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Notes: This story mentions possible sexual abuse. This features Ezra, Vin and Chris and is set in a new AU.
Thanks to Romanse and Susan for their beta work especially since both were hindered by illness one way or another.
It had started raining during the night and now, in the early light of the next morning, it seemed to be getting worse if anything. The raindrops splashed onto the road in front of Vin's bike as he rode along carefully, not wanting to aquaplane on the standing water. The twenty-six-year-old private investigator wiped a careful hand over his visor to try and improve his vision. Needs a windshield wiper on the damned thing, he thought wryly. His jeep, as usual, had let him down and he'd been forced to take the two-wheeled option out to his best friend Chris' ranch to see to his own horse. Despite the conditions, he was looking forward to exercising Peso. Maybe now would be a good time to suggest that Chris build an indoor arena to cater to riding in such weather, he thought wryly.
Vin's headlight lit the road ahead and he finally saw the track off to the left that led to Chris' sprawling ranch. He checked that there was no other traffic nearby, and then turned onto it. A frown creased his brow and he brought the bike to a halt about fifty yards in. He looked back over his shoulder, his blue eyes trying to pierce the gloom, but he could not track down what had caught his eye. He dismounted and raised his visor as he wandered back the short distance to the road. The long-haired man turned back and studied the undergrowth intently. Just above the sound of the pounding rain he heard a slight whimper.
"Hello?" he called as he took a step forward. "Is there anyone there?"
He heard a rustling sound in a bush just to his right so he took another step toward the sound. Vin came to an abrupt halt though when his gaze settled on the young child who was cowering under a branch.
"Hey there, Li'l 'un. What are you doing out in this weather? You live near here?" Vin asked as he crouched down carefully. The child was obviously terrified and Vin didn't want to add to his fears.
He received no answer and the boy tried to curl up even more as if to get away from him. Vin caught the glimmer of brilliant green eyes before the head bowed and another whimper escaped the boy's lips.
Vin chewed his lower lip as he studied the trembling youngster anxiously. He could see that his t-shirt was torn and there seemed to be blood on his back, chest and arms. What the hell's happened to you, pard? he wondered. He reached out a hand to try and get a better look, but the boy yelped and shuffled backwards hastily.
"It's all right, Button," Vin said, using the affectionate name for 'kid' he'd heard so many times in Western films. "I'm not going to hurt you. Looks like you got a few scrapes already. Will you let me see how bad they are?" he asked as he removed his helmet, belatedly realizing it probably wasn't helping the situation.
The boy shook his head, 'no', his wet hair sending a spray of water to either side with the movement. He shuffled further back from Vin, trying to put some more space between them. As he moved, Vin scowled when he saw that the child was just skin and bones beneath his clothes.
"Can you tell me your name?" Vin continued gently. "I'm Vin Tanner."
Two green eyes shot a surreptitious look at him but no words issued in answer to the question. From the little Vin had seen of the child's face he appeared to be a good-looking boy, the visage only ruined a little by a bleeding cut on his chin. That's where the blood on the front of his t-shirt has come from then, Vin thought.
The P.I. sighed, unsure what to do next. He needed to get the kid some help but as he seemed reluctant to be touched that might prove difficult. Vin stood and retrieved his cell from his jacket pocket.
He smiled and said gently, "I'm just gonna call a good friend of mine. He owns the ranch just up the track here. His name's Chris and we're both gonna get you some help."
Vin took a couple of steps away but kept a beady eye on the child in case he suddenly became mobile and decided to make a run for it.
His call was answered within a couple of rings. "Hey, cowboy," he greeted. "Can you come out to where your track meets the road?"
"Sure. What's up?" the forty-year-old rancher answered curiously. "No, let me guess. Your jeep's broken down again," he laughed in amusement.
"I'm on the bike." Vin hesitated. "Look, bud, I found a kid out here in the bushes. He won't talk to me and although he's hurt he won't let me touch him either. He's real young and skinny, pard."
Chris' good humor disappeared instantly. "Okay, I'll bring the Ram and then get Nate out to look at him or take him to the hospital depending on his injuries," the blond agreed worriedly.
Vin put the cell away and took up position so he could see Chris arrive as well as watch the boy. The blond wasn't long and he pulled up beside Vin carefully. He climbed out of the vehicle wearing a long slicker and a black Stetson to shield his face from the rain.
"Where is he?" Chris asked.
Vin pointed and moved forward. "Hey there. This is my friend Chris, who I was telling you about. He's gonna take you back to his house, okay?"
The child shook his head again. Chris moved forward and squatted down in front of him. He raked the child's body from head to foot with his gaze, taking in every scrape and bruise. The fact that he was so seemingly malnourished worried him greatly as well. How had the child ended up out here in the first place, and how had he survived? Chris was trying to decide whether Nathan's services would suffice or if a visit to the hospital was called for. "Looks like you've been in the wars, son. Bet you'd like something to eat and a change of clothes, wouldn't you? Don't want you to catch a chill, do we?" Chris smiled as the youngster lifted his head and blinked nervously at him. "Bet I could even stretch to letting you have a bath too, if you want. Need to see about those scratches on your arms and chin by the look of it. Will you let me do that? You'll be real safe and there's nothing to be scared of. When you've been sorted out I can show you some of my horses if you like."
The green eyes opposite his widened at the promise of seeing horses but the child bit his lip, undecided. Both men seemed kind, but the boy had learnt not to trust anyone at all. His stomach chose that moment to grumble and he put a hand to it to try and quiet it.
"Sounds like you're real hungry, bud. What do you say we go and get something to fill your tummy up?" Chris said gently.
The boy shrugged, but when Chris reached out and picked him up he didn't struggle. The blond noticed though that the boy held himself rigid in his grasp, not relaxing in his arms at all.
"Can you tell me your name? You know ours, so it seems only fair we can use yours," the blond said as he made his way carefully toward the Ram.
"Ezra," the boy whispered in his ear.
"Well, it's real good to know you, Ezra," Chris said as he opened the Ram's door and placed Ezra on the seat. He buckled him in and patted his shoulder. "Ready?"
Ezra nodded nervously.
"I'll follow on the bike," Vin said as he put his helmet back on.
The two vehicles drove into the ranch yard and pulled up outside the house. Chris climbed out and went round to help Ezra out. He opened the door and the boy climbed down and waited, looking around curiously.
Chris held out his hand and after a slight pause Ezra reached out and took hold of two of the blond's fingers loosely as if he didn't really want to touch the man at all. Chris frowned worriedly when he felt how cold the little appendage was. He wondered how long Ezra had been out in the rain.
"Welcome to my home, Ezra. Come on in and we'll get you sorted out."
The blond led the child into the living room while Vin collected a towel from the kitchen. After getting out of his own wet things, the long-haired man knelt down in front of Ezra who stood near the blazing fire shivering.
"How about we dry off your hair? Will you let me do it for you?" Vin asked with a smile.
Ezra studied Vin intently and thought what a kind, gentle face he had. Maybe I really can trust him. The boy then nodded slowly and Vin set to work gently drying the short, slightly curly locks. When it was drier he could see the hint of copper shining through in the light from the fire. The long-haired man managed to dab a bit at the blood on Ezra's chin, but the youngster soon pulled away from him.
"That's better," Vin said as he looked up and saw Chris come into the room with an armful of clothes and a stuffed toy. "Now how about we get you out of those wet things and you can choose what you would like to wear?"
Vin reached out and tried to pull the torn t-shirt over Ezra's head, but the child held on tight and wouldn't let him. Chris stepped forward and smiled to try and ease the boy's fears.
"Don't you want to be dry and warm, Ezra? It's much better than having those wet clothes sticking to you."
Ezra's head dropped and he started to cry.
"Hey, buddy, there's no need for tears," Vin said kindly, feeling his own eyes filling at the sight of the upset child. "Is there something you're frightened of? Or something you maybe don't want us to see?"
Ezra sobbed and nodded as he fisted his right eye.
"Well, how about you take the clothes you want and go to the bathroom and put them on yourself. Can you manage that?" Chris asked, still not sure of Ezra's age.
Ezra looked up at him with glistening eyes. He nodded and Chris indicated for him to rifle through the clothes pile.
Ezra took each item and studied it intently before settling on a green t-shirt, a pair of jeans and some underwear. Chris smiled encouragingly and took him along to the bathroom. The blond then came back and joined his friend.
"Never knew you kept Adam's clothes, cowboy," Vin said quietly as he flicked a quick look at the man beside him.
"Couldn't bear to part with them. They still smell of him, you know?" Chris shrugged as he thought of his late son. "They're coming in handy and I don't reckon Adam would mind."
"How we gonna see to Ezra's hurts?" Vin asked. "He seems real reluctant for us to have too much contact, although he did let me dry his hair. Soon as I touched the cut on his chin he got scared and pulled back though."
"Yeah, when I held him earlier he was as tense as wire like he thought I might hurt him in some way, or touch him inappropriately. We've somehow gotta gain his trust, bud." Chris rubbed his brow. "I'm thinking that the injuries to his arms, face and back look like he was maybe thrown from a car. God knows what else he's been through, except being starved that is. I can't believe he's been living out here on his own. Someone's got fed up with him being around and just thrown him away like junk." Chris sighed and shook his head worriedly. "I'll get Nate to come out. Reckon his doctoring skills are needed."
"Yeah. I'll call Buck too and see if anyone's reported a kid missing. Doubt it, though, if what you think's happened to him is true."
Buck Wilmington and Nathan Jackson were both good friends of Chris and Vin's. Buck was a policeman. He was a tall, handsome man and sported a mustache and a constant grin. He always had ladies chasing after him and he reveled in their company. It seemed that he would never settle down with one woman. As he had a habit of telling everyone, he liked to spread his wild oats to the four winds. Nathan on the other hand believed in commitment and faithfulness. He lived with his wife Rain on the outskirts of Denver.
Chris and Vin heard shuffling footsteps and both turned to greet Ezra who was hovering in the doorway sucking his thumb. At least it seemed as though the cut on the boy's chin had stopped bleeding completely.
"Hey there, buddy. Come on in by the fire," Chris said as he beckoned the child in and handed over the toy duck. "Why don't you keep him? He's been real lonely out here with only me for company. He needs lots of cuddles, I reckon."
Vin pulled a comfy chair forward and patted the seat. "Here ya go. Why not have a bit of luxury. This one's nice and soft and I'm sure your new friend would like it."
Ezra padded over with thumb still firmly between lips and the duck tucked under his other arm. He faced the chair and climbed up into it using his elbows before turning round so he could sit down. His legs dangled off the seat and he swung them back and forth as he stared into the flames and hugged the toy close to his face.
"I'll make those calls, Chris, while you see to our guest," Vin offered as he headed outside to talk in private.
Chris squatted down in front of Ezra and smiled. "What you gonna call him?" he asked as he indicated the duck.
Chris laughed. "Well, that sure suits him." Adam had called him exactly the same thing and for some reason Chris was glad that Ezra hadn't chosen something else. "Okay, son, what do fancy eating? I think I've got a pizza in the freezer - that do you?"
Ezra nodded shyly still sucking away on his digit for comfort and warming his bare feet in the heat from the fire.
"What about a drink? Orange juice?"
Chris smiled and went to get the meal ready. He kept the door open so he could watch the youngster to make sure he was all right being left on his own in a strange house.
Ezra took the opportunity to have a good look around the room he was in. He saw photos of a woman and small boy sometimes accompanied by Chris and sometimes alone. There were also pictures showing Chris and Vin with four other men. The group seemed to be laughing in each photo and Ezra wished he could know such joy.
Chris returned at that point with a tray containing the food and drink. He placed it on Ezra's lap.
"Do you want me to cut the pizza up for you?"
Ezra nodded as he reached out for the juice and replaced the thumb in his mouth with the bendy straw that Chris had placed in the glass. He watched Chris' every move intently seeming ready to bolt if something happened that he wasn't happy about.
Once Chris had finished, Ezra picked up the little fork and speared a square of pizza and poked it into his mouth. His eyes widened in delight and he chewed happily before reaching out for another piece.
"Jeez, he sure was hungry, wasn't he, cowboy?" Vin said with a grin as he came back in and saw Ezra eating for all he was worth.
The blond held out a cautionary hand as he looked back at the boy. "I wouldn't eat too fast, Ezra, or it might make you feel sick. Wouldn't want that, would we?"
Ezra stopped chewing as he nodded, remembering what had happened if he'd thrown up on the floor in the past. His mother had punished him instead of offering comfort. He began eating at a more leisurely pace, wondering what Chris would do if he was sick.
Chris smiled at Ezra and nodded encouragingly as he took Vin to one side. "Everything sorted?" he asked.
"Yeah, Nate is on his way and Buck's checking with all the other police precincts in town for reports of missing kids."
Vin turned back to look at Ezra and chuckled when he saw the boy offering a square of pizza to Quack. "Don't reckon ducks eat pizza, Button. All the more for you, huh?"
Ezra looked up and smiled as he put the pizza in his own mouth.
An hour later, Nathan arrived and Chris ushered him through to where Ezra was still sitting in front of the fire.
"Ezra? This is a friend of ours. He's called Nathan and he's a doctor. I'm real worried about those scratches you've got so I'd like him to check you over. Will you let him?"
Ezra looked up at the tall black man, shook his head and pulled his bare feet up onto the chair's seat, trapping Quack between his legs and chest. He wrapped his arms round his knees and rested his forehead on them as he began to cry again.
Nathan stepped forward and knelt down in front of the boy. "Hello, Ezra. I ain't gonna hurt you, son. I just want to help you. You're obviously in trouble, but I want you to know that you can trust Chris, Vin and me. We've all been policemen at some point in our lives so you can tell us anything - no matter how bad. We ain't gonna judge you."
Ezra looked up and frowned as he remembered something. He turned to look at one of the nearby photos before pointing at Nathan and then at the photo.
Nathan looked at what Ezra was indicating. "Hey, yeah that's me and the boys. We sure had a good day. I seem to remember that Chris fell in the creek."
The blond pursed his lips. "Well, thanks for telling Ezra that, Nate."
The doctor chuckled again. "Hey, didn't you have to go to the hospital 'cause you hurt your butt?"
"Least I didn't have to have a bandage on it but it sure hurt to sit down for days afterwards," the blond agreed as he rubbed the remembered tender spot while smiling softly.
Ezra couldn't help giggling.
Chris grinned, approached the boy and squatted next to Nathan. "How about Nate checks over Quack and see if he needs any Band-Aids first?"
Ezra considered the proposal before nodding and handing the duck over. Nathan took hold of it and got his stethoscope out. He held the instrument against the underside of the toy and nodded.
"His heart's beating nicely so there's no problem there. Would you like to hear the sound that your heart makes, Ezra?" he asked as he held the stethoscope out.
Ezra studied Nathan minutely before finally nodding. The boy took the earpieces and put them in his ears. Nathan then guided his hand gently until the other end was placed over Ezra's heart.
Ezra nodded and looked up at the three men in wonder. He moved the listening device about on his chest but finally moved it back over his heart to listen again.
"Can Quack have a listen?" Chris asked. "He'd like to make sure your heart is as good as his."
Ezra giggled and nodded as he took the earpieces out of his ears and held them out. Chris took them and placed them either side of Quack's head. Ezra held the other end against his chest and he watched in delight as Chris made Quack's head nod in approval at what he heard.
"Can I listen too?" Nathan asked. "Looks like you're having all the fun."
Ezra hesitated but eventually nodded. Nathan took charge of the stethoscope and listened intently to what he heard. He smiled and said, "Sounds like you've got a big drum in there thumping away. Now, let's finish checking Quack."
Nathan took hold of one of the toy's wings and sighed. "Well, looks like he's hurt, so I think he needs a bandage, don't you?" Nathan looked at the other wing and shook his head. "What a shame. He's hurt this one too. He won't be flying anywhere real soon. Will you help me bandage him up, Ezra?"
Ezra nodded and held Quack while Nathan wound bandages round the toy.
"There, I reckon he feels better already." Nathan studied Ezra and said quietly, "Now, how about we make your hurts better too, just like Quack's? I can see to your arms without having to take your t-shirt off, okay?"
Ezra looked down at the red, raw wounds on his arms and realized how much they did hurt. He raised his eyes to Nathan's face and sat staring at him for a few seconds trying to decide if he should let the man touch him. Ezra flicked a quick look at Chris and Vin as if seeking reassurance. Both men nodded encouragingly and smiled kindly. Ezra looked back at Nathan again and received a smile from him, too. The boy finally nodded and having made his mind up, held out his right arm toward the doctor.
Nathan took hold of it gently and nodded in thanks at Ezra. He then bent to his task and studied the injury in more detail. "Well, it needs a good clean to start with. Chris?" he called, not looking round. "Could you get me some tepid water so I can wash the dirt and blood off?"
"Sure thing." The blond went off on his errand and soon returned with the requested item.
Nathan set to work and Ezra hissed as the damaged skin was touched.
"Sorry, Ezra. Can't help but hurt you," Nathan apologized.
He gently cleaned the area with the water and a soft cloth. He then disinfected the wound to keep out any infection before putting on a soothing salve. Finally he bandaged it all up and sat back.
"There, that's one done. Is it alright for me to see to the other one?" the doctor asked.
Ezra looked down at his neatly bandaged arm and had to admit that it felt much better for the treatment. He nodded and transferred Quack to under his newly bandaged arm before holding out his other arm.
Nathan nodded again in approval and treated the wound efficiently. "Hey you look like Quack," he said when he'd finished. "You've both got poorly wings."
Ezra looked at Quack and then at his own arms and giggled as he flapped his arms as if he was trying to fly.
"You won't be flying anywhere either by the look of it. You'll have to take care of one another while you get better," Chris said with a smile.
Nathan pointed to Ezra's face. "Chin bothering you? Maybe I could take the pain away there too. What do you say?"
Ezra automatically put a hand to the cut and whimpered when the touch set it bleeding again. He looked at Nathan, nodded and thrust his chin forward, dripping blood everywhere as he did so. Nathan reached out quickly with the damp cloth and staunched the oozing wound as best he could. After a couple of minutes he removed the material and smiled when he saw the cut had stopped bleeding again.
"Not deep enough for stitches, but I reckon a Band-Aid is needed." The doctor reached into his bag and found what was necessary and after disinfecting the cut he firmly stuck the Band-Aid in place. "Looks like you cut yourself shaving," he said with a grin. "Bit young for that though, ain't ya?"
Ezra nodded seriously and hugged Quack tight.
Chris stepped forward knowing they had the hardest bit to come. He squatted in front of Ezra. "You did real well. Feel better?"
Ezra nodded but he fidgeted on the seat uncomfortably.
The blond smiled. "I know you hurt your back too. How about we check that out now? Afterwards we can look at the horses like I promised before. I just need you to do this for me first, okay? You wouldn't want to get sick 'cause we left it as it is, would you?"
Ezra looked into Chris' eyes for a split second, but that was all it took for the blond to see a lifetime of pain, fear and humiliation reflected in them.
"I know you don't want us to look, but I'm worried about you. I just want you to let us make you better. We aren't going to ask any questions now about what happened to get you in this state, but we really need to check your back as well as the rest of you for injuries that we can't see. Will you let us do that?"
Ezra, head bowed, shrugged uneasily. He had to admit that he had been treated very well by the men - in fact it was probably the best he had ever been treated in his life. It was just hard to give up his ingrained caution.
"Ezra?" Chris prompted gently. "Nate can take you into the bedroom to give you some privacy, okay?"
The boy looked up with tears in his eyes and studied Nathan for a few seconds. The man had taken good care of him so far and Ezra had a gut feeling he would be safe with him.
The doctor walked forward and smiled comfortingly. "Shall we go to the bedroom then, bud? It looks out on the corral, so you can watch the horses while I take a look at you, okay?" Nathan said, as he held out his hand.
Ezra nodded and slid down off the seat and took hold of the outstretched appendage. He looked up at Nathan with worried eyes but felt the man squeeze his hand in understanding.
The two of them headed to Chris' room and Nate sat Ezra on end of the bed so he could see out the window.
"Hey, there's Peso," the doctor said as he pointed the dark horse out. "He's Vin's."
Ezra looked at the animal and nodded. The sun had come out since his arrival and the horse's coat had dried out and looked beautiful in the bright light. "Shiny fur."
Nathan laughed. "Yeah, he has at the moment. You wait until he's been ridden. As soon as Vin puts him back in there he'll roll in the dirt and look a right mess."
The doctor turned to face Ezra. "Ready? You tell me if you want me to stop at any time. Don't be scared, okay?"
Ezra nodded and put Quack beside him on the mattress. Nathan stepped forward and gently pulled Ezra's t-shirt up over his head. The boy seemed completely compliant now, accepting what had to be done.
Nate took a quiet breath and moved so he could see Ezra's back. He scowled and ground his teeth at what he saw. Ezra's back was covered in new and old whip marks, some of which had broken open during his fall. There was also a myriad of new and fading bruises. The man opened his medical bag and set to work without a word. He smeared on some of the special salve and bandaged the battered torso gently.
"There you are, bud. I haven't done the bandages too tight, have I?" Nathan asked softly as he gave the youngster's upper arm a swift rub.
Ezra shook his head and couldn't help the two tears that fell from his eyes. He wouldn't look at the doctor, his gaze firmly fixed in his lap.
"How about the rest of you? Can I take your pants off and have a look?"
Ezra shrugged, but he didn't stop the man when he made him stand up so he could undo the button on his waistband and pull the clothing off. Ezra stood forlornly in front of him, shoulders slumped in defeat.
Nathan checked the youngster without touching him and saw the same whip marks on the backs of both legs and his buttocks. The man shook his head sadly and then helped Ezra get dressed again.
"You be okay here while I go talk to Chris and Vin? I won't be long and then as it ain't raining anymore we'll take you out to see the horses close up," the doctor promised.
Ezra nodded and moved to the window. Nate saw him wipe the tears from his eyes and he felt his heart tighten at the sight. He wandered out of the room and along to where his friends were waiting.
"Nate? What did you find out?" Chris asked anxiously.
"He's been whipped badly over a long period of time as well as being black and blue with bruises. He's got old and new wounds on his back, legs and buttocks. Who would do such a thing?"
Vin shook his head angrily unable to speak.
"Well, we need to give him some time and maybe he'll confide in us," Chris said quietly. "Buck called a while ago and said he hasn't come across any missing child reports for anyone called Ezra. He hasn't been able to match the description to any missing child either."
Nate sighed. "Well, I said we'd take Ez out to see the horses. You both coming?"
Nathan returned to the bedroom and looked at the forlorn figure at the window.
"Ready, Ezra? Come and meet Peso. It's best that you hold one of our hands just to be safe amongst the animals," Nathan said as he walked toward the boy carefully. "Whose hand do you want to hold?
Ezra turned round and looked at the three men. He faced Vin and saw his gentle, caring eyes were looking at him with concern. The boy had the feeling he would be able to confide anything to him and it would go no further. He reached up both arms to the man and Vin smiled and picked him up, holding him gently as he felt Ezra snake his arms round his neck, clutching Quack in one hand.
"Can you tell me your last name, Ezra?" he asked softly as he wiped the remaining tears from the boy's cheeks.
"How old are you, bud?"
"Don't know," Ezra replied uncertainly as he shrugged. "Sixy?"
Vin nodded thinking that Ezra was small for his age if he was six. The P.I. wondered if he was actually quite a bit younger. "And where do you live, pard?"
Ezra laid his head on Vin's shoulder, letting go of him with one hand so he could put his thumb in his mouth after saying, "With Mama in...um..Ant...lerta."
Vin gave him a squeeze. "Do you mean Atlanta?" He received an uncertain shrug. "Well, you're a long way from home if it is Atlanta. What were you doing up here?"
"Mama was seeing her friend," Ezra whispered round his thumb. "She got lots of man friends. They get angry with me."
"Is that who hit you, Button?"
"Both Mama and her friends," Ezra whispered as he began crying again.
Vin realized that was probably why Ezra didn't know how old he was. Birthday celebrations were no doubt a bit of a rarity and not at the top of his mother's list of things to remember. She'd probably only ever cursed the date he'd been born. "Come on, I think the company of animals is called for. You can meet Chris' dog too if you like," Vin said as he hugged the child tight while he cried.
Ezra had never been comforted like this in his life and he began to relax in the three men's company. He felt safe.
Vin took him out to the corral and sat him on the top rail. Peso wandered over to inspect the new arrival and also to see if his master had brought the customary carrot with him. Vin grinned and pulled the orange stick from his pocket. He passed it to Ezra.
"Hold it like this, Ezra, and then Peso won't nibble your fingers too."
Ezra held the carrot out and after Peso had smelt it he began to bite off bits until it had all gone. Peso made loud crunching noises as he consumed the treat.
"Noisy horsey," Ezra said as he patted the horse's nose gently.
"He sure is. Want to see some more?" Chris asked.
Ezra nodded and reached out to Vin again. The P.I. lifted him and the four of them set off to the barn. All the horses inside immediately put their heads over the stall doors when they saw their visitors. A bark sounded from the back of the building and a black Labrador bounded toward them. He leapt up at Chris and received a pat from him. The dog then turned his attention to the others and looked up at Ezra. The boy whimpered and hugged Vin and Quack tightly when the dog looked as though he would jump up. Chris reached out and quickly grabbed the dog, not wanting to scare Ezra.
"This is Arnie and he won't hurt you, Ezra. He's just real nosy and likes to greet anyone new. He's more likely to lick you all over than bite you. Do you want to pat him?" Chris asked as he stood and stroked the canine to show Ezra it was safe.
The child bit his lip but eventually nodded when he saw Arnie's tail wagging enthusiastically. Vin squatted down with him still in his arms and Arnie took a couple of steps forward and took a sniff at Ezra before licking his hand softly, perhaps detecting the boy's unease. Ezra finally reached out and patted Arnie's head and the dog moved a bit closer and nuzzled him to get some more attention. Arnie turned sideways and Ezra stroked him from neck to tail and the dog leaned hard against them enjoying himself immensely.
"Hey, he really likes that, Ezra. You could be friends for life," Chris said with a smile.
Ezra finally leaned his head against Vin's shoulder and yawned quietly. Nathan reached out and stroked the back of his head.
"Looks like someone could do with some shuteye," the doctor said. "You in any pain, Ezra? Wouldn't want your hurts to stop you from sleeping."
Ezra shook his head, "I'm okay."
"You sure? Doesn't your back hurt just a bit?" Nathan cajoled.
"Come on, let's get you to bed, pard, and Nate can give you something to make it go away," Vin said as he turned and headed back to the house.
Once the boy had been settled in the spare room, the three men met up on the porch. Vin sat down wearily and rubbed a hand over his face.
"Poor kid," he said quietly. "I'll call Buck and tell him what else Ez said." The young man pulled out his cell and put in the call.
"Thanks, pard, that'll help," Buck said after receiving the new information. "How's he doin'?"
"He's asleep but somebody hurt him bad," the Texan said quietly. "Keep in touch, Buck."
"You, too, and do all you can to protect the little 'un."
Vin ended the call and sighed. "Nate? Did you get the impression that Ezra may have been sexually abused as well when you checked him over earlier?"
The man shrugged. "I really don't know. I touched him as little as possible and didn't question him about what had happened or who had done it at that time. I'm gonna need to find out for sure though. Hopefully he trusts us enough to talk a bit more tomorrow. He seems to have taken a liking to you, Vin, so that's good. Maybe tomorrow he can tell you who abandoned him here, whether it was his mother or her friend."
"Sure." Vin paused. "We're okay to keep him here, are we?"
"Yeah, Buck cleared it with Child Services earlier even though it's a bit irregular to leave Ezra with a stranger. I promised them that I'd check up on him regularly in my medical capacity and that Chris was a friend of mine, so that helped. As you know I'm well known to Child Services 'cause I've helped them with child abuse cases in the past. They could hardly say 'no' when Judge Travis put in a good word for Chris too."
"Having a Judge for a friend can sure come in handy," Vin said with a laugh. He smiled as he thought of the formidable figure of the elderly gentleman they all thought of as a father-figure.
The next morning, Vin went along to Ezra's bedroom and knocked on the door. "Ezra? It's Vin. Can I come in? It's time to have some breakfast, pard."
He waited until he heard the child invite him in. He wasn't just going to enter the room without being asked. Given what might have been done to Ezra in the past, the P.I. knew he would be frightened of people going into his room.
The Texan smiled broadly at the boy after crossing to the windows and pulling back the drapes. "It's a lovely day, Ezra. How about you have something to eat and then take Arnie for a walk? Would you like that?"
Ezra nodded and swung his legs from under the comforter. He yawned and rubbed both eyes, his heart contracting when he realized he'd wet the bed. He looked up at Vin and turned red in embarrassment.
"What's up, Ezra? Feel okay?" Vin asked worriedly.
"I'm sorry," Ezra mumbled as he started crying and cringed away from the man. He hoped he wouldn't get the same punishment that he'd always got from his mother in similar circumstances.
Vin moved forward and pulled back the comforter and saw what the problem was. "Hey, it's alright, Button. Happens to us all when we're feeling a bit down and worried. Come along to the bathroom and we'll get you sorted out."
Vin took Ezra's hand carefully, took him to the bathroom and gently washed the boy over after removing his soggy pajamas. While they were there he let the child brush his teeth and answer nature's call again. "There, all ship-shape," the man said as he squatted down beside Ezra and wiped the tears from his face. He wrapped Ezra in a towel and carried him back to the bedroom.
Ezra sat on a chair beside the bed while Vin stripped the wet sheets and took them, along with the pajamas, straight through to the kitchen for washing. Chris was there and he frowned at his friend when he saw the bundle in his arms.
"Everything okay?" the blond asked.
"He wet the bed so he's a bit upset. Reckon he got punished by his mother for doing so 'cause he looked scared and started crying when he told me what had happened," Vin said. "If I ever get my hands on that woman..."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. She's got a lot to answer for."
Vin put the linen in the washing machine and started it going. When he returned to the bedroom he saw Ezra reach for the clothes he had been wearing the day before.
Vin stepped forward and beckoned Ezra to a nearby closet. "Choose something clean from here, bud. There's everything you need, I reckon." Vin opened the door and Ezra looked in apprehensively.
The boy's green eyes studied the neatly folded clothes inside and he looked at Vin again to get confirmation that it was alright to touch them.
Vin squatted beside him and put a comforting arm round the boy's back. "Go ahead, bud. It's alright to have what you want from here. How about this?" he said as he reached in and pulled out a blue t-shirt with a motif on the front.
Ezra looked at it and smiled. He touched the picture of the coyote and nodded. He then turned his attention to the rest of the clothes. He picked out some underwear and another pair of jeans. He looked at Vin for approval and received a broad grin in reply.
"Perfect, Button. Let's try some of these sneakers on for size too. How about these with the flashing lights in the heels?" Vin said as he picked them up and showed them to Ezra.
Ezra's eyes sparkled with pleasure and he nodded enthusiastically. "I like them," he said simply.
"Great, that's everything sorted. Are you okay to get dressed yourself or do want some help? Are you okay with those wiggly laces?"
Ezra looked down at his feet. "Help with them, please?"
"Sure I can. You get the rest on and I'll do those for you when you're ready."
Ezra sat on the bed and pulled off the pajama top and replaced it with the t-shirt. He stood up and removed the pants and hastily pulled on the underpants and jeans. He sat down again and bent over, pulling on the Snoopy socks he'd found. He then lifted his right foot and waited for Vin to put on the sneaker and secure the laces.
When Ezra was ready he accompanied Vin into the kitchen, clutching Quack tightly in the crook of his elbow. He reached up and took hold of the man's hand and felt Vin squeeze it in response.
"Hey, Chris, Ezra's all ready for his breakfast," Vin said as he stood in the doorway.
"Hello, Ezra. Hey, don't you look smart? Look at those sneakers lighting up the place!" the blond said with a smile, as he tried to put the boy at ease after his earlier upset. "Did you sleep okay?"
Ezra nodded and hugged his toy against his chest as Vin steered him to the table and sat him down before patting his shoulder in encouragement.
"Did Quack behave himself?"
The boy nodded again and smiled as he stroked the fluffy material that the duck was made from.
"How about a seat for Quack, so he can enjoy his breakfast, too?" Chris suggested as he pulled a chair close beside Ezra and stacked some cushions on it so that Quack would be level with the table.
Ezra grinned and placed the duck on top of the cushions. He looked up at the black-clad man and laughed.
Chris laughed as well as he considered what a delightful child Ezra was. He really didn't know how anyone could have hurt him in any way. "What would you like to eat? A cooked breakfast or cereal and toast?" he asked.
"Cereal and toasty, please. Can Quack have cereal too, but no moo-juice?" the boy asked shyly.
The blond grinned at Ezra's name for milk. "Sure he can. Which cereal would you both like?" Chris asked as he pointed the variety on offer.
"Choccy ones for me," Ezra said before bending down and putting his ear to Quack's beak as if the toy was talking to him, "and the pop-pop ones for Quack." The boy pointed and looked up expectantly.
"Good choices, guys," Chris said as he picked up the required items and tipped out some of their contents into two bowls. He poured milk onto Ezra's and passed it to him before putting Quack's bowl in front of the toy. "I'll get your toast while you tuck in."
Ezra picked up his spoon and began shoveling the cereal into his mouth. He munched away contentedly until the bowl was empty. He then picked up Quack's spoon and offered the toy some food.
"I don't think he can eat any more, pard," Vin said. "He's full up by the look of it."
"Can I eat it?" Ezra asked.
"I don't reckon he'd mind. Bet you want milk on it though, don't you?" Vin said with a wry smile.
"Moo-juice. Yes, please," Ezra said as he held his spoon ready. He was being very careful to say please and thank you when required. His mother couldn't abide bad manners and made sure that Ezra learned his lesson well if he forgot. He didn't want to make Vin or Chris angry with him if he seemed ungrateful.
The P.I. poured milk over the cereal and pushed the bowl toward Ezra. Ezra didn't need asking twice, but began eating with gusto.
"I reckon he's got hollow legs, Chris. I don't know where he's putting it all," Vin said as he laughed and ruffled the child's hair affectionately.
The blond walked over with the toast. "It's good to see such a healthy appetite."
The two men sat with Ezra and watched him demolish the pile of toast that Chris had prepared. The boy smothered each slice with butter and jam. Ezra licked his lips and fingers when he'd finished and sighed in contentment.
"Had enough?" Chris asked with an amused grin.
"Yes, thank you. Quack says thank you too," Ezra said as he reached out and patted the toy before picking it up to cuddle.
"Well, how about that walk with Arnie?" Vin suggested.
"Can Quack come?" Ezra asked as he looked at Vin with wide pleading eyes.
The long-haired man realized that the toy was like a security blanket for Ezra - needed for comfort and courage. "'Course he can."
"If you want, Button. The more the merrier, I reckon," Vin agreed.
Chris found a backpack for Ezra to wear so that Quack could travel in it in style. The three of them then set off after collecting Arnie from the barn. The dog ran on ahead weaving from one side of the track to the other with nose down and tail up. Ezra walked between Vin and Chris, holding each man's hand. The two of them looked at one another and smiled.
Chris looked down at Ezra and said, "Do you want us to swing you while we walk?"
Ezra looked puzzled. He glanced up at Chris and frowned because he had no idea what the man was asking.
"Have you never been swung before, pard?" Vin asked kindly. "It's great fun. All we do is go a bit faster every so often and swing you up between us so you kinda fly for a little bit. We keep hold of your hands all the time," he added quickly when he saw that Ezra assumed they would let go of him.
"If you're not happy about it we'll just carry on walking," Chris said. "I'm sure you'd like it though."
Ezra looked from one man to the other as he tried to make up his mind. He finally nodded. "'kay. I'd like to try swing-swong."
"Great. We'll hold your hands tight, okay?" Chris said. "Let's go a bit faster, shall we?"
The two men jog-trotted a few steps with Ezra in tow before they pulled Ezra upwards so his feet left the ground. Ezra squealed as he found himself airborne. The impetus of the faster pace swung the child forward to land a little ahead of them.
"How was that, pard?" Vin asked.
"Do it again?" Ezra asked, eyes aglow.
"Guess you liked it then," Chris said as he laughed. "Just don't tire us out. We're getting old you know."
Ezra giggled and pulled the two men onwards. "Come on," he shouted.
Vin and Chris set off again and swung the youngster up a bit higher in the air than the last time. Ezra's delight was obvious as he laughed and squealed some more. He landed softly as Arnie came lolloping back after hearing the happy sounds. The dog circled his three human companions and barked excitedly.
"Hey, Arnie. Can't swing you and make you fly, I'm afraid," Chris said as he grinned.
Ezra laughed, let go of the two men's hands and ran ahead with Arnie following behind.
"Find a nice stick, Ezra, and you can throw it for Arnie to fetch," Chris called. "Don't go too far ahead though, will you?"
"No, I'll be good."
"I know you will, son," Chris said quietly to himself.
"Fancy him never having been swung before. He's missed out on a lot of his childhood already," Vin said.
"Yeah, I know. He's one of the most terrific kids I've ever met and he deserves a good home," Chris agreed.
Ezra came running back with a stick in his hand and Arnie running beside him holding the other end in his mouth.
"He leapded and catched it in the sky!" Ezra told them excitedly. "He did get to fly."
Chris bent down and patted the dog's head. "He never wants to be left out when there's fun to be had."
"My tummy's empty," Ezra said.
"What? After all that breakfast you had?" Vin asked in astonishment.
"I'm a growing boy," Ezra replied totally seriously.
Vin laughed. "Well, we'd better go and feed you again then. Looks like you're going to have to stock up your cupboards, Chris," Vin said.
"Seems so, Vin."
The P.I took the child's hand and they set off back toward home. Ezra hopped and skipped beside Vin seemingly totally at ease. The man couldn't help but wonder whether all their good work would be undone when they asked the questions they needed to later on.
Arnie headed off to the barn after receiving a cuddle from Ezra. They then entered the kitchen and Ezra removed his backpack and retrieved Quack. He took up residence at the table expectantly. Chris looked in his cupboards to see what he had to offer the boy.
"Soup and a cheese sandwich?" he asked as he looked over his shoulder at his guest.
Ezra put his head on one side as he considered the offer. "Yes, please."
The blond set to work while Vin tried to get some more information from Ezra about his mother.
"Ezra? Do you know your address in Atlanta?" Vin asked as he patted the boy's arm to get his attention.
"No." The boy shook his head. "Papa tooked me to the big libr...rar...ary lots. Lived near it and the park. I loves books," he said sadly. It had been a long time since he'd been read to.
"Where is your pa now?" Vin asked gently.
"Dieded," Ezra said with a sniff.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Button. He used to read to you at the library, did he?"
"Yes, and the park. Lots of books," the boy said enthusiastically. "Pictures of aminals and cars - lots of colors," he continued. "We had fun."
"Well, I bet Chris has got some books you can look at." Vin paused with a frown, still trying to determine the boy's age. "Have you ever been to school, Ezra?"
"No, but Papa teached me things."
"Okay," Vin said. "Do you remember your Papa's name?"
"Papa Pat. I called him Pitty Pat too. He loved me," Ezra said as he sniffed and wiped his eye.
"I'm sure he did, bud," Vin said as he rubbed Ezra's back. "Why did you call him Pitty Pat?"
"He eated there," Ezra replied.
"Was it a diner or somethin'?" Vin asked with a frown.
Ezra shrugged while wiping a tear off his cheek as he thought of his father.
Chris thought it was a good time to stop the conversation so he placed the snack in front of Ezra. The youngster tucked in, dipping the sandwich in the liquid before putting it in his mouth. Soup inevitably dribbled down his chin and Chris automatically reached out to mop it up. Ezra's reaction was instant. He leapt off the chair and ducked under the table with a whimper, thinking he was going to be struck. His mother certainly would have punished him, considering the way he was eating bad manners.
Chris stood up worriedly. "Sorry, Ezra, I didn't mean to startle you. Did you think I was going to hit you, son?" he asked as he squatted down to look at the trembling boy.
Vin did the same, but kept his distance, not wanting to crowd the upset child.
"Ezra? I was just going to wipe your chin 'cause you've got soup all over it," Chris explained. "Are you going to come out of there, so I can clean you up?"
Ezra, sandwich still in hand, shook his head as his eyes filled with tears. He didn't quite know what he was feeling. During his walk, he'd relaxed and felt totally comfortable in Chris and Vin's company. It had taken just one innocent gesture to remind him of what his life had previously been like and to expect the same treatment wherever he went. Under the surface he was continually primed to fight or flight mode.
"Ezra?" Vin called. "We would never hurt you, Button. I know you've had a bad time with your Mom and her friends, but we're not like them. You can trust us one hundred percent, okay?"
Ezra looked at him and sniffed unhappily.
"You coming out?" the long-haired man asked gently. "Look, Quack's waiting here for you," Vin said as he held out the toy which had fallen from the table during Ezra's flight.
Ezra remained looking at Vin who smiled at him, still holding Quack out. The boy finally shuffled forward on his bottom and took possession of the duck. With a bit of encouragement from Vin, he eventually exited his hideout.
"Okay, Button?" Vin asked gently.
Ezra nodded and sat back in the chair, eyes downcast.
"Gonna finish your sandwich?" Chris said softly.
"If you want to dunk it in your soup, that's fine with me, Ezra. I ain't gonna tell you off for doing it. You just enjoy your meal," Chris said.
Ezra looked at him for confirmation and then began to eat slowly again. He hugged Quack against his chest gaining comfort from the toy.
When the boy had finished his food, Chris smiled at him. "Now, are you gonna let me wash your mouth round? You can do it yourself if you want, but you may not get all of it if you can't see what you're doing. Don't want to get Quack dirty, do we?"
Ezra stuck his chin forward and let Chris rub a cloth round his chin and lips.
"There, all ship-shape," the blond said as he dried Ezra's face gently.
Buck stepped into the kitchen at that point and Ezra transferred his gaze to him. The tall man smiled at the child and tried to ease the fear he saw in his eyes.
"Hey there, Buck. This is Ezra," Vin said.
"Real nice to meet you, Ezra. My name's Buck Wilmington and I'm a policeman. Vin told me you were in trouble so I'm gonna try to help you, pard. I've brought some friends with me. Are you okay to meet them?"
Ezra looked worriedly at Vin, but received a nod and encouraging smile from the man.
"We know the people that Buck's brought. We're all friends, Ezra. You remember the photo you saw when Nathan was here? You'll recognize them from that. You can trust them all, okay?" the P.I. said kindly.
Ezra thought back to the photo and remembered the smiling faces. He looked at Buck again and his image from the picture popped into his mind - he'd been laughing, eyes shining with glee. The boy nodded slowly, but looked worried.
Two other men, one very tall and the other much shorter entered the room and smiled at the child.
Buck pointed to the tallest, older man and said, "This is Josiah Sanchez and he's a counselor. That means you can talk to him about anything you want or need to, and he'll help you feel better about it all." Buck then indicated the younger, dark-haired man. "This fella is JD. He's my partner in the police force and he'll be taking some notes, okay? You'll hardly know he's here 'cause he'll sit in the corner."
Ezra bit his lower lip as he studied JD closely. He finally nodded.
"Let's go into the living room, shall we? We've got a few questions we need to ask you, okay? If you're not happy about answering them, that's fine. We ain't gonna force you to talk to us," Buck said, "but there are a few things we need to know."
Ezra followed the men into the other room apprehensively. He wondered what they were going to say to him.
Vin pointed to the chair by the fire. "Why don't you have your favorite seat?"
Ezra settled on the seat and looked round the group waiting for someone to speak.
Buck cleared his throat, feeling uncomfortable and nervous about what he was going to do. He didn't want to distress Ezra at all but he knew it was probably going to be inevitable.
"Ezra? We need to ask you exactly what was done to you by your mother and her friends. Can you tell me your ma's name?"
The boy didn't answer immediately. He looked round the group of men before settling his gaze back on Buck. "She was never the same."
"What, son? You mean she changed her name?" Buck asked.
Buck thought a bit and scratched his chin. "Can you remember any of the names she used?"
Ezra sat silently as he tried to remember. There had been so many over the years it was difficult to hold them all in his brain. He couldn't remember any of the surname's she'd used at all. "Um... Mary, Carol." He shrugged unhappily. "Can't 'member."
"You did just fine, Ezra." Buck smiled at him kindly, hiding his disappointment when he saw that Ezra was upset about not being able to help. "Now, did your ma and her friends just hit you or did they do other things to you as well?"
Ezra wriggled uncomfortably and nuzzled Quack against his face. The little boy looked round the group and saw concern on every face. He sighed. "Locked me up, didn't feed me," he said just loud enough for them to hear.
"How long didn't you eat for, pard?" Buck asked, trying to keep a lid on his temper.
"Don't know. Long time," Ezra replied with a shrug.
"Why did they do it, son?" Josiah asked as he smiled reassuringly. He hated cases involving children. It was very difficult not to get overly involved.
Ezra wouldn't look at the men - he just sat stroking Quack. "Said I was bad. Naughty boys are all locked up and not feeded."
"How often did they do that to you?" the counselor asked quietly.
That explains why he's so skinny, Vin thought to himself, trading glances with the blond. He shook his head in despair at Ezra's treatment.
"Anything else?" Vin asked gently.
"Made me stood in the rain and cold," Ezra said as he shivered when remembering one particular episode. He'd been made to stand in the yard for hours as it snowed solidly - if he moved, his mother's current boyfriend would take the whip to him. He'd been sick for days after from the effects, but his mother had shown no compassion or love for him at all. Ezra put his face down onto Quack's fluff and cried.
Vin moved over and tentatively reached out a hand to stroke Ezra's hair. "Hey, Button. It's alright. We won't ever let them hurt you like that again. I promise."
Ezra looked up with a tear-stained face, knowing that Vin would keep his word. He held out his arms to the man and Vin picked him up and held him tight. The P.I. rubbed the child's back and whispered platitudes in his ear. He then sat down in the chair and sat Ezra across his lap.
"Okay now?" he asked gently as he wiped the tears from Ezra's face.
Ezra nodded and leaned his head against the long-haired man's shoulder. He held Quack tight and slowly started to relax in Vin's tender grasp. The youngster then reached down and rubbed his stomach and moaned.
"Feel okay, pard?" Vin asked.
"Okay, let's get you to the bathroom." Vin stood up and hurried to Chris' en suite. He just got there in time before Ezra threw up. "Hey, little buddy. Never mind. How
ya feeling now?"
Ezra shrugged as Vin cleaned him up and got some clean clothes for him to put on.
"Okay to go back and sit with the others?" the P.I. asked.
Ezra nodded, so Vin took him back to the living room and sat with him in the chair they had previously been in.
"Hey, Ezra. Feelin' better?" Chris asked.
"Maybe you ate too much what with your two breakfasts and then brunch. Your tummy's not used to it after not having had so much food for a while. Thought you'd be alright after coping okay yesterday with the pizza. Sorry," Chris said with a smile.
Buck moved forward and squatted down in front of Ezra. He smiled when the youngster looked up at him with sparkling green eyes. "Ezra? Can you tell us how you came to be out in the bushes?"
Ezra sniffed and rubbed his nose up his arm. "We was in the car. They didn't want me - said I was a b...bas...bastard," Ezra said, stumbling over the word. He had no understanding of its true meaning. "Mama pushded me out."
"Do you know when it happened? I mean what time of day?" the policeman asked, trying to remain calm.
Ezra shrugged. "It was dark with stars."
"Was it dark until Vin found you, or did it get light and dark again?"
"Dark forever," Ezra sighed as he thought back on the sounds he'd heard during those hours. He'd been frightened by every rustle and squeak nearby.
Buck nodded, glad that the boy hadn't been out longer than one night.
Josiah cleared his throat. "Ezra? Do you know where you were staying in Denver?"
"With Uncle Jemery," Ezra mumbled.
"Jeremy?" the counselor queried as he raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Yes," Ezra said from round the thumb he'd placed in his mouth.
"Do you know his last name?" the big man asked.
Ezra frowned as he thought hard, puffing his cheeks out with the effort. "Um. An animal name," he replied uncertainly.
The six men considered the possibilities, some shaking their heads when they couldn't think of anything suitable.
JD looked up from where he'd been writing notes. "Was it Fox, Ezra?"
Ezra's eyes widened as he nodded. "Yeah. Mama called him Foxy-man."
"Great, Ezra. Well done." Josiah turned and smiled at JD. "Thanks, son."
"Do you remember what Jeremy called your ma?" Chris asked, thinking back on their earlier question.
Vin hugged Ezra and asked, "Do you remember anything about Jeremy's house? Did it have a front yard? Was it on a big road?"
"Near woo-woo cars."
"Woo-woo cars?" Vin said. "What's that, Ezra?"
Ezra put his lips together as if he was going to kiss someone, but instead out of the hole he had created he let out a noise that resembled a siren on a police car. "Pleece," he said.
"Police?" Vin nodded in understanding.
"Yes. Lots of noisy woo-woo cars all the time," Ezra complained.
"That was a real good likeness of the siren, Ezra. Thought the cops were coming to get me," Chris said with a smile which Ezra returned.
"Anything else you can remember about Jeremy's house?" Vin said.
Ezra thought some more. "There was a doggy house," the boy said as he looked up at Vin with sadness in his eyes.
"Did Jeremy have a dog?"
"No. It was my house."
Vin frowned, not understanding. "What do you mean? You went in it to play games?"
Ezra shook his head and sighed. "I sleepted there," he said as he began crying.
Vin hugged the youngster again and whispered non-stop to him. The P.I. caught Josiah's eye and shook his head in despair.
Buck made his way out to the kitchen and Chris quickly followed him.
"Buck? Ezra told us a bit more about his life in Atlanta," the blond said as he filled his friend in about Ezra's father and the library.
"Thanks, pard." The policeman rubbed his brow and sighed. "Jeez, I hate these kinda cases. He's a really cute kid, ain't he? I could never make a child suffer like that."
"Yeah, I know. It's bad enough for a stranger to do it, but his own mother hurting him is inexcusable," Chris said angrily as he clenched his fists tightly.
Buck nodded and put in a call to his precinct to see if they could track down Fox. He was given a list of ten men with that name, but he narrowed it down to just one after checking which one lived nearest a police precinct. He then called the colleague he'd previously spoken to in Atlanta and gave him Ezra's mother's vague details and the other information Chris had told him. Buck had obtained no useful news about Ezra when he'd called them earlier from work. Although there were several Ezra Standish's in Atlanta none of them was a child of Ezra's age. No birth certificate for him had been found either so maybe he had been born in another state or even a different country. It looked as though they would have to spread their search much wider.
The cop sighed and leaned into the living room and caught JD's eye. "Come on, kid. I've got an address for Fox. Let's go check it out." He looked at Vin and said, "We'll be back later to ask him some more questions. Don't wanna overload him."
"Thanks, Buck. Appreciate all you're doin'."
The two men left and Vin looked down at Ezra and saw he'd stopped crying. "You okay, Button?"
Ezra nodded as he snuggled against the man's chest and closed his eyes. Chris indicated for Nathan and Josiah to accompany him to the kitchen so they could talk in private.
"You okay to hang around until Ezra is up to talking again?"
Josiah nodded. "Yes, I'll stay as long as you need me although it looks like Vin is doing real well with him. It may be a good idea if just Vin, JD and me are in the room when we ask him about any sexual abuse. I want him to feel safe and comfortable. Having too many people around might be intimidating for him." The counselor sighed. "I'm glad we kept to the simpler questions to start with. He is hopefully realizing he can trust us and tell us anything. It's gonna be hard, though."
Buck drove JD to the address he hoped was Fox's. The two policemen headed up the path toward the front door. The house itself looked well cared for and Buck assumed the owner had a lot of money. The property certainly wouldn't have come cheap.
Buck knocked on the door and waited for it to be answered. He heard movement inside and the door was finally opened by a middle-aged man with dark hair and bushy eyebrows. Two brown eyes studied them seriously as both men held out their I.D. for him to see.
"Good afternoon, Sir. Are you Jeremy Fox?" Buck asked.
"Yes. What do you want?" Jeremy answered brusquely.
"I understand that you had a woman and young boy staying here?" the mustached policeman said.
"What business is it of yours if I had?" the man replied, a nasty look coming into his eyes.
"Is the woman still here?" JD inquired.
"No, and nor's the boy."
Buck smiled grimly. "I think we need to come in, Sir. You see we found the boy, Ezra, abandoned well outside of town. He's made some serious allegations against his mother and her various male companions. He says he's been beaten and starved and if I find out it was you who did it, I'll lock you up and throw away the key."
Jeremy made an effort to keep them out but gave up when JD waved a search warrant under his nose.
"Thank you. That's a very wise decision," Buck said sarcastically. He turned to his colleague and pointed to the back of the house. "Take a look out back. You know what we're looking for."
JD nodded and headed into the back yard. He looked round and saw the kennel in the darkest, dampest area possible. The young officer shook his head and walked over to look inside. He bent down and saw a heap of blankets, a plate of mouldy food which on closer inspection was a piece of cake, and a child's toy. It certainly wasn't a dog's home. He frowned as he reached in and pulled a short chain into view.
"Shit. Even secured him in there. Bastards," JD snarled. He put in a call for forensics to come and collect the kennel and its contents. He made sure they would take photos of it in situ as well.
He stood up and went back to meet up with Buck. He shook his head and told his friend what he'd found. The older man nodded and showed JD the contents of an evidence bag - a whip he'd found in a closet. JD could see it was dark with blood and he clenched his fist angrily as he turned to face Jeremy.
The man held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Hey, that ain't mine. She musta left it here. She's the one who hurt him," Jeremy said desperately.
"Yeah, and I bet you tried real hard to stop her too," JD snapped. "Where's the woman?" the younger man demanded.
"Gone," Jeremy said shortly.
"Where?" Buck growled as he took a step forward.
The man shrugged uncomfortably - realizing he'd been left to face the music alone. He cursed himself for not having cleared up the evidence earlier. "Back to Atlanta, I guess," he muttered.
"What's her name?" Buck asked.
"Sally Bruckheimer. Kid had a different surname though, I think."
"Did she give you an address or phone number?" JD asked.
"No. She said she'd call me when she wanted to visit again," Jeremy said with a shrug. "S'pose I've seen the last of her, the bitch."
"Yeah, she sure dumped you in the shit." Buck moved up behind the man and said, "Well, you're coming with us. You're under arrest for child endangerment."
When Buck arrived at the police precinct with his prisoner he received a call from Atlanta saying they'd tracked Ezra's mother down there.
"Hey, that's great," he said as he put the phone on speaker so JD could hear too. "How did you do it? I thought it was a lost cause."
"We tracked her down because of the boy's visits to the library and the nearby park. The reference he made to Pittypat is to a restaurant called Pittypat's Porch on International Boulevard. If you add that to the fact that there are 34 libraries but only six parks in Atlanta, we were able to get the right area of town quickly. The librarian remembered Ezra visiting regularly with his father, and although Ezra's name was no longer on their records, she remembered seeing them enter a house in Auburn Avenue when she was walking home one day. We took her with us and she pointed the house out and the mother still lives there."
"Did you get a name?"
"Yeah, and what's the betting that's a lie. She's changed her name so many times, we'll never trace her real details," Buck said with scowl. "The main thing is we've got her though. I reckon Jeremy will give her up without a second thought. Thanks a lot, pard. Really appreciate your help on this."
"Glad to be of service. We'll get Maude sent up to you for questioning as soon as possible. We'll keep digging here in case we turn any other information up about her," the cop promised before hanging up.
Josiah indicated for Vin and JD to accompany him into the living room. JD took his previous seat so that he was out of sight of Ezra. Vin sat with Ezra on his lap as before, knowing the child would need comfort even more this time if he had been sexually abused.
The counselor sat opposite Ezra and Vin in front of the fire. He smiled at Ezra, trying to put him at ease. "You okay to answer a few more questions, son?"
Ezra shrugged and eyed the doll that Josiah had in his hands. He couldn't think why an adult would be holding a toy. He looked down at Quack and hugged him tight as he waited for the first question.
Josiah put out a placating hand. "Okay, there's no need to be scared. Just tell us what you can, alright?"
Ezra nodded and looked up at Vin worriedly.
"It's okay, Button. I'm here and if you want to stop at any time, you've just gotta say the word," the P.I. said as he squeezed Ezra gently.
Ezra turned back to Josiah expectantly. "Why you got a dolly?" he asked.
"Well, he's a boy doll and he's gonna help me with the questions I need to ask. His name's Peter," Josiah said as he sat the doll on his knee. "Now, you've already told us that your Mom and her boyfriends have hit you in the past. Did they ever touch you in a way that you didn't like?"
Ezra frowned, not really understanding what he was being asked. "I don't know," he mumbled.
"Well, let's get Peter to help us, shall we? To start with why don't you show me on his body where you were hurt, okay?" Josiah held up the doll. He pointed to the doll's back and said, "This is where you were hit, is that right?"
"Yes, and there," the boy replied shyly as he pointed to the back of the doll's legs. "Arms hurt too," he said as he showed Josiah his own bandaged arms.
"I remember. That's when you were pushed out of the car, wasn't it?" Josiah agreed kindly. "Now, did your Mom or her friends ever touch you here?" he asked as he pointed to the doll's backside.
"Mama at bath-time," Ezra said as he snuggled against Vin.
"What about here?" the counselor asked as he turned Peter over and pointed to his groin.
"Bath-time." Ezra looked up at Vin again. He received a smile and a squeeze.
"You're doing real well, Ezra. I'm right proud of you," Vin said.
Josiah nodded, "Yes, so am I, Ezra. So your Mama only touched you in those places to wash you and make you clean, or maybe when you needed the toilet?"
"Did she bathe you a lot?"
Ezra shook his head. "Only when I wet the bed. She yelled at me and hurted me."
"Can you just answer two more questions for me? Did your Mom or her friends ever ask you to touch them here?" the big man asked as he again pointed to the doll's groin.
Ezra shook his head and screwed his nose up, looking confused.
"Did you ever sleep in the same bed as them?" Josiah asked.
"No. Didn't want me. Never hugged me," Ezra replied sadly as he dropped his head onto Quack's back and rubbed his face against the soft fur.
Vin looked at Josiah to make sure he had finished. The older man nodded and Vin stood up and hugged Ezra. "Let's go see what Chris can find for you as a treat, Ezra. You've been real good and good boys get rewards."
The blond looked up and smiled when they entered the kitchen.
Vin said, "Have you got some chocolate for Ezra, Chris? He deserves something nice after answering all Josiah's questions."
"Sure, I have. Come over here and choose what you would like, Ezra," Chris invited. He always had a good supply because most of his friends had a sweet-tooth.
The boy looked over the candy bars on offer and reached out for one. He hesitated and withdrew his hand. "Please?" Ezra asked quietly.
"If that's the one you want, you take it and enjoy it, bud," the blond said.
The boy reached down and picked up the bar. Vin helped him open it and Ezra clung to Vin as he sucked on the chocolate inside.
"Nice?" the long-haired man asked.
"Uhuh," Ezra replied as he licked some errant chocolate from his lips.
"Let's go back by the fire so you can sit and eat it in comfort," Vin said as he headed out of the room so that Josiah could talk to the rest of the men in private.
"Well?" Chris asked worriedly.
Josiah smiled. "He wasn't sexually abused. Seems he hardly had any physical contact with his mother at all. He says he was never hugged."
"He'll get loads of hugs here," the blond said in a determined fashion. "He deserves to get some real love."
When Chris and Vin were alone after putting Ezra to bed in the evening, the younger man looked over at his companion thoughtfully. He'd had something on his mind for the last forty-eight hours and it was beginning to get to him.
"Cowboy? Can I ask your opinion about something?" Vin said quietly.
"Shoot," the blond replied with a smile as he put aside the paper he had been reading.
"I don't think I wanna give Ezra up. What do you reckon my chances would be in fostering him or whatever? Surely he wouldn't be handed back to his Mom after what she's done," the P.I. said almost in embarrassment. He hoped his friend wouldn't think he was being unrealistic.
Chris grinned. "Great minds think alike. I was considering taking him in too, bud. I think he'd love to live with you, though. You get on real well with him and you'd sure as hell give him a happy life."
"Yeah, but with me being single and working odd hours, they may think I'm not a suitable caregiver," Vin said as he scratched his chin thoughtfully. "P'raps he'd be better off with you. You got Nettie nearby to help but you're around all day anyway."
The blond nodded in understanding, thinking about Nettie Wells who owned a small ranch a mile from his and who was always helping him out. "Yeah, that's true, but Ezra's gonna be at school part of the day. Could you do your work when he's there?"
Vin shook his head as he realized his dream was being shattered the more they talked it through. "Nah, I need to be out at odd hours - trailing people at night and all that. See if you can take him instead," the younger man said in disappointment.
Chris frowned as he thought about the problem. He could tell how much Vin really wanted to care for Ezra. Maybe there was a simple solution staring them in the face. Silence reigned for a few minutes before the blond grinned.
"I've got a proposition for you that might suit both our needs. How about if you move out here with me? You could work from the ranch, couldn't you? I know it's a long way from town if something urgent crops up with a case you're working on. Least you'd know that I'd be around when Ezra got back from school and while you were at work. You'd be his chief caregiver though. What do you think?" Chris watched as Vin digested what had been said and saw the gleam that appeared in his eyes at the real possibility of it working.
Vin nodded. "Yeah, it'd be real good for me to get outta town and it would sure suit Ezra down to the ground. Reckon we'd stand a better chance of getting custody of him if there was two of us. I can pick and choose my cases to fit in with what's going on in Ezra's life. I'm always having to turn work down as it is," the P.I. said more enthusiastically. "I 'spect I could always bunk down with Buck if I needed to stay in town for a case. I can get rid of my apartment then. Are you sure you don't mind if I make my permanent base here?"
"'Course not. We both want to do the best for Ezra and I reckon this is it," Chris said. "We could split the house and have a connecting door so we've got somewhere to go if we want to be alone. I know I'd like some time to myself if Mary comes over to stay," the blond said as he wiggled his eyebrows comically. Mary Travis was Judge Travis's daughter-in-law. Her husband had been murdered a few years ago and she had found solace with Chris who had also lost his wife in tragic circumstances. The two spent a lot of time with each other and Vin certainly didn't want to cramp their style.
"Yeah, that sounds great. We won't be living in each other's pockets then."
Chris nodded with pleasure. "I'll put in some calls in the morning and see what the authorities think. Seeing as we've been trusted to care for him since we found him, I bet we stand a good chance."
They heard a shuffling noise in the doorway and turned to see Ezra hovering uncertainly there with thumb in mouth and Quack under his arm.
Vin smiled. "Hey, Button. What you doin' up? Can't sleep?"
The P.I. beckoned the boy forward. "Come on in and we'll see if we can scare it away." Vin picked the youngster up and sat him on his lap when he drew near.
Ezra snuggled close to the man. "You love me?" Ezra mumbled.
Vin smoothed down Ezra's hair and kissed his forehead. "Yep, I reckon I do."
"Love you too," Ezra said. "And you," he said as he looked at Chris.
Chris grinned. "Same here, Ezra."
"Me Button." Ezra had really come to like his new nickname. It made him feel special and closer to Vin.
"Button it is then," the blond said as he met Vin's gaze and smiled again.