"Little Britches" Universe
Vin climbed up onto the hitching post and sat waiting. He drew a quite a few looks but only the occasional greeting. He sighed resignedly as he considered his last trip into Four Corners. JD had been with him then and people had stopped and said hello. People just liked JD better.
Vin startled when a hand tapped his knee but then instantly relaxed. Hey, Ezra.
Welcome home Mr Tanner.
Aint there yet, he corrected, watching as another person passed by.
Ezra watched a number of people pass by them, very few stopping to even acknowledge them with nod. Ezra wasnt too concerned. Many of the residents of Four Corners would sit in a darkened saloon and exchange cards with him but few would exchange greetings on a sunlit public street. Yet another reason not to bother to rise early to greet the day.
Ezra easily read the looks as the two horses were identified, the waiting boy inspected and the less than subtle looks toward the clinic. Most people in town had heard of Larabees injury although no one yet knew any details. By the knowing looks and nods, it appeared that the town had already decided on its own version of events.
Ezra wondered if Mr Larabee was aware that the distance the townsfolk maintained with him now also encompassed his young shadow. He saw that Vin had stopped looking up at the passing people, disappointed by too many and no longer expecting a polite greeting or wave.
Ezra leaned up against the end of the rail, surprised when Vin shifted a leaned a little into him. Vin seemed to be tired and Ezra doubted that Mr Larabee had expected Vin to be sitting out here for any length of time.
Do you want to see if Mr Larabee had been delayed by our healer?
Ezra wasnt sure if Vin meant that he knew Chris would imminently arrive, or it was just his general expectation.
Vin felt the rub of the old book under his shirt. Hed seen all the guns as the people passed. Hed never noticed before that nearly everyone had one. Even Ezra. Vins plan had seemed simple enough when theyd left Caulder and travelled alone. He considered the questions he needed to ask Ezra but his eyes were drawn upward as Chris appeared at the top landing. His shoulders slumped. Chris was moving around amongst all these guns. How could he watch his back?
Mr Tanner? Ezra had seen the worry and tension as Larabee appeared. Mr Jackson will ensure Mr Larabee is sufficiently well to continue home.
Vin spared the man by his side a quick nod as he slid from the rail. He intended to ensure Chris stayed that way. Vin untied the horses as Chris appeared at the bottom of the steps.
Welcome home, Mr Larabee. I see you have weathered the journey home remarkably well.
Vin pulled himself up onto Peso and waited for Chris to do the same. It took a lot more effort than usual for Larabee to swing up on to his own horse, the healing wound pulling at the movement. Chris couldnt help the grimace that escaped and Vin didnt miss it either, his brow furrowing in concern.
Chris reached over and rubbed a thumb over the frown lines on the forehead beside him. Stop worrying. Youll look like an old man by the time youre twelve.
Ya sure yer all right?
Im fine, he reassured the boy. Lets go home. Ezra, well catch up with everyone soon.
Ezra nodded and waved them off.
The weary travellers were welcomed home by a relieved Buck Wilmington and an excited JD Dunne. Knowing his friend, Buck had tried to clear as much of the backlog of work as possible so that Larabee would have no reason to exert himself. The few telegrams back during his recovery had made light of the injury but Buck knew what the delay in returning home had meant. Larabee had not felt fit to ride and it would take a serious injury or illness to do that. The pale, drawn features were evidence of the effort the journey had taken and Buck steered his friend toward his bedroom.
Why dont you lay down for a while and Ill take care of things with the boys.
Chris kicked off his boots and wordlessly complied, concerning Buck more at the lack of argument. Vin appeared torn between JDs call to tell him every thing that had happened in the last week, or keeping his vigil over Chris.
Vin, do you want to rest too? Buck offered to the hovering boy.
Well why dont you go with JD? Vin looked like he needed to stop worrying for a while and JD could usually lift his spirits. Ill watch out for Chris, Buck reassured him as the boy still hesitated.
JD latched a hold on Vins arm and dragged him into their room to show him his project for school.
Chris was only asleep for an hour before he reappeared but even with that short rest Buck could see a marked improvement. Nothing replaced the comfort of sleeping in your own bed. Larabee filched his coffee cup in passing, ignoring Bucks protests and settled down into a chair. The discomfort from the still healing injury was obvious as he sat at an awkward angle.
The men took advantage of the boys distraction and both filled in the other of their weeks events. The chatter from the boys room drifted out as the men fell silent. Vin appeared to be giving an abridged version of their adventure to JD.
Chris shoulders slumped a little at every Chris this, Chris that. Vin had reverted to using his name since theyd hit the town limits.
Chris, something wrong? Buck asked, seeing the dispirited face.
Yeah, but itll be fixed. Chris knew that hed made a mistake and it was about time he set things right. Tell me whats left to be done.
No way, youre supposed to rest. Im not taking youre word for it either. I expect Nathan will be out here in a couple more days to check too. Im not gettin into trouble from him.
The two men bickered, bargaining backward and forward until a new work schedule was agreed on.
Dinner was a quiet affair and Buck had tried not to laugh as Vin and Chris, heads nodding in unison, nearly ended up face first in their mashed potatoes. The boys were settled into bed with little protest, Vin exhausted and JD simply relieved to no longer be alone in their room.
Buck was surprised when Chris didnt retire to bed too, instead returning to the table carrying two glasses and a bottle. It was the good whiskey, the one that Ezra had supplied to them.
Whats the occasion?
Buck raised an eyebrow. Well, that sure qualifies as an occasion.
No, Im serious. Chris poured the drinks and pushed Bucks into place, silently asking him to sit. Some time ago I forced a decision on you. I was wrong and its taken me a long time to set it right. Too long.
What are you taking about?
You want to be JDs father in name. Chris made it a statement because he knew there was not question about it.
Look Chris, we dont need to go over...
We do, Chris interrupted. You let it ride because you didnt want to hurt me or force me into something. I returned that by forcing something else on you.
Chris, theres two boys to be considered. I could hardly offer it to JD if Vin wasnt included.
I know youve heard Vin call me Pa but he doesnt always seem comfortable with it and I want that to change. Im going to encourage him and I want you to talk to JD. I know you want this.
More than anything, Chris. Buck had noticed the gentle shift recently, willing to wait for his turn. Chris abrupt leap forward had caught him by surprise.
Theres something else I want done. Formal adoption, me and Vin, you and JD.
Chris, is there something I should know? Buck asked warily.
You dont want this?
Of course I do but why now? All this had remained unspoken for all this time. Even the fact that the men had let the temporary custody of the children slide into adoption, however informal, had been set aside as day-to-day living took over. What happened?
Nothing. At least nothing more than what I told you. I was lucky this time, Buck. I havent been prepared.
Chris, you cant see everything, you cant always be on alert.
I know that Buck but I also know it could happen again. Vin deserves better. Chris raised his eyes slowly. You all do.
Chris, it aint like youre wearing a big sign. This was random. You said it was just horse thieves. You havent had any of that other trouble for a while. Youre a rancher now.
Im still wearing a gun.
You wouldnt... Buck was stunned at what he thought was being suggested.
No, being unarmed wouldnt stop some. Larabee knew the sort of enemies he had acquired in recent years.
Buck raised his hands attempting to placate Chris. What ever the reason, well just get it done. Set everyones minds at rest.
I know Josiah made the arrangements with those Sisters from the orphanage but its not enough. I want the Judge to draw up full adoption papers for JD and you, Vin and I. I want them named as legal heirs and I want to name additional guardians.
Buck could hear that Chris had been thinking a lot about this. Not just cover each other? What else are you expecting?
Im not expecting anything and I hope it never happens. But if anything happened to both of us, then I want to be sure those boys are looked after. I want to know that they will never go to another orphanage, that theyll get this ranch and have some sort of security and future.
Weve got friends thatll make sure that theyre looked after.
Buck, some do-gooder takes one look at them and what happens? Ezras a gambler, Nathans black, Josiahs a man of the cloth but hes got a few years on us. Not many people would consider them suitable to raise children. The only reason we got the boys is because no couple would take them together.
Nathan would never be given guardianship of two white boys but maybe the Judge can word it somehow. Josiahs age doesnt make him the best choice in the world but we can trust him and Ezra would protect the boys with his life. I know they would look after the boys if anything ever happened but I want to be sure no one else can interfere. The Judge can draw the papers up.
Buck could see Chris had been thinking on this for some time. Fine by me Chris. We can see the Judge next week. When do we talk to the boys?
Tomorrow. I know its Sunday but I dont really feel like going back into town. Id like to just be home for a while.
The men waited until after breakfast to talk to the boys. Chris had tried to reassure Vin who was worried at being asked to stay indoors. We just want to talk you both about something important. No ones in any trouble. He touched Vins shoulder lightly as he drew their chairs closer.
Hey, Lil bit. I got something to ask you. Buck paused until he was sure he had JDs full attention as wide brown eyes were turned on him. Youve heard Vin sometimes call Chris Pa?
Yeah. JD glanced across to Vin, unsure if he was in trouble. It sometimes slips out cause I know Vin wants it real bad.
Vin flushed at the comment. Chris didnt really seem to mind but Vin had been unsure, deciding to only use the title when no one else was around.
And you? Buck continued. Do you want it? Bucks heart sank at JDs horrified expression. The liquid brown eyes dropped to study his fingers as he plucked fretfully at his shirt cuffs.
Can...I...Could I ? JD stumbled awkwardly with his question.
JD, its okay. Buck hugged him close, fearful of having upset the small boy. Buck felt JD turn to wrap his own arms around Bucks neck.
I want you, came the whispered request. Cant you be mine.
What? Buck asked, sure hed misheard.
Please? I like Chris but hes Vins.
JD, thats what I meant. You and me, Vin and Chris.
And longer. Buck loosened his hold as he felt JD pushing at his shoulders.
Buck? JD leaned back a little, peering intently into the dark blue eyes before him. Papa?
Buck wondered if it was possible for a heart to explode as his swelled to fill his chest, the pressure so painful that his eyes began to tear. He showered kisses on to the soft cheeks of the little face before him.
Papa? Is it all right? JD asked confused as Buck was suddenly laughing and crying.
More than all right JD. Son, he corrected. Buck stood, retaining his hold on JD and carried the little boy outside as he tried to compose himself. He turned back quickly to Chris in apology but Chris just nodded in gentle understanding.
JD remained relaxed, sure of his safety in Bucks arms stretching out as the broad chest beneath him expanded. Buck inhaled deeply and slowly released it, along with some unexpected tension that he hadnt previously been aware of. Hed thought it hadnt really bothered him when Chris had chosen to hold himself back from the boys but now he realised that he had fettered himself in the process and the freedom was sweet. Hed loved this little boy since hed met him but now there were no limits, no barriers.
Chris watched Buck through the open door. Theyd intended to do this as a family but he knew his friend was overwrought. Vin had sat quietly through the exchange.
Is this cause Ive been callin ya Pa? Vin hadnt intended to force anything. I tried not to do it, but sometimes it just came out.
I want you to call me Pa. Buck and I are making sure that youll always be our sons.
Werent we dopted before? Vin asked in surprise.
Yes, you were. But were going to get some pieces of paper that mean you have every right to everything of mine. This ranch and even my name.
Vin paled at the words. Hed never considered this part of having Chris. I I promised my Ma. I have to be a Tanner, he stammered anxiously. But in his heart he also wanted to be a Larabee. It had never crossed his mind that he could only have Chris if he broke his promise to his Ma.
Chris crouched down before the boy at the thread of distress he heard. Vin, dont fret. You dont have to do anything now or ever. But youll have the choice and maybe one day you might want to be Vin Larabee. Maybe one day youll need another name, Chris laughed softly trying to ease the worry.
Vin had seen the posters in the sheriffs office with people who had lots of names. You mean if I did something bad like those men on the wanted posters?
What? Chris was suddenly lost as Vin continued on his own tangent.
In the jail. Those men have other names.
No, Vin. Youll never do something bad and need to take another name like that, Chris tried to soothe the boy. Chris was sorry hed even mention it, taking a name just a turn of phrase to him that had slipped out automatically. He tried to return to the original discussion.
No Vin, you dont have to change your name. The papers will say that Vin Tanner is Chris Larabees son. It wasnt important to Chris and the papers he intended to have the judge draw up would ensure that different names between father and son would never become an issue in the future. The only names you need to worry about are Father and Son. I want you to call me Pa and I want to call you Son. Is that okay with you?
Anywhere, anytime. Reassuring Vin was all that mattered as he pressed a soft kiss to the furrowed brow. Forever.
Vin stayed frozen at the promise. It was everything hed ever wanted, even beyond his dreams as he looked over Chris shoulder and saw JD still in Bucks arms. Now he just had to make sure that he could keep his Pa safe. Watch his back. He wrapped his arms around Chris neck keeping his hold light instead of the tight hug he wanted, unwilling to hurt the man before him.
Vin? Chris tilted Vins head back to look directly at him. The worry and fear that had been swirling in those deep blue eyes was still there. Is this all right Vin? Chris suddenly realised that perhaps he was being selfish. Just because he was suddenly ready didnt mean Vin might not have second thoughts. As the Sheriff in Caulder had said, it was a hell of a thing for a family man. I know you were scared when I was hurt. Was it too scary? Do you still want this? Maybe Vin had been scared enough on this last trip to change his mind.
Vin blinked at the question. He didnt see that there was a choice. It was simply the way it was, the way it should be.
Chris waited at Vins serious expression. Two small hands cradled his face as Vin leaned in and pressed a light kiss to his forehead, mirroring Chris earlier response. Chris was moved by the open affection from the skittish boy whod been so unwilling in the beginning to even be touched. Now he was content to be encircled in Chris arms, to even offer his own comforts.
Vin leaned back again, a small rueful smile gracing his face. Chris needed no interpretation of that expression. This little boy thought his Pa was asking a very stupid question.
There was very little work done that Sunday. The men were too content to watch the boys at play and Chris still tired easily enough to comply with Bucks continuing orders to rest. It was the best sort of Sunday, simply drifting easily from dawn to dusk.
JD remained joyous in his new privilege, unable to utter a single sentence all day without the word Papa included. Even his evening prayers had included an announcement to God so that he would be aware of who the small boy was speaking about.
The men tucked the boys in and left the small room quietly.
You know youre gonna be taken to school for show n tell now, Chris warned, completely serious.
Wouldnt bother me one bit, Buck grinned.
Chris knew that was true. His friend was ablaze tonight. Buck had always shared his feelings with others, let them bask in that easy warm spirit but tonight Chris could feel the wash of joy, so tangible and rich, so achingly familiar. Adam had brought out something similar in Buck but this was more intense because it hadnt been filtered through Chris. Before, Buck had been a wonderful Uncle, a treasured playmate. This was Buck, beloved father. Chris blinked sharply and looked away but Buck caught the sharp plunge in his sprits.
What? Buck prompted at the abrupt change. It had been a wonderful night.
I stole all this from you, for nearly a year.
Buck paused for a moment. No. You didnt steal it, Chris. Buck knew that his feelings for JD had been set almost instantly. It was always there. I just didnt think you wanted to see it just yet. Now you, the town, hell, the whole worlds gonna know.
Youre a great father, Buck.
We, are great fathers, Buck corrected. How can we not be when weve got such great kids?
Sunday hadnt been busy yet still everyone was caught sleeping late the next morning.
Move it! Come on boys! Chris called. The two boys were worse than a herd of cattle to round up.
Ya sure? Vin asked again. Im gonna be itchin and leavin skin all over the place. Buck winced at the unattractive picture that presented but Vin had been working on skipping school since breakfast.
Go, Chris ordered. Youve missed enough lately.
Youll live, now outside.
Ya sure yer gonna be home? Vin asked.
Chris sighed in exasperation but replied again. Vin had already asked the same question three times this morning, apparently still worried for him. Yes Im sure. Im not going anywhere. Buck wont let me get too tired, okay?
Chris turned him gently toward the door, ushering him through just as Vin appeared to protest again. Chris shook his head at the worried frown on the young boy who was now studying the road and distant hills. He faced Vin and let his hands rest gently on the narrow bony shoulders.
Vin, theres nothing to worry about. You concentrate on school and Ill be waiting here for you when you get home.
Promise youll stay home.
I promise, cowboy. Vin finally nodded agreement, even if he didnt look particularly reassured. Chris could only put the fretting down to the fact that this was their first separation since his injury. It was only reasonable that Vin would worry given the circumstances the last time Vin had said goodbye to him.
You want me to ride to school with you? Chris offered, thinking that might help to settle him.
No! Vin thought that was the worse possible suggestion. Chris would have to ride alone back to the ranch.
Chris was a little startled at Vins reaction but let if go. He needed one more child out front. JD!
Ready! JD yelled as he ran toward them. But Pesos gone.
Peso? No the morning just couldnt run smoothly for Chris. Now we have to round up the damn horse as well?
JD and Vin snickered at the bad word but knew better than to point it out. Chris looked around in exasperation. You two, stand by the gate and dont move, not one inch. The boys took up their position but Vin spotted Peso just beyond the house. Hed only taken one step when he heard the yell.
Stop right there. What did I say about moving?
But Vin pointed at his target.
I can see him and Ill get him. Buck?
Nope. I clearly heard you say you were getting him.
Fine, Chris growled. He wasnt even going to try for good behaviour from the obstinate animal. He went inside and grabbed an apple. Peso was more than happy to come back toward the fence at the offer of a treat. Larabee knew hed just set a dangerous precedent but the end justified the means this morning.
Larabee handed the reins over to Vin as Buck boosted the boys up. Have a good day, he instructed.
And it was a good day, up until the lunch break. As always the children broke up into clusters of friends to play games. One such group were trying to discover the truth of the current rumour.
It was a real shootout, right in the middle of the street. The others turned to the more reliable source after all, Vin Tanner had been right there.
Vin looked over suspiciously, signalling to JD to wait for him. Josh and Cody werent really friends and more used to taunting in the school yard than joining games. What dya want?
Mr Larabee got called out didnt he? A shootout right in the main street.
No he didnt. Vin wondered why they would think such a thing. Hed heard things said in Caulder, but why were they asking him here.
Vins denials were ignored as the idea of gunslingers had taken hold. Other boys soon joined in to compare their knowledge and pressed Vin for information. Vin found himself the target of a dozen questions, none of which he knew the answer to. Just how low did Mr Larabees holster sit? Did Mr Larabee wear his gun in bed? Did Mr Larabee practice every day to stay fast?
Bet ya he never goes anywhere without a gun, Josh persisted. Come on Tanner, you were right there.
Werent no shootout, Vin insisted, tired of the pestering and turning away from the group.
My Pa said it was. Mr Larabees a gunslinger so they always have shootouts. Thats how they get to be the fastest draw. They get called out and then they shoot the shoot the other person n kill em.
He aint no killer, Vin defended.
All gunslingers are, its why everyones afraid of him.
Fear. He knew what that looked like and he had seen it on some of the faces in town. Why should anyone fear his Pa?
My Pa aint no killer. You take that back Josh Purvis, Vin snarled, shoving the other boy in the shoulder.
He aint yer Pa and he is a killer.
Vin didnt care for either insult, throwing himself at his opponent. Is too my Pa, he yelled as the pair rolled in the dust, punches thrown wildly.
Like the rest of the children, JD had coming running at the call of fight. He now stood in the ever-widening circle, hopping from foot to foot, anxious for Vin and shouting encouragement. He knew not to interfere as Vin had always instructed him to stay clear when any fight broke out at the orphanage.
Boys! Boys! Stop it this instant. Mrs Connells strident call drew little attention. She pushed her way through the circle and called on two of the older boys to separate the youngsters.
Each boy was finally held by his shirt collar, breathing hard. Maureen Connell eyed the damage. Both were a little dusty and bruised, Josh might have a black eye by tomorrow and Vin with a trickle of blood from a split lip. What is this about?
She saw the two exchange baleful glares but as expected neither spoke up. Well, if you have enough energy that you can fight for no reason then Ill just have to keep you occupied through lunch for the rest of the week. Inside now, the lunch break is over for you two.
Josh turned back and mouthed killer at Vin.
Liar, Vin silently returned.
Vin and Josh sat in their seats for the final ten minutes until lunch was over. Vin remained distracted the rest of the afternoon, earning himself two rebukes for not paying attention. His mind was too busy processing all the other boys information. They seemed to know a lot more about gunslingers than he did.
JD hadnt had an opportunity in class to talk to Vin but now unleashed his questions on the ride home.
Why were you fightin?
It was nuthin.
It werent nuthin. You dont like Josh anyway so whyd ya talk to him?
Just did, Vin regretted that choice.
Youll be in trouble, JD told him.
Will not. Vin had been lucky to escape a note home this time.
Will not n ya cant say nuthin either.
No. Aint no note to take home so its not home trouble, its just school trouble. Our Pas dont need to worry about this.
JD had stopped at the our Pa title. The words caught his attention reminding him of yesterdays joy. No, they didnt want to worry anyone and ruin things. If Vin said it was okay, then it was okay.
I wont say nuthin, JD agreed, but he still didnt see how it could be avoided. Vin?
Your lips all puffy.
Vin touched his lip gently and sighed. Hed forgotten hed have to explain that. He could say he fell. It was sort of true. He just fell onto Joshs fist not the ground. Too soon they were home and Vin still without a suitable story.
Papa! Papa! Were home! JD intended to make sure the whole world heard his new word.
Vin grinned at JDs call then pressed his sleeve cuff to his lip, the throbbing exploding as his unwise move opened the split again.
Whoa, hold up there. Buck grabbed Pesos bridle before the riders could pass. Vin? Buck shook his head at the guileless look. What happened?
Fight. Vin found he couldnt bring himself to lie.
Buck lowered JD easily to the ground then tapped Vins leg to take his feet from the stirrups to slide the older boy down. Someone pickin on you?
Vin scuffed the tip of one boot in the hard packed dirt considering how to answer. No, theyd been picking on Chris but he didnt want to admit that.
Pickin on JD? Buck prompted at the continuing silence. Vin, did you start this?
Buck sighed at the one-word answers. Who took the first swing?
I did, Vin admitted. But he was askin for it.
Who was askin for it?
Buck was at least satisfied it wasnt just bullying as Josh was of similar age and build to Vin. Still, it was unusual behavior for Vin who was slow to anger and rarely struck out.
Lets get you cleaned up.
Vin fidgeted as Buck dabbed at the lightly bleeding split, making a quick inspection for any other damage. Vin refused to play with JD making a big show of needing to do his homework to avoid any further trouble at school. Finally alone in his room, Vin dumped out the contents of his school bag across his bed and retrieved the book hed hidden under his mattress. Obviously the other boys knew more about this than he did so he would have to try harder to learn. Vin lost track of time as he paged though the book, looking for sections with the word Larabee in the hope of finding his answers.
Wheres Vin? Chris asked Buck as he entered their home.
Hes not outside?
No. Havent seen him all afternoon.
He had some trouble at school. Maybe he decided to stay in his room. He was trying to get his homework done.
Vin? Chris called as he approached the bedroom.
Vin tucked the book away quickly and rubbed at his tired eyes. He had managed to decipher some information from the book, but at the price of a headache from the tiny print and a backache from lying down to read.
Chris entered to find Vin struggling to sit up, rubbing at his eyes. He was worried that he may have disturbed Vin from sleep. Chris saw the swollen lip. Hey there, cowboy. Whats this about?
Thats a mighty painful nothing, Chris commented, tilting Vins face toward the light from the doorway. Vin?
Someone was saying bad things.
Vin, you know I dont want you fighting.
But it was real bad, Vin defended. He said you aint my Pa n other stuff.
Well, you know the truth. You dont have to fight to prove it, Vin.
It just... Vin shrugged helplessly.
Seemed like the thing to do, Chris finished for him. Vin looked up at the understanding tone. But its not the right thing to do, Chris continued. Youre in the right so you should just walk away.
Vin scowled at the idea. Clearly Chris didnt understand how important this was.
Chris wasnt too concerned as boys were likely to get involved in scuffles at school. Buck said you were doing homework. Have you finished?
Vin nodded quickly, making sure the paperback was still hidden from sight. You goin out? He asked as he scrambled off the bed to follow Chris.
Jus askin. Vin considered what hed been able to understand from the book. That, along with the other boys comments today only led him to believe that it was true. Someone could call out your name and try to shoot you. It had already happened once, although he hadnt heard those horse thieves call out but then he hadnt been paying attention. Only friends came to the ranch, so Chris was safe here. It was town that Vin needed to worry about.
Vin finally agreed to play with JD for a short time. While hed decided that Chris was safe at home, he still preferred to keep him in sight so he refused to allow the game to leave the yard. JD was not happy with the arrangement as he couldnt get Vin to chase him beyond the fence.
Buck called the boys to remind them that supper would be late tonight. Their work schedule was still behind and Buck was keeping the heavier chores to himself, finally having convinced Chris to stay on the porch and check all the tack for repairs. Chris couldnt argue that it was a useless task as it was a boring, time-consuming task that both men had put off far too long already.
Papa, can we go over to the pond? JD asked, eager to explore now that they had a little extra time.
No, Vin insisted before Buck could answer.
Buck saw the quick look Vin made back to Chris as he refused JDs request. You two best stay close as its getting dark.
Chris cleared the table after supper. Hed start insisting on doing more of the work as Buck was looking far too tired in the evenings. As he scraped the plates clean he realised that Vin had done an excellent job of pushing the food around his plate. It didnt appear that hed eaten very much at all.
Something wrong? Buck asked, places the cups down.
Did Vin eat this morning?
Yeah, same as usual. Why?
He didnt seem to eat much tonight.
Maybe his mouth hurts. I didnt check his teeth, he could have knocked something loose. Buck didnt know quite how to say this. Chris, did something else happen on that trip?
Chris stopped his cleaning and looked at Buck, surprised at the suddenly serious tone. Nothing I didnt tell you. Why?
I know you got a hell of a wake-up call and you came back here ready for changes. Good changes, Buck reassured the man as Chris started to protest. Vin just seems... Buck didnt want to say Vin was unhappy as that would surely break Chris heart, but something was not right.
Vin had to do a lot of very big things. Chris understood what Buck was trying to ask. He acted brave but he was just as scared as me, Buck.
Youve noticed you dont leave his sight?
Yeah, but I think hell settle down again. Im just going to give him some time.
JD was disturbed from his sleep by the noises in the dark. The quiet whimpers were close, muffled by the covers but still a familiar sound.
Vin? JD called softly. JD pushed his own covers back, untangling his nightshirt as he slid from his bed and approached his cousin.
Vin? JD climbed onto Vins bed, kneeling on the edge and shaking Vins shoulder to waken him. Vin didnt seem to wake but the pained sounds stopped. JD looked to the door but apparently the noise hadnt been sufficient to disturb either of their fathers. Vin started to stir restlessly again so JD latched onto him and curled up close beside him until Vin quieted under the familiar, comforting presence.
Buck knew the meaning of the two entwined bodies the following morning. The choice of bed was usually the indicator for which boy had a difficult night, and this time it appeared to be Vin. Nightmares were now infrequent occurrences in the household but Buck figured that last weeks events were sufficient cause to reawaken some terrors. Larabee also had the look of disturbed sleep and Buck didnt think it was all related to physical pain.
Buck woke the slumbering pair gently, a grin spreading across his face at JDs sleepy Mornin Papa.
Bad dreams? he asked of both, although Vins sleeping late was a sure sign
Vin was already squirming out of the covers, attempting to ignore the question. Mornin. Wheres Pa?
Buck had to smile at that one too. He had heard Vin call Chris Pa before, but usually only by accident. Vin had been at pains to hide the word from him.
Hes outside doin mornin chores.
Buck hustled them both along to get washed up. Hed have to leave most of the breakfast to Chris and get moving.
Chris watched as the eggs were pushed listlessly around the plate. Buck had already informed him of Vins probable night and the young boy still seemed to be feeling the effects.
Chris touched the pale face lightly but could find no sign of illness. Eat, Vin, he encouraged gently.
Chris didnt receive any argument but neither did much more food pass Vins lips. He crouched down in front of Vin, more likely to receive a straight answer when their eyes were at a level. Vin, does your stomach hurt?
Vin gnawed at his lower lip and shook his head in denial. Ya gonna stay home tday?
Yes I am, Vin. Ill be here where you get home. Each day the question and each day Chris tried to reassure.
Buck had already left the house so Chris finished packing the boys up for school. He loaded the lunch pails, adding an extra apple to each. Vin had eaten little this morning and he couldnt afford to lose weight. Hopefully hed be hungry by lunch.
The pattern repeated itself through the week and although the nightmares didnt seem to reoccur, Vin continued to only nibble at his food. While Chris didnt have to work so hard to reassure Vin of his presence, Vin still continued to ask his plans before leaving for school. The worry on the young face was clear to see.
The news at Saturday mornings breakfast brought Vins head snapping around to his father. Yer goin ta town?
I have to see Nathan and Ill pick up a few essentials. Its not a big trip.
Arent we all going?
No, its just in and out, I plan to be back before lunch. You wont have time to even miss me.
No, Vin insisted. I gotta go with ya. Vin couldnt let Chris travel alone.
Vin, I wont be gone more than three hours. I cant take you both and you dont want to leave JD here, do you? Chris knew that was a little unfair.
Vins insisting didnt get him any closer and he could hear the impatience creeping into Chris voice. Vin decided to stop asking, instead waiting until the wagon was hitched and the men distracted before making his move. He knew how to hide, he knew how to keep quiet. He folded himself tightly into the corner for balance as the wagon began to sway and jerk.
Papa, will you play wiv me?
Whats up Lil Bit? Wont Vin play?
No, hes got a job.
Buck was surprised as he hadnt assigned any unusual chores for the boys. He realised that he hadnt seen Vin for a while.
What sort of job, JD?
JD just shrugged. Dunno. Jus had to go. JD clapped his hands over his mouth.
Go? Buck asked warily. Go where?
Secret, JD insisted, trying not to disclose anything else.
But its my job to know where he is JD. What would I tell Chris if I lost Vin?
Vin aint lost. Chrisll find him.
JD, no games. Buck insisted as JD continued to talk in riddles. Where did Vin go?
He went with Chris.
Chris left alone, JD.
Nu uh, Vin was in the wagon. Hes real good at hidin, JD added.
Buck sighed. There was nothing he could do about Vin now so he would hope that Chris discovered his stowaway.
So can we play? Vin wouldnt stay and play, JD added with a woeful pout.
Buck decided to take JD with him to the upper fences as the longer ride would appease the disappointed young boy. Well, give me two minutes to finish this and then you can come riding with me. Think you can last that long?
Sure can! JD replied happily at the thought of riding with Buck.
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