[AnneACK's
 

A Hopeful Future

by


Police Sergeant Chris Larabee slowed from a run to a walk as he came to the elementary school. A quick scan and he found a boy with longish black hair. He had lost his mother a little over a year ago and the discreet word was that his father had started drinking heavily again. Jack Dunne had been one of the town drunks for as long as anyone had known him. When he was drunk his wife and young son had tended to get the worst of it. Everyone was afraid that little JD, a bright and energetic boy of eight, was being abused. JD had already been removed from the home once and was returned after Jack had climbed back on the wagon. Nettie, from social services, had asked that Chris, as an objective set of eyes that saw JD frequently, watch for signs of abuse. His own father having been a town drunk with hard fists, Chris was happy to do so. He had gotten in the habit of planning his five-mile run so that the school was a halfway point.

Usually JD could be found playing off by himself. He had skipped a grade and was considerably smaller than the other fourth grade boys. Today he had a thin, sandy-brown haired boy with him. Whatever they were doing had peaked their interest since JD didn't even look up as Chris passed. It was nice to see that JD was making a friend.

"Hey Sergeant Chris!" JD called out, and pulling the other boy along, sprinted for the fence to see his friend.

Chris smiled at JD's enthusiasm. It had been missing since his mother's sudden death.

"Hi, JD, who's your friend?"

"This is Vin Tanner, he's new. Vin, this is Sergeant Chris, he's a policeman." The dark haired boy introduced the two strangers to one another.

Vin said nothing, but smiled at the man.

Chris smiled back. There was something in the new boy's eyes that caught Chris off balance. He didn't have a word for it, but he was willing to bet that there was a great deal more to Vin than most people ever saw. For one thing, the boy seemed to see right through you while looking directly at you. And he did look directly at you, something Chris had found most children did not do.

"Where are you from, Vin?" He asked, crouching down to get on the level of the children. He had found that he was less frightening to kids this way.

"Lawton," the new boy answered quietly.

"Oklahoma?" Chris asked curiously. The boy had an accent that spoke of Texas or Oklahoma.

Vin nodded.

"Vin lived on a real Indian reservation there!" JD blurted out excitedly.

Chris chuckled at his exuberance, and took a closer look at Vin. The boy certainly looked white, but if he had been living on the reservation, then he was likely at least part Indian.

"I bet this place is a big change, isn't it?" He asked Vin.

Vin bit his lip and nodded.

A whistle blew, calling the students into the building to start the day.

The boys waved at Chris and he waved back as they dashed for the doors.

JD seemed to be doing okay, for today at least, and had apparently taken Vin under his wing to show him the ropes at the school. As far as Chris knew, there were no Indian families living in the area, he would have to see if he could find out more about Vin.
 


The two boys ran with the rest of the youngsters into the schoolroom and found their seats. Miss Hall watched as the children noisily found their places and began to settle down. She smiled as she saw Vin and JD whispering about something. She had thought that the friendly and outgoing JD might make friends with quiet and lost Vin quicker than most.

"Everybody, get out your spelling books," she instructed, starting the day.

"This week we're looking at words that have a vowel team, such as ai, ei, eigh, or ay, that sound like A. Vin, why don't you start us out with the first word?" She asked,

Vin gulped.

One of the girls snickered, Vin blushed, and JD glared at the girl.

"JD, maybe you could help Vin get started."

JD pointed to a word in Vin's speller.

"N-E-I-G-H-B-O-R. Neighbor," Vin read hesitantly and slowly.

"Thank you, Vin," she smiled at him encouragingly.

"J.D. what's next?""

"Ailment A-I-L-M-E-N-T," JD answered effortlessly.

The rest of the words were read out and spelled.

"I want everyone to write a sentence for each of the words," The teacher instructed.

Miss Hall walked between the rows of desks giving help, encouragement, or reprimands as needed.

Hearing whispers, she looked over at the two boys.

"Reign is how long a king or queen rules."

"Thanks," JD grinned and went back to his work.

Vin nodded and returned to his.

Unlike many of her older and more experienced colleagues, she did not automatically frown on talking. If it was done quietly, and involved the lesson, it was allowed.

Wandering their way, she saw that JD was almost done. Vin looked like he had barely begun.

Vin was not slow. The questions he asked, when you could get him to talk, assured her of that. No, he was actually very intelligent. The difficulty was not with his mind, but with getting what was in there, out.

"JD, Vin, I want you to go over to the study table. Vin, you tell JD a sentence and JD will write it for you," she instructed.

The study table was a large table where extra lessons were given as needed. Being a bit more progressive than others, she used peer tutoring. It meant that a bright mind, like J.D.'s, was kept busy and didn't get bored, while a student needing extra help, like Vin, got it.

The pair scurried over to the table.

When lesson time was over, she had sentences from both boys. As expected, with JD writing, Vin's sentences were done almost immediately. Looking at them, she blinked. Vin had a wonderful way with words, now she just had to figure out how to free that, short of having JD turn into his secretary. She smiled slightly, remembering her struggles with learning to read and write English when her family had moved to the US from Germany.

"Vin," she called suddenly and motioned the boy to her desk.

He looked at her, worrying his lip, but obediently approached.

"You're not in trouble. I was just wondering if you used English on the reservation?"

"We ... we used it in the day school. Our reservation had one so I didn't have to go to an Indian boarding school."

She shuddered slightly. As a teacher, she had heard of the boarding schools and their attempts to forcefully `whiten' Indian children who were forced to go there. "You didn't use it outside of school?"

"No," he answered nervously.

"You spoke Comanche, right?"

He bit his lip and nodded. "Depended on who I was talkin' to. Gamma and Papa spoke Comanche and Kiowa. The men helping with the animals spoke Navajo and Spanish."

"Do you speak English at home now?" She asked, gently.

Vin nodded. "Mr. And Mrs. Jenkins took me in and they get mad if I don't talk right."

As she had suspected, English was Vin's second, err, fifth, language. She had not expected that he had evidently learned four languages at once growing up. No, there was nothing wrong with his mind in the least, just a lack of exposure to English.

"There's nothing wrong with speaking your native language, but since nearly everyone else speaks English, you had best learn it. We'll see about arranging for some extra time after school and perhaps we can get you caught up," She smiled at him.

"Thank you," Vin smiled at her shyly.

He returned to his desk and the next lesson began.

Smiling at her class, she had a feeling that Vin and JD were going to be among her bright spots this year.
 


Chris watched as his best friend, police corporal Buck Wilmington, greeted customers on his way to the back corner booth where Chris was waiting . The huge, friendly, outgoing man knew and was friends with almost everyone.

"How's JD doing?" Buck asked, sliding in opposite Chris.

Chris grinned. Buck knew if he had not seen JD that day, that Chris would have. "Looked okay, seems to have made friends with a new kid, Vin Tanner. Know anything about him?"

Buck chewed on his burger thoughtfully.

One advantage of Buck being on intimate terms with almost every single woman in Four Corners was that he tended to hear all the gossip and remembered it.

"Not exactly a new kid, just new to that school. He's Frank Weddell's nephew. Wondered where he ended up," Buck said finally.

Something in the big man's voice caused Chris to raise an eyebrow. Evidently Buck did not like the man, and that was something Chris paid attention to.

"JD said Vin had been living on the reservation in Lawton," Chris added what little he knew.

Buck nodded, "Seems Frank's brother was out there before the war. Met a girl working in the trading post. Apparently she was the result of an army man and one of the reservation women getting a bit too friendly. Anyway, Charlie, Frank's brother, met this half Indian gal that had never been off the reservation and fell for her. Got her in the family way right before he was sent overseas. They decided she would stay with her family and they'd get married when he returned. His family had a fit, and of course he never made it home."

Chris chewed his fry in contemplation. A lot of men had not made it back from the war and Charlie was certainly not the first soldier to leave a girl in the family way and never live long enough to make an honest woman of her.

"Weddell's never had anything to do with her or Vin. The girl and her mother died of a fever when Vin was about five, leaving Vin with just his grandfather. Old man's health failed, so last year he was taken away. As Frank was his only living relative, he got stuck with him. Early this year, the school flagged that Vin was not being properly cared for. Nettie was sent to check it out and found Vin was living alone. Frank had abandoned him. He was put in foster care and that was the last I had heard of him," Buck finished.

Chris took a deep breath. Well, that certainly explained Buck's dislike of the man. He and Buck both had a thing about men who walked out on their families. And to have just abandoned a helpless child like that ....

Hopefully, Nettie had been able to find a good home for him.

"Know who Nettie placed Vin with?" Chris asked.

Buck looked at his friend. Since his wife and son's death, Chris tended to distance himself from people.

"Can't say off the top of my head, want me to see if I can find out?" One of his lady friends would know.

While Chris's brain gave him a long list of reasons that this was none of his business and why he should stay out of it, his head nodded yes. There was something about that lost little boy.
 


Buck flipped on his lights and siren and went after the vehicle that had just shot past his patrol car, weaving all over the road. If that guy wasn't drunk, then the academy textbooks needed to change their list of identifying characteristics of drunk drivers.

The large man took a deep breath as he saw a small mop of dark hair in the back seat. Two months, he'd had custody of his son for two months and already the man was back on the stuff!

Picking up his radio, he called dispatch.

"Dispatch, this is Adam 2 requesting assistance and someone from social services. I have Jack Dunne pulled over and he's got JD with him."

"Adam 2, this is Dispatch, Adam 1 is responding and has an ETA of five minutes. We'll send a call to Nettie Wells immediately. What location?"

Buck thought for a minute, what was out here?

"Wagner's," He responded, naming an all night diner that was about five minutes away.

"Ten-four Adam 2, I'll put in the call and have her meet you there. Dispatch out."

Buck got out as he saw Chris's car pull up in front of Jack's beater. When he had been drinking, Jack was unpredictable at best and dangerous at worst.

Buck approached the car with Chris slightly behind and ready for action should Jack try anything.

Glancing in the car, Buck confirmed that JD was in the back seat biting his lip and watching everything.

"Jack, got reason to think you've been drinking, again. Step out of the car and keep your hands in view," Buck instructed.

Glaring, Jack got out and proved incapable of walking a straight line. Walking, period, was a challenge.

Buck inclined his head to JD, and Chris stepped in, taking over Buck's arrest. Buck was better with kids, so it was best that he handle the boy.
 


Ten minutes later, Buck and JD were seated in Wagner's having burgers, after JD confirmed that Jack hadn't remembered to feed his son dinner that night. From the looks of him, this was not the first meal that JD had missed.

"How are you doing?" Nettie asked, as she gave him a quick hug and pulled a chair up to their table.

JD looked down and shrugged.

"Hard night," Buck said.

Nettie nodded, understanding. JD was a favorite and she had not been happy about his being returned to his father. How anyone could hurt such a loving and giving child was beyond her.

"What's gonna happen to me, now?" JD asked his voice and expression dead.

"You'll be placed in a foster home, again," she answered.

"'Kay," he said, munching the last of his fries.

"Thanks for the burger," JD told Buck while getting up.

"Happy to do it, JD," Buck assured him, swallowing a lump in his throat.

"I'll drop by the station tomorrow for the paperwork," Nettie told him, before putting a comforting arm around the small boy and leading him out.

Buck stared after them and sighed. No boy that young should be so old.
 


Chris took a deep breath as he got out of his car. He just hoped he was right that this was where Vin had gone. He was living with Gail and Harold Jenkins and apparently had collected his few things and snuck out after they had put him to bed. They had looked everywhere they knew, called everyone they thought might know something, and finally had called the police.

The blonde had seen the boy playing in this field with JD, so maybe he had come here.

Shivering slightly in the mid-October night, he played his flashlight back and forth in front of him while calling out. He had become friends with the boy over the last few months, so hopefully Vin would answer.

"Hi, Sergeant Chris," A voice chirped to his right.

Turning to the voice, Chris followed it and found Vin sitting in front of a small fire. Well, if he managed to get it lit it would be a fire.

"Vin, what are you doing out here? The Jenkinses are worried sick," Chris said, closing the distance to the child.

"I didn't mean to put the worry on them, they're nicer than the last family was. I . . . I just didn't want `em in trouble on account of me, so I figured it was best if I left."

Chris tilted his head. "Why would they get in trouble because of you?"

Vin sighed. "Reverend Mosley, he says that God don't like people like me. Says we're an abomination. I didn't want God gettin' mad at the Jenkinses fer bein' nice ta me."

Chris hung his head. He had never liked Mosley and had hauled his boy Rafe in more than once. "Ya talk to the Jenkinses about this?"

"They said if I tried to be good and follow God's laws He would take me. I would've done that, I mean they're nice folks so I try to be good anyway, but they said I had to stop being a heathen and that meant giving up my medicine pouch," Vin explained.

"Chris? You out there?" Buck's familiar voice called.

"Over here, Buck! Vin's fine! Radio in and tell them we'll be five minutes," Chris instructed.

"Right."

Hearing Buck move back towards the cars, he turned to the boy.

"You can't give up your medicine pouch?" Chris asked, turning back to boy.

"It's my grandpa's. I don't have anything else of his," Vin said softly, pulling the bag out and showing it to him.

"It's a nice one, Vin."

The boy gave him one of his soft slow smiles.

Chris sat down next to the youngster. The Jenkinses were good enough people, but when it came to religion they were conservative to a fault.

"If you didn't have the pouch would you feel okay going back?" Chris asked.

"Reckon I could, then, but I ain't giving up all I got of Grandpa!" Vin stated stubbornly.

Chris pulled out a pocketknife he had. "This was my Grandpa's, gave it to me when I was about your age. I know I would sure hate giving it up. I understand that you feel the same way about that. What if I hold on to it for you? Then you can go home and the Jenkinses won't have to be upset by it but you won't have to give it up."

Vin looked up at him in relief. "I'd like that. That'd make just about everyone happy. But won't God get mad at you?"

"I don't think so, and if He does, He and I will work that out between us. Now, let's get you home, where it's warm," Chris said, pulling himself up, while Vin scrambled lightly to his feet.

Vin looked relieved as he handed Chris his medicine pouch, and the man slipped it into his pocket with the pocketknife.

The couple thanked Chris profusely as he handed their young charge over with a stern warning not to go running off again.

Chris settled into his squad car and pulled away. It had been an interesting night. It was too bad the Jenkinses went to Mosley's church. When he and Sarah had moved here they had gone to his church once and they hadn't been able to get out fast enough. Sarah had been raised Catholic, so they visited the Catholic Church and stayed there. Father Josiah Sanchez was still a good friend of Chris's. Josiah would never have told a child he was going to hell for being part Indian!
 


JD hung his head and looked over at Vin. The older boy looked back and tried to smile reassuringly. But there was no denying it, they were in deep trouble this time. Hopefully they would get a chance to explain, and then just maybe they wouldn't get in quite so much trouble.

"Howdy, boys."

JD and Vin looked up in relief at the familiar voice. There was a God and their prayers had been answered. Buck was really nice and would probably even get them some burgers, which was really good, since they were hungry. Being hungry was what had caused this mess.

"Boys."

Sergeant Chris wasn't as nice as Officer Buck, but he was fair and he would listen to them.

Buck nodded his agreement when Chris tilted his head to indicate that he should handle the boys and their statements.

Buck mouthed Al's and Chris agreed. The boys were too thin and might as well get a meal while Buck was getting their side of things and waiting for Mrs. Nettie. Seemed like this was turning into a habit

"Burgers and talking, boys," Buck instructed, leading them out.

Chris took a deep breath and turned to Mrs. Potter, a local widow who ran the store.

"Hi Gloria, can you tell me what happened?" Chris asked.

"I was putting things away when I saw the boys come in. They've always been nice kids so I didn't think anything of turning my back while they were there. But, when I turned and looked in the mirror Vin was putting a bag of crackers in his school bag and JD was doing the same with an apple."

Chris sighed, he had really been hoping this was a misunderstanding or something.

"They're both so thin, I think they must have been hungry. I wasn't going to call but, well, I have to run a store. I hope you won't be too hard on them."

"We'll see what we can do short of prison," Chris said. He liked Gloria and knew she had a soft spot for anyone in need. He also knew that the store made just enough to keep her and her three kids going.

"I got the food back, so no harm was done. And like I said, I don't think they're getting enough to eat."

"Would you be agreeable to letting them work off their debt to society then? As a way of teaching them not to steal?" Chris asked.

"Absolutely," she said, relieved at the suggestion.

"Let me make some calls, connect with some people, and see if we can't work something out."

She pointed to the phone in back and Chris started dialing. Hopefully, when he joined up with Buck and the boys, he would have a solution that would work for everyone and teach the boys about respecting the law. He was also going to call Nettie, the boys were too thin and he agreed that the theft had likely been out of hunger.
 


Buck placed their order and sat across from the two children. Neither one was willing to look him in the face.

"One of you want to tell me why you'd go and do a thing like stealing?" He looked from one to the other.

"We, we're hungry," Vin explained.

"You couldn't have gone home for a snack?" Buck asked.

Their burgers and fries arrived with milkshakes for the boys and coffee for Buck.

By the time the man was half done the boys had both polished off their burgers and were working on his fries, since they had finished theirs. Well, they had said they were hungry.

"So you boys took that food because you were hungry and you couldn't get something to eat at home?" He looked from one to the other.

"The Harrisons' gotta lotta mouths to feed, and with me not being family ..." Vin began.

Buck nodded and munched a fry. He made a mental note that Vin had changed foster homes. . . again. That boy was getting tossed around like a baseball.

"I eat regular, just never seem to git enough so I'm not hungry," Vin hurriedly explained.

"Okay, how about you, short stuff?" Buck focused on JD.

"The Murrys' are okay. But Thomas, that's the oldest, takes my lunch money every day and if I say anything he says I spent it on candy and I gets in trouble. I'm not allowed to take any food without permission and they never say it's okay. Mrs. Murry isn't home when we get there. She leaves one snack for us to eat after school, but Michael, he's the one my age, eats mine."

Buck leaned back as much as he could in the chair. Really wasn't right for the boys to get in trouble for being hungry. But they couldn't have them stealing, either.

"Sergeant Chris has been there a long time, I guess we're really in trouble this time," Vin said quietly.

"Well, stealing's against the law, boys. I understand that you were hungry, and I'm sure Chris understands that, too, and is explaining it to Mrs. Potter. I don't want you two thinking that breaking the law is not a big deal, you understand me?" He looked at the pair.

The both nodded solemnly.

"Glad you boys understand that." Two small heads turned to see Chris standing behind them. He helped Mrs. Nettie into a chair and then seated himself.

"Mrs. Potter thinks you boys stole that food `cause you were hungry. She right?"

Both boys nodded.

"They were telling me the particulars about that, seems that things are a bit tight at the Harrisons' and JD's losing the food fight with the two Murry boys," Buck brought them up to speed.

"Are we going to jail?" JD blurted out.

"No, you're not going to jail. We worked out a deal with Mrs. Potter. She won't press charges if you each do ten hours of work with Father Sanchez. And promise NEVER to steal again," Chris gave both boys a stern look.

"Okay." "I'll do that." Both boys spoke at once, instantly agreeing.

"In the future, if you're being hurt or not taken care of, like not getting enough food, then you need to let one of us know so we can help," Nettie reminded them.

"Then we wouldn't have had to steal and we wouldn't be in trouble," Vin winced.

"Exactly," Buck told him heartily.

Nettie ate a salad and Chris had a burger while the boys chattered, well JD chatted and Vin occasionally added a word or two, all about their upcoming school concert while they each ate a second burger.

"You boys done?" Nettie asked them.

They nodded.

"Then we best be on our way to see your folks," she said.

The boys got up, thanked Buck for their lunch and pulled on jackets too thin for the winter season.

"I'd like to talk to you tomorrow or later this week," Chris told her.

"Figured you would, call me tomorrow morning and we'll set up a time," she told him. Nodding farewell, she led the boys out.

"Think you can do something to help them, stud?" Buck looked at his friend hopefully.

"Don't know, gonna try. I figure I can ask a few questions, see if there's any options."

Buck raised an eyebrow, "You think either of those boys are up for adoption?"

"JD's not, unless Jack signed his parental rights away. Don't know about Vin."

"Ever heard of a single man taking a boy in, or adopting one?" Buck asked, interestedly.

"Not that wasn't family. Doesn't mean it never happens," Chris told him, finishing off his lunch.

"You thinking about taking them if you can? `Cause from where I'm sitting, we may be a couple of bachelors, but we could do a damn sight better than those families they've had," Buck snorted.

"Thinking about it, at least looking into if it's possible," Chris answered, getting up and tossing money on the table before leaving.

Those two boys were being bounced around like pinballs and something was going to give, hopefully it wouldn't be two boys who were just in want of a family.
 


Nettie Wells looked at the man in her office and wished, not for the first time, that the system allowed her to do as she saw fit. He was a good man wanting to help a pair of boys that no one else seemed to want.

"Before Sarah died, she and I qualified as foster parents, I was wondering if by any chance I still qualify?" Chris asked her.

"I wish I could say yes, but the system is strict about couples, not single people, as foster parents. If it were up to me alone I would let you have the boys, but it's not."

"If I can't foster, then I'm assuming adopting would be out of the question," Chris sighed. "Is there anything I can do?"

Nettie shook her head sympathetically. No one else wanted the boys, but she wasn't allowed to give them to the man asking her for them.

"Vin's at least up for adoption, but we can't even find a long term foster family for him, much less an adoptive one. Jack refuses to sign over his parental rights, so JD isn't even up for adoption."

"They seem to go from one bad home to another. Are the foster families you have that bad, or how is it they keep hitting the ones that have no business raising kids?" Chris asked.

"We have a lot more kids than we have families to take them. Some are very good people who just want to help these kids out, and some are very bad. We try to catch the bad ones, but don't always. It doesn't help that JD and Vin are particularly hard to place. We're running out of homes that will touch them."

"Why? They're both good kids," Chris asked.

"They are good kids. JD is very, very intelligent and extremely high energy. Those combined make him demanding and high maintenance. He's a nice sweet boy, but he tends to wear people down. He also tends to let his curiosity get the better of him and then lands in trouble," She explained.

The blonde nodded, he could see that would be true of him.

"In Vin's case, his mixed heritage makes him hard. He looks white so people tend to forget he's part Indian and only moved off the reservation a little less than two years ago. All of his moving around has resulted in a great deal of adjustment issues for him. And he's struggling with school, so he requires extra time and attention from his family."

"So what happens now?" Chris asked.

"Vin is living with the Halversons and JD was put back with his father," Nettie answered.

"What genius did that?" Chris growled.

"Not me! We didn't have any other family for him and Jack convinced the powers that be that he was starting his life over and ready to take responsible care of his child," Nettie told him, the tone leaving no question as to her thoughts on that score.

Thanking her for her time, Chris left. His questions had been answered, just not in the way he had wanted for the boys.
 


On his way home from work, Chris stopped at the church to see Josiah. The large priest was a member of the weekly poker game at his house. The others played for pocket change; Josiah had taken a vow of poverty upon becoming a priest, so he played for time donations. This resulted in the good father helping out his friends quite a bit, which he would have done, poker losses or not.

Entering the sanctuary, Chris smiled. He had hoped he would see the boys. Vin was polishing some silver up front and JD was running everywhere with the dust cloth, occasionally brushing a pew.

"Hey, Sergeant Chris, where do skunks sit when they're in church?" JD asked excitedly.

Chris winced in preparation "Where do they sit?"

"In their own pew." JD cackled.

Chris groaned.

"I been hearing `em all week, brother," Josiah rumbled behind him.

"These look okay?" Vin called.

"Look right nice, thank you," Josiah answered back.

"Just thought I would see how you three were getting on."

"Did you know that Josiah used to be a missionary and he's been all over the world?" JD said excitedly.

"I did know that, he's told me some interesting stories about some of the places he's been," Chris grinned.

"Got me some good helpers this week, thank you," Josiah grinned broadly and ruffled the boy's hair as Vin joined them.

"How are things going with your dad, JD?" Chris asked.

"All right, I guess. He's not drinking, so we're okay," JD shrugged.

"How about you, Vin? You doing okay with the Halversons?"

Vin smiled slowly. "Don't seem to mind me being an Indian. Come here instead of Reverend Mosley's and I like that."

"It's a pleasure having you here, Vin," Josiah assured him.

Chris grinned, his ears were still ringing from the ranting and raving Josiah had done on hearing of Vin's treatment by Mosley. He would not have been surprised to have heard the man had been struck by lightening or swallowed by a pit of hell.

"Then, I would say it's safe for you to take this back," Chris told him, pulling the medicine pouch out of his pocket.

"Yes!" Vin excitedly picked it up and put it back around his neck.

"Cool!" JD stared at it.

"Thank you for keeping it for me," Vin told Chris almost as an after thought.

"I was glad to do it," Chris smiled at the boy. It was good to see Vin excited about something.

Assuring Josiah that he would see him Saturday night and saying goodbye to both boys, Chris headed out. For the moment they were doing okay. It wasn't likely to last, though, and he had to think of some way to keep them safe in the future.
 


Chris washed and chopped vegetables, while his friend Ezra P. Standish, DA, put them in a bowl for poker night munching. Ezra and Nathan both preferred vegetables to chips and nuts. Chris had fed Ezra dinner and the southerner was helping him prepare for the game.

"I've been thinking about Vin and JD," Chris said.

"Yes indeed, a most unfortunate pair," Ezra agreed. Chris and Buck had mentioned them and Ezra had read the file, but as he handled criminal court, there was little, if anything, he could do for them.

"Do you know any way I could get custody of them? I talked to Nettie, adoption and fostering are both out."

"Have you considered applying for guardianship of them?" Ezra inquired, looking over at his host.

"How is that different than fostering?"

"It is more permanent and the requirements are a bit different. While a married couple would be preferred in all cases, I believe that you might be considered eligible should you be able to persuade the court that you have sufficient funds to care for the lads, and you would likely need someone here full time to mind them while you're working. It's costly, but might allow you to take the boys in," Ezra suggested.

"Oh, I think I could handle that," Chris smiled. "Grandparents left me quite a bit when they passed on."

"Then, please, allow me to investigate the possibilities," The southerner smiled, dumping a bag of chips into a bowl and setting it on the table.

Chris nodded and smiled. There was a ray of hope at least. That was more than he had before.
 


Chris yawned and stretched, he had pulled over briefly to fill out some paperwork. From here he could also see the three bars that the police were called to most often. Thankfully, none of his squad were having a problem requiring his attention or backup at the moment.

"Adam 1, please respond to request for officer at Wilson Elementary, repeat Wilson Elementary." The radio crackled.

Chris took a deep breath and acknowledged the call. Normally, one of the regular officers would handle it, but they were short handed, as always. Buck was better with kids, but Chris was closer than he was. Lucky him.

Five minutes later he was pulling up in front of the school and trying not to swear as he saw Nettie Wells' car. If she was here, it was a good bet that either Vin or JD was involved yet again. Likely this would mean yet another foster home for Vin; or JD going back to his dad or to another foster home depending on whose custody he was currently in.

He informed dispatch he was leaving the car, and headed towards the red brick building. The small but formidable force that was Nettie met him half way.

"Hi Nettie, Vin or JD?" He asked.

"Both."

Chris groaned, but that wasn't a big surprise.

"What are we looking at?" Chris stopped and asked Nettie. If he was going to be getting angry, better to do it out here and get a handle on it before going in where he would be dealing with children and parents.

"Vin and JD got into a fight with Jason Fredericks. The Halversons are on their way over to talk to the principle. I doubt if they'll toss Vin out over this. JD has bruises, but those are likely from the fight. He is definitely too thin and not being looked after properly; so we're most likely going to be removing him, again, and placing him in a temporary foster home." Nettie brought him up to speed.

"Could be worse," Chris said, at least this time they would probably not be trying to place both boys in new homes. "Does this mean that Jack is finally going to lose custody of JD completely?"

"That's not my call, if it were, Jack Dunne would have been tarred, feathered and run out of town long ago. Or at the very least JD would never have gone back after the second time we had to remove him. I'll strongly recommend, again, that the court take permanent custody, but I don't have to tell you how hard that can be."

Chris nodded. Sometimes it seemed like a man had to practically kill his child before you could take the child away permanently. It didn't help that the current head of CPS was a strong believer in reconciliation, seemingly at any cost, and the family court judge was of the old school belief that a man's home was his castle and what happened in it was no one's business but his own. More than once Chris had wanted to invade the man's castle and give him a first hand taste of how it felt to be on the receiving end of that belief. How any man could hurt or neglect his own child was beyond Chris, but more and more it seemed like that was an issue he had to deal with.

They turned and entered the school.

"Sergeant Larabee, Mrs. Wells, thanks for coming. Chris, if you could go to the nurse's office, Alice and JD are waiting."

Chris nodded and continued towards the back office where the nurse was stationed. Because JD was in the system and at high risk for abuse, any time there were suspect bruises an officer was called in. Since they were removing the child from his home, there would also need to be official photos showing his condition. He was really hoping that the line between neglect and abuse had not been crossed. The fact that the child in question was JD explained why the call had been passed to him. JD knew him and Buck and would be more at home with one of them. He would thank Millie for giving him the call, later. Or better yet, he would let Buck thank her.

"Nurse Carson," he greeted the woman as he entered the room. The two knew one another, but this was a professional, and therefore, more formal meeting. "Hi JD," he smiled at the boy sitting on the table with his shirt off.

"Hello, Sergeant," Alice returned the greeting.

JD looked up at him. "Hi Sergeant Chris, you're gonna take pictures and ask me questions."

Chris tried not to scream, yell, or punch anything. When you had played this game so often that the kid was telling you the procedure, something was wrong!

"Always knew you were smart, JD, now you're reading my mind," Chris teased.

JD gave him a small attempt at a smile.

Not for the first time, Chris wished that he had Buck's ability to cheer people, especially kids, and make them feel like everything would be fine. But he didn't, so he took his pictures with the camera that was part of his standard equipment. They were right that JD was too thin to be eating regularly and his clothes hadn't been washed. He really hated this job, some days. The only good thing was that the bruises, in his profession opinion, were from the school fight and not his father. That was something.

"Where did these bruises come from JD?" He asked, taking a seat facing the child.

"Fight."

"Who was the fight with?"

"Jason."

"Can you tell me what happened?"

JD bit his lip and looked at the floor.

"I need to know what happened, JD, and I need you to tell me the truth," Chris instructed gently.

"Jason was picking on me and Vin tried to make him stop, he was hurting Vin so I tried to make him stop."

"Okay, thanks, JD. Are we done here?" Chris asked the nurse.

"I think he'll live," Alice said, ruffling JD's longish mop of black hair as he pulled his shirt back on.

Chris nodded his thanks, and guided the small boy out of the room. Vin and Jason were sitting in chairs in the outer office, obviously waiting for their parents, or in Vin's case, foster parents, to show up. Chris tried not to smile, Jason was a large boy for his twelve years and easily made three of JD and two of Vin, yet had certainly come out on the worse end of this tussle from the look of things. Vin had a split lip, some scratches and a few bruises; Jason was holding a wad of tissues over a bloody nose, had a black eye, a split lip and was starting to show numerous bruises of his own.

Before Chris could stop him JD marched up to the oldest of the three combatants and glared at him. "I want it back! It's mine!" he demanded, hands on hips.

Chris raised an eyebrow at the boy. Jason had always tended to pick on the smaller boys, but this was the first he had heard of the bully taking things from them. He heard a door behind him open and assumed the principal was also listening.

"Why would I want anything of yours?" Jason sneered.

Chris shot a hand out to grab Vin before he jumped the other boy. Obviously, whatever had caused the tussle was far from resolved.

"Vin?" The principal asked.

"It's in his pocket," Vin said.

"Jason, empty your pockets," She requested.

The boy pulled something out of a pocket and threw it at JD.

The small boy pounced on what Chris saw was a locket. Probably, it had belonged to his mother who had died a year and a half earlier.

"Vin and JD, I do not want to have to talk to either of you again, no fighting. Understood?" She looked sternly at each of them.

They nodded, "Yes, ma'am," in unison.

"Okay, you two sit down, Jason, step into my office and wait for me," Ms. Johnson directed.

The trio moved sharply to obey, evidence of the fair but strict discipline that she kept in the red brick building.

"Thank you again for coming so quickly, Sergeant."

"I'm glad to help. JD says that the marks are from the fight and that agrees with what I saw. But, I have to agree that his condition indicates a lack of proper care," he told her.

"That was what he told me when I asked him as well, but I needed to confirm it, since Alice was not a hundred percent sure. He's already changed homes so often that I hate to move him, again, but if he's not being taken care of ..." she sighed.

Chris gave a half smile; maybe it was time to take a page from Buck's book. "It's almost lunch period, isn't it?"

The principal looked at him and nodded.

"Would it be okay if I take the boys across to Denton's for a burger?" He asked.

"Sure, if I need them back for any reason before class resumes, I'll call."

He turned to the boys and nodded towards the door. "Burgers and talkin', boys."

They quietly and obediently got up and followed him out. If Buck had been here, JD likely would have bounced out talking a hundred miles a minute about the latest thing he had discovered in school. Vin would have been shyly smiling at Chris and quietly telling him about something he had observed or done. Unfortunately, either because Buck was not here or because almost two years in the foster system was taking a toll on them, they spiritlessly and with no enthusiasm followed him across the street and kitty corner to the local burger place.

They slid into the booth and each ordered a burger. A large order of fries was in the middle for them to share with chocolate milk for each boy and coffee for Chris. Silence descended.

"What have you two been up to?" He asked, looking from one to the other.

Twin shrugs.

"What are you studying in school?" Chris tried again, chewing on a fry.

"Stuff," Vin answered, but then he normally was not a big talker.

The cop looked at the younger boy.

"Civil War and fractions," he said with no interest.

Chris wanted to bash his head against the table. It might at least get something out of the pair.

"That was a pretty locket you have," Chris commented, trying a different approach.

"It's not stupid!" JD glared at him.

"Whoa there, who said it was stupid?" Buck asked him, sliding in next to Chris and motioning Darla to get him the same as Chris had.

The only time Chris had been closer to kissing him was when the large man had literally carried him like a sack of potatoes out of a losing battle in France.

"Jason," Vin said quietly, JD's lip was trembling so he couldn't answer.

"He said boys don't carry sissy things like lockets, so I must be a girl and then he took it," JD sniffed.

Buck bristled. In his lexicon, there was an unwritten rule about messing with someone's mama and he didn't need to be a detective to figure out that was who the piece had belonged to.

Chris smiled as he watched Buck reach into his own pocket.

The dark haired man showed JD a charm bracelet that he had had in his pocket. "Don't recon I'm a lady, but this here's a keepsake of my mama. Carried it though an entire war and still keep it for luck. If carrying that locket keeps your mama close to you, you just go right on carrying it."

Chris ate his burger and once more marveled at Buck's easy way with people. Five minutes and he had JD grinning, something Chris had not pulled off in twenty in spite of his best efforts. The grin might not be full and blinding JD, but it was a lot closer. Now, if something could just be done to bring Vin back, too.

"Oh, Millie couldn't reach you, said to let you know that Ezra needs you in his office at one for a conference with Mrs. Nettie," Buck told him.

Chris smiled slightly and nodded. Ezra had said things were looking promising. If Nettie was going to be there, then it sounded like they were moving along. Just hang on Vin, he thought, one way or another, I promise that help is coming.

Looking over, he saw Vin staring at him, and slowly smiling.
 


Chris gritted his teeth, this had to be one of the most frustrating pursuits he had been on.

"Driver is turning right on Emerson. Repeat right on Emerson," Chris informed dispatch.

"Adam-1, this is Adam-2, proceeding to block Emerson at 9th, repeat blocking at 9th," Buck informed him.

"Copy," Chris signed off continuing his 15 mile an hour chase. As maddening as this was, the last thing in the world he wanted to do was scare the juvenile driver into doing something stupid.

Caught between Buck and Chris, the boys stopped the car and slowly got out.

The officers groaned, JD and Vin. What a surprise.

"BUCK," Chris yelled, as the car started rolling.

The large corporal snatched a boy in each arm and dove. Chris leapt in the car, hit the breaks, put it in park and removed the keys.

The boys stared wide-eyed.

"You two want to tell me what you were doing driving a car?" Chris asked looking from one to the other.

"Mike was making us take the car to his friend Bill or he was gonna' hurt us," Vin explained. JD stood chewing his lip.

Buck clenched his jaw. Mike was the teenaged son of the Nelson's, the family both boys were currently living with. He had been in trouble before, but his parents always managed to get him out of it. Great, now he was forcing the kids to get involved in his dirty tricks.

Chris took a deep breath and let it out. Using the key, he opened the trunk and swore. Drugs. He hated it when drugs were involved. He really hated older kids, in this case a young adult, using younger ones as mules.

"Burgers and talkin' boys," Buck announced to the waiting pair.

Chris nodded his appreciation that the boys were being tended to and called it in.


Looking at the two boys sitting with his partner and oldest friend, Buck, Chris shook his head. Challenging didn't even begin to describe it. The boys had gotten into trouble... again. It had been bound to happen. Vin was a good kid, but was starting to act out against the hard hand life had dealt him and would soon be the problem that he was often accused of being if not taken in hand, and quickly. JD was a good kid as well, but the bright enthusiastic boy was becoming quiet and withdrawn. Chris hated to lose kids, and they were losing this pair fast.

Likely the pair would be in a new home... again. Then he grinned as he thought about the home waiting them. He had talked to Nettie and it had been arranged that if this last placing didn't work out they were going home with him and he would be granted guardianship of them.

Sliding into the booth next to Buck he studied the boys. Neither one would meet his eyes. Both outcasts, they had latched onto one another for the love and protection they should have gotten from adults. Big-hearted Buck looked as lost as they did.

"Nettie's on her way," Chris announced.

The three sighed. They all liked the no-nonsense woman, but if she was coming, they were going to change homes yet again.

"Guess that means I'll have ta go to that group home place," Vin sighed.

JD sniffed, not wanting to cry like a baby, since he was all of eight.

"She tell you what the plan is this time?" Buck asked.

"They're being turned over to the law," Chris informed the group.

Buck winced and the boys' faces dropped.

"When Nettie comes, you two go with her and she'll take you to collect your things." Chris instructed

The boys nodded. They had done this before.

"Then, she'll take you to your new home," he continued.

"Where will that be? Jail?" JD asked.

"No, you'll be living with me," Chris grinned.

Three drooping heads shot up. Buck whooped and hugged Chris, nearly cracking two of his ribs. Seeing the bright eyed smiles, Chris knew that as difficult as the road ahead would be, he had made the right choice. They were NOT going to lose these two, even if it killed him.
 


Buck pulled up in front of the quiet suburban house and walked up to the door. Since Chris was personally involved, they decided it was decided that it was best if Buck handled this arrest. Besides, he had the boys to get settled, so he was off for the last few hours of the shift.

A middle-aged woman answered the door, "Officer Wilmington, we were expecting you. I can't believe those boys stole Mike's car and put you to all the trouble of having to go after them. Mrs. Wells has already come by with the boys and gotten their things."

Buck nodded, he was well aware of that. It was planned that she and the boys would arrive first and then the law would handle the rest when there was no chance of reprisal on the youngsters.

"Yes ma'am, could I see Mike?" Buck asked.

"Certainly, paper work on the charges and such I suppose."

"Something like that," he smiled back.

She motioned him into the house and called upstairs. A tall athletic teenager soon came down and joined them.

"Need to see your ID," Buck told him.

Mike pulled out his wallet, extracted his license and handed it to him.

Buck grinned slightly, "Need your hands behind your back, you're under arrest for possession with intent to sell. Other charges may be brought against you following a full investigation."

The woman glared at Buck, "I'll call Judge Nelson and we'll get this misunderstanding cleared up. My son would not be dealing drugs, Vin must have been involved, that boy is trouble waiting to happen."

Mike smirked, but assumed the position. His parents would have him out in a few hours.

Buck shook his head, "Ma'am, Mike turned eighteen two days ago. Now, while he won't be a legal adult until twenty-one, the legal system in this state treats anyone over eighteen as an adult. He'll be in criminal court facing Judge Travis. I believe his view on drugs is known to just about everyone."

The mother bit her lip, as Buck escorted the handcuffed teen to his car. The real troublemaker was heading to jail and the innocent boys were going to Chris, Buck smiled. Justice was sweet.
 


Vin looked around him at the neat, simple, but totally wonderful bedroom. It was done in a western motif, just like the rest of the house. Considering that they lived in Colorado that was not real surprising. He and JD had bunk beds, but that was fine, since they each got the one they wanted. He was on top because he was taller and could get up and down easier. JD was ecstatic about the bottom bunk, Chris had shown him how to tuck the edge of a blanket under Vin's mattress and drape it down so that the bunk was a cave, almost. Even better was when they had been shown the linen closet were the extra blankets were and been told to help themselves if they got cold at night. They didn't even have to ask! Living with Chris was going to be great!

Since JD was using the bathroom first, Vin was in the bedroom changing into his pajamas. Putting his dirty clothes in the hamper, he looked again at the dresser and smiled. Two of the four drawers were his very own and sitting on top of it were White Cloud, Bat Masterson, The Lone Ranger, and Tonto. They also had each found a bag of marbles and a troop of green army men and a set of cowboys and Indians on their bed.

"I'm done, Vin," JD announced as he came in the room.

Vin went in the bathroom and quickly washed his face and brushed his teeth for the night. He and JD had their very own drawer where their things were kept. He also ran the comb through his hair so it would have fewer tangles in the morning. It was longer than most boys, most of whom had buzz cuts, but Chris had said as long as he kept it neat there was no reason he could not have it long.

Returning to their room, he saw that JD was checking out the books in their bookcase. Vin wasn't a great reader, but at least these were interesting books to have. He had glanced at them while waiting for his turn in the bathroom. Most were about horses and dogs and heroes, so they might be kind of interesting.

"Vin, look we have Robin Hood and King Arthur! And this one about a mute Arab boy and his horse, I read that one, once, it's really good. Cool, we have Ivanhoe!" JD went on excitedly. He loved books, any and all books.

"You boys all ready for bed?" Chris asked from the door.

"Yep." "Ready." Came the simultaneous answers as both boys scrambled into their respective beds.

"Faces and teeth done?"

Double nods.

Vin snuggled luxuriously into the down comforter covered bed. How did Chris know that he got cold easily?

"Good," Chris smiled at them. "Sure is good to have you boys home."

"We really get to stay? Forever and ever?" JD asked excitedly.

"Yep, this is your home until you're all grown up and ready to make your own homes," Chris assured him.

"We're a family," Vin said.

"Yes we are, and you'll get to met the rest of the family on Saturday," Chris reminded them of the small welcome to the family barbeque.

After checking that his charges were settled in for the night, Chris turned to leave.

"Can you leave the door cracked?" JD asked.

"I think I have to since Obi is under your bed," Chris smirked.

JD leaned over and looked. Obsidian, the large black mongrel, stared back at him, wagging his tail in greeting.

"Can he stay?" JD asked, almost vibrating. He loved animals almost as much as he loved books.

"I don't think he'd move unless forced to. But the door will have to at least be cracked so he can get in and out if he needs to," Chris explained. He tried not to think about another boy who had slept in this room once, that the dog had also guarded.

"Thanks, Chris!" JD patted the sleek black head and resituated himself in bed.

Leaving the door open just enough for the dog to push it open when he left, the blond shut off the light. "Good night, Vin; good night, JD."

"Good night," came back in dual harmony.

Peace settled for several minutes.

"Vin, do you really think we can stay?" JD whispered.

"Yeah, Chris said we could, and Chris doesn't lie. At least he never has before," Vin answered quietly. "Besides, he's different than the others."

"Why's he different than them? I knows he's being nice but some of the others were nice at first too," JD responded.

"Chris really wants us here, none of the other families really wanted us."

"And Chris said we were family, none of the others said we were family. We lived with them but we weren't one of them." JD commented.

"Yep. I got me an idea, you know how Chris and Buck have been real good to us and all, well, I was thinking maybe we could do something nice to help them." Vin started.

"What were you thinking we could help them with?" JD asked in an excited whisper.

"Well... he and Buck were talking about a groundhog that was living under the shed and how they had to get it out. I was thinking, and I know how we could get it out for them," Vin responded.

"They've helped us a lot, it'd be nice to help them out," JD agreed.

The idea was a good one and it was sure to work. If they could get rid of the pest, then Chris would let them stay even when he was tired of them.
 



Chris stepped outside. It was Saturday and they were having a little get together with his friends to welcome the boys to the family. He had to get the charcoal going if they were going to be eating any time soon.

He hadn't taken more than two steps towards the shed where the grill and charcoal were kept when there was a resounding boom and the building nearly left its foundation.

Vin and JD stood staring at the building in shocked amazement. The groundhog that was living under it ran up the telephone pole faster than Chris would have thought it could move. The Conklin's cat ran in the opposite direction and headed up the nearest tree.

Obi shot off after the cat and returned when whistled for. He knew better than to ignore his master.

Chris laid a hand on each boy's shoulder and guided them inside. Whatever they had done, it had been truly impressive. Buck, having arrived just as the shed tried to achieve flight, followed them.

"Good Lord," Ezra proclaimed as the group entered the kitchen where he had begun preparing a salad.

"I think them sanctified dead of yours arose from their graves," Nathan said as he and Josiah joined the rest of their family of loners who had banded together.

JD and Vin stared at him.

"Nathan, this is Vin and JD; boys this is my friend, Doctor Jackson," Chris made introductions.

"Since we're all family, you can call me Nathan," the tall slender black man smiled at them.

JD continued to stare, until Vin elbowed him.

"Sorry," JD said looking away.

"It's okay JD, I wouldn't guess you've met too many colored men," Nathan said kindly. Jack Dunne's views on `darkies' as he called them, was well known.

Chris sighed; well, at least JD didn't appear to have anything against minorities, just a lack of exposure. He would talk to him about this, later.

"Boys, I would like an explanation," Chris fixed a green-eyed stare at each of them in turn.

Buck leaned quietly against the wall, the others went silent. The blonde sergeant wasn't the only one who wanted to hear this.

JD bit his lip, this was not going to be good.

Vin took a deep breath, he could trust JD not to tell on him, but he wasn't about to put him in that position.

"There was a groundhog living under the shed," the older boy began.

Chris nodded. "I know, Buck and I were talking about what to do about it."

"Well, you've been really nice to us so JD and I figured we'd take care of it. A boy at school had a Cherry bomb left over from the fourth of July and said we could buy it from him so we did and then we lit it and rolled it down the thing's hole."

Buck tried, and failed, not to laugh. Josiah was shaking from laughter. Even Ezra was laughing, though not with abandoned like the priest. Chris stared in disbelief.

Nathan stepped over and began a quick examination of both boys. Vin, watching him, relaxed, JD stood rigid until the man was done. "They seem to be okay," he told Chris, and went back by Josiah. They would no doubt be getting the safety lecture to end all safety lectures from Chris later.

"We were real careful and ran after we tossed it down and everything," JD took over the tale. "We figured that would get him to move out from under the shed."

Chris finally couldn't help it, he had to smile. "Not to mention practically lifting the shed three feet off the ground and sending the groundhog up the telephone post, and the Conklin's cat up a tree."

In the distance, they could hear the fire truck siren as it came to get the cat down and do whatever they did about wild animals that were stuck up telephone posts.

"You two stay in here with the others while Buck and I get the rescuers sorted out," Chris instructed as the two men headed out.

Whatever else the future held, it was certainly not going to be boring with that pair in the house, Chris chuckled as he headed over to soothe his ruffled neighbor and Buck trotted over to the rescuers to point out the animals and aid with crowd control.

Just the beginning .



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