SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas – In a bright red firetruck, Ryland Ward, 6, waved to the cheering crowds gathered to give him a hero's welcome in Sutherland Springs.
Sitting beside him behind the wheel was Stockdale Assistant Fire Chief Rusty Duncan, enjoying his young friend's enthusiasm as they made their way from University Hospital to Ryland's house. Escorted by numerous law enforcement and first responders along the way, Ryland lived a young boy's dream as he rode shotgun, waving to crowds along the side of the road.
"He loved every minute of the firetruck," Duncan said after dropping Ryland off at home.
"He loved seeing all the firetrucks on the overpasses. He loved that. All the people waving at him, he loved it. He just — he couldn't believe how many people were there with him," Duncan said.
Ryland was finally returning to the Sutherland Springs area from University Hospital, where he has been since he was shot five times in the Nov. 5 mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. A gunman opened fire on the congregation, taking 26 lives, including those of Ryland's stepmother JoAnn Ward and siblings Brooke Ward, 5, and Emily Garza, 7, and injuring several others, including Ryland.
Duncan was the one who found the boy and brought him out of the defiled church that day.
"He was on the ground, under his mom," Duncan recalled. "And I felt a little tug on my pant leg. He was holding onto it. So I reached down to grab him, picked him up and took him outside as quick as I could."
But it wouldn't be the last time they'd see each other. Duncan visited Ryland several times as the boy lay in the hospital, drawn by the special bond the two shared.
"From the time I saw his eyes looking up at me inside the church to the whole time his eyes were open at me laying on the ground, to the minute I saw him for the first time in the hospital, we just had a connection," Duncan said.
When the boy was healthy enough to come home, Duncan gave him a ride. He said he'll continue to stay in touch with Ryland.
"I'm happy that he can start his life being a normal, 6-year-old little boy," Duncan said.
It was a blessing appreciated by the dozens of people who gathered at the main intersection in Sutherland Springs so they could wave and show their support. For a community that has suffered so much, Ryland's return was a happy moment.
"Joy. Total joy," Sutherland Springs resident Virginia McMeans said. "I don't know him personally, but I know the hardship he and his family have gone through, and we're a community. We stick together no matter what."
The homecoming was so happy because of how starkly different it was to the horrific November day that made it necessary in the first place.
"This is something he's going to remember, and I hope he remembers this more than the other," said Sheri Cover, who knew Ryland's stepmother.
Though Thursday was an undoubtedly happy day, the town still bears visible scars of its pain and grief. Ryland's homecoming procession passed near the white crosses that still stand as a grim reminder of the others who won't ever be coming back.
But he did, and for now, that's enough.