"Da! Da! Come on!" JD shouted excitedly as the wagon slowed to a stop in front of the cabin. Buck reached out and snagged the boy as he ran for the door, returning him to his seat at the table. "But Da! Uncle 'Ziah is here! It's time to go!" the little brunet protested.
"And you still need to finish your breakfast. I don't want to hear your tummy rumbling all day because you didn't eat," Buck said. He shook his head as JD began to shovel the scrambled eggs into his mouth. "Try chewing, Little Bit," he prompted just as JD grabbed his cup of milk and chugged it down.
"I'm done! Can I go get in the wagon now?" JD asked, wiping his milk mustache on his sleeve as he looked up hopefully.
Realizing that he couldn't resist the boy's enthusiasm, Buck ruffled JD's hair and gave him a swat on the pants. "Alright, you can go outside but mind Josiah," he said. He shook his head as JD ran out of the cabin like it was on fire. 'Oh, bad comparison,' he chided himself mentally. Gathering the dishes from the table, he placed them in the hot water in the sink and washed them.
Out in the yard, Chris tightened the cinch on his saddle and gave it a hard shake to make sure it was settled. Pony's head swung around and gave the horse a pat as he flipped the stirrup down. He moved around the big, black gelding to the smaller horse tethered next to him. Vin was still brushing Peso, his saddle sitting on a block of wood near the barn. Chris resisted the urge to help, knowing that the 8 year old was more than capable of getting the horse ready. Hearing the sound of a wagon coming up the road, he looked toward the house, expecting the brunet tornado to come flying out any second.
JD had awakened them before daylight, excited at the prospect of getting to go to Ridge City. They were having a big auction there and Chris wanted to take some of his horses to sell. He also wanted to look into a couple of dairy cows for the ranch. After Buck told JD about the big steam engine that would be bringing animals to the auction, the little boy had talked of nothing else. Even though he and Vin had come west on the orphan train, JD was still excited about seeing a train again.
Josiah brought the wagon to a stop and tied the long reins around the brake before climbing down. He nodded to Chris as he crossed the yard.
"Looks like good travelling weather," Josiah said by way of greeting.
"I just hope it holds," Chris replied. "Got fresh coffee in the house."
Just then, the front door flew open and JD came racing out, skidding to a stop at the edge of the porch to run back and close the door. His little boots thudded across the boards and he leapt off, avoiding the steps, to run over to where Josiah stood. The little brunet wrapped his arms around the tall man's legs.
"Uncle 'Ziah, we're going to Ridge City to see the train!" he shouted happily.
Josiah squatted down in front of the child, turning his head to avoid getting his nose bumped by the enthusiastic hug that was thrown around his neck. He tucked a hand under the over-all clad bottom and lifted JD off of the ground.
"I know. And you're going to ride in the wagon with me, right?" he asked.
"Only sometimes," JD corrected, "The rest of the times I'm riding with my Da!"
"Then I will be all by myself in the wagon," Josiah said sadly.
JD's bright smile slipped slightly and he looked from the wagon to the three horses tethered at the corral rail. He didn't want to make his uncle sad.
"Maybe Chris can ride with you so Pony can have a rest," JD suggested, knowing that Vin wouldn't be willing to give up the chance to ride Peso for the wagon.
Josiah smiled and gave the considerate little boy a squeeze. "I'm sure that I'll be alright in the wagon, JD," he said.
Chris lowered the tailgate and checked the supplies piled in the wagon bed. He was pleased to see that Josiah had secured all of the boxes with thick, sturdy ropes so that they wouldn't slide around. He checked the barrels of water on either side, making sure that they were full. He then moved to the stack of supplies on the edge of the porch. He loaded two carpetbags of clothes and a pile of blankets, putting them closer to the front of the wagon. He picked up the canvas bag of toys that JD and Vin had carefully packed and hung it from the back of the bench so that it would be easy to find.
Buck came out of the cabin, looking back over his shoulder as he tried to figure out if he had forgotten anything. He knew that Josiah had loaded the wagon with all of the things on the list they had been making up as they planned the trip, so they had food and cooking utensils. Chris had already loaded the pile of bedding and they had rain slickers tied to the cantle of each of their saddles with their extra bedrolls. As his eyes scoured the cabin one more time, he spotted the smaller version of his own Stetson hat hanging on the peg beside the door. JD had been so thrilled to get the hat for his birthday; he wore it everywhere, even to bed, for a while. Buck grabbed the hat and pulled the door closed, rattling it to be sure it stayed closed.
JD, seeing his Da standing on the porch with his hat, struggled to get down and Josiah set him on his feet without pausing in the conversation he was having with Vin, who was checking his saddle. JD raced across the yard, stumbling on the porch steps. He would have fallen if it weren't for Buck's quick response.
Scooping the small boy up before he could hit the boards of the porch, Buck swung him up and settled JD on his hip. He plopped the mini-Stetson on the boy's head and gave his button nose a gentle pinch.
"You need to slow down there, Little Bit," Buck chided.
"I almost forgotted my hat!" JD exclaimed breathlessly.
"We should get moving," Chris announced. Buck immediately strode over to where his horse stood and tossed JD up on the saddle. Chris untied his reins from the rail with a tug and nodded to Vin that it was alright for him to do the same. He watched as his son flipped the reins back over Peso's neck and moved to mount. Only when the tow-headed boy was safely in the saddle did Chris set his foot in his stirrup and swing up onto Pony. He had already tied the horses to the remuda lines and he reached down to collect the end of one rope.
Swinging up behind JD, Buck grabbed the other remuda line and waited until Chris had his horses out of the way before he clucked to Beau. The gentle gelding stepped back from the rail and fell in behind the other horses. JD, who had been talking almost non-stop since his eyes opened, leaned back against him and sighed in contentment.
Josiah collected the reins and waited his turn to fall into line behind the horses. He had volunteered to go along so that there would be an adult who could watch over the boys if Chris and Buck needed to do anything with the horses. It was quiet in town and Ezra and Nathan were more than able to look after things for the week and a half to two weeks it would take to complete the trip to Ridge City and back. Originally, Chris had planned to leave the boys with Nettie Wells but Vin had been so disappointed that he relented. There was some concern over taking JD, until Josiah offered to go along and drive the wagon.
The early morning sun was warm and welcome after the cool of the night. They took it easy, having allowed three days to make the trip out. JD dozed for a while, so soundly that Buck was able to stop next to the wagon and hand him to Josiah. Vin rode close to Chris and they were quietly discussing whatever came to mind. When JD awakened, he was content to sit in the wagon and play for a while.
They stopped for lunch near a stream so that the horses could get a drink and forage on the lush, green grass. JD was back in the saddle with Buck, talking a hundred words a minute, commenting on everything he saw. Buck swung the boy to the ground and dismounted, limping slightly as his legs were tender from the way JD had been bouncing his booted feet against Buck's knees.
Chris led Pony to the stream behind Vin and Peso. The fair-haired boy smiled, leaning against his mount as the horse drank its fill. Chris smiled, Vin would be good with horses when he grew up. The boy was calm and quiet around the animals and possessed an almost psychic connection with his mount.
"That's enough," Vin said, pulling Peso back from the water's edge, "You can have more later." He led the horse over to a sturdy little bush and tied his reins so that Peso had plenty of room to browse on the grass. He came back over and leaned against Chris' legs.
"Are you enjoying the ride, Cowboy?" Chris asked, reaching down to pat his son on the shoulder.
"Yep, s'fun," Vin replied.
They went back to where Josiah was handing out biscuits with sliced ham inside. Sanchez had built a small fire and started a pot of coffee for the adults while he had poured apple juice from a jug for the boys. Buck led his remuda of horses to the stream, warning JD to stay with Josiah.
Sitting on a handy rock, Chris took the biscuit from Josiah and motioned for Vin to join him. Vin willingly scooted up on the rock and leaned against his adopted dad happily. Chris put an arm around the boy, reveling in the close contact.
An hour later, they were back on the road. JD and Vin were in the wagon, Peso tied to the tailgate. Both boys were animated at first, galloping the carved wooden horses all around the inside of the wagon. But eventually, the long morning caught up with them and they lay down and slept. Buck took his string of horses out first, since he had been behind Chris all morning. JD only slept for a short time because he had napped that morning and he crawled to the back of the wagon and talked to Peso until Vin awoke.
They came to a swift running river and stopped to let the horses get a drink. Chris told Vin to stay back while he forded the water to see how deep it was. It was deeper than he expected. He rode Pony back over to where Vin was holding Peso back from entering the water.
"Vin, you're going to have to ride up here with me," Chris commanded. He held out his hand and Vin reached out, wrapping both hands around his forearm and kicking his toes out of the stirrups. Chris pulled him up out of the saddle and settled the boy in front of him. "Buck, leave JD with Josiah and bring that first line of horses across. I'll wait with them on the other side, then you can bring the other ones across." He swung Pony around and rode across the stream, leading Peso. Once they were on the other side, he let Vin get back on his horse and urged him to ride up the road and out of the way.
Buck nodded in agreement and rode closer to the wagon as Josiah reached out and plucked JD from in front of him. He secured the other line of horses to the side of the wagon and urged Beau toward the river. The horses forded into the water, pausing to sniff and taking another drink before they completed the crossing and walked out on the other side. Chris took the rope and led the horses away while Buck rode back for the others.
Once all of the horses were on the other side, Josiah snapped the reins on his team and sent them toward the water. They were fine until they got across and tried to pull the wagon up the slight incline. The horses were rented from the livery and Tiny warned him that they were not used to pulling heavy loads. They were usually rented out with the small sulkies by people who were just visiting in the area. Josiah snapped the reins again, urging them to pull but the horse on the left side of the tongue was starting to panic. The young gelding tried to rear up against the heavy harness.
"Damn!" Buck cursed as he reached out to tie the remuda rope to a tree limb. The horses were both starting to panic, pulling in opposite directions. The wagon tongue held them securely, only adding to their frantic struggles. Buck rushed back into the water and reached out to try to take hold of the more panicked animal. He slid from the saddle and into the water, dragging his bandana from around his neck. It took him a moment to blindfold the young gelding, which settled him down immediately. He climbed up on the wagon tongue and calmed the other horse before motioning for Josiah to try to urge them across again. The horses leaned into the harness and Buck was right there, coaxing the animals with his hands and voice. Finally, the wagon started moving and rolled up the incline.
Chris had already dismounted and had caught Beau when he came out of the water. Josiah drove the wagon beyond where the other horses were waiting before he drew to a stop. JD stood up behind the bench and quickly climbed into Josiah's lap before calling out to Buck.
"Can we do it again?" JD shouted.
The stress of the moment instantly dissolved and Buck dropped his chin to his chest to hide the big, goofy grin on his face. Vin dismounted and jogged over to stand next to Chris, who was doing his best not to laugh.
Camp for the night was near a copse of large shade trees. Vin helped Chris and Buck to set up a make-shift corral by running sturdy ropes around some of the trees. Josiah started a fire and began fixing supper for all of them. JD stayed near the fire, breaking up small sticks and tossing them into the flames. He was fascinated when Josiah opened a mason jar and poured the contents into the cast-iron Dutch oven slung over the fire.
"What'cha making, Uncle 'Ziah?" JD asked.
"Beans," Josiah answered as he cut up some chunks of ham and dropped them into the pot. He would wait until they were mostly done before he started the cornbread.
"That's not the way my Da makes them," the little brunet informed Josiah. "But his come out kinda stinky," JD continued, waving his hand in front of his wrinkled nose.
"Well, mine won't," Josiah replied.
While Buck went back to the wagon, Chris and Vin went for a walk. Chris smiled when he felt the slender fingers curl around his hand.
"Are you really going to sell those horses?" Vin finally asked.
"That's why I raise them, son," Chris answered.
"I'm gonna miss 'em," Vin said.
"But there'll be other horses," Larabee offered.
"Yeah, but you've had these since we " Vin paused before changing his mind, "for a long time."
"Yeah, I've been working on breaking them for a while. Now that they're ready, I'll sell them and buy a couple of cows and some other things we need at home," Chris explained.
"What kind of things?" Vin asked.
"Well, you and JD both need things for school and you're going to need new clothes for the winter. You're growing like a weed," he teased. Movement in the bushes up ahead distracted him from seeing the worried look on the boy's face. "Vin! Look right there!" Chris said as he went to his knees and pointed.
A small fox slipped out of its den and darted away. Vin's eyes followed it until he couldn't see it any longer, then he looked back to where the animal had first appeared.
"There's a hole under that bush," Vin whispered.
"That's where it lives," Chris explained. "In the spring, if it's a female, it'll have babies in there." A few moments later, another fox came out of the hole and looked right at them. "See, there's a pair of them. In the spring, there'll be a whole kit of little ones in there."
Vin stared at the little animal, marveling at the large ears. He wondered if the fox's fur was as soft as a dog's. The second fox shrank back into the hole and out of sight.
"Come on, it won't come out now that it saw us," Chris said as he slowly stood up and took Vin's hand again.
Peso nickered when he saw them coming and Vin detoured to the rope corral. He reached out to scratch at the side of the horse's neck, knowing just where he liked to be scratched. After a few minutes, Peso moved away from him, dipping his head to crop more of the grass at his feet.
The beans and cornbread were dished up and they dug in. JD's running commentary on how much better Uncle Josiah's beans were than Buck's caused Chris to laugh at his friend. Cooking was definitely not Wilmington's strong suit.
The boys played after supper. Vin told JD about the foxes he had seen and the younger boy begged to go see them too but Buck told him that it was too late to be traipsing through the woods. After the sun went down, it began to get cooler and the boys came to sit closer to the fire.
"Tell us a story, Uncle 'Ziah," Vin begged.
"Hmm, a story," Josiah mused. "Have I ever told you about the time I went to a place called India?"
"Is that where Indian's come from?" JD asked eagerly.
"Like Kojay?" Vin asked.
"No, Kojay isn't from that India. You see, when the settlers first arrived here on this continent, they thought they had found their way to India so they called the people Indians. But the tribes of people they met weren't Indians," Josiah explained.
"Then how come they called them Indians?" JD asked.
Josiah took up a stick and began to sketch a map in the dirt near the fire. He explained how the people from Spain sailed out in their ships and landed in what they called 'The New World' and thought that it was India. From there, he had to explain about the large sailing ships, larger than 20 of Chris and Buck's cabin.
Both of the boys drifted off to sleep leaning against their fathers. Josiah had already made up the bed in the wagon and had pulled out bedding for the three adults, so all they had to do was remove the boys' boots and carry them to the wagon.
Vin came awake with a gasp and clung to Chris as he was lifted from the ground. "No! Don't leave me!" he murmured sleepily. Larabee sank back against the saddle he had been leaning on and began to soothe the boy.
JD, on the other hand, was out like a light, snoring softly as Josiah pulled Buck to his feet. Wilmington carefully placed the little brunet in the pallet in the wagon and tugged his boots from his feet. Suddenly, JD turned over and curled into a ball, having lost the warmth of Buck's body. Buck covered the boy, tucking the blanket in close as he leaned in to drop a kiss on the long, dark hair.
"Sweet dreams, Little Bit," Buck whispered.
Chris waited several minutes for Vin to settle into a deep sleep before he got up and put the boy to bed. As soon as his boots were off, Vin snuggled up against JD, curling one arm protectively over the smaller boy. Chris tucked the blankets in around the boy and leaned down, brushing his hair back so he could kiss the nape of Vin's neck.
"Sleep well, Cowboy," Chris murmured softly.
Josiah groaned as he stretched his tall, muscular body. "Who would have thought sitting in a wagon all day was such hard work?" he wondered aloud.
"Try sitting in the saddle with JD for a few hours," Buck replied, rubbing at the bruises on his legs. "I'm thinking of investing in some moccasins like Kojay's people wear for him."
The men settled into their bedrolls and waited for sleep to come. As the fire burned low, soft snores, and some not so soft, came from all three of them.
An insistent finger was poking him in the arm and Buck opened his eyes. JD leaned down and 'whispered' in his ear.
"I gots to go potty, Da."
Buck looked around, confused for a moment, before he came fully awake.
"Hurry up, Da!" JD whined.
Tossing back the blankets, Buck tugged his boots on and looked to see that JD was still in his stocking feet. He scooped the boy up and carried him away from the camp, setting him down near a tree so he could do his business. Just hearing it was enough to make Buck's bladder tingle and he moved a few steps away to do what he needed to do. When they were finished, Buck picked JD up and carried him back to camp. He tried to put JD back into the wagon but the brunet clung to him. Figuring that he had a better chance of getting a bit more sleep if he kept JD with him, Buck returned to his bedroll and crawled in, cuddling JD in close and covering him with the blanket. A few minutes later, he heard the soft snores that indicated he had been successful, or lucky.
It was the smell of coffee that woke Buck the next time. He immediately realized that JD was no longer pressed against him and he bolted up in a panic.
"He's fine. He's over with Vin and they're brushing Peso," Chris said, pressing Buck down against his bedroll and setting a cup of coffee within reach. "What time did he get up this morning?"
"Dunno," Buck mumbled thickly, "it was barely daylight."
Chris smiled as he stirred the gravy in the skillet. He had biscuits cooking in the Dutch oven and they would be done in just a few minutes. Josiah had heated some water and was shaving, balancing a small mirror on the side of the wagon against the canvas. Chris recalled having Vin watch him when he shaved before starting breakfast.
"Does it hurt?" Vin asked as he worriedly watched Chris drag the straight razor along his cheek. He was still holding the cup with the soap and lather brush in his hands.
"No, it doesn't hurt unless you cut yourself," Chris explained.
"Is it hard to learn?" Vin asked.
"Who teached you to do it?"
"Taught," Chris corrected, "My dad taught me."
"Will you teach me when I'm old enough?"
"I sure will, Cowboy," Chris said, giving Vin's knobby knee a squeeze.
Josiah lumbered over and sat down on the crate he had brought out of the wagon. "Should I call the boys?" he asked.
"Yeah, they need to wash up," Chris replied.
Buck passed on shaving and they all ate. While Josiah and the boys cleaned up the dishes and repacked the wagon, Chris and Buck checked on the horses and put them back on the remuda lines. They rolled up the extra ropes and put them in the wagon. Once the horses were saddled or hitched to the wagon, they were on their way.
The second day passed much the same as the first. JD spent most of the day riding with Buck, holding the reins and 'steering' Beau. Buck made more of an effort to remind JD not to bounce his feet so that his sore legs could have a respite. After lunch, while JD slept, Vin chose to remain awake and talk to Josiah about those confused settlers.
They made camp the second night and Chris cooked supper. Nettie had given him a jar of stew stock with beef in it so all he had to do was peel and cut up some of the potatoes and carrots they had brought along. The boys were pleased with the cornbread pancakes that he gave them because they were easier to manage than the wedges which tended to fall apart when they bit into them. There was a small lake close by and Buck took the boys down there to clean up while the food cooked. In no time, Chris could hear happy squeals and splashing, meaning that they were playing in the water instead of just washing up. He reached out and eased the Dutch oven away from the direct heat of the fire so it would stay warm without burning.
Rapid City appeared on the horizon around mid morning. Their little group of horses and wagon were passed by others on their way into the town and Chris nodded a greeting to the people as they rode by. JD was riding with Buck and, judging from the occasional winces coming from that direction, he had forgotten all about keeping his feet still in the excitement of getting close to town.
"Can we go see the big engine right away, Da? Can we?" JD begged.
"No, first we have to take the horses to the auction site and drop them off," Buck explained. "Then we'll have to see if the train has arrived."
The auction was taking place at the far end of town and they circled around to avoid the crowds that they could see in the streets. As they approached the site, the air was filled with the scents and sounds of animals. Horses nickered to each other and calves bawled at being separated from their mothers for the first time. The boys were excited, pointing and calling out everything they saw.
"What are those?" Vin asked as he pointed to something he had never seen before.
"Those are loading chutes. They use them to put the cattle on the trains," Chris explained. "And they use them to unload the animals, too."
"They're going to shoot them? JD asked, turning awkwardly to look up at Buck.
"No, those things are called loading chutes. No one is going to be shooting," Buck stated firmly.
Leaving the boys and Peso with Josiah, Chris and Buck took the horses over to sign them up for the auction. There were special wranglers who worked for the auction house who checked the brand on each one and then checked the animal to make sure they were healthy. Chris filled out the paperwork, putting down the minimum he would take for the horses and agreeing to pay a percentage of the sale price to the auction house. When they were finished, they returned to the wagon to decide where to stay that night. It was a fair bet that the hotels were full, judging from the number of wagons and people milling around. Since the weather was nice, they decided to find a place for the wagon and camp out again. As soon as they tended to their mounts and the rented horses, they went for a walk. JD and Vin wanted to see the other animals that were for sale. Josiah said he was going to visit the church and renew his acquaintance with the minister who preached there.
Chris was mainly interested in getting a couple of cows for milk for the boys but he was also interested in the quantity and quality of horses for sale. He was always on the look out for a good stallion or a mare with good lines.
Buck set JD up on his shoulders because it was easier to keep up with him that way after the third time he had looked down and found the boy had wandered away.
"Da! Look!" JD cried, leaning around and pointing. They were walking along the edge of a corral filled with weanling calves. "They're cute!" JD added enthusiastically.
"Are you interested in him?" a man asked when Chris stopped to look at a stallion in one of the stalls.
"He has good conformation," Chris answered as he studied the horse's chest and withers.
"He came all the way from Kentucky," the man explained. "Bred to run. Watch him, sonny, he bites!" the man warned as Vin stepped up to the gate.
Vin backed away, skirting around to get behind Chris. He watched from the safety of distance while Chris and the man discussed the horse for a few minutes, then Chris took him by the hand and they went on down the aisle.
"Are you gonna buy him?" Vin asked hesitantly.
"Probably not. He's got good lines but if he's mean I don't want him around you and JD," Chris replied.
They ran into Buck and JD a little later. Both of them were sitting on a bale of hay and JD was eating a roasted ear of corn. Vin's eyes lit up and Chris took him over to the stand where the man was selling them. Before long, both of the boys had butter smeared all over their cheeks as they enjoyed their snack. JD had just finished when the whistle of the train reached their ears. Immediately, he leapt off of the hay bale and began to look around. Buck sighed as he took his handkerchief and began to wipe the butter from JD's face and hands.
It was interesting to see the train coming down the tracks but it was also very loud. JD clamped his hands over his ears as the engine got closer and closer. When it stopped, there was a loud hiss of steam when the engineer released the pressure on the engine. A porter leapt out and set a wooden crate on the ground so that the passengers could get down from the car. About a dozen children bounced down the steps, gaily jostling each other until two women stepped down and called to them.
Chris looked down when he felt Vin's arm tighten around his legs. At first, he thought it was the crowd and the noise but after a moment, he realized that Vin was staring at the kids who were standing in a tight cluster, waiting for their bags to be passed over to them. Larabee sank to his knees and turned the blond boy around to face him.
"You belong to me forever, remember?" he said softly. "No one is ever going to take you away."
Vin nodded before throwing himself into Chris' arms. Larabee stood up, one arm automatically sliding around the boy's bottom to support him. He caught Buck's eye and nodded in the general direction of the wagon. When Buck nodded, Chris turned and quickly made his way past the crowd of people, glaring balefully at anyone who dared to get in his way. By the time he reached the stock yard, Vin had stopped shaking and pushed away from him, asking to be let down. Chris set the boy on his feet and took hold of his hand. They stopped to watch the wranglers unloading some cattle from one of the rail cars. Vin gasped and held his breath when one of the animals tried to leap out of the chute and landed on top of some of the others.
"Why do they do that?" Vin asked.
"Because they're scared. All they knew was open fields and then they're packed into a dark, closed in space and taken away," Chris replied.
"I know how they feel," Vin said somberly. "D'ya reckon they'll find homes like I did?"
"I'm sure," Chris answered, not telling the boy that some of them would likely end up at a butcher's shop.
Chris sprang for fried chicken from a restaurant for supper for them that night. He joked that he was sparing all of them from suffering the effects of eating Buck's cooking, since it was his turn to make supper. Buck chipped in for more of the roasted corn on the cob and Josiah bought a pie, making for a regular party atmosphere at their camp that evening. After they had eaten, JD asked if they could go play with some of the other kids whose parents were camping nearby. Chris and Buck agreed, provided that they stay in sight of the camp.
When the boys were well out of earshot, Buck asked the question that had been on his mind since earlier in the day, "What happened at the train today?"
"Vin got upset when he saw all of those kids get off of the train," Chris replied.
"Why?" Buck asked.
"I guess he was feeling a little insecure."
"He should have stayed another minute or two, there were about eight more kids on the wagons that came to pick them up," Buck said.
"And you think that would have helped?" Chris asked.
"Eight kids and their fathers. I talked to one of the older boys, the men came west with the older children to buy property for them to live on. They're immigrants from Italy. Kinda hard to understand 'em at first but the younger one spoke real clear."
"Where were they settling?" Chris asked out of curiosity.
"North of Eagle Bend, according to what I could figure from what the man was saying. They make furniture," Buck replied.
"Wonder why some people have more kids than they can feed and clothe?" Chris mused.
"They're Roman Catholic, most likely," Josiah answered. "They have large families because they take God's command to 'go forth and multiply and cover the world' very seriously."
"Let me get this straight," Buck interrupted, "There's only one God, why are there so many different kinds of churches?"
"We all view God from a different perspective," Josiah explained, "We all interpret his word according to our beliefs."
"Sarah was a church-going woman," Chris said.
"Yep, she sure was," Buck agreed.
They fell into a companionable silence for a few minutes, until the rag ball that the kids were playing with rolled up and stopped at Buck's outstretched legs.
"I got it!" JD shouted, running toward the ball as fast as his little legs would carry him. "We's playing ball!" he shouted at Buck when he grabbed up the bundle of rags and ran back to the other kids.
Vin and JD protested when they were called to get ready for bed but they came obediently at their fathers' call. Josiah let them divide the last piece of the pie left over from supper after they washed their faces and hands. By the time they finished, the boys were too sleepy to protest when they were settled in the wagon for the night.
"Ah, Chris, I'm gonna go " Buck paused, unsure of how to say what he wanted to do.
"Just make sure that you're here when he wakes up in the morning," Chris replied.
After the sound of Buck's footfalls had faded amid the singing of the crickets and the whine of mosquitoes, Josiah spoke, "You can go too if you'd like."
Chris looked up from where he had been staring into the fire and shook his head. He shifted under his poncho and settled back against his saddle.
In the morning, Chris rolled over and looked to make sure Buck had made it back. He saw the profile of Wilmington's body beneath the quilt and he also spotted the small, sock-clad foot sticking out. He got up and went silently to the wagon to make sure Vin was covered. The blond-haired child was sprawled out in the blankets, one arm thrown across his eyes and his mouth open slightly as he slept.
After breakfast, Chris went to pick up the schedule for the auction. He was pleased to see that his horses were coming up around mid morning, when the action would be fast and furious. Buck and Josiah secured seats for all of them, close enough that the boys would be able to see what was going on.
"There's Toby!" Vin announced when the familiar sorrel was led into the corral. The wrangler put him on a lunge line and put him through his paces, walk, trot, gallop, so that everyone could see the way he moved before the auctioneer took the podium and made the announcement.
"This three year-old gelding is from the Larabee-Wilmington Ranch. He is saddle broken but not harness trained. Opening bid is seven dollars," the man said. The bidding went quickly and the horse sold for twelve dollars and seventy-five cents. A few other horses were auctioned before the next familiar animal was led into the ring. The bay mare sold for over eight dollars. By the time the last of their horses had sold, Chris and Buck had netted over a hundred dollars. Chris was so pleased with the outcome that he took all of them to the restaurant to celebrate over lunch.
That afternoon, Chris took Vin and went back to watch the rest of the auctioned horses while Buck took JD back to the wagon for a nap. Several hearty little mustangs that were just barely green-broke were sold for a few dollars each and Chris was thinking that he was wasting his time when he heard Vin gasp. A large Appaloosa was being put through its paces. Chris consulted the program and saw that it was a stallion. Not having seen the animal in the stalls, he had no idea what his personality was like and was reluctant to bid on him. He wouldn't take the chance on buying something that might be dangerous around the boys. The bidding stalled and Chris saw the auctioneer look to a man in a business suit not far from where he was sitting. The man shook his head and the horse was led from the ring without being sold.
Supper at the wagon was again supplemented by food bought from the restaurant and more of the roasted corn.
"I swear, JD, you are going to turn into an ear of roasted corn!" Buck exclaimed.
"Da!" JD protested. "I can't turn into corn!"
Vin looked up from where he was munching on his own ear of corn and giggled. He loved it when Buck teased him or JD. When he cast a quick glance at Chris, he saw his dad wink and he winked back.
The boys played with the other kids again until it was time to go back to the wagon and get ready for bed. Josiah entertained them with more stories about the first settlers and about their first encounters with the ones they called Indians.
The cattle were auctioned the next day. The yearling calves were sold in groups of five and ten and were bought by cattle ranchers to add to their herds. Chris didn't even bother going for those sales. But, while the cattle were being auctioned, he did go to the barn and look for the Appaloosa stallion. He wasn't sure why, but he was determined to find out about the animal's temperament. One of the wranglers watched him as he leaned against the gate and coaxed the stallion to come to him. The horse sniffed him and lipped at his palms before offering his itchy flanks for Chris to scratch.
"He was my wife's horse," a voice announced and Chris turned around to see the well-dressed man standing in the aisle.
"Was?" Chris questioned.
"Influenza took her. She called him Freckles. I told her it wasn't a good name for a stallion but " the man's words trailed off.
Chris recalled the last bid on the horse and asked, "Would you take fifteen dollars for him?"
"What are you going to do with him?" the man asked.
"I breed horses. You probably saw some of mine yesterday, the Larabee-Wilmington Ranch?" Chris said.
The man nodded, "You did quite well with them."
"Your horse has got the right size and depth of muscle. I would have bid on him yesterday but I had to know if he had the right personality. I have two small boys and I don't want anything too unpredictable," Chris explained.
"Can I have a day to think about it?" the man asked.
"Sure. I'm only looking for a couple of dairy cows today. We're leaving tomorrow."
"I'll let you know," the man said as he offered his hand for Chris to shake.
That afternoon, Chris bought two cows. They both had full, heavy udders and would give plenty of milk for the little family of four. Chris made arrangements to claim them the next morning on his way out.
With his business attended to, Chris returned to the wagon to see what the boys were doing. He was pleased to see that Buck and one of the other father's had organized a game of baseball. Vin was on second base and he was itching to make a break for third. When the next pitch was hit, the blond boy took off and safely reached the next base. Chris spotted Josiah and angled in his direction.
"Who's winning?" he asked.
"I don't rightly know. But they're having a good time," Sanchez replied as he poured some tea from a pitcher on the tailgate of the wagon and handed it to Chris.
It appeared that it was all of the kids against the two adults and the kids were ahead by at least 20 runs when the game was called for supper. Chris had been pleased to see that even JD had gotten to bat and run the bases. There was even a couple of freckle-faced, pig-tail wearing little girls playing with them.
In the morning, Chris stopped at the mercantile and picked up the few staples they needed for the trip home. He looked over their selection of shoes and clothes but they weren't any different than what he could get at home and he preferred to see Mrs. Potter get his money because the widowed woman needed it. He and Buck claimed the cows he had bought and led them back to the wagon, much to JD's delight. Vin was too mature to be excited over some silly cows, or so he would have the adults think. He certainly wasn't going to get too close to them.
JD squatted down and studied the funny bag hanging between the cow's back legs. Buck had said that they would get milk from there but he wasn't sure if he believed it or not. He didn't get too close because Chris said they might kick him or step on him.
The man with the Appaloosa didn't show up so Chris figured that he had found someone else to buy the stallion. He was only mildly unhappy about it; he figured he could get some good foals out of him. So, with the cows tied to the wagon, they set off for home.
"Bye! Bye!" JD shouted to anyone who would listen. He waved until his arm got tired. Then he sat and watched the cows that were tethered to the back of the wagon.
Vin rode alongside of Chris, just enjoying the time together. They rode in the field that ran alongside of the road, in the tall grass that came almost to Peso's belly. Going home was kind of anti-climactic for all of them after the excitement at the start of the trip. Vin had enjoyed seeing the other horses and he was glad that Chris and Buck's horses were going to new homes. He had even gotten to meet one of the men, who came to talk to Chris about if he had any more horses for sale.
Buck dropped back so he could check on JD. He had to smile when he heard the boy telling the cows all about the barn and the chickens and the horses and anything else that came into his active mind.
"You want to ride with me for a while, Little Bit?" Buck asked. JD nodded and quickly moved to the front of the wagon. Josiah held him by the back of his coveralls until Buck swept him from the bench and plopped him into the saddle in front of him.
For supper that night, Josiah surprised them by making chicken and dumplings. He had bought a couple of pieces of cooked chicken and some broth at the restaurant to make the special meal. Chris laughed when he heard that Sanchez had gotten his foot stepped on when he tried to milk one of the cows to make the dumplings.
The boys begged to be allowed to sleep on the ground with Chris and Buck that night. As Josiah sat by the fire that evening, he listened to the conversations between the two men and the boys.
"See that group right there?" Chris was asking Vin, who was nestled up next to him under the shared blankets. "They call them the Big Dipper."
Vin's face brightened after he studied the twinkling spots of light, "Oh, because it looks like a bid ladle!"
"That's right. And see, if you follow the brightest one down just a little " Chris continued, pointing to demonstrate what he was talking about.
"I'm gonna call her Daisy," JD was saying. "And the other one is Marigold."
"How do you know which is which?" Buck asked.
"Daisy has a brown spot on her nose," the little brunet explained patiently. "Did you know that cows are special in India? Uncle 'Ziah was telling me that they can just walk into your house."
"Don't go getting any ideas, Little Bit, the cows have to stay in the field or in the barn," Buck reminded as sternly as he could manage.
"But Da, what if they gets cold or something?" JD protested.
Breakfast was biscuits and bacon in the morning. Josiah awoke to see Chris sitting on the small, empty crate while he cooked in the small cast iron skillet. A fresh pot of coffee was perking, and the strong aroma filled the air, promising to aid them in waking. The boys were playing quietly not far from the fire, galloping their carved horses around and acting out whatever little boy fantasy they had chosen. Buck returned from his morning routine, scrubbing at his whiskered face as he looked around the campsite.
"Take a bucket and milk the cows," Chris suggested. When Buck gave him a questioning look, Larabee added, "You have more experience."
Lots of words rushed to the tip of his tongue but Buck clamped his jaw shut as two pair of young eyes swung around to settle on him. He did manage to scowl at Chris before he turned toward the wagon to get the bucket.
"Here, you'll need this," Josiah announced, holding out an unusual-looking thick rod of wood with a round, flat piece mounted on the end.
"What's this?" Buck asked, taking the object and turning it in his hand.
"Milking stool," the older man explained.
"What kind of stool only has one leg?" Buck asked, incredulously.
The boys followed him over to where the cows were tied to a sturdy rope strung between two trees. When Buck dropped the absurd-looking milking stool, JD immediately took it up and tried to sit on it. Vin drifted closer to the cow, eager to see exactly how Buck was going to get the milk out.
Buck sank to his knees and put the bucket on the ground in front of the cow's back legs. He rubbed his hands together, warming them, before he reached out and took hold of one of the udders. It took him a couple of times to get the right grip.
"Oh!" JD murmured as the first streams of milk sprayed into the bucket. He edged closer, one hand reaching back to keep the stool against his bottom. "Don't it hurt them?"
"No, it doesn't hurt," Buck replied, trying to work up the rhythm to use both hands at the same time. "If we don't do it, then it would make her uncomfortable," he explained. "And you're not to try this unless Chris or I are there to watch you."
With his back to Buck and the cows, Chris smiled at the way his friend worried over the boys. He had finished cooking the bacon and the biscuits were almost done. He realized that they would soon have a ready supply of fresh butter. Then he remembered that he would have to get a small churn. Mrs. Potter even had one that could be used inside of a mason jar.
After the cows were milked and two cups were poured for the boys, Buck carefully poured the rest into a jug with a good, stout cork. He tied a piece of twine to the handle and submerged it in the barrel of water on the side of the wagon. Josiah had dipped fresh, cool water from the nearby stream so that the milk would keep for a while.
They made good time that morning. JD rode with Buck. Josiah smiled at seeing the way the former rogue tenderly protected the little boy, his large hand splayed against JD's chest, holding him as they rode. He also saw the way Buck actively listened to the constant stream of words that issued from the boy's mouth. Too many adults would have ignored the child, thinking that his thoughts were not important. But Buck responded to every question, every comment, letting JD know that he was listening.
On the other side of the road, Chris and Vin rode side by side. Although very little was said between them, the affection of the man for the child was obvious in the way the hazel eyes constantly surveyed the horizon, alert for any danger. He knew that, if threatened, Chris Larabee would not hesitate to use lethal force against anything that endangered the son of his heart. Josiah wondered what Chris Larabee would have been like if his first family had not been taken from him so cruelly.
That afternoon, Chris spotted something that caused the hair on the back of his neck to rise. His voice was deceptively calm as he leaned over to speak to Vin, "I want you to go get in the wagon, son."
Vin drew a breath to protest but something in the way Chris had spoken made him swallow hard and guide Peso over to the wagon.
Buck and Josiah had seen it too and the other horses slowed to a stop. Buck transferred JD to Josiah's care and rode around to take up a defensive position in front of the wagon. He looked at Chris, waiting for him to nod before they began to hesitantly approach the body lying on the ground near the trees. A mustang pony was ground-tied not far away and it nickered in greeting as the other horses came closer. Chris and Buck slipped cautiously from the saddles and carefully crept forward. The downed man moaned softly and Chris instantly drew his weapon.
The reason for the young man to be lying there became clear when he jerked in fear at seeing the two white men standing over him. His arm was broken and there was a trickle of blood dried on the side of his head.
"Take it easy. We aren't gonna hurt you," Buck said, holding his hands up to show that they were empty. He saw the brown eyes flick to his gun and then to the one Chris was holding and he stopped. "I'm just gonna put this down," he said as he unbuckled his gunbelt and carefully lowered it to the ground. He could see the tremors of pain and fear that shook the young man's body. As he got closer, Buck realized that it wasn't really a man at all but a young teenager.
Chris maintained a stiff, protective posture as Buck knelt next to the injured Indian and reached out to press him back to lying down on the grass. Buck's hands gently probed the misshapen forearm, stopping when the Indian hissed and clawed at the ground.
"It's busted. We'll need something to make a splint and some of that laudanum from the kit Nathan packed for us," Buck said.
"You'll be alright here?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, I'm just going to see if I can make this young man a little more comfortable. Toss me my bedroll, would you? And you may as well have Josiah bring the wagon down here, he might be able to speak to him," Buck suggested.
After Chris passed him the blankets and mounted Pony, Buck turned back to the young man on the ground, "My name's Buck," he explained. "And that was Chris. We're gonna see if we can fix you up so you can get on home."
Wide, worried blue eyes stared at him as he rode back to the wagon and Chris tried to smile at Vin. Josiah had tried to keep the boys down but Vin's concern for his adopted father's safety outweighed his own.
"How bad is it?" Josiah asked when Chris was within hearing.
"He's got a badly broken arm. Buck wants to try to set it. He wants you to come down and see if you can speak to him, so he understands that we aren't going to hurt him," Chris replied.
Buck shook out the bedroll and covered the teen's legs with it. He kept up a running dialog, explaining what he was doing. Since he didn't think the young man understood him, he hoped that his tone of voice conveyed his concern. He took out his bandana and pressed it to the still seeping wound near the Indian's temple until the bleeding stopped. He glanced back to see Chris picking up his gun belt and hanging it over the horn of Beau's saddle.
"I am Chanu," the young Indian said.
"You speak English," Buck returned, "That's good. What happened?"
"I was chasing deer and my horse stumbled."
"I'll check him as soon as I get you comfortable then," Buck offered and he saw the tense shoulders sag with relief.
Josiah hiked into the woods and returned with a couple of sturdy, straight sapling poles. He sat down and used his knife to smooth out any rough spots, cutting them down to a proper length for the task at hand. Chris built a fire and put on some beans. The boys were playing near the wagon but they were frequently distracted by the stranger in their midst. They had both crept closer to Buck when he checked the mustang, Vin sighing with relief when Buck announced that the horse was sound.
With everything ready to splint the broken arm, Chanu was hesitant to take the medicine Buck offered him. Josiah explained to him, in calm and measured tones, that it would lessen the pain, but the teenager was adamant. Chris took the boys aside and tried to explain to them what was going to happen.
"The bones in his arm are broken and we're going to have to straighten them so we can fix them. It's going to hurt like hell," he paused at JD's gasp at hearing the bad word before continuing. "He's probably going to yell. I just want you both to understand that we aren't trying to hurt him. I want both of you to stay back here, out of the way, until we're finished."
"Is he gonna get better?" Vin asked timidly.
"If we set his arm correctly and it heals up the right way," Chris answered as honestly as he could. "So you'll stay here by the wagon. JD, you listen to Vin. All three of us are going to be busy trying to help Chanu and I need to know that you're here and safe."
"I will, Chris," JD replied, his eyes large and filled with dread.
"Stir the beans in a little while," Chris told Vin. He knew that the older boy would take the responsibility very seriously and they would have something to eat later.
Josiah gave the Indian a rolled up piece of leather to bite down on. Chris took hold of the injured teen's shoulders, pinning him to the ground. Josiah knelt on the other side, holding Chanu's uninjured arm. He also leaned across the prone body, holding his leg on the other side so that he didn't move when the pain hit. Buck carefully checked the splint pieces again before he took hold of Chanu's wrist.
An agonized scream rent the air as the broken bones were pulled into alignment. Luckily, Chanu's eyes rolled back in his head a few seconds later and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. Chris held on a moment or two longer, just to make sure, before he let go and shifted to help Buck with the splint. With Buck maintaining the correct position, the smoothed sticks were firmly lashed in place. Josiah had volunteered one of his large bandanas to make a sling for the splinted limb. Once the arm was settled against Chanu's stomach and he was covered warmly with a blanket, Buck sank back on his heels and rubbed his shirtsleeve over his sweaty brow. A timid little voice intruded and he turned toward it.
"Is he dead, Da?" JD asked, his eyes swimming with tears.
Buck slid an arm around the boy and pulled him in close. "No, but it hurt awfully bad to have that arm straightened and he just passed out," he explained. "See how his chest is moving? That means he's breathing."
"That scream scare'ded me," JD confessed.
"Scared me too, Little Bit," Buck admitted, leaning his head down to press his cheek to the silky, dark hair.
They all moved quietly around the camp, as if any unnecessary noise would disturb the injured teen. Vin kept busy, bringing a bucket of water to the mustang and making sure he had plenty of grass to eat. JD stayed pretty much glued to Buck for a few hours, until the emotional stress of what he'd seen faded. He was also distracted by the mustang pony, although Buck forbad him to get too close. The beans were almost done and Josiah was making some cornbread pancakes to go with them when Chanu finally began to stir.
"Try not to move your arm," Chris prompted when he noticed the brown eyes staring at him. He reached out to help Chanu sit up, shifting Buck's saddle into position so he could lean against it. He then picked up the water skin that Buck had found on the ground and refilled with fresh water. Chanu took it carefully and nodded his thanks.
Vin carried a plate of beans over and waited for Buck to put the empty crate down for Chanu to use as a table. "I fed and watered your horse for you," Vin explained.
"I'm sure he appreciated it," Chanu replied, "Thank you." The young Indian and the fair-haired white boy studied each other for several moments before the teen reached for the fork and began to awkwardly scoop up the beans.
After supper, Buck and Josiah helped Chanu up so he could tend to his bodily functions. On his way back, the young Indian stopped to pick up something that he had lost when he fell from the horse. It wasn't much and he didn't know if the white boy with the wheat-colored hair would understand its importance but it was all he had to repay him for the care the child had lavished on his horse. He had watched, while the man named Buck had been preparing to set his arm, as the boy watered the pony and coaxed him to a spot with thick, lush grass. Chanu had trained the horse himself and he was very fond of it.
Vin and JD looked up when the moccasin-covered feet stopped at the edge of the shaded area where they were playing. The Indian motioned for Vin to stand and the boy quickly rose, dusting his hands on the legs of his coveralls. He stared up at the bronze-skinned teen in awe.
There was no fear in the sky-colored eyes that looked up at him and Chanu decided that perhaps the boy would understand what he was giving him. He held out the small, beaded pouch, letting it spool out until it hung by its leather cord from his fingers.
"For you, for taking care of Strider," Chanu said.
Holding out his hands, Vin allowed the Indian to lower the pouch into his palms. It was heavier than he expected and his fingers closed around it, feeling the small stone inside.
"Thank you," Vin said, unable to look away until the teen turned away.
Chanu slowly reached out to run his fingers over the wheat-colored hair before he turned and walked back over to the bedding they had put down for him. His arm was throbbing in time with his heartbeat and he wished for something to ease the pain.
Josiah waited until the young man was settled on the bedroll before he got up and carried the steeped cup of willow bark tea over and offered it to him. He saw the wariness in the teen's brown eyes until he smelled the concoction and recognized what it was.
The boys slept on the ground with the grown-ups that night. Vin slept with Chris, sprawled out next to him, clutching the medicine bag he now wore around his neck. Josiah had explained to him that it was a very special, very precious gift that Chanu had given him, and that he should take care of it. Chris had only examined it to see what was inside before giving it back to Vin and suggesting that he tuck it under his shirt so that it wouldn't get lost if the leather cord broke.
JD wanted something 'Indian' too and Chanu gave him a piece of fringe from his buckskin pants, one with a bit of a bird bone strung on it. While not having the value of the medicine bag, it had made the brunet happy and that was what was important at the time. Chanu tied the strip of leather around JD's wrist and the boy had eagerly run off to show his new prize. That bit of bone shone brightly in the moonlight when JD's arm slipped from under the blanket as he slept.
In the morning, Josiah put together breakfast and he brewed another cup of willow bark tea for Chanu. The teenager was genuinely grateful for the pain reliever. After they had eaten, Buck checked the splint to make sure that it wasn't cutting off the circulation of blood to the injured limb. Chanu demonstrated that he could wiggle his fingers, though the pain caused him to break into a sweat.
The boys gathered around Buck as he went to milk the cows again. Once he got into the rhythm of it, he got most of half a bucket before he stopped. The boys had a cup each and he poured the rest into the jug that they had kept in the water barrel. Chanu watched with interest but declined the offer of a cup of milk for himself. Josiah had used some of the milk to make gravy for breakfast that morning and the inside of the jug was coated with a thin layer of butter.
Chanu assured them that he could make it back to his reservation and they helped him up onto Strider. Vin handed up the freshly-filled water skin. When Chanu held out his hand, the boy offered his, expecting a handshake like he had seen other men exchange with Chris. What he got was a forearm to forearm clasp. Chanu said something in a language Vin didn't understand but he nodded solemnly at hearing it. After the young Indian and his pony vanished into the forest, Vin turned to Chris with wide eyes.
"Did you hear what he said?" Vin asked.
"He said 'Farewell, Little Warrior,'" Josiah explained.
Vin repeated the phrase in both languages, locking it into his mind, then he looked up at Chris and grinned.
They reached and crossed the river late in the afternoon and Chris decided to camp there. After tending to all of the animals, he took a couple of fishing poles out of the wagon and announced that they were having fish for supper. JD clamored to be allowed to dig for worms and Buck shook his head as he reached for the shovel.
Supper was fried potatoes and trout fillets. Buck was extremely proud of the fact that Chris said he made the best fried potatoes he had ever eaten. He had found the green onions growing wild and added them to the skillet with the potatoes. Vin pushed the little green bits to the side but he announced that he liked the way the potatoes tasted. JD polished off all of the food on his plate and asked for more.
"You keep eating like that, Little Bit, and you're gonna grow out of all your clothes," Buck teased.
"What will I wear then?" JD asked.
"Maybe Josiah will lend you something to wear," Buck answered.
"Uncle 'Ziah?" JD repeated, his voice rising in disbelief.
"Or Uncle Nathan," Josiah suggested.
JD looked down at the generous helping of potatoes on his plate before he set it down and backed away, shaking his head vigorously, "Uh-uh, I don't want to get that big that fast!"
That was it, no matter what Buck and the other said, they couldn't persuade JD to eat any more supper that night. Wilmington felt badly for teasing the boy until Chris reminded him that he had done the same thing to Adam and it hadn't kept him from eating for very long.
"He'll be fine, Buck," Chris assured his friend.
As they settled down to sleep that night, Buck snuggled up to JD and asked, "Why don't you want to grow up to be a big boy, Little Bit?"
JD squirmed around until he could turn over and face his Da. "Because then I wouldn't be your Little Bit," he replied.
Vin tossed and turned that night until he crawled out of the bedroll to avoid waking Chris. He crept over to the fire and carefully laid another handful of sticks on the glowing embers. He scooted as close to the ring of stones that encircled the flames as he dared, drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.
The absence of the warm little body beside him wakened Chris and he rolled over carefully. He could see the boy in the flickering light of the fire and wondered if he had been having a bad dream or if he was sick. Getting up quietly, he separated one of the blankets from the pile on the ground and folded it in half. Vin's head tipped up to look at him as Chris wrapped the material around his shoulders. Chris dragged his saddle a little closer and sat down in front of it beside Vin.
"Bad dream, Cowboy?" he asked quietly.
"Upset tummy?" Chris suggested.
"Something you want to talk about?"
"Huh-uh," Vin said, shaking his head.
Chris settled back against the saddle and waited, knowing Vin would only talk when he was ready. Vin laid another stick across the fire and continued to stare at the hungry flames. After a while, the stick shifted and a shower of sparks soared into the inky black sky. Vin gathered the blanket and scooted back so that his hip was against Chris' knee but he still remained silent. Some time later, the stick burned through and the fire flared up slightly before fading again. Vin leaned so that his arm was pressed against Chris' leg. The easy, regular rhythm of Buck's snoring was disturbed when Wilmington rolled over and Vin looked past the fire to where he could just see the top of JD's head sticking out from under the covers. After a few minutes, Vin scooted back and leaned into Chris' ribs as Larabee wrapped an arm around him and pulled him in close.
"I don't wanna grow up either," Vin announced.
While the thought startled Chris, he was careful to remain calm and relaxed when he replied. "Why don't you want to grow up, Cowboy?" he asked softly. He lowered his head and rubbed his cheek against the crown of Vin's head.
"I don't want to be too big to do this anymore," Vin explained.
'Oh God,' Chris thought. But what came out of his mouth was, "You'll never be too big for us to sit together, son."
Vin tipped his head back again and stared up at him as if seeking the truth in his words. "Not even if I'm as big as Uncle 'Ziah?" he asked.
"Not even then," Chris replied.
"Promise?" Vin asked.
"I promise," Chris said, tightening the arm he had around Vin. They continued to sit there for a while, staring at the fire and listening to the assorted noises of the night. "You about ready to head back to bed?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, I reckon," Vin answered.
For some reason, those words brought a smile to Chris' face.
They pushed the cows the next day, eager to get home before it was too dark to do anything else. Josiah made a double batch of biscuits that morning and they ate lunch in the saddle. JD wiggled and complained when Buck dropped crumbs down the back of his collar, until Buck retorted that he would just have to have a bath when they got home that evening. The sudden cessation of complaining had the big man shaking with barely restrained laughter.
The cabin appeared on the horizon and all three of the saddle horses perked up. JD began to put up a continuous stream of arguments as to why he shouldn't have to take a bath, ranging from the practical to the ridiculous.
Josiah brought the wagon to a stop near the porch and set the parking brake. Buck set JD on the ground and the boy took off, eager to see the horses they had left behind and to tell them all about the newest additions to the ranch. Chris and Buck moved to help unload the wagon so Josiah could return it to the livery. Several of the blankets were thrown over the clothes line to air out. The few potatoes and other food-stuffs were placed inside on the counter to be put away later. The cows were placed in the holding pen and Buck went to the well to draw up water for their trough. Vin tied Peso to the corral rail and took off his saddle, carrying it into the barn and returning with the grooming brushes and hoof pick. JD came running from the chicken house, exclaiming in delight that Maisy, the yellow hen, had hatched her eggs and there were a bunch of new baby chicks.
Once the wagon was unloaded, Chris approached Josiah and held out several dollars, "For your time and help," Larabee explained.
"You keep it," Josiah replied.
"Then take it as a donation to the church," Chris insisted.
"In that case, I thank you for your generous donation," Sanchez said as he tucked the money into his pocket.
"We really appreciate your help, Josiah," Buck added.
"I was glad to help," the older man replied, stepping forward to hug Wilmington.
That evening, after the boys were fed, bathed and tucked into bed, Chris poured a dollop of whiskey into each of the cups of coffee and carried them out to where Buck was sitting on the porch. Buck accepted the cup, inhaling deeply and smelling the alcohol before he took a swallow.
They sat there like that for a while, just watching the moon as it rose behind the barn. When the coffee cups were almost empty, Chris sighed.
"What'cha thinkin' about over there?" Buck asked.
"I'm just glad to be home," Chris answered. "That's all."
Next week - What Makes A Home by Laramee