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Vin trotted into Chris office to find it empty. He turned and looked around the main office and saw Nathan approaching.
Hello, Vin. Dont worry. Chris and Buck will be right back. They had to go upstairs for a little while.
The tall man held out his hand and looked at the boy questioningly. The blond smiled and accepted the offered hand and two of them headed to the medics desk. Nathan pulled a chair up and Vin hopped up into it.
Josiah had placed the two bags next to Chris office and now he joined the pair as they sat talking.
Nathan was asking about the trip and if Vin was looking forward to seeing his great-grandfather again. The boy shrugged as he looked around the room.
I thought Uncle Ezra was going with me?
Josiah leaned forward, resting his weight on his legs. Ezras going to meet you and Chris at the airport. He had to go home and pack a few things.
Vin giggled slightly as he said, I bet Uncle Ezra will have a lot more bags than I do.
The two men joined in the laughter and Nathan responded, Now, theres a bet I wouldnt touch.
Bet? Whatre yall taking bets on? Bucks voice asked.
Vin turned and his eyes lit up at the sight of Wilmington, but he refrained himself from jumping up and running to the man who was his second father.
Buck moved across the room and squatted next to the boys chair, his arm reaching out to stroke the cool cheek. Hows my boy doing?
Vin crossed his arms and tightened his mouth even as he noticed the tears glistening in Wilmingtons eyes. He wanted the man to know that he was mad at him for leaving home and upsetting JD. Not trusting his voice to say what he felt, he chose to display his emotions quietly.
Buck seemed to understand and his smile turned to a sad one. Thats okay, Vin. I know that you and JD are mad at me. You have every right to be angry with me. He stood and leaning over, he planted a kiss in the boys soft golden curls. As he was bent over the boy, he whispered, Just know that I love you boys more than anything in this world and that Ill be back home soon.
He stood straight and spoke in a normal tone, Here comes your Dad. You have a safe trip. Dont let Ezra get into any trouble down there in Texas. With that, Buck moved across the room and spoke to Larabee. Ill take the bags downstairs and get the car seat put back in the Ram.
Hey, Josiah, you got your keys?
Sure, Buck. Ill head down with you. Sanchez crossed the room, doing a side-step as Vin ran past him to meet his father.
As Chris gathered the boy into his arms and stood up, Nathan Jackson turned back to his computer.
So, you ready for your trip?
Vins head moved up and down even as his voice said, No
Chris smiled and used his free hand to smooth back the fine strands of blond hair from the boys face. Dont you worry. Jess is going to be fine. Doctors said so. Youll get to meet your great aunt and her family. Ezra is going to take pictures for you and we can put them on the picture wall.
Cant you go with me? It was as close to a whine as Vin Tanner ever got. And Chris Larabee nearly gave into the plea of his son. Instead he moved into his office and sat them both down on the couch.
He sat the boy on his lap and tried to figure out how to explain to a seven year old that his father couldnt be there for him even though it tore his heart out.
Vin, you know that I want to come, right?
The boys head nodded.
And if I could I would. But I have a job to do. And that job requires that I be in town to testify against the bad guys. If Buck and I dont do this, those bad men could be put back on the streets again. And more little boys, like you and JD, could be hurt. You understand that right?
Vin sat very still for a few moments and then, with a sigh, nodded again. I know, Dad. I just Will you take care of JD for me? Hes awful scared.
Larabee smiled at the generous nature of the boy, a boy that had won his heart even as he lifted the limp body from under a pile of crates. If the childs heart were any bigger, Chris swore that it would not fit within the small ribcage of a seven year child.
Ill take real good care of JD while youre gone. You do the same with Ezra for me, okay?
Vin smiled and nodded and then reached out and wrapped his arms around the mans neck. They sat that way for well over a minute before the man announced that they needed to head to the airport. As they exited the office, Buck and Josiah were just coming back in. Vin pulled free of Chris grasp and ran over to say goodbye to Nathan.
Bye, Uncle Nathan. Tell Aunt Raine that Ill see her soon.
Nathan reached out and tousled the boys hair gently. Ill do that. You tell your granddaddy to feel better for us.
Yes, sir. Vin moved away, toward Josiah.
Sticking out his hand, he said politely, Thank you for picking me up, Uncle siah. Ill see ya real soon. Any messages for my grandpa?
Only that he stills owes my a fishing trip into Oklahoma and I plan to hold him to it. Josiah held the boys hand lightly as he spoke. Patting it, he moved back to his desk.
Vin looked up at the mustached agent and chewed on his bottom lip. Finally, he held up both arms to the man. Anyone watching saw the mans posture relax and his face break into a smile as he lifted the slight weight into his arms.
I love you, Buck. And I miss you. I hope that you come home before I get back, cause I miss you real bad. And JD misses you even badder.
Buck laughed through his tears. I miss you both. And I hope that I can come home real soon. Sniffing, the man hugged the slight frame in his arms and told him, You be good, have fun. I know that youre going to meet a bunch of people that you dont know. But dont worry. Ezra will help you remember everyone. If you have any problems, you tell him. Okay?
Grinning, Vin saluted, Yes, sir.
Buck laughed again and gave the boy one more squeeze before setting him on his feet. Ill see ya real soon, son. Have a safe trip.
Vin nodded and ran to join his father as he waited at the door. With one glance back, the two exited and the closing door cut off their view.
Buck? You and me need to have a talk, Josiah said as he and Nathan moved across the room.
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It was close to eight oclock when Chris arrived at the house, entering through the mudroom. He apologized to Gloria for the late hour and she pish-poshed his apology away.
Dont give it another thought. You had things that needed doing. My children are old enough to take care of themselves, so staying a bit longer was no inconvenience. Now, Ill be headed home. Supper is in the oven, if you havent eaten and JD has had a bath and is watching a video.
How is he?
Her face grew solemn. Hes coping, barely. He followed me around all afternoon. It took all I had to get him to watch the video. I think he was just so tired from following me, that he didnt have the strength to argue.
She gathered her things as she spoke and now stood at the door. Be gentle with him, Mr. Larabee. He cant figure out what is going on and its really terrifying for him.
Chris nodded. Yes, maam. Ill do my best. Goodnight, Gloria.
Ill see you in the morning. Good evening, Mr. Larabee.
The door clicked as she pulled it closed and Chris turned to the house, dinner, and one very confused little boy.
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After kicking off his boots, he entered the kitchen and checked out the meal the housekeeper had placed in the oven. He hadnt realized he was hungry until he opened the oven door and the smells of pot roast wafted up at him. Deciding that he should change first, he moved into the front room to check on JD.
Surprisingly, the boy was not watching an animated video as Chris has feared, but was staring at the new version of The Incredible Journey.
CHRIS! The boy leapt to his feet and ran over the wrap his short arms around the mans legs. I missed you.
Chris bent down and gathered the five year old into his arms. And I missed you. He squeezed the boy and the sigh that issued from the child tore at his heart. Hey, have you eaten? He felt the nod against his neck. Patting the narrow back, he squatted down. Okay, Im going to change and warm my dinner. You be okay while I take a shower?
Good boy. Ill be back in just a few minutes. Dont answer the door or the phone, right? JD nodded. Okay, watch your movie and Ill be right back.
The child trotted back to plop on the stuffed animal he had been using as a pillow. Chris walked to the door and checked the lock, then headed to his room, undressing as he went.
Chris stepped out of the shower and grabbed the towel and dried off. He ran his fingers through his hair and then stepped into his briefs. Pulling the door open, he froze in the doorway. With a sigh, he stepped toward the bed and sat down on the bed next to the sleeping child.
Ah, JD. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
He started to rouse the boy when the ringing phone had him jumping to grab it. Larabee.
Hey, buddy, Chris said softly, a smile pulling at his mouth. Did you get to the hotel all right?
Yeah. Uncle Ezra says well go to the hospital tomorrow. We called and I talked to Grandpa. He said to tell you hi. There was a pause and then Vin said softly, I miss ya, Dad.
Chris swallowed hard and rubbed his stinging eyes as emotion threatened to overwhelm him. I miss you, too. Are you having fun?
Well, I havent done nothing. We got here and got to the hotel and Uncle Ezra helped me to call you and Grandpa. Now, he says I have to take a bath and go to bed cause its late. Did you know that its later here then it is there?
Yeah, I knew that.
Well, its not my fault I aint tired. Its still early. And Miz Potter made me take a bath today.
Well, maybe you could two baths in one day; just this one time. Okay, buddy?
He heard the small sigh before the boy agreed. Okay. But just this once.
Is JD there? Can I talk to im?
Well, hes sleeping, son. You should get to that bath and bed.
Okay. Tell JD hi and that I miss im, too. Night, Dad.
Night, Vin. I love you.
I love you, too.
Chris listened as the boy hung up and the line went dead. He replaced the phone and lay across the bed, relaxing on the covers. He woke up a half hour later and stretched before sitting up. He felt warmth against his leg and looked down to find JD snuggled up next to him. The growling of his stomach had him thinking about the dinner in the oven.
Patting the boys back, he woke him from his slumber. Hey, kiddo. Lets go back into the front room, okay?
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the boy nodded and slipped off the bed. He paused at the door, waiting as the man slipped into a pair of shorts. Only when Chris started toward the door, did JD move down the hall.
Together, they went to the kitchen and warmed the dinner Mrs. Potter had left and then went back to the front room. Chris sat down on the couch and JD sat down next to him and turned toward the TV. They sat in silence, the movie filling the room with sound.
Chris finished his meal and sat back, sipping his drink. His hand moved out to stroke the boys back as he sat with his small hands gripping the mans leg.
How about some dessert? I think I saw Jello in the fridge.
JD smiled and nodded, so Larabee sat forward and picked up the plate. Ill be right back.
He stood and headed to the kitchen, but stopped as JD started to slide off the couch. No, JD. You stay there. Im just going to the kitchen. I wont be but a minute.
JDs face fell, but he slid back onto the couch. Pulling his legs up, he wrapped his arms around his knees and turned his attention to the movie. Chris quickly moved to the kitchen and put the dishes on the sink. He removed the bowls of Jello and spooned a dab of whip cream on each. He walked back to the front to find JD still curled tightly on the couch.
Here we go.
JD smiled brightly at the globs of gelatin and the white froth on top. He took the bowl with a soft thank you and crossed his legs, getting comfortable. They ate in silence, watching the movie.
The Jello disappeared about the same time the Sassy, Chance, and Shadow
arrived back home. Chris picked up the remote and turned the electronics off.
You about ready for bed?
The man looked down. Yes, JD?
Can can I sleep with you tonight? the boy asked quietly.
Sure, JD. He stood up and took the bowls. JD followed, carrying Chris glass carefully held in both hands.
After cleaning the kitchen, the two moved around the house, securing the doors. Once he knew the house was locked up, Chris led JD to his bathroom to brush his teeth. That done, Chris took JD into his room and tossed him playfully onto the bed.
Bedtime, buck-a-roo. The boy giggled as he bounced on the bed. Climb under the covers. Im going brush my teeth. Chris started to close the door, but the look on the boys face stopped his hand in mid-motion. He did his business quickly and then returned to the bedroom. He found JD under the covers, but watching the bathroom door. JD smiled and slid down as Chris sat on the bed.
Chris slipped under the covers and his arm went around the little form that had snuggled up to his side. He felt the small body relax into sleep after only a few minutes. His own eyes were drooping soon after that. As sleep claimed him, he made a promise to the child and himself-that they would get through this.
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The next day passed quickly for Larabee. He was finally able to give his testimony before the grand jury. The lawyers felt confident that they had the evidence needed to go trial. It was a good day for Team Seven.
Chris had talked to Vin just before lunch. He learned that he and Ezra had gone to the hospital and seen Jess Miller. The boy felt better now, calmer. Chris had listened to the boy tell about visiting his great-grandfather, meeting his great aunt and her family. He couldn't remember all the names, but Ezra had taken pictures and promised to help the boy label them that evening.
After speaking to Standish, Chris felt better. The man confirmed that the boy was doing well. There had been some tense moments for the seven year old, but Ezra told the apprehensive father that the boy was adjusting to the new surroundings. Once Larabee had been reassured, they discussed the return trip. Ezra felt that they should spend a couple of days in Texas. The doctors planned to release Jess early on Saturday. The southerner planned to spend Saturday and Sunday with the man at his home. Chris agreed, wanting the young man to get to know his blood relatives as well as absorb some of his heritage.
Chris left work at five and headed home, a warm feeling in the pit of his stomach. Vin was doing well away from home. While the man was glad his son was enjoying himself, he was a little jealous that the boy was blossoming under the watchful eye of Ezra Standish. Larabee chuckled and admonished himself for the thought. Just be glad for the improvement, he told himself.
He arrived at home and found the more exuberant JD waiting at the door. The blond smiled and scooped the five year old into his arms as he trotted up the steps.
"Hey, buddy. You have a good day?"
"I drawed you a picture."
"Drew a picture," the man corrected.
Chris cocked an eyebrow at the obvious disregard to his correction. He shook his head as the boy giggled and told him, "I DREW a picture of a horse for ya."
"A horse? That's nice. You want to show me?"
The boy wiggled to signal that he wanted down, so Chris sat him on his feet and he took off to retrieve the drawing. The man moved into the kitchen to greet the housekeeper and let her know he was home.
"Evening, Gloria. Everything okay?"
"Just fine, Mr. Larabee."
Before she could say anything else, the sound of running feet announced the arrival of the boy. Chris sat at the table and held out his hands.
JD thrust the drawing into Larabee's waiting hands and stood with a hand on each of the man's knees. Chris made appreciative noises as he studied the paper. He was glad the boy had already told him it was a horse because it looked more like a mule due to the fat body and oversized ears.
"Wow, this is good, JD. Want to add it to the fridge?"
Black hair flew as the boy nodded in excitement.
"Okay, let's date this and you can sign it, then we'll see if we can find a spot."
The boy nodded and Chris took out a pen from his pocket and handed it the boy. JD moved to a chair and climbed up on his knees. His tongue came out and wiggled back and forth as he carefully wrote his name and the date which Chris told him.
"Don't push too hard or you'll tear the paper."
JD nodded and relaxed a little bit. Finished, he turned to the man and smiled.
"Good work." Chris took the pen and placed it back in his pocket. He took the paper and the boy's hand as he hopped down from the chair. It took a bit of rearranging, but they finally made a place to display the new artwork.
Gloria had stood by and watched, a smile on her lips. As they finished, she stepped into the mudroom and dropped the dishtowel that always seemed to be in her hands into the laundry basket. She stepped back out and told the other two that she would see them on Monday and left.
Chris moved toward the front room, JD following in his wake. "So, since I got home late yesterday, we didn't have our special night out. How about we do it tonight?"
The boy began to bounce up and down. "Yeah."
"Okay, I'm going to change and then we'll head into town."
Chris had checked and the Disney movie 'Home on the Range' was showing at the local theater. He planned to take the boy to the movie and then his favorite restaurant, McDonald's.
The evening ended early, though. While the boys both wanted to see the movie, they didn't know much more about it other than it was a cartoon and had talking animals as the good guys. Chris never thought to check first, so when the movie started, neither man nor boy was prepared to find out that the hero was a 'handsome' horse named 'Buck'. JD's excitement had died quickly. As the boy sank lower in the seat, Chris rubbed his head and cursed himself for not checking with someone about the content of the movie.
He finally called an end to the movie for them when he heard a sniff from the child. Leaning over, he lifted JD and exited the theatre. Chris apologized to the boy and asked him if he still wanted to go the McDonald's receiving a shake of the head in response. So the duo headed home, the mood a depressed one. So after a good start, seven o'clock had them back at the house with no plans.
After a dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with oven baked French fries, the two settled in for the evening. Chris thought about putting in a video, but opted instead to put on some music. Pulling out the games, he asked JD what he wanted to play. So the evening was spend quietly, playing 'Chutes and Ladders' and listening to the soft tones of Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole. By eight fifteen, the soft music and leisurely game, had lulled the boy to sleep. He lay on the floor on his stomach, his mouth lax, his soft breaths forming tiny bubbles on his lips.
Chris put away the game and turned the music off. He grabbed his and JD's empty glasses and took them to the kitchen. After rinsing, he put the glasses away, then grabbed a beer and headed back to the front room.
He set the beer on the small table at the end of the couch, placed the remote next to it and then approached the sleeping child. He gathered the boy into his arms and moved to the couch and sat down. He made himself comfortable, kicking off his shoes, and propping his feet on the coffee table. He shifted JD to his side, next to his extended legs. Pulling the throw off the back of the couch, he draped it lightly over the boy.
Looking around to see if everything was set, he relaxed back into the comfort of the couch and turned the TV on low. The movie was half over, but he'd seen it before and had no trouble picking up on the plot. He took a swig of beer and leaned his head back against the couch. Before long, his soft snores rivaled the bubble blowing JD.
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The next morning the man woke to the sound of cartoons playing softly. He pried his eyes open and sat up. JD was laying on the floor, his ankles crossed and swaying to the rhythm of the background music, eating cold cereal. The boy glanced over at the man and smiled.
"Mornin', Chris," he said, milk dribbling down his chin.
Chris shook his head. As he started to respond, he smacked his lips at the taste on stale beer. Grimacing, he told the boy 'good morning' and ruffling his hair, he informed the child that he was going to brush his teeth.
"You be okay here for a few minutes?"
A quick look of doubt clouded the hazel eyes, but cleared and he nodded. Chris left the room, feeling the boy's eyes watching. He paused for a couple of moments in the hall, then peeked around the corner, checking on the boy.
Seeing the boy still on the floor, he breathed a sigh of relief and moved quickly down the hall.
He brushed his teeth, relieved his bladder, and then changed into work clothes. Saturday was typically a work day. This one was no exception. And with Buck gone, the work was doubled. Slipping his feet into his boots, he headed back to the front room.
"JD, I have to work in the barn. You want to stay in here or "
The boy was on his feet before the question was asked. Smiling, the man held out his hands. "I'll wash the bowl while you get dressed."
"Okay." And he disappeared down the hall.
Five minutes later, they were ready to head out to work. Chris had prepared himself a thermos of coffee and made some hot chocolate in another thermos for JD. He helped the boy slip into his 'barn' boots and they headed out the back door.
The next two hours were spent cleaning stalls, putting down fresh hay, and tossing feed to the animals. Rounding up the horses, they set about brushing the dust from the tall backs. The equines had grown used to the little boy moving in and about their legs. JD had learned to always let the animals know where he was by keeping a hand on them. He had the chore of brushing front legs and chests, sometimes a head, if it was offered.
They stopped mid-morning for a break and Chris pulled out the thermos and poured the warm drinks. Sitting on a bale a hay, shoulder to shoulder, they sat looking out at the horses. Chris sipped his coffee, but coughed as JD smacked his lips in an appreciative manner.
Just as they started back to work, the sound of a motor drew their attention. They turned to see Josiah's Suburban rattling down the road.
"Looks like someone's with him," Chris commented. JD's gasp had him regretting his words.
"Buck?" he asked excitedly.
"I don't know, son. We'll know in a minute." The boy climbed up onto the hay bale to get a better look, bouncing animatedly.
The vehicle drew to a stop and the doors opened to reveal Josiah and Nathan. JD's shoulders slumped and he stood cheerlessly as the men approached.
"Good morning, Chris, JD. How're you doing today?"
Chris reached out and lay his hand on the boy's shoulder. "We're fine. Just getting some chores done." Patting the boy back gently, the man stepped toward the others and held his coffee mug high. "You boys want some coffee?"
"No, we stopped for breakfast on the way out." Josiah pulled his gloves out of his back pocket and slapped them against his palm. "Are we ready to get to work?"
Nathan moved over next to JD and squatted down. "So how are you doing, JD?"
Nathan's hand came up to touch the boy's face. His gaze scrutinized the child, the medic evaluating the child's physical condition. Smiling, Jackson stood. "So, you going to help us today, JD?"
The boy jumped off the hay and took Nathan's hand. "Yeah. What are we going to do?"
Well, I hear that some fence needs replacing. Nathan was looking up as he spoke and he was certain that Larabee cringed at his words, but it was too late to rescind the words now. The three men and one boy set about their task.
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The work progressed fairly well, with the boy only getting under foot a few times. Nathan decided that he would keep JD busy while the other two replaced top rails in the corrals. Bored during the winter months locked in the corrals, the horses had taken to gnawing on the wooden rails. Some of them had ended up less than an inch in thickness.
Three hours later, JD was fast asleep on a hay bale and Chris was searching for more nails. After the boy fell asleep, Nathan joined the construction and most of the work had been completed. Things were moving along well until they ran out of nails.
I know I had enough nails. Chris had rummaged through the barn and shed, even the house, but the box of nails he was searching for did not turn up. Boys, I guess we used them on something else.
Nathan glanced at his watch, noting it was after one in the afternoon. Chris, why dont you and Josiah go get some nails and Ill fix some lunch while youre gone?
Seeing the blond glance at the sleeping boy, Jackson assured the man that he would take the child to the house and get him cleaned up for the meal.
Chris nodded. Sounds good, Nathan. Theres plenty of fixins for hot dogs in the refrigerator. It shouldnt take us twenty minutes to get there and back.
Chris pulled off his gloves. Josiah, you mind driving?
Mimicking Larabees actions and removing his gloves, the profiler shook his head. Not at all, Hop in. Nathan, I expect chili with the dogs.
Chilill rot your insides, Josiah.
The man laughed as he started the vehicle and dropped it into gear. Hanging out the window, he retorted, Like hot dogs wont?
Jackson brandished both hands as the old truck pulled away. He watched for a moment, then went to wake the boy.
JD? Wake up, son. Were going up to the house for lunch.
The little boy rolled away and slapped at the hand that gently gripped his leg.
No. Youre goin ta roll off there. Come on. Wake up. We volunteered to fix lunch.
Yawning, the boy sat up and stretched before rubbing his eyes. He glanced around, half asleep and started to slide off the hay.
Wheres Chris? he asked.
He went with Josiah to .
Nathan never finished the statement as suddenly the boy screamed, freezing the words in the mans throat.
A plume of dust indicated the direction the old Chevy had gone and, before Jackson even realized, the boy tore off as fast as his little legs would carry him. Once recovered from his shock, Nathan took off in pursuit of the child. His long legs quickly covered the distance that JD had traveled and he scooped the boy up on the run.
As soon as JDs feet left the ground, he began to kick and claw at the man holding him. The entire time he was screaming for Larabee, his voice overpowering Nathans attempts to explain that they would be back.
JD, CALM DOWN. Nathan was beginning to panic as the boys efforts to escape escalated. He tried to talk softer, thinking that him yelling was aggravating the situation. JD, please calm down, its okay, theyll be right back.
But the boy wasnt listening. He screamed and fought and refused to hear the words being spoken to him.
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