightly resentful of the fact that Chris had gotten off relatively easy. Yes, he had the job of seeing to Torkus, but that had left Buck with two very upset little boys who wanted an explanation of where Chris had gone with their dead pet.
He wanted so badly to tell them that Torkus was still alive and Chris had taken him to the pet hospital. It would give them both a little ray of hope that would last them at least until Chris got back and they could break the news to them together.
It didn't help that JD was furious with Vin. Over and over he kept crying "Ya shoulda stopped, Vin!" and "Why didn't ya stop, Vin?" and "Ya squished him, Vin!"
Vin didn't say anything. He just cried, and it tore Buck apart, because they were not the usual Vin tears. The little boy's heart was shattered. He'd killed something - something that JD loved.
Buck tried over and over to reassure him that it wasn't his fault, but, JD kept insisiting it was, that if he had stopped when JD shouted at him, he wouldn't have run over Torkus and killed him. Buck didn't know what to do. He wanted to silence the little boy, somehow, but, JD was grieving for his lost pet and had to let it out in some way.
Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Not surprisingly, the boys had very little appetite. It was only when Buck suggested a bowl of ice cream that they agreed to eat something, and even then, Vin mostly played with it, while JD choked it down between sobs.
Chris was reaching into his wallet for his credit card, ready to settle the small euthanasia fee with the clerk at the emergency vet clinic when a plump, elderly man in scrubs and a name tag that said Dr. Boisevert, DVM on it approached him.
"Mr. Larabee?" he said extending his hand.
Chris automatically shook it.
"I wanted to talk to you before you left..." he began.
Chris nodded. "I'll need the... uh... body... to take home. My kids will want to bury it," he smiled wanly, figuring the elderly vet would understand.
"Well, that's what I wanted to discuss," he began. He held what looked like an x-ray up to the light. It looked like a chest x-ray, only rounder and more dense. On one side was what appeared to be fractured ribs. Dr. Boisevert pointed to three shadowy areas. "This is an ultrasound of your pet's lungs and heart..." he began.
Ultrasound?! With a twinge of guilt, Chris wondered how much that was going to cost. He thought only human doctors did unnecessary tests.
Dr. Boisevert continued. "Now, what many people don't realize is that the shell of a tortoise is actually fused ribs. They are a lot more flexible than they look, and just as durable as they seem. Your tortoise has sustained a significant shell fracture, but, it's a very young animal, I estimate only 10-12 years old..."
"That's young?" Chris frowned.
"Oh, yes. The normal lifespan of a desert tortoise is around a hundred years. They can live 20 or 30 years longer than that in captivity." He traced his fingers over the fracture. "As I said, this fracture is significant, but, the internal organs are not compromised. It would take a bit of surgery to realign the shell fragments so that it heals properly, but, this is a survivable injury."
"He's not going to die?" Chris asked hopefully.
Dr. Boisevert held up his hand. "I can't guarantee that. Animals are susceptible to shock and infection, just as people are. And, I have to be honest and say that few vets are experts in treating reptiles, including me. Also," he sighed, "I'm afraid it will be fairly expensive. I can still perform the euthanization, if that's what you want, but I thought you should know all the options before that decision is made."
Chris wanted to hug the man. He didn't even ask how much it the bill would be, even though a little nagging voice in the back of his mind told him maybe he should. Money wasn't important right then. At that moment, all he cared about was that a little boy who had already known a life full of pain might be spared the guilt of thinking he had killed his pet.
Chris nodded solemnly. "Do what you can to save him."
"What's its name?" Dr. Boisevert asked.
Chris's first thought was that that information couldn't possibly make any difference, but then he read the expression in the kindly old man's eyes. Torkus was as important to him as a purebred cat or a show dog. Animals were not things to the elderly vet, they were patients.
"Torkus," he said. "That's its name."
"Okay, then," Dr. Boisevert smiled. "Leave Torkus with us tonight, and I'll give you a call in the morning to let you know how he's doing."
The vet seemed pretty optimistic that Torkus was going to pull through. Chris barely flinched when he was charged a $200 "deposit" for the animal's care. It was worth it to be able to go home with some good news.
Three hours after he left, Chris returned to the ranch to find a haggard Buck sitting in his recliner holding Vin. JD was nowhere to be seen.
Before he could ask, Buck explained, "JD needed a little quiet time in his room."
Vin sniffed loudly. Buck kissed the top of his head. "I'm going to go in the kitchen and have a cup of coffee with Chris," he told the little boy. "Will you be okay?"
"JD hates me," Vin sobbed.
"No, he doesn't...," Chris began, but Buck silenced him wth a glance. JD had quickly jumped from the "shock" stage of the grieving process to the "anger" stage and had made Vin his target. He'd gotten so worked up that Buck had reluctantly sent him to his room to give them both a chance to calm down, and so that he could assure Vin that no one - except maybe JD - held him accountable for the death of poor Torkus.
"Well, I need to talk to them both," Chris said. "Come on, Vin." He held out his hand as sad blue eyes looked up at him.
The three of them walked down the hall to the boys' room. There was no sound coming from it, which Chris assumed was a good thing. Apparently, JD had cried himself out.
His relief was short-lived when they opened the door and found JD balancing on the ladder of the bunk bed while trying to hold onto a roll of Scotch tape with one hand while in the other he held a piece of grey construction paper with one of Vin's school pictures pasted to it. He was attempting to tape the piece of paper to Vin's bed. When Chris got close enough to see what was written on it, his heart clenched:
Vin had seen it, too.
He bowed his head and the tears began to flow once again.
Chris reached up and gently pulled JD off the ladder, and then as calmly as possible, removed the "Wanted" poster.
"Boys, I have some good news... Torkus is hurt, but he's not dead." He knew that Torkus could still die, but he decided to risk it and present the best-case scenario to the stricken youngsters. "I took him to the vet and he told me that Torkus is probably going to be okay."
JD's eyes lit up and a smile started to form, as Chris added, "He's going to have an operation to fix his shell. It will be like when Vin broke his arm, or when I broke my leg. It will take awhile, but it will heal good as new. The vet is going to call us in the morning and let us know how he is."
JD jumped up and down a couple of times and clapped his hands, but Vin looked up at Chris and blinked away tears. "But what if they can't fix it?"
"I don't think that's gonna happen, Vin," he assured the little boy, even though he had no guarantee that it wouldn't.
"Will they give him special medicine that will make him die so he doesn't hurt anymore? That's what they did to Miz Nettie's old cat."
Chris opted for honestly. "Well, yes, Vin, if they have to, they will do that, but, I think he's going to be fine." He prayed he was right.
JD's anger resufaced. "He's not gonna die, Vin, so SHUT UP!"
"Easy there, Little Bit," Buck cautioned him. "How about we don't worry about anything bad until we know for sure, okay? We'll just think happy thoughts for Torkus tonight, alright?"
JD sniffled. "'kay," he replied uncertainly.
Vin opted to sleep in the den that night, convinced that JD hated him.
Buck decided that a little talk with JD was in order, and found the little boy huddled on his bed sobbing softly. No wonder Vin had left.
"C'm'ere, Little Bit," Buck said, lifting the tiny boy into his arms. JD snuggled against him. "Are you still mad at Vin?" Buck asked.
JD nodded. "He shoulda stopped. Why didn't he stop, Buck?" he sniffed.
"Have you asked him that?"
JD nodded again. "He said he was trying to get his car put away so it didn't get wet." He looked up and blinked his big eyes. "But Torkus should be more 'portant than the car."
Buck gave him a hug. "JD, Vin didn't see Torkus until after he ran over him."
"Well, he shoulda been lookin'!" JD insisted.
Buck thought for a moment and then as tactfully as possible asked, "JD, do you remember what happened to Joey?" Joey was JD's friend. The little girl had lost her leg after her grandmother had accentally backed over her in the driveway of her home.
JD frowned. "'Course I do."
"Do you think her grandma hurt her on purpose?"
Joey had told JD that her that after she got hurt, they had to give her grandma medicine because she couldn't stop crying. "No way!" JD said.
"But, it happened. She ran over Joey with her car, and no matter how much she didn't mean to, nothing could change that, or fix what happened to Joey."
JD seemed to understand where Buck was going. "I know," he sighed.
"Don't you think maybe Vin wishes he could go back and not run over Torkus?"
JD nodded. "Vin loves Torkus, too."
"Yes, he does. And he never, ever would have hurt him on purpose. He feels really bad, maybe even worse than you do."
JD sighed. "I'm gonna go tell him to come to bed now. "
"You're not mad at him anymore?"
JD was honest. "No, I'm still mad at him, but, if he lets me be mad tonight, tomorrow I promise I won't be mad at him no more."
Buck tousled his hair. "Sounds like a plan, Little Bit."
As promised, by morning, JD had managed to get past his anger with Vin. Chris awoke to find the two of them sitting on the couch together watching cartoons like they always did in the morning, even though they were being unusually quiet.
He took a little extra time and fixed French toast for breakfast. He knew the boys liked it, and they had been too upset to eat much the night before.
"When is the vet gonna call?" JD asked between forkfuls.
Chris honestly didn't know that. Dr. Boisevert had said "In the morning" but did that mean 7 or 9 or 11?
"Can we call him?" Vin asked.
Chris and Buck thought that over. They hated to saddle Mrs. Potter with the responsibility for having to tell the boys if things didn't work out for the best. When Buck pointed out that it was a 24-hour clinic, so someone should be there, Chris agreed they should call before they left for work.
But, before they were done with breakfast, the phone rang. Chris picked it up, feeling uncharacteristically apprehensive. Pets died - that fact had never really bothered him before, but he found himself praying for it to be good news.
The other three stared at him intently as they listened to his one-sided conversation. Finally, he hung up the phone and smiled. "Torkus is doing fine. Buck and I will stop and pick him up on the way home tonight."
Vin let out a relieved sigh and JD let out a joyous whoop and knocked over the pancake syrup.
Chris held up his hands. "Now, you know you aren't going to be able to play with him for awhile. He needs time to get better."
Both boys nodded that they understood, but the mood was happy when Mrs. Potter showed up for the day. The boys quickly told her about what happened, and Buck and Chris were both relieved to note that JD referred to it as an "askident" and emphasized that Vin hadn't meant to injure the tortoise.
While they waited for an assistant to bring Torkus from the "surgical ward" Buck was handed a shopping bag that contained absorbant bedding pads, antibiotic ointment, peroxide solution, sterile guaze, extra-wide band-aids and a sheet of instructions.
The clerk clicked several keys on her computer and a sheet of paper began to issue forth from the printer.
She handed it to Chris. "This is your itemized bill," she said cheerfully, and then handed him a second sheet, "and this is for the lab work.... And this...." She handed him yet another sheet. "...has your combined total expenses. Will that be cash, check or credit card?"
Larabee didn't answer immediately. His eyes were affixed to the "total expenses" piece of paper and Buck was certain that his friend's face had just gone two shades paler. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw the reason why. "Wow," he said softly.
"Yeah, wow," Chris whispered as he pulled out his wallet and stammered, "Uh... credit card."
Buck reached for his own wallet. "Can you split that between two cards?"
"Sure can, no problem!" the clerk said cheerfully. Of course, it was no problem for her.
The assistant then appeared with a small cardboard box with handles and holes in it with a cat on the outside and the words "I am feeling much better, thank you" printed on the side. Buck signed a credit card slip and then carefully carried both the box and the bag to the car, leaving Chris to deal with the bill. While he waited in the car, he carefully read the instructions. Dang, they weren't that thorough when one of them had been in the hospital.
He opened the little cardboard box in his lap and peered inside. Torkus lay still, inside his shell, which was covered with a large bandage. The vet had explained that he'd used surgical glue to repair the fracture, but that the wound would probably ooze blood and fluid for several days, and that the animal should be disturbed as little as possible. Buck knew the boys would be upset when they saw the sorry condition of their pet, but, it was better than the alternative could have been.
Two sets of big eyes looked on somberly as Buck very carefully lifted Torkus from the carrier and placed him gently in his terrarium, which, as per the vet's instructions, had been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected with a prescribed solution of water and bleach, and lined with the absorbant bedding material.
The animal's front legs twitched slightly as he was set atop the bedding, but other than that, he didn't move.
"Is he okay?" Vin asked apprehensively. Usually, if there were people around the terrarium, Torkus would climb the glass until he was on his hind legs, his neck stretched long as he searched for treats that were usually forthcoming.
Buck squatted down beside the two boys. "Well, now, you know that he's probably feeling a bit under the weather right now, so, we'll just have to wait a few days and let him get plenty of rest."
The two small heads nodded. Vin reached into the terrarium and very gently stroked the undamaged side of Torkus' shell. "I'm sorry I runned over you," he sniffed.
JD got some lettuce from the refrigerator and placed it within easy reach. Much to everyone's quiet dismay, the usually voracious reptile seemed completely oblivious to it.
JD looked at Buck with worried eyes. "It's okay, Little Bit," Buck assured them. "Most animals don't like to eat when they're hurt." The instructions he'd gotten from the vet said that Torkus might be off his feed, and all that they could do was make sure he had fresh food and water available.
Chris draped a large towel over the terrarium, thinking that the animal might feel more secure if its natural instinct to hide from predators was indulged. It was disheartening to see the usually active - well, active for a tortoise - creature so still. As he stretched the towel and tucked it around the edges of the glass enclosure, he discovered the boys' missing GI Joe stuck between the terrarium stand and the wall.
He pulled it out and handed it to JD, thinking the little boy would be happy to have found the missing toy. But instead, JD dropped the action figure and ran from the room.
Vin watched him go, his shoulders slumped. "I reckon it's gonna be awhile before Torkus can play GI Joe again," he said softly.
Chris put his arms around the small shoulders. "It'll be okay, Vin." He hoped he was right.
For the next two days, every member of the household kept a vigil over the ailing pet. Each morning and evening, as the boys looked on, Chris and Buck would remove the large band-aid and gently clean the injury with sterile guaze soaked in the peroxide solution. The bandage would usually be stained with blood and other fluid that had seeped from the wound, and was not a pretty sight, but Vin and JD did not complain as they disposed of the dirty dressing and used guaze and replaced the absorbant pad lining the terrarium with a clean one. After applying antibiotic ointment to the wound, Chris would apply a fresh bandage, and they would offer the animal food.
So far, they had tried lettuce, carrots, celery, bean sprouts and cucumber - all things that Torkus normally consumed with great enthusiasm. But, it continued to go untouched.
On Friday, Buck called the vet from work. Dr. Boisevert gave him the bad news and the good. The bad was that since there were no signs of infection, there wasn't much more that could be done for Torkus. The good was that, as he explained to Buck, tortoises could go a very long time without food or water. He did, however, empathize with their situation and said that Torkus could still be euthanized if death seemed imminent, but that he was still optimistic the pet would recover.
It was true that Torkus' shell did seem to be healing. Each time the bandage was changed, there was less drainage, and upon close examination, it could be seen how the fissures in its shell were beginning to fill in with new material.
Still, it was discouragingfor the two little boys to have to watch their pet motionless in his terrarium day after day.
Saturday was Chris's birthday, so the entire gang was coming over for a cook-out. The menu included steaks, corn on the cob, roasted potatoes, and salad.
The boys had asked Chris what kind of cake he wanted, and he'd told them whatever kind they wanted, but the youngsters hadn't bought into the easy way out. They had pressed Chris until he'd confessed that he would really prefer strawberry shortcake instead of a regular cake.
Josiah brought the steaks and Rain and Nathan brought the corn and potatoes while Buck fixed one of his super-salads and prepared skewers of sweet Vidalia onion, mushrooms, and summer squash which would be grilled along with the steaks..
Ezra was assigned the dessert and had shown up with organically grown strawberries that were the size of lemons and had easily cost $12 a quart. These would be prepared - with rum for the adults, without for the little guys - and spooned over the gourmet pound cake he'd brought. He'd also brought along three pints of whipping cream, Georgia pecans and Girhardelli chocolate sprinkles. The undercover agent did not believe in moderation when it came to desert.
Buck had taken the boys to the mall earlier that morning to select gifts for Chris, and they were busy wrapping them when the other guests began to arrive.
One by one, they led their "uncles" - and "Auntie Rain" - to the terrarium so that they could properly appreciate their ailing pet. Nathan, as expected, took an extra amount of time examining the injured tortoise, and even changed the dressing.
Once out of earshot, Nathan looked over at Buck. "Ol' Torkus doesn't look so good," he commented.
Buck sighed. "Yeah. The vet says it's too soon to give up hope, but, it's hard not knowing if the poor critter is suffering or not. It ain't like a cat or dog where you can tell."
Nathan nodded understandingly. "I reckon all you can do is hope for the best and let nature take its course, one way or another."
Buck nodded. "I think we'd have had him put down if it weren't for Vin. Chris doesn't want him to carry that burden. It's just too bad that poor Torkus has to suffer for it, if he's going to die anyway."
"Ya gotta give him every chance, though," Nathan said. "If he does die, Vin has to know you did all you could for him."
"Yeah. I just hope we're doing the right thing."
They walked into the kitchen where Ezra had washed a bowlful of the large strawberries under JD's curious eye. He was setting some aside in a smaller bowl, and instructing JD to tell him when he thought the smaller bowl contained enough strawberries for him and Vin.
JD looked up, his eyes bright. "Unka Ezra's gonna put lickers in this bowl, but Vin and I won't like that, 'cause it's for grown ups, so this bowl is for me an' Vin!" By now, the smaller bowl contained almost as many berries as the large one.
"It looks like yer eyes are gettin' bigger than your stomach there, Little Bit," Buck pointed to the pile of berries.
JD considered the bowl carefully. "I guess that's enough," he told Ezra.
Nathan and Buck went outside while JD continued to watch Ezra. He set some of the whole berries aside, and sliced some of the strawberries into smaller pieces, then placed the rest in a blender to make juice. He put some sugar and lemon juice in and then mixed it some more. He poured part of the juice on the sliced berries that were for him and Vin, then he poured some 'lickers' into the blender and over the berries that were still whole.
JD knew he was supposed to save dessert for after dinner, but those big, plump berries were tempting. While Ezra was busy whipping the cream, which was taking forever, JD reached up and snatched one. He knew that probably wasn't very nice, so he ran into the living room where no one could see him eat it.
He bit a small piece of it - intent on making his treat last as long as possible - and immediately screwed up his face as his taste buds were assaulted by the unexpected taste of Jamaican rum instead of the sweet strawberry flavor he'd been expecting.
Yuck! he thought, and then didn't know what to do with the piece of fruit that now had tiny teethmarks in it.
Maybe Torkus liked strawberries with lickers.
He walked over to the terrarium and dropped the berry in, then hurried outside to join the others.
The day had been fun, with plenty of good food and good spirits. Chris enjoyed his gifts, including the gag gift from Buck, who had discovered that a women who worked at the Federal Building was an amateur weaver. He'd had her weave a poncho like the one Clint Eastwood wore in the "spaghetti westerns" that had made him famous. Buck often teased Chris that he was the Man With No Name reincarnated. Chris had indulged the joke by walking around chewing on an unlit cigar while wearing the poncho, which Vin and JD found hilariously funny. At the end of the day, he assured the two little boys that it had been one of his best birthdays ever. Vin and JD were sent off to get ready for bed while Chris and Buck went to perform what had become a nightly ritual of caring for Torkus.
Buck was alarmed when he saw the pale red stain on the bedding. "What the hell?" Either the blood-tinged fluid had drained from the wound that they thought was healing, or it had passed from the animal itself, which couldn't be a good sign.
Thinking the same thing as Buck, Chris was especially careful as he lifted the tortoise. There was a greenish blob of something underneath it, stuck to the bedding. Buck lifted the used pad for a better look. "It's a strawberry stem," he frowned.
Ezra had been short one whole strawberry when it came time to place them on top of the desserts, even though he swore he had counted them accurately beforehand. Bravely, Buck sniffed at the reddish stain. "Strawberry juice," he grinned.
They proceeded to change the dressing, and noticed that there was almost no drainage at all on the bandage. The only area of the fracture still oozing was small enough to be covered by a regular band-aid. A lightning-bolt shape scar was becoming apparent where the fracture was healing.
When the boys returned, Buck held up the stained bedding. "Did you guys give Torkus a strawberry?"
Vin innocently shook his head, but JD's little lip stuck out in a clear admission of guilt. Buck tousled his dark hair. "It's okay, Little Bit, I think he ate it."
JD's eyes grew wide. "He did?!"
"Well, it's not in the terrarium. All that's left is the juice and the stem."
Vin and JD both exchanged relieved glances. "I'll go get him more food!" Vin said happily.
But, to everyone's disappoinment, Torkus ignored the cucumber slice and lettuce leaf Vin brought him.
"Reckon he's full," Chris said, thinking that was entirely possible. The strawberries had been huge.
"He wants a GI Joe band-aid!" Vin insisted.
"No he don't. He wants Harry Potter, 'cause he's got a scar like a lightning bolt just like Harry does."
"GI Joe," Vin insisted. "'Cause GI Joe is his friend."
"How about we just put a plain ol' bandaid from the first aid kit?" Buck suggested to stop the bickering. He remembered the good old days when kids' band-aids only came in bright colors, before someone got the idea to cover scraped knees and elbows with advertising.
"That's boring," Vin and JD said as a chorus.
"Well, I really don't think Torkus cares one way or another what kind of band-aid he has."
The boys both frowned, shoulders sagging. The truth was, Torkus didn't seem to really care much about anything. He still didn't move, and he hadn't eaten anything since the strawberry almost three days before. And, no had actually seen him eat that.
Sadly, Vin touched the tortoise's rough shell, careful to avoid the injury. "Buck? Is Torkus gonna die?" he asked softly.
JD looked at him apprehensively, but Buck could tell that, after days of hoping for some sign of improvement, that JD was ready to face the truth. Too bad Buck didn't know what it was. "I don't know, Vin," he said honestly.
It was already past 8 pm, so no one was expecting it when a car appeared in the long driveway. There was still enough daylight to make out the familiar black Jag. "It's Uncle Ezra!" Vin announced excitedly.
As the two boys raced to the door to greet their uncle, Buck and Chris looked at each other and shrugged. Ezra hadn't said he was coming, and wasn't expected.
Everyone at the office had been getting daily reports on Torkus, so Ezra knew the injured animal was refusing food, although it had apparently eaten the strawberry on Chris's birthday.
In one hand, he held a small flat of the expensive fruit. He looked at Chris and Buck and shrugged his shoulders almost imperceptibly as he said to the two little boys, "I thought we might try an experiment...."
"Ya brought strawberries?" Vin asked.
"Are they for Torkus?" JD echoed.
"Very perceptive, my lads," Ezra said affectionately. "Having pondered the situation, it appears there exists a possibility that our reptilian friend may indeed be a creature of refined taste."
"Ya mean he only likes strawberries now?" JD said.
Buck, Chris and Vin all looked at the little boy. Sometimes, it was downright scary how JD understood Ezra.
"We'll soon find out," Ezra grinned. Escorted by the two children, he approached the terrarium and placed one of the large strawberries inside.
To the amazement of all, Torkus immediately poked his head out of his shell, and began to inch his way towards it. He walked slowly - well, more slowly than usual, anyway - and awkwardly, but the big berry obviously had his attention. However, to everyone's disappoinment, he only inspected it for a brief moment, and then ducked back into his shell.
No one said anything for a few moments. It had been a good idea, but, it hadn't worked.
"Maybe he wants some lickers on it," JD pondered.
"Excuse me?" Ezra said.
"Well, I throwed the other strawberry in there 'cause it had lickers on it and it tasted gross."
The adults exchanged thoughtful glances. The expensive rum was long gone. "All we got is beer," Buck said.
"He's a turtle," Chris commented. "Maybe he won't know the difference."
A few moments later Ezra was dipping the gourmet quality strawberry in a glass of Bud Light.
He placed it in the terrarium, closer to Torkus so he wouldn't have so far to walk. Again, the reptile's head immediately emerged from his shell. He sniffed the berry - if a tortoise could be said to 'sniff' - and then took a hearty bite, followed by another....
"He's eatin' it!" Vin exclaimed.
"Don't know why we didn't think of giving him another strawberry," Chris mumbled, as if he were accusing Buck of not thinking of the obvious.
Ezra passed around the remaining strawberries for all to enjoy, and promised that he'd send more home with Chris and Buck the next day.
"Unka Ezra is a GENIUS!" JD commented.
"I'm glad someone finally appreciates that fact," Ezra grinned.
True to his word, Ezra continued to spend $12 a day for strawberries until Buck discovered that Torkus would eat anything, if it had been dunked in beer first.
Thankfully, that proved to be a temporary quirk, for as the animal's health improved steadily, he eventually went back to his normal diet of just about anything edible before he became the first known tortoise to develop a substance abuse problem.
His shell fused together nicely, the lightning-bolt shaped scar left from the fracture not too noticeable. Dr. Boisevert assured them that as Torkus aged, the scar would likely just blend into the pattern of his shell. The boys were astonished to learn how long the animal would live, trying to grasp that Torkus would still be around when they were very old men, if they took good care of him.
On their own, Vin and JD made a rule that Torkus had to be put in his terrarium before they took their cars out again. Bikes, too - that is, if they ever got to ride their bikes again after the "jumping" incident.
Chris and Buck heartily agreed, especially since the credit card statements with the vet charges had arrived - and they didn't even include the fifty or sixty bucks Ezra had spent on strawberries....
I'm glad Torkus is gonna be all better, Vin.
Heavy sign. Yeah, me too. Good thing Uncle Ezra thought of the strawberries.
Good thing the vet doctor didn't make Torkus dream of angels.
Not vet doctor, JD, it's either vet or doctor, not both.
How come Buck and Chris are calling him the Thousand Dollar Torkus?
Everyday Heroes Index
Author Note: This is based on a true story. When my daughter was 8, she found a tortoise that had been run over by a car, and fortunately, we were able to nurse it back to health. It lived in our yard for 3 years before finding a happy home at a nature preserve.