Halftime came, and Buck and Josiah were in Buck's kitchen. Josiah brought over some of his world-famous meatballs, along with rolls and smoked provolone, for sandwiches. Buck was filling bowls with chips, pretzels, and trays with mini-appetizers. Ezra was reading the Sunday paper, oblivious to the noisy den. Nathan and Chris were contemplating the next move the Bronco's would make. J.D had been sleeping upstairs and was slowly making his way into the room. Vin was sound asleep on the couch, Billy lying on top of him, head resting under the Texan's chin. An old quilt covered them, and Sam slept happily at Vin's side, on the floor.
"Mary here?" J.D. croaked, easing into the recliner chair.
"No...boy's only. She's working." Chris answered, "Hungry?"
"You bet!" J.D. bellowed, "BUCK!"
"Hell, J.D., I'm only in the next room..." Buck complained.
"Sorry, I thought you were downstairs. Dinner ready?"
"How can you be hungry? You've done nothing but eat since you got home," Nathan joked.
Chris had been watching Tanner's face for the last hour and saw his body shifting. Rising, he took Billy, complete with quilt, and moved him to the small loveseat, in the corner of the room.
"Now that's a face only a mother could love," Josiah's deep voice intruded.
Chris couldn't help but grin as the rest of them chuckled. Vin sat hunched forward, hair mussed, face long, eyes scowling. Chris sat next to him and kept his eyes on the game, as the third quarter started. He saw Nathan frowning and looked closer at Vin. His face was pale, eyes shrouded in pain, barely open. Vin felt Jackson's brown eye's drilling him, as the healer sat next to him.
"I'm fine..." the scratchy voice emerged, "Quit crowdin' me."
"You ought to at least be in bed..." Nathan appealed.
Vin didn't answer, but his sour stomach churned. His newfound freedom had been short lived. The first few hours at Buck's went well, but now Vin was miserable. His head was pounding and every little noise seemed to be amplified. He felt dizzy and didn't trust his legs to take him upstairs. Chris eyed the clock and caught Buck's eye through the open cutout, and nodded. A few minutes later, Buck emerged, carrying two pills and a ginger ale.
"Here ya go, Pard."
Vin didn't hesitate, taking the pills and a long gulp of the cold soda. He sat for a minute, hoping the vertigo would leave him. He saw Buck's boots still in front on him.
"'m'okay, Bucklin..." he whispered, lifting his aching head, "Thanks."
"Why don't you get some shut-eye, Vin? Your room just back there," Buck pointed to a door down a hall.
No steps...he forgot the guestroom was on the first floor. He sighed and nodded, allowing Buck to haul him off the sofa. He remained in place, blinking back spots. He swayed slightly, which was all Larabee needed.
"Vin?" Chris was suddenly next to him.
"I'm all right...just got up too fast."
He eased himself across the room, Chris following a few feet behind. "Hey Vin...you want this?"
Vin turned to see Nathan shaking the glass of soda. The golden liquid splashed against the crystal cubes of ice. J.D. seemed transfixed, staring hard at the moving glass. Buck followed J.D.'s unblinking stare and was about to comment.
"SKINNY VINNY!" J.D blurted.
Vin backed up, eye's widened in fear. His body jerked at the words, causing him to flinch as if they were bullets. His face lost all color, becoming a chalky mask. His breath came in short pants, sweat poured down his ashen face. He staggered backwards, nearly falling down. He flattened himself against the wall, trembling violently.
Chris covered the distance between them and grabbed the trembling shoulders. The unblinking, blue eyes never flinched when Chris waved his hand in front of them. He sensed the others behind him and waved them back.
"Give him some room!"
"What the hell happened?" Buck asked, pushing J.D. back in the chair.
Vin was lost in time. An undersized, scrappy nine-year old orphan, exploring the rocky terrain outside town. Beside him trotted a six-year old, also an outcast. The Indian boy never spoke, and felt the cruel sting of the verbal arrows launched by the other boys. Vin's shy nature and painful year's prior in another orphanage, left him withdrawn. He and the quiet little dark-skinned boy became good friends. Vin protected Nicky Redtail, sheltering him from the storm. He had an innate force that propelled him to harbor the weak and small. He hated injustice and seeing anyone hurt. The dark-eyed boy cried in his sleep, reliving some horrid nightmare. Vin would leave his bed and rub the small boy's back, until the sobbing stopped.
They were among the youngest of the two dozen boys who lived at the home, near the Texas/New Mexico border. It was a hot Saturday afternoon and the two were playing cowboys, scrambling among the rocks...then they saw it. Vin's backed up, gasping at the horror, trying to warn Nicky, but it was too late. Skinny Vinny...Skinny Vinny...Rough hands seized him...mean dark eyes...
"NO!!...NO!!!" Vin screamed, swinging hard at the face looming over him, "Let go of me...Run, Nicky..."
Chris was caught off guard by the ferocity of Vin's words and the hard right. He fell backwards hard, right into Ezra. The force propelled them both to the floor. Chris lay stunned, and Vin was coming at Ezra, with fire in his eyes.
"Nathan...do something." J.D. shouted, as Vin hovered protectively in front of him, "What's wrong with him?"
"I don't know J.D."
Vin watched them circling, like wolves ready for the kill. He'd die first, before letting them get Nicky. He watched them move towards him, unleashing a kick and making contact.
"Ughhh!" Ezra rolled over, protecting his ribs, "What did you give him, Buck?"
"His prescription. Jesus, Nate, could that be it?"
"I don't know, Buck," The trained EMT answered, "I've never seen a reaction like this."
"Vin Tanner, you're safe here, Son," Josiah's voice, deep and soothing, quieted the room.
Vin squinted up, blinding by light. Son? His already aching head was filled with confusion. He felt like a rat caught in a trap. The walls were closing in, he couldn't breathe.
"Ain't got no Pa...it's a trick," he rasped, wiping his dripping face, as another thought occurred to him, "Am I dead?"
"No, Vin, you're not dead. You're safe, with friends. Nobody's gonna hurt you."
Vin's head turned at the new voice. His muddled blue-eyes were blinking rapidly as the green-eyed stranger approached. He studied the face, as the man got closer, his voice, even and steady, caused the rapid breathing to ease. His eyes darted to the others, but the voice drew him back.
"Look at me," Chris gently eased his hand against the clammy, saturated face, gripping the back of the wet head. He held the frightened gaze with his cool one, troubled by what he saw. The blue eyes were pained by a vision of a specter, known only to Vin.
The boy didn't know the blond stranger, but he knew he was safe. They wouldn't kill him. He felt himself slipping away and threw all his trust into those calm green eyes.
"Don't let 'em hurt me, Mister..."
"Vin!" Chris saw the whites of the lost man's eyes as they rolled back. He caught Vin and Nathan moved in to grab his legs. They carried him into the guestroom. Buck threw the cotton quilt back and watched as Nate and Chris lowered him into the bed. His skin was still pale and clammy, he was shivering and sweating.
"Nathan?" Chris's voice held a tinge of fear.
"He's in shock," the dark-eye man replied, "Got another blanket, Buck?"
"Shock?" a chorus of voices repeated from the doorway.
"From the pills?" Chris said, standing at Vin's side.
"Doubt it...Thanks Buck," Nathan answered, covering Vin with another blanket, "It was something else that done this."
"Our healer is quite right," Ezra agreed, bringing a large container of ice water, with a straw attached, and placing it on the bedstand, "J.D.'s surprising disclosure was the trigger."
"Me?" J.D. squealed, backing up, "What did I say?"
"I believe the exact phrase was 'Skinny Vinny," Ezra replied, handing a cold cloth to Chris, who was wiping Vin's face.
"Yeah, J.D.," Buck turned to his bruised roommate, lingering in the doorway, "Where did that come from?"
"Did I really say that?" J.D.'s voice sounded hollow, "Nate, is he okay?"
"He needs to rest and keep warm. I don't know if he's gonna remember what happened," the healer advised, eyeing the worried group, "But I don't think he needs to see all of you hovering around him. I'll stay with him."
The rest filed out, Nathan saw a nagging suspicion in Buck's eye as he lingered at the foot of the bed.
"Buck, it wasn't the pills"
"He didn't eat anything..." Buck eyed the small bottle, "It says to take with food."
"Wouldn't cause a reaction like that," Nathan gripped the tall man's shoulder as he skirted the bed, "You saw him, Buck, he was lost back in his childhood. Reliving some...nightmare. Go on, now...you too, Chris."
"He looks awful..." Chris eyed the ghostly figure on the bed, "Nate, if he starts fussin'..."
"You'll be the first to know. Goodbye, Chris," Nathan issued.
The five sat around the large table in Buck's dining room, eating meatball sandwiches. J.D. seemed to have lost his appetite.
"Stop sulking and eat..." Buck ordered, then spotting the guilty hazel eyes, threw his fork down, "Cut it out, J.D. Don't start that nonsense again."
"But Buck, I did that to him. I don't even remember saying it."
Ezra paused, sipping a glass of Sangria and started putting the pieces together. Chris watched the conman's green eye's working. Ezra excused himself and left the room, returning with Vin's soda glass."Spit it out, Ezra." Chris stated.
"As I recall," The Southerner glanced around the table, "Our young friend's outburst came as Mr. Tanner was departing." He saw J.D. still staring in space, trying to remember. Lifting up the glass in front of J.D., he shook it.
"You want this?" He masked his accent, imitating Nathan's actions.
"Skinny Vinny...." J.D. blurted.
"You did it, again!" Buck said, slapping the table.
"J.D?" Chris leaned forward, eyeing the youth, "I want an answer!"
"That's what he said that night in the warehouse...he had a glass of vinegar and shook it in front of Vin, teasing him...Skinny Vinny...saving the Indian Boy..."
"Slow down, Son," Ezra shook J.D.'s shoulder, ceasing the rapid-fire rambling, "Adams called Mr. Tanner that name?"
"Yeah, Vin was so sick, he didn't hear much of anything. What does it mean?"
"What Indian Boy?" Chris asked.
"Uh..." J.D. shut his eyes, trying to remember, "...you won't save Dunne anymore than you saved that Indian kid," J.D. replied, "that's what he said...something like that."
"It's gotta be the 'Nicky' he mentioned when he was...well...before...you know." Buck added, spearing two meatballs and tucking them into a roll.
"Maybe this will help Vin remember where he knows Adams from." J.D. supplied, filling his roll with meat and cheese.
"Or send him back into a nightmare..." Chris sighed, recalling the younger man's face, "He was scared to death..."
"Vin ain't scared of anybody," J.D. proclaimed defensively.
"That wasn't the Vin we know," Josiah supplied, "That was a young boy. Chris is right, he was terrified. Seems to me, Adams knew Vin when he was a kid...maybe he hurt the Indian boy and Vin felt guilty."
"If that's so..." J.D. puzzled, "Why didn't Vin remember him?"
"He was a kid, J.D." Buck answered, "Hell, I can't remember many faces from when I was little. It sounded like Vin saw something horrible...whatever he witnessed was so bad, he buried it. Adams might have been involved somehow."
"Mr. Tanner is a great deal younger than that creature. Even if that cretin was sixteen or so when this horrible incident occurred," Ezra theorized, "It's been a good fifteen years or so...a man changes."
"Why didn't he tell somebody then? Get some help or something?"
"He had nobody, J.D," Chris answered, eye's pained, "Lost his Ma when he was five, shuffled from relative to relative, ended up in a hell hole, disguised as an orphanage. Whatever happened there is locked away." Chris sighed, rubbing his face and his neck, eyeing Billy, still sleeping on the loveseat, "I can't imagine...how he survived."
Chris got up suddenly, and went outside, standing on Buck's deck. He welcomed the cold air and stood for awhile, the breeze lifting his blond hair. His mind's eye saw an undersized, scrappy child, with large blue eyes and hopeless wavy hair. He flinched, thinking of the nameless abuses the younger man suffered.
"Lord works in strange ways, Chris." Josiah joined him, "Vin once told me he felt Jack somehow guided him to you."
Chris eyed the older man, but remained silent. Josiah took this as a sign to continue.
"Could be he was right. Maybe Jack tipped the hands of fate...puttin' Vin on that mountain, at that moment. The Boy was lost for a lot of years."
"God would look by and watch him suffer," Chris seethed, green eyes glowing, "You ever see the look in his eyes, Josiah, when you mention the word orphanage? It's a dark void...something so painful he can't even feel it. All those years, until Jack found him....what kind of God does that?"Chris spat, slapping the rim of the deck.
"Ain't my place to question...ain't yours either. God's merciful...you gotta have faith."
"Merciful?" Chris's head drew back, "My wife and child burned to death...Where was his mercy then? Where was it when some bastard was abusing Vin when he was little? Don't talk to me about faith, Preacher."
Chris stalked back into the house, without looking up. He went to Vin's room and Nathan never said a word. He took one look at the storm in Larabee's eyes and retreated. Chris sat on the edge of the bed, watching Vin sleep. His color was better and he wasn't sweating.
"I'm going to get some chow, Chris, " Nathan said, recognizing Chris's need to be alone with his friend, "Call me if you need me."
Chris nodded without looking up. He heard the soft steps and the click of the door closing. Vin stirred, tossing his head across the pillow. The eyes twitched under the pale lids and Vin began to mumble. "No...Nicky run...I'll kill ya...Run...no..."Chris saw the arms coming up and grabbed the wayward fist. Wrapping a hand behind the slumbering man's neck, he shook it slightly.
"Wake up, Vin."
" Vin croaked, without waking, seeking the voice.
"Right here," Chris replied, feeling the wet pillow.
He lifted the sleeping body forward, resting Vin against his chest. Turning the pillows over, until the cool, crisp side was up, he lowered the body back down. Two blue eyes peeled open and blinked at him."Water?" Vin coughed, nodding gratefully as the straw was immediately at his lips.
"Not to fast. I don't want you tossing it back at me."
"I's so thirsty..." Vin gasped, laying back.
"You all right now?"
"Dunno...was having a bad dream...'bout when I was a kid...in Texas."
"With Nicky?" Chris hedged, wincing at the pained response.
"Nicky? Oh God..." Vin shook his head and covered his face with his hand.
"Sorry, Vin, Forget it for now. You get some sleep." Chris started to leave, thinking Vin wanted to be alone.
"Don't go..." The voice barely made it past Chris to the door.
Chris pulled a chair up and sat back down. Vin laid back and studied the ceiling. The blue mirrors remained fixed, lost in thought. Finally they drifted shut, Vin's chest rose and fell in a peaceful sleep. Somewhere, deep inside, he knew his guardian was on duty. Nathan came up later, and checked on Vin. Chris was sound asleep in a bedside chair, his long legs on the bed.
Nate cast a soft smile at the pair, and took Vin's pulse and respiration. The blue eye's opened and a smile floated up.
"Go on home. Man with a wife as purty as yers, shouldn't be eyeing me in a bed."
Nathan laughed, glad for the return of Vin's normal color and sense of humor. "How you feeling?"
"Had better days," Vin croaked, groping for the water bottle.
"Headache? Dizziness? Blurred Vision?"
"Yes...a little...and no."
"I can't give you anymore painkillers..."
"Don't want 'em...makes my stomach upset."
"Tylenol," Nathan said, watching Vin make a face before accepting them.
"I'll stop by tomorrow, I want to check on you and J.D."
"We'll be fine...don't go worrin' on us."
"Shut up and let the man do his job," Larabee muttered, without moving.
"Ain't nothing worse than a cranky cowboy," Tanner commented, hitching himself up on his elbows to see Chris.
"You call me a cowboy?" The green eyes narrowed.
"You aim to do something about it," Vin challenged, cocking his head.
"You're lucky," Chris deadpanned, "I got a soft spot for widows and orphans."
Vin's soft laughter filled the dark room, and Chris chucked, watching until the blue eyes closed again. Then he settled back and let his own weary eyes fall.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin's got a lot of dark secrets tucked away," Josiah eyed Dunne, "He spent too many years in pain, alone and hurt. God only knows what hell he suffered through. Maybe someday he'll share some of that, lighten the burden...cleanse his soul. But until then, all we can do it walk beside him and call him friend, let him lean on our shoulders occasionally."
They were alone in the kitchen. Ezra and Nathan had departed, and Buck was dozing on the sofa. J.D. sat at the table, drinking coffee and eating some peach pie. Josiah had cleaned up all the dishes and poured a mug of coffee. He sat down beside the troubled boy.
"You know Josiah," J.D. started, "I was past eighteen when my mother died. It hurt bad...I still miss her. She was all I had. But I was grown, had friends to turn to," he paused, wincing and rubbing his sore chest, "How did he survive Josiah? He was only five...he had nobody. I heard stories about the stuff that goes on in orphan homes..."
"He's a Tanner..." Josiah grinned, remembering Vin's recollection of his mother's dying plea.
"He sure is," J.D. agreed, "I'm beat, Josiah, think I'll head to bed. Goodnight."
"Goodnight Son," Josiah nodded, contemplating J.D.'s question.
+ + + + + + +
It was late when Chris woke up, grimacing as he turned his stiff neck and rubbed his shoulders. Leaning forward, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, and studied the sleeping body. His hand brushed across Vin's forehead; he was cool and dry. The breathing was deep and even, the face was relaxed. Satisfied, he stole out of the room.
He stopped at the entrance to the den, and let a small grin form. Buck was stretched out on the sofa watching television. Sam was sitting next to him, the Lab's head was hovering over Buck. The black dog was happily eating off a plate on Buck's chest.
"You're as bad as Vin," Chris complained, coming closer, spotting the flecks of potato salad on the dog's chin.
"Your Pa's a mean old cuss'" the mustached agent crooned, scratching Sam's head, "Not a charming, stud like Uncle Buck."
"Buck..." Chris groaned, reaching for the plate, "You know better..."
"Aw, Chris, it won't hurt him," Buck quickly handed the rest of the meatball sandwich to Sam, "Sides, he was hungry...this is his second plate."
Chris threw his hands up in defeat and went to the kitchen, grabbing two beers. Handing one to his oldest friend, he slumped in a chair next to him. Sam settled on the floor, belly full and snoozed contentedly. "Mary came for Billy, about nine. She caught you sleeping on the job. Did he come around?"
"Yeah, seemed okay. I asked about Nicky. He got upset, so I dropped it."
"We can check the Welfare Department Records in Texas."
"I'd like to hear it from Vin." Chris mused, "I don't like going behind his back."
"I'll ride guard on the herd tomorrow morning until Nathan gets here," Buck saw how relaxed Chris was, head back on the soft leather, "You better rustle them bones, Pard."
"Yeah, guess I'll head home," Chris shot out of the chair, "He's been quiet for hours now. He should sleep right through."
"I'll keep an ear out."
Chris put on his black leather jacket and paused at the door. Sam's head came up, peeking across the pine coffee table.
Sam looked at Chris and flopped back down, groaning and settling across from the snapping fireplace.
"So much for man's best friend," Buck smirked.
"That's what happens when you fill his gut with all that junk food..." Chris frowned, "SAM! Let's go!"
Sam snapped to attention and shook himself off. Stretching, he trotting halfway to the door then stopped. Looking down the hall, he lifted his head and sniffed. He cast his sad, brown eyes back to Chris and whined softly. Buck and Chris both smiled.
"Can't say he ain't loyal..." Buck opened the door, then narrowed his eyes, still trained on the dog.
"What?" Chris followed Buck's eyes.
"Might be a good idea to leave him here a few days."
"I hear ya..." Chris agreed, knowing Sam would defend Vin with his life.
"How are the star patients today?" Ezra glibbed, as Buck Wilmington reached his desk.
"Vin's still sleeping. The Kid was on the computer when I left, trying to access the Texas Welfare System Department of Records."
"If anybody can do it," Ezra added, "our illustrious hacker can."
"He'll be back in about ten minutes. He requested you to wait in his office."It was just past eleven a.m. when Chris returned, carrying a file. He waved at Josiah and Ezra to follow him into his office.
"Hey, Chris," Buck greeted, "What's up?"
"I need a surveillance team to monitor the activities at the Prescott's Printing Company."
"Prescott?" Josiah frowned, "As in Jordan Prescott?" The preacher noted of the former NFL star.
"The same." Chris flipped the file to Josiah, "He's suspected of laundering money for Aldo Trinadad."
"Thought that slime ball got blown up over the Pacific last year," Buck asked.
"His plane was blown up...no bodies were recovered. We have statements from some undercover agents in Mexico City, that's he been seen around the Mexican Riveria region. When's Nate due?"
"Should be here anytime," Buck glanced at his watch, "He was checking J.D. when I left, Vin was still asleep."
"Okay, Josiah, you and Nathan take the van over," Chris eyed Buck and Ezra, "You two may need to resurrect Etienne Amberge and Duke Rivers," Chris recalled the alias the two agents used before when dealing with Trinadad, "I'll let you know, stay close to the office today."
+ + + + + + +
"Damn Nate!," Vin flinched, as the cold stethoscope hit his back, "Ya tryin' to jump start my heart."
"Hush up," Nathan replied, "You know the drill."
The next few minutes concluded Nathan's exam. Vin seemed much better, his color, temp and reflexes were normal. His eyes were clear and he was fidgeting. Nathan put his tools away and watched Vin button his shirt. He crossed Buck's den and walked to the staircase.
"J.D., Get on down here,"
He made his way into the kitchen where Vin was stirring some soup in a pot. J.D. eased himself slowly into a chair, damp hair sticking to his head. Nathan cleared his throat and Vin turned."What?"
"I need to talk to you, Vin,"
Vin turned the flame down on his lunch and padded barefoot across the kitchen. Refilling his coffee mug, he dumped a heap of sugar in it and slid into a chair across from J.D."Hey Kid, take another bath?"
"Yeah...I gotta tell ya, them hot baths really make a difference."
"I got a mess of Pizza Soup cookin'" Vin offered, knowing it was J.D.'s favorite.
"Excuse me?" Nathan interjected.
"Sorry, Nate..." Vin drawled.
"Vin, What do you remember about yesterday afternoon."
"Whaddya mean?" Vin frowned, spotting J.D. lower his head, color rising, "What's goin' on?"
"Do you remember waking up in the den, during the game?"
Vin thought, squinting his eyes and nodded, "Yeah...Buck gave me a couple of pills and I went to bed."
Vin saw the concern on Nathan's face and slid his eyes to J.D. The youth didn't have a poker face, and Vin knew something was very wrong. "J.D....Look at me," Vin directed, "Ain't that what happened?"
J.D. looked at Nathan who nodded and walked over, pulling up a chair next to Vin.
"You don't remember anything else, Vin," Nate rested his hand on the young man's arm, "Don't rush, I want you to think carefully. Close your eyes, if it helps."
"What's goin' on, Nate?" Vin's voice didn't contain the uneasiness he felt.
"Just try, Vin, okay?"
Vin took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He felt Nathan's gentle hand on his neck, the reassuring tug calmed him. He saw Buck...the pills in Buck's hand...the floor...Nicky...Nicky...dead eyes...."Vin gasped audibly, jumping up and knocking the chair over. He shook his head, backing away from the approaching EMT. J.D. started to stand, but saw Nate waving him to stop.
"Get the hell away from me, Nate" Vin growled, pacing like a caged lion, without an escape."Take it easy, Vin. It's all over. Something shook you up good and you went into shock yesterday. You're fine now, it's passed. Come on back and sit down, let me help."
"Shock?" Vin wrapped both arms around this waist, and rocked, standing by the window over the sink, "How? Why?"
"Come on, Vin," Nathan patted the kitchen chair and waited.
Vin stared out the window at the city's skyline. He closed his eyes again and took several deep breaths. He let his mind wander. It all came crashing back, fifteen years later, like an angry bear out of hibernation. Every last detail...in gory, living color. He felt a coldness take hold inside, filling him with a deadly calm. He knew what needed to be done. He felt Nathan's hand on his shoulder.
"You all right, Vin?"
"I'm fine," the faraway voice replied.
Vin blinked and came back, turning to face his friend. Nathan saw the contrite look and Vin made his way to the table. Sipping on his coffee, he cast a wane smile at his teammate.
"Guess I scared y'all pretty good."
"Don't do that again, " J.D. added, then softer, "I'm sorry, Vin. I didn't even know I called you Skinny Vinny. That's what did it."Vin swallowed back the pain, hoping Nathan didn't see the fear in his eyes. The humiliation...rage...shame...Skinny Vinny. "S'okay, J.D. It weren't yer fault. Y'all know how cruel kids can be. When I was a little feller, I was a State Home for a piece," Vin stared at the swirling motion in his coffee, "I was a mite undersized and...well..y'all can figure out the rest." He lied.
"Who was Nicky, Vin?" Nathan asked.
Nicky...Vin closed his eyes and shook his head. It was too soon. He wouldn't be able to keep his voice from breaking.
"I can't, Nate...not yet." He rasped, swallowing hard.
"All right, Vin, " Nate agreed, seeing the distressed face, "But we need to talk about it. Something in your past involving Nicky left you scarred. That terror resurfaced yesterday and sent you into shock. It won't go away, Vin, you need to purge it. I want both of you to get some rest this afternoon. We'll see you at supper."
Nate put on his coat, picked up his bag and walked outside. Pausing on Buck's porch to retrieve his keys, he was on the second step, when a voice beckoned.
Nate turned, catching Vin's extended hand and the warm smile.
When Vin returned inside, he ladled the soup into two huge mugs and carried them to the table. He grabbed two cokes from the refrigerator and settled down across from J.D. They ate in silence. Vin was lost in thought and realized J.D. hadn't said a word. Maybe his ribs were hurting. He was about to flip the ten-inch countertop television on, when the youngest member finally spoke.
"Tell me about Tony Delgado."
Vin's head flew up, mouth open in muted surprise. His wide-eyed gaze narrowed as his pulse quickened. He shook his head, stood up and attempted to leave. The relentless pitbull followed, nipping at his heels.
"Leave it be, J.D.," Vin warned, "It ain't none of yer concern."
"THE HELL IS ISN'T," J.D. shouted, his eyes blazing, "Take a good look Vin," he pushed his startled friend against the front door. "It ain't pretty...is it," his voice was cruel and hurtful, seeing Vin's pained eyes taking in every bruise and stitch on his marred face. "How about these," he seethed, throwing open his robe, revealing a chest full of purple, blue and red bruises and welts, peeping over the bandaged ribs, "Got plenty more on my back, legs..."Vin broke away, but J.D. threw himself, toppling both of them onto the loveseat.
"It might have started as your problem...a long time ago in Derning Home," Dunne had Vin under him, pinning him with his arms. He saw Vin's eyes widen, "That's right, Vin...I know about that place. But the minute that animal beat me to a pulp, it became my concern. So you have two options, we can work together and get this dirtbag...or I can follow you. Either way, you, Buck and the whole damn Army ain't gonna stop me. You might have fooled Nathan with that Huckleberry Finn impression, but I saw your eyes in the window. You didn't fool me."
J.D. rolled off the cushion and slid to the floor, chest throbbing. He felt the sweat pouring down his face. Vin didn't move and for several minutes, the only sound was the labored breathing of the two Team Seven members. Vin was stunned, by both J.D.'s knowledge and the brutal force of this words and actions. He didn't want the Kid running around after him. He wouldn't be able to concentrate, worrying on J.D. getting hurt. He stood up and the room began to spin. What did that doctor say about reoccurring blackouts? He heard J.D...the voice seemed to be in a tunnel. He felt his knees buckle and then nothing.
"Vin!" J.D. shouted, catching the body as it toppled, "Shit, I did it again. Chris's is gonna kill me."
J.D. couldn't lift Vin, his ribs were throbbing. He eased him onto the floor and put a small toss pillow under his head. He sat on the floor, next to the unconscious man and bit his lip, cradling his aching chest. He laid his head back and rested his eyes.
It was a strange sound, in his ear. Then a wetness, then the sound again. Something cold nudged his cheek. Vin moaned and moved his face, only to have it covered with a wet tongue bath. He rolled over onto his side and opened his eyes, hearing the crying sound again. He felt the tongue lapping against his neck.
"Sam...cut that out." He croaked, as the dog yelped in glee, having heard his name.
Vin sat up and saw J.D., sleeping on the floor next to him. He rubbed his aching head and glanced painfully at the digital clock on the VCR in Buck's den. Two o'clock...he'd been out cold for two hours. He crawled over to the table and pushed himself up. The dizziness finally subsided and he went to the powder room down the hall. He doused his face and neck in cold water, and popped two Tylenol's. Glancing in the mirror, he took in his dusty face and washed out eyes, purple lump laced with angry stitches on his head.
"You look like shit, Tanner."
He padded back into the room and slid onto the loveseat, next to where J.D.'s head rested. He shook J.D.'s shoulder and watched the hazel eyes open. J.D. pulled himself up from the floor and back onto the small sofa. "Reckon if we're gonna do this together, we gotta get healed. Ain't either one of us in any shape to be tracking," Vin said, offering his hand, "Deal?"
"Deal," J.D. agreed, "Gimme your word, Vin." J.D. requested before shaking on it, knowing how much that meant to the sharpshooter.
"You're gettin' good, Kid," he grinned, "My word as a Tanner," he agreed.
"You're right. We're a sorry lot, the two of us. We're gonna rest and take medicine and shock the pants off Chris and Buck." J.D. grinned.
"How about we compare notes over some pie and milk?" Vin offered
"How did you find out about Delgado?" Vin asked, sliding a large hunk of pie across to J.D.
"Most of the records from the Welfare Dept were sealed. But I found a backdoor and was able to access some information. Then when I checked the newspaper archives, I was just about to download an article that referenced him, when Nathan called me."
"What kind of article?"
"Didn't get a chance to read it. It was from fifteen years ago, summer I think"
Vin swallowed hard and forced the air from his lungs. He put both hands on the table and pressed hard. The Kid would find out anyway, once he read the newspaper account. He pushed his hand over his eyes, trying to stem the throbbing.
"I ain't never told another living soul about this, J.D..." His voice cracked.
He spent several seconds swallowing back his emotional tide. He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard the chair being dragged around. He kept his eyes covered and felt the boy squeeze his shoulder again.
"It stays in this room, Vin." J.D.'s voice sounded much older than his years and Vin knew without a glance, he meant it.
"The winter I was nine, I got sent to a State Home, on the Texas-New Mexico border."
"Yeah, the place I came from..." He stopped, shaking his head, "...anyhow, Derning weren't so bad at first. There was a couple dozen of us boys, most of 'em 'tween twelve and seventeen. Just a few of us smaller kids. I kept to myself, I's real shy..."J.D. got a very clear picture of a small, shy Vin Tanner, baggy clothes hanging on his bony frame. Sad blue eyes crying himself to sleep, alone. His heart sank, maybe he shouldn't have forced Vin to talk about it.
"Anyhow, a few months later a little feller come to the home, six years old. His name was Nicky Redtail. He was an Indian. His Ma and Pa died, and they sent Nicky to Derning. He couldn't talk and him being the only Indian, the older boy's made fun of him. I'd here him crying at night..." Vin's eye's filled, "Anyhow, I sort of took him under my wing, ya know?"
"Why am I not surprised," J.D. teased, keeping his hand on Vin's shoulder.
"We were a pair of outcasts...the bastard and the redskin. We were best friends. Hell, It didn't matter to me none iffen he didn't talk. I heard him plain as day. After awhile, they left us alone, reckon they got tired of picking on us. Things were going good, until a hot day in August."Vin paused for several minutes, not moving. J.D. looked twice at his face, to make sure he was okay. His blue eyes were fixed and his fists were clenched. J.D. eased up, he'd wait on Vin.
Finally he spoke, in a hushed whisper. J.D. had to strain to hear him.
"We was playin' in the rocks, on the outskirts of town. He was chasin' me. I ran around a clump of rocks and..." Vin paused, wiping his eyes, "God this is hard..."
"Take you time, Vin."
Vin took a deep breath and continued, "She was naked, bloody, eye's open...I never seen nothin' like that. I screamed. There was three of 'em. Pant's down...liquored up...Tony had a gun. Him and Lee, one of the other boys, lived at Derning. They was sixteen or so, I reckon. He'd been after me since I got there...called me Skinny Vinny. I was the littlest, all skin and bones. He was real sneaky, used to hold my head under the water in the tub...sneak in the dorm room at night and hold his knife to my throat. I told Mr. Hill, he run the place, but called me a 'dirty lying bastard boy' and whipped me."J.D. felt his chest tighten in sympathy and rage. He didn't realize how hard he was gripping Vin until he heard the yelp. Vin collected himself and continued.
"I'd seen dead folks a'fore and knew right off, she was dead. I screamed for Nicky to run...tried to fight them off, but there was too many of 'em. They damn near killed me, J.D. I managed to wiggle out of Tony's grip and run away. The third boy run off somewheres, Tony and Lee, chased us all the way back. Nicky run in the door and up to his room, hid under his bed. Lee caught me, tossed me to Tony. I can still feel his hands one me. The mailman come up the road and Tony had to let go. He whispered in my ear, saying iffen I ever said a word...he'd slit Nicky's throat in front of me."
"Vin, I....I wish..." J.D. faltered, not knowing what to say, Vin understood and nodded.
"I knew Mr. Hill wouldn't believe me, so I sat up all night, by Nicky's bed. I heard him and Lee in the hall, sayin' how's they was gonna smother him. I woke him up and got his shoes on, just as they come in the room. We got by 'em and they chased us. It was a bad night...thunder and lightning...rain pouring down. It was dark and I got us lost. They chased us down to the river. He was so little and trusted me...kept nodding and squeezing my hand. The bank was too muddy and we slipped. The river carried us for awhile, we was clinging to a tree limb. Then we got tossed. I tried to hold him. He kept nodding, trusted me right up until I lost him."
Vin placed his head on his folded arms on the table. The pain raced through him, as if it were yesterday. Those brown eyes, trusting him. J.D. stood behind him, rubbing Vin's shoulders, trying to ease the pain. Finally, Vin's head came up, he took a deep breath and finished.
"I woke up in the hospital. I was pretty sick for awhile, and remember a policeman visiting me a lot. He was the one that found me, said I was wandering down the highway. I told him what I
saw and they found the girl's body. The guy from town, was from a rich family. Once I identified him, he turned on the other two. They got sent to a juvenile hall. Tony went to the local high school and had hopes of a football scholarship. That all changed went he got sent away."
Vin felt his stomach turning and the pain crashing in his head. The heavy scales of guilt were too much for his frame to bear.
"That's the bravest thing I ever heard of Vin," J.D.'s voice was full of awe and admiration, "You never told nobody?"
"Not until today."
"Jeez, Vin," J.D. stumbled over the enormity of the situation, "I don't know what to say."
Vin struggled to his feet and grasped the boy's shoulders, "You just said it all, Kid..." He shuffled through the room, Sam at his heels, "I'm feeling a little poorly, gonna lay down for awhile."
"I'll watch your back," J.D. grinned, tipping his imaginary hat.
+ + + + + + +
"Huh?" J.D. blinked, sitting up, "Damn it, Buck, I was sound asleep."
"Sorry," Buck winced, sitting on the coffee table, "It's after six. You won't sleep tonight if you don't get up. Come on, pizza's on."
J.D. looked around the room. Ezra waved from the foyer, giving him a small smile. Nathan and Josiah were dishing out pizza. His eyes furrowed in pain, thinking of Vin. He had no appetite.
He stood up and looked down the hall.
"Chris is with him. He's been throwing up. Nate's says it's to be expected, cause of the concussion. He won't be coming down. Come on Kid, pizza's your favorite meal."
"I'm not hungry, Buck," J.D. whispered, eye's never leaving Vin's door.
Buck followed J.D.'s emotional gaze and frowned. He sat down next to his troubled friend.
"Something happen between you two?"
"Yeah," J.D. replied, staring at Buck, giving him a small smile, "Something sure did...sure am proud he's my friend."
"J.D., You okay?"
"Yeah. You go eat. I got a friend that needs me."
J.D. winced as his stiff muscles screamed. He slowly made his way down the hall. Chris looked up when he entered the room. J.D. never looked at him. His eyes were trained on Vin. Chris watched J.D. walk through the room, stiff and painfully. He got up and eased J.D. into the chair. The boy never uttered a word, kept his eyes glued on Vin's pale face.
"You okay, J.D.?"
J.D. nodded, "Go on and eat, I need to be with Vin for awhile."
"If he gets sick again, you holler, okay?"
"We'll be fine."
+ + + + + + +
"What's with Junior and the Kid?" Buck asked Chris.
"Dunno..." Chris sat down, taking a beer from Nathan.
"Maybe it's the last few days catching up with them. Boys been through a helluva lot." Josiah advised, dousing his sausage-laden slice with crushed red pepper.
"Vin say anything to you," Nathan eyed Chris, who shook his head, "If he opens up to anyone, it'll be you. Whatever's been hiding inside all this years, needs to come. It's festered too long."
"Yeah..." Chris nodded, remembering the terror in Vin's eyes on Sunday.
The others had left and Chris went upstairs to Vin's room to get his coat. Buck put on the hall light, just enough for Chris to see inside the room. The two stood silent, absorbing the scene before them. J.D. was sound asleep, sitting in a chair, next to the bed. One arm was on his chest, protecting his injured ribs. The other was flung over Vin, guarding his friend's aching heart.
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