Four Days

by Gray

Future Little Britches AU

The story assumes you are already familiar with the Magnificent Seven and its characters, as well as the LB old west universe, though it takes place three years down the road . Vin is about ten and a half. It could be said to be a sequel to The Phenom, so you may want to read that first though it can probably stand alone as well. I have no idea where this LB story came from, but apparently there is another on the way (though that one will take a bit longer). I have learned that the muse and I agree on very little. C'est la vie.

It is perhaps a little dark or serious…I don’t know, you tell me. I haven’t previously felt the need to put warnings on the content of my stories…but I’ll say that even though this is in the LB universe…it’s not exactly a kid story.

Thank Brate for the beta. This could have been much worse.

Other notes are at the end of the story.

Day One—(The Larabee Ranch)
Ten-year-old Vin Tanner brushed a hand through his long hair—hair too long according to some. When he pulled his hand back down a single strand of it was caught between his index and middle finger. He pulled at it, spreading it out flat against his dark brown pant leg.

His hair had gotten progressively darker, he noted. Only a few years ago it had been nearly a white blond and now appeared more golden brown. It hung straight most of the time—turning wavy only when the weather grew more humid; though that happened rarely in the desert climate in which he lived. Sometimes, if he didn’t wash it for several days, it started to curl. And that, perhaps, was another change that would progress as he grew older.

All of this, he thought while staring at the hair, was evidence that he wasn’t an "Indian." But only according to some, he told himself—echoing one of Kojay’s repeated lessons—reminding himself that he did have the right to mourn…that he did belong.

Slowly, he brushed the hair from his leg, watching it land on the bed and then ignoring its existence. Carefully, he took the same hand and laced it through the cordage that held a doeskin bag around his neck. It was a habit he had developed long ago. The small pouch could be referred to in several ways. It wasn’t a medicine pouch in the way most people understood a medicine pouch to be. Few in the white-man’s world had any understanding of what it really was to mean. Most of them would call it an "Indian bag" or some slightly more educated referred to it as a jish. In simplistic terms it was more of a "remembrance pouch." In it were things that would continually remind him of who he was—remind him of his strengths, his powers, where he’d been, and where he might be going.

No matter where he went in life, those things would always be a part of him. It was another of Kojay’s favorite lessons. Kojay’s lessons almost always brought him comfort. It was comfort that he needed right now as he continued to listen to the conflict in the next room.

"I can’t believe you’re going to let him go out there again!"

Buck’s voice was loud—louder than Vin had heard it in a long time. It made him glad that JD wasn’t there to hear it. Buck sent him to spend the night in town, as he always did when he knew he and Chris were going to fight. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, Vin couldn’t help but feel he was at the center of it. Or maybe he just felt that way because he was at the center of it right now. Buck and Chris had already covered a lot of ground that night, and Vin had been the center at every turn.

The ten-year-old had started listening to the argument somewhere in the midst of Buck saying, "He buys into this Indian stuff way too much. It was okay when he was younger, but he’s not an Indian. He believes in all this power stuff and someone needs to tell him that it’s just a bunch of hooey."

And then there was Larabee’s expected, defensive response of, "It’s part of him Buck—and I can’t take it away from him."

From there they’d quickly moved past the point that he wasn’t an Indian, thankfully, and had eventually gotten to the point where they were now, with Chris’s response to Buck’s exclamation of utter disbelief, "I can’t believe you’re going to let him go out there again!"

"It’s not about letting him, Buck! It’s his choice," the man gritted out. Vin could tell Chris didn’t want to have anything to do with this discussion anymore, and hadn’t for a while.

"It’s not his choice, Chris. He’s ten years old! You don’t make choices like that when you’re ten."

"Buck, this is something I agreed to a long time ago. I can’t take it back now."

"Chris, do you hear yourself? He could have been killed out there! Killed—as in dead!"

"I KNOW!" It was roared in the deadly voice Chris rarely used—even when dealing with the drudgery he associated with in his job as peacekeeper. Vin flinched unconsciously. Not out of fear, but because of the pain he knew he was causing the man in the next room.

"I know Buck," Chris continued to clip out. "But it is…his choice."

"…ten years old…" Buck tried to softly argue, "If it were Adam…"

"It’s not Adam," Chris cut him off. "Discussion closed."

"Chris…" Buck’s voice nearly pleaded.

"Closed, Buck."

Vin could picture the abrupt wave of Larabee’s hand, and knew he was heading out the door. The boy’s heavy heart seemed to grow rock solid. He knew his heart would remain wounded until he went back. He needed to heal from the red moon and it wouldn’t happen here, because it hadn’t happened here. It hadn’t happened to this part of his family—to this part of him. He needed to go back and heal…he just didn’t want to hurt Chris Larabee in the process.

Sure enough, he heard the door slam, signifying Larabee’s departure. With a deep breath he convinced himself to move before he backed out of what he knew needed to be done. He used the window to exit his bedroom, the same way he’d entered over thirty minutes before. He walked around the side of the house only to stop dead at the sight of the man he loved more than any other.

The black-clad Chris Larabee was seated on the bench by the water pump. He was leaning back against the wall of the house—his lanky form looking tense and dejected in a way Vin couldn’t remember seeing before. His focus was on the hat in his hands. Vin stood still and watched him for a moment. The waning twilight still capable of revealing the pain on the man’s stone face.

"You heard." Larabee’s soft timbre slid into the silence, his focus shifting from his hat to the sunset on the horizon. Vin nodded—knowing Chris would see the answer without having to look directly at him.

They were both still for another long moment. It was Chris that again split the silence. Releasing his emotions in a sigh, he looked at Vin while running his hand over his blond hair. "You going to just stand there, or are you going to sit with me?" he asked, not even attempting to force false cheerfulness into his voice. But Vin easily sensed the warmth and affection.

Battling his own emotions, Vin walked over and slumped down next to Chris, close enough that their arms touched—an affirmation to the other that their connection was still intact. With the closeness, they relaxed their respective concerns for a moment. The sun turned from yellow to red as they watched.

Then, as they stared at the twilight, Vin asked what now weighed on him in addition to the pain that had already been festering in his soul, "Am I hurting you?"

Chris lifted his arm and settled it on the back of the bench behind Vin’s shoulders, letting his head drop back to lean against the rough siding of the house. "Is that what you’re worried about?"

"I don’t want to hurt you," he answered, scuffing the toe of his boot in the dirt.

"Vin. I’m hurting because you’re hurting. And I’m worried about you. But that is not your concern right now. It’s my job to worry. Okay? All I want you to do is what you feel you need to do to heal." He paused, "I can’t see you this sad anymore. And I don’t want you to worry about whether Buck or I understand it—whether or not anyone understands it. Mary, Nettie, the boys, and JD included."

"I need to go back." Vin felt his voice catch, and the prick behind his eyes that threatened tears. He hoped Chris would understand.

"I know," was the soft answer.

Vin huffed out a breath in relief, and felt Chris’s hand squeeze his shoulder.

"You have Peso saddled already?"

Vin again gave a nod.

"All right then," said Chris. "When can I follow you?"

"Four days…after four days including today," was the soft answer.

"Then I’ll be there…watch for me."

Vin dipped his head toward the ground in acknowledgement and relief. He brushed his long hair behind his ears as he stood to make his way toward the barn. He hadn’t gone more than two steps before he felt Larabee’s boot hook around his leg to stop him.

"Hey," Chris called, now wearing a semi-forced tight smile. As Vin turned he stood and pulled him into a tight embrace. Vin returned the hug for a long moment before Chris released him and allowed him to step back. "Be safe, Vin. Stay safe," he ordered. Then, in an uncharacteristic display of affection, he held the boy’s head in his hands and kissed his forehead. "Be safe." With that he turned and strode into the approaching darkness leaving the young Tanner to watch him walk away with a lump in his throat.

"I will," he promised softly. "I will."

Making his way back to the barn with steady determination, Vin braced himself when he saw Buck standing in the doorway. Maintaining his focus he brushed past him to where Peso stood waiting. With infinite care he collected his rifle and slid it into the holster on the saddle. He knew Buck wouldn’t let him get out of there without something being said, but Vin would relish the silence as long as he could, and make his departure as swift as possible.

He would be riding in the dark and wanted to get going before all the light was gone. Even though he had long ago learned the way to the reservation well enough to find it in his sleep, he knew it made Chris nervous to have him out alone at night…and he’d worried the man enough. He didn’t want to add to it.

Shifting himself onto the crate in Peso’s stall, he easily mounted. For the first time in the last month, he felt sure about his destination and his direction. He felt hope. It was the hope, he believed, that he’d been missing. And he knew, or believed—even if Buck didn’t—that he was indeed victim to the ghost sickness…and Kojay would be able to take it away.

It was then that Buck decided to have his conversation. "Vin," he started.

The boy looked away, and edged Peso closer to the exit.

"Look, son." Vin could tell Buck was trying to be gentle. "I know you feel like this is what you need, pard, but I gotta tell ya I don’t think this is right."

Vin continued to say nothing.

"Chris and I…we’ve both been awfully worried about you. And JD, too. And I don’t think you leaving right now…especially to go back where—"

"I have to go." The boy’s voice was soft and resolute.

"Vin," Buck tried again, his voice a little stronger, a little firmer. "We’re your family. You belong with us, especially now. And I don’t think its right for you to put this kind of worry on Chris…. You don’t need to be putting yourself in situations where—"

For some inexplicable reason Vin felt his anger flare…and let it flare, to cover the other emotions and fears he felt at the moment. He slumped back in the saddle, ducking his head so that his hat covered both his eyes and the emotions he wasn’t yet comfortable with. "I need to go," he said again, the edge of his voice tinged with the sudden anger, pleading with the man to let him go without too much fuss, or too much guilt. He wasn’t sure he could take anymore. He felt guilty for leaving and guilty for staying. The duty he had to perform outweighed his need to try to not worry his mentors.

"Buck." Chris’s voice slid in between them as it often did, cat-like and stealthy. "Let him go." His voice remained soft as he pulled on his friend’s elbow to move him out of Vin’s way.

Giving a nod of thanks the boy spurred Peso into the distance, urging him into a gallop as soon as he could, knowing the two men would watch him until they could see him no more.

* * *

Chris and Buck stood in the silent dark long after Vin was out of their sight—long after the dust he and Peso had kicked up in their rapid exit had settled. The tight feeling that remained in Larabee's chest seemed to block out all other sensations he might have been feeling as the night turned cold. But it didn't, and couldn't block out the sensation of Buck's eyes starting at him with what Chris was sure had to be a mixture of anger and worry.

Taking a deep breath to get the tightness in his chest under control, Chris turned his head to meet his oldest friend's stare, daring him to say what was on his mind.

"I hope you know what you’re doing, Chris," muttered Buck. The man’s voice was broken and weary in a way that reminded Chris that he, too, had lost Sarah and Adam, and he, too, was afraid of losing Vin.

Larabee struggled to find voice as he watched Buck walk away and disappear into the house.

Finally, he whispered, "So do I."

Two Weeks Earlier—(Four Corners)

Chris strode through the town with his usual deadly aura, but it was evident to even the town’s people that something even blacker was walking with the man, telling them it would be wise to stay out of his way.

He had returned from a patrol of the outlaying lands of their community where he discovered that once again a coyote seemed to have moved down from the hills to start attacking local cattle. Chris wanted to find Vin to ride back out with him, so the boy could look at the tracks. Kojay had been teaching him the art of tracking for over two years now, and it had been obvious from the start Vin had the eye for it…that he was a natural. He would be able to find the coyote’s lair.

Larabee’s second reason for wanting to take Vin with him, was to again attempt to draw the boy out of the isolation in which he had surrounded himself. The few light injuries he’d sustained just a few weeks back were healing nicely, but his heart was not. Wondering where the boy might be, Chris decided to head to the jail to ask whichever peacekeeper was on duty—they would know.

Before he got there he ran into Ezra, who apparently wanted to talk to him. Despite the black cloud surrounding him and his currently one-track mind, Chris acquiesced to the conversation, considering that Ezra might also have the information of Vin’s whereabouts.

"Mr. Larabee, I just thought you would like to know that the army has cleared out of Fort Apache, and a wire from Colonel Jeffrey assures me they will not be returning."

Chris stopped. This had been what he wanted to hear. After what had happened, though, the tightness in his gut told him it wasn’t enough. "What about Sergeant Davis?" he asked in low voice.

Ezra looked away and shook his head before speaking. "The colonel said the matter would be handled, and that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with it."

"He’s going to get away with it all." The bitterness in Larabee’s eyes told a deeper story of pain than the statement revealed.

"At least," Ezra had to stop to swallow, "I am assured he will not be returning to be seen in these parts ever again."

Chris nodded, knowing there was nothing he could do about it except hopefully heal a ten-year-old boy seriously affected by the sergeant’s actions. Chris would have to be content with that; though it didn’t set well with him that more hadn’t been done. "Compensation?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

Ezra looked away again, not answering, knowing that Larabee didn’t really expect him to say anything. They were lucky that the army had even cleared out, even if it was simply to save themselves from the embarrassment of their "mistake."

"Josiah informed me he plans the use of part of the church’s donations to help Kojay’s tribe."

Chris smirked. "I’ll bet the townspeople will love hearing that."

"The townspeople give money to Josiah’s church because they trust how he will use it. If they don’t like it, they can pay off their souls another way…but he is the only church in town."

The two shared a smile. Chris had to admit he was a little surprised to see how Ezra’s attitude had changed through the years.

Two years ago he’d been staunchly against Chris’s decision to allow Kojay ownership over part of Vin’s education. In fact, he’d been against nearly every way that Chris had chosen to handle the boy’s learning. He’d sided with Buck against the other three peacekeepers when, after only two weeks of attendance, Chris had decided the schoolhouse wasn’t where Vin belonged. Mary and Nettie had gladly picked up the slack, and then, eventually, Ezra had stepped in to serve as Vin’s math teacher. He was doing a good job, even if Mary and Nettie disapproved of his teaching methods—often using face cards and gambling adages as his means of teaching. Yes, Ezra had indeed changed. They all had.

"Ezra," Chris asked, "have you seen Vin today?"

Standish shook his head in denial. "Once again, he did not appear for his lesson with me. Though, he did do reading with Mary this morning."

Chris gave a nod, both indicating his appreciation of Ezra’s information and giving him a farewell. He headed in the direction of the jail to see if he would be told something more useful. When he entered after crossing the dusty street, the only person that greeted him was the infamous eight-year-old, JD Dunne. The schoolhouse must have let the kids out early, Chris deduced.

The young boy was kneeling on the hard wooden chair behind the jail’s desk, writing in his school tablet. By the scrunched look on his face, Chris figured he was working on a writing assignment. If JD had a forte, it was math—writing and the art of the English language, were not. If it wasn’t a dime-store novel, they had a hard time getting him to sit still long enough to read anything. Vin, on the other hand, became captivated by Shakespeare and shunned numbers—at least until Ezra had put them in a context he could understand. This was yet another apparent difference between the young cousins. While JD thrived at the schoolhouse, Vin had been dying. Chris had never regretted his decision regarding Vin’s formal education.

"How’s it going, JD?" asked Chris, trying to keep his tone light. None of them had really spoken with JD about the events at the reservation. Explaining serious matters to their youngest was usually the job of Buck or Vin, and neither of them had been in the frame of mind to talk to him yet.

JD gave a grimaced mutter, confirming Chris’s suspicion that he was, indeed, doing a writing assignment. Chris decided the painful chore might also explain the lack of the child’s usual boisterous explosion of words typically encountered after one greeted him.

"Have you seen Vin?" the man questioned, not waiting for the boy to expound upon the woes of writing book summaries, poetry, or anything else.

JD paused in his work to look up at Chris, giving a silent, yet obviously annoyed, shrug, further confirming to Chris that their unorthodox family’s jovial tones had not completely fooled the young boy, and he was apparently tired of being left out. But instead of voicing his frustration as Chris expected him to, he simply answered the man’s question, "He was here a bit ago…went out back."

Chris nodded, thinking he should probably talk to JD about what had been going on, but not feeling adequate to the task. He headed toward the back door.

"Chris?" JD’s voice stopped him. He turned around to see JD had twisted in the chair to look at him. "Is Vin still hurt?"

Chris figured JD was asking more than the simple question implied. In fact he was pretty sure that both he and JD knew they were talking about Vin’s heart and soul, not his body. All the eight-year-old had been told was that Vin got hurt at the reservation. No one had told him how or why, but the boy was more perceptive than his apparent naive nature allowed them to give him credit for.

"Well, you know he was. We told you that…but he’s getting better now." Chris had a feeling his half-answer wasn’t going to be enough for the boy. He was right.

"No, he’s not."

Chris sighed, frustrated. There was finality in JD’s statement that he didn’t want to hear. Vin was getting better—he had to be. "He’s getting better, JD," Chris insisted again.

JD turned back to his tablet, "Then why hasn’t he gone back to see Kojay? Why doesn’t he talk to me anymore? He’s hurt. And he’s not getting any better."

"JD, we didn’t want Vin to go back to see Kojay for just a little while, it doesn’t mean he’s not getting better." It was a half-lie Chris figured JD could live with.

"Do you want him to go at all? Buck doesn’t."

Chris stopped. "Did Buck tell you that?"

JD shook his head and looked back up again before he added, "He got upset when I asked him why Vin hasn’t been out there." Then JD shrugged, as though that answered the dark man’s question.

Chris released air slowly out of his nose. He couldn’t have this conversation with JD yet. "JD, something bad happened out at the reservation when Vin got hurt. Buck and I just don’t want him to be hurt anymore."

"Did Kojay hurt him?" asked the child.

"No. JD, Kojay would never hurt Vin." There was an edge to Chris’s voice.

"Well, how am I supposed to know if you don’t ever tell me anything? You all think I’m still a baby." JD muttered it, knowing that raising your voice to Chris Larabee when he was obviously already worried wasn’t a wise thing to do.

"Look, I’m sorry, JD," Chris said, surprising the eight year old out of his pout. "I usually let Vin or Buck talk to you about this stuff—I’d like to find Vin now, but I’ll talk to you later okay?"

"Okay." JD figured he’d have to be content with that.

* * *

When Larabee stepped out the back door of the jail he was aware that the wind had picked up again, blowing sand into the already grainy air and causing the juniper trees in the distance to dance back and forth. However, the sun was still bright and not a trace of gray touched the azure sky. The desert could be deceptive with its weather, Chris knew. Everything could look perfectly fine when you knew deep down a storm was brewing. Often the brightness of the sun made people want to overlook the signs of a coming downpour. Denial was easy when you set your mind to it.

It turned out not to be too difficult for Chris to locate Vin. He knew the boy well. The alley next to the jail always had an assortment of stacking crates left there by various store owners who no longer required them. Vin had stacked them together so that he could gain access to the low overhang over the back porch of Rosetta’s sewing shop. He was sitting up there now, staring out into the vast dry desert that surrounded their town, while protected by the shade of the building he had his back resting against. For a moment, Chris wondered what else Vin could see out there beyond the sagebrush and occasional juniper. What things did he mourn for that Chris couldn’t touch? He watched the boy pull his knees up, bent enough for him to lock his arms around, noting that his hat was pulled low over his eyes.

Previous to the incident at the reservation Vin didn’t wear his hat all that often. Like most boys his age, he saw only the inconvenience it offered and not its protection. Two weeks ago Vin’s perspective on hats had apparently changed. It seemed now whenever he could, whenever he was around a lot of people, or when the light seemed to be shining too brightly, he’d pull on his hat and tip it far enough forward to shadow his eyes.

Chris had always thought that Vin had extremely telling eyes. He figured Vin knew that about himself as well, and wondered if that understanding was behind his sudden desire to wear a hat he would have previously just as soon left in the middle of the desert. The evasive hiding tactic bothered Larabee, perhaps because it gave evidence to the fact that Vin really wasn’t getting better.

"Hey, Cowboy." Chris looked up at him, certain the boy was already aware of his presence.

He was rewarded by seeing Vin shove his hat back off his eyes and glance down in his direction with a nod.

"Have you eaten anything for lunch?"

Vin caught his eyes again and then shook his head with a grimace. Chris didn’t think he would speak but the young Tanner surprised him by saying, "I wasn’t hungry."

"Did you eat breakfast this morning?" Chris had left early for his patrol so he didn’t know if Buck had curbed the boy’s bad eating habits with a good breakfast or not.

Grimacing again with a touch of guilt, Vin looked away and shook his head.

"Well, how about you come down and we go eat something?" Chris was pretty sure Vin would know it wasn’t a request. But he was also fairly certain that Vin wouldn’t fight against being in his presence. He may not have been a happy ten-year-old, but they’d never had a problem sitting together in weariness or worry. As Vin reached the halfway point of his descent from his rooftop perch, Chris reached gingerly up to balance the crates as Vin came down the rest of the way, resting a hand on his shoulder when he reached the bottom.

With deceptive ease the two walked down the alley in the direction of food, Vin tugging his hat lower over his eyes as they reached the more populated part of town, but Chris had already noted the dark circles adorning them. "Did you sleep last night?" he asked?

Vin shrugged at him again.

"Nightmares?" He’d woken Vin up from a few of those the first few nights after he’d been home.

Vin shook his head in denial. "I’m okay, Chris." It was said with another shrug. One that seemed to Chris to be a half apology from the boy for making him worried. It wasn’t how he wanted Vin to see this situation. He didn’t want the ten-year-old to hide his feelings from him just because he didn’t want to hurt him. Vin wasn’t okay, and they both knew it. Chris hadn’t wanted to admit it, but he knew it. Now if he could only figure out what he should do about it that would make it possible for them to both get past this, maybe they could both be okay again.

He gave Vin’s shoulder another squeeze, reminding the boy and himself that the ten-year-old was still living and still breathing, and at the very least, things hadn’t gotten any worse.

Day Two—(The Larabee Ranch)

"Hey, Preacher," said Chris without turning around or losing pace as he broke and began to spread another hay bail in the barn…technically it was Vin’s job.

"Hello," greeted Josiah, stepping further into the barn.

"What brings you out?" Chris said it casually, with practiced indifference.

"Oh, you know…I love the view," quipped Josiah with abject sincerity.

Chris laughed despite himself, relaxing his defensive posture. "That so?" he said dryly, inviting Josiah to fully explain himself, though his purpose at the ranch was nothing that Larabee couldn’t already guess.

"Well, several reasons, actually," admitted the preacher. "I wanted to head out here to see how Vin was holding up since he hadn’t been in town the last few days…but I ran into Buck before I left…"

Chris dropped his eyes and leaned back against the barn door, not saying anything—but imagining all Buck might have.

"…he seemed a tad upset." The apparent understatement of Josiah’s claim was nothing if not obvious. Chris laughed again, grateful for Josiah’s easy way of stating things—grateful for his bluntness.

"Buck give you an earful?" Chris cocked an eyebrow up as he asked it, moving to hang the pitchfork in its rightful place on the wall, where no small boys or anyone else could have an accidental encounter with it.

"You might say that," nodded Josiah. "He seemed to be a man in need of talking. It got me to wondering how you might be faring with all of this."

Chris ignored the implied question, instead retorting with, "Vin’s the one that deserves your worry, Preacher."

"Oh, he has it. But the more I learn about worry, the more of it I seem to have to go around." Taking advantage of the solid bail resting against the wall near the barn’s wide doors, Josiah sat. He removed his hat and held it in his hands—something he noticed Chris did when he was worried or distraught and knew he couldn’t get drunk. There was something about hands. If they could hold onto something, even a hat, it made it seem like there was still some fettered control over the intangible.

Finally, Chris walked over and sat across from him, leaning his back against a stall door. Josiah was pretty sure Chris would talk, but he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to get to what the issue was. He was a patient man when he wanted to be, he could wait Chris out.

"Things quiet in town?" Typical of Chris to get official business taken care of first, Josiah thought.

"We would have told you otherwise."

"JD, doin’ all right?"

"Seems to be. Sad though—when it concerns Vin he’s usually able to pick up on the general emotion around him, if not the reasons for it…I think it was good that you talked to him."

"Was Buck mad about that, too?" Chris accompanied the question with a disgusted sigh. Since Chris wasn’t listening to Buck’s advice about Vin, the other man may be feeling resentful of his presumed involvement in parenting JD without counseling with him first.

"No, though I think he felt bad that he didn’t talk to him before you did. Either way, JD needed to know a little more before his frustration of being left in the dark could get him in trouble."

Chris gave an appreciative nod. "Vin usually explains the serious stuff to JD if Buck’s not up to it…at least if he thinks he can handle it. But this has been a weird one."

"I imagine that’s not all it’s been."

There was a pause as both men considered the situation, broken appropriately by Chris, "Did Buck tell you that Vin left…to go…to go back?"

Josiah hadn’t seen Larabee struggle this much to discuss something since he’d told them the story of his lost wife and son. Sanchez watched as Chris took his hat off, and held it in his hands.

"He did—though not exactly in that way."

"Buck didn’t want him to go….He didn’t want me to let him."

"And you?"

"It wasn’t my choice," Chris growled fiercely, staring at the ground, his voice low and tight. Josiah knew he would have to tread softly.

"Did you want him to go?"

"No," Chris admitted, even though the grit of his teeth testified to his answer before the "no" slip passed them.

"Did Vin know you didn’t want him to go?"

Larabee nodded. Vin knew. Of this he was certain. "I never said it," he explained to Josiah, "but Vin can…"

Chris didn’t have to finish. Josiah knew what he meant. Vin had a perception—an ability to read people—especially Chris, at least as well as the man could read him. Vin would have definitely known the man’s feelings on the subject and…

"That’s probably why he stayed as long as he did." Chris voiced Josiah’s last thought, leaving him only to nod.

"And you’re worried that maybe you should have made him stay…or that he made the wrong choice?"

"I don’t know."

"Let me ask you, Chris. How was Vin?"

"What do you mean?"

"Was he any different than when you brought him home a month ago?"

Chris shook his head, shoulders slumping in a hopeless gesture as he did. "He’s still not eating…not sleeping…and doing every dang chore he can get his hands on…not…not talking, hardly at all." Larbee shook his head, rubbing one of his hands over his hair while the other continued to clench his hat. "Right or wrong, it was his choice to make, Josiah. I know Buck doesn’t understand that. Buck doesn’t think I should have left it up to him…that I should have made him stay here…it’s not the first time we’ve disagreed about him."

The older man could only nod. He knew some of the issues that they had disagreed about, and ironically he usually found himself siding with Chris and his reasoning, though he had never analyzed why. "Buck was surprised when I talked to him," admitted Josiah. "He said that if it were…" Josiah didn’t know how to finish.

But Chris did. "If it were Adam?"

The preacher nodded in response.

Chris continued, "It’s not Adam, though. Vin and Adam. They aren’t the same at all. For some reason, Buck thinks that what works for one kid will work for another."

"What is it you think our brother Buck would have you do here?"

Larabee shrugged again. Josiah was beginning to understand that there might be a lot of shrugging in this conversation, but knew that the gesture only preceded the man’s thoughts and that waiting would eventually allow him to know what they were. Sure enough Chris continued, "I don’t know…I think he wants me to tell Vin what to do…make him stay in his room or…I don’t know. He thinks I give him too much responsibility…power…that I don’t treat him enough like a kid."

There was a long silence while both men organized their thoughts. "What do you think?" Josiah finally prompted, having things to say himself, but wanting to hear Chris’s conclusions before he said them.

Shaking his head from side to side Chris answered, "I think that…Vin’s not mine….I mean, he’s mine, but he’s not just mine. He had a mother and a father…and a grandfather. He remembers them…and they taught him the kind of person they wanted him to be. He remembers that. He remembers it all the time. If I…if I told him he couldn’t do something he felt should be done…he’d do it anyway. And in the end he might resent me for trying to force him into something different…and I’d lose him. I don’t think Buck really sees that…or maybe he does. Maybe I’m wrong but…Josiah, I could lock Vin in his room. I could tell him he wasn’t allowed to do something." Chris sighed in frustration. "I could spank him, beat him, or a number of other things…and he’d just take it. And then he’d go and do whatever he thought was right anyway."

Josiah nodded, agreeing.

"I guess I just…I have to respect that part of him, or I’ll lose the part of him that does belong to me." Chris looked to Josiah, wondering if the man understood…wondering if the man would disagree with him. It wouldn’t change anything, but Chris could admit that he wanted a little reassurance that he had done the right thing, that his reasoning was sound, and that maybe someone was on his side.

"Brother, I never told you this before but when I was about twelve my father left me to take care of my mother and my sister for about a year while he was away…preaching. He was a very dominating man. Having him gone was a freedom for me…a freedom for all of us, I think. We got pretty good at taking care of things with him gone. When he came back he tried to step back in…like nothing had changed. He started to tell me when to study and how to study…and how to do just about everything in my life. I hadn’t resented it before he left…but I resented it when he returned. I’d learned how to take care of myself for the most part. I’d matured…and he didn’t want to recognize that. From then on things just got worse between us. If I’ve learned anything in life from that experience…it’s that you can’t expect someone to progress backwards." Josiah looked up to see that Chris was watching his face, listening intently. "I guess what I’m trying to say is…I think you did the right thing. It’s a hard choice but one Vin had to make himself."

There was a hard beat of silence, laced with the sighing relief of finding an ally in the midst of confusion.

"Thanks, Preacher…you think Buck will ever grasp that?"

Josiah chuckled. "Probably not…but he’s got a good heart. He’ll find a way to support you anyway…you and Vin."

"Me and Vin," Chris mumbled. He hoped that phrase wouldn’t change anytime soon.

Three Weeks Earlier—(Four Corners)

Nathan looked up from the desk in his clinic when he heard the door creek open. A silent and brooding Vin Tanner met his gaze evenly. Even though the boy said nothing, the look on his face told Nathan that he wasn’t happy about being here and it was likely either Buck or Chris had ordered him to come up.

"Hey there, Vin," he said easily, trying to set a calm atmosphere for the boy. As expected, the recalcitrant boy said nothing, simply shrugging his answer. Nathan reminded himself to ask Chris and Buck if the boy had, in fact, spoken at all since they brought him home from the reservation a week ago.

"Are you here so I can check those bruises?" One week ago Nathan had been convinced Vin had at least a couple cracked ribs but now figured they were probably just bruised.

Vin nodded.

"I can probably take those stitches out of your head too, but let’s start with your ribs. Kay? Have a seat."

Vin complied, manifesting his protest in his ridged body movements. Nathan reached over to help him undo the buttons, surprised that Vin accepted the help. Carefully he pulled the shirt open and off. The bruises on Vin's torso had changed color again. Nathan slid his hand gently along the ribs. Vin didn’t squirm or flinch, though he was gritting his teeth tightly. The other cuts also seemed to be healing.

Nathan turned his attention to the stitches on Vin's head, brushing back his hair as the cut was close to the hairline. Vin had pulled off the bandage Nathan had tied around the boy's entire head. He'd probably removed it within hours of its appearance. Nathan had used the bandage in an effort to keep the wound clean, but even with the wrap's absence there had been no sign of infection. The cut was healing well. Nathan didn't want to interrupt that progress yet. "Maybe I’ll leave the stitches in for just a few more days, okay?"

The boy nodded, shrugging away slightly as Nathan tried to help him button up. "Have you been resting? You look like you have a headache."

Vin looked down.


He was surprised to get a small, albeit grimaced, nod out of the boy.

"You tell Chris about them?" Nathan was trying to keep this casual, but it was hard considering the likely subject matter.

Vin stood, after having tucked in his shirt, and shifted toward the door while still facing Nathan. "He knows." The voice was a mere whisper making the healer question whether he’d imagined it being said. But it had, indeed, been said.

"Is he helping you?" It was all Jackson could think to ask. If anyone could help Vin it was Chris Larabee. He was convinced their souls were part of some cosmic link. Nathan’s heart plummeted some when Vin just shrugged. They stood in silence for a moment until Vin made a requesting gesture at the door. Nathan gave a nod and in another breeze of silence the boy was gone.

Day Three—(Four Corners)

Chris was still avoiding Buck. He knew he was still avoiding Buck but it didn’t stop him from doing it. He just didn’t want to deal with Buck’s frustration and his own anxiety at the same time. He didn’t know if he could wait another day before going to get Vin from the reservation. He didn’t know if he could wait another day to find out if he was alright.

With restless energy he completed another circuit of town. He’d spent the morning patrolling on horseback and then traded with Buck. Buck was avoiding him as well. When Chris got back to the jail he saw Nathan and Ezra were engrossed in a game of cards.

"No games at the Saloon, Ez?"

"Too early in the day, Mr. Larabee."

"I thought it was only too early for you if you were still asleep."

"No patrons," Ezra admitted. Chris knew the man probably meant no suckers, no one with money, or no one who was willing to play him.

"Where’s JD?"

"Schoolhouse." This time Nathan spoke.

"Right," Chris responded, pacing back and forth while the other men watched. Eye contact between Nathan and Ezra suddenly consisted of much more than trying to figure out if the other was bluffing.

"Chris, I’m sure he’s fine." Ezra cringed at Nathan’s bluntness…and Larabee’s reflexive glare.

"What Mr. Jackson was so eloquently attempting to say was that we are all worried about our protégé but he has proven himself in past experience to be adept at caring for himself. And I have been assured many times that the great Chief Kojay would also allow no harm to come to him…if he could help it."

"What Ezra means," Nathan glared back at Standish while he spoke, "Is that bad stuff is going to happen and Vin’s a survivor. We can’t wrap the boys in cotton and we can’t see the future…we just got to have a little trust and hope that things are going to be okay. We have to have some faith."

"Mr. Jackson, you’ve obviously been spending too much time with our Preacher," Ezra hummed.

"And you obviously haven’t been spending enough." Nathan laid a full-house down on the desk between them as he spoke, enjoying the shock and horror in his opponent’s eyes.

"Do you really think he’ll be better?" The serious question from their leader shattered the two men’s banter. Chris Larabee had his back to them, holding his hat in his hands, staring out into the street to deny his need for them to answer.

"Nothing else was working, Chris. Protecting him from it…wasn’t working. Letting him be a part of it might."

Chris could only nod at Nathan’s soft words. Glancing back, he saw that Ezra was doing the same thing.


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