(Little Ezra - ATF AU)
It was a blustery day, the wind cut through the sharpshooter as he lay against the concrete knee wall. His fingers were beginning to tingle from the cold. Even blinking his eyes, drawing warm lids over his cold eyeballs, reminded him of the rapidly falling temperature.
"You still okay, Eagle?" Chris asked, his voice conveying concern through the headset.
"Affirmative, Leader," Tanner replied. "Any sign of them?"
"That's negative. We'll give it a few more minutes then call it a day," Chris replied.
"Bogey coming in. Three o'clock," Buck announced, causing everyone to go on alert.
In the shadows of the abandoned building, Nathan thought he detected movement, but he dared not take his eyes off of the small storefront they were watching. The small group of Neo-Nazi supporters was supposedly storing weapons in the building. Two cars had pulled up in front of the building and eight or nine darkly clothed people got out. They immediately started unloading duffle bags and boxes from the trunk.
"Confirm. They have one of the marked packages," Vin said, as he tracked the box that Team 2 had planted among the weapons destined for the smelter. The Denver police had asked for the ATF to help after several shipments had gone astray.
"Rolling blockade vehicles," the leader of Team 2 announced.
On cue, both teams, together with their DPD backups, moved in. Josiah's voice, amplified by the bullhorn, delivered the required warning, "ATF, put your hands in the air!" As expected, the men didn't go down without a fight. One managed to get back into a car and tried to escape by ramming the van that blocked the street, sending both vehicles into the side of a building on the corner.
Vin squeezed off a shot, winging the man who was trying to get a bead on Buck and JD. The older man immediately moved to subdue the injured suspect. Another threw down his empty handgun and tried to make a run for it. Josiah stepped out from behind the dumpster, smiling widely, displaying an astonishing number of teeth. The suspect backpedaled, finally falling on his behind and crab-walking away from the graying agent. Chris kicked a gun from the still fingers of the suspect he had knocked out, shaking his stinging knuckles at the same time.
The cleanup was well underway by the time anyone got around to entering the building damaged by the impact of the car and van. Nathan pressed his fingers to the neck of the unconscious driver, his eyes automatically scanning the area for any other threat. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a small patch of pale skin. Turning his head, he called out to the nearest one of his teammates.
"Vin! Over here!"
Turning immediately at his name, Tanner scanned the area for a threat as he jogged over. Nathan was kneeling over something on the ground. "What'cha got?" he asked as he came up behind the medic. One more step brought him to where he could see and he surged closer, grabbing the bricks and tossing them away. Under the rubble was a small boy.
Between the two of them, they managed to get the bricks and drywall off of the child without moving him. The paramedics were climbing through the broken wall, lugging all of their equipment, by the time Vin and Nathan had finished. They stepped back to watch the ambulance crew work on the boy, who had not moved at all.
"How old do you think he is?" Vin asked.
"Can't be more than four or five. I wonder where his parents are?" Nathan replied. Neither of them could bear to leave until the boy was ready for transport.
The cervical collar looked abnormally large on the small body. The paramedics carefully rolled the child, placing him on a backboard and securing him with Velcro straps. They had already immobilized his right leg, suspecting that it was broken in at least one place, and his left arm, which was definitely broken. With an IV running fluids and the oxygen mask secured to his little face, he was lifted onto the stretcher for the ride to the hospital.
Buck guided the last of the men into the back of the police car, closing the door hard enough to make their ears pop. He turned to his young friend and roommate and grinned. "Another one bites the dust!" he said. JD clenched his fist and jerked his elbow back, grinning like a loon. Chris came over with Josiah, a concerned look on his face.
"Where are Nathan and Vin?" the team leader asked.
"They were over there," JD pointed to the wrecked vehicles. "I thought they were helping get the body out of the car." He spotted the other two agents, hanging on the ends of the stretcher, stabilizing it as the paramedics climbed over the rubble. "Hey! That looks like a kid!"
The stretcher slid into the ambulance and the paramedics climbed in beside it. Nathan and Vin closed the doors, thumping on them soundly to let the driver know they were secure.
"What happened? That kid can't be more than five," Chris said.
"He was trapped under the wall when it fell on him," Nathan explained. "He's homeless, from the look of him."
"How does a kid that young get to be homeless without anyone helping?" Buck asked angrily. Any answer the others might have offered was drowned out by the siren.
Back in the office, Vin couldn't get the boy out of his mind. Tossing his report in the basket on Chris' desk, he grabbed his jacket, "I'm gonna head over to the hospital, check on the kid."
"See you tomorrow," Chris said, knowing it was futile to tell the younger man not to get involved. Vin Tanner wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to small, helpless children. Chris figured half of his pay went into food and second-hand clothes for the kids in his building.
It took him a couple of tries to find out what room the boy was in, the nurses were hesitant to tell him anything because he wasn't family. Finally, he spotted a nurse who had done several rotations in the ER and she remembered him. Vin stepped into the hospital room and stared at the small figure apparently asleep in the bed.
The boy's leg was in a cast, elevated by a foam block. His arm was in a Velcro brace, lying on a pillow at his side. When they found him, he had been wearing filthy clothes and hadn't washed much more than his hands and face in a while. Now, he had been scrubbed clean, his hair washed and combed. Vin was troubled to see that his other arm, the one not in the brace, was secured to the bed rail on a short tether. Moving closer, he reached out to cover the small hand with his. Instantly, he felt the boy tense and found himself looking into startlingly green eyes.
"Hey there. My name's Vin, what's yours?" Tanner asked, giving the boy a smile. Instead of an answer, the boy's eyes searched the room. "It's okay, you're in the hospital. Can you tell me your name?" The small hand beneath his clenched into a fist, twisting in the padded restraint while pulling against the straps that held it to the bed. "Hey now, it's all right. Calm down. You're safe," Vin soothed. Just then, the nurse entered the room with the boy's chart.
"What's going on? It's all right. Just settle down," she said gently, reaching out to run her hand over the boy's head. The kid jerked away from her, swinging his braced arm up over his head. She caught his arm, pinning in at his side. All of a sudden, the kid went still, his face devoid of emotion. The nurse eased off of his arm, waiting to see if he would begin struggling again. When he remained still, she spoke to Vin, "Are you a relative?"
"No Ma'am, I was one of the folks who found the little guy," he answered.
"Well, I guess it'll be okay for you to visit with him. I'll be back in a few minutes with his tray," she said as she turned to leave the room.
"Uhh, can I ask why his other hand is tied down?"
The nurse paused, "He tried to remove his IV line."
Once alone with the boy, Vin tried talking to him again, "Okay, you need to leave the IV alone, it's givin' you stuff you need. You know, you never did tell me your name." The boy remained still, as if he hadn't heard anything.
Vin stayed for over an hour, trying to coax the boy into talking or eating, neither of which was particularly successful. When the nurse returned after the tray was taken away, the kid was beginning to show signs of discomfort. She consulted his chart and brought something that went into the IV port. Within minutes, the green eyes drooped heavily. Vin left only after he was soundly asleep.
"And he doesn't talk at all?" JD was asking when Nathan overheard him and Vin in the break room the next morning.
"Not a word. The nurses said that he never made a peep, even when they examined his leg before they put the cast on," Vin replied. "And he jerked away from the nurse like he expected to be beat or something."
"You talking about the kid from yesterday?" Nathan asked.
"Yeah," Vin answered, repeating what he'd told JD. "I'm going over there at lunch."
"Did they ever find his family?" Buck asked, coming in on the tail end of the conversation.
"No. The nurse said Children's Services was sending someone over to see him."
Vin nodded to the nurses as he passed, not seeing their knowing smiles as he headed for the boy's room. Under one arm, he had a medium-sized teddy bear. In his other hand, he had a bag with a coloring book and crayons and some other books. Bouncing along above his head was a balloon, festooned with bright colors and the words 'Get Well Soon.'
The boy was sitting almost upright on the bed and the TV was showing cartoons, but he wasn't looking at the set. Instead, he was staring blankly toward the wall. Vin moved around the bed, putting the things he had brought on the foot of the hospital bed so he could show them to the kid.
"I didn't know what you like, so I got a couple of different books. See, this one has cars and stuff and this one is my favorite, it has horses." Vin flipped through the pages to show off the pictures. "And I got you some books to read. The lady at the store said these are real popular stories for little guys. And I thought you could use someone to talk to when you can't sleep. I can never sleep in the hospital, so I brought this guy along. He's nice and soft. And I'll tie the balloon to the rail right here where you can see it," Vin said as he attached the ribbon to the bed.
Positioning the teddy bear beside the boy's arm, Vin felt the oppressive silence in the room. He had called the nurses station around mid morning and knew that the boy still hadn't made a sound. He also noticed that the arm in the brace was now tethered to the rails. "That just ain't right. How's a little fellow supposed to do anything all tied up like that?" Vin mused, his voice turning slightly angry. "Hey, if you'll leave the tubes alone, I'll see about getting them not to truss you up like a calf at branding," he said. Getting no reaction, he reached out and began to unbuckle the leather restraint. When he looked at the boy's face, he was pleased to see a look of wonder in his eyes. Moving slowly, he brought the table over to the bed and laid the coloring books within reach. His smile widened when the newly freed hand reached for the cover of the book with the horses on it.
Standing across the hall, the woman smiled at how gently the longhaired man handled the fragile child. She had learned from the nurses that the boy was completely passive except for brief periods of struggling to escape. She could easily understand the flight aspect of the situation; the kid was probably scared out of his mind. She couldn't figure out the complete passivity the nurses said he showed once he was restrained. Clearing her throat, she stepped into the room.
"Hello, my name is Teresa Conway. I'm with the Children's Services and I'm going to be seeing to this young man. And you are?" she asked, looking at the blue eyed man expectantly.
"Vin Tanner, Ma'am. I'm one of the folks who found this little guy," he answered. When he looked down at the boy, he was saddened to see the blank, expressionless look had returned. "We were just deciding what picture to color, weren't we?" he said to the kid, trying to draw him out again. "Oh well, I have to get back to work anyway. I'll be back this evening to see you again. Would that be all right with you, little pard?" He waited for an answer. Getting no response, he glanced up at the woman. "It is alright that I come and visit with him, isn't it?"
"Of course, I'm glad you're willing to spend time with him. I can't imagine that lying in bed all by himself all day is very much fun," she answered.
Pulling one of his cards from his wallet, Vin offered it to her, "This here's all my contact information. If he needs anything, just let me know."
She glanced at the card, then back up at Vin. "Thank you, I'll keep that in mind," she said with a smile.
That evening, after work, Vin returned to the hospital. The nurses smiled at him as he passed them, causing him to blush. He found the boy sitting up, staring at the food on his tray. "Not very good, is it?" he said. Startled, the green eyes snapped up and the boy's whole body flinched. "Easy now, I didn't mean to scare you," Vin soothed as he came closer. "So, what'd you do all afternoon? Did you color any of those pictures?" he asked, looking around for the coloring books and crayons. The boy glanced guiltily toward the drawer of the table beside the bed. Vin opened it and pulled out the books and the unopened box of crayons. He studied the green eyes and almost quivering lower lip. "Did the nurse take 'em away from you?" The boy's head dipped ever so slightly, his eyes going to the IV in the back of his hand. Vin remembered that it had been in the bend of his arm earlier in the day. "You pulled the tube out?" The boy's eyes brimmed with tears. Vin lowered the rail on the side of the bed and propped one hip on the mattress. He reached out, intending to cup the round little cheek, but the boy tensed, pulling away from his hand. "I'm not gonna hurt you, pard. I know you gotta be scared, all alone and surrounded by strangers." He saw some of the tension ease and rested his hand lightly on the boy's shoulder.
Before he left, Vin had managed to coax the kid into eating at least part of the food on his tray and they colored a page in one of the books. The nurse came in, checked the boy's vitals and injected pain medication into his IV line. Within fifteen minutes, the blue crayon slipped from the small hand as he drifted off to sleep. Vin put away the crayons and the books, lowering the head of the bed and tucking the blankets in around the sleeping child. Only now, when he was drugged unconscious, could Vin gently stroke the red-brown curls. "See you tomorrow, pard," he murmured into the small ear.
For three days, Vin spent every lunch hour and the better part of every evening at the hospital with the boy. He had asked JD to look into missing persons and the missing and exploited children's websites to try to find out his name. He just couldn't believe that no one had reported losing the adorable little boy. He was also frustrated that the kid didn't speak. The doctors had determined that there was no physical reason for him to be mute. Vin had gotten permission to bring in food in the evening, as long as it wasn't all junk food. The boy seemed to eat that better than the hospital food.
As he sat on the edge of the bed, one of the nurses came in to check on the boy. "You're very good with him," she commented as she checked the IV fluids.
"I just wish he would open up and talk," Vin lamented softly as he stroked the boy's hair.
"You're making progress with him," she remarked. "No, really," she insisted at hearing Vin's snort of disbelief, "Look back there." Vin turned his head to look at the wall. One of the pages from the coloring book had been carefully torn out and taped to the wall. It was one that Vin had colored with the boy. "When I was fixing his IV line, he asked me to tape it up for him."
"He spoke to you?" Vin asked, excitedly.
"No, but he pointed to the roll of tape on my stethoscope, to the picture and to the wall," she explained. "It's the first voluntary communication he's made other than to ring when he has to use the bedpan."
Vin's smile widened as he looked at the picture. The nurse finished what she was doing, then reminded him that visiting hours were over. She let him tuck the boy's blankets in around him, smiling at the softly whispered words of departure.
The next day, the nurse motioned for Vin to come to the desk. She was on the phone and he had to wait for her to finish. "I wanted to tell you the good news!" she said when she finished the call. "We have his first name. It's Ezra," she explained.
"He talked?" Vin asked hopefully.
"No, but he signed one of his pictures. Trudy put it on the wall above his bed this morning," she answered. "It's progress. Oh, and the doctor said that he could go down to the play room in a wheelchair if he wanted."
"Great! I'll see if he does," Vin said, hurrying toward the room. He reached the doorway and stopped, watching as Ezra carefully outlined the cloud on the top of the page. Vin waited until he finished, not wanting to cause him to ruin the picture by startling him. "Hey pard," he said when the crayon lifted from the page. To his immense delight, Ezra smiled at him.
Vin carefully helped Ezra into the wheelchair and pushed him down the hall to the playroom. He immediately sensed that the boy was uncomfortable with all of the other kids around. "How about we just go for a turn around the building?" he suggested. Ezra seemed to almost wilt with relief. Vin took him to the lobby, where they watched the fish in the big tank for a while. He also took him outside in the small garden area. When he returned the boy to his room, Ezra was exhausted. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Teresa called Vin the next day to let him know that Ezra was being moved to a medical foster home in a couple of days. She assured him that he could still visit, he would just have to make his arrangements through the foster parents. Vin thanked her for the information and hung up the phone.
Chris noticed that his friend seemed preoccupied. "Hey, earth calling Vin, come in Vin," he said as he sat on the corner of the desk. Vin looked up at him, startled for a moment. Then Chris caught the sadness in the blue eyes. "What's going on?"
"That was the worker a little while ago. She's putting Ezra into a foster home."
"Oh," Chris said, he knew of Vin's feelings on the foster care system. "You can still visit with him, can't you?"
"Yeah, she said I could."
"Not every foster home is like you remember, Vin," Chris said. Instead of a reply, Vin merely sighed deeply. The team leader saw that Vin had already pulled up all of the information he could find on the new foster parents. "Besides, Ezra has something you didn't have. He has you." Chris rose from the desk, giving Tanner a long stare. Finally, Vin nodded as some of the tension left his lanky frame.
Vin left work early that day. The doctor was putting Ezra in a walking cast. He spent the afternoon helping the boy learn to walk in it. He also had another book he wanted to show Ezra. After the doctor was satisfied that Ezra could manage on the new cast, he left. Vin waited until he was situated on the bed again before pulling the book out of the bag.
"Hey, Ezra, I was thinking, since you can't talk, I got you this. See, it has sign language. It's how deaf people talk to each other." Immediately, Ezra's forehead pulled into a scowl. "I know, you're not deaf but it would still let you talk. See, this means thirsty," Vin demonstrated the sign, taking his index finger and stroking his throat. "And this means water," he held three fingers to his lips. Ezra looked uncertain but reached for the book.
By the time Ezra left the hospital, he was stringing together three and four signs into sentences. The therapist who had been assigned to work with Ezra threw his hands up in despair at not being able to coax the child to tell him anything. The caseworker got only a little farther, getting Ezra to give her his birth date, confirming that he was nearly seven years old. Only for Vin did the child smile and willingly comply.
The foster parents, Millie and Jack Patterson, were friendly enough, to his face, Vin thought. They had a room for Ezra on the first floor of their small ranch house. Millie was certified to home school children through middle school, making her home an ideal place for kids unable to attend school due to health issues. Vin took off work to be with Ezra when he was moved there. The Patterson's told Vin that he was welcome to visit any time as long as he called ahead. They also invited him to stay for supper.
Ezra sat at the table, owl-eyed, as he took in the large room. Mrs. Patterson bustled around, putting bowls and plates on the table. Vin reached over and gave his shoulder a friendly squeeze and Ezra gave him a wan smile. When Mr. Patterson prompted him to fold his hands to pray, Ezra looked scared.
"Now, I'll still come see you every day but I can't come all the way out here at lunch. You be good for the Patterson's, little pard," Vin told Ezra as he prepared to leave. He was unprepared for the boy to throw his arm around Vin's neck and cling to him. Vin ran his hands up and down Ezra's back, waiting for the trembling to stop. "You'll be okay," he assured Ezra.
Everything went fine for the first two weeks. Mrs. Patterson discovered that Ezra was reading well above his grade level and that he already had the basics of math down pat. She struggled with the fact that Ezra didn't speak, since she didn't know any sign language. Vin, on the other hand, signed fluidly and talked to Ezra easily. Mr. Patterson, while not being unfriendly, seemed uncomfortable with the bond between Vin and Ezra.
Shutting his computer down for the day, Vin grabbed his jacket. He had already informed the others that he was going to see Ezra. Mrs. Patterson said he could take the boy out for pizza, since he had been doing so well on his schoolwork. Vin waited for Chris to hang up the phone before speaking, "I'm out of here."
"You two have a good time," Chris said, giving Tanner a smile. "Try not to load the kid up on sugar, all right?" Vin returned the smile before leaving the office.
The car came out of nowhere, striking Vin's Jeep and flipping on its side. Suddenly it was struck by another vehicle that pushed it several feet. Vin opened his eyes, and groaned in pain, as he took in the view of the underside of the big truck. He saw the boots, crunching on the safety glass, as they came closer. "Say hello to my papa when you see him in Hell, bastard," a gravelly voice said. Vin's body clenched as the bullet hit him in the gut … and everything went dark.
Chris moved through the hospital waiting area like an avenging angel dressed in black. Two security guards and four nurses created a human barricade to keep him from entering the treatment room.
"Have a seat and I'll let you know as soon as he's stable," the head nurse said.
"I want to see him. Now!" Chris growled.
"He's not in any condition to have a visitor. The doctors are working to stabilize him and get him ready for surgery," the nurse replied.
"Chris," Nathan said in a tone of warning. They had gotten the call from one of the cops who arrived on the scene of the accident. The officer had told them only that Tanner was being routed to Denver General. The team leader continued to glare at the imposing head nurse for a moment longer before finally taking a step back.
Six hours, a dozen cups of lousy coffee, two sandwiches barely touched and ten miles of pacing later, the surgeon finally came out to talk to Chris. He explained that Vin was out of surgery and in critical condition. The bullet nicked his liver, making for a tricky repair. In addition, he had a serious concussion from the accident.
"I want to see him," Chris said.
"Not until he's moved to ICU. My staff have enough to do without worrying about you. Mr. Tanner will be settled in a room in an hour," the doctor said before walking away.
A half hour's drive away from the hospital, Ezra sat in the same chair where he had been sitting for the past two hours. His green-eyed gaze never left the driveway in front of the house. Mrs. Patterson tried to get him to come in to eat but Ezra ignored her. He wasn't going to move until Vin arrived.
The ICU was set up in sections with four patients to a ward. A bank of monitors at the nurse's desk showed the condition of each patient. The tension level in that wing was almost palpable. Vin was set up in bed three of ward one. The patient who had been in that spot was moved to allow for Vin's teammates to see him without being in the room via the large observation window. Vin was also surrounded by a bevy of machines. He was on a respirator, among other things, and had a chest tube to allow for drainage from the surgical incision. His head was sandbagged to prevent him from moving. Chris took his ten minutes at the side of the bed before making way for Buck. Once at the window, he grilled Nathan for the information the medic had gotten from the nurses.
"He's strong, he has a chance," Nathan said. "There was significant blood loss but they gave him a transfusion before he went to the OR."
"We have to figure out who did this to him," Chris said, his cheek twitching slightly from tension. "I have to call Travis."
Mr. Patterson stopped directly in front of Ezra and waited. The boy leaned to the side, staring past the human obstacle. Jack reached around the end of the drapes and pulled the cord, closing the heavy brocade curtains. "Go out to the kitchen and eat your supper, Ezra," he said firmly. The boy didn't even raise his eyes to indicate that he heard the words. "Now!" Patterson ordered, pointing his finger toward the other room. When Ezra still didn't move, he reached down and grabbed him by the arm not protected by the brace. "I said move!" he hissed as he pulled the boy from the chair and nudged him toward the other room.
Ezra sat at the table, staring at the glint of the overhead light on the end of his fork. Mr. and Mrs. Patterson sat in an uneasy silence with him. Finally, the grandfather clock chimed seven and Jack spoke, "Go and get ready for bed." Ezra slid from the chair without making eye contact.
"Don't you think you're being a little hard on him?" Millie asked when she heard the bedroom door close.
"It's no different than when their parents don't show up for a visit. You can't let him run the house. I knew that hippie would lose interest in the kid after a while. Now we have to deal with his mood swings."
The sun rose, but the five men waiting outside of the ICU never knew it. All of their attention was devoted to their injured friend. They ate a little, slept a little, and prayed a lot as they waited for their turn to enter the cubicle and stare at the unconscious body of their sharpshooter. The nurses assured them that his pain was being kept to a minimum and that his vital signs were showing slight improvement. Around eight in the morning, Orin Travis arrived to see firsthand what kind of shape the young man was in. He also brought the witness statements.
Chris forced himself to leave the hospital at noon. He designated a rotation for the team so that Vin was never alone. Those who weren't sleeping or watching over Tanner were ordered to find the bastard who had tried to kill their teammate. Josiah decided that the first thing he would do was re-interview the main witness.
Olive Wong greeted the imposing man with trepidation. She invited him in and offered him a cup of tea. She dutifully answered his questions about what she had seen. The brown car raced out of the parking lot, striking the Jeep and sending it onto its side. The green truck knocked the Jeep back several feet. A man dressed in painter's pants and a gray hooded sweatshirt had gotten out of the car and walked over to the Jeep. At first, she thought he was going to help the driver of the Jeep, then, she recalled with horror, he had pulled a gun and shot the man instead. She recalled that the car had no license plates, only a temporary sticker in the rear window as it raced away, steam and smoke billowing from under the front end.
Josiah thanked the woman for her time, assuring her that she had been very helpful. He rose, towering over the petite woman, and made his way to the door. As he was about to step off of the porch, Mrs. Wong inquired of the injured man. Josiah told her that he was in critical condition. She promised to light a candle for him at noon mass.
With a sweep of his arm, Ezra sent the books and papers onto the floor. Millie had insisted that he sit at the table and work on his spelling, in spite of the fact that Ezra told her, in his one-handed, abbreviated signs, that he didn't feel good.
"Ezra! You pick those up and get back to work," Millie scolded when she heard the books hit the floor. "If you don't behave, I'll have to ask Mr. Tanner not to come tonight if he calls." Ezra looked up in horror at the thought. Reluctantly, he gathered the books and papers and put them back on the table. He picked up the pencil but never managed to put it to paper. He spent the next two hours staring out the window toward the street.
That evening, Mr. Patterson closed the drapes as soon as he got home. He knew that Ezra hadn't done any of his schoolwork and had only picked at his food that day. After another tense session at the table, he sent Ezra to bed without supper and with the promise that he was grounded for the next three days. Even if he called, Vin would not be allowed to visit. Ezra left the table, charging blindly toward his room, where he slammed the door. Millie, disregarding Jack's order that she stay in her chair, rushed into the room. Her heart ached for the boy, as he lay sprawled across the bed, his body jerking with the strength of his silent sobs. Shaking her head sadly, she drew the door closed.
The wrecked brown car without plates was found abandoned near the city landfill. Forensic teams scoured the vehicle for fingerprints or any clue as to who had been driving it. The car had been stolen from a used car lot the very morning that it hit Vin's Jeep. Buck leaned on his contacts at the police department to get all the information as soon as possible.
Nathan sat beside the bed, watching as the doctor began to wean Vin off of the respirator. He was breathing fairly well on his own but the surgeon wanted to give him more time to heal. The medic watched as Vin's hand moved, groping along sheet. He covered the seeking hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. "You're going to be all right. Just relax," he urged. The doctor nodded, pleased with the result of the test. He adjusted the respirator to allow Vin more control over his breathing and announced that he would repeat the test the next day.
Glancing up from the magazine in his lap, JD saw Vin's hand moving. His fingers moved through the same motions over and over until the younger man covered the hand with his. "I know you don't like that tube but it's helping you breathe. Just try to relax," he soothed. "Chris will be here soon."
After getting a report from the nurses, Chris took up his station next to Vin's bed. He spoke softly, telling Tanner of all he had done to find the man responsible for his condition. When Vin's hand began the repetitive motions, he slid his hand through the bars and clasped it firmly.
It was Josiah who finally recognized the movements for what they were. He was ashamed to admit that they had forgotten all about the small boy Vin was so attached to. Vin had been fingerspelling Ezra's name all day. It was too late to call the Patterson's and let them know what had happened but he made a mental note to do it first thing in the morning.
Ezra didn't bother staring out the window. Vin was gone. Just like his mother, another adult had let him down. His stomach ached, as did his head, from not eating anything for two days. Mr. Patterson was furious with him, coming close, Ezra thought, to hitting him. He hugged the pillow tighter, in spite of the pain in his healing arm. He welcomed the pain, it reminded him not to trust or depend on anyone but himself.
Millie was reluctant to make the call but Jack left her no other choice. Teresa said that she understood their decision but that it would take a week or so to find another placement for Ezra. She couldn't believe that the ATF agent would so completely drop out of the boy's life after working so hard to draw him out of his shell.
After she hung up from talking to Millie Patterson, Teresa pulled the business card from Ezra's file and placed a call to the number printed there. She got voicemail and left an urgent message for Vin to call her back, leaving her work and cell phone numbers. She prayed that there was a logical, reasonable excuse for his actions. There was a very heartbroken little boy feeling abandoned by him.
Josiah searched Vin's desk until he found the paper with the number for the Patterson's. As he reached for the phone to call them, he noticed the message light. After listening to the message, he hurriedly dialed another number.
The mid morning sun warmed his body but nothing could stop the cold that surrounded his heart. Ezra lay on his side, staring at the dust motes that floated in the ray of light, wishing he could just float away with them. He heard the car in the driveway, recognizing that it wasn't the Jeep, whose owner he longed to see, and dismissed it. He heard Mrs. Patterson talking to another woman with a familiar voice. He closed his eyes, tuning out when they came down the hall toward his room.
"Ezra? Do you remember me? Ezra, I need to talk to you. Can you open your eyes for me?" Teresa asked as she sat on the side of the bed. She waited patiently until the green eyes slid open. "Ezra, I know that you're upset that Mr. Tanner hasn't visited and I wanted to tell you why. Can you sit up for me?"
News about Vin? Ezra couldn't decide if he wanted to sit up or not. He knew she would only make excuses for the man, telling him things that weren't true. Sighing, he rolled his shoulder and buried his face in his pillow.
"Ezra? Vin was in a car accident. That's why he hasn't been able to come see you. I got a call from one of his friends this morning. Ezra? I'm sure he wanted to come and see you but he's been badly hurt," Teresa said. She could tell from the way the boy had tensed up that he was listening. "Mr. Sanchez said that they would call you as soon as Vin is awake."
Pushing up from his pillow, Ezra began to sign. "I'm sorry, I don't understand," the worker said. Ezra huffed in frustration, reaching for the small note pad on the nightstand. Struggling to make his writing neat, he wrote down his request. 'Can I go see Vin?'
"Oh, I'm sorry Ezra, he's in intensive care and they won't let kids on that floor. You'll have to wait until he's moved to a regular room, then I'll come and get you as soon as his doctor says it's all right for you to visit."
With tears pooling in his eyes, Ezra pressed his palm flat to his chest and moved it in circles. "That means please," Millie explained. It was one of the few signs she could remember.
"I'm sorry but no. As soon as he's moved to a regular room, I'll take you but not before," Teresa said firmly. "And only if you start eating and doing your school work again."
Chris cursed at himself for not thinking about the boy. Josiah reported that the foster parents were asking for him to be moved because he wasn't eating or cooperating with them anymore. He knew that the news would impact Vin negatively and that made it worse. Josiah offered to go and see Ezra and Chris told him to go as soon as possible. It took him only five minutes to secure permission from Mrs. Patterson and he left the office.
"Ezra? There's someone here to see you. He's a friend of Vin's," Millie said as she opened the bedroom door. In spite of the caseworker's threat that he couldn't go to the hospital if he didn't eat and do his work, he still stayed in bed. "Put on your robe and come to the living room," she said. She had told Josiah that he could only see the boy if he came out of the bedroom. Finally, Ezra pushed the blankets off and sat up on the side of the bed.
"Hello, Ezra," Josiah said, signing at the same time. "It's been a while since I talked to anyone using signs so you'll have to be patient with me." Ezra signed something and Josiah smiled. "I'm sure Miss Conway told you that Vin is in the ICU. That's a special part of the hospital and they don't let children in there, at all," he responded. Ezra looked deflated but he nodded and signed again.
Millie backed into the kitchen, leaving the man and boy to talk. She put together some sandwiches, hoping to coax Ezra into eating. When she returned to the living room, Josiah was talking softly with Ezra, who was listening intently as tears streamed down his face.
'Does it hurt?' Ezra signed.
"They have him on medication for the pain," Josiah assured the worried child.
By the time Josiah left, Ezra had eaten half of a sandwich and fell asleep at the table. Josiah carried the exhausted child back to bed, tucking him in after Millie folded back the blankets. He gave her a card with his contact numbers on it and told her to call him anytime to get an update on Vin. She agreed that she would and saw him to the door.
Vin was weaned off of the respirator the next day and his sedation was slowly reduced. Buck was with him the first time he opened his eyes and groaned as his senses were assaulted by his injuries.
"Have a sip of water. Just a sip, not the whole thing!" Buck exclaimed as Vin tried to tip the cup and get more of the cool, clear ambrosia. "Don't be trying that glare on me, Junior, I'm immune," he said as Vin's eyes burned into him. He relented a moment later, giving the injured man another swallow of water and raising the head of the bed a few inches.
It felt as if someone had buried a meat cleaver in his skull and Vin tensed. Buck was right there, offering his hand to squeeze. When the pain retreated somewhat, Vin opened his eyes. "Ezra?" he asked in a raspy voice.
"He's been right worried about you. The foster parents said he went off his feed when you didn't show up the other night. Josiah went to talk to him though, he said he got the kid to eat," Buck explained.
"Want … see … him," Vin managed, fighting with his stomach to hold on to the small amount of water he'd swallowed, knowing it was gonna hurt like hell if he threw up.
"Not until you're in a regular room, Junior. You want me to call the nurse?"
"Chris?" Vin countered.
"He'll be here in an hour or so. He's been at the office with JD, chasing down leads on the car that hit you."
The nurse asked Vin to rate his pain on a scale of one to ten and he gave it an eleven. She returned a few minutes later with something that she put into the IV port. A couple of minutes later, Vin's eyelids began to droop.
"I think she gave you the good stuff, Vin. You just go back to sleep," Buck urged.
When Vin wakened next, Chris was asleep in the chair at his side. It took only a rasp of his voice to waken the team leader, who immediately offered him another sip of water. Chris allowed him several swallows before he took the cup away. "Lemme guess, anvil chorus or 21 gun salute?"
"Anvils, dropping from airplanes on my head," Vin murmured softly.
"We know who it was that shot you," Chris said. "Do you remember Keeven Wilson? His dad was killed in the bust at the fireworks plant."
"Yeah, I thought that slimy critter was in jail?" Vin said.
"His lawyer got his time reduced. He was released last month."
"What time is it?" Vin asked.
"S'about two in the morning, why?"
"Wanna call Ezra."
"He can't talk, how're you gonna call him?" Chris asked.
"Just wanna let him know I'm okay," Vin said.
"Josiah's taking care of that. You need to rest and get better."
"He's gonna think I dumped him," Vin whispered as he drifted back to sleep.
Ezra waited two days. Millie was taking him back to the doctor to have his arm checked. It was ridiculously easy to slip away from her after pointing to the restroom door. He waited until she went back to the magazine she was reading to dart into the elevator. As soon as the doors opened, he was out, walking down the hall as if he knew exactly where he was going. People rarely questioned children, unless they looked lost.
"Mrs. Patterson?" the nurse called from the doorway.
"He went to the restroom, let me get him," Millie said. She moved to the door and knocked. "Ezra? Come on out, it's your turn to see the doctor," she called through the door. Since it was a unisex bathroom, she opened the door and peered inside. "Ezra?" she called.
By following the signs on the wall, Ezra found the ICU floor. He hoped he would overhear one of the nurses talking and get the room number. He stopped at the water fountain, his ears straining to hear what the women were saying.
"really too bad. They said it was a terrible car accident."
"He didn't have any family?"
"No, just some friends. They claimed the body so he could have a funeral."
The walls seemed to swirl and the floor writhed beneath his feet as Ezra turned to run. He hadn't gone too far when a pair of security guards intercepted him. The shorter guard swept him off of his feet, carrying him toward the elevators at the end of the hall. Ezra's mouth was open in a silent scream as he flailed his feet, striking the wall with his walking cast and sending lightning bolts of pain up the healing bone.
"Is this the one you're looking for?" the guard asked as he stepped out of the elevator.
"Oh, thank heavens! Ezra, I was worried out of my mind! Where did you get off to? Thank you so much, Officer. Thank you for bringing him back!" Millie told them.
"It's no problem, Ma'am. You might want to have them check his leg again; he hit it on the wall a couple of times."
Ezra lay on the examining table staring at the ceiling, willing himself not to cry. The doctor, thinking he was in pain, gave him a shot that sent him into unconsciousness. Mrs. Patterson carried him back to the car and, once home, put him right to bed.
When Vin refused any more pain medication until he was allowed to call Ezra, Chris relented. He dialed the phone and handed the receiver to Tanner. "Hello, Mrs. Patterson, this is Vin. I was wondering if I could talk to Ezra for a minute. He is? Oh. How's he doing? That's good. Yes Ma'am, I'll call again later. Bye."
Chris took the phone and hung it up. "What did she say?"
"He's sleeping. She had to bring him up here today to have his arm checked and they gave him a shot that put him to sleep. I don't know why she didn't bring him up here, it wouldn't have hurt any," Vin said sadly.
"You know kids aren't allowed up here, Vin. You're being moved to a regular room tomorrow. Josiah said that the worker will bring him up here as soon as you're ready."
"I'm ready now!" Vin protested.
"Yeah, that's why you turn green every time they raise the head of your bed," Chris said sarcastically. "Still dropping anvils from airplanes?"
"Shut up," Vin said.
It was the middle of the night when the small boy slipped from the house and disappeared into the shadows. In the pillowslip slung over his shoulder, he carried a change of clothes and the only other things that meant anything to him, two coloring books and a box of crayons.
Ezra kept to the side streets, not wanting to be seen by the police. He had to find another place to stay, somewhere that he could keep watch for his mother. She had promised to meet him in Denver.
Maude Standish was not what anyone would consider to be a 'good mother.' Ezra had heard a relative say that she had no more maternal instinct than a fish that laid eggs and swam away. Ever since he could remember, she had left him in the care of strangers. She had put him on a bus several weeks ago and told him that someone would pick him up at the bus station. He had waited there for two days before the guards and ticket agents began watching him. Then, he had sought shelter nearby where he could still watch, hoping that he would recognize whomever she had sent for him. He was doing alright, with his little suitcase of clothes, until he was forced out of his shelter by the bums. None of the other buildings had running water and he was leery of hanging around the gas station where he washed up every day.
A dog growled and barked, scaring him out of his internal musing. His leg ached fiercely and he was so tired that he just had to sit down. He decided that he could hide out in the mall and crossed the street.
Millie was sobbing when she made the call to the caseworker. She had gone in to waken Ezra and found his bed empty. Some of his clothes were gone but the most damning bit of evidence was the absence of his coloring books, he had run away. She was also worried because he had removed the brace from his arm. Teresa said that she would contact the police and have them start looking.
Josiah hung up the phone and sighed deeply. "What's wrong?" JD asked. "It's Ezra, he's run away," Sanchez answered. He did not want to be the one to have to tell Vin.
As expected, Vin took it hard. He blamed himself for not calling again the night before but he had been asleep. Josiah said that the worker had issued an AMBER alert for the boy and that the police were searching the area around the foster home.
"Why would he run?" JD asked.
"He's scared," Vin answered.
"But he was in a foster home. That has to be better than living on the street. Doesn't it?" JD wondered aloud.
"Depends on whether or not you feel safe. Or if you were waiting for someone," Vin replied. He tried to sit up, wincing at the vicious pain that ripped through his head. "He was hiding out near the bus station. I'll bet he's waiting for someone to get off of a bus."
"Lay down before you fall out of bed," Josiah warned. "I'll call the caseworker and tell her what you said. She didn't have any idea where he might go." He watched as Vin slumped against the bed. There was more going on than the younger man had said. "Don't blame yourself, Vin."
"I let him come to depend on me. I let him down. He won't want anything to do with me after this," Vin lamented.
"When you get done throwing your pity party, consider this; he took the coloring books and crayons when he ran away. That doesn't sound like the act of someone who doesn't want anything to do with you. I'd bet he's just scared and upset. He begged me to bring him to the hospital when I saw him the other day," Josiah said. "You get some rest, Son."
It was warm in the mall. Ezra was relieved not to have to worry about the weather or the availability of water. He managed to squeeze into the security corridor and hide away in a storeroom. He found boxes of vending machine snacks and stole a double handful of the crackers and cheese spread and the crackers with peanut butter. He would have to get some money to buy a deck of cards. If he could set up a three-card Monty game, he could earn enough money to … he didn't know what he'd do with the money but he knew he needed cash. Perhaps he could find out where Vin was buried and send flowers.
The thought of Vin being dead made Ezra's heart ache. He curled up behind the boxes he had pushed away from the wall. Laying his head on the pillowcase of clothing and coloring books and cried himself to sleep.
Every hour that went by without word about Ezra brought Vin that much closer to checking himself out of the hospital. Nathan told him that he was insane and Chris ordered him to stay there, for all the good it was going to do. He kept picturing all of the terrible things that could happen to a kid like Ezra out on the streets. Every time he fell asleep, he woke up drenched in a cold sweat with images of the boy's broken, bloodied body fading in his mind's eye.
"Vin, eat," Chris said, nudging the tray table closer to the bed.
"Ain't hungry," Vin answered.
"You need to eat to keep your strength up."
"You ain't my daddy."
Exhaling slowly as he counted backwards from ten, Chris opened his eyes, "If I was, I'd turn you across my knee and give you the spanking you so desperately need."
"Nathan'd have your head for beating on me," Vin answered petulantly.
"Then he'd be on your ass about eating," Chris countered.
The security guard watched the small boy as he meandered along the corridor with the other people who were browsing the shops. One of the retailers had reported that the child should be in school, not wandering the mall. The kid didn't seem to be trying to hide; he strolled along, looking into the shops as he passed. When he paused for a long time in front of the pretzel store, the guard realized that the kid was probably hungry. He saw the walking cast and wondered at the bundle clutched to the boy's chest. Squaring his shoulders, he approached the distracted child.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" Ezra heard the guard say.
Vin bit back a groan as he threaded his arm into the sleeve of his shirt. The nurse clucked her disapproval as she read him the list of directions and symptoms he need to be concerned about. She handed him a bag with pain meds and antibiotics. He had just finished getting dressed when the angry growl sounded from the doorway.
"What in the name of Sam Hell do you think you're doing?" Chris demanded as he propped his fists on his hips.
"I'm going to look for the kid. I gotta find him," Vin answered.
"How are you planning to get there?"
"I guess I'll take the bus if I can't get any of my friends to take me."
Chris glared at Vin. He was sorely tempted to shake the young sharpshooter. But something in the depths of those blue eyes, glaring back at him so tenaciously, gave him pause. "You know we'd take you right through the gates of Hades if you wanted to go."
"Don't think we have to go as far as that," Vin said. "Let's go."
Vin braced his heels on the floorboard, fighting the waves of pain that threatened to make him vomit. He was sure he could feel the intensity of Chris' gaze when the truck stopped at a light. "There's lots of predators out there who prey on kids. Ezra could get grabbed up by any one of 'em."
"We'll find him, Vin," Chris said as he nudged the gas pedal. The police-band radio played softly in the background, both men seemingly ignoring it. Vin's eyes snapped open as he heard the call go out for a car to pick up a truant child at a mall just blocks from where Ezra had been living in the foster home. Chris didn't even need to be told, he flipped on the blinker and turned the truck in that direction.
Sergeant Kamiski glanced up at the two men as they entered the mall security area. He went back to the bank of monitors on his desk, figuring that the other guard would help them. He didn't see the blond man flip a badge.
"I'd like to take a look at the truant you picked up," Chris said to the paunchy, balding head of security for the mall.
"You the truant officer?" Kamiski asked. The blond looked like he could be a police detective but the other guy looked like he was about to be sick.
"No, I'm an ATF agent and we're looking for a certain little boy who disappeared from a foster home not too far from here," Chris answered.
"He's in the holding area. Punk kid hasn't said a word since they brought him in."
Vin staggered past the desk to the door marked 'Security Holding Area - Do Not Enter.' "Aw hell," he murmured as he opened the door. Ezra sat on the floor in the corner with his arms wrapped around his legs, rocking back and forth. His head was pressed to his knees, so he didn't see the man who shakily knelt at his side. Vin raised a trembling hand and passed it lightly over Ezra's back, stopping him from rocking. "Hey pard," he said softly.
Ezra's head snapped up at the familiar greeting. He saw Vin kneeling beside him and started to uncoil his body. Suddenly, Vin shifted to sit against the wall, his arm curled protectively over his still-healing abdomen. Ezra bounced to his knees, wobbling slightly on the walking cast as he signed anxiously.
"I'm fine," Vin mumbled. "Just tired."
"The kid's deaf?" the guard asked incredulously.
"No, he just can't talk," Chris answered. "Call the station and cancel the request for the truant officer, we'll take him with us."
"I don't know if I can do that. You said he was a runaway."
Chris turned to glare at the security guard until the man's shoulders slumped and he scurried back to his desk. Stepping into the holding area, Chris asked, "You two ready to get out of here?" Ezra looked up, then leaned closer to Vin as he took in the man standing over them.
"Don't let him intimidate ya, pard. His bark's worse than his bite," Vin said as he held out a hand to be helped up from the floor. Chris supported Vin as they walked toward the door leading out of the security office. Suddenly, Ezra stopped and signed something urgently. "He wants his bag. The one you took when you caught him," Vin explained. The guard opened a drawer and pulled out the pillowslip, handing it to Chris, who handed it to Ezra.
Once they reached the truck, Vin gave in to the demands of his body, sinking deeply into the seat and closing his eyes. Chris buckled Ezra into the lap belt in the middle of the bench seat, cautioning him not to jar Vin. Ezra nodded, turning his attention to staring in rapt wonder at the sweaty, semi conscious man he had thought dead.
"Vin, wake up," Chris urged as he gently shook Tanner's knee.
"Wha-? Where are we? Aw hell, Chris," Vin protested, seeing the familiar hospital building.
"You found him, now you need to get back into bed and get well," Chris asserted as he helped Vin down to the sidewalk where a nurse waited with a wheelchair and a knowing grin. He felt a small hand tighten around his fingers and looked down into the anxious green eyes.
"Come on, pard, let me show you what kind of crud they been feeding me. It's worse than that stuff they were putting on your tray," Vin said, getting a smile from Ezra.
Teresa Conway arrived at the hospital and went directly to the room number Josiah had given her. She stopped in the doorway, smiling at the sight that greeted her. In the hospital bed, Vin Tanner lay on his side, curled around the small bundle that Ezra made in front of him. Both of them were sound asleep. Her eyes went to the handsome blond man seated in the corner. He rose, holding one finger against his lips. Once in the hall, he introduced himself.
"I'm Chris Larabee, Vin's boss. You must be Miss Conway, the social worker?"
"That's right. I'm so relieved that you found him. I can't believe he disappeared like that!"
"What happens to him now?" Chris asked pensively.
"Well, the Patterson's have asked that he be moved to another home. I don't have any openings except at the county orphan's home so I guess he'll go there for the time being."
"Damn," Chris said as he looked at the small boy who had so completely captured Vin's heart. "Isn't there some other option?"
"Do you know anyone who is interested in becoming a foster parent?" Teresa asked.
"Can he stay a while? Vin's been really worried about him."
"It'll take a few hours for me to pull the paperwork together."
"I appreciate that," Chris said, smiling at the young woman.
"Try not to lose him," she said in a teasing tone.
Ezra twitched in his sleep, waking Vin. Chris stood up, waiting to see if Vin needed him to move the boy. "Feel better now that you've had a nap?" Chris asked.
"Need to make a pit stop. A little help here?" Vin asked as he turned to his other side and sat up on the bed. Chris helped him to his feet, holding him steady until he could stand on his own. "What'd the worker say when you called her?" Vin asked as he shuffled his feet across the tile floor.
"She said he'll go to the county orphan's home for the time being."
"Damn!" Vin breathed.
"My sentiments exactly. She asked if I knew anyone who wanted to be a foster parent," Chris said as he let Vin into the bathroom by himself.
"You could do it," Vin said.
Chris didn't even respond to what his young friend had said. He stared at the sleeping child. As he watched, Ezra's features seemed to melt, to take on another, achingly familiar shape. Adam had been about that age when he was killed. He couldn't imagine how a parent could just leave a child the way Ezra's parents apparently had.
"You hear me? You could do it," Vin said as he leaned heavily on the bathroom door.
"Vin … I don't think-"
"Just until I get on my feet, then I'll take him."
"You'll take him?" Chris asked, his eyebrows climbing toward the blond locks that had fallen across his forehead. "And live where? In that mouse hole you live in? Do you really want to take a paleface like him into that neighborhood?" Even as the words left his lips, he knew they had hurt Vin's feelings. "I'm sorry, Vin, but that isn't the safest neighborhood for a kid."
Vin stood at the side of his bed, looking down at the slumbering child. He couldn't let him just disappear into the system. Another idea crawled into his mind and he took a mental step back to look at it from all sides. Sinking into the chair Chris had been using, Vin picked up the telephone. "Hey, it's me. I'm fine. Listen, do you still have that trailer on your place? I want to buy it from you. I'm serious! No, my neighbors didn't burn me out. Will you sell it to me?"
Chris could only wait for Vin to finish haggling with whoever he had called.
"Well, you see, I want to be a foster parent. Yeah, that's what I said. No, he's 'bout near seven. Don't know about his folks. Please Nettie," Vin begged.
Suddenly, Chris understood what Vin was doing. Nettie Wells had been instrumental in helping Vin get off the streets and get his high school equivalency certificate. She had a large spread not far from Chris where she was raising her young niece after the death of her brother and his wife.
Ezra awakened and lay listening as Vin tried to coax someone into selling him a trailer. When it appeared that Vin had convinced that person, Ezra smiled, keeping his face buried in the pillow he was lying on.
"Vin, you can't be serious. Do you honestly think they're going to let you keep him?" Chris asked when Tanner hung up the phone.
"You said Teresa asked if you knew anybody else who was interested in fostering."
Ezra was unable to lay still and listen to the two men discussing his future. He curled into a tighter ball, feeling the anxiety building in his stomach. Vin touched his shoulder and he raised his head. Sitting up, Ezra began to sign hesitantly.
"No, the Patterson's aren't angry with you," Vin said. Ezra signed again. "I don't know. It doesn't matter none. I'm gonna tell Teresa that I want to be your foster parent. Hey, why did you run away from their place?" Vin asked. Ezra signed and Vin's eyes showed surprise. "Who told you I was dead?" Ezra signed again, seemingly ashamed of what he was saying.
Chris cleared his throat, feeling very much left out of the one-sided conversation.
"He said Mrs. Patterson brought him here the other day and they wouldn't let him come up to see me so he snuck off. He heard the nurses talking about somebody who had been in a car accident dying and thought it was me," Vin quickly explained.
"Why didn't you ask Mrs. Patterson?" Teresa asked as she stepped into the room. Ezra practically leapt out of the bed, climbing into Vin's lap. Vin closed his eyes as one of the boy's knees came dangerously close to his incision. Ezra signed with one hand, keeping the other one tightly clenched on Vin's shirt collar.
"He said that the doctor gave him a shot and he went to sleep," Vin explained.
"I'm sorry about that Ezra but you mustn't run away when something happens. Now, I managed to convince the Patterson's to take you back. Come along, they're waiting for you," Teresa said, holding out her hand for him to take. Ezra shook his head before burying his face in Vin's shoulder.
"Miss Conway, you said that if someone else wanted, they could be a foster parent and take Ezra. I'd like to be his foster parent," Vin said as he wrapped an arm around the shivering boy.
The caseworker laughed. "Mr. Tanner, I realize that you're attached to Ezra but you can't even take care of yourself right now, much less an active boy prone to running away." Ezra raised his head from Vin's shoulder, scowling at the worker as he signed something. His signs were sharp, one could almost hear the anger in his silent 'voice.'
"He says he won't run away no more. He wants to be with me," Vin translated.
Not wanting to have an argument with the recently injured man, Teresa allowed her shoulders to loosen slightly, relaxing her posture. "Mr. Tanner, if you want to apply as a foster parent, I can't stop you. If you are approved and still want Ezra, I will consider it but right now, you can barely take care of yourself. The Patterson's have agreed to take Ezra back for the here and now and I think that is the best place for him … for now."
"Will you allow one of the guys to bring him up here to visit me everyday?" Vin asked.
"If he does his work and eats his food, I will ask Mrs. Patterson to allow him to visit," Teresa conceded. "But if he doesn't, he can't and that is the way it has to be. Do you understand, Ezra?" The boy nodded, his lip stuck out in a pronounced pout. "All right. Now, we have to go. I have other things I need to do today. Come along, young man." Ezra reluctantly slid from Vin's lap. Vin slipped his arm around the boy, drawing him in close and pressing his cheek to the dark, curly hair.
Vin asked for and was given a shot for pain after Ezra left. Chris was heartened by the request until he heard the sharpshooter's reasoning. 'I gotta get better so I can get out of here and get the trailer ready,' he rasped before giving in to sleep.
"I ain't eating that stuff, it's gross!" Vin protested as he looked at the food on the tray like it was going to spring up and bite him.
"It's good for you!" Nathan replied, thoroughly irritated with the younger man.
"Then you eat it!" Vin yelled, giving the table a shove.
"Vin Tanner! You pick up that spoon and eat that food this instant!" a sharp voice demanded. Startled blue eyes turned on the woman standing in the door. Immediately, he meekly reached out and drew the table back, giving the oatmeal another look.
"Miss Nettie, am I ever glad to see you!" Nathan said with a smile.
Chris watched as the trencher cut deeper into the ground. Josiah's friend had gotten the trailer moved to the new site and now he and Buck were digging to lay the water lines. The electrician would come out the next day to hook up the circuit box. JD was busy cleaning inside of the trailer. It had been hard at first, seeing the furniture moved out of storage. Buck had all of Adam's stuff packed up after Chris threatened to drag it out in the yard and burn it during one of his drunken rages. It had been natural to offer Vin the use of the pieces but it still hurt seeing the headboard Sarah had painted for her little boy. The whole idea to move the trailer had been Nettie's. She wanted Vin and the boy close in case they needed anything. She had already agreed to watch Ezra after school or whenever Vin had to work late and being closer would just make everything easier. It was going to be finished by the time Vin was discharged from the hospital.
Vin had laboriously completed all of the forms for the caseworker. Chris had gotten him a printout of his earnings for the past year, showing that he could afford to take on a child. Nettie had agreed to provide care for Ezra after school or whenever Vin needed to work late. He knew that Casey caught the bus right at the end of the gravel road, not too far from where the trailer was situated. Chris had offered him some of the spare furniture he had in storage, including the pieces that had belonged to Adam. Josiah had taken Ezra home every evening after his visit, sparing Millie the drive back into the city. Vin forced himself to eat everything on his tray when they brought it and took the sleeping pills without complaint. He was a model patient.
Ezra's little tongue protruded from between his lips as he worked on the row of math problems on the paper Millie had given him. He had already written his spelling words three times each. His left hand groped for the bowl of grapes his foster mother had given him for his mid morning snack. Vin had made him promise that he would be a good boy for the Patterson's and Ezra was giving it his all.
Wiping the flour from her hands, Millie smiled at the boy. He was so lively and animated now, eagerly doing everything she and Jack asked of him. Jack had reluctantly admitted that he liked rather than merely tolerated Ezra. She knew that Vin was in the process of applying to become Ezra's foster parent but she found herself hoping that they would find a reason to turn him down. All of their previous foster children had been returned to their parents after a while but they couldn't find Ezra's parents, they didn't even know his last name.
On paper, Vin was approved as a foster parent. When Orin Travis had gotten word that the young sharpshooter was applying, he told Evie. His wife had contacted one of her friends, who pushed the paperwork through as quickly as possible. Even before he was discharged from the hospital, a worker had been out to check out the trailer and found it spotless. The only thing holding him up was the doctor, who wanted to keep him just a few more days to give him a chance to build up his strength.
Finally, the doctor had told Vin that he could go home. His hands fairly flew over the buttons on his shirt as he dressed. Buck and JD helped him to pack up his belongings. He couldn't wait to get out and see the trailer. He knew that the guys had already moved most of his belongings from his apartment and that he would probably have some unpacking to do when he got there. He couldn't wait to see Ezra's face when he saw it.
The Chevy turned on the gravel road and Vin sat up in the seat. "Buck, I want to see the trailer. I can visit with Nettie afterwards!"
"Just sit back and relax, Vin, I know where I'm going," Buck said, grinning into the rearview mirror. He wanted to see Vin's face when he realized that the trailer was only across the road from Nettie's house.
Vin stared, owl-eyed, at the trailer. It sat in the shade of the massive oak trees that dotted the hillside. It looked like it had gotten a fresh coat of paint and had brand new underpinning to insulate it from the wind. A tire swing hung from one of the trees and there was a 'fort' built around the trunk of another tree.
"You did all of this?" Vin asked as he got out of the truck.
"We didn't want you overdoing when you got out so we 'helped' a little," Buck said with a grin. He gasped in surprise at the strength in the hug Vin gave him, thumping him soundly on the back.
"Let's see the inside," JD urged.
There was a porch built on the front of the trailer, big enough for a couple of chairs so Vin could sit outside and watch the sun set in the mountains. Vin's heart clenched at the thought of all the work his friends had put into getting everything ready for him. He didn't know how he'd ever repay them. Opening the door, he caught the scent of fresh paint and cleaning supplies. Tears burned in his eyes as he looked around the living room. All of his furniture was there, set in a comfortable arrangement around the room. He wandered toward the kitchen, staring in awe at the neatly arranged groceries in the pantry. He only glanced into the bathroom long enough to notice the new shower curtain and towels piled on the shelf. Finally, he reached the smaller of the two bedrooms. The door had been stripped and covered with pictures of horses. Ezra's name was done in raised wooden letters. He opened the door and his breath caught in his throat.
"What do you think?" Chris asked, having snuck up behind Vin. The small bedroom was done in shades of warm brown. The spread was a creamy tan and had cowboys with lassos all over it. A small desk sat in the corner; complete with a shelf for Ezra to keep his books close by.
"It's perfect," Vin managed around the lump in his throat.
Vin's own bedroom was set up so that the bed was close to the door. Chris led him over to see the small gun safe built into the closet, which had been reinforced with additional studs to support the weight of the small vault.
Nettie arrived, bringing with her a hot-from-the-oven apple pie and a thermos of coffee. She had barely gotten to set everything down before Vin swept her into a choking embrace. "Thank you," he whispered into her ear.
"You're very welcome, Vin. I always hoped one of my boys would decide to settle here but they all found lives elsewhere. You and your boy are more than welcome to stay here," she said. "Now, let's cut into this pie and see if it's as good as it smells."
Teresa frowned as she stared at the couple seated across the table from her. Millie had called and asked for her to stop by that morning, that there was something they wanted to discuss with her. She suspected that it was about arranging the pre-placement visits for Ezra before he was officially moved to Vin's home, but that wasn't the case at all.
"You want to try to adopt him?" she asked incredulously.
"Yes. We want to keep him. He's been so much better these past two weeks," Millie said.
"And you said that you haven't been able to locate either of his parents," Jack added.
"Have either of you considered that the reason Ezra has been behaving so well is because he's happy about going to live with Mr. Tanner?"
The couple exchanged a glance. "We're willing to allow him to continue to have visits with Vin, of course, but I think the judge would agree that a two parent home is preferable to a single parent home. Don't you agree?" Jack said. "We've already contacted your supervisor and she's looking into the case for us. We are going to protest the move."
It took only a three-minute conversation with her supervisor to confirm that Ezra's move was on hold pending a hearing in family court, a hearing that would not take place for another ten days. Teresa gathered her things and left the Patterson house before she lost the fragile grip she had on her tongue. Now she had to break the news to Vin.
Ezra looked up from where he was playing solitaire on his bedroom floor when Millie came in. He was expecting Teresa. Gathering the cards, he tucked them into the box and moved to take hold of the suitcase he had filled with a portion of his things. The caseworker had explained that he would spend a couple of nights at Vin's and then he would have to come back here for a few days. After doing this for a couple of weeks, he would move there permanently, as long as there were no problems.
"I'm sorry, Ezra, Teresa left. You have to stay here tonight," Millie said. Ezra's mouth dropped open and he signed one word, 'Why?' "Well, it's like this, the judge isn't sure that living with Mr. Tanner is in your best interest so we have to have a hearing." She didn't tell him that the reason the judge wasn't sure was because she and her husband were protesting the placement. Ezra trembled as though fevered before backing up against the wall. He slid down the wall, wrapping his arms around his legs and pressing his face to his knees. "Oh, now, don't go doing that. You can still see Mr. Tanner. Come on, let's get your workbook and go over your spelling words," Millie coaxed. Ezra shuddered. "Alright, I'll let you have a break since you're so upset. But only an hour, then I expect you to get on your lessons," she warned as she left the room.
"Why?" Vin demanded angrily. "I thought it was all arranged! That's why the doctor kept me those extra days in the hospital, so I would be able to take care of him!"
"I'm sorry, Vin. The Patterson's went over my head. My supervisor won't let me move Ezra until a hearing in family court," Teresa said, glancing apologetically at the other five men in the room.
"Can they do that?" Buck asked. "Can they refuse to give him up? I mean … he isn't even theirs."
"They are protesting that they are a more fitting placement for Ezra. The judge has to consider what is in the best interest of the child any time they are to be moved."
"But didn't they ask you to move him? After he ran away, you had to talk them into keeping him until Vin was out of the hospital, didn't you?" JD protested.
"Yes, and the judge will certainly hear about that. Now, the hearing is in ten days, there isn't anything else I can do about it. You need to be patient, I'm sure the judge can be made to see reason," she said.
"What about our visits? Do I still get to see him everyday?" Vin asked.
"Yes, but the Patterson's have convinced my supervisor to have the visits at the family court center. They will be supervised."
"Supervised?" Chris repeated angrily. "What do they think he's going to do, run off with the kid? Can't he even bring him out here, show him his new room?"
"I'm afraid not. Until the hearing, you have one hour visits, supervised, at the family court," Teresa said. "Starting tomorrow."
"I can't even see him today?" Vin asked.
"I'm sorry," she replied. "See you at three."
Teresa left the room filled with shell-shocked men and made her way to the car. She was flushed with the anger she could only barely contain. Sitting behind the wheel, she looked at the trailer and the homey touches surrounding it. Shaking her head, she started the car and left.
Chris shook off his anger and disbelief, reaching for his cell phone. He informed Orin of the situation, hoping that the older man had some strings he could pull at the family court. He explained everything to Travis, moving out to the porch so as not to keep upsetting Vin. The others were busy offering support and assuring him that it was only a temporary delay.
"I'll do what I can, Chris, but family court is bound by federal guidelines. I don't know much about the foster care system. Tell Vin that my prayers are with him and I'll see what I can do," Orin said.
"I appreciate that, Judge, I really do. And I know Vin does, too," Chris said as he ended the call.
Ezra sat in his room, sulking, until Millie came to tell him that he had to get ready to go out. He glared at her before resuming his rocking. She took hold of his arm and lifted him to his feet, sitting him on the foot of the bed. He jerked out of her hands and scowled at her. She pulled clean clothes from the drawers and placed them on the bed beside him. He ignored them.
"Ezra, get dressed, we're going out," she said firmly.
Vin looked up every time the elevator doors opened, sighing each time an unfamiliar face emerged. He had arrived twenty minutes early for his visit, which should have started fifteen minutes ago. The woman at the desk said that Mrs. Patterson hadn't called. Josiah hung back, knowing that any words of comfort would only further irritate Vin. He got up and went to the vending machine for another cup of bitter coffee. Vin called Teresa to tell her that Ezra was late for his visit and she said she would call and find out what was happening.
"He won't get dressed. He's sitting in his room sulking," Millie explained. "I told him that we were going out and he refused to go."
"Did you tell him that he was going to see Vin?" Teresa asked.
"I told him that we were going out, it shouldn't matter where we're going."
"Tell him that he has a visit with Vin and bring him down here," Teresa said, her voice heavily laced with anger. "This kind of stunt certainly won't help your case any."
"Perhaps these visits aren't in his best interest. Maybe they should be delayed until the hearing," Millie suggested.
"If you don't get here with him in the next half hour, I'll drive out there myself and get him," Teresa threatened.
Four o'clock came and still no Ezra. Vin was tired of sitting, tired of pacing and just plain tired. Teresa called to tell him that Mrs. Patterson said Ezra wouldn't get dressed for the visit. He blamed himself; he shouldn't have promised the boy that he could come live with him until it was for sure. The elevator doors opened and Vin didn't even bother to look ... until he heard the heavy, uneven footfalls on the carpeted floor.
"Ezra!" Vin said, going to his knees in front of the chair to catch the boy who tumbled into his arms. "Oh, pard, I was starting to think you weren't coming."
Teresa cautioned Vin not to tell Ezra anything that could be construed as trying to turn the boy against the Patterson's so he was forced to blame it all on the judge and on paperwork. Ezra signed that Millie didn't tell him where they were going and that was why he didn't get dressed. Vin reminded him that he had to be good, even though he was unhappy about the way things were going. Ezra asked how he felt and Vin assured him that he was fine. Then Ezra asked about the trailer.
"Just wait till you see it, pard. You got a room of your own and the guys decorated it with horses. You have a desk and a closet of your own. Oh, Ezra, I can't wait for you to see it," Vin said.
At the end of the visit, Ezra cried and clung to Vin. Josiah helped to pry Ezra's arms from around Vin's waist at the elevator. "I'll see you tomorrow," Vin promised. "Be a good boy." Ezra refused to take Mrs. Patterson's hand, moving to stand in the far corner of the elevator car.
For the next ten days, Vin and Ezra were miserable. Vin felt horrible as he made the boy promise to do whatever the Patterson's told him. Ezra felt angry and hurt that Vin was making him obey the very people who were keeping them apart. Finally, they would get their day in court.
The Patterson's brought an attorney, something that surprised Vin. After all of the formalities, the caseworker and the lawyers began to make their cases. The Patterson's were presented as a happily married couple. Ezra would have a stay-at-home mother and a father. They also reported that the visits with Vin appeared to be making the situation worse, making Ezra more sullen and uncooperative. Teresa presented Vin as being the person Ezra trusted, the one he opened up to. She explained the lengths the ATF agent had gone to in preparation for taking custody of Ezra. Finally, the judge asked to speak to the child in his chambers.
"Your Honor, Ezra doesn't speak, he hasn't since he came into care," Teresa explained.
"How does he communicate then?" the judge countered.
"He uses sign language. Vin got him some books," she answered.
"Is there anyone here who can interpret for him?"
"I can, Your Honor," Vin said. Immediately, the Patterson's lawyer rose to object. "Then how about Josiah? Josiah Sanchez, he's my coworker, he can interpret for Ezra." The lawyer objected to allowing Josiah because he was a friend of Vin's. Finally, the court clerk reported that one of the guards had a deaf brother and could interpret for Ezra.
Judge Carmichael smiled at the forlorn little boy who sat in the overstuffed chair across from his desk. He could see the dark smudges beneath his eyes that spoke of too many nights of not enough sleep. Teresa and Ezra's court-appointed guardian sat in chairs along the wall. The guard came in and Ezra shrank from him slightly.
In the courtroom, Vin's knee bounced nervously. Chris and Josiah had accompanied him to the hearing for moral support. He hadn't even been allowed to see Ezra before the hearing. He tried really hard not to glare at the couple that sat at the other table. In all of his years in foster care, none of his foster parents had ever fought to keep him in their home.
The guard had no trouble translating Ezra's signs for the judge. Both men were impressed with the fact that Ezra was barely controlling his anger. When the judge asked if Ezra had anything he wanted to say, he was surprised that the boy got out of the chair and moved to stand closer to the judge as he signed his response.
Vin swallowed nervously as the judge returned to the courtroom. The man's face was a mask, giving away no hint of how he would decide. He was worried when Teresa didn't come back into the room, afraid that she was struggling with Ezra beyond the heavy, soundproof door.
"In the matter of the minor child Ezra Smith, (the last name the caseworker had given him) I am swayed by all of the arguments presented before me today. Mr. and Mrs. Patterson have a lovely home and can offer the child both a mother and a father. Mr. Tanner would be a single parent. While it is the consensus of the professionals and child psychologists that a child does better in a home with both a mother and a father, the proliferation of single parents raising bright, successful children does seem to bear consideration. But the most telling bit of information in this case came from the child himself. Ezra was most definite in his desire to live with Mr. Tanner. It is, therefore, the order of this court that the child be turned over to Mr. Tanner, immediately," Judge Carmichael said. Instantly, the door to the judge's chambers opened and Ezra rushed across the room, meeting Vin as he hurried around the end of the table, falling to his knees to catch the boy.
Chris smiled as he looked at his passengers. Vin was sitting in his seat with Ezra lying practically in his lap. Tanner was gently carding his fingers through Ezra's curly hair, sighing every so often in satisfaction. Josiah had gone with Teresa to pack up Ezra's clothes and things from the Patterson's and would bring them to the trailer. The rest of the team was already there, along with Nettie, preparing a celebration feast. He stopped the truck at the end of the drive, causing Vin to glance up curiously.
"Hey pard, look out there," he pointed, "We're home." Ezra scrubbed at his eyes, he had fallen asleep on the drive. He smiled at the banner slung between the trees. Bringing his thumb to his fingertips, he touched them to his cheek, first near his chin, then close to his ear. "That's right, pard," Vin said, his voice thick with emotion, "Home."
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