by Joy K
|Vin watched out the side window
of the rear seat of the king cab pickup. Ezra looked out the other side window,
while JD squirmed in the middle complaining that he couldn't see out.
"Yes, JD?" Buck answered with more patience than he felt. The drive from the Evacuee Center had taken almost six hours due to all the flooded roads, downed power lines and trees, and being forced to take back roads almost the entire route. They had made one stop for dinner at a diner in Four Corners. JD had quizzed him nearly every five minutes.
"Are we there, yet?"
Chris coughed and smirked at Buck.
"Not much longer, Kiddo. We're just turning into the driveway."
A couple of minutes passed.
Buck rolled his eyes before turning to look at JD.
"You gots a real long driveway," JD informed him.
Chris snickered, then coughed to cover it up.
"You're right, JD," said Buck. He glanced at Vin still staring out the window on Chris's side of the truck. He looked in the rear-view mirror to check Ezra, noting his studious expression. He wondered if the eight-year-old was mentally mapping out the way to the ranch, just in case he needed an escape route. It was dark, so there really wasn't much else to see.
"We're here," announced Chris as he stopped the truck and put it into park. He and Buck climbed out of the truck and opened the back doors to help the boys out.
With his prior experience, Chris was a little quicker releasing the restraints and had Vin out of the truck and JD half unbuckled before Buck could release Ezra. The eight-year-old didn't want any help getting out, so Chris had both Vin and JD standing beside him by the time Ezra was out of the truck.
A friendly howl sounded, followed by happy barking. The porch light illuminated a big black Labrador romping toward the truck.
"Dobie!" JD squealed, running towards the dog.
"Dobie?" Vin said softly.
Chris and Buck exchanged glances. Vin had actually spoken, but he was in for another disappointment.
The big dog wagged his tail and licked JD's face. The boy petted him, then turned back towards Vin.
"It's not Dobie," he said sadly.
Vin's head dropped, his brief hope that his dog had survived, now crushed.
"Dobie's got a purple collar. And he's got white toes and a funny ear," JD explained.
"It was chewed on when he was little," explained Ezra, moving closer to Vin. "He's missing a small chunk out of his left ear, and his toes are white on his right front paw."
"This is my dog, Sam," said Chris softly.
The dog moved over to Vin and began to nudge at his hands trying to get the boy to pet him. When the boy didn't respond, he tried Ezra.
Ezra petted the dog before the big black moved back to Vin.
Sam nosed the boy's hands, then sat and leaned his shoulder against Vin. The seven-year-old pulled his hands up and stepped away from the dog not wanting anything to do with a reminder of his loss.
"It's all right," Chris said, putting a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Sam, leave him alone."
The dog whined, but trotted off towards the porch.
"It's late," Larabee added. "Let's go inside and figure out the sleeping arrangements."
"Sounds good, Pard," said Buck. "I don't know about you, boys, but I'm tired."
The three boys bunched together for security as they again faced the unknown.
After a brief tour of the house, Chris and Buck led the boys to Adam's old room. It hadn't been too long ago that Chris had finally opened up the room, aired it out and cleaned up a couple years of dust. It had been difficult for him, but it was also an important step in healing from the loss of his wife and son.
"It's a little dusty," Chris said apologetically, "but we can give it a good cleaning tomorrow after we go to town to shop for clothes. And for tonight, we'll bring in the cushions off the couch for a temporary bed for one of you."
"Who wants the top bunk?" asked Buck.
Three boys stood quietly, their uncertainty palpable. JD slipped his hand into Ezra's seeking security. Finally he said, "Vin sleeps on the top bunk at home. And I sleep on the bottom and Ezra sleeps in the other bed."
"All right," said Buck, "Let's get you ready for bed. Josiah found some clothes that will work for pajamas."
He opened the bag he was carrying and pulled out several items.
"We can do it ourselves," Ezra said, taking a defensive stance in front of his brothers.
Chris nodded wanting to give the boys enough space to feel secure. "We'll be in the kitchen. When you're done, come in there and we'll have a little snack before bed." He pulled Buck out the door and closed it, leaving the boys in privacy.
Neither man spoke their fear that Ezra's reaction was more than just asserting his independence. Both hoped that it was just natural modesty, not wanting anyone around while they dressed, but considering the eight-year-old's defensiveness in every situation, it was more likely that something deeper had prompted the response.
"Shopping, huh?" Buck asked as they walked to the kitchen.
"They need more than one set of clothes," Chris replied with a slight growl.
Buck chuckled at the response, "I know that, Pard. I was just thinking about trying to find clothes for three boys."
Sam met them at the entrance to the kitchen holding his food bowl in his mouth.
"Someone's hungry," Buck laughed.
"Give me that," Chris said as he pulled the bowl away from the dog. "Tiny fed you while we were gone."
Sam whined and gave his best 'poor dog' look.
Larabee grinned and scratched the dog between the ears. He put the dish back on the mat in the mudroom and filled it. Sam happily dug in.
Moving back into the kitchen, Chris washed and dried his hands before searching through the cupboards for a suitable snack for boys. Buck dropped in to the main house frequently, so snacks were plentiful. He looked at the cans of fruit and the cookies, knowing that the fruit would be a healthier choice. He pulled out the pack of cookies. Tomorrow they would work on better food choices; tonight they just needed simple comfort foods.
Buck pulled a chair in from the dining room. Four chairs were no longer enough and he didn't want the boys to feel like they didn't belong.
Chris opened the refrigerator and grabbed the jug of milk, checking the expiration date and giving it a sniff before he decided it was safe to drink. He poured five small glasses.
"What did Josiah tell you?" he asked Buck. Things had been hectic at the center when they left and he didn't get to talk directly to Josiah.
"He's going to come out tomorrow afternoon after he gets the chance to check out his house and see what damage he has."
Chris nodded as he set the glasses on the table.
"He interviewed the boys again. Said he didn't get much more information, just that JD said they play at Pine Grove Park."
Chris raised an eyebrow. It wasn't much but it was a clue.
"They still won't give their last names."
"He can't find out why?" Chris pressed.
"Didn't say. I think he's taking it extra careful with these boys - trying not to give them any more reason to fear us."
Hearing toenails clicking across the floor Chris turned to watch his Labrador walk towards them from the mudroom.
"Did you eat all that all ready?" he asked with a laugh.
Sam wagged his tail and trotted over to his owner.
Chris obligingly petted the dog and tussled with him playfully. "You're such a pig."
"Nuh-uh," said JD as he entered the room clad in too large green pajamas. "He's a dog."
"Hush," Chris scolded lightly.
"Well, now," said Buck, "Looks like we're all ready for a snack."
Ezra and Vin followed JD into the room. Both of the older boys were wearing worn sweatpants and tee shirts.
"Pick a place to sit and help yourselves," said Chris.
Without any discussion at all the three boys automatically chose seats, Vin and JD on one side of the table, Ezra on the other. It was a natural movement telling Chris and Buck that it was probably where they sat every meal at home. It also pointed to the fact that Ezra had been with them for some time, long enough to develop a habit anyway.
The boys ate the cookies and drank the milk but without the normal enthusiasm of kids. It was after eleven o'clock and they were tired. After the third yawn from JD, Chris declared it was time for bed.
They ushered the boys to the bathroom, bringing the small bag of personal items they had collected at the shelter. Josiah had the foresight to label the small plastic bags containing matching toothbrushes with a sharpie marker, indicating which brush belonged to whom.
The boys again closed the adults out, preferring to do the last minute preparations on their own. When they emerged, Buck stopped them at the bedroom door.
"I know it's hard to spend the first night in a new place, so I just want to go over one more time where everything is."
Chris nodded his approval.
"You remember where the bathroom is?" he asked.
"Yep," said JD.
"Good. Now this door right here is the guest room," said Buck. "That's where I'll be sleeping."
"And this door," Chris added pointing to his door, "is to my room. That's where I'll be sleeping. If you need anything just come and knock on one of our doors, all right?"
"Okay," JD answered as he yawned widely.
They entered the bedroom. "Hop in, kiddo," said Buck as he pulled back the comforter for JD.
"And let's get you up top," said Chris gently lifting Vin towards the top bunk.
The seven-year-old stiffened and suddenly began to fight like a cat trying to stay out of the bath water.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" called Buck as he watched Chris struggle to keep from dropping Vin.
"Put him down!" Ezra yelled. "Let him go!"
"Vin!" JD cried.
Chris shifted his grip and wrapped his arms around Vin's chest as he lowered the thrashing boy to the ground. He could feel the rapid breaths and the thudding of his little heart.
"Easy," he soothed, "You're all right. You don't want to go up there, you don't have to."
"Let him go!" Ezra demanded.
"It's all right!" Chris said sharply. He was trying to calm Vin down and Ezra wasn't helping.
Ezra took a step back at the harsh tone.
"Time out," said Buck easily. "Everyone just take a minute to breathe. That's it. Nice and calm. Now, Ezra, Chris here was just trying to help Vin get into bed. He wasn't trying to hurt him and he didn't know it would upset Vin."
Ezra turned his focus to Buck.
Wilmington's heart clinched at the fear in the boy's eyes. He crouched down in front Ezra in an attempt to minimize his size, hoping that it would ease some of the tension.
"No one is going to hurt you," he soothed. "Any of you. We just figured since he slept on the top bunk at home, he'd be comfortable up there here, too."
Ezra shook his head repeatedly. "No... no."
"Okay," Buck said softly. "Hey, Chris?" He said in the same smooth tone, "Let's just give Vin a blanket and let him decide where to sleep. That okay with you, Ezra?"
The oldest boy didn't answer, but hearing JD's sniffle, he climbed up on the bed with the five-year-old and hugged him, eyes constantly darting back and forth from Buck to Chris.
"Buck, why don't you tuck those cushions under the bed?" Chris said calmly, nodding to the cushions they had pulled from the couch to create a temporary bed for one of the boys.
Wilmington nodded. Neither of them wanted the seven-year-old to sleep on the floor, but until they could sort out what was troubling him, wherever he felt safe was the best option.
Buck pushed the cushions under the bed as Chris gave Vin a blanket. Still trembling, the boy slipped away from Chris and crawled under the bed.
Larabee swallowed hard. His heart ached to wipe away that fear.
"Everyone comfortable?" asked Buck.
JD popped a thumb in his mouth and snuggled into his pillow. Ezra just stared at them, his expression a strange mixture of defiant protection of his brothers and outright fear.
"We'll leave the light on in the hallway, in case you need to get up," he added as he stood and moved to the door. "Good night, boys."
The two adults moved into the hallway and turned off the bedroom light. All the boys were still visible from the light in the hallway as Buck and Chris waited to make sure they were really settled.
Sam padded into the room. Chris started to call the big Labrador back, but Buck stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
The dog wandered over by the bed and laid down on his tummy, scooting slightly under the bed next to Vin before flopping over on his side, his back to the boy. His tail thumped loudly on the floor. Repeatedly. When he got no response, the old Lab whined.
A scrawny arm looped itself over the dog's back and gently began to pet his side in the darkness.
Sam sighed in contentment, his tail thumping a few more times before going still.
Chris and Buck smiled before heading to their rooms to hopefully get some much needed sleep.
"Knock, knock," said Buck as he rapped on the boys' door before pushing it open. It had been a short night for all of them, but it seemed the boys had slept through. Neither Chris nor Buck had been awakened during the night.
Ezra was still asleep on the bottom bunk. Vin and JD were sitting on the floor, Sam lying between them happily absorbing the attention the boys offered. While the younger boy lavished hugs and pets on the Labrador's head, the older boy quietly stroked Sam's back.
Buck smiled. It was good to see him interacting willingly with his surroundings.
"Good Morning, boys."
"Hi, Mr. Buck!" JD replied in a loud whisper. "Ezra's still asleep. We waked him up too much last night."
So much for the hope they had slept through the night. Buck checked his watch. It was almost nine o'clock and Chris wanted to be on the road by nine-thirty.
"Can we wake Ezra up?" Buck asked, conscious of the stresses and fears of bedtime last night.
"He don't like it," said JD.
Buck nodded. "I'm sure he doesn't, but what I mean is 'Does it scare him?'"
"Nope," said JD scratching Sam behind an ear. "But he don't like it."
"Okay," Buck said with a slight smile. "You two did a good job of getting yourselves dressed. Chris is in the kitchen making breakfast. Why don't you fellas take Sam with you and get something to eat. I'll work on getting Ezra up."
"Okay." JD got up. "Come on, Sam."
The old dog stayed put with his chin across Vin's legs until the seven-year-old started to get up, then he stretched and groaned, wagging his tail as Vin petted him.
"Vin?" JD whispered loudly, "I don't 'member where the kitchen is."
The older of the two led the way out the door followed closely by the dog and the five-year-old.
Buck found himself smiling again, pleased to see Vin responding more and more. It was likely he would still need counseling for whatever had happened, but he was beginning to participate and that was a step in the right direction.
Looking over at the bunk bed he sighed. Despite JD's assurances, he was pretty sure that a stranger waking Ezra would be frightening to the boy. He sat down on the edge of the bed, barely remembering to duck his head and miss hitting it on the top bunk.
"Ezra," he said calmly. "Time to get up."
Nothing. Not a grumble, not a shift in position. Nothing.
"Ezra?" he repeated a little louder. "Come on, kiddo. Time to rise and shine."
Nothing but a snort interrupting the rhythmic breathing.
Buck cautiously rested his hand on the leg closest to him and gave it a gentle shake.
He shook harder and called to Ezra again.
Buck chuckled. The boy was truly out. He hated to wake him up, but they had a lot to do today. Flipping the blankets back he exposed the tee shirt and sweatpants clad boy to the morning chill.
Ezra curled into a ball seeking warmth, and snuggling tightly to the pillow.
Buck snagged a corner of the pillow and tugged it away smiling slightly as the line of drool from the eight-year-old's sound sleep detached from the pillow, hanging midair for a moment before dropping on the wrist now exposed.
The arm shifted, automatically wiping the mouth, but no eyes opened and after a moment, a deep inhale signaled he was settling back into his slumber.
Buck sucked in an involuntary breath as he was assaulted by an unexpected memory of trying to wake his nephew early one morning. They'd had a long day, working and playing late into the evening, and morning had come too soon for the child. Adam, normally an early riser had to be walked through every step of getting ready.
With a bittersweet smile, Buck rose and gently lifted Ezra under the arms, wrapping his arms around the boy's chest and letting his legs dangle. "Come on, Ezra. Time to get up," he urged.
This elicited a groan from the weary child and arms clawing for the warmth of the bed.
Buck steered him towards the door, letting his feet drag on the floor, hoping at some point they'd kick in and he'd start walking.
Carrying him into the bathroom, he leaned Ezra against the sink and held him in place with one arm while he turned on the water and grabbed a washcloth with the other hand. Having witnessed Ezra's modesty, whatever the cause, Buck thought better of trying to dress the boy. Instead he hoped a cold washcloth would help stimulate him into wakefulness and the eight-year-old could do it himself.
The cold water on his face brought a shudder from the boy and Buck could feel Ezra start to take his own weight. He began to speak low and soothingly hoping to ease the jolt of fear he knew was coming.
With his arm around Ezra's chest, he felt the jerk of sudden tension as the boy became aware that he was vertical and being held by someone.
"Easy," Buck soothed.
Legs stiffened taking their full weight and hands came up quickly to claw at Buck's supporting arm. "Unhand me," Ezra demanded.
Slightly surprised at the verbiage, but not the response, Wilmington calmly replied in the same soothing voice he had used all along, "I'll let go, Pard, just as soon as we're sure you're awake and not going to fall on your face."
He felt a shuddering breath and watched in the mirror as Ezra transformed from scared kid to pretending nothing fazed him.
"I'm awake and I can dress myself," the eight-year-old said firmly.
Buck slowly released his grip. "All right, Pard." He stepped back, still watching Ezra's face in the mirror. "Vin and JD are in the kitchen eating breakfast. You can join them as soon as you're ready and then we'll head into town to get some new clothes."
Ezra seemed to perk a little at the mention of new clothes. He nodded his understanding and Buck slipped out of the bathroom.
Several minutes later Ezra joined them in the kitchen, hair neatly combed and clothing as tidy as possible considering their second day of wear. The boy himself however appeared very tired.
"Good morning, Ezra," said Chris. "We have pancakes and eggs here, or I bet you could talk Buck out of a bowl of his cereal if you want. What's your pleasure?"
Ezra blinked a few times. He was up. He was on his feet, but his mind was still half asleep. He looked at Vin eating pancakes and eggs, and JD eating Cheerios. "May I have eggs and a pancake, please?"
"Hop up to the table there," Chris encouraged. He scooped the last three pancakes and the last egg off the grill and set the plate in the middle of the table. He shut off the stove and tossed the oven mitt and spatula on the counter. Turning to the table, he moved to the chair, noting that Ezra was seated, but wasn't reaching for the food.
He picked up the plate and held it in front of Ezra. "Help yourself," Chris offered. He watched Ezra's eyes search all the plates on the table, pause at the empty plate in front of him and then look back to the plate Chris was holding.
"I already ate," Chris said, sensing the boy's reluctance to take the last egg. When Ezra still didn't move for it, he slid the egg and a pancake onto the boy's plate. "Do you want more than one pancake?"
Ezra quickly shook his head, remembering his training not to be a bother.
"How about you, sport?" he said to Vin. "Do you want another pancake?"
The seven year old took another bite, seemingly oblivious to Chris' question.
"Vin," Ezra scolded. "Mr. Larabee asked you a question."
Vin looked at Ezra.
"Mr. Larabee asked if you want another pancake."
Vin's eyes flicked to Chris. He quickly lowered his head and shook it.
Chris grimaced. He didn't want the kid feeling guilty about a pancake on top of everything else. "Well," he said, "If no one else wants one, I think I'll have another."
He forked a pancake onto his plate and set the serving dish back on the table. He put butter on his pancake and reached for the syrup, noticing that Ezra hadn't started eating yet and had a slightly confused expression on his face, as if he wanted to ask something but didn't want to cause any trouble.
"What's on your mind, Ezra?" he asked carefully.
"He wants a napkin," JD said around a mouthful of Cheerios. "Ezra always gots to have a napkin."
Chris and Buck exchanged glances. Buck shrugged. He stood and tore a paper towel off the roll.
"Sorry about that, Ezra," he said as he placed the paper towel beside the boy's plate, noting his blush. "We ran out last week and I forgot to pick some up. Hope this will do," he added hoping to divert some of the obvious awkwardness. None of these kids needed to be embarrassed about anything that would provide them some sense of normalcy after their whole world had been turned upside down.
"Thank you," Ezra said softly. He was putting the napkin in his lap and was almost past the embarrassing moment when JD decided he needed to finish his explanation.
"It's not 'cause he spills a lot," he said wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "It's 'cause his Mama says gen'lemen always use napkins."
Ezra suddenly found his pancake very interesting. He carefully cut a bite with his fork since he didn't have a knife. He chewed the bite slowly hoping that he wouldn't have to answer any questions if his mouth was full.
"Well, I'm sure she's right," said Buck. "We'll pick some up when we're at the store."
Vin finished his pancake and set his fork on his plate.
"You all finished?" asked Buck. "How about I take the two of you to wash your hands and faces?"
"Okay, Mr. Buck," JD said scrambling off the box on his chair.
Vin looked at Chris.
"Go ahead," encouraged Chris.
Vin quickly scooted off the chair and followed Buck and JD down the hall.
It was quiet in the kitchen except for the sound of forks against plates as the remaining two finished their breakfast.
"Did you sleep all right?" Chris asked.
Ezra swallowed a bite and wiped his mouth with the paper towel.
"No need to call me sir," Chris said. "You guys have had a pretty rough time the past few days. We'll drive into Four Corners today and do a little clothes shopping and Buck will take you to pick up some groceries while I check in at the office. Then I figured we could spend the afternoon here and you can explore the ranch."
Ezra finished his pancake, placed his fork on his plate and folded his paper towel next to the plate.
"Would you like to be excused?" Chris asked, sensing the question coming.
Ezra nodded, "Yes, Sir... I mean, Mr. Larabee."
Chris smiled. "Go ahead. I'll clean this up and we'll head out in about five minutes."
While the morning was just getting started at the Larabee ranch, it had been in progress in the valley below Four Corners for several hours. Josiah and Nathan had made an early start planning to check both of their homes for flood damage. Neither man knew what they'd find, but both expected damage considering the extent of the flood.
Nathan's apartment building had considerable damage to the first floor, which made it uninhabitable. Fortunately, Nathan's apartment was on the second floor so most of his possessions were salvageable. He and Josiah spent forty-five minutes gathering up as much as they could carry in Nathan's Jeep Cherokee. He had to leave the furniture behind, but took a good portion of his clothing and irreplaceable treasures. They'd have to hope that the furniture would still be there when he was allowed back in.
It took nearly an hour to go a few miles to Josiah's house. Downed power lines, trees, standing water or several feet of mud, blocked many of the streets. The closer they got the more both men recognized that Josiah's house was probably a total loss. Water lines were up to the roofs on most of the homes that were still standing. Many hadn't survived the onslaught of water and were mere piles of rubble.
"Maybe upstairs..." Nathan said quietly, voicing the hope that perhaps some of Josiah's belongings had been spared.
Josiah nodded, blinking away the moisture in his eyes at the unbelievable amount of damage to his neighborhood. So many lives devastated.
"Oh," he said softly as he saw his home. The garage was gone. The house itself was still standing, but one wall was completely crumbled, exposing the contents to the weather.
"I'm sorry," said Nathan, not knowing what else to say.
Josiah opened the door of Nathan's vehicle and slowly climbed out.
Jackson followed, offering the support of his friendship.
Sanchez blew out a heavy sigh, fighting his emotions. The lower level of his home was covered with mud. Very little would be salvageable.
He stepped through the empty space that had been his doorway, slipping in the mud.
"Careful," Nathan cautioned.
Josiah carefully picked his way to the staircase. Most things could be replaced, but some were priceless to him. He shoved some pieces of wood away from the shelving under the staircase.
Nathan could hear the muttered, "Please" as Josiah scooped away mud. A grunt and then a huff of pleasure accompanied his efforts as he pulled a clear plastic storage box free from the muck. He turned to Jackson with a bittersweet smile.
"Photo albums," he explained. "I'm glad Raine talked me into the storage containers."
Nathan's girlfriend had been helping Josiah reorganize his house and had made several suggestions, one being uniform plastic storage boxes.
Jackson accepted the box from Josiah as the counselor looked at the stairs.
"Josiah, it's not safe," he warned knowing that his friend had to try to find more.
Sanchez carefully made his way up the exposed staircase using the weather beaten wall for balance. He walked to the bedroom and went inside.
Like Nathan's apartment, the second floor had not suffered water damage from the flood, but in Josiah's case, the rain had damaged it when the wall and part of the roof collapsed, exposing it to the weather.
Josiah pulled a folded garbage bag out of his coat pocket and began to load it with clothing and other salvageable items. His Bible and other books he had left on his bedside table the morning of the flood were soggy, but he put them in another bag. Maybe they could be saved. Everything seemed to slow to a stop as he looked at pieces of his life.
The big man was startled by Nathan's hand on his shoulder. Evidently he'd taken too long, long enough for his friend to worry.
"What can I carry?"
Josiah sighed. "I've got these two bags and a couple of boxes, and then I have my uniforms in the closet."
Nathan nodded and squeezed Josiah's shoulder in support, before taking the two plastic boxes and one of the bags.
Taking one last look around, Sanchez took the uniforms and shirts from his closet and picked up the remaining bag before heading down the stairs to a new phase in his life.
Three boys stood inside the entrance to John's Country Store. One was excited about the prospect of what he would find. One seemed to not care at all about where he was. One was aghast at the limited selection of attire.
"Come on, boys," said Chris. "I want everyone to pick out an outfit you want, and then we'll get the essentials."
JD rushed forward to look at the boys' shirts. "Oh, horses and cowboys!"
Buck chuckled as he followed the youngest. If JD were this excited about horses on a shirt, it would be really interesting when he found the real thing at the ranch. The horses were stabled last night when the boys arrived, and they were out to pasture this morning when they left, but Chris had planned for the boys to tour the ranch this afternoon, which meant they'd meet the horses.
Chris watched Vin and Ezra. The older boy seemed a bit hesitant, but the seven-year-old just stared at the boards on the wall as if he were memorizing every grain. Ezra could probably handle choosing his own clothes, but Vin was going to need help.
"Vin? Let's pick something out for you," Chris suggested.
The seven-year-old looked at him, and then followed him to the shirt rack.
The next hour was spent picking out clothes and trying them on. The clothing selection at John's was very limited and geared specifically toward durable ranch wear. By the time they were finished, each boy had three outfits of jeans and shirts, a heavy duty coat, plus all the basic necessities. JD seemed thrilled with his purchases. Even Vin showed some enthusiasm, clutching his sack of clothes tightly to his chest. Only Ezra seemed subdued as they climbed into the truck.
JD was jabbering as usual as Buck belted him into the safety seat. "That was a really great store, huh, Ezra?"
The older boy sighed.
"They had all kinds of great stuff. Aren't you glad it wasn't Wal*Mart?"
Ezra nodded. He was grateful it wasn't Wal*Mart, but even that was preferable to the hick country store without even a single name brand. He stared at the shoes that Chris had picked out for him. 'Practical' he called them. They were ugly hiking boots. He much preferred the dress shoes he had found in the shelter.
"Okay guys," said Buck as Chris drove them out of the parking lot, "Chris is going to stop by the office and we're going to go get groceries."
They drove only a few blocks in the small town before Chris stopped in front of the sheriff's office. Seeing the sign, Ezra slunk as low as he could in his seat. If Chris and Buck noticed, they didn't draw attention to it.
"How about if Vin stays here with me while you guys shop?" Chris suggested as he opened the door and climbed out. Buck climbed out as well and walked around to the driver's side.
"I doubt he'd be much help shopping," Chris said quietly so just Buck could hear, "and I'm sure he won't be trouble here."
"Yeah," Buck agreed. "Did you get a look at Ezra?"
Chris nodded. "Definitely doesn't want to be here. Seems a little worn out after the clothes shopping."
"I'll try to make it quick at the store," said Buck.
"Stick to the list."
Buck laughed as he took the keys from Chris. Larabee freed Vin from the back seat of the king cab and led him to the office, waving as the truck pulled away.
Chris was pre-occupied with his Sheriff duties in his office, but cast an occasional glance at the seven-year-old peering in to the display case in the lobby. He smiled as Nettie Wells approached the boy knowing if anyone could get a response from him, she could.
"Hello, Vin," said Nettie. "I see you've found our collection of badges."
She smiled as he gave her a slight nod.
"This one," she said pointing to the first in the row of badges, "is from the late 1860's and was worn by my great grandfather."
Vin's eyes flicked over to Nettie and she smiled.
"He was the very first Sheriff of Paso Del Norte. That's what this town was named until the early 1900's and someone decided North Pass was easier. Around 1930 they changed the name to Four Corners when they moved the county borders."
Returning her attention to the badges she continued, "Each badge in this row was worn by a sheriff of Four Corners. This one was my husband's."
Again the eyes drifted to her face, this time filled with sadness.
She put her hand on his shoulder and patted sensing what he was thinking. "I miss him, but all of these boys are my family now," she nodded towards the deputies working in the office. "Even Chris," she added with a wink.
"This row of badges were collected from all around the area, some from Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and a couple from Montana."
The word was so hushed she wasn't certain she had heard it, but Vin was riveted to the badge from the reservation police force.
"Was he a deputy?" she asked.
"On the reservation?"
Vin didn't respond as his thin finger traced the outline of the badge on the protective case. The boy had a fair complexion and didn't appear to have Native American heritage, but it was possible.
"Where's your Grandfather now?" Nettie asked.
Vin abruptly turned away from the case and sat down in a nearby couch. He snatched up a magazine and began looking at the pictures in it.
Nettie sat down next to him. Vin was starting to open up and she wasn't about to let him close down again. And right now, any clue to his past could help them find his family.
"What was his name?"
Vin was quiet for a moment, but then answered, "Gran'father."
"Did you live with him?"
A half nod became a shake of the head.
Chris was now standing in the door of his office watching the quiet interaction. He couldn't hear them, but he could see that Vin was responding to Nettie. He smiled. She had a way with people.
He turned his focus to Josiah as he approached.
"Is she making progress?" he asked.
"It looks like it. I'm sorry about your house. You know you're welcome at the ranch."
"Thanks," Josiah answered. "Nathan told me about the offer. We're planning to head out after our shift is over."
"Good," said Chris. "We're planning to go when Buck gets back from grocery shopping."
Josiah reached for his wallet. "Let me contribute."
"No," said Chris pushing Josiah's wallet away. "We're fine. I'll let you know if we need a little extra."
Josiah nodded. "Do you need us to bring anything for the boys?"
"We took them to get clothes, and we're getting food now."
"Toys?" suggested Josiah.
Chris nodded in agreement. Clothes and food were taken care of, but they hadn't had time to get to anything else.
"Nathan just got the updated list of injured and dead. We're going to recheck the lists." Josiah rolled his shoulders, stretching the stiffness that had seemed to settle in them since the visit to his home. "Did we get the boys' surnames?"
Chris shook his head. "Not yet." He looked over at Vin and Nettie. He was leaning against her and she had an arm around his shoulder.
Chris shook his head as JD burst through the door announcing their return from the store.
"We got you root beer! Hi, Miz Nettie! And Mr. Buck buyed pizza, too."
Buck steered Ezra inside the Sheriff's Office, but allowed the boy to slip to the side and stay near the front door. He didn't know why the police frightened the boy, but he wasn't going to push the issue.
The arrival of the other boys effectively ended Vin's interaction with Nettie. He pulled away from her and took JD by the hand and led him to the display.
"Wow!" said JD. "Ezra, come look!"
The oldest boy scanned the room, noting the positions of the adults. Cautiously he edged over to the display case.
Nettie left the couch and approached Chris and Josiah.
"I'm sorry to hear about your house," she said putting an arm around Josiah.
"I'm alive and I was able to salvage a few things," he replied. "That's more than a lot of folks."
She nodded and gave him a squeeze before turning to Chris. "Any news on the boys' families?"
"Not yet." He nodded toward Vin, "Did he tell you anything?"
"A little," she said. "It looks like going home with you was a good thing. He seems more responsive."
"The badge display caught his attention. He especially keyed in on the badge from the reservation force. He indicated someone he referred to as 'Grandfather' was an officer on the reservation. He might have lived with him for a time."
"Referred to?" asked Chris.
"In Native American culture," said Josiah, "Grandfather is a term of respect. It could be a blood relation, but it's just as likely to be someone he called Grandfather because that is what everyone else called him."
"So someone who may or may not be his grandfather served on a reservation police force somewhere?" Chris confirmed. "Not much help."
"Maybe not yet, but it does tell us a little about him." Nettie rested her hand on his forearm. "We will find where they came from and where they belong."
Chris nodded, and then blew out a sigh.
"Hi, Nettie," said Nathan as he entered the conference area. He leaned over and kissed the top of her head.
She hugged another one of her boys. "I hear you can't go home either."
"No, Ma'am," said Nathan. "There's so much damage to the first floor of the building that it will be quite some time before they'll open it up again."
"Where have you been?" Josiah asked, brushing some hair and dirt off Jackson's sleeve.
"Oh," Nathan replied, plucking at some more hairs. "I was over at the Veterinary Clinic. Raine is swamped. Animal rescue just delivered several loads of homeless animals."
"Any Labradors?" Chris asked. He knew it wasn't likely, but if there was any chance they could find the dog, he was sure it would go a long way towards Vin's healing.
"Probably," Nate answered. "They sent at least a couple dozen big dogs, several horses and a few cows. They knew she had the room and expertise to handle the large animals."
"Could you do us a favor?" Chris asked.
"Sure, Boss," Jackson answered, "Name it."
"If you get a chance, could you have Raine check for a black Lab. He's got a notch out of one ear and white toes on one foot. Wears a purple collar and answers to the name 'Dobie'."
"Okay," said Nathan as he made a few notes.
"It was Vin's dog."
Jackson nodded. He knew the chances were slim, but he hoped he could help bring some happiness to three boys.
"And tell Raine if she needs a place to board some of the horses, I have room at the ranch."
"Thanks, Chris. She'll appreciate the offer."
"Josiah," Larabee said, "Why don't you and Buck take another shot at trying to get a name from JD. And Nettie?"
The retired dispatcher raised an eyebrow in question.
"I'd really appreciate it if you'd try chatting with Ezra." Chris rubbed the back of his neck. "He seems to be scared of police but maybe he'd be more willing to open up to you."
"I'll see what I can do," Nettie agreed.
"And I'll see if I can get Vin to show me the badges," Chris said before moving towards the boys.
"But Ezra says I'm not supposed to say," said JD.
"Why?" asked Buck.
"Because his mama says not to tell the policemen anything."
Buck and Josiah exchanged glances. It sounded like Ezra's mother was in trouble with the law in some way.
Buck took a deep breath. He truly hated to trick the little guy, but knowing his full name would help them find his mother.
"But JD, we're deputies, not policemen," he said.
Josiah frowned at him. It was a deception but it was also technically true.
"Oh, yeah," said JD. "Vin showed me the badges." He liked Mr. Buck and Mr. Josiah. They were nice and they were deputies. And they just wanted to help find his Mama and he really wanted his Mama. She'd been gone a long time.
"Huh?" asked Buck. "You're done?"
JD giggled. "No, silly. That's my other name."
"John Daniel Dunne?" Josiah confirmed.
JD nodded. "Can you find Mama now? I miss her lots and lots."
Buck hugged the sad little boy. They had a name now. He prayed he wouldn't find a match on the deceased list.
"You look nice," said Nettie as she sat next to Ezra.
The eight-year-old rolled his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he let out a long sigh. "Mr. Larabee says they're durable."
"Well, durable is usually a good thing," Nettie replied watching the boy's expressions curiously.
Ezra grimaced. Durable meant long lasting, and he wanted anything but these clothes to last long. He wanted nice clothes. His Mother drilled into him for as long as he could remember that appearances are everything. How could he look nice in farmer clothes?
He sighed again. "I'm very grateful to Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington for purchasing them."
"But you don't like them?" It was more of a statement than a question. She remembered the dress shoes in the shelter, the neatly turned up cuffs on his pants and shirt.
Ezra's eyes widened in momentary panic. As much as he didn't like the clothes, it was much worse to make a fuss and draw unnecessary attention to himself.
"It's all right, Ezra," assured Nettie, "Not everyone has the same taste. And while Carhartts are practical and durable, they aren't exactly fashionable."
"I'm very grateful," Ezra repeated.
"I know you are," she said, draping her arm over his shoulder. "Unfortunately our little town doesn't have much to offer in the way of clothing. But I would bet that Chris and Buck will take you boys into the city when it's safe."
"Is there still lots of water?" Ezra asked, a small shudder running through his body.
"I'm afraid so, but it's starting to go down."
"Will we be able to go home soon?" Ezra asked, looking up at Nettie.
The hope in his eyes begged her to say yes, but she couldn't. At least not yet. "I don't know, son. We don't know where your home is, and don't know if it's in a safe area."
"I have to go home," Ezra said softly. He closed his eyes trying to keep from crying. He had to go home. He had to find his mother's address so he could tell her where he was, that he was okay. He couldn't remember the numbers and letters. It was someplace in Switzerland. The address was in his book back at the Dunne's house.
"Where is home, Sweetie?" Nettie urged.
He was torn. He wanted to go home and find his mother's address, but if he told them where they lived, they would know. They'd find out everything and then maybe he'd never see Vin and JD again and he'd never ever see his Mother.
"I didn't mean to..."
"You didn't mean to what?" Nettie asked quietly as she stroked the side of his face. As during their talk he had edged unconsciously closer to her and now had his head resting on her chest.
"I can't..." His voice cracked. He took a deep breath and wiped his eyes. He couldn't tell her that it was all his fault.
Chris picked up a toy badge and a coloring book about the Sheriff's Department from the front counter. They had a stock of them for when school kids came to tour the office. With Vin's interest in the badges and his perpetual coloring, he figured maybe the trinkets could be another bridge to the boy.
"Hey, Vin," he said as he approached the boy. "I saw you looking at the badges. Thought you might like this," he added as he held out the toy badge.
Chris's heart felt like it skipped a beat when Vin's eyes lit up. The seven-year-old eagerly accepted the badge and fumbled his way through pinning it on his shirt.
Vin held his shirt out so he could see his badge, before letting go and smoothing out the fabric.
"That makes you an honorary deputy," said Chris.
Vin looked at him and smiled. "Thank you," he said softly.
"You're welcome," Chris replied. "So which badge is your favorite?"
Vin's right hand unconsciously moved to his chest touching the badge Chris had just given him, but with his left he pointed to the reservation badge.
"That one's from the reservation force," Larabee said. Careful not to reveal that Nettie had told him about Vin's earlier comments, he added, "Have you ever been to the reservation?"
Vin half-nodded, then shook his head, and then finally shrugged in confusion.
"You're not sure?" said Chris. "Maybe you know someone who wears a badge like this but you're not sure if it was on a reservation."
"Yeah," Vin said in a hushed whisper.
Vin nodded. "Gran'father. He found me when I got lost once."
"That must have been scary," Chris said, watching as the boy again traced the outline of the badge with his finger.
"Were you scared?"
Vin shook his head. "I didn't know I was lost 'til Gran'father told me. He told me to tell Mama sorry."
"Sounds like a good man," said Chris. "Is he still around?" he asked hoping the question wouldn't shut Vin down.
The boy shrugged. "We didn't see him anymore after we went to Aunt Rachel's house."
Vin suddenly closed his eyes tightly and covered his face with his hands. His breathing quickened and it became obvious that he was trying not to cry.
Chris instinctively knelt and pulled the boy into a hug, letting him bury his face on the shoulder of his uniform. "Can you tell me about her?"
Vin shook his head but kept his face buried against Chris's shoulder.
Chris grimaced. He wasn't sure he would have gotten much more information from Vin, but JD's boisterous arrival had removed the opportunity. He could see Buck wince and mouth "Sorry" as he came up behind the boy.
"Mr. Buck says the pizza is ready."
Vin pulled away from Chris and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
"Wow, you gots a Sheriff badge. Can I have one, too?"
"I think we could arrange that," said Buck trying to pull JD's attention away from Vin and Chris. "I've got some over here in the desk."
JD followed Wilmington, chattering happily when he saw the stash of badges and coloring books.
"Vin," Chris said quietly, "Any time that you want to talk just let me know, okay?"
The seven-year-old nodded. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve again but couldn't erase the mixture of fear and distress from his elfin face.
"And I know that Nettie, or Buck or Josiah or Nathan would be just as glad to talk to you," Chris added.
Vin looked over at Nettie and Ezra. The boy was still leaning against her as she smoothed his hair.
"Ezra," Vin said softly.
"He'll be all right," said Chris.
"He thinks it's his fault," Vin added before scooting away from Chris and joining JD and Buck as the five-year-old pinned on his badge.
Chris frowned. What did Ezra think was his fault? He glanced over and saw the eight-year-old pulling away from Nettie and putting on his 'I'm not scared of anything face.'
The kid was terrified.
After finishing the pizza at the office, they had driven back to the ranch and introduced the boys to the animals.
JD's ear-piercing squeal at the discovery of the horses expressed his delight, but Ezra's smile and Vin's quiet gasp were just as telling. The horses were a hit.
Following the introduction to the horses, they walked the perimeter of the lower pasture showing the boys the creek, the woods, and the caves in the rocks. Chris cautioned the boys about each place, that they were not to go there without an adult. They met some of the cows and saw two deer before it was time to head back.
Even at the far fence line of the lower pasture they could see the ranch house. JD challenged Buck to a race back and took off at a five-year-old run. Vin had looked up at Chris and Larabee had nodded his permission, grinning as the seven-year-old raced after them. The blond paused and turned back, waiting for Ezra, who was carefully picking his way through the grass of the pasture trying not to step in anything.
Nettie's quiet but stern words when she took him aside during lunch came back to Chris. He could see it now and realized she was right. The dress shoes. The neatly turned up cuffs. The perfectly combed hair. The constant brushing away of nearly invisible dust or dog hair. Ezra was definitely a city boy but gamely trying to not make waves. Nettie had told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to take Ezra clothes shopping in the city as soon as it was safe. Something a little more fashionable would go a long way in helping the boy feel normal... comfortable... safe. And maybe if he felt safe enough, he'd be able to talk about whatever guilt plagued him.
Chris hadn't even given it a thought when they were clothes shopping. John's was the closest store and the boys needed clothes now. They couldn't have waited until it was safe to go back into the city to go to Wal*Mart.
"How are you doing there, Ezra?" he asked kindly.
"Fine, Sir," the boy answered as he stepped over horse droppings.
Chris waited for him to catch up and then matched his pace to Ezra's.
"Have you ever been on a ranch?" he asked.
He watched Ezra's face as he seemed to calculate what Chris would consider to be the right answer. Before the boy could speak, he added, "A lot of people who live in the city have never been to a ranch."
"No, Sir," Ezra answered unable to hide his relief at being given the acceptable answer.
"You can call me Chris, or Mr. Larabee, or whatever you feel comfortable with, but there's no need to call me sir."
"I'm sorry," Ezra stammered, "I forgot."
"No problem," Chris assured. "I was going to tell you, when the stores open up again, and it's safe to go into the city, we'll take you in and let you pick out your own clothes."
"These are fine," Ezra said too quickly. "I'm very grateful."
Chris smiled sadly at the words as they walked. "I know you're grateful. But if you haven't been on a ranch, I'm sure you're more accustomed to different clothes. We'll take you to the city and let you pick out something you really like."
He glanced over at the boy. "They don't even have to be durable."
Ezra grinned slightly. "Or practical?"
"Or practical," Chris added with a chuckle.
They walked several more yards in silence before Chris spoke again.
"Can I ask you something about Vin?"
"You know we just want to help, right?" Chris asked.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee."
Chris hid his grimace at the formality. It was almost as if Ezra used it to keep a safe distance.
"Did Vin sleep under the bed at home?"
He watched Ezra consider the question and could see from the boy's expression that he had decided it was safe to answer.
"Sometimes?" Chris prodded.
"When he was scared," Ezra explained. "He always said Dobie was scared, and since Dobie couldn't get on the top bunk with him, he got under the bed with Dobie."
"Was he scared often?"
"No," said Ezra with a shake of his head. "Just sometimes."
Chris reached out his hand and offered Ezra help to jump over the small creek. The boy hesitated only briefly before accepting his hand and allowing Chris to lift him over the water.
As they continued walking Chris asked, "Do you know why he's sleeping under the bed now?"
Chris stopped and turned to face the boy.
"I don't know," Ezra replied. "He's scared. But I think maybe he thinks Dobie will come back if he's under the bed."
Chris didn't miss the hitch in Ezra's voice when he mentioned the dog. It was obvious this dog was important to all the boys.
"Ezra, I can't promise anything," Chris said, "but we're checking the animal rescue sites and if Dobie is there, we'll find him."
"Thank you," said Ezra. "That would make Vin very happy."
The eight-year-old started walking towards the house again, while Chris stood watching him for a moment.
Vin wasn't the only boy who would be happy if they found the dog. He shook his head and voiced a silent prayer that they could find the dog as well as JD's mother.
By the time he and Ezra reached the back yard of the ranch house, Vin was on Buck's back as the gregarious man dangled a laughing JD upside down by his ankles. They'd obviously been rolling in the yard from the amount of grass, dirt and leaves that clung to the three of them.
Buck freed JD by setting him on his hands and helping him roll down to the ground. He then spun around a few times with Vin still on his back before pleading with Chris to 'save' him.
Both men smiled at Vin's giggles as Chris lifted him off Buck's back.
Larabee shooed the boys into the house instructing them to leave their shoes in the mudroom, and then to go wash up.
It had been a good afternoon.
"I feel old," Buck groaned.
"You look old, too," Chris said with a grin.
Buck stretched his shoulders and then sighed heavily.
"What?" asked Chris.
"Just thinking about what will happen if we find JD's mama on the deceased list."
Chris closed his eyes. He didn't relish that thought either. They'd have to tell the boys and break their hearts. Crush their hope.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Chris said. "For now we do everything we can to help them feel safe and cared for."
Buck nodded. "My turn to make supper?" he asked.
"Yep," Chris answered. "And no pizza."
Buck laughed as they went inside.