LA VERNIA, Texas — Six-year-old Ryland Ward jumps down from his uncle Michael’s lap and bounds across the job site.
The Dallas Morning News reports there’s chocolate ice cream, he’s heard, his favorite.
Climbing onto the minitractor parked in front of the house, Ryland holds the carton in his good hand and gnaws at the lid. He’s intent on opening it himself, but as chocolate begins to seep out the sides, he hands it to Michael, who peels open the lid for him.
Feet dangling off the little machine, Ryland finally digs in.
His left knee is locked in place, inches below where a bullet entered his upper thigh. The arm on that side bends just halfway, wrapped in a medical sleeve that supports his shattered elbow. From his belly hangs a colostomy bag.
Thursday marked five months since the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. The anniversary was going unmarked here at the Ward family home. Ryland’s dad isn’t ready to look back on what he’s lost.
But he knows what he’s looking forward to.
“Starting over, I guess,” Chris Ward says, tilting his black cowboy hat against the midday sun. “Trying to.”
The half-eaten ice cream lies forgotten in the dirt as Ryland climbs a ramp into the house, a dog named Fluffy clutched under his good arm. His left shoe is missing.
“It got sucked into the mud!” he shrieks, laughing. He takes off at a run around the living room, a strawberry-blond blur.
This is the house where Chris grew up, where he and his brother moved when Michael was Ryland’s age. The old place has been stripped down to its original floorboards and studs, a project to keep the brothers busy and provide father and son with a fresh start.
An ex-oilfield worker, Chris has a perpetual smirk in his eyes and deep smile lines that make him look a bit older than his 33 years. He surveys the work left to be done. An old Mickey Mouse lunchbox lies on the floor; a rusted bathtub sits in a corner. Chris points out the gutted kitchen he hopes will be finished in a few months.
Chris was asleep that morning five months ago. He was resting after an overnight shift when Michael woke him in a panic. A shooter was in the church, he said, and so was Chris’ family.
The shooter was gone by the time the brothers arrived, dead in a ditch from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. With him, he took Chris’ wife, Joann, his daughter, Brooke, his stepdaughter, Emily, and 23 others. Rhianna, Joann’s eldest daughter, was not shot, but Ryland, then 5, was hit four times.
Chris doesn’t want to talk about what happened that November morning in the church.
But then, he’s never been much of a talker. That’s more Michael’s style, the “loudmouth” of the family, and Ryland is clearly following in his uncle’s footsteps.
The boy demands more ice cream or maybe pizza, depending on what he’s craving that minute. He chats easily with the men on the job site, where everyone has a nickname.
“That’s Cowboy,” Ryland says, pointing to a man driving an old pickup down the road. And him, the man hauling trash out of a trailer? “Outlaw,” Ryland adds with finality. What about yours?
“Butt crack!” Michael yells from across the yard.
Ryland makes a face. His dad chuckles.
Since the Nov. 5 shooting, Ryland has had countless surgeries and hours of physical therapy.
He’s also gotten hundreds of toys from well-wishers around the world, so many they’re stacked floor to ceiling in Chris’ home. Ryland made friends with the man who helped save him, an emergency worker named Rusty Duncan, who has become like family to the Wards.
He rode in a real-life firetruck. He celebrated his sixth birthday.
“He got shot there and it kind of messed everything up,” Chris says matter-of-factly, pointing to Ryland’s stomach. The bag should be removed by July, he says, and eventually Ryland should have full use of his left leg and arm. “It’s getting better. He’s a lot stronger.”
By lunchtime, Ryland has kicked off the other shoe.
He wipes his nose on his bright red shirt — “CAN’T HOLD ME BACK” it screams, in big letters — and begins the slow climb into the attic, still clutching Fluffy. Chris stands at the top of the ladder, among the empty candy tins and soda cans, old family photos and birthday cards. He watches Ryland make the careful ascent.
About halfway up, the boy falters.
“What’s going to happen if you fall?” Chris asks, hand outstretched. Ryland looks up, grinning. He nearly makes it to the top before reaching out for his dad.
“Look out here,” Ryland says, peering out the window at the road that leads back toward Sutherland Springs. Chris gestures in that direction, saying he avoids the town and the church if he can help it, “I don’t even go over there.”
He knows one day he’ll be done on the job site, Ryland will be in school and he’ll probably be back in his job as a truck driver. One day, he knows he’ll have to talk about what happened in the church last November.
But not yet.
“Next time,” Chris says. “Maybe I can talk more.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News