Disclaimer: No infringement is intended in regard to The Magnificent Seven or any of the companies who own the rights to its name and characters. This is a non-profit (unless you consider enjoyment profitable) endeavor.
Comments: A big thank you to J.K. Poffenberger and S. Berry for creating the Little Britches universe and for letting me play in it. And a HUGE thank you to Joy K. for allowing me to use the back story she created in Carving Their Niche as well as adapting the scene of Chris and Vin in the rocker. While you dont necessarily need to read Carving Their Niche to understand my story, it would be helpful, as well as giving Joy credit where credit is due. I was immensely lucky to be allowed to associate with such generous writers. And, last but not least thank you to my wonderful betas who took time from their busy schedules to try to fix what I screwed up.
Warning: This is an H/C story. There is violence towards a child. If this is not something you are comfortable with I suggest you dont read any farther or skip the first five pages.
"Yo, the camp."
Chris had heard the horses approach long before its rider shouted a warning. Aware of the trusting young boy washing dishes down at the creek and the five-hundred dollars in his pocket from the sale of two mares, the gunslinger shifted his coffee cup from his right hand to his left. Though he wanted to refuse to share the warmth of their campfire, he couldnt. There had been times in the past, and there would probably come a time in the future when he would be forced to seek the hospitality of strangers himself.
Hed feel better about his decision if Vin wasnt with him. He would do nothing to endanger the seven-year-old boy. But if this interloper had been out to rob them it didnt make sense to announce his presence. It would have been more logical to wait until they had bedded down for the night before making his move.
"Come on in," Chris reluctantly consented.
Dropping his reins to ground tie his horse, the newcomer held his hands high as he dismounted and walked slowly to the fire. "The glow of yer fire in the night sky is the best sight I done seen all day."
"Its a cold night," Chris quietly agreed. His eyes followed the strangers gaze to the leftover biscuits, what had been destined to be his and Vins breakfast. With a soft sigh of resignation, he offered, "Help yerself if yer hungry."
The man snatched up the rolls and stuffed them into his mouth.
Rising from his seat by the fire, Chris crossed to his saddlebags. Pulling out a cup, he tossed it to their starving visitor. "Theres some coffee left."
"Much obliged." Crumbs sprayed from the full mouth, falling on a tobacco stained beard. "My supplies run out day fore yesterday."
"We aint got much left ourselves, but yer welcome ta what we got." Chris knew he could be generous. If they got an early start in the morning, they would reach Four Corners well before noon.
"Im on my way ta Chadwick. Got a brother with a ranch up that way."
"Its a right nice part of the country."
Hearing the strange voice, Vin took shelter underneath some bushes lining the stream. Nearly being beaten to death, the subsequent murder of his father, the death of his mother, followed by almost two years of mistreatment had made him distrust everyone. They had to prove they were worthy before he would offer his hand in friendship.
The voices were low, making it impossible for him to hear what was being said. Only when Chris took a sip of his coffee did Vin know the gunslinger didnt feel threatened. This should have been enough to reassure him, but it didnt. Something teased his mind, making him wary. The intruder was sitting with his back towards Vin. Even from this angle, the boy could tell he was massive, bigger than Josiah.
Unable to explain why he felt alarmed but reluctant to leave Chris alone, Vin left his shelter and entered the camp.
"I was startin ta git worried," Chris gently chastised. "I was afraid youd fallen in the creek."
Vin shyly shook his head, the strangers presence robbing him of speech. As he started to walk past their guest to put the dishes back in the saddlebags, an odor wafting from the seated man stirred a painful memory. The load Vin was carrying dropped from nerveless fingers.
The loud clatter brought both men to their feet. Before Vin could shout a warning, he felt himself lifted and pulled tightly against a barrel chest. His shocked blue eyes locked with Larabees horror-filled green ones.
Although Chris was distracted by the crashing dishes for only a second, it was long enough for Pryor to grab Vin and use him as a shield. Despite his speed, the pistol in the gunslingers hand was as productive as the hat on his head in defending them. He couldnt fire without endangering Vin.
When a brawny fist plowed into the right side of Vins face to stop the struggling child, bile rose in Chris throat. After Vins mistreatment in the orphanage, he had vowed to protect the young boy. It was only a few months later, and he had already broken his promise.
Knowing if he lost his temper it would cause Vin further abuse, Chris fought to contain the fury raging through him. "Ya kin have anythin ya want, Pryor, jus dont hurt the boy no more."
"Drop yer gun."
This was the one thing Chris knew he couldnt do. Without it, he had no power to wield in a negotiation.
"Mr. Chris, dont ---."
Vins frantic cry was cut off when beefy fingers wrapped around his throat. He watched helplessly as Vins lungs fought desperately for air, while tiny hands futilely tugged at the vise drawing ever tighter as the seconds ticked by. Chris shook so violently even if hed had a shot, he couldnt have taken it. When Vins eyes rolled back in his head and he went completely limp, Chris couldnt stand it any longer. His gun fell from fingers that had grown as cold and numb as the rest of his body.
Holding the entire weight of the boy in one hand, Pryor drew his own weapon with the other. A feral smile on his lips, he flung Vin away as though he were nothing more important than a piece of garbage.
Chris recoiled when Vin struck a tree and fell bonelessly to the ground. The boys left arm was twisted at an unnatural angle. His need to help Vin recharged Chris paralyzed limbs. Without a thought for his own safety, he took a step toward the broken body. His mind was unable to absorb what his eyes were seeing.
"Hold it right there."
Ignoring the order, Chris took another step. A bullet plowed into the ground in front of his feet. He barely noticed.
"Stop, or the next one goes in the kid."
Burning emeralds finally shifted to rest on Pryor. Each promised harsh retribution.
"Now its jus you and me." Pryor smiled, the rotted teeth in his mouth giving his face a grotesque appearance.
Hatred threatening to consume him so he no longer cared about his own life, Chris was shocked to see Vin move. Hoping the boy would regain his senses enough to escape into the woods where he could hide, Chris took a step to his left, effectively forcing his assailant to turn his back on his young victim. Knowing he had to keep Pryor talking to give Vin as much time as possible, Chris asked, "Whatre ya after? Money? Horses?"
"I aint after nothin."
His entire soul fighting to keep the eagerness from reflecting on his face, Chris saw Vin pull up to his knees. The hope turned to dread when the boy crawled towards the saddlebags instead of the trees. Praying Pryor would attribute the strain in his voice to fear, Chris forced himself to respond. "If ya dont want our stuff, then why the attack?"
"Cause I felt like it."
Another quick glance showed Chris that Vin had reached the saddles and was pulling the rifle from the scabbard. This time, Chris allowed the horror to be audible in his voice. "Ya felt like killin a little boy?"
"Yep." The grin became broader.
The putrid breath caressed Chris cheek. He turned his face away, desperately seeking fresh air - and words to answer the insane response. Words that would keep Vin alive.
"On yer knees, Larabee."
If he couldnt use speech to buy time, he would use action. He saw Vin had the rifle and was positioning the long barrel across the seat, allowing it to take the place of his useless left arm.
A bullet from Pryors gun plowed into the corner of Chris right boot near his little toe. The pain of the shallow wound was unequaled to the ache in his soul at the abuse Vin had suffered. He bought his eyes up to lock with Pryors. The only sound was the crackle of wood as fire consumed it.
"On yer knees, or the next ones in the gut."
Anger and disappointment were clearly audible in the gruff voice. Pryor had obviously wanted, expected his victim to beg for his life. Reluctantly, knowing the location would put him at a disadvantage to help Vin, Chris slowly complied with the order. If he died, it would leave Vin alone to deal with the madman.
Though he was prepared when the loud click of a rifle being cocked spun Pryor on his heels, the light from the fire blinded Chris. He was unable to distinguish anything more than vague shapes in the shadows.
Pryor managed to squeeze off a shot in Vins direction before a bullet entered his chest. The heavy body stumbled backwards, crumbling to the ground.
Crawling on hands and knees, Chris quickly retrieved his gun with one hand as he kicked the pistol from Pryors limp grip with his foot. Rising to his feet, his gun leveled on the fallen man, Chris saw his precaution was unnecessary. Despite his injuries, Vin had shot with deadly accuracy. There was a hole where Pryors heart should be, if he had ever had one. Sightless eyes were fixed on the glowing stars carpeting the night sky.
Allowing caution, rather than concern to control his actions, Chris warily stepped towards Vin. Knowing the boy would be filled with pain and fearful of every sound, Chris didnt want to get himself accidentally shot. He knew Vin well enough to know the boy wouldnt be able to live with the guilt. "Its all over, Vin. Im comin over ta help ya."
Quiet words of reassurance continued to slip through his lips as he slowly made his way to the injured boy. With every step, Chris had to fight his desire to rush. When he finally reached his destination, he discovered his prudence was unnecessary. His small finger still squeezing the trigger, Vin was slumped over the rifle.
Frozen with dread, Chris stared at the small body, searching for some sign of life. Dropping to one knee, he reached over and slowly laid a trembling hand on the bruised neck. A breath hitched in his throat when he felt the steady, abnormally slow beat of a pulse.
Knowing there was no sentiment adequate to express his appreciation to the Man upstairs, Chris took the rifle from the tiny hand. As gently as he could, he checked for damage. Besides the shattered arm, he thought he felt some broken ribs. The bullet Pryor had fired was imbedded in the saddle near Vins head. Fighting to keep his dinner in his stomach, Chris grabbed the blanket from his bedroll and carefully but tightly wrapped it around the injured boy. It would, he hoped, keep the broken bones from shifting until they reached Nathan.
Quickly breaking camp, Chris threw Vins saddle on Peso, buckling the cinch until it was tight enough to keep the tack from slipping. The bridle he looped over the saddle horn. In record time, he had Pony tacked and ready to ride. Taking Pesos lead rope, he tied it around his saddle horn.
A soft snort reminded him there was a third horse needing his attention. Prominent bones beneath a dull, dirty hide showed Pryor had no more regard for an animal than hed had for a child. Pulling off the too heavy saddle, Chris threw it disgustedly on the ground. The bridle with its cruel bit soon followed. Sliding Ponys halter over the mares head, he tied the lead rope to Pesos saddle. The poor animal would need special attention to bring her up to a normal weight.
Dousing the fire, Chris let the glow of the almost full moon light his way as he carefully gathered the small bundle in his arms and mounted. With is precious burden held tightly to his chest, he touched his heels to Ponys flanks.
Vin came to, feeling the familiar rocking motion of a horse beneath him and the comfort of a protective arm holding him close. It puzzled him. The two sensations were not generally associated together.
On the heels of this realization came an explosion of pain. It started in his chest, engulfed his left arm and right shoulder, moved up to his throat and pinched his head. The desire to find out where he was and why he was here evaporated in the torment of miserys flickering flames. A black abyss beckoned - he eagerly entered it.
The sun was high overhead when they finally reached Four Corners. Hours ago, exhausted and afraid of losing his grip on Vin, Chris had dropped his reins on Ponys neck, giving the horse his head. Seeking food and water the animal would go to for the closest place where he would find what he wanted, the one place he would feel safe. Only when Pony sought the livery did Chris reclaim control, urging the tired mount to the stairs leading to Nathans infirmary.
Through the lethargy clouding his mind, Larabee heard his name called. Hands pulled at his own, attempting to take the cherished responsibility from his arms. There was no sign of his fatigue when he pulled his gun and pointed it at the perceived threat. The hands immediately fell away.
"Chris? Its me, Nathan. Let me help Vin."
The soothing tones of the voice he had been longing to hear penetrated the fog consuming Chris mind. "Nathan? Vins hurt."
"I kin see that. Will ya let me help him?"
Holstering his gun, Chris eyes rested tenderly on the bruised face before he gently relinquished his precious burden. Sliding out of the saddle to follow the quickly moving healer, Chris found his legs wouldnt support him.
"Here, let me help you, Brother."
Before Chris could protest, his arm was pulled across a set of broad shoulders and held in place by a strong hand. Josiahs other arm circled his waist easily accepting his weight. With a snarl, Chris tried to shake off the support, until he realized the preacher was taking him where he wanted to go.
Misinterpreting Larabees defiance, Josiah reassured, "Its all right, Chris. Yosemite will take care of the horses."
The steep stairs ravaged already aching muscles. But when Chris entered the infirmary and saw Vin lying motionless on the bed, he pulled away from the preacher and stumbled across to the cot. Careful to keep out of Nathans way, he laid a hand on top of Vins head. "How is he?"
"Give me a minute," Nathan growled at the impatient man. "Right now, you probably know more than I do."
The big hands were compassionate as they opened the blanket and started to cut away the clothes concealing some of the injuries on the spare body. An angry hiss whistled from gritted teeth when the brown eyes rested on the finger-shaped bruises circling the small throat. "What happened?"
His anger held in check by his exhaustion, Chris tried to organize the muddled thoughts in his head. When the door suddenly burst open, his reflexes had him reaching for his gun. Only a strong hand staying his motion saved Ezra Standish from a bullet in his heart.
"Mr. Yosemite informed me Master Tanner has been injured." Panting from his mad dash, Ezra drew closer to the bed. "I see he was correct in his assertion." All pretense of decorum disappeared as the gambler demanded, "What the hell happened?"
Haltingly, his eyes never leaving Vins face, Chris detailed the circumstances leading to their abrupt arrival in Four Corners.
"If the miscreant wasnt already deceased, I would cheerfully kill him myself." Ezras face was pale, his quivering legs barely able to carry him to a chair in the corner of the room.
"Youd have to stand in line, Brother."
With Pryor dead, Chris only concern lay motionless on the bed. "Nathan?"
"Josiah," Nathan ignored the annoyed scowl on the gunslingers face, "mash some plantain leaves and mix em with water for a poultice. It should stop the swellin and help them bruises on Vins face and throat."
"Nathan?" The voice was quiet - too quiet - a warning to anyone who knew the gunslinger.
With a soft sigh, Nathan slowly outlined the damage, "His left arm is broken in two places, just above the wrist and below the shoulder. There are three broken ribs on his left side, two cracked on the right. His right shoulder was dislocated, probably from the recoil of the rifle. The bruises ya kin see fer yerself."
"Will he be all right?"
"Has he come to since ya left camp?"
"Once, I think, he mightve fer a bit."
"I reckon he might have a concussion, but I cant tell how bad."
Crossing to where he could see the young patient, Ezra asked, "What exactly are you implying, Mr. Jackson?"
"Im sayin," Nathan dropped his eyes, unable to meet the twin daggers as he confessed, "I dont know if Vin will be all right."
Chris mind heard the words, but his heart was incapable of accepting them. He could not lose Vin. He had kept body and soul together - barely - after losing his wife and son. He would not survive losing someone else he loved. It wasnt fair he should have to try.
"I believe I should notify Mr. Wilmington of what has occurred."
Though he heard the proposal, Chris couldnt find enough spirit to issue a verbal response to Ezras suggestion. Kneeling next to the bed, he gently caressed Vins uninjured cheek. With each touch, he willed some of his own energy into the broken body, content to do so until there was nothing left within him to give.
The happy squeals of a young boy filled the air. Buck stopped grooming Fire to listen. He remembered adults from his own childhood had been irritated by the sound. Yet, he never grew tired of hearing it. His only disappointment was another laugh wasnt echoing JDs. Vin and Chris should be back sometime today. Then, there would be the cries of two satisfied children to fill his heart.
Horses hooves striking the ground at a fast clip pulled the ladies man from his contemplation. Buckling on his gunbelt, he exited the stall, careful to keep to the shadows as he crossed to the entrance. In his experience it was safer to expect trouble and be grateful when it didnt appear, than to hope for the best and run head first into a bullet.
The familiar southern drawl drove the tension from Bucks shoulders. A broad smile splitting his face, he walked out of the barn. "Hey, Ezra, did ya decide ta help me build that fence after all?"
"Hardly." Ezra looked around before dismounting.
Following the green gaze to where JD was chasing the chickens, Bucks good mood vanished as a cold chill enveloped him. "Whats happened, Ezra?"
"Mr. Larabee and Master Tanner were assaulted in their camp last night." Keeping his voice low, Ezra relayed the details of the attack and its consequences.
Anxious to see his partner and the boy who had become a son to him, Buck said, "Ill saddle up and ride back with ya." A hand on his arm stopped him before he could step away.
"I do not believe Master Dunne should observe his cousin in his present condition."
Buck winced, realizing if Ezra felt this way, then the gamblers description of Vins injuries had minimized their severity. "Ill tell JD we need ta go ta town fer supplies and leave him with Mary."
"If you lie to the boy, he may never trust you again."
"I know." Buck sighed as he watched JD play. The five-year-old was remarkably resilient, but even he had to have his limits. Buck wanted to see Vin for himself before he decided whether or not to allow JD to visit. Vin couldnt possibly be as bad as Ezra had implied. Yet, why would the gambler exaggerate?
Chris kept his eyes fixed on Vins face. The poultice-covered bruises were less upsetting than the worried frown twisting Nathans features. The healer never had been very good at hiding his feelings. It had never bothered Chris, until now. He wanted - needed - to believe Vin would be all right.
This tragedy was reminding him of why he had fought against allowing the boys to stay in the first place. Life in the West was hard. There were so many things waiting to claim a young life; illness, accidents, Mother Nature. But never had Chris anticipated there would be a man who would try to kill a child for pleasure.
The horror of what had been melted into the horror of what was as Chris felt the flesh beneath his caressing hand grow warm. "Nathan, I think Vins got a fever."
"I know." Nathan continued to set the bones of the broken left arm.
"What do we do?"
"Hope it dont git worse."
"Thats it?" The snarl in Chris tone would have made another man quake.
"With injuries this severe, I expected a fever to develop."
While the healer appeared to be unconcerned by this new complication, Chris couldnt be as complacent. Anything that affected Vin involved him. He wasnt sure how much more either of them could endure.
When Buck entered the infirmary, Nathan was in the process of changing the poultice. The vivid bruising and the imprint of fingers on Vins small throat were clearly visible. Buck glanced at Ezra, a thank you in his eyes. While the sight had made him feel ill, it would have traumatized JD, possibly more than any of the other events in his young life, including the loss of his mother and the torturous months in the orphanage. Buck hadnt been able to protect the boy then, but he could now.
Studying his partner, Buck knew better than to make any sudden moves. Chris Larabee was on the verge of collapsing. Only stubbornness and love for the young boy lying so horribly wounded beneath his hand kept him from crumbling. Crossing slowly to the seated man, Buck laid a comforting hand on a tense shoulder. "How ya doin, pard?"
"Im fine." Chris voice cracked. "Thanks ta Vin."
One glance at Nathan told Buck his own assessment was more accurate, his friend was far from fine. "Chris, yer exhausted. Why dont ya lay down in Nathans bunk fer a bit?"
"I cant. What if Vin wakes up, and Im not here?"
"Well git ya the moment those blue eyes show any sign of openin."
"Ya wont need ta git me if I dont leave."
Buck hadnt expected a quick capitulation, so was ready with his reply. "Ifn ya keel over its gonna be kinda hard to be there fer im."
"I wont keel over."
"Hell, yer at half-mast now." When Chris didnt contradict him, Buck knew hed hit a nerve. Now it was time to play his ace. "We love Vin too, ya know."
Bloodshot eyes glared at Buck before shifting to Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan. "I know."
"Do ya? Ya dont act like it. We want whats best fer Vin."
"Ya dont care what happens ta me?"
There was a hint of a smile on Chris face, telling Buck he was finally reaching his friend. "Not a lick."
Chris hand stopped stroking Vins cheek and gently cupped it. "Ill be here when ya need me, Vin."
Before Chris could change his mind, Buck gripped an arm to help him to his feet. With Josiahs considerable strength propping the weary man up on the other side, they practically carried the gunslinger to Nathans bed.
Leaving Josiah to help Chris divest himself of his guns and boots, Buck hurried back to Vin. Lowering himself onto the warm chair, he stared at the bruised face. He was glad Nathan had replaced the poultice on Vins throat, though he knew he would never purge the image of the finger-shaped bruises from his mind. As he remembered what the boy had been subjected too, a tear rolled down his cheeks. He didnt try to hide it. Nor was he ashamed of showing weakness. Anyone who could look upon the innocent child and not be affected had a heart of stone.
Though he wasnt sure why, fear gripped Vin in its clutches until the familiar smells of Nathans infirmary filled his nostrils. For the rest of his life, whenever he smelled juniper and peppermint, he would remember the tender-hearted healer. Just as the odor of lavender would awaken the memories of his mother - and chewing tobacco would remind him of the man who killed his father.
His location identified, Vin relaxed. He would never be happy to find himself needing Nathans care, but he would always feel safe here. On the heels of this realization came the pain he had been expecting. However, it was manageable now, no longer threatening to pull him into a black hole.
Warmth filling him when he realized a gentle hand was holding his, he forced heavy eyelids to open. Grit coated his eyes, blurring his vision, but he could see clear enough to know it was Buck sitting at his side - not Chris. The fear returned. Had Chris been injured or killed?
Blinking rapidly to dispel the haze from his eyes, Vin saw Buck was smiling. Relief washed over him, until he saw the ladies mans lips were quivering. Instead of abating, his apprehension increased.
"Nathan, ya better wake Chris," Buck softly suggested, before returning his attention to the worried boy. "Chris is only sleeping, Vin. He isnt hurt; he was exhausted."
Vins eyes followed the black healer to the other bed. When he saw the occupant truly was Chris Larabee, he hissed a sigh of contentment. "No," he rasped, seeing the lines of fatigue on the gunslingers gray face. "Let im sleep."
"Sorry, Vin." Nathan smiled as he bent over the sleeping man and gently shook a black-clad shoulder. "Its moren our lives are worth if I do."
A hand on his cheek drew Vins attention back to Buck.
"We made a promise, pard. Ya wouldnt want us ta break a promise, would ya?"
"He needs sleep," Vin argued, though it hurt to talk.
Bucks voice cracked as he countered, "He needs you more. We all do."
When Chris took Bucks place, Vin had to swallow hard. Pain seared down his throat and across his chest, making him gasp.
"Easy, Vin." Chris tenderly stroked Vins cheek. "Yer hurt pretty bad, but yer gonna be all right."
Through the waves of agony, Vin saw Chris glance up at Nathan as if he was looking for confirmation of his statement.
"Yer gonna be sore fer a while," Nathan verified, laying a hand on top of Vins head. "But it wont be long fore ya fergit ya were ever hurt."
With all his heart, Vin wanted to believe the healer. In time, he would forget the pain. However, he would never forget the man who had inflicted it. He shut his eyes, hoping to banish the bearded face, only to have the image play across his closed lids.
"Thats right, Vin, go back ta sleep. Its the best thing fer ya," Chris soothed, continuing his caress.
Vin silently disagreed, the best medicine for him was sitting at his bedside. He tried to fight the lassitude rolling over him. He didnt want to sleep. The man who had killed his father and almost killed Chris would be waiting for him in his dreams. Waiting to finish what he had failed to do twice before when he was alive - kill Vin.
The door slowly opened as Nathan cautiously entered the infirmary, stomping his feet to announce his arrival. A bitter smile twisted Chris lips even as his hand twitched. It was the first time in the week since Vin had been injured that he hadnt greeted a visitor with a drawn gun. He hoped it was a sign he was healing. It was time one of them did.
Since his initial awakening, Vin rarely spoke and barely ate. At first, they had attributed his reticence and lack of appetite to the bruised throat. But as the bright purples and blues faded into sickly yellow, Chris began to wonder. The two of them had never talked about what happened that night. Maybe it was time they did?
Placing the tray he had brought on the bedside table, Nathan cheerfully heralded, "The hotel is servin all yer favorites today, Vin." Uncovering each dish, the healer unnecessarily identified them, "Chicken and dumplins, biscuits, and apple pie."
Gratitude filled Chris at Nathans consideration. He wondered if those items really were on the menu. Or had Nathan used his considerable charm to have the dishes specially prepared? If it would entice Vin to eat, it really didnt matter how they had been obtained, only that they had.
Carefully lifting Vin so Nathan could place pillows behind him to prop him up, Chris covered the tiny chest with a napkin to catch any crumbs. Nathan handed Vin a biscuit liberally dripping with honey. They all knew the boy had a sweet tooth. But even this wasnt enough to entice Vin to eat. He nibbled at a corner, barely consuming enough to make a small dent.
"Josiah and Ezrare back," Nathan cryptically reported.
Concerned Vin would starve himself to death rather than reveal what was bothering him, Chris knew he had to take drastic measures. Already hating himself for what he was about to do, he explained, "They went ta git Pryors body."
"Chris?" The healer gazed at the gunslinger in horror.
Ignoring his friends pleading brown eyes, Chris continued, "Though I reckon he even lied about his name. Josiah tried ta contact his brother in Chadwick, but there werent no Pryors. We probably wont never know his true identity."
"His names Chester Blackwell."
The catch in Vins voice made the words barely comprehensible. The slight body was so tense, Chris was sure even the lightest touch would cause it to break. While he had hoped to breathe life into the injured boy, this revelation was more than he had expected. He watched, gasping in dismay as the biscuit crumbled around a tightly clenched fist. "Vin, did ya know Pryor - Blackwell?"
"He killed my Pa."
Shocked, Chris stared at the apparently impassive face, suddenly seeing the heartache Vin had been hiding since that night. He wanted to offer comfort, but he knew from experience there were no words powerful enough to take away the pain of losing someone you loved. He could only hope to minimize the nightmares. "Blackwells dead, Vin. He aint gonna hurt no one, no more."
"Did I kill him?"
Vins voice was soulless, giving Chris no indication how his answer might affect the young boy. He was only seven and he had killed a man. As much as Chris wanted to, he couldnt lie. If Vin learned the truth, it would destroy the fragile link building between them. For the first time, Chris realized he needed that bond as much, if not more, than Vin. "Ya shot im in the heart."
The reply was more cold-blooded than Chris had expected. Just because Vin was seven it didnt mean he couldnt be relieved a murderer was dead. There was no reason he should feel any remorse. So why was Chris upset that he didnt?
"I aint hungry."
Gingerly folding the napkin on Vins chest, Chris gathered the crumbs before they could fall into the bed. Wadding it up, he placed it on the tray. Taking the wet cloth Nathan handed him, he carefully washed Vins sticky fingers, cringing when he saw the boy wince with pain. The dislocated shoulder had been slipped back into place, but it was still bruised and sore.
By the time he had finished his ministrations, Vins eyes were closed. Chris wished he could tell if the boy was really asleep or just pretending. They still needed to talk - now, more than ever.
Buck absently thumbed through the wanted posters, glad the jail was empty. His presence wasnt necessary. He was simply putting off what it was long past time to do - tell JD what had happened to Vin.
For the last week, he had been lying to the five-year-old. Telling him Chris and Vin were delayed at the horse sale, using their absence as an excuse to go into town every day.
Now, the swelling had finally gone down on Vins face, leaving it discolored but recognizable. A bandage covered the bruised throat, while a nightgown and blankets hid the black and blue torso. The only other visible sign of Vins ordeal was the broken arm resting on a pillow.
It would be difficult for JD to see his cousin in so much pain, but it was time to tell the trusting boy the truth. Vin was deeply depressed. Buck hoped seeing the little cousin he adored would lift his spirits.
"Mr. Buck! Mr. Buck!"
The door swung open, slamming against the wall with a force that rattled the window. Buck winced, waiting for the tinkling of broken glass. He - and his dwindling pocketbook - sighed with relief when the panes stayed intact.
His joy at seeing his young charge was tempered by the news he had to impart. Bending down, he lifted JD onto his lap. Though he had been practicing what he would say all morning, Buck couldnt remember a single sentence. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and bit the bullet. "JD, Ive been lyin to ya."
The squirming body in his arms stilled. Opening his eyes, Buck stared into guarded brown ones. It was a look he hadnt seen since they first rescued the two boys. "Chris and Vin werent delayed at the auction. They were attacked on the way home." When he saw fear replace the wariness, Buck hastily resumed, "Theyre both alive, but Vin was badly hurt."
The anger in his eyes supplanting all other emotions, JD crawled off Bucks lap. "Is dat why Uncle Ezra come out ta da ranch?"
"Yes," Buck admitted, surprised JD remembered the visit.
A tear rolled down a dirty cheek. "Vins hurted and ya didnt tell me?"
"He got pretty banged up. I didnt want ya ta git upset."
"Vin needs me."
"Chris has been with im the whole time," Buck appeased.
A chubby finger poked at a tiny chest. "He needs me."
Fighting his own tears, Buck reached down to comfort the unhappy boy. It hurt more than any punch he had ever taken when JD backed away. A lump rose in Bucks throat, threatening to strangle him. Choked words escaped around the mass. "Ill take ya ta see im."
He reached down to take JDs hand. The boy moved further away and put both hands behind his back. Knowing he deserved the censure didnt ease Bucks distress. For the first time, he wondered if his decision to protect JD had been for the boys benefit or his own. Had his selfishness put a wedge in their relationship that could never be extricated?
With a soft sigh, he followed the indignant little boy out of the jail and across the street. He had to put his own hands behind his back to keep from interfering as he watched the short legs struggle up the steep staircase to Nathans infirmary. His assistance would not be welcome. It might in fact cause injury if JD fought to escape his helping hands.
Panting heavily, JD reached the top and stumbled to the door ignoring the heart-broken shadow trailing behind. With only a little less force than he had shown at the jail, he threw open the door and rushed inside. "Viiiin!"
Buck found a small grin when he saw Chris pistol half out of its holster and Nathans hand resting on his rifle. At least he wasnt the only one who overreacted to the human tornado.
JDs joy at seeing his cousin faded when his eyes rested on the bruises. A dirty hand reached out and gently touched the garish blotches. "Ya hurted, Vin?"
"Ill be all right, JD," Vin reassured.
Misunderstanding the encouragement, JD tried to crawl onto the bed, eliciting a groan and stifled scream from its occupant.
"JD, no," Chris ordered, a moment too late. Lifting the boy, the gunslinger put him on his lap. "Vin has sore ribs as well as the broken arm. Its gonna be a while fore ya can hug him without hurtin im."
"Is sowwy, Vin." Tears trickled down JDs cheeks.
"I know ya are," Vin soothed.
Noticing Vin was having trouble keeping his eyes open, Buck suggested, "JD, why dont we let Vin git some sleep. Well come back tomorrow."
"Wanna stay with Vin." JD crossed his arms over his chest, ignoring the hand Buck was holding out to him.
"Bucks right, JD," Chris gently reprimanded. "Why dont ya head on home? Maybe tomorrow Vin will feel better."
"Dont wanna go home."
Nathan lifted the boy from Chris lap and slowly walked towards the door with him. "Ya want Vin ta git better dont ya, JD?" A sad nod answered in the affirmative. "The only way thats gonna happen is if he gits lots of sleep."
As the healer set him on his feet, JD waved a forlorn goodbye. "I see ya morrow, Vin."
His assistance rejected once again by the stubborn boy, Buck followed him out of the infirmary. It was going to be a long night.
The ladies man was on the top step, watching JD descend the stairs on his bottom when he heard the infirmary door open and close. Looking up, he saw Larabee. Quickly returning his gaze to his struggling charge, he asked, "Is everythin all right, pard?"
"Ya think ya could take Peso home?" Chris softly inquired.
"Probably be a good idea," Buck agreed. "Hes already trashed his stall a couple of times."
Chris turned away, hesitated, then turned back. "Theres a mare."
"Yeah. Shes gonna need a lot of attention."
"Ya sure yer all right with that?"
"Yeah," Chris repeated.
One hand clutching the rail, Buck pressed, "How about, Vin?"
"If he cant handle her bein around, well find her a good home somewheres else."
Though he knew it would be hard to look at the horse and not remember what her owner had done, Buck agreed, "Ill take care of her."
Noticing JD had reached the street, Buck hastily started down, reluctant to allow the small boy to get too far from his sheltering sphere. After what had happened to Vin, he was feeling more protective than ever. "Ill see ya tomorrow, pard."
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