Birthday Fic: Mrs. Larabee
Birthdate: January 12, 2009
Request: OW-LB, Vin hurt/Chris comfort
Summary: Returning home from a successful trip to sell a horse, Chris and Vin share some quality time. Then Vin is injured and Chris must get his son home as quickly as possible.
~BNB~ ~HAPPY BIRTHDAY~ ~BNB~
Two horses moved at a casual place across the prairie floor, made over into a wonderland with a dusting of snow that covered the winter browned grass. Their riders were bundled in coats, hats, scarves and gloves, making them all but anonymous, except for the fact that one was much larger than the other.
Chris Larabee glanced over at his companion and smiled. Despite the cold weather, Vin was wearing a big grin on his little face. The boy had been almost blissful the entire trip and, when asked, would only say that he was having a good time.
The week after Christmas, Chris had completed a deal with Lester Davis, a rancher on the other side of Whitley Pass, to sell the stallion he had gentled. The animal wasn't completely broken yet, but Davis didn't care, he was interested in breeding the animal to improve the stock on his ranch. The animal was one of the best Chris had ever captured, and would certainly fill that bill.
The ride to the Davis ranch would take four days, the entire trip beyond any town or settlement. The trip wouldn't be difficult, despite the time of year. The Pass was an easy one to traverse, and the rest of the trip was over flat prairie and rolling hills. It seemed the perfect time for him to be alone with the boy he had been caring for, for the last several months. And, when he invited Vin along, the child's face said quite clearly that he had made the right decision.
JD, the other boy he and his old friend, Buck Wilmington, had fostered since settling in outside the little town, had been upset about being left out. That had been short lived, however, when Buck pointed out that they, too, would have some time alone together.
Two days after the deal was sealed, Chris and Vin rode out, Chris leading the stallion, while their mule, Jasper, trailed behind Vin, loaded with supplies. They had arrived at the Davis Ranch without incident, and were treated to the Davis Family's hospitality overnight. Chris and Lester sat on the porch, discussing horses, both with cigars in one hand and glasses of whiskey in the other. Vin made friends with the Davis children, Junior and Millicent, and played games of tag and kick the can until it became too dark to see.
The next morning, father and son rode out, Chris carrying a large bank draft and Jasper's burdens now including an apple pie, a loaf of bread and several slabs of ham to enjoy on the return trip.
They were over half way through the trip home, now, as the sun reached its peak in the sky, the blue crystal and chilled looking. "Think we should find a place to stop for a rest. What do you think, Cowboy?"
"Yep, reckon so. Think Jasper could use a break."
"Yeah? Well, maybe we can help him out and eat some more of that ham and bread. Make the load a little lighter."
"Sounds good. Hey, there's some rocks over yonder, we could settle in there."
"Hm, well, I don't know " Chris could barely hide his smile at his son's transparent suggestion. The man size boulders were calling him to climb them. No child could resist. "Maybe out there by those trees?"
Vin struggled not to look disappointed and debated his Pa's suggestion carefully. "Well, they look awful straggly, so there probably ain't no water there. There's snow over on the hills, so we've got water fer the horses if we melt it and warm it on the fire."
"Hmmm " Larabee scratched his chin as if considering the suggestion. "I see your point but, if we head for the trees, we've got a windbreak over there."
"Not as much as if we was over by the rocks."
"Well I suppose you're right. Let's head on over." He turned his horse and led the way toward the hills and the jumble of stone and boulder that sat at the foot, like an infant leaning against its mother. They were dismounting a few minutes later, Vin sliding from his pony's back and landing on the ground with a bounce.
"I can take the pan up yonder and get some snow, if ya want, Pa."
"That sounds like a plan. While you're doing that, I'll get a fire started so we can melt it." He stepped up to the mule and retrieved the large pan. Handing it over to the little boy he said, "Now, you be careful up there. The snow can make things slick."
"I will!" Vin called out a promise as he fairly skipped away toward the snow speckled hill. Behind him, Chris watched, chuckled and shook his head before going to set up a noon camp.
It wasn't until Larabee had the horses settled, a fire going, and bread warming near the fire, that he began to worry. Vin should have been back before now. Standing, he scanned the hill. Even if he went exploring, he should have returned with the snow by now, it wasn't like his son to shirk his duty. "Vin!"
After several repetitions, Chris realized that calling the boy's name wasn't going to do any good. He started off toward the hill, still calling, waiting each time, hoping that he would get a response. As he neared the top of the hill his heart was pounding; his son had yet to answer him. "VIN!"
The call seemed faint; far away, but it was still the sweetest sound he had heard in a very long time. "Where are you?"
"I'm over here I'm here Pa! Pa it hurts!"
"Where's here? Vin, I don't see you. Can you see me?"
"N-no Pa I'm scared!"
"Don't be scared, Cowboy. Keep talking to me, okay? Tell me what you do see."
"I jist see the trees and the rocks. And the snow. It's cold, Pa. I'm cold. It h-hurts, Pa, can you see me yet? It hurts and I wanna go home!"
"What hurts, Cowboy? Tell me what hurts."
"My leg, my leg hurts. I think it's broke; it l-looks funny. And my head hurts, Pa. Can you find me yet, Pa? I'm scared!"
Just as his heart was ready to explode from fear, Chris saw a tiny figure that he immediately identified as his son. Breaking into a run, he called out, "Vin! I see you!" The child was lying on the ground, near a large boulder. The worried father dropped to his knees, relief in his voice as he repeated, "I found you."
Lifting his arms, the little boy cried, "Pa! I'm sorry! I shouldn't 'a done it. I'm sorry, Pa!"
Reaching out and stroking his hand down the tear-stained, fine featured face, Chris said, "Sh, sh, it's okay, Vin. Now, let's get you back to camp, alright?" As carefully as possible, he looked the child over. There was a nasty bump along Vin's hairline and his right leg was bent at an odd angle, obviously broken. As gently as he could, he lifted his foster son into his arms, inwardly cringing at the cries it elicited. By the time he stood, Vin was clinging to him, crying loudly as the pain washed through his tiny body.
"I'm sorry, Cowboy, I'm sorry. We'll get back to camp and I'll fix you up so we can ride to Nathan's. He'll make it all better and you'll be as good as new in no time, all right? Just hold on, Cowboy, hold on." He continued talking to the whimpering boy the entire trip down the hill to their camp. Larabee knew that, now, it would be their camp until tomorrow. Vin would need a little time to gather his strength, and he would have to do whatever he could to make the injured child comfortable.
Reaching their camp, Chris settled the now semi-conscious boy near the fire long enough to make a pallet with his bedroll. Transferring Vin to the blankets, he sat back and tried to decide what to do. First he would need to immobilize the broken leg, securing it as best he could until they got back to town. Then he would need to clean the cut and tend the bump on the child's head. And there could be more injuries that were obscured by the heavy clothes.
Stroking back the long, dark blond hair, Chris said, "Vin? I've got to gather some things. We need to do what we can to fix your leg so it won't hurt as much when we start riding tomorrow."
Sniffling, the little boy nodded his head. His voice trembling, he replied, "Okay, Pa."
"Back as quick as I can."
Pushing back to his feet, Chris got the hatchet from their supplies and hurried back up the hill. There were only a few, scraggly trees along the ridge, and he moved to the nearest one. Using the hatchet, he quickly stripped the bark away in 1-2 foot lengths, and took off two of the lowest branches, trimming the leaves and twigs from them. Tucking them all under one arm, he jogged back down the hill, returning to the campsite after a quick detour to retrieve the pan Vin had had with him. Back at the campsite he found Vin dozing, drifting as the trauma of the accident took its toll. Stopping long enough to reassure his son, he moved back to the mule and dug through their supplies. He found several decent sized cloths, emptied of the food they carried, and added them to the wood. His clean handkerchief would do to clean the cut on Vin's forehead.
Next he took the pan to the nearest patch of snow and scooped up the cleaner snow on top. Bringing it back to the camp, he added more wood to the fire to build it up. He would need to warm the air as much as possible for what he was going to do next.
"Vin, this is all going to hurt, so I want you to drink a little of this." Squatting down beside the boy, he took out his hip flask and removed the cap. "It won't taste very good, but it will help with the pain."
"Th-that's whiskey," Vin had once asked Mr. Ezra about the silver container that his adopted father carried.
"Yes, and normally I wouldn't let you to drink it. But right now it will help you with the pain. Okay?"
"'Kay." Vin tried not to cry out when his father lifted him up until he was sitting. Leaning against Chris, he closed his eyes as the flask was pressed against his lips. The first taste was nastier than anything he had ever tried; even worse than Mr. Nathan's medicine. Try as he might, he couldn't choke it down, and ended up coughing until he threw it back up.
"Shi- Shoot, hang on, let me try something different." Chris settled Vin back on the bedroll and picked up a tin cup he had set out earlier. Pouring several teaspoons of alcohol in it, he added almost as much water from his canteen. Next he picked a slice of apple from the pie and dropped it, coated in sugar, into the cup. Sitting the cup beside the fire, he let it warm while he helped Vin out of his coat and examined the frail little chest and back, the spindly arms and tiny hands. To his relief, other than the beginnings of several bruises, the child's injuries seemed limited to his head and leg.
By this time the brew was warmed. Lifting Vin once more, he fed the child the sweetened concoction slowly. As the cup emptied, he was relaxing more and more. For good measure, Chris helped him eat the whiskey soaked apple slice as well. Laying him back, Chris watched as Vin's eyes rolled, unfocused, and the lids fluttered closed. A soft sigh and a series of snores let him know that the boy should sleep for a while.
Before he lost his courage, Larabee moved to the distorted leg. He carefully slit the child's jeans, part of him thankful that Vin had nearly outgrown them, anyway. Pulling the material up, he cursed at the sight of the bruised and swollen flesh. Returning his attention to the task at hand, he removed the boy's boot, which elicited a grunt from his son. Setting aside the boot, he quickly but carefully straightened the broken limb; this time rewarded by a whimper. Putting aside his feelings as a father, he set and bound the broken leg with the wood and cloth. When he was finished, he tugged the split pants leg back into place and wrapped more cloth to draw the halves back together as best as he could. Next he used his own spare pair of socks and pulled them up over Vin's foot and then over the splint. Now, more than ever, he needed to keep the child warm.
The wound on Vin's head worried him. Gently he bathed the blood away, glad at least that it was all dry. Wetting his handkerchief with whiskey, he pressed it against the bump and then bound it with another cloth. Finishing with his ministrations, he covered Vin to the chin and resigned himself to waiting for now.
He opened his eyes to find only darkness. Startled, he turned his head, nearly vomiting from the dizziness that assailed him. With relief he found the flicker of flames from the campfire, and relaxed. It was then that the pain found him, hammering at his leg and head. He cried out, calling for his father.
Chris was there, soothing him with whispered words and gentle hands. He felt himself lifted into the warm embrace, and knew that it would be all right now. "Pa I was scared. I didn't know where I was fer a minute."
"It's okay, Cowboy. You've had a big shock; it's going to take a day or two for you to feel better. Does your head hurt too badly? Your leg?"
"They hurt some, but not too bad. Can we go home, Pa? I wanna go home."
"As soon as the sun comes up, we'll head out. It's going to take a little longer to get home now, though. We won't be able to ride fast or far, it will hurt too much, and might do more damage to your leg."
Surprising even himself, Vin began to cry. "But I wanna go home!"
Feeling more helpless by the moment, Chris could do nothing more than continue to soothe the little boy.
By the time the sun lit the prairie floor, Chris had readied the mounts. He and Pony would be leading Peso and Jasper, which would in itself be a challenge. Vin's high spirited pony wasn't fond of being led, and would more than likely put up a fuss from time to time. Pitching his voice low, Larabee threatened the black horse with quick and painful death if he caused much of a fuss.
It was only after everything else was ready that he lifted Vin, blankets and all, into his arms. Rousing him only long enough to balance on the saddle, he mounted and pulled the child into his arms. Through it all, the little boy was silent, but Chris could tell that it was taking a lot out of him. One look in the child's face told him that time was of the essence. He needed to get Vin to town and Nathan's clinic as soon as possible.
"Hold tight, and holler if you need to, Cowboy. Here we go."
Vin managed to suffer through an hour riding, before it became too much. "Pa please it hurts."
Leaning down and planting a kiss on the boy's forehead, Chris replied, "Okay. There's some trees a few yards away, hold on, and we'll stop there."
They were settled in beneath a tree a short time later. Chris didn't bother to set up a camp; he just sat down with Vin in his arms. The little boy huddled, shivering, in his embrace. "Is the pain too bad, Vin? We can stop for the day if you want."
"N-no I jist need ta rest a minute. I wanna go h-home, Pa."
Stroking the long hair gently, Larabee said, "All right. But don't let it get too bad, if you need to rest, we'll rest. If there's a good moon tonight, we can ride all night if you want."
Vin was torn. If they rode all night he would be home soon, and could rest proper, in his bed. But the thought of being in the saddle for so long made him feel dizzy and weak. "I jist w-wanna be home."
"I know, son, I know. Right now, just rest. When you're ready, we'll go."
Reaching for something to keep his mind off the pain, Chris tried to come up with something to talk about. As often happened, he found his mind focusing on those few, short years, when he had enjoyed a nearly perfect life.
"Did I tell you about the first time I took Adam on a trip?"
Frowning as he tried to remember, Vin shook his head. "No."
"He was only about four, and Sarah wasn't very happy about it, but I was sure he could handle a couple days on the trail. It was a simple trip, ride out to Eagle Bend to pick up Sarah's birthday present, and ride back.
"Well, the ride went pretty well on the way to Eagle Bend. We got to town, bought the broach I'd had made special for her, with a lock of Adam's hair and one of his baby teeth in this special compartment in the back. Adam had helped me pick it out a few months earlier, when we'd all gone into town for supplies. He was very excited about getting it, and giving it to his mama on her birthday.
"We could have spent the night in town, I guess, but Adam had been asking for weeks to get to sleep outside. I figured this would be the perfect opportunity. So, even though it was only about an hour before sundown, we rode out for home.
"By the time we made camp, Adam was getting a little well, what is it Ezra says? When JD isn't too sure about something."
Rousing from a light doze, Vin frowned again as he tried to remember. "Oh! He says JD is ap-re-sense-ive."
"Yeah, that's right," He grinned at the child's mangling of the word. "Apprehensive. He was getting pretty nervous about being out under the stars."
"That's 'cause there's so many of 'em."
Starting, Chris asked, "It is?"
"Yeah. First time I seen 'em after I was on my own I was scared all night I was gonna fall right up into the sky."
"Huh, I'll be darned." He took a minute before he continued the story. "Well, anyway, he kept looking up into the sky, like he was waiting for something. Nothing I could say or do would calm him down. Finally, about the time all the stars were out and the moon was coming up, he kept getting out of his bedroll and trying to get in with me.
"Well, I wasn't real smart. I didn't figure out that he was worried about something, so I kept sending him back to his own blankets. Finally, about half way through the night, I woke up to hear him crying."
"What was he cryin' about?"
"Like you, he was scared about all those stars and that great big, old moon. He'd seen both hundreds of times before -"
"But he was safe in the house."
"Right," Chris smiled and brushed a hand over the child's hair. "Before, we'd been in the house, or close together. And, his mama had always been near."
Vin smiled and giggled softly. "Mrs. Chris prob'ly wasn't near as mean lookin'."
"Hey!" He tried to sound offended, but wasn't able to pull it off. With a chuckle, Larabee admitted, "probably, you're right."
"So what'd ya do?"
"Well, I wasn't too sure about what was going on, but I finally figured that Adam wanted to be close. So, I called him over to me, wrapped him up in the blankets, and he went right off to sleep."
"See?" Vin asked.
"Yep, you're right. After that, I always asked him what was happening. I didn't dismiss him like that ever ever again."
Vin squinted an eye open, seeing the far away look on his adopted father's face. The look that said he was thinking about them; about Mrs. Chris and Adam. "Pa?"
His memories fading into the background, Larabee looked down at the son of his heart. "Yeah, Cowboy?"
"Maybe I can ride some more. If yer ready."
"Are you sure?" When he received a nod in answer, he said, "okay then, off we go."
The trip went along like that. Ride for maybe an hour, then settle in and let the injured child relax a little. Chris discovered that, if nothing else, his stories about his life before Vin came into it, kept his son distracted from his pain. Thankfully the sky was clear that night, and the moon nearly full, allowing them to move whenever Vin felt up to it. Chris fed him a little whiskey from time to time, watered down and sweetened, to keep the edge off the pain. The child was in a semi-conscious state, less and less aware of the world around him, or the hurting of his injuries.
Morning came and went; Chris was beyond exhausted. The animals, too, were showing the wear of the constant travel. He switched from his horse to Vin's from time to time, but poor Jasper carried the same burdens no matter what. He was glad, at least, that the mule was young. He should make it home with nothing more than sore hooves and strained muscles.
At noon he stopped long enough to remove their tack and let the three animals relax for longer than a few minutes. He settled a sleeping Vin on the ground, the little boy still swaddled in the blankets. Freed of his weight, Chris groaned and stretched his back, listening to bones and joints pop in relief. With a sigh, he put together a small cook fire and set up a pot of coffee. He knew that, if he didn't allow himself and the animals a break, they would all be too exhausted to finish the journey. Vin, too, needed a rest. Despite the makeshift medication, the child's battered body was enduring far too much pain and abuse.
As if in response to his father's thoughts, Vin muttered and twitched, glassy blue eyes fluttering open half mast. "Pa?"
Kneeling beside the boy, Chris said, "Right here, Cowboy."
"No, not yet, but soon. I think we should be home by midnight, maybe earlier."
Vin began to sob. "I'm tired, Pa! I wanna be home!"
Reaching out and stroking the child's face, Chris said, "I know, buddy. I wish we were home, too. I wish I hadn't brought you out here, because you'd be safe and well. I swear, Vin, we'll be home as soon as we can."
Little Tanner wanted to argue, to admonish his father for wishing he hadn't come along. He was too exhausted, though, and he simply slipped back into unconsciousness.
Beside him, Chris sighed, and swallowed the lump in his throat. He would get Vin home if it took everything he and the animals had in them.
Buck woke; staring at the ceiling as if it would give him the answer for what had wakened him. He frowned as a sound came to him, faintly, carried on the wind. When it registered he nearly went back to sleep. After all, why should the horses wake him in the middle of the night; they didn't sound upset or frightened by anything. Then his sleepy mind realized the problem. The sound of horses was coming from the wrong direction.
Stretching out of bed, he slid his holster over one, broad shoulder, automatically loosening the Colt. Padding toward the door in stocking feet, he followed the sounds, but still nearly jumped out of his skin when a rough sounding voice called to him.
"Papa? What's wrong?"
Turning toward the little brunet, Wilmington said, "Nothing, little bit. Chris just got home earlier than I expected. Go on back to bed, all right?"
"I wanna see Chris! I wanna see Vin!"
Scooping the diminutive child into one arm, Buck said, "All right, but you wait here 'til I make certain it's just them."
With a frown, JD said, "Who else's out there, Papa? Is Mr. 'Siah with 'em?"
Standing the boy on his feet near the door, he said, "That's why I need to go out first, JD, in case it's someone we don't know."
As if that explained everything. And, Buck mused, with the clever tyke, it very well could. With a grin, the brunet said, "Good. I'll be right back."
With that he slipped out of the door, which was opened only enough to let him pass through. On the front porch he saw Chris approaching, riding a horse so tired its head hung down. "Good lord, Stud, what's goin' on?"
"Buck, can you take Vin?"
"Not certain, he fell his leg's broken and he's got a bad bump on his head. Can you go fetch Nathan for me?"
As he held the injured little boy, Buck registered how warm he was. "He runnin' a temperature?"
"I think so. Buck, I hate to ask it, but it's - "
"Never you mind. Get off that horse and get inside. I've got Vin."
"Thanks. My back's been cramped up for about an hour." He groaned as he struggled to dismount, holding onto the saddle horn for almost a full minute before moving away. With heavy, scuffing footsteps, he followed his old friend into the little house.
"VIN! What's he matter with Vin?!" JD was bouncing from foot to foot, wringing his chubby little hands. "What's wrong with him!?"
"JD, shush now, okay? I need you to go turn down Vin's bed for me, okay?" Buck spoke in soft, calm tones that didn't fit the way he was feeling, but satisfied the child of his heart.
"'Kay!" The tiny brunet scurried off before them, hurrying to do as he was told.
A soft whinny called Chris' attention. "Ah, hell, the animals - "
"I'll take care of 'em, Pard. You go gather some water and a towel, we're gonna have to get this little guy cooled down."
"Yeah, okay, I can do that." Larabee felt as if the world were spinning around him; he staggered and ran into the door facing.
"Chris, come on, Cowboy, stay with me."
"How many times do I have to tell you " Larabee grumbled, drifting off as his exhausted mind lost track of his words.
"You're not a Cowboy, yeah. Now, go get the water." Buck couldn't help but grin for a second as the other man wandered off toward the back of the house on his errand. That smile left his face as quickly as it came when the tiny bundle in his arms moaned softly. Looking down at the feverish face, the big man said reassuringly, "It's okay, Junior, ol' Buck's got ya."
"Buck?" Vin managed to blink open an eye, trying to fix his gaze on the man talking to him.
"Yep, right here, big guy. You're home and we're gonna take real good care of you, okay?"
Vin smiled, "home?"
"Yep, you got it. Home, buddy."
"Home." Vin repeated as he slipped back into unconsciousness.
Buck carried the little boy into the bedroom the two boys shared. JD, sensing that he needed to be patient, had pulled the blankets back on Vin's bed and then crawled up in his own bed. He sat, cross-legged and wide eyed, staring at the older boy that he considered a brother. As his adopted father settled Vin on the mattress, he pressed a hand over his mouth. Vin looked bad; his face was really pale, he had a white cloth wrapped around his head, and his leg looked funny. "Papa, what's wrong with Vin?"
"He got hurt out on the trail. Chris said he's got a broken leg and bumped his head. We're gonna take real good care of him, though, okay? So don't you worry, Li'l Bit."
"Okay." He chewed on his lower lip with his teeth, not wholly convinced that everything was going to be all right. Nothing looked like it was going to be all right.
Chris entered the room just as Buck had stripped Vin down to his underpants and socks; the splint looked even bigger now. Taking a deep breath, the blond carried the bucket to the head of Vin's bed and settled one of the chairs from the kitchen nearby.
Straightening, Wilmington took the other man by the shoulders. Looking into the red-rimmed eyes, he said, "Okay, you're gonna have to stay here with him and get him cooled down. I'll take care of your mounts and Jasper real quick, and then I'll head for town. I'll be back with Nathan as soon as I can."
"How shit, I can't even think how long it'll take you."
Patting his friend's shoulder, the bigger man said, "I should be back by sunup, sooner if I can. The biggest hold up will be if Nathan's not in town."
"Where is he?"
"Chris, stay with me, here. Nathan should be in town. I'll get him and get back here as soon as I can. You just focus on taking care of Vin, all right?"
"Yeah. I've been taking care of him."
Lowering the wavering man to the chair, Wilmington said, "Yeah, you have, and you've done a real good job, Pard. So you just keep doin' your job and I'm gonna do mine."
Turning, and pasting a smile on his face, Buck said, "It's gonna be fine, Li'l Bit. Look, can you do me a big favor?" When the child nodded, he said, "Good, I need you to stay awake as long as you can and talk to Chris, all right?"
"What about?" JD still sounded too little and very frightened.
"Uh anything, buddy. Why don't you tell him all we did while him and Vin were gone."
"Like how we went to town and Mr. Ezra let me play cards with him?"
"Yeah, and how you won all the peanuts."
"Papa! I'm s'posed to tell that!"
Managing a true smile now, Buck said, "All righty then, you tell him. Meanwhile I'm gonna go get Nathan so he can fix Vin all up, okay?"
"'Kay. Come back quick, okay, Papa?"
"Okay, real quick."
JD heard the sound of his adopted father riding off, and nearly cried. He was scared when he looked at Vin and scared when he looked at Uncle Chris. He wanted to curl up in his bed and go to sleep. But he had a job to do; his father had told him to talk to Chris and keep him awake. And, when he looked at his surrogate uncle, he understood why. He had a beard that had been growing for a couple days, his eyes were red-rimmed and glazed, and he didn't seem to be looking at anything. "Uncle Chris?"
Larabee jumped, startled. Slowly his brain processed what had caught him by surprised, and he turned to look at the little brunet. "Yeah?"
"Papa said for me to talk to you."
"He did?" He felt like he was looking across a canyon, everything seemed far away and dreamlike. Or like a nightmare.
"Yes. So, is that okay?"
Chris had to think hard to remember what the little boy was talking about. Finally, he said, "Sure, little bit, that's fine."
"Okay. Well, right after you and Vin left I was really sad, but Papa said it was gonna be okay, and we was gonna have fun while you and Vin was gone. So we got the chores done and then Papa said we could go fishing. So we did, and I caught a fish! Uncle Chris, it was this big!" He held his hands about six inches apart, pride in his little face. Then the expression changed, as the blond didn't turn. "Uncle Chris?"
With a frown, Larabee turned, regarding the little boy.
"I caught a fish and it was this big," JD emphasized the last two words.
"Really? That's a big fish!"
Smiling when his catch was appropriately appreciated, the little boy said, "And Papa cleaned it when we got home, and we cooked it and ate it for dinner. We had the fish and 'tatoes, and cornbread. It was real, real good. I wanted to save some for you and Vin to eat, but Papa said it wouldn't last long enough. 'Sides, it wasn't big enough for all four of us."
Chris heard the pause, and nodded, but wasn't even certain that was the appropriate response. It evidently was, since the little chatterer started talking again.
"I didn't want to go to be by myself that night, but Papa sat on Vin's bed and told me a story so it was okay. I don't think Vin would mind if Papa sat on his bed, do you?" He studied the man, waiting for an answer. "Uncle Chris?"
"Yeah? Is Vin gonna be mad at Papa for sittin' on his bed?"
The panic stricken tone in JD's voice caught Larabee's attention. "What? What's wrong, son?"
"I don't want Vin to be mad at Papa for sittin' on his bed!" The little brunet wailed the words.
"No, JD, he won't be angry. I'm sorry, I guess I'm not a very good listener tonight."
"It's 'cause you're sleepy. I could wipe Vin's sweat off him for a little while if you want to take a nap."
Smiling at the selfless offer, the exhausted father said, "I appreciate that, Little Bit. Could you sit with him for a few minutes while I get up and stretch my legs? I need to visit the privy and get some more water in the bucket, and my back's hurting."
"Okay, I can do that." Happy to be doing something more useful than talking, JD hopped off the bed and climbed onto the chair as soon as it was vacated.
Pausing to stroke a hand through the thick mop of black hair, Chris repeated, "Thanks, JD."
"You're welcome." Was the simple answer.
The cold night air brought a little more wakefulness to the troubled blond. Chris inhaled deeply, letting the cold crawl through his lungs. He stood on the back porch, staring out into the darkness. He knew he had to get back to Vin soon, but also knew that JD would call if anything happened. Pulling a cheroot from his shirt pocket, he retrieved a match and struck the head, bringing it to life. When the cigar was lit he took a long, slow drag, savoring the burning sensation that followed the chill through his lungs.
As he continued to stare out into the darkness, he watched the first star of the night come to life far above him. Marveling at it, his mind tumbled through something that was part thought and part prayer. "Vin has to get well. Please, don't let him I couldn't stand another please, make him well."
Another drag and he carefully stubbed the ember out and sat the cigar on the window sill. Picking up the bucket he had with him, he took it out to the well and filled it. That done, he did make a trip to the privy, picking the bucket up once more as he moved back toward the house. He could feel the muscles of his lower back threatening to seize up, and cursed. He couldn't take the time to tend to his own pain; he needed to get back to his son. At the back door, he paused, leaning against the frame as a muscle seized up. Reaching back, he rubbed at it impatiently, grunting as the offending muscle finally relaxed.
He limped into the boys' bedroom a minute later, smiling as he watched JD. The child was kneeling on the mattress beside his friend, wiping over the feverish body with the cloth, using both hands. As he did, he was talking to the unconscious child.
" and, Mr. Ezra said 'fold'. I didn't know what that meant, but Papa said it meant I winned the pot. Now, a pot ain't what you cook in. When you're playing poker, it means you get all the monies. 'Course we wasn't playin' for monies, we played for peanuts. So I had a BIIIIIG pile of peanuts. Mr. Ezra says I'm a nachul. Papa says that means I play poker real good for a little boy."
Shaking his head and grinning, Chris stepped into the room. "I'll take over again, little pard."
"'Kay," JD said, relinquishing his place and handing the cloth to his surrogate uncle. He went back to his bed and crawled back up on the mattress, returning to his job of working to keep the blond awake. "I was tellin' Vin about me winnin' all the peanuts when I played poker with Mr. Ezra."
Promising himself he would stay more alert, Chris said, "You did?"
"Yeah, we played a lots of hands and I had the good cards most of the time. Least that's what Mr. Ezra and Papa told me. I didn't know there was good cards. Does that mean there's bad cards, too?"
"Sort of." Already his attention was drifting. "It depends on whether the other guy has better cards than you do."
Frowning, the child said, "I don't understand. What makes somebody else's cards better than yours?"
"It depends on the number. The bigger the number, the better the card."
"But they don't all got numbers. Sometimes they got faces."
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Larabee said, "I don't think I'm explaining it very good. Maybe your Papa can explain it better."
"He tried, but he didn't 'splain it very good, neither."
"Either. Well, when Vin's feeling better, maybe you and me and Vin and your Papa can sit down and play a game. It might be easier to show you."
"Oh. Okay. Anyway, that was what we did on our second day after you and Vin left. We came back the next morning real early. Papa checked on the life-stock and they was okay. So we took the supplies into the house and put 'em away."
"Good. That's good." His mind wandered off, consumed by worry and concern for his child.
The little town was bathed in shadows when Buck arrived. Faint lights came from the Standish Tavern and Digger Dan's and, he saw, there were candles burning in the church. He didn't stop, however, heading directly for Nathan's clinic. Dismounting at the bottom of the stairs, he bounded up them two at a time. Reaching the door, he knocked, trying the knob at the same time. He sagged with relief when the lantern's light shone through the clinic's single window. A few seconds later the healer, sleepy and half dressed, opened the door. His eyes widened immediately when he saw who had disturbed his sleep.
"Buck, what is it?"
"It's Vin, Nate. Chris rode in with him this evening. He's got a busted leg, a place on his head, and he's runnin' a fever."
"Damn. Okay, you go get my horse ready, I'll gather my stuff and meet you downstairs."
"All right." With a quick nod, he turned and hurried back downstairs. As he reached the ground, he quickly reached the livery doors and rushed in. By the time he came back outside, leading Nathan's horse, the healer was just reaching the ground, his satchel slung over his shoulder. With a grim expression, he said, "Let's ride."
" Papa "
Chris frowned, shook his heavy head, and looked for the speaker. His foggy mind told him that Adam was calling for him. But that didn't make sense; Adam wasn't here never would be again.
" and then Papa "
JD. He belatedly realized that the little boy was talking. Still talking.
" when I asked if I could ride one of the horses all by myself, Papa said my legs are too short. I didn't think it was funny, but he laughed. Do you think that's funny, Uncle Chris?"
"No, but ask me again later."
"You might think it's funny later?"
With a sigh, Chris said, "I don't know, little bit. Right now I don't think anything's funny."
"I could tell you a joke; maybe that would be funny for you."
Cringing at another lame dog joke, Larabee said, "that's okay, buddy. I'm just real tired."
"It's almost mornin'."
"What?" He frowned, it couldn't be nearly morning. Then he looked up and saw that, indeed, the first hints of dawn were creeping around the edges of the shuttered window. "I'll be "
"Do you think Papa will be back soon?"
"I hope so, Little Bit I hope so."
Buck drew his first full breath as they saw the little ranch house in the light of dawn. He nudged the horse to go a little faster, the sight of home making him even more anxious than he had been since this all began. Beside him Nathan picked up the pace as well. By the time they reached the barn, JD was on the back porch.
Dismounting quickly, Buck prepared to catch the little whirlwind that flew across the yard at him. "Hey, Li'l Bit! You know you're supposed to have your boots on when you come out here. Especially as cold as it is." To emphasis his point, he squeezed one little, stockinged foot.
"I'm sorry, Papa, but I was too 'cited that you were home to 'member how to put my boots on!" Then, regarding the second adult nearby, he said hurriedly, "Mr. Nathan I'm sure glad to see you 'cause Vin don't feel good and you've gotta make him better quick as you can!"
Patting the little boy on the back, the healer said, "It's probably gonna take more than a little while, but I'll sure do my best to make him better, JD."
The trio hurried across the yard toward the little house, JD still chattering about the need to make his friend well 'quick' and retelling what he had talked to Chris about during the long night.
They entered the boys' room to find Larabee stroking a hand over Vin's pale face, talking to him in a soft voice. "Come on, Cowboy, you need to wake up I need to see those big, blue eyes. Vin, come on, son "
"Chris," Nathan tried to catch the blond's attention. "Chris, it's better for him to sleep right now. I need you to trade me places, so I can look him over."
With a frown, the worried man turned to regard his friends. "Nathan?"
"Yeah, I brought Nathan, Pard. Come on now, how about I fix you some breakfast and you get some sleep."
"No, I'm fine."
"Well, I still need you to move, so I can look him over." Nathan interjected. "Go on over and sit on JD's bed, all right?"
"Yeah " Larabee muttered as he pushed himself off the chair and shuffled over to the other bed. Groaning as he sat down, he all but collapsed onto the mattress.
"What can I do, Nathan?" Buck asked.
Turning to regard the other man, the healer noted that JD was asleep, relaxed completely against his adopted father. "How about you go put that one to bed in the other room? By the time you get him settled, I'll have a better idea of what we need to do for Vin."
With a nod, Wilmington left the room. He carried JD into his own bedroom and settled the child in his bed. Smiling at the muttered protests that leveled out to a sign and soft snores, he tucked him beneath the blankets and hurried to return to where the others were.
As he entered the room, Buck was immediately aware of two things. Chris had slumped over on the bed, finally able to give up his role of sole caregiver. On the other bed, Vin lay quiet and still, the bandage and splint having been removed. "What if he moves?"
"I gave him enough laudanum that he won't feel anything. Chris did a good job, but we need to set the leg proper."
"What about his head?"
"It's healin' fine. I wiped it with some alcohol, but other than that we'll just leave it be. Now, I need you to help me with his leg. Ain't gonna be fun, but we need to do it if he's gonna walk proper."
Taking a deep breath, the brunet said, "All right whatever you need me to do."
"First we're gonna make certain it's straight as possible. I want you to come up here and hold his hip, like this "
Chris groaned, rubbing his hand over his face and frowning when he felt the thick growth of beard. Scratching at his chin, he struggled to open gritty eyes that felt as if they had been sealed shut. Managing that, he fought to bring the blurs and shapes into focus. The boys' room? He started to turn and nearly fell off the side of the narrow bed. He had no recollection of stretching out on it, only sitting down on the mattress. But, now, he lay stretched out, a blanket spread over him.
"Good morning, sleepyhead."
With a grunt he managed to push the blanket aside and sit up. Buck was sitting in a chair beside Vin's bed. On his part the injured child was sitting up, supported by pillows. As their eyes locked, the boy smiled, and then giggled.
"You sure were sleepin', Pa."
"I guess so. How are you feeling?"
Grinning, Buck filled in the gaps in the brief conversation. "His fever broke about noon; Nathan says it happens sometimes, there doesn't look to be an infection or anything. He said you took care of him real well, that place on his hard head is healin' just right." He tweaked Vin's nose, eliciting another giggle. "We got his leg set proper, but Nate said you took good care of it, too. Mostly we just wrapped it tight and put some proper splints on it. He's gonna have to stay in bed for a while - "
"Aww, come on!" Vin interrupted, protesting his sentence of being bedridden for more than a few hours.
"But," Buck continued as if no protest had been made, "He's gonna bring the wheelchair out next week. He can ride in it 'til the bone's set."
"But the wheelchair is too big!" Vin argued.
Smiling, Chris said, "I think I can make something a little easier for you to get around in."
With a sigh and a look of relief on his little face, the injured child was satisfied. Things would be all right now. "Thanks, Pa."
Larabee found himself, as he had so often over the last few days, standing in the doorway watching his son sleep. But, tonight, sleep didn't seem to have found Vin, either. "What's wrong, Cowboy?"
In the candlelight that shown from the doorway, Vin shrugged. "I'm just not tired, Pa. I just lay here all the time and it's been days and days!" A grunt from the other bed told him that his protest had nearly wakened his roommate, so he lowered his voice. "I'm sorry, Pa."
Entering the room, Chris carefully sat on the edge of Vin's mattress. Reaching out, he stroked a hand through the tangle of dark blond locks. "I know it's hard to be still, but Nathan will be coming out the day after tomorrow. If he says it's okay, I've got your own little wheelchair ready. We'll bundle you up real good and take you out for a ride. In fact, we'll go out to the barn so you can see Peso. He's been missing you something fierce."
Rather than being cheered up, Vin seemed even more crestfallen. Worried, Larabee asked, "What's wrong, son?"
"It's all my fault! I did somethin' stupid and 'cause of that, you were scared and Uncle Buck was scared and JD was scared. And Mr. Nathan had to come all the way out here from town 'cause I got hurted, and you had to build me a special chair, and now Peso's sad " he broke off with a sob, "it's all bad and mixed up, just 'cause I was stupid!"
Taking the child's chin I his hand, Chris turned the little face toward him. "You listen to me, young man. You are not stupid and I don't want you to ever think that about yourself. What happened, happened, it was an accident -"
"No, it wasn't! I did somethin' stupid!"
"Tell me what you did, then." He stroked his hand over the child's cheeks, wiping at the tears there.
"I I when I went up on the hill? I-I did what you told me not to. I-I wasn't careful. I I wanted to see if if I could climb that big rock. And I did, Pa, but "
"But you fell."
"Yes." Tears streamed down the little boy's face even harder. "I'm s-s-sorry, Pa! I didn't mind you!"
Carefully, Chris took Vin in his arms for a hug. "Sh, sh, it's okay, pard. Vin, I'm just happy that you're gonna be fine. It's okay. Sh, shhh "
Vin felt dizzy as he moved through the little house, carried by his father. He had been lying in bed for what - to him - had been forever, and leaving his room was almost too much to bear. But, overriding everything else was pure joy and exhilaration. He wore a huge smile; even it was barely visible beneath all of the thick clothes and blankets he was swaddled in.
He was settled into the little cart his Pa had made, using a cart he modified so that Vin could be comfortable riding in it. Mr. Nathan had been there that morning and said it would be okay now, but he would have to use it for the next month or so, to make certain his leg was healed. That sounded like a very long time to him, but at least he could leave his bedroom.
The little boy marveled at the plank walk, made of fresh cut lumber that extended from the back of the house to the barn. "You did this just for me?"
Kneeling beside the cart, Chris looked him straight in the eye. "We all made it. Me, Uncle Buck, Mr. Josiah, Mr. Nathan, even Mr. Ezra. Mr. Yosemite and his brother Tiny helped, as did Mr. Francis. JD helped as well." He left out that JD's contribution had consisted of collecting bent and otherwise discarded nails. They had constructed each section in the barn, out of the weather, and brought them out to place them as a path through the alternatively muddy and frozen ground. It would keep the cart from being bogged down, and wouldn't bounce the precious cargo too much.
"All for me?" Vin's voice trembled and he fought back another wave of tears.
"Yes, for you. Because we love you and we'll do anything for you, Cowboy. Anything that will keep you safe and well."
Leaning up, Vin wrapped his little arms around his father's neck. "Oh, Pa! Thank you thank ever'body!"
Rubbing circles over his son's back, Chris simply held him while the emotions flooded through, and out of, the little body. Silently, he sent up a prayer of thanks. They were home, and Vin would recover. Things would soon be back to normal. Clearing his own constricted throat, Larabee said, "Okay, now. How about we go see that crazy horse of yours?"
With a giggle, Vin said, "Pa, he's not crazy! He's just just high spir'ted!"
Rolling his eyes as he stood and took control of the makeshift wheelchair, Chris began to push it over the boardwalk. "You've been listening to Mr. Ezra again, haven't you?" His only response was another giggle.
Next - Drawing Home by Joy K