by Estee

AU: Angela B’s 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 wouldn’t 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 hadn’t 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, they’d 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 they’d incurred while struggling to get on their feet. Christmas was going to be tight this year, which was the basis of their conversation.

They’d 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 he’d been considering taking a job as a sheriff’s deputy in town to help make ends meet.

"I don’t 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. He’d 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 wouldn’t make a decision like this without giving that a lot of thought."

"So, you’ve already made up your mind?" Buck sounded angry, or maybe disappointed. "I guess it don’t matter none to you if you go out and get yourself killed. We’ll be the ones stuck here having to deal with your decision."

"I didn’t say I’d 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 it’s ‘your time’, it ain’t gonna matter where you are or what you’re doing."

"Maybe so, but you don’t need to go asking for trouble, Chris."

"I ain’t askin’ for trouble." Chris shot Buck a glare.

"Seems like it to me," Buck returned.

"That’s 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 you’d 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 wouldn’t 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 don’t see any other options right now."

They’d 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.

"We’re talking, waiting for the potatoes to get done." Josiah stood and went to the stove to check on their progress.

"When’s 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 don’t," Chris couldn’t help but inject.

Buck ignored him. "If there’s 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."

JD’s face lit up. "So, you’re 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, it’s because we need the money," Chris supplied.

"Right," Buck replied. "And I was about to say that I just don’t think we need the money that badly."

"He’s right, brother," Josiah agreed. "We may not be able to buy them a lot of things, but we’ll manage alright. They won’t 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’?"

"We’re 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 wouldn’t 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 won’t tell no one," he promised.

"You sure won’t," Chris agreed amiably. "Cause you’re 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 I’m hungry."

Josiah chuckled then closed the refrigerator door and began guiding the boy out of the room. "I know you’re all hungry, but if you eat now, you’ll ruin your appetite. I promise it won’t 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 can’t make up your mind for you," Buck tried to get in quickly, "But, I just want you to know that you don’t have to take that job. We’ll be just fine without you takin’ it. We may not be able to give those boys big, expensive presents, but that ain’t what’s important about Christmas, and you know it."

Josiah nodded his agreement. "The boys know there’s more to the holiday than how many presents they find under the tree."

"I know that. It’s 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, you’re 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 he’d 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 wouldn’t be surprised if we were driven to it sooner or later." Chris winked at his little brother. "Josiah’s mashin’ the potatoes and the turkey should be done any minute, okay? We’ll let you boys know as soon as it’s ready."

"Alright." Ezra turned on a heel and went back to the living room.

Quickly, Chris tried to get in what he’d been trying to say before. "I know presents aren’t the most important thing, but JD needs a new coat and Vin needs new boots too. All of them need new sneakers. I don’t know what’s 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 I’ve saved a little more along with it. It’s not much, but it’s 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 won’t—"

"Is the turkey done yet?" From the doorway, three whining voices cut off Josiah’s appeal to Chris.

Josiah shook his head. "Almost," he assured them.

"We’re hungry!" JD complained.

"Starving to death!" said Vin.

"I’m 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 don’t want me to take the job, then I won’t 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 hadn’t 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.

"When’s 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. "It’s 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 Josiah’s 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 didn’t 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. Josiah’s words opened a floodgate of emotions in the room, and pain they’d thought dulled by time seemed to become instantly sharp again.

"Don’t they have a baby?" Nathan asked suddenly.

"Yes, and by some miracle she came through it all without a scratch," Josiah told them. "I don’t have many details, except that she’s with Amanda’s 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 didn’t mean to sound thoughtless or unconcerned for the baby’s welfare, but he couldn’t 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 she’d given him self-confidence, which he hadn’t had before. She’d changed his whole outlook on school and his abilities.

Josiah patted his shoulder. "It’s going to be tough on Vin, but we’ll 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. They’ve had so little to be thankful for in the past."

"Yeah, that was good thinking," Chris told him, with a nod of appreciation.

"There’s no school on Monday," Josiah continued. "No funeral arrangements have been made yet, but I’m 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 Buck’s shoulder and one on Nathan’s and guiding them toward the door. "Sounds like it’s gonna be a long day tomorrow."

All three turned to say, "G’night Josiah."

"G’night brothers."

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 they’d 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 don’t 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. "Don’t tell me we’re having Froot Loops for breakfast?"

"There’s Cheerios too," Nathan told him. "I hear they’re 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. You’re 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 aren’t 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 couldn’t help but ask.

"Flu shot?" Chris scoffed, shaking his head. "No, I didn’t get mine yet. How ‘bout you Buck? You get your flu shot yet?"

Buck snorted then winked at Chris "Now you know real men don’t 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, don’t 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 hadn’t been too deeply affected, since neither one of them had ever had Mrs. Price as a teacher. Still, they couldn’t help being disturbed and saddened by the news and its timing.

Josiah didn’t miss the sharp flash of pain in Ezra’s 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. They’d 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 hadn’t 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 wasn’t going to happen just yet. Josiah decided to speak with him later, or try to anyway. And if he couldn’t get him to talk, he’d let the others know what was going on, certain that between the six of them they’d 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 he’d accepted a job as a deputy for the county sheriff’s department. "It’s only temporary," he’d 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 wasn’t quite sure what to say. He’d been so sure that Chris would turn down the job, and he was a little shocked by the news. Obviously, he’d read his brother wrong. He glanced at Vin, who hadn’t reacted at all. He was staring at the floor -- still closed off to them -- and Josiah couldn’t help but think that Chris couldn’t have had worse timing. As a counselor, Josiah knew that routine and stability were very important to children -- especially children who’d 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 JD’s 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 don’t want ya to go."

"Nothin’ bad’s gonna happen, JD." Chris smiled and pried his arm free, wrapping it around his littlest brother and pulling him close. "I’m not moving across the country or anything." He glanced at Vin, directing the next statement at him. "I’ll still be here for you."

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Josiah waited another day, deciding he’d confront his reticent brother at bedtime Friday night. By then he’d 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 boy’s forehead. "He’s got a fever," he declared.

"The flu?" Josiah wondered aloud, his eyebrows drawn together in concern.

"Probably." Nathan wasn’t 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 Vin’s 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 don’t even know if it’s the flu," Josiah reasoned, pulling the boy to him and placing the back of his fingers on Vin’s cheek then forehead. "It could just be a cold."

"Or," Nathan couldn’t help but point out, "it could be strep throat. That’s going around too." He pulled Vin to him, tipping the boy’s 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.

"C’mon, 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.

"I’d say he’s got a temperature of at least 100, maybe more," Nathan guessed.

"Yeah, Chris, why don’t 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.

"I’ll call," Josiah stated, ruffling JD’s hair as he passed by. "You boys go ahead and start the movie," he said to Ezra and JD. "We’ll 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 weren’t the ones being fussed over.

Vin allowed himself to be guided toward his bedroom, turning back once to glance forlornly at his brother.

"Don’t 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 doctor’s prognosis.

"Well," Josiah said, joining him at the table after hanging up the phone, "the doctor said that it’s 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 Vin’s 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."

"Can’t he prescribe something better than this over-the-counter stuff?" Chris asked, looking down at the list he’d been given.

"He said that the flu is a virus and there’s 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 he’d just get a mild case, but to keep a close eye on him."

"Alright, I’ll 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 Vin’s bed as he read Animal Farm to his little brother. In his opinion the book was too depressing for a kid Vin’s age. What were those teachers thinking? But, then again, the story had managed to keep the kid’s attention for most of the time, right up until the last few paragraphs he’d read. He’d be sure to go back over that part the next evening.

He’d 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 hadn’t 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, he’d 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 didn’t 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 he’d read, he’d 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 wasn’t it suspicious how the sheep were always huddled together, probably plotting against them. In a low, conspiratorial voice he’d 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 Vin’s 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 couldn’t 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. Vin’s cheeks were flushed, his hair was slightly damp, but when Buck laid a hand on his forehead the boy didn’t 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, I’m about to head on out, so you just go back to sleep, okay?" Buck said with a smile.

Vin returned the smile and nodded.

"Josiah’s 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 wasn’t 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. He’d felt fine upstairs, but the trip down had worn him out. "I’s kinda hungry."

"Well, that’s 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. He’d just as soon be out for a while.

"I guess since you’re 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 he’d 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.

"It’s just good to see you eating. You’re 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 you’re probably upset over what happened to Mrs. Price, and I know that you’re 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 didn’t have anything else to say. He felt bad for himself because he was going to miss Mrs. Price, but he felt lucky that he’d known her. He’d made a promise to her the day of her memorial service that he’d 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 he’d 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. He’d felt glad that he’d had his mom ‘til he was five, but when he’d tried to remember her, he’d 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 couldn’t even picture her face anymore. He felt awful about that, but he felt even worse knowing that this little baby wouldn’t remember anything at all about her mom. And Mrs. Price was one of the best ladies he’d ever known. It just didn’t 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, I’ll 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 brother’s 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.

"If’n it ain’t 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."


"Yes, you."

"Why me? You’re the one who offered to get him something."

"Well, fine, if you don’t care enough about your poor, enfeebled brother."

Vin moaned for effect.

"If you’re 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. "You’re faking."

Vin shook his head. "Am not. I got a fever and everything, ask ‘Siah."

"Fine." JD stomped toward the kitchen, muttering about being everyone’s slave and leaving the two older boys grinning.

"How are you really feeling?" Ezra asked, after putting away JD’s 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."

"They’ll 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."

Vin nodded.

They both were quiet for a long moment then Ezra spoke up again. "At least those special counselors won’t be coming back," he said, rolling his eyes. "Today was the last day they planned to be there. It’s like everyone has been walking around on eggshells, or maybe they’re 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, we’re 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 wasn’t s’posed to eavesdrop?" JD whispered loudly, a frown creasing his forehead as he regarded the oldest.

"No, I said you were not supposed to eavesdrop."

JD’s frown deepened. "That don’t 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 didn’t seem to mind too much. The illness hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 she’d 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 she’d 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 Ezra’s mother. Permission or not, they didn’t trust her any farther than they could throw her.

"I’m 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 couldn’t help but be suspicious of her intentions. He’d 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 he’d score big in the present department. A year ago that might have been the deciding factor, but for reasons he’d rather not contemplate too closely, his priorities had changed dramatically. Hitting the jackpot, while still ranking high on his agenda, just didn’t 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 Ezra’s shoulders. "I know that Vin. It just worries me," he amended.

"Besides, it wouldn’t be the same if Ez wasn’t here for Christmas!" JD added, scowling. "Ya can’t go, Ez!"

"Well, it’s 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, we’ll understand. Won’t we?" he asked, looking pointedly at Chris.

"Yeah, we’ll 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 ain’t picky."

Buck and Josiah laughed, while Nathan, Ezra and JD shook their heads at their brother’s sorry attempt to get out in the snow.

"Right," Chris said with a smirk. "I got a better idea. Why don’t 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 ain’t tired!"

"Say goodnight, Gracie," Chris told him, continuing up the stairs.

"Gracie?" Vin squeaked. "Who’s Gracie?"

"Never mind."

"Why’d he call Vin Gracie?" JD asked, turning toward his brothers for an explanation.

"Perhaps he’s coming down with the flu and he’s 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 it’s 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, he’d had to get ready for work. He was on the late shift, so he’d 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 couldn’t be right though; surely he couldn’t 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 couldn’t believe teenagers actually thought this was entertaining – couldn’t 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 he’d agreed to fill in, or if he’d 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, he’d 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 he’d expected, especially the youngest two. At first, Vin would hardly speak to him, but then again, he hadn’t 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 hadn’t 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; they’d gone peaceably. And he hadn’t had to use deadly force while clearing the dangerous tumbleweeds from old Mrs. Meyer’s 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 they’d 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 Fife’s 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, he’d 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 didn’t 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 he’d change his mind.

He took another sip of coffee, noting that in spite of the momentary warmth he felt as it went down, it didn’t 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 he’d 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, he’d refused to open any of his presents, certain that in the end they’d 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, he’d offer Vin the chance to take over, but each time, Vin just shook his head. Yet once the wrapping paper was stripped away, Vin’s eyes would go wide and he’d 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 they’d been opened he had a hard time believing that he actually got to keep them.

Ezra on the other hand, just couldn’t 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 she’d collected over the years, handling them as carefully as if they were made of spun glass. Chris could understand Ezra’s 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 he’d 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 they’d taken him to the air show and he’d been given a ride in a helicopter. Afterwards, he’d been obsessed with helicopters and made sure to include one on his Christmas wish list. Oh, he’d gotten a helicopter, but it hadn’t been quite the one he’d had in mind. He’d 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 wouldn’t 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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