AU: Angela Bs 7B Ranch
Rating: Gen, PG
Notes: Many thanks to Lacey and Niteowl for all of their help with the story. Also, thanks to Angela for encouraging me to write in her AU.
I intended to get this out in time for Christmas, but things seldom turn out the way I plan. J
Josiah glanced out the window, thinking to himself that it looked like it might snow. The weather had been unusually cold for the region and the sky had been gray and overcast for days. No snow had been forecast for the area, but from the way the sky was looking, it wouldnt surprise him if they received a few flurries.
The dismal conditions outside only made the atmosphere inside the ranch house seem that much more cozy and inviting, in his opinion. The fire in the fireplace warmed the family room where the four youngest brothers lounged, watching a parade on TV. In the kitchen where Josiah and his other two brothers sat, there was cider simmering on the stove and a turkey roasting in the oven; delicious smells drifted throughout the house.
Josiah refilled his mug of cider, glanced at the turkey through the oven window and then sat back down at the table. The ranch hadnt done as well this year as it had in the past, which had been expected for the most part. The loss of their parents and the custody battle for their younger brothers had taken an emotional toll on all of them. Plus, theyd had to learn so many new aspects involved in running the ranch from business to labor and everything in between. It had taken several months, but they managed to work out a system that was finally beginning to pay off for them. But for now, any profits they made went toward the debts theyd incurred while struggling to get on their feet. Christmas was going to be tight this year, which was the basis of their conversation.
Theyd each offered their thoughts and various possible resolutions, from taking out loans to taking part time jobs. The idea of taking out loans had been ruled out, mostly because they didnt want to have more outstanding debt, especially with one of their brothers heading off to college in the near future. Nathan had already been assured several scholarships, and their parents had started a savings account for him, but that still wouldnt cover all the expenses of college. Josiah already had a full time job as a school counselor, and Buck was needed as foreman of the ranch.
Which left Chris, who had just informed them that hed been considering taking a job as a sheriffs deputy in town to help make ends meet.
"I dont know, Chris," Buck was the first to express his disagreement. He sat back in his chair, resting his gaze on Chris. "For one thing, we need you around here; and for another, bein a cop even in a small town can be dangerous. If anything happened to you, those boys would be devastated. We all would."
Chris nodded. Hed given that a lot of consideration and had come to the conclusion that there were no guarantees in life. He could be killed walking across the street, or have an accident while working on the ranch. The same went for all of them. "Buck, you know I wouldnt make a decision like this without giving that a lot of thought."
"So, youve already made up your mind?" Buck sounded angry, or maybe disappointed. "I guess it dont matter none to you if you go out and get yourself killed. Well be the ones stuck here having to deal with your decision."
"I didnt say Id made any decision yet, Buck." Chris sighed, running a hand through his hair in frustration. "The same could happen to any one of us right here, out on the highway . . .hell, anywhere. When its your time, it aint gonna matter where you are or what youre doing."
"Maybe so, but you dont need to go asking for trouble, Chris."
"I aint askin for trouble." Chris shot Buck a glare.
"Seems like it to me," Buck returned.
"Thats enough," Josiah intervened before things could get out of hand. For the most part, these two were the best of friends, almost always supportive of each other. But, on the rare occasion the two of them argued, neither one was likely to give in. "I thought youd decided against a career in law enforcement," Josiah asked calmly. He was cautious with his words, knowing that in the face of opposition, Chris was just bull-headed enough that he might take the job just to prove that he could handle it. "You said yourself that it wouldnt be practical, now that we have the boys and the ranch to look after."
"That was before." Chris shrugged, keeping his eyes lowered to the mug of cider in front of him. "We need the money, and I dont see any other options right now."
Theyd been trying to keep their voices low, not wanting for the younger boys to overhear the conversation. When JD walked into the kitchen they stopped talking. JD stood there for a moment, looking at each of them suspiciously.
"Need something?" Buck asked with a smile, trying to appear nonchalant.
"Uh . . .what are you guys doing?" he asked, walking slowly around the table.
"Were talking, waiting for the potatoes to get done." Josiah stood and went to the stove to check on their progress.
"Whens the turkey gonna be done?" JD asked, as he filled a glass with water, took one drink then dumped the rest down the drain.
"Soon," all three brothers answered at the same time.
JD nodded, still watching them warily then went to look in the oven window.
"Now, go on . . .." Buck rose from his chair and shooed him out of the room. "You know what they say about too many cooks watchin the pot."
"No," JD paused in the doorway. "What do they say?"
"Well," Buck drawled, "if I remember correctly "
"Which you dont," Chris couldnt help but inject.
Buck ignored him. "If theres too many cooks watchin the pot, the shortest cook has to go out and muck stalls for the rest of the day, and give his share of turkey to the handsomest cook."
JDs face lit up. "So, youre sayin that Chris and Josiah would have to split my share?"
"Get out of here, you!" Buck feigned a lunge at JD and the boy hurried away giggling.
"So, where were we?" he asked, once JD was gone.
"I was saying that if I take the job, its because we need the money," Chris supplied.
"Right," Buck replied. "And I was about to say that I just dont think we need the money that badly."
"Hes right, brother," Josiah agreed. "We may not be able to buy them a lot of things, but well manage alright. They wont go without."
"I know that," Chris began to explain, just as Vin entered the kitchen. All three older brothers sighed and ceased conversing. "Vin?"
Vin smiled at them, his eyes darting from one to another and coming to rest on Chris. "Hi."
Chris chuckled. "Hi."
Vin stood next to Chris chair and leaned against his shoulder. "Whatchya doin?"
"Were trying to have a private conversation," Chris answered sounding a little impatient, but at the same time wrapping an arm around his little brother and giving him a squeeze.
"Oh." Vin nodded. "A private conversation about what?"
"Well now," Buck laughed, reaching out to poke the boy in the ribs, "if we told you, it wouldnt exactly be private, now would it?"
Vin grinned, dimples forming on his cheeks, making him look like an adorable imp. "You can tell me. I wont tell no one," he promised.
"You sure wont," Chris agreed amiably. "Cause youre not gonna have nothin to tell. Now, hurry up and get whatever you came for, and get on out of here."
Vin sighed loudly and rolled his eyes. Then he walked over to the fridge, opened the door and stood there looking inside.
The three older boys waited for a full minute before Josiah stood up and joined him in front of the open refrigerator. "See anything new since the last time you looked?"
Vin shook his head. "No, but Im hungry."
Josiah chuckled then closed the refrigerator door and began guiding the boy out of the room. "I know youre all hungry, but if you eat now, youll ruin your appetite. I promise it wont be too much longer."
As soon as Vin was out of the room, Buck grinned and looked at the clock. "Who wants to bet on how long it takes for Ezra to show up?"
"No thanks," both Josiah and Chris answered.
"Aw come on."
The timer went off and Josiah checked the potatoes again, then turned off the burner. "Well, these are done."
"Chris, I know I cant make up your mind for you," Buck tried to get in quickly, "But, I just want you to know that you dont have to take that job. Well be just fine without you takin it. We may not be able to give those boys big, expensive presents, but that aint whats important about Christmas, and you know it."
Josiah nodded his agreement. "The boys know theres more to the holiday than how many presents they find under the tree."
"I know that. Its just that . . ." Once again Chris reply trailed off as brother number five ambled into the room.
"Well, Ezra," Josiah grinned broadly. "What a surprise!"
Ezra halted in his tracks, looking at them all with suspicion.
"Yeah, Ez, youre late," Buck told him, looking serious. "We expected ya thirty seconds ago."
"You expected him thirty seconds ago," Chris said, playing along. "I was sure hed be fashionably late and not show up for another minute or so."
"Have you three been into the cooking sherry?" Ezra asked, scrutinizing them with narrowed eyes.
"Not yet, but between you, Vin and JD, I wouldnt be surprised if we were driven to it sooner or later." Chris winked at his little brother. "Josiahs mashin the potatoes and the turkey should be done any minute, okay? Well let you boys know as soon as its ready."
"Alright." Ezra turned on a heel and went back to the living room.
Quickly, Chris tried to get in what hed been trying to say before. "I know presents arent the most important thing, but JD needs a new coat and Vin needs new boots too. All of them need new sneakers. I dont know whats happened to the quality of shoes, but they seem to wear them out before they grow out of em these days. I just want to make sure they have all the things they need, and maybe a little extra. If taking this job will help"
"Chris," Josiah interrupted. "We have enough money to get them those things. I have some left over from the beginning of the school year, and Ive saved a little more along with it. Its not much, but its enough to buy the necessities. As soon as spring comes, things are gonna get better, you know that. We just have to make it til then. We might have to do without some luxuries, but we wont"
"Is the turkey done yet?" From the doorway, three whining voices cut off Josiahs appeal to Chris.
Josiah shook his head. "Almost," he assured them.
"Were hungry!" JD complained.
"Starving to death!" said Vin.
"Im beginning to feel faint," Ezra added dramatically.
Suddenly Buck sprang from his chair with a roar and took off in pursuit. The three boys screeched, bumping into each other as they turned to flee. A few seconds later there was a loud thud followed by the familiar shouts and laughter that always accompanied a brotherly wrestling match. Images of Buck being pounced on by the two youngest, his long arms reaching out to draw Ezra into the tussle, brought smiles to the faces of Josiah and Chris.
"If you really dont want me to take the job, then I wont do it," Chris said quietly to his older brother. "We can think about it over the weekend and I can let Dan know on Monday."
"Fair enough," Josiah responded, with a warm smile. His brother had just surprised him. Josiah hadnt expected Chris to be quite so open and willing to take their opinions into consideration before making his decision. He took a moment to send up a silent prayer, having found something else to be thankful for that day.
"Whens the turkey gonna be done?" Another voice startled them both.
Chris looked up with a grin. "Not you too."
"Not me too what?" asked Nathan, raising an eyebrow.
Rolling his eyes, Josiah set the potatoes on the table and opened the oven door. "Thank goodness," he said, spying the little red thermometer gauge poking out of the bird. "Its done. Go tell your brothers to wash up."
Stomachs rumbling, the brothers washed as quickly as they could and scrambled into their chairs around the table. Just as Josiah set a platter of turkey on the table the telephone rang.
"Noooo . . .." Six brothers groaned.
Josiah grinned and answered the phone cheerfully. As soon as he said hello his features had turned grim. "Go ahead and start," he whispered to his family and excused himself from the room. The remaining brothers looked around at each other, and silently agreed they would wait.
When he returned, the food was untouched, and the other six were talking quietly. Six faces turned to look up at him, more than likely they were able to tell from his expression that the call had not been good news. Josiah put on the best smile he could as he joined them, then bowed his head in reverence and the others followed his lead. He said a short but meaningful prayer that emphasized all they had to be thankful for most importantly each other.
By the time dinner was over and the kitchen cleaned, the phone call seemed all but forgotten. They allowed the kids to stay up late to watch The Matrix: Reloaded with them, although Josiah regretted doing so when he realized that instead of dozing off during the movie like usual, the youngest ones were practically bouncing off the walls with excitement. With no little effort they finally managed to get them to bed. Before Josiah could slip into his own room, he was confronted by Buck, Chris and Nathan.
"So," Chris asked leaning against the wall outside Josiahs door. "You gonna tell us about that phone call you got earlier?"
Josiah put a finger to his lips, wanting them to keep their voices down, then motioned them into his room. "There was an accident involving one of the teachers at the junior high school," he explained to them. "Mrs. Price."
"Oh no," Chris groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. They were all familiar with the name. The lively, young teacher was very popular with all the kids at the school. Vin adored her, and Ezra did too. She was the kind of teacher who possessed the patience and caring to bring out the best in the students she taught. Even the students she didnt teach thought the world of her.
"Apparently," continued Josiah, "Amanda and her husband were headed out of town for the long weekend." Josiah hung his head and shook it slowly. "A drunk driver crossed the center line and hit them head on. They were both killed instantly."
Those were circumstances that hit a little too close to home for their family. Josiahs words opened a floodgate of emotions in the room, and pain theyd thought dulled by time seemed to become instantly sharp again.
"Dont they have a baby?" Nathan asked suddenly.
"Yes, and by some miracle she came through it all without a scratch," Josiah told them. "I dont have many details, except that shes with Amandas parents for now."
There was a long moment of silence, while each man tried to digest the information. They all knew what life could be like for an orphan, and could only pray that this little one had people who loved her and would keep her safe.
"Geeze, poor Vin," Buck murmured quietly. He didnt mean to sound thoughtless or unconcerned for the babys welfare, but he couldnt help but be worried for Vin, who had just this year started doing well in school. The kid had always struggled with school, always had such a hard time keeping up, until this year. This teacher had not only gone out of her to show him new methods for learning, but shed given him self-confidence, which he hadnt had before. Shed changed his whole outlook on school and his abilities.
Josiah patted his shoulder. "Its going to be tough on Vin, but well make sure he gets through this and keeps up with his schoolwork."
Buck nodded, silently vowing to do everything he could to help and encourage his little brother.
"I wanted to wait until tomorrow to tell the boys," Josiah said. "I wanted to let them have this day. Theyve had so little to be thankful for in the past."
"Yeah, that was good thinking," Chris told him, with a nod of appreciation.
"Theres no school on Monday," Josiah continued. "No funeral arrangements have been made yet, but Im guessing the school will probably have a memorial service Tuesday or Wednesday, so the students can say their goodbyes."
They all nodded, images of distraught children flashing in their minds.
"Well, we best get to bed," Chris said, putting a hand on Bucks shoulder and one on Nathans and guiding them toward the door. "Sounds like its gonna be a long day tomorrow."
All three turned to say, "Gnight Josiah."
As Buck got ready for bed, he tried not to think too hard on the tragedies of life. The holidays were supposed to be a time for joy -- a happy time to share with family and friends, not a time for grieving and mourning. The younger boys had already had too much grief and pain in their short lives, and too little happiness. He was glad that Josiah had chosen to hold off on telling them about the accident. At least theyd always be able to look back on this Thanksgiving with fond memories.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
As expected, the younger boys were up first, with the exception of Ezra. When Josiah came into the family room, Vin and JD were sprawled on the floor, each had a bowl of cereal in front of them and their eyes were glued to the television.
"What are you boys watching?"
"The news," answered Nathan, looking up from his book with a wry grin.
"The news?" Josiah repeated with disbelief. He stooped over and laid a palm against the younger boys foreheads. "Well, they dont have fevers."
Chris came into the room with a steaming mug of coffee in his hand. He took a sip and sat down on the edge of the sofa, eyeing the boys cereal. "Dont tell me were having Froot Loops for breakfast?"
"Theres Cheerios too," Nathan told him. "I hear theyre good for you old folks."
Chris shot him a glare, but Nathan had a huge grin on his face and it was hard not to return it. "You better watch what you say, junior. Youre not so far behind us old folks."
Buck joined them next, grabbing the remote from the coffee table and flipping through the channels, pausing on a Breaking News Story. "Whoo-whee! Now, why arent there more news ladies who look like that?" The young, very pretty, blonde reporter was standing outside a hospital, talking about the potentially deadly flu season ahead. They all listened to her relay the already high death toll, the symptoms to look for, and the importance of getting a flu shot.
"Buck, Chris? You two get your flu shots yet?" Nathan couldnt help but ask.
"Flu shot?" Chris scoffed, shaking his head. "No, I didnt get mine yet. How bout you Buck? You get your flu shot yet?"
Buck snorted then winked at Chris "Now you know real men dont get flu shots."
Chris grinned at his brother and best friend. No silly little flu bug was going to scare them.
"Well, when you both end up in the hospital with pneumonia, dont come cryin to me," Nathan admonished, shaking a finger at them.
Josiah waited for Ezra to rise and eat breakfast before telling the boys about the death of their teacher. Nathan and JD hadnt been too deeply affected, since neither one of them had ever had Mrs. Price as a teacher. Still, they couldnt help being disturbed and saddened by the news and its timing.
Josiah didnt miss the sharp flash of pain in Ezras eyes when he heard the news. It surprised him a little, because Ezra was usually so good at hiding his emotions. But, lately they could all see the outward signs that Ezra was accepting that he was part of a family and not just a visitor to their household. More and more he was referring to the others as family and brothers, openly displaying his care and concern, allowing himself to trust and seeking their trust and approval as well. He had always been protective of the younger boys, especially close to Vin, and it touched Josiah to see Ezra lean in and put an arm around Vin.
Vin tended to be more reserved than the others, although you could usually gauge everything he was feeling just by looking into those expressive blue eyes. Theyd all anticipated that Vin would take the news hard, and were somewhat at a loss when he failed to say anything or show any emotion at all.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
The memorial service was held on the following Wednesday, in the high school gymnasium. In the hallway outside the gym, there were several tables set up with flowers, pictures of Mrs. Price and her students, along with other tributes and mementoes of her life. Inside the auditorium, on the wall behind the podium, was a large blown-up photograph of the young family. There were a number of speakers former students and fellow teachers -- as well as counselors on hand to speak with any student who might feel the need. Quiet sobs and sniffles were heard throughout the service, and by the time it was over there was hardly a dry eye in the building.
Vin had been an exception to that. Other than sticking closely to Chris side, he remained stoic and seemingly impassive.
Josiah was familiar with the stages of grief and figured most likely Vin was in a state of denial, which was a natural reaction. He hadnt spoken much, if at all, but Josiah had been hoping that attending the memorial service would somehow help move him along in the process so that he would open up to them. Apparently that wasnt going to happen just yet. Josiah decided to speak with him later, or try to anyway. And if he couldnt get him to talk, hed let the others know what was going on, certain that between the six of them theyd be able to keep a close eye on Vin.
Chris waited until the day after the memorial service to call a family meeting to inform his brothers that hed accepted a job as a deputy for the county sheriffs department. "Its only temporary," hed tried to assure them. "Just for a few weeks."
Buck sighed heavily and turned away. Thankfully, he seemed unwilling to initiate another heated argument in the presence of the younger boys.
Josiah wasnt quite sure what to say. Hed been so sure that Chris would turn down the job, and he was a little shocked by the news. Obviously, hed read his brother wrong. He glanced at Vin, who hadnt reacted at all. He was staring at the floor -- still closed off to them -- and Josiah couldnt help but think that Chris couldnt have had worse timing. As a counselor, Josiah knew that routine and stability were very important to children -- especially children whod never had it before, like Vin and Ezra. Chris taking a new job was likely to set Vin back even more.
His contemplation was interrupted by JDs loud protest. "But, Chris, what if somethin bad happens?" He clung to Chris arm, looking up at him with dark, solemn eyes. "Like what if a bad guy shoots ya? Please, we dont want ya to go."
"Nothin bads gonna happen, JD." Chris smiled and pried his arm free, wrapping it around his littlest brother and pulling him close. "Im not moving across the country or anything." He glanced at Vin, directing the next statement at him. "Ill still be here for you."
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Josiah waited another day, deciding hed confront his reticent brother at bedtime Friday night. By then hed thought up genuine questions that would hopefully prompt the boy into talking. They had rented movies as they usually did on Fridays. After supper they cleaned the kitchen, made popcorn and were just getting ready to pop in the video when Vin began to cough. When the spell was over, Josiah looked closely at the boy. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes glassy.
Nathan was first to reach for the boys forehead. "Hes got a fever," he declared.
"The flu?" Josiah wondered aloud, his eyebrows drawn together in concern.
"Probably." Nathan wasnt a doctor, but he knew that the flu was going around. "There was a lot of kids out sick today."
"Good thing he got that flu shot," Chris said dryly, then he pulled the unresisting boy to him. "You feelin pretty bad, kiddo?"
Vin shrugged, resting his head on Chris shoulder.
Nathan brushed the hair away from Vins face and tilted his head, trying to make eye contact "You got a sore throat, Vin?"
Another shrug and a small nod.
"I thought you two said a flu shot was supposed to keep them from getting the flu?" Chris said, glaring accusingly at Nathan and Josiah, as if it was their fault the boy was sick.
"Just settle down, Chris. We dont even know if its the flu," Josiah reasoned, pulling the boy to him and placing the back of his fingers on Vins cheek then forehead. "It could just be a cold."
"Or," Nathan couldnt help but point out, "it could be strep throat. Thats going around too." He pulled Vin to him, tipping the boys face up. "Can you open your mouth, real wide, and let me have a look at your throat?"
Vin scowled at him, pressing his lips tightly closed.
"Now, Vin" he tried to appeal to the boy.
"Cmon, pal." With a wink Buck reached toward Vin, who gladly took his hand and allowed himself to be led away from the mother hens. They barely seemed to notice.
"Id say hes got a temperature of at least 100, maybe more," Nathan guessed.
"Yeah, Chris, why dont you find that thermometer and check it out," Josiah said. "Nate, you get the Tylenol."
"One of us best call the doctor, too," Nathan instructed.
"Ill call," Josiah stated, ruffling JDs hair as he passed by. "You boys go ahead and start the movie," he said to Ezra and JD. "Well join you in a few minutes."
Throughout the ordeal, Ezra and JD had sat quietly watching their brothers. Josiah figured they probably were torn between feeling sorry for Vin and being glad they werent the ones being fussed over.
Vin allowed himself to be guided toward his bedroom, turning back once to glance forlornly at his brother.
"Dont look so sad," Buck said cheerfully, "You play this out right, and I see a nice vacation from school in your immediate future."
Vin actually smiled and stepped a little livelier.
Nathan followed them up the stairs, unable to contain his enthusiasm over the chance to play physician.
Chris poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table, waiting for Josiah to relay the doctors prognosis.
"Well," Josiah said, joining him at the table after hanging up the phone, "the doctor said that its probably the flu."
"Probably the flu?" Chris raised an eyebrow. "Did you make an appointment?"
"He said we could make an appointment, but he was booked solid for the next week, with the exception of emergencies." Josiah handed a list to Chris. "He suggested that unless Vins symptoms get worse, or his fever gets too high that we should just give him over-the-counter flu medicine with pain reliever, keep him home from school, make sure he gets plenty of rest and fluids."
"Cant he prescribe something better than this over-the-counter stuff?" Chris asked, looking down at the list hed been given.
"He said that the flu is a virus and theres nothing much you can do but let it run its course," Josiah answered with a shrug. "He did say that since Vin received a flu vaccine that most likely hed just get a mild case, but to keep a close eye on him."
"Alright, Ill go get this stuff," Chris said, grabbing his coat and keys and heading for the door. "Wal-Mart should have everything listed here."
Buck had kicked back, reclining against the headboard of Vins bed as he read Animal Farm to his little brother. In his opinion the book was too depressing for a kid Vins age. What were those teachers thinking? But, then again, the story had managed to keep the kids attention for most of the time, right up until the last few paragraphs hed read. Hed be sure to go back over that part the next evening.
Hed managed to keep the vultures at bay for most of the evening, assuring them that he could take care of anything that Vin needed. Chris hadnt been too happy about that, but Chris could be a little intense at times, and that could be hard to deal with on a good day. With the three mother hens from hell watching from the doorway, Buck had given Vin his medicine and tucked him in, then told them to skeedaddle. As soon as they were gone, hed settled down beside him, asking if he wanted a story.
He knew Vin considered himself too old for storytelling. Usually they tried to get Vin to read to them because it was good for his reading skills. With a sore throat it was best not to talk too much which, Buck doubted Vin would have any problem complying with, since he didnt seem too talkative these days anyway. Vin had reached over to his nightstand and handed Buck a book, and Buck had gladly read it to him. Even though it was kind of a silly book. Pigs taking over a farm. Right.
As hed read, hed also kept up a running commentary, confiding to his brother that they probably ought to keep a better eye on their livestock; that he thought their prize Hampshire pig had shifty eyes, and wasnt it suspicious how the sheep were always huddled together, probably plotting against them. In a low, conspiratorial voice hed mentioned that he thought Chaucer was a prime suspect to lead any upcoming coups. Vin had actually laughed, which turned into a coughing fit, but it was almost worth it to see the kid happy.
Buck made sure Vins blankets were tucked under his chin, then turned off the light and left the door ajar so they could hear him if he needed them.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
By Monday, Vin was feeling a little better, but he still had a fever. They thought it would be best to keep him home for a few days after his fever broke, hopefully to avoid a relapse.
Chris was to begin his new job and Josiah was staying with Vin, so they decided that Nathan would be responsible for driving Ezra and JD to school and picking them up afterwards.
After helping Josiah clear the table and seeing the rest of his brothers off, Buck went upstairs to check on Vin before heading out to the barn. He couldnt help but grin, finding Vin once again sleeping sprawled at an angle across his bed, his covers tangled around his feet. He scooped the boy up and resettled him on the pillow, then straightened the blankets and tucked them around his shoulders. Vins cheeks were flushed, his hair was slightly damp, but when Buck laid a hand on his forehead the boy didnt seem too overly warm. Maybe his fever had broken? Sleepy blue eyes opened, and Vin smiled up at him.
"Hey buddy, how ya feelin?"
Vin yawned and rubbed his eyes, then turned onto his side. "Tired."
"Well, Im about to head on out, so you just go back to sleep, okay?" Buck said with a smile.
Vin returned the smile and nodded.
"Josiahs downstairs. He took the day off so he could look after ya, so you let him know if ya need anything."
Vin nodded again, snuggling into his blankets. "Okay," he mumbled, drifting off even before Buck had left.
Vin slept most of the morning, waking up a little before noon feeling hungry. He tiptoed to the doorway, looking both ways before stepping into the hallway. The house was quiet and he wondered if he was the only one home, although he thought he remembered Buck saying Siah would be home, but he wasnt sure if that was a dream or real.
He found Josiah in the kitchen, his paperwork set out on the table, tapping his pencil to the soft jazz music coming from the radio.
"Vin!" said Josiah, looking up from his papers. "What are you doing up?"
Vin shrugged, and sat down in one of the chairs, feeling weak in the legs. Hed felt fine upstairs, but the trip down had worn him out. "Is kinda hungry."
"Well, thats a good sign," Josiah said with a smile," but you could have called down and I would have brought you something."
Vin shrugged again. He was tired of being in his room. Hed just as soon be out for a while.
"I guess since youre down here, you might as well stay. But," he held a finger up, "if you start feeling bad, you let me know right away, okay?"
Vin nodded, giving his brother a small smile. Nathan or Chris would never have let him get away with coming downstairs yet, but Josiah and Buck were a little more understanding over some things.
Josiah made him some chicken noodle soup and put some of those little bitty crackers he liked in it. Vin would have rather had a burger and fries. After hed finished the soup, Josiah gave him a few chocolate chip cookies though, so that was a little consolation.
While he was munching on the cookies, he noticed Josiah looking at him funny. So he sat up straight and met his eyes, silently asking him what was on his mind.
"Its just good to see you eating. Youre looking a lot better too." Josiah smiled and Vin could tell he still had more to say. He cleared his throat before continuing, "I know that youre probably upset over what happened to Mrs. Price, and I know that youre going to miss her a lot. Well, I just wanted to be sure you knew that if you need to talk about that, or anything else, you can always come to me."
Vin swallowed, feeling so much gratitude and love for Josiah, and the others. "I know, Siah."
Josiah watched him for a few minutes longer, as if he expected Vin to say more, but Vin didnt have anything else to say. He felt bad for himself because he was going to miss Mrs. Price, but he felt lucky that hed known her. Hed made a promise to her the day of her memorial service that hed work as hard as ever to keep doing his best on his schoolwork. What made him so sad, so mixed up inside, was that he knew their little baby would never get the chance to know her at all.
It had been at the service when hed looked up at the picture of Mr. and Mrs. Price and their little baby girl and thought that their poor little baby would never get a chance to know her mom. Hed felt glad that hed had his mom til he was five, but when hed tried to remember her, hed been shaken to realize that he could barely remember her at all. He been trying and trying, but only tiny fleeting images came to his mind, and worse yet, he couldnt even picture her face anymore. He felt awful about that, but he felt even worse knowing that this little baby wouldnt remember anything at all about her mom. And Mrs. Price was one of the best ladies hed ever known. It just didnt seem fair.
Vin looked up when he heard his name. Josiah was smiling at him from across the table. "You feel like going back to bed, or would you rather stay up for a bit and watch a little TV?"
"Alright, Ill get you a pillow and blanket and you can sack out on the couch for awhile. But, no getting up! Okay?"
By the time Nathan, Ezra and JD returned from school, Vin was nested on the couch watching Dragonball Z. The vaporizer had been placed on an end table and was shooting steam in his direction.
"How are ya feelin, Vin?" JD asked, dropping his coat and book bag in the middle of the room and hurrying to his brothers side.
Vin suddenly looked much weaker. "Terrible," he answered in a voice barely above a whisper.
Ezra arched an eyebrow. He knew a con when he saw one. "Is there anything we can do for you?" he asked with the proper concern.
"Ifn it aint too much trouble . . .I could sure use some more apple juice," he said weakly.
Ezra smiled and nodded to JD. "JD, go get Vin some apple juice."
"Why me? Youre the one who offered to get him something."
"Well, fine, if you dont care enough about your poor, enfeebled brother."
Vin moaned for effect.
"If youre content to sit there, merely watching as he grows weaker and eventually becomes dehydrated . . ."
Vin coughed and made puppy eyes at JD.
". . .then by all means, please carry on with your business, and feel free to disregard his lowly plea."
JD folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes at Vin. "Youre faking."
Vin shook his head. "Am not. I got a fever and everything, ask Siah."
"Fine." JD stomped toward the kitchen, muttering about being everyones slave and leaving the two older boys grinning.
"How are you really feeling?" Ezra asked, after putting away JDs discarded coat and bag.
"Okay. How was school?"
Ezra made a face.
"They got a new teacher yet?" Vin asked, with apprehension in his eyes.
"No, not yet. They had another substitute today."
"Theyll never get another teacher as good as Mrs. Price," Vin said quietly. "She was the best teacher I ever had."
"Yes, me too," Ezra replied, solemnly. "We were both lucky to have had the chance to know her."
They both were quiet for a long moment then Ezra spoke up again. "At least those special counselors wont be coming back," he said, rolling his eyes. "Today was the last day they planned to be there. Its like everyone has been walking around on eggshells, or maybe theyre all just waiting for someone to crack. Things just need to get back to normal."
"Did you talk to them?" Vin wondered.
"Nah, I figure I have my own special counselor if I need to talk," he said then he grinned broadly. "Actually, I have five of them, six if you include JD."
Vin grinned back at him. "Yeah, were pretty lucky, huh?"
From around the corner, Josiah smiled, patting JD on the shoulder. He was thankful that Vin had spoken of the tragedy, and thankful that both boys knew their brothers were there if they needed them.
"I thought you said we wasnt sposed to eavesdrop?" JD whispered loudly, a frown creasing his forehead as he regarded the oldest.
"No, I said you were not supposed to eavesdrop."
JDs frown deepened. "That dont seem fair."
With a longsuffering sigh, Josiah looked heavenward, sending up a quick prayer for patience and guidance . . .and anything else the Lord might want to throw in.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Vin stayed home from school the entire week, just to be safe. He was still required to rest, which he didnt seem to mind too much. The illness hadnt been severe, but it apparently had drained him of his usual energy. Every day after school one of his brothers brought him his homework, so he didnt fall behind. By the end of the week he was feeling much better. When snow began to fall on Saturday, his brothers nearly had to tie him down to keep him in the house.
It was later that evening when they came upon the next bump in the road. Mrs. Potter, from Family Services, called to tell them that Maude Standish had been granted permission from the court to spend a portion of the Christmas holiday with her son if Ezra agreed to meet with her. Mrs. Potter assured them that if Ezra so desired to see his mother that the visit would be chaperoned by a court-approved third party. Mrs. Potter also said Maude Standish had been granted permission to speak on the phone with her son, and they were required to allow the phone call.
The family had been stunned, especially after the last stunt shed pulled, snatching her son and trying to flee. They could only guess that she had somehow managed to gain the favor of someone in the court system, and they wondered what else shed try to pull on them.
"Do you think you might want to spend Christmas with her, Ezra?" Josiah asked, trying to sound non-judgmental, even though it was no secret how he or any of the brothers felt about Ezras mother. Permission or not, they didnt trust her any farther than they could throw her.
"Im not sure," Ezra replied, a thoughtful look on his face. There was a small part of him that wanted to believe that his mother simply wished to spend Christmas with him, but he couldnt help but be suspicious of her intentions. Hed never known her to do anything, even the most seemingly innocent gesture, without an ulterior motive. One thing he was fairly certain of though, if he spent Christmas with Maude hed score big in the present department. A year ago that might have been the deciding factor, but for reasons hed rather not contemplate too closely, his priorities had changed dramatically. Hitting the jackpot, while still ranking high on his agenda, just didnt have the same appeal anymore.
"How can you even think about spending Christmas with that woman?" Chris snapped, his voice harsh.
Vin moved closer to Ezra. "That woman is his ma," he said quietly.
Chris snorted, but his face softened when he saw Vin put a supportive arm across Ezras shoulders. "I know that Vin. It just worries me," he amended.
"Besides, it wouldnt be the same if Ez wasnt here for Christmas!" JD added, scowling. "Ya cant go, Ez!"
"Well, its up to you, Ezra," Josiah told him, patting him on the back. "You think about it and let us know what you want to do. No matter what you decide, well understand. Wont we?" he asked, looking pointedly at Chris.
"Yeah, well understand, Ez." Chris smiled and mussed up his hair just to irritate him.
"Maybe we should go outside and have a snowball fight to celebrate," Vin said with enthusiasm.
Chris raised an eyebrow and put his hands on his hips. "And just what would we be celebrating?"
Vin shrugged. "Uh . . .the snow? Brothers? Christmas? I aint picky."
Buck and Josiah laughed, while Nathan, Ezra and JD shook their heads at their brothers sorry attempt to get out in the snow.
"Right," Chris said with a smirk. "I got a better idea. Why dont we celebrate by me putting you in bed?" With that he grabbed the younger boy, tossed him over his shoulder, and headed for the stairs.
"No!" Vin shouted, laughing. "I aint tired!"
"Say goodnight, Gracie," Chris told him, continuing up the stairs.
"Gracie?" Vin squeaked. "Whos Gracie?"
"Whyd he call Vin Gracie?" JD asked, turning toward his brothers for an explanation.
"Perhaps hes coming down with the flu and hes delirious?" Ezra offered.
Josiah simply shook his head and retreated to the kitchen, feeling the need for coffee in spite of the late hour. Before he was out of earshot, he heard Nathan explain, "I think its a sayin from one of them olden day TV shows, like . . .Lucy."
"Lucy?" JD scoffed. "Who the heck is that?"
~ ~ * * ~ ~
After Chris had put Vin to bed, hed had to get ready for work. He was on the late shift, so hed be on call until 7am. At the four-way stop, Chris took a sip of his coffee then set it in the cup holder before continuing down Main Street. When he got to the end, he parked the patrol car in the Feed Co-op parking lot that sometimes doubled as a place for teens to gather and cars to turn around for another cruise down the street. He had to laugh when as soon as he pulled into the lot, three cars immediately drove away; apparently deciding it was no longer a suitable parking spot.
The night air was brisk and damp from the snow that had fallen and quickly melted. It made him feel chilled, made his bones ache. That couldnt be right though; surely he couldnt be old enough for the weather to affect his bones. But, the truth was he ached all over, a dull ache that made him feel miserable. He took another sip of coffee, hoping the warmth would remedy the feeling.
There were only traces of snow left, white patches that lingered in places untouched by the brief appearance of late afternoon sunlight. He watched the various makes of cars driving slowly up and down the street, some of them pausing every now and then to lean out the windows and talk to friends passing by. He couldnt believe teenagers actually thought this was entertaining couldnt believe that as a teenager he had actually thought of it as entertainment.
He wondered if he would be able to stand this job for the few weeks hed agreed to fill in, or if hed die of boredom first. The county sheriff, who was also a friend of Chris, had offered him a permanent, full-time position after one of his two deputies had taken another job in Albuquerque. After thinking it over carefully and discussing it with Josiah and Buck, hed decided to decline. Chris had gone in to let the sheriff know of his decision and thank him for the offer, and somehow ended up accepting a temporary position. Being the holidays, there was always a little more action around town, and with the flu going around, Chris had accepted the job as a favor, but only temporarily.
His brothers had taken his outside employment a lot better than hed expected, especially the youngest two. At first, Vin would hardly speak to him, but then again, he hadnt been feeling well. Chris was sure that Vin thought he was being deserted, in spite of the numerous promises Chris had made over the past couple of years that he would always be there for him. JD thought for sure Chris was going to be killed in a big shoot out. The kid watched way too much TV. As far as he could recall, there hadnt been a shoot-out in the town in the last hundred years or so. No, there had been no gunplay needed earlier to convince the stray cattle to move off of the highway; theyd gone peaceably. And he hadnt had to use deadly force while clearing the dangerous tumbleweeds from old Mrs. Meyers front door either.
He watched as a bright red souped-up Chevy stopped at the four-way and tossed a crumpled up fast food bag in the direction of the trash can set on the corner sidewalk. The bag missed the can completely and the car drove on down the street, leaving the trash lying on the sidewalk. Chris shook his head, remembering his days of youth and the skinny deputy theyd referred to as Barney Fife following them around, reprimanding them for going a mile over the speed limit, or not coming to a complete stop at the stop sign, taking every opportunity to shine his flashlight in their cars to check for liquor. He had no intention of taking ol Barney Fifes place and pulling over the car full of rowdy teenagers to chastise them for illegally disposing of their Happy Burger sacks. If it was still there later, when all the kiddies were home tucked in their little beds, hed pick it up and throw it away himself.
As he watched the activity on Main Street and sipped his coffee, his mind wandered. He thought back to another time, one that didnt seem all that long ago, when he and Buck would cruise Main Street. He wondered if that would still be the thing to do a few years down the road when Ezra, Vin and finally JD hit their high school years. Nathan occasionally went out with his friends, but not as often as he and Buck had. But then, Nate was a lot more studious than he or Buck had ever been.
Chris had no trouble picturing Vin in a macho, souped-up car cruising the strip, revving his engine at the stoplights. Ezra? Maybe in some spiffy little sports car. JD was bound and determined to get a motorcycle, much to their dismay. They could only hope that by the time he got his license hed change his mind.
He took another sip of coffee, noting that in spite of the momentary warmth he felt as it went down, it didnt seem to be helping him feel any better. In fact, he thought maybe he was feeling worse. He was definitely getting a slight headache. The town was all decked out for Christmas with big red bows hung on every street lamp, and all the store windows were trimmed with lights and sprayed with fake snow. He thought about Christmases past compared to this year. His parents had always made Christmas such a special time for them; he wanted nothing more than to do the same for his younger brothers.
Vin had spent two Christmases with them before their parents had been taken. The first Christmas hed been so apprehensive, as if he expected that at any moment everything around him would disappear. He barely spoke for the first six months he lived there, and when Christmas came around, hed refused to open any of his presents, certain that in the end theyd be taken away from him anyway. After being prompted by his mother, Chris had settled the boy on his lap and one by one opened the presents for him. With each present, hed offer Vin the chance to take over, but each time, Vin just shook his head. Yet once the wrapping paper was stripped away, Vins eyes would go wide and hed reach out hesitantly tracing his little fingers over the contents before pulling his hand back as if stung, apparently not willing to set himself up for disappointment.
The next year had been easier, but the boy had still been reluctant to believe that anyone would actually give him gifts, and even once theyd been opened he had a hard time believing that he actually got to keep them.
Ezra on the other hand, just couldnt believe that the family members were so appreciative of such simple little gifts and gestures. Their parents would ooh and ahh over the boys messily handmade ornaments, lumpy clay ashtrays and picture frames made out of macaroni or matchsticks. Every year his mother unpacked the treasured handmade decorations shed collected over the years, handling them as carefully as if they were made of spun glass. Chris could understand Ezras bafflement. He doubted Maude Standish would show any such appreciation over receiving similar gifts, in fact he could see the woman holding them at arms length and dropping it into a wastebasket.
JD had been so young when hed come to live with them that by now he anticipated Christmas in the same way as any kid his age would. He wrote his list out for Santa and usually got most of the things. Well, there was the time theyd taken him to the air show and hed been given a ride in a helicopter. Afterwards, hed been obsessed with helicopters and made sure to include one on his Christmas wish list. Oh, hed gotten a helicopter, but it hadnt been quite the one hed had in mind. Hed gotten over the disappointment quick enough when he realized that the smaller version had a remote control and really did fly.
He hoped this year they wouldnt have to disappoint anyone too much. At least this temp job would give them a little extra cash.
Suddenly he felt overwhelmingly drowsy, almost to the point of dozing off. He shook his head, quickly drank the rest of his coffee and put the car in drive. He needed to get some more coffee, do something to wake himself up.
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