"Wha-a-at?" I said, totally innocent sounding.
"Hey, that's not fair, Dad. I was almost around to my home place there," said my pipsqueak, a little put out by my actions.
Jeffy and I were laughing but AJ must have been playing much more seriously than we were. I'd found an old game of Parcheesi while going through a box in the garage and we were on the carpeted floor in the living room. I'd spent a little time explaining the very simple game to both boys. The game was probably older than their combined ages.
At first, AJ poo-pooed the game, thinking it way too immature for the likes of him. Jeffy was ready for anything just to be with family.
"Yeah, I wanna play. I wanna do anything with just the three of us. I, uh, I really like this family stuff." No misty eyes, no heavy sighs, just his sweet smile to show how contented he was right then.
AJ finally gave in to playing with us. His indignation about such a 'baby's game' lasted about one circle around the board and one of his men being sent home.
"Well, that's the way it's played, son. And you thought this was a child's game?"
"Okay, yeah, but, but I'm the child and you should be nice to me, huh?"
Jeffy was rolling on the floor by then and I was rolling my eyes.
"What? I'm just a kid, ya know and I have feelings too."
"Oh, my side; it hurts," laughed Jeffy. "You should hear yourself, little bro. You have an amazing whine."
"Okay. What do I do now, then, cheater?" AJ said to me.
As we went playing on, we barely heard the knock on the door.
The second time we heard it Jeffy jumped up to get it while AJ tried to sneak his piece back onto the board. It didn't take much to catch him at it and I think he'd rather have had it that way by the look on his face, knowing his punishment was inevitable.
"Hey!" I shouted and grabbed him.
We were about done with another of our tickle-fests when I noticed two shadows standing over us.
I looked up to see Jeffy standing next to Dan who had a pretty serious look on his face.
"Uh oh," said AJ, when he noticed our friend too. "This doesn't look too good."
"Wise, AJ," admitted Dan. "Tim, can we talk a minute. I, uh, I need to bring you up to date on a few things."
"Wait!" said AJ. "Can't we listen too? We're both old enough, aren't we-e?"
"It's up to Dan, boys. It's his story."
"Well, I suppose you'll hear it from the boys sooner or later anyway. But I have to set some ground rules before we get into this," Dan warned.
"I'll get the glasses," shouted AJ, jumping up and running into the kitchen.
After all, no one could talk about anything serious unless we were sitting at either the table in the kitchen or the other in the dining room. Just ask AJ.
Dan started by warning us that we could not say a word to anyone outside of our family and his; that it was vital that what he was about to say could turn out very bad if it leaked out to someone besides us.
"Wo-o-ow!" said AJ, leaning in to make sure he didn't miss a word.
The other rule, which I made clear, was that they were not to interrupt until Dan was finished and we could ask questions. If they needed clarification, they'd have to raise their hand.
For the next twenty minutes, Dan told us about the attempted kidnapping of Denver. He even went into how proud he was of the boys for all they did, especially Melvin. He was still a little shook up when he thought back to that day, it was only the day before.
AJ couldn't hold back and was waving his hand frantically.
"Yes," said Dan. I could tell that it was a much-appreciated interruption by the slight smile on Dan's face, giving him time to collect himself to go on.
"Um, um, . . . I forgot . . . Oh yeah, um, is Mel and Denver okay now? I know they didn't get too hurt, but can they sleep okay and stuff? You know, like nightmares and scary stuff."
"That's nice of you to care about them, AJ. So far, they seem to be doing okay. Of course, it's only been one day and it's very possible this could all come to a head at a trial later down the road."
"Wo-o-ow! Ye-a-h," agreed AJ.
"A trial? Yuck. Sorry, but I had my share of those things for a long time to come," mentioned Jeffy.
"Yes, you have, Jeffy. And this one won't be particularly nice for the boys if the defendants have a good lawyer."
"That's if you catch 'em?" asked Jeffy.
"No, son. We will catch them."
Dan went on to explain more about the scratches and how they would help catch one of the men involved, if his DNA was on file.
"You know," he said, as though the idea just came to him, "It doesn't have to be his DNA on file. If his mother or father, or even a sibling, have their DNA in the system, say from the service or a previous conviction, we could narrow the suspects down a lot to a relative of theirs. Hm-m-m."
He didn't, however, tell us about Norton's and his meeting with the sheriff or their meeting afterward over coffee. He told me that the next day. He felt the information was too crucial to the case for my boys' ears at that point.
When he was done, he looked like he could have used a shot of something stronger than the apple juice AJ had served us. I couldn't blame him. I think if that happened to one of my boys, they would have been strapped to my side from then on, until the jerks were caught or . . .
"So, how does it look for catching these guys, Dan?" I asked.
"No tellin', my friend. We just have to wait until we can get something on the van or . . ."
We heard a vibrating and Dan picked up his cellular phone from the holder on his hip.
"Text message, guys. Sorry, I need to . . . Holy shit!" he shouted, causing the three of us to sit up in a hurry.
"O-o-oh! Dad, he said . . ." AJ advised me, like maybe I should spank the man for swearing?
"I know, AJ, but he's a professional. He has to use specific phrases when certain things happen," I explained. "It all has to do with the code of law enforcement."
"O-o-o-oh," said AJ, almost ready to swallow my tale, until he looked over at Jeffy who was holding his sides again.
"Nuh, uh, Dad!"
"Okay, sh-h-h, AJ."
"I gotta go, guys. I just wanted to bring you all up to date in case you heard something from the guys or somewhere. Remember, we want to keep this completely under wraps until I say so. No friends or anyone outside of this room can know. Even with my boys; it's okay if they bring it up, but you don't say a word until then, okay?"
Three 'okay's' sounded loud and clear.
"But what happened, Dan? I mean the text message," asked AJ.
"Oh, sorry. It's just a . . . okay, they found the van in another state. They, um, well, I think that's all I can say right now until we know for sure. I need to go."
But not without giving me a sick look that told me that it wasn't going to be pleasant, whatever had happened.
"So, you wanna go?" asked AJ of his brother, as they both walked into the kitchen the next morning. "That way we can have some on our cereal before we go to school."
"Yeah, yeah. Or we could do without and sleep another hour. Do you know how early it is?" asked Jeffy.
"It's okay. He's always up by now anyway."
"He is but I'm not, ya little twerp! Good morning, Pop," said Jeffy, laughing at his brother as he gave me a hug.
"Morning, Dad. Jeffy and I get ta go over to Mr. Harding's. Isn't that cool?"
"It's always cool, AJ. I'm sure he loves the company, but you can't stay as long as usual. You need to get ready for school soon. And don't I get a hug?"
They were out of the house as soon as AJ answered my request and added a great smile, then got his containers for the berries.
It hadn't been too long when Jeffy came back into the house and walked over to me.
"Back so soon? Where's the pipsqueak?" I asked.
"Oh no, I'm not back really. He's still pickin'. I went up to the house when Jeb, uh, Mr. Harding called my name. Seems a piece of door molding was coming loose, and he asked if I could fix it for him. I was wondering if you had some tools I could use. He said his aren't in that good o' shape."
"Sure, they're right behind the door in the garage. You know where the workbench is. Take what you want but keep track of them, please."
"Yes, sir, Pop. Thanks. He sure is a neat man, isn't he, Pop? I like him a lot. Oh, I need some of those really thin nails too."
"They should be in small jars on the ledge above the table. They're called finishing nails, Jeffy. They have real little heads on them, so you can't see them when they're nailed in."
"Oh yeah, those. Finishing nails, huh? Okay, I'll remember."
"Yeah. Let's find you a nail punch too."
I followed him out to the garage. I wanted to know if he was really interested in woodworking or maintenance work. I knew he liked to use his hands and loved gardening.
"So, do you like this sort of thing, Jeffy, doing odd jobs and woodworking and things?"
"My dad would let me tag along when he fixed stuff. We'd started to build a small greenhouse attached to the garage, but he was . . . you know . . . killed before we could finish it. He knew I loved to see things grow. I don't know if I liked the work, but I know I loved just being with him."
The boy always glowed when he talked about his dad. I couldn't encourage him enough to talk about all the good parts of his earlier years, never forgetting his memories of someone so wonderful in his life. And I was certainly never jealous of that relationship. He was too precious to me to keep something so great from being a part of his life for as long as possible.
"Hm-m-m, greenhouse, huh? So, you're an expert by now, right?" I asked, tongue in cheek.
"Yup!" he said as he reached for a small jar of nails.
"Gotcha! Pop, I barely know which end of the hammer to bang with. But I'd sure like to learn. I like to see new things and things that grow. It's so fascinating to me."
"Well good to hear, son. Now scoot or you'll be late. And be careful, the jar of nails you need has no lid."
He'd picked out a larger jar that had several sizes of nails in it, including some that would be too big for the job he described, but he said he wanted to be ready if there was something else to do for Jeb.
He took a few tools in a pouch and held the jar as he ran down the driveway.
I went back into the house to my paper. Life was tough, you know. But I decided that I needed to look into saving some of his family pictures taken during happier times.
When they got back, I heard AJ talking a mile a minute at Jeffy and he sounded very excited.
"But it didn't hit ya, huh? Wow, Jeffy, that sounded like it was a close one."
"Yeah, bro. I dropped everything and jumped to the side when it came around the corner. I think I'm still shook up a little."
"Jeffy, what's all this about?" I asked, following them into the garage where he was putting away the tools.
"This huge Black king cab pickup monster came sailing around the corner and almost took me out. He didn't even stop or slow down. I think if I'd a been in the way and he'd a hit me, he woulda just kept going."
"Wo-ow! No way!" said AJ.
"A huge black . . . Is it the same one you saw before? Where did it go?"
"Yeah, I think it was, now that you mention it. It went into that farm across from Mr. Harding's place. It had to be going really fast around that corner. I dropped everything and jumped outta the way. I think the jar may have hit the side fender. I hope I picked up all the nails or he'll be really slow getting back to wherever he came from."
"Yeah, well, we should be so lucky that he happens to get stuck with one. What are the chances? Okay, boys, get cleaned up and I'll take you to school. If you hurry, you may have time for breakfast."
"Aw-w-w," whined AJ.
"Get! Hurry! It's up to you," I laughed as they both ran for the stairs.
I even forgot to ask Jeffy if the repair went okay and didn't think about it until we were in the truck. It went fine, he said.
At the farmhouse across from Jeb's, the man was pretty loud as he walked into the house.
"Tell me what you know, and it had better be good news."
"Hold your horses, man. Everything is fine. I told you I would take care of it and I did, or had it done. Pretty slick too, if I do say so myself."
"Where are they?"
"Good grief, you don't even let a man wallow in his glory, do you? As I said, everything is good. They're on their way back. My man decided to get a few winks, so they should be driving up in a few hours. After all, Gus had made some pretty good time in that old van. "
"How can you be so happy when we're this close to being found out, old man?"
"You know, you really should show more respect to your . . ." started the older man.
"Yeah, right. Like that'll ever happen. Well?"
"How can I be so hap . . ."
"NO! I don't care about you. What happened?"
The older man described what he knew about what had taken place the night before, on a highway a long way from the farmhouse. He said they'd get better information when his man showed up with his cargo.
While the younger man wasn't at all satisfied, he took the information and turned to leave, saying he'd be back later in the day or that evening.
"Well, then we'll wait for you, so you can join in the fun. We're going to have some target practice with all sorts of fun things; whips, sticks. You know, whatever's in reach."
"My gawd you are sick. Just do the deed and get it over with."
"Not gonna happen. I'm pissed and I'm taking it out on someone, or in this case, something. Don't get in my way," he barked.
"Whatever. I'm outa here." The younger man made for the door and was through it, not hearing the old man yelling.
"Yeah, you need to come by more often! Hey, bring the beer next time!" he shouted at the closed door. Then, under his breath, he added, "Yeah, ya good for nothin' . . ."
About two-thirty that afternoon another vehicle rounded the corner where the truck almost hit Jeffy. But it was going much slower. He didn't want to draw too much attention.
"Holy . . . Wouldn't you know it," said the driver of the big red sedan. "I'm not changin' it now. Hell, I got a package in the trunk who can change it before we . . . Yeah, he can do it first. Haha!"
### # # # # # # # # # ###
"Yes, Mr. Harding. You know this line is for real emergencies. Now, what is the problem?"
"Young lady, I have better things to do than talking on the phone to disrespectful call takers downtown. And for your information, this IS an emergency."
"Well, then let's hear it, si-i-i-r," she said.
"I looked out my window when I thought I heard a gunshot."
"Wait. Excuse me, sir. Okay, I'm sure this is important but one of my deputies is calling in on a murder investigation and I need to answer him. Please hold."
On the other line, she listened and took down the notes from the deputy on the scene.
"I think we're looking for a red vehicle that has a big white streak across the right side. There's no way that one will ever rub out. It probably wrinkled up the whole panel something good, too. Oh, it's pretty high up too, like maybe a large car or small SUV made the dent."
Within a minute more, the call taker was done and back with her old friend.
'Okay, Mr. Harding, I really am sorry for putting you on hold, but this was vital information."
"Well so is this, dearie. You'll want to investigate this too."
"Oh, I'm sure. I mean, no promises, sir. I've got most of my men looking for this red car that . . ."
"Yeah, yeah," said Jeb, trying to be patient and not succeeding in the least. "Look, this gunshot turned out to be a tire exploding on the road almost right out front. The driver didn't even stop to change it. It just kept on driving into the Tarrington's old farm. I've been telling you that . . ."
"Okay, Mr. Harding, could I have a description of the car, please?"
"Well, it's about time. It was a big red car, like a Caddy or something like that, and not that old either."
"Sir, do you know how many such cars fit that description. There's no way we'll be able to find that car without more information. Were you able to get a license plate number?"
"No, of course not, though it looked like it was out of state. But you can't miss it. For one thing, it's still at this farm where all this weird stuff happens at night. And . . ."
"Okay, thanks for the information, Mr. Harding. I'll get the first officer on it that comes free." Then under her breath said, ". . . Sometime in December." The paper she'd been taking notes on floated gently into the wastebasket next to her knee as she was ready to push the 'Release' button, ending the call.
But Jeb just kept on talking. ". . . And it had this huge white stripe on the right side. Looks like it did some real damage, young lady. There can't be any good to come of it, can it?"
"Yes, sir, thanks for . . . Wait! Did you say a huge white stripe on a big red car?"
"You know, you should really be taking notes there. They train you for this?"
"Mr. Harding, you're a dream come true. I could kiss you. Thank you. I promise you there will be someone there as soon as possible."
And she hung up.
'Humph. Finally, they believe me,' he thought as he set down the binoculars and made his way back downstairs to his easy chair. 'Whew! This detective work is exhausting,' he chuckled as he picked up the reports he'd been reading on his financial situation that he'd just got in the mail.
'Humph. Maybe that Daniel boy is right. Maybe I need to invest a little into getting this place into shape. I'll talk to Tim about hiring the boy. Oh!' he chuckled, 'I'm sure that little AJ will be tagging along to help too. What a cutie. If he were mine . . . well, whatever, he's pretty cute.'
As he laid the papers down, he felt something slide off and onto the floor. He looked down to see a letter addressed to him.
'H-m-m-m, looks pretty official. From the mid-west. Wonder what they want me to do now, for heaven's sake. I must be gettin' popular.'
'Tarnation! Of course, I have a daughter! Really, do they have to rub it in?' he said to the bureaucrat that had printed out the form letter, added Jeb's name and that of his daughter, then had some clerk stuff it into an envelope and mail it to the old man.
But a second page dropped from behind the first. He almost wadded the whole thing up to throw at the fireplace, the destination of his junk mail. The seal above the heading of the second page looked even more official than on the cover letter. It was from a county in the Midwest. He looked back at the cover letter, taking a bit more time to process the information more carefully.
The letter was saying that the county and state to which his daughter had moved with her new husband had been trying to locate him. It had taken years and many dead ends just finding a living relative.
'Jebediah Harding, father of one Mrs. Marilyn Briscoe (husband Joseph), this is to inform you that I, as Medical Examiner for this county, have confirmed that the death of your daughter resulted from a self-inflicted wound from a small caliber revolver.
'If you are the father of the deceased, please contact the sheriff's office of this county for more details. You can find their contact information at the bottom of this notice. They will also provide you with a death certificate at that time.
'We are sorry for your loss.
'If this is not a relative of the deceased, you are under no obligation to, but please contact us so that we may continue our search for living relatives.
'Thank you and condolences, signed Dr. - - - - -'
He then looked closely and saw that the date of her death was almost eleven years ago.
When he was able to make any sense of things around him again, he realized that it must have been several minutes since the news had seeped inside him and struck a very old nerve. He'd dropped the letter into his lap at some point and it startled him that he was so overcome with emotion.
He was surprised at the sadness he'd felt, after such a long time with no contact at all from his daughter. He even felt a little guilty for the way he'd been angry at her for never contacting him. Still, he wondered what could possibly have led her to suicide. She'd always been a content, happy, free-spirited young lady that took little guff from anyone, including her dad.
As he thought about her younger years a smile rose to the surface on his weathered old face and a tear started its lazy track down through the ruts and grooves of his cheek.
"Well, it took you long enough to get here. I didn't figure on you doin' any sightseeing along the way," said the old man, dripping with the indignity he felt for the man from the red car. Of course, he pretty much felt that way about everyone lately.
"You are one funny old buzzard, old man," said the man with a chuckle. He chuckled a lot when he was pleased with his work and he was very pleased about how things went. "You have no concept of how much you have depended on me lately, have you?"
"So, where the hell is the package?" said the man, ignoring his visitor. "And tell me about your dealings with that asshole, Gus. What a loser he was, for the most part, all the time. No loss there."
"You gonna let me get a word in, old man?"
"Will you stop calling me that? You do want to get paid, right? Maybe even expand your opportunities in my line o' work?"
"I wouldn't do what you do for a hundred times what I'm worth to you. And that's a lot. I don't have a problem making someone quiet or even finding and taking a live one once in a while, but they really need to be older than your usual fare. The package in the trunk is barely old enough if you ask me."
"The trunk, huh? Ha ha! That's a good one. I thought you was a kiddin' me before. That's rich."
"Well, you won't be making me rich but if you pay me now, and I can get the brat to change out the flat tire I got right outside your property, I'll be on my way and we'll part ways for good."
"That is, until I wave another fifty thousand in front of your face the next time, right?"
"We-e-ell, I am a practical business man and do have to make a paltry living, doing what I know best."
"That's what I thought. Ha! Flat tire, huh? I doubt that animal can do one, but I guess we can teach it as it goes along. Pull into the barn over yonder and we'll see what it can do. That is, until we see what we can do to it. Ha ha ha!"
It took Dan several hours to get back to the station. He and Norton had started their drive to the site of the white van but the call from the dispatcher telling them to return because the red car had been spotted had made them turn around and head back.
Once they were back at their office, and making sure that the sheriff wasn't around, they first sent the sheriff's little toady to get them sandwiches, putting up with a lot of protests, to make sure what they were planning wasn't going into the ears of those they didn't totally trust.
"Norton, call the rest of the guys over to the school and our friends in the city for their help while I call home. I need to do one thing before we follow through with what may be, well, not a nice scenario very soon."
"Perkin's residence, Denver speaking."
"Hey, little one, is Ralph available?"
"Hi, Dad! How'd I do? Did I answer the phone right?" said the excited boy at the sound of his foster dad's voice.
"Denver, you did just fine. You guys have your dinner yet?"
"Nope, it's still early. But we did get a snack."
"Well, good, Denver. Now, son, I really need to talk to Ralph."
"'Kay," said Denver.
"And, Denver, remember to hold the phone away from your mouth before . . ."
"RALPH! IT'S DAD AND HE WANTS TA TALK TO YOU!
"Did you say sumpthin', Dad? I didn't hear it all."
"Well, I did. No, I didn't say anything that's important anymore," said Dan through the ringing in his ears.
"Dad? Hi!" exclaimed Ralph. "Everything okay? What's up?"
"Ralph, I really need you to do something very special for me and our friends, the McGills."
"Please call them and invite them over, like for dinner or whatever. You may have to be insistent, but I really, really need them to be out of their house as soon as possible."
"You're kidding. What's happening over there?"
"That's the thing, Ralph, I don't want to raise any alarms until I know they're safe. So, there's more that I need you to do, son. I need you to have him call me on this cell number as soon as he gets there. Then he can explain it all to you after I talk to him. I really don't want the boys, or his for that matter, to know until, well, until I call you back."
Ralph was careful to look to see if any of the guys were hanging around in hearing distance before he said, "Dad, I don't like the sound of this. What is going on? Are you going to be safe?"
"Son, I can't say anything right now. I want you to know, though, that I will try to be as safe as I can. I'm sorry but it's the only promise I can make. And, yes, I will be wearing my vest and a lot more."
"Oh my Gawd, Dad, please be careful. I don't want anything to happen to you. I don't know what I'd do."
"You won't have to do anything, Ralph. I'll be fine. But I'm really worried about the McGills and I don't want to raise suspicion until they're safely away from their place."
"Okay. You promise you will tell us everything after they get here?"
"All that I can, son, I promise."
"Hello?" said AJ after the phone rang while he was walking up to me in the kitchen. I was just taking out some chicken to barbeque.
"Hey, Ralph. How's it . . .? Oh, okay. Dad, it's Ralph and he wants to talk to you."
"Hi, Ralph. To what do I owe this honor?" I asked.
"Um, hi, Tim. Um, I, well, the kids and I, um, we were wondering if you three would like to come over for dinner tonight, in fact, right now."
Now, that had to be the strangest invitation I have received in a very long time. My antennae went up.
"What's going on, Ralph? Is everything okay over there?"
"Oh, um, oh yeah, everything is fine. We just thought how fun it would be, is all. So, when can we expect you?"
"Well, I haven't said yes yet. Does your dad know about this?"
"Oh sure. In fact he, I mean, when I asked him he said it was a really, really good idea."
"Ralph, do me a favor, will you?" I asked.
"Oh sure, anything, Tim. What is it?"
"Don't ever make your living out of your propensity for lying, because you'll starve to death."
"Huh? Oh, well, look, if you guys come over right now, I can tell you something, um, that I know you'll want to know. Okay?"
I could almost see him cringing as he said something so lame as that.
"I have no idea what's up, but if you need us over there, we're on our way. What are we having for this mysterious dinner?"
"Dinner? Oh, yeah, um, well I hadn't thought that far ahead. I'm sure we have something that . . ."
"Tell you what, I just took some chicken out for our dinner. I'll bring another truckload of it to feed all your hungry mouths and we'll bring our own drinks. Can you guys wrangle up some salad and veggies for us all?"
"Oh, sure. Hey, that's great. So, you're leaving right now? You don't have to dress up or anything you know."
"Ralph, we'll be leaving in less than five minutes. Both boys are standing right here and ready. But you sure have some explaining to do when I get there."
"Yes, sir. I, um, I promise."
"Wow, Pop," said Jeffy. "Look at all the sheriff and police cars in the school parking lot over there. Looks like a copper convention or something."
"Hey, Dad, I think I saw Dan standing in between that huge black truck and some cars. Wonder what's going on?"
'Yeah, so do I,' I thought as I saw the letters S-W-A-T on the side of the truck AJ had mentioned.
"Boys, a lot of times the law enforcement agencies do mock stagings of possible confrontations so they're ready in case something really terrible happens and they're needed."
"Sure, Pop, but you'd think they'd do it out of the city, like at the quarry where no one that was passing by could get hurt."
"Well, they don't use real ammunition, Jeffy. It's all just training," I said, though I felt a shiver go up and down my spine. After all, it had been my profession to know when something was up and, based on what I'd seen, it was no mockup; something serious was going down soon.
Then my mind flashed on the conversation we'd had with Dan just the night before. That reminded me.
"Also, remember that Dan asked us not to bring up the deal with Denver unless they bring it up first, okay?"
"Oh yeah, that's right," called out AJ.
When we arrived, everyone was their own friendly selves, except for Ralph, who looked very nervous as he ushered us into the house and except for Enrique, who was trying very hard to be rude to Jeffy as he stood back and stared at him intently, with his arms crossed in front of him.
"So, you guys are alright, aren't you?"
"Oh, yes sir, we are, but Dad asked me to have you call him on this cell phone when you got here."
"Okay. You suppose it has anything to do with what we saw . . ."
"Tim, he said call as soon as you got here," said Ralph, handing me the kitchen phone and looking at the rest of the boys like he was concerned about them.
"Deputy Perkins, here. Oh, Tim? Thank God," said my friend.
The background noises I heard confirmed to me that it was he that AJ saw at the school.
"Yeah, Dan. What's the mystery? Ralph was pretty insistent when he called, though he isn't much of a liar, you know," I said with a try at some levity in my voice.
"Sorry about all that, Tim. Remember we talked about the attempt on Denver and then I got a text about the case while I was still there and had to leave?"
"Of course, I do, it was only last night."
"Well, the van and driver were found on the side of the highway up north, quite a ways from here."
"Well, good. Then . . ."
"No, Dan, there's more. He'd had his head blown off and there was a huge red slash down the side of the van, telling us we were looking for a large red car with a white slash on the side of it."
"And you found it?"
"Yup, or what we believe to be it. I have an unmarked car going up there now, checking things out, but we're pretty sure about it."
"It's at the farm across from your place, Dan. No, actually, it's more across from Jeb's place. Anyway, I didn't want you around there when all hell breaks loose in a few minutes."
"Well, now it makes sense and I appreciate your concern for the boys and I, but what about Jeb?"
"Well, that's the thing. I can't risk someone going in there to get him and I didn't call him because he had no way out of there without raising suspicion anyway."
"Um, what if I go back and . . .?"
"Nope. Too late for that. We're almost ready to move out. But I promise that I'll have a car over there and at least two men protecting him. He'll be just fine."
"If you say so, my friend. So, can I tell anyone about this now?"
"Please, just Ralph. He already knows it's not the greatest scenario, but he has no other details. I asked him and I'm asking you to keep it from the boys until it's all over."
"Will do, Dan. You guys be extra careful out there, okay?"
"You can count on it, Tim. Um, though there is one other thing I need to ask."
"Anything, you know that."
"Ralph is mine and is in my will to get everything, if . . ."
"DAN!" I almost shouted, looking up to see if I'd raised any ears. They were all outside by then.
"Please, just listen. This isn't the easy part. If anything happens to me, the boys will be put back into the system. I know Linda Sue will do her best and it's just possible that they'll return Jacob and Enrique to their families since they've both done so well, but Mel and Denver, it may put a burden on the county and they'd have to be returned to some institution. Tim, I can't have that happen."
"No, of course not. Okay, how about I take them in. I'm only saying that because nothing is going to make it necessary, right?"
"Whew! Thanks, Tim. Of course, nothing is going to make it necessary, but it sure takes one more thing off my shoulders so I can concentrate on what's ahead of us."
"I know. I had those same thoughts every time we went on a mission over enemy lines. Look, I can even take in the others if need be, and Ralph can't stay here by himself."
"Thanks. Like I said, I called Linda Sue and brought her up to speed when we heard that the car was spotted back here, knowing, well, you know."
"Yup. You be extra careful, Dan. I don't age well, and I like my head of hair. I don't need five more boys in my life just now."
"Ha! Yeah, but you didn't need the two you got either until you did, you old softie."
"Okay, okay, you got me. Now, don't you have some bad guys to go get?"
"Yes, and thanks again, Tim. You're a dear friend to me and the boys. I'll never forget this."
As I hung up the phone there was a commotion outside in the backyard. I quickly went to see what was going on. It didn't sound like happy boys playing. It sounded more like a confrontation.
"Enrique, just back off! You've got no call to get in his face like that!" It was Ralph's voice I heard first.
"Yeah, but he tried to kill Pop. He's no good and he shouldn't be out, so he can try it again to someone else's dad."
"You're wrong, Enrique," said AJ, standing in front of his brother, between him and Enrique, whose shoulders were being held back by Ralph.
The other three boys were standing on the side. I couldn't quite tell where they stood in the argument. I decided to let them play it out a bit further before I interceded, if I was needed.
"Jeffy's good people. He didn't even know what he did that day. I know. I was at the trial. You weren't. I also know Jeffy from way before. Alright, he got hooked up with Jarod who I wouldn't give a dime for, but you don't know what Jeffy went through to get to that place like Dad and I do."
"What difference does that make? He still tried to . . ."
"Yeah, and what did you do to get you here in the first place, Mr. Angel?" asked my youngest son.
"Oo's" went through the crowd of boys as the words hit Enrique in the gut.
"That's not fair. I didn't try to kill anyone. And I was so young that I didn't . . ."
"But, Enrique," interrupted AJ as he walked up to the boy, "Jeffy didn't know what happened either. He was mad and confused at everything that had happened in his life, losin' his real dad, his own mom ignoring him and letting him get hit by his step-dad and then losing his only friend, that he was so crazy when he did it, he didn't even remember being there. Did you remember what you did afterward?"
"Well, how do we know he wasn't lyin'," asked Enrique, though much more subdued than before.
They all looked at Jeffy for the answer, but his head was hanging down and even I could see the tears and hear his sobbing from the deck above them where I stood watching. Jeffy took a step forward and then fell to his knees.
I was so upset that I didn't see this coming. I was also upset that he had to relive it again. I thought it was in his past forever.
"I am so sorry, guys. I don't know how many times I can say it. Enrique, I even asked the judge to lock me up, but he said I wasn't even there that day. He said I was so out of it that I was only guilty of testing your dad's bullet-proof vest. I'm so sorry. I never wanted to hurt anyone, really."
It was Enrique's hand that he felt on his shoulder. AJ braced as Enrique walked past him to get to Jeffy.
"I know, Jeffy. That's just about what I said to the judge to that day when I . . ."
The tears made it hard for Enrique to say more. Instead, he placed his hands at Jeffy's side and helped him to stand. They looked at each other until a small grin came to Enrique's face.
"I was forgiven for what I did, and I know Pop has forgiven you. I was the holdout, the butthead that couldn't accept something so bad that could have killed my Pop. I forgive you too."
He pulled Jeffy into a hug and the other guys gathered around and patted backs and gave their own sentiments about what had taken place. The air quickly dissipated of all the tension and strife that had taken over the last few minutes of very young, almost totally innocent lives. They were all too young to be involved in the many twists and turns their lives had taken.
As I looked at each of them from where I stood, I was so thankful that they each had someone to look up to now and fill their lives with the positive reinforcement that all young children should have from day one.
"Okay, who's up to helping me with feeding all you walking eating machines? Enrique? Jeffy?" I shouted from above.
Ralph and I got things set up, so the two new friends could start barbequing the meat as Ralph and I went into the kitchen to prepare the rest of the feast and talk about what was happening only a few miles from our own near tragedy.
The big black truck with the huge row of lights on top, skidded into the property and screeched to a stop as the two men that were already there were pulling the cargo from the trunk of the big red car.
"So, it was just a matter of waiting for him to pass me after you'd called. I realize that there was little chance that he'd even come that way, but it seemed to work out. I just turned around and, within a few minutes I had him pushed off the road and all I had to do was step out long enough to do my good deed for the day and start looking for the boy."
"So, Gus is dead?" asked the sheriff of the man tugging on the boy to make him stand up.
The heat from being in the trunk had dehydrated the boy and made him even weaker than he already was.
"Yup. One little ole bullet to the temple at about fifteen feet is just about the right distance to cause it to explode in the soft tissue of the brain. Man, it sure left a mess in that van. Glass and blood and, well, all over. Ha ha!"
The boy almost said something but knew what would happen to him if he did. He couldn't quite grasp that Gus was dead, he was waiting to hear about him being skinned, but a bullet and blood and stuff, it was too much to comprehend.
"What are you fidgeting about, you little shit? Your big old buddy, Gus, is all dead and gone," said the old man. "Soon, you'll be able to ask him how it felt, if you both go to the same place, heaven or hell. Ain't it so, son?"
"Dad, I told you to quit calling me son. I disowned you years ago even before you found me here and moved your operation just, so you could make my life hell again."
"Ha ha! That may be, you worthless ingrate, but you didn't seem to have a problem with helping out and raking in the dough when it came in."
"The sheriff? Well, I'll be damned," said the man from the red car, his hands on his hips, with a swaying boy standing next to him.
The boy slipped into another place, long enough to think, 'Damned: Condemned by God to suffer eternal punishment in hell.' Then he thought, 'Good place for him!'
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar