Vin watched the familiar scene that night as again Chris distanced himself from his friends and family.
It all made no sense.
They said to leave his father alone.
He'd done that.
They'd said his father was tired.
He'd left Chris to sleep.
They were wrong.
Slipping discreetly from the group he moved to the shadows at the side of the camp where his father sat. When Chris didn't respond to the invasion Vin stepped in closer, stooping low to peer into the other's eyes. There was a growing fear within him that he couldn't put aside.
"Are ya forgettin' me?"
"Vin..." Chris stopped his words abruptly. Clear blue eyes pleaded for a response but Chris was afraid that if he tried to explain this to Vin much more than words would pour forth.
"Vin....I...can't." In fear and embarrassment and panic, Chris turned and resorted to the cowards way by leaving. A part of him was ashamed at having ignored Vin but the rest of him searched desperately for further darkness and privacy.
Vin watched with shocked eyes as the man he loved as a father didn't deny the words but instead limped away into the darkness, disappearing completely in the shadows of the trees. Vin heard the rustling and movement behind him but decided not to wait for more words. He strode after his father determined to have his answer, ignoring Buck's call and the warning tone it carried. Vin had long since ceased to hold any fear of Chris Larabee, he rarely raised his voice and he didn't raise his hand. His only fear now was the absence of the man. Being overlooked and discarded was something he was accustomed to but never before by someone he cared about. Previously it had been the action of a stranger and easily ignored but now it was the action of his father and it hurt.
Buck intercepted Vin before he could escape too far from the camp. "Vin. Vin, no. Leave him be."
"No, I wanna know." Vin struggled against the large hand gripping his forearm.
"Don't bother him with questions at the moment, Vin."
Buck didn't know what Vin had said to trigger the sudden departure but he didn't want Vin to continue to press the subject. Something was simmering inside his friend and when it all ignited he didn't want Vin or JD anywhere in the vicinity.
"Is he tired of me? Is he forgetting?" Vin was left to ask the questions of those who remained, even if they may not know the answer. He just needed to hear someone say that it wasn't true.
"What? No. No." Buck tried to reassure Vin that nothing was changed, that Chris just needed some time. He crouched down and ignoring the stiffness in his shoulder wrapped the boy up in strong arms. Vin didn't hesitate, clinging tightly to the offered comfort. "Vin, it'll..."
"...be all right when we're home," Vin echoed hollowly. He could recite the words he just couldn't believe them.
Larabee reappeared later as abruptly as he had disappeared with no explanation or apology to those he'd worried. Nathan had kept food aside for him, standing over the man to ensure that this time he ate. Remonstrations about walking with the injured knee just fell on deaf ears, angering the healer as the man was sabotaging his own recovery and dragging the others down with him.
"Chris, you need to tell us what's going on here. You've got people worried for you, people who need to do their own recovering and not fretting over you," Nathan dug deep with the guilt. He couldn't just stand by and let Chris ignore the problem. It was clear that his attitude wasn't improving, that something had to be wrong.
Chris sucked a deep breath and tried to clear the weight from his chest but Nathan's words only pressed in on him again. He didn't have anything to tell. There wasn't anything wrong with him that he hadn't already explained. He was tired. The ache from his knee let him know it would be unwise to make another escape so he took the only other route and closed his eyes to his friends, dismissing them from his sight.
Ezra shifted again, brushing yet another sharp stone from the boulder's surface beneath him before finding a reasonably comfortable position to watch over the silent camp. His fingers itched to shuffle the deck of cards that hung in his coat pocket, a noiseless activity that would relieve the boredom but not offend his slumbering companions. His hand froze at his pocket as movement drew his gaze to one of the blanket-covered lumps. He relaxed again when it appeared that Vin was only shifting position. He was soon proved wrong when the slender figure sat upright with a short gasp, the cry strangled off before it really sounded. The frightened child turned, locking his gaze onto the unmoving figure at the edge of the camp.
Ezra could see where Vin's attention lay but he also knew that their healer had supplied Larabee with laudanum after his misguided wilderness walk earlier in the evening. Ezra knew there would be no response from that quarter and he couldn't leave Vin sitting so forlorn and abandoned. Situations such as this were not his forte but he decided that surely even his presence would be better than nothing. Convinced that he could watch the camp from Vin's location as easily as his current, Ezra dusted himself off and moved to Vin's side of the fire. He settled in beside the boy, tentatively reaching an arm across Vin's shoulders to hold him closer as he felt the tremors that wracked the slight frame.
Vin had started to shiver as his racing heart slowed and the images from his nightmare faded. He blinked into the darkness beyond, slowly piecing together why he slept on the ground, why he was out camping. But the knowledge that the fearful train journey was many days past didn't make him feel safe, what was needed was his father but Chris still lay under his own blanket not having heard or not wanting to come. Vin shivered again, unaware that his blanket had fallen to the side. It wasn't the night air that was cold. The ice was inside, formed during the dark dream. He wasn't even aware of Ezra's presence until there was a soft touch on his arm.
Ezra tucked the blanket up around the shivering shoulders. "Try to go back to sleep Vin," Ezra suggested, uncertain how to offer any real comfort when he clearly wasn't the one needed.
The distressed boy refused any urgings to lie back down but slowly relaxed under the warm weight of Ezra's arm and leaned in to the gambler's side. Ezra left his arm in place and curled the hand around a pointed shoulder, thumb moving softly across the ridge of collarbone. Vin's quick ragged breathing evened and finally deepened until eventually his head lolled down towards Ezra's chest. Not wanting to have Vin slide awkwardly to the side, Ezra wrapped his other arm across the narrow chest in support. Vin moved slightly in the embrace, shifting and settling but not waking.
Ezra couldn't recall ever having someone fall to sleep in his arms. Vin's breath warmed the crook of his elbow and each expansion of lungs pressed bony ribs against his palm. To Ezra, trust was always a fragile, ephemeral thing not this solid physical weight in his arms. Its presence was a rare and precious commodity in the gambler's world.
Regretfully, Ezra found that his shoulders soon tired from the strain and he was forced to lower the slumbering child until Vin was draped across his lap. He rolled his shoulders to ease the stiffness, his burden now curled over his legs and covered warmly in blankets.
Ezra didn't like to associate the boys with that word but perhaps it wasn't so far from the truth. For the first time Ezra had been in their constant company and following such arduous circumstances. He cared about the children but it had never before been his job to ensure their safety and comfort. Certainly, for an hour or two around town but not for days on end where both children and parents were injured. Ezra considered that perhaps his pique with Larabee was unfair. While he did not forgive the man his current desertion, this trip had been a painful culmination of a series of injuries and dangerous adventures over the past year. That worry had to be wearing.
Vin stirred and shifted restlessly, one hand clutching reflexively at the fabric of Ezra's trousers. Ezra slipped his own hand beneath the smaller one and fingers twisted around his as dreams took over. He whispered quiet words, soothed the movements and tried to chase away the dark visions with light words. Small trusting fingers tightened around his own seeking comfort and reassurance. Ezra knew the action was automatic, that Vin was not aware of who held him but it struck him to the core and he banished his earlier thoughts.
It couldn't possibly be a burden to be somebody's hero.
Josiah arose from his blankets in the early hours to stoke the fire and take the last watch from Ezra but to his surprise the gambler wasn't in his usual position. Instead he sat with Vin draped across his lap, his hand resting on tangled fair tresses. Josiah nodded a quiet greeting, laughing softly at the silent but urgent gestures for assistance. He came to the rescue of the gambler, lifting the slumbering child to allow Ezra to stretch and ease cramped muscles. Josiah was surprised when Ezra didn't move away, merely removing his coat and stretching out beside Vin who mumbled lightly and rolled back toward Ezra.
Vin woke in the early hours of morning to find himself curled around an unfamiliar pillow. He moved quietly, knowing Ezra was never happy first thing in the morning and he didn't want to be the one to inform the gambler that the sun was up and he too was required to rise. The rest of the camp still slumbered as dawn had barely broken.
"Good morning Vin," Josiah called quietly.
"Mornin' 'siah." Vin stepped softly between snoring bodies but as he passed his father he paused. He hated the gulf between them and decided to take this opportunity while Chris couldn't slip away from him. He dropped silently, crouched low and still while he studied the familiar face, lax in sleep. His hand stretched forward then hovered above the pale face, tempted to touch but unwilling to disturb.
Larabee became aware of a presence, his eyes snapping open, his senses thrust into wakefulness. Vin snatched his hand away at the abrupt awakening. Eyes locked, both caught in the unexpected exchange; green met blue; surprise met uncertainty. Vin didn't want to feel again the dismissal of the previous evening so taking pre-emptive action he jumped to his feet and darted away.
Chris watched the sudden departure and the ache inside intensified.
The novelty of sleeping out and eating around a campfire had been worn away by the boring days confined to the wagon rattling over miles of hard-packed trail. While JD was excited at having his Papa so close he was now very bored with the inside of the wagon. During the past days he'd investigate every box and sack, he'd heard every story, he'd played every game with Vin. There was nothing left to do.
"I'm bored." JD trotted over to Buck when there was no immediate reply. "Are we nearly home?"
"One more sleep to go," Buck consoled.
"I don't wanna ride in the wagon today. I wanna ride with Ezra."
"You're sore bones aren't ready for riding yet," Buck reminded him.
"Are too," JD argued. "Vin gets to ride."
"Vin doesn't have broken ribs. You won't be doing any riding for at least a month," Buck warned.
This was news to the small boy who considered a month to be a lifetime. "But Vin broke his head." This seemed a far worse thing to JD and it didn't seem fair that Vin was allowed out of the wagon already. "And his mind leaked out."
"Did not!" Vin defended, still embarrassed by his confusion at the hospital.
"Did so, you were actin' all crazy."
"Was not crazy. I just forgot."
"Boys, I simply will not travel with this bickering," Ezra intervened. "I might just take my horse and ride directly home then both of you will be required to travel in the wagon," he threatened.
"What? You ain't gonna stay with us?" Vin asked, startled at the sudden desertion.
"Now why should I want to travel with bickering little boys when I have a perfectly good horse and can travel faster alone. I could be home tonight, comfortable and cosy in my own feather bed." Ezra knew the threat was empty no matter how appealing the idea was.
Vin turned on JD. "See, now yer makin' Ezra leave us."
"I'm perfectly happy to travel with this group if the company is cordial and pleasant," Ezra suggested ending any further attacks.
Vin was quick to see the opening. "Wouldn't be no bickering if we was separated," he suggested, a sly grin just peeking through.
"And just how would we achieve such a thing Mr Tanner?" Ezra asked, already expecting the next words.
Vin shrugged. "Guess if I wasn't in the wagon. If I was maybe on a horse a real long way ahead, then we couldn't argue."
"But then I'm still in the wagon," JD complained bitterly.
"Hey L'il Bit, so am I. Would you rather be with Ezra than your poor injured Papa?" Buck whined playfully.
"Well no," JD defended immediately. He would never prefer anything to his Papa.
"So it's all settled. You're with me and Vin's with Ezra," Buck determined.
JD found himself suddenly outmaneuvered but uncertain how it had happened.
"Do you really want to ride on ahead without us?" Vin asked quietly. It was very possible Ezra would want to leave and Vin didn't want to force him to allow the ride.
"Certainly not," Ezra confirmed as he swung easily into the saddle and leaned down to offer a hand to the boy. "Let's ride on ahead and avoid our companions dust for a time."
The wagon swayed heavily as it was steered from the trail and across a low gully to draw to a halt at tonight's chosen campsite. The rattling drew a groan from Buck at the thought of another night on the hard packed ground. He stretched his spine slowly as it cracked and popped, stiff and uncomfortable from too many hours on the narrow bunk or on the hard seat.
The boys' voices clashed again in argument but Buck was too tired to separate them. Buck had never seen his family so fractured with Chris withdrawn and the boys growing disputes. He'd always loved traveling but this journey had taken a course he'd never expected. Searching for a little peace he unloaded the bored children on Ezra, who seemed best able to cope.
Ezra had played these tricks many times with the boys, slight of hands that he knew the boys were yet to spot, his fingers far to quick for their eyes.
"Look at what you've been hiding, Mr Dunne," Ezra exclaimed as a penny appeared from JD's ear.
"Did not!" JD squealed, clapping his hands over his ears.
"It's not my penny," Ezra explained. "You saw that I was holding nothing."
JD poked carefully in his ear then stared suspiciously at Ezra. "You sure?"
"Certainly Mr Dunne. I do not carry pennies. A gentleman like myself always carries a far better grade of coin." Deft fingers reached into his own ear to extract a gold eagle.
"Wow!" Two voices exclaimed in unison. Ezra grinned openly, his gold tooth flashing as both boys exclaimed in awe, not at his skill but in viewing a coin of such denomination.
"What's Vin got?" JD asked eagerly.
"Perhaps Mr Tanner is carrying the folding paper variety of currency?"
Vin turned his head aside to avoid any possibility of paper being extracted from his ears. Instead Ezra's hand flicked from collar to pocket to cuff, flashing nickels, dimes and quarters at every touch.
"No, only hard currency to be found here. Our young friend is a veritable walking bank," Ezra exclaimed in mock surprise.
Vin began to dodge the questing hands, laughing as a new coin continued to appear at every touch.
"Mr Dunne, perhaps we should turn Mr Tanner upside down and shake him by his ankles.
"No!" Vin's outraged denial was unconvincing as he fell about laughing with JD.
JD's shrieks of laughter raised everyone's heads and spirits. Buck watched as Ezra cajoled the boys into a better mood, his words flowing as easily as the laughter that they drew forth. Buck couldn't help but smile at the wonderful sound. It had been days since he'd heard either boy laugh like that. How could anyone not feel better to witness it? Buck turned to where Chris sat, disappointed to find that it was possible for although Chris was watching there was no matching smile on his face.
Buck almost wished he did have the alcohol to loosen those locks Larabee had slammed down on himself. Buck was relieved that they were nearly home, the mountain range to the west now falling in familiar peaks and troughs and bringing with it the anticipation of familiar pastures. Buck could only hope that when Larabee caught the scent of home he would open up again. If not, maybe he'd have to leave the boys with Nettie for a day and pry those locks open.
The camp was shrouded in darkness but Vin found that he was unable to sleep. He lay curled under his blanket studying the still form at the edge of the shadows. He debated moving closer to the sleeping man in the hope that he might be able to rest but he knew that it still wouldn't be enough. He wanted to stop Chris pushing him away, he wanted to stop the others intervening every time he tried to moved close.
The object of his concern suddenly pushed his own blankets aside and hobbled slowly away from the camp into the dark treeline. Vin didn't hesitate at this sudden opportunity, stepping lightly over the moonlit ground to follow carefully at a distance. Chris travelled slowly but not very far, stopping and lowering himself down on a fallen log.
Vin studied the space between the tree trunk he hid behind and the log, moonlight brightly illuminating the few yards of grass. It was so easy and so close that he was sure he could do now what he'd wanted to do for days. Striding boldly across the open space he stepped in front of the seated man and wrapped his arms around the broad shoulders. Vin couldn't reach all the way around but he stretched his arms as wide as he could and held tight. He didn't utter a word. He just prayed that this time Chris would accept him.
Chris had sought the solitude after another disturbing dream. He'd ignored his crutches to limp away further into the shadows, using the pain in his knee to divert him from the ever-widening cracks in his control. So distracted was he that he never noticed the silent approach. Chris froze when slender arms latched around him but instead of seeking comfort the slight body stood firm and the narrow arms tightened, pulling him closer and enfolding him.
Nothing was being asked of him.
Chris felt his forehead pressed against the soft cotton of the worn undershirt and turned slightly to rest his ear over Vin's heart. He couldn't help himself as he leaned forward into the unexpected support. The cracks that had been forming for days started to widen. Chris tried in vain to hold himself together, to remember whom it was who stood before him. He was supposed to be the strong one but he knew his strength had been sapped lately. There was nothing left to draw on, to shore up his crumbling walls as the battle he'd fought over the past few days was finally lost. He bit his lip to stop the quiver but it was all too much, too late. Lifting his own arms to hug Vin tightly, tears flooded and overflowed.
Vin's concern as the figure in his arms suddenly shuddered was quickly replaced with sadness for although Chris made no sound he could feel the damp warmth on his own chest as his father's tears seeped though fabric to the flesh beneath. Vin understood silent crying, the tears that fell when you couldn't hold them in any more but you weren't supposed to let them out. Vin remembered how lonely it was to have to hide in the darkness and cry like that. He touched the golden hair just to remind his Pa he wasn't alone.
The gentle petting of his hair seeped though to Chris and he was shocked to realise what he'd done. It wasn't right to cling to Vin this way but his little boy stood without comment or complaint and absorbed it all. It wasn't fair but it was a relief, the brief purge providing him space to draw a deep breath again, to clear his mind and untangle some of his recent thoughts. He was embarrassed at his breakdown, but relieved and warmed at the same time. He finally managed some control and stemmed the flow, raising his head to offer some sort of explanation.
Vin didn't appear shocked or embarrassed or even disappointed. He just continued to stand patiently, content to wait until Chris was ready.
Chris cupped the solemn face in both hands before trailing his fingers along jaw and neck to rest on slight but strong shoulders. He suddenly pulled Vin back into his arms, sliding his palms up flat over Vin's back and shoulders, an action to comfort Vin but also himself as he measured the solid, warm life under his hands.
Vin leaned back to trace a faded mark at Chris's hairline. "Did ya forget?"
Chris turned Vin and pulled him down to sit beside him, one arm slung across the narrow shoulders to tuck him closely to his side.
"Just for a little while," he confirmed. He couldn't blame the head injury for his recent behavior, his almost deliberate choice to forget not his family or friends but the little things. Tragedy and pain had struck them many heavy blows but they received joy equally, just measured in small doses that were so easily overlooked. Chris had forgotten the small things, forgotten that tomorrow could hold something other than darkness.
"Scary, isn't it?" Vin confided.
"Yes, it is but I remember everything now, Vin."
Chris looked down at the fair head pressed against him. Vin seemed satisfied that all was well, no detailed questions or explanations wanted or expected. They sat shrouded in darkness, a place that had brought such fear to him in dreams, but not tonight. Chris took one small hand in his, entwining their fingers and pressing gently.
Clouds passed across the moon, blocking the light and dropping the silent pair into utter darkness. Vin gasped at the sudden loss, dropped abruptly in the dark fearful place of his dream.
The hand around his own tightened and Vin found himself pulled up on to Chris' lap and hugged tightly. He buried his face against the warm neck, relaxing only when the voice spoke reassuringly.
"It's alright Vin. It'll pass over in a minute." Chris wrapped his arms firmly around the small body, continuing to whisper quiet words as the clouds slowly threaded apart and moonlight streaked through once again.
"Sorry," Vin apologised, feeling stupid for the sudden fear, for clutching so hard.
"Nothing to be sorry for, Vin. That's what I'm here for." Vin had every right to cling to him, to expect the comfort and receive it. Chris was determined that he couldn't let tonight happen again. He'd speak to Buck, or maybe Josiah, learn to talk to the others and not risk having it spill out onto the boys again.
Chris shifted Vin from his lap but retained the hold on his hand as he slowly stood. Vin matched steps to Chris's hobbling gait to return slowly to camp. Helping his father settle, Vin returned to his own blankets and for the first time in many nights he was asleep before he knew it.
The rest of the group were surprised the next morning to find Chris joined them at the campfire without being coerced. He still took only coffee and didn't join the conversation but this time he simply seemed quiet, not distant. No one commented on the change, satisfied that time, space or home appeared to have solved the problem.
Ezra knew otherwise, having silently witnessed the separate departures from camp last night and the joint return. He hadn't intervened, aware that Vin needed something from the man and willing to give him the chance to obtain it. The gambler in Ezra was appeased at having won that bet but he found himself saddened at the loss of Vin's dependence.
It was for this reason Ezra was surprised when Vin followed him to the horses rather than ride in the wagon with his father. "I thought you'd like to be closer to Mr Larabee today?" Ezra question.
"I am," Vin answered confidently.
Ezra could see that the bright light had been returned to those clear blue eyes.
"So," Vin prompted when no offer was forthcoming. "Can I ride with ya today?"
Buck shook his head in bemusement as today Chris sat on the bunk instead of laying turned away. "You going to tell me what it's been about?"
"Not yet. Maybe...maybe when we're home," Chris conceded.
"But it's over?" Buck asked of the abrupt about-face.
"For now," Chris conceded. It wasn't about overcoming his fears for they were real and justified, but he knew he needed to balance them. "Just been borrowing trouble," he explained ruefully.
"Borrowing? Like we don't have enough of our own?" Buck tried to laugh it off but he knew something had been seriously troubling his friend and it was still there. At least it appeared that Chris would talk to him, even if it were on his own terms.
"Chris will you play?" a young voice interrupted. "Are ya done sleepin?"
"Yes, JD. I'm done sleeping." Chris exchanged a quick reassuring look with Buck. "I'm wide awake again."
"Good, 'cause Vin gets to ride all day 'n I'm stuck in here. I'm bored."
Buck rocked his head back on an upright, thumping gently. JD slid a hand behind the dark-haired skull. "You'll make your head hurt, Papa."
"I think it already does," Buck complained. He was out of ideas for entertaining the active child in the limited confines of the wagon.
"You can sleep, Papa," JD commiserated, jumping from one bunk to the other. He slid down to sit beside Chris. "Chris can play with me now, so it's you turn to rest."
Buck smiled angelically at his old friend. "Yes, it is Chris's turn to play. You two have a fun time and wake me for lunch," he grinned.
"Hey Chris! Hold up a minute, Josiah." Buck slid back into the wagon and pulled the canvas sides up. "Can't miss this, Pard. Best part of this trip."
"What?" Chris asked in amusement at Buck's obvious excitement. He was bouncing almost as much as JD.
Buck climbed back up on to the driver's bench, calling JD to his side. "You're up here with me L'il Bit."
"Are you quite finished, Mr Wilmington?" Ezra called in exasperation, impatient at any further delay as the travelling entourage stopped at Buck's signal.
Apparently satisfied with the new arrangement, Buck waved the group onward. They'd barely covered a hundred yards, steering around the sharp bend in the trail when he called another halt. Clear of the high bluff on their right, the trail opened out onto a familiar stretch of open plain.
"What is that ridiculous grin for, Mr Wilmington?" Ezra could see no reason for yet another delay.
"Home," Buck explained with a grand sweep of his arm across the rolling landscape before them. "Ain't that a pretty sight?"
"Home? I see neither fence nor gate nor domicile," Ezra argued.
"Don't it hit you right here?" Buck enthused, slapping the left side of his chest.
"Only if I'm attempting to clear grass seeds from my lungs. When I enter the boarding house, unlock my door and sight my feather bed, then I will be home."
Ezra ceased any further discussion at the tug on his jacket. Vin tightened his arms around Ezra's waist to lean forward and whisper a request. Ezra acquiesced easily if a little regretfully and lowered his passenger to the ground.
"Thanks Ezra," Vin waved as he climbed into the wagon to ride the final miles home beside his father.
Ezra suspected he saw some hint of thanks in the green gaze that me his own. With a nod and a casual salute, Ezra moved on when Buck finally ordered the wagon forward.
The turnoff was finally reached, a fork to travel toward the ranch or onward to Four Corners. Without command the group slowly drew to a halt but no one uttered a farewell, no one yet ready to separate. The team horses shifted nervously at the wait, rattling their harnesses and tossing their heads.
"I think I should check you all out one last time. Be just as easy today as coming back out tomorrow," Nathan explained, justifying his delay.
"We did agree to escort you home," Ezra appeared to concede.
"So, why are we waiting here?" Buck asked.
No one bothered to respond as the wagon and riders turned onto the final trail to home.