For I Was A Stranger

by Estee

Notes: Happy Birthday, Joy! I thought this might be less painful than if I were to sing Happy Birthday to you. J Thank you so much for all the things you do!

(and thanks Marnie, for helping me out, again!)

When he thought real hard, he could still remember what Christmas had been like before his momma died. They had never had fancy trees or decorations, but he remembered it being a special time, nonetheless.

Even now, he could hear the sound of his momma’s voice as she sang songs about angels, and shepherds and baby Jesus. Back then, he hadn’t known all the words, but when he’d sung the few that he could, his momma had always smiled. She’d had such a sweet, sweet smile, and her eyes had always been filled with love.

There were other things he remembered, too, like the big trunk that sat beside her bed and the wonderful treasures it contained. The little wooden statues of the shepherds and animals, the angels and the wise men and baby Jesus lying in the manger with His momma Mary and daddy Joseph looking down on Him.

Course Vin knew that Jesus’ real daddy was God in Heaven, but God picked Joseph to look out for Jesus and take care of Him here on earth. His momma had told him Joseph was special and God picked him ‘cause he knew that Joseph would take care of Jesus and love Him as much as his own son.

Probably a lot like the way Chris and Buck took care of him and JD, he thought.

For more than two years now, Vin and JD had been living with Chris and Buck. Although he tried not to think too much about what their lives had been like before that time, he doubted he’d ever forget what it felt like to be cold, hungry and scared. Chris had told him that getting through times like that made you stronger. He said it wasn’t good to dwell on the bad stuff and let it make you bitter, but we ought not ever forget the hard times we been through.

Chris and Buck had given the boys a home, food, clothes, and maybe most importantly, love. They made sure they were safe and well and taught them all the things they needed to know, like to always do the right thing, even when it isn’t easy.

Both boys knew they could always count on Chris and Buck to be there when they needed them. Vin just wished they knew, right then, how much he needed them.

He dipped the rag into the cool water again and gently dabbed at his Uncle Ezra’s face. A little while ago, his uncle had woken up and blinked his eyes, like he wasn’t sure where he was. Then he’d coughed and coughed until Vin thought for sure something terrible was going to happen, but he’d fallen back to sleep, thankfully still breathing.

Vin sighed. He needed to go get help, but he was afraid to leave Uncle Ezra. What if he left and his uncle needed him? But, what if he stayed put and his uncle just got sicker? Maybe there was something else he should be doing . . . but what? He didn’t like to think he was too little to handle certain situations, but this one was completely out of his realm. Truth was, whether he wanted to leave Uncle Ezra or not, he was going to have to go find help somewhere.

Once more he dipped the cloth into the basin of water and swiped it across Ezra’s forehead and down his cheeks and neck. He lay his palm against the man’s cheek, disheartened that his skin still felt so hot. Maybe it was too hot in the cabin? Vin wiped a sleeve over his own sweaty brow. Maybe he should open a window? No, that probably would make things worse. He folded the cloth and draped it across his uncle’s forehead. It was time to go get help, he decided, and that’s all there was to it.

After refilling the pitcher, he carried it back into the room, only sloshing water over the side once along the way. Carefully, he poured a glass of water and left it on the nightstand, where his uncle could reach it if he woke up thirsty.

As he headed for the barn, he went over the things he needed to do. First, he had to get Peso saddled which would be no small feat. He was feeling tired and fairly worn out; he’d been so worried about Uncle Ezra last night that he’d barely slept at all.

Uncle Nathan was closest, but Vin knew that he was already taking care of other sick folks. Besides, Uncle Nathan didn’t have any medicine. That’s the whole reason Buck had gone to Eagle Bend, and the reason Chris and Josiah had gone after him. He figured it made more sense for him to head for Eagle Bend, that way he could bring back Chris and the medicine at the same time.

Vin had been to Eagle Bend a time or two before. It wasn’t that far away and it was possible that Chris, Buck and JD were already on their way home. Hopefully, if he stuck to the road, he’d meet them on the way and they’d all be back by nightfall.

Ezra woke up feeling feverish and disoriented. It took a moment or two before he realized where he was, but he had no idea where Chris, or Buck or anyone else was. He tried to sit up, but found his muscles completely uncooperative. Beside the bed – which wasn’t very comfortable, to say the least – was a pitcher and basin, and a glass of water. He reached a shaky hand out for the glass of water, thankful when he managed to bring it to his lips without spilling any.

The cabin was extremely small, in spite of the recent additions, and at the moment it was also extremely quiet. Apparently he was alone, but how had he gotten here, he wondered. And where were his friends, where were the boys? Any other time he would welcome the silence, but now it disturbed him for some reason. Something was wrong, he just knew it . . . and then everything came rushing back to him.

Buck had taken JD with him to Eagle Bend. They’d needed to get some medicine from the doctor there. A few of the townsfolk had taken ill and Nathan was running low on quinine. The day after Buck and JD left, several more people were stricken with the illness.

Late in the afternoon, they’d received a wire from Buck telling them that he was having difficulty getting the medicine they needed. Apparently, the illness had hit Eagle Bend even worse than Four Corners. That’s when Chris had sent Ezra and Vin out to the ranch, with plans for him and Josiah to ride out and see what they could do to help Buck.

Ezra was having a bit of difficulty remembering for certain which day he had come out with Vin. Had they been there for two days or three, he wondered, and for that matter, where was Vin?

Whatever the illness was, it had hit him fast and without warning. He could only hope that wherever Vin was, he wasn’t sick. “Vin,” he called out, his voice sounding weak, even to his own ears. There was no reply, so he pushed himself upright, trying to fight off the dizziness he felt. His head was pounding, his chest burning and he felt as if he had no strength whatsoever in his limbs; he couldn’t remember ever feeling this horrible. “Vin!” he called out again, he squeezed his eyelids shut, trying desperately to hold off the encroaching darkness.

Somehow he managed to get his legs to hold him up and then carry him to the doorway. There, he held onto the frame and looked out at the empty main room. There was no sign of Vin, or anyone else. No sign that anyone had been there all day. He pushed off of the doorframe and staggered to the front door, then out to the porch that he’d help build. A cool breeze hit him, ruffling through his hair and over his skin, invigorating him, if only temporarily.

“Vin!” he shouted, sending himself into another coughing spell. His throat felt like it was on fire, and his head began pounding immediately. His discomfort was unimportant to him at the moment, however. He needed to check the barn and see if Vin was there -- if Vin’s horse was there. His head spun and his legs seemed to give out on him; he had to grab hold of the porch rail and lower himself to the steps. Okay, he told himself, first things first. He needed to go back inside and put his boots on, perhaps get a drink of water, and then he’d be ready to search for Vin . . ..

Vin looked out over the barren landscape, wondering how far he’d gone. There was hill after hill, as far as he could see. Once he rode up one, there was another on the horizon. By the position of the sun, he figured it was early afternoon and he knew Eagle Bend was several hours further ahead. At the top of the next hill he spotted a small figure that had to be a person walking. He tapped his heels against Peso’s flanks, urging the horse to go a little faster. Why in the world would someone be walking out here, in the middle of nowhere?

Once he made it half way up the next hill, he could distinguish that the stranger walking was actually a boy and he couldn’t help wonder what a boy would be doing alone out here. Maybe he’d been on a stage that had turned over or been robbed? Pulling in the reins he slowed his horse when the boy stopped in the middle of the road to stare up at him. “Howdy,” he said, hoping that he didn’t frighten the boy. He didn’t look too much older than Vin, and he was dressed kinda funny – defintely a city slicker.

Climbing off of Peso, Vin took his hat off and said, “Name’s Vin.”

The other boy nodded, his eyes a little wary. “Ethan,” he replied, also removing his hat.

“Glad to meet ya, Ethan.” Vin smiled then glanced down the road. He was feeling a little uncomfortable about prying into someone else’s business, but if the boy was in some sort of trouble, well, how else was he to find out? “How comes you’re out here walking all by yourself?”

“I could ask the same of you,” Ethan responded in a deep, southern accent that for some reason made Vin relax.

“Yeah, reckon you could, ‘cept I ain’t walkin’ and you are.”

A grin crept across the boy’s face, as he met Vin’s eye. “Touche,” he replied, although Vin had no idea what that meant. The boy flicked a speck of something from the brim of his hat then placed it back on his head. He put his hands on his hips and turned to look back the way he’d come. “The reason I am walking is because, for some reason, a gang of hooligans decided to amuse themselves by chasing me out of the town I was visiting. I’m fairly certain they’re still after me, although I haven’t actually seen them in a while.”

Vin looked out at the winding road, in the direction the boy had come from. There was no sign of anyone as far as he could see. Then he looked up to the sky, pretty certain the swirling, gray clouds meant they were going to get some sort of weather -- by the low temperature, maybe even snow. He turned speculative eyes on the boy, who was a little taller than he was, most likely a few years older. Vin thought he had a kind of mischievous look about him . . . but still, he found it hard to believe anyone would be chasing a kid all the way out here -- unless he did something real bad. “Why was they chasin’ you?” he asked, sounding a little suspicious.

Ethan stared at him for a moment, like he couldn’t believe he’d been asked the question. “Why? I have no idea why. I was in Eagle Bend waiting for my mother, who was scheduled to arrive on tomorrow’s . . . make that today’s stage . . .” he frowned, looking perplexed. “Of course, they’re not allowing the stage to stop there at the moment, so I have no idea where Mother has been detoured. Anyway, I was innocently entertaining myself in the hotel lobby, doing absolutely nothing wrong, when this gang of miscreants--” The explanation suddenly halted, and the boy laughed derisively. “They actually accused me of bringing the plague to their little municipality! It’s completely ridiculous. I’ve never been sick a day in my life. Besides, I know for a fact that a few of the citizens had already taken ill before I’d even arrived. Regardless of that, they obviously felt that I would make a convenient scapegoat, and thus, after a few derisive remarks concerning my parentage, they felt compelled to run me out of their quaint little town.”

Although Vin had only known the boy for a few minutes, it was easy to tell that he liked the sound of his own voice. “They ran ya outta town . . . and then they kept chasin’ after ya?” he asked, dubiously.

“Well, apparently it wasn’t until after I was outside the city limits that they remembered the quarantine they’d just put in place,” he said with a chuckle. “Cretins.”

“Quarantine?” Vin repeated, now worried that Chris, Buck and JD would be stuck in Eagle Bend until the quarantine was over.

“Yes, they enacted it an hour or so before I was so crudely escorted beyond their city limits.”

“Great,” he looked up to the sky, wondering what to do. Chris and Josiah had been gone for three days. Had they been stuck there, because of the quarantine? Of course, that sort of depended on when the quarantine began, and when or if they’d even left town. “How long you been walkin’?” he asked, hoping a time frame would be able to help his estimations.

“Since yesterday.”

”You been walkin’ all night?” Vin could hardly believe it. This kid sure didn’t strike him as the hearty, outdoors type. Not to mention it had been near freezing out last night, and he had no gear, nothing at all but the dandy jacket he was wearing. “All by yourself?”

Ethan laughed haughtily. “I assure you, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

“Yeah, but . . .weren’t ya cold?” Vin was cold himself, and he had two shirts and a hide coat -- and he’d only been riding a few hours.

“F-freezing,” Ethan said, shivering for effect. “However, last night I was able to make a fire and avoid what could have been my untimely demise. As for today, well . . . as long as I keep movin’ it’s not too bad.”

Vin nodded, impressed that the city boy even knew how to make a fire, but still . . .. He narrowed his eyes appraisingly. “Ya weren’t scared?”

The boy scoffed, “I fear nothing.”

Vin raised an eyebrow, looking doubtful even though he couldn’t help feeling a little admiration for the boy. Probably anyone would have been scared in that situation, even a grown up. Vin would have been plenty scared, himself. And just like Ethan, he woulda never admitted it.

“Well, I’m on my way to Eagle Bend. I’ll be comin’ back this way, afterwards. You’re welcome to ride along.”

“You mean, you want me to go back there?”

Vin shrugged a shoulder. “I reckon it’s better than walking along this road, all by yourself.”

“I can’t go back there. Who knows what they’ll do to me?”

“You’ll be okay. I might not even have to go all the way to Eagle Bend. I’m expectin’ to meet someone on the road ‘tween here and there. Leastways, I’m hopin’ to meet them.”

“Who are you expecting to meet, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Chris and Buck and my little cousin, JD. Chris and Buck took me and JD in, a while back. They’re lawmen in Four Corners. Don’t worry, they won’t let nobody hurt you.”

Ethan seemed to think on the offer, then he pulled a fancy wallet from inside his jacket. “Listen, if you take me to Four Corners, I’ll make it worth your while.”

It suddenly occurred to Vin that the boy didn’t have to offer him anything. He was bigger than Vin and despite his fancy clothes and uppity manner he could probably overpower Vin and take off on his horse, if that’s what he had a mind to do. Well, if it came to that, Vin would give him one hell, er, heck of a fight. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I gotta hurry. My uncle’s back at our cabin and real sick. Chris and Buck are supposed to have some medicine from the doc in Eagle Bend. My uncle needs it real bad.”

Ethan’s green eyes studied him for a moment, seeming to look right through him. Then he slipped his wallet back into his coat and looked up at the sky for a moment before asking, “How far away is your cabin?”

Vin wasn’t sure whether or not he should give out that information, but he felt kind of sorry for the boy. “It’s back there, a ways,” he said, reluctantly.

The boy rolled his eyes. “How far? Is it close enough that perhaps you could take me there and then ride out for Eagle Bend?”

Vin thought about that for a second before shaking his head. “I don’t think so.” That would mean he’d lose a good 2 or 3 hours . . . and he’d be lucky if there was even that much daylight left.

Ethan nodded, wrapping his arms around himself and shivering a little. “All right, I understand. I appreciate your offer, but I feel it would not be prudent for me to return to that barbaric place. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”

Vin nodded. “I’ll look for ya when we come back this way. And, Chris or Buck could prob’ly help ya track down your ma.” He wished he had packed a blanket or bedroll, or even a canteen of water. Unfortunately, he didn’t have anything he could offer the boy. He’d foolishly left everything behind, planning to ride through the night without stopping, if that’s what it took.

As he climbed back up in the saddle and took hold of the reins, Ethan sneezed then sniffled, making Vin feel even more guilty about leaving him. “Are ya sure you don’t want to ride along?” he tried once more. “It’ll be warmer, and leastwise things don’t seem as bad when ya got company.”

“No, thank you kindly, though.” The boy, his arms still wrapped around his torso, started walking in the opposite direction.

Vin watched him for a few moments before turning Peso and heading the other way. For some reason, he found it very hard to ride away from the boy. He reminded himself that he was on a mission, of sorts. It was important that he find Chris and Buck -- Uncle Ezra needed them. The image of Uncle Ezra lying in Chris’ bed, fevered and coughing, barely able to open his eyes, helped motivate him -- for a few minutes anyway.

Reluctantly, he admitted to himself that there wasn’t much need for him to go after them, to hurry them along, since that was what Chris and Josiah were supposed to be doing. But, what if they were in some kind of trouble? Vin thought about that for a minute, then realized he didn’t even have a shotgun with him. What did he plan on doing if they were in trouble?

Okay, so maybe he should take Ethan back to the cabin and wait until morning. Then if he needed to go after them, he could at least be a little better prepared. But, what if it was too late by then?

Flakes of snow had started to fall and it was cold enough that he could see his breath, and Peso’s as well. He paused to look over his shoulder at the small, solitary figure walking along the side of the road, and immediately knew that Chris would never let that boy keep walking. Neither would Buck, or any of his uncles, especially Ezra. The right thing to do would be to take the boy back to the cabin, make sure he was warm and out of the weather. If Chris and Buck weren’t back in the morning, then he could ride for Eagle Bend.

“Woo-wee! That boy was not happy at all.”

“He’ll be fine,” Chris said in a reassuring voice. “It’s not like we had a lot of other options.”

“Yeah,” Buck agreed, although it was obvious he regretted having to leave JD behind. “Maybe we should have rode to town with Josiah and the doc? Make sure nobody gives ‘em any trouble?”

“I doubt things are as bad as they were in Eagle Bend.”

“Yeah, ‘spect you’re right.”

“Unless everyone’s lost their senses, they aren’t gonna look a gift horse in the mouth,” Chris said, then added with a wry grin, “or shoot it.”

The two were quiet for a few minutes, trying to keep a steady pace, without overtaxing the horses. Chris’ horse needed a break even more than Buck’s did and the thin layer of snow now sticking to the ground was making things slick. “Can’t believe this weather,” Buck muttered. The rate of snow falling seemed to increase by the minute.

Just as they rode into the yard the wind picked up, making the snow swirl around like white, powdery dust devils. Both men noticed right away that cabin was dark and there was no smoke rising from the chimney. What was going on? Chris wondered. Where were Vin and Ezra?

They tied their horses to the porch rail instead of putting them up for the night, in case they had to go out again. Chris opened the door, hesitating for just a moment as he struggled to push away the old images of another place, and another time he’d gone away and left his family home alone.

It was some little relief to find Ezra inside, but their relief was short lived. Ezra was asleep in Chris’ bed, which was strange to say the least, but what really scared them was that Vin was nowhere to be found.

“I’ll check the barn,” Buck offered, turning to head back out the door. The barn was empty except for Ezra’s horse and their few livestock. Both Vin and Peso were gone. Buck checked around the yard, but the snow was coming down even harder now and he could find no tracks to hint where the boy might have gone, so he hurried back inside.

“Maybe he went to town to get Nathan?” Buck suggested, as he piled split wood into the fireplace. Of course both men knew that scenario didn’t add up well. The house was cold; the fire had been out for some time, which meant Vin had been gone for some time. If he’d only gone to town, he should have been back already.

“He could have,” Chris replied, distractedly from the chair by Ezra’s – his – bed. He stared at Ezra for a long moment then turned to Buck, meeting his eyes. “But I got a feeling that he headed for Eagle Bend.”

“That’s a long way, Chris.” Buck stood up and brushed his hands on his pants. “You think he would have rode all that way to find us?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, if he got scared? If he wanted to make sure we brought the quinine out here for Ezra, instead of taking it to town?”

“Did you try waking up Ezra?” Buck gestured toward the man in the bed.

“Yeah, he’s really out of it, though.” Chris leaned closer and patted Ezra’s cheek, again. “Come on, Ezra, I need you to wake up.”

“Ezra,” Buck tried, a little more loudly. “Come on, Ez, we need to find Vin.”

“Vin?” Ezra looked up, his eyes unfocused.

“Yeah, pard,” Chris smiled grimly. “Do you know where Vin went?”

“Vin’s uh . . .?” He shook his head then began blinking his eyes and trying to push himself upright.

“No, stay still. You’re sick, Ezra.” Chris pushed him gently back down onto the bed. “Do you know where Vin went?” he tried again.

“Vin . . . I couldn’t find him,” Ezra mumbled, his voice sounding desperate. “Need to find Vin.” On the last word, he began coughing harshly. Chris and Buck helped him to sit up and after long minutes of coughing and gasping for breath, he finally settled, slumping against Chris in exhaustion.

“Damn,” Chris said as Buck helped him lower Ezra back onto the pillows. “He’s out. I don’t think he knows anything anyway. He never would have let Vin ride anywhere alone.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Ezra might put on a good show for the rest of the world, but when it came to Vin and JD he was as caring and nurturing as any of them. Maybe more so because of his own largely unsupervised childhood. “What do you want to do, Chris?” Buck started pacing nervously. “You want me to ride into town and see if I can find him? Or should I head for Eagle Bend?” He went to the window and pulled back the curtain. “Look at that snow come down. It’s too damn cold out there to wait until morning. We got to find him soon.”

“We’ll both go. You head for town, and I’ll head for Eagle Bend.”

“What about Ezra? He shouldn’t be left alone.”

Chris studied Ezra for a long moment then stood up. “Yeah, you’re right. Someone should be here anyway. In case he comes back here.”

“How about I head for Eagle Bend? If he went to town, he’d probably be with Nate, or Josiah by now.”

“I hate to even think of him riding all the way to Eagle Bend, all by himself.”

Buck put his coat back on and grabbed a pair of gloves. “I’ll put our horses up and use Ezra’s. Why don’t you put some coffee on? I think I’m going to need something to warm me up before I go back out there.”

Chris nodded, watching as Buck headed out for the barn. He hated the idea of sitting around, doing nothing, but someone had to stay with Ezra. And for all they knew, Vin could come riding up any minute. Wherever he was, Chris hoped he was warm, and safe. Please let him be safe.

Vin rode back down the hill toward Ethan, who apparently heard him coming and looked over his shoulder then promptly stumbled and fell.

“Are you okay?” he asked, sliding down from the saddle to help the other boy.

The boy, Ethan, didn’t answer right away. He just sat clutching his ankle.

Vin kneeled beside him, trying to get a look. He hoped it wasn’t broken or anything, ‘cause he didn’t know the first thing about setting bones and such. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to tell if it was broken.

Just as Vin opened his mouth to ask again, Ethan looked up at the sky, and shouted, “Could this day get any worse?”

Vin wondered if he was shoutin’ at any one in particular. “My uncle always says that’s a question one should never dare pose.” Vin wasn’t sure what pose meant, but he thought maybe it was a fancy word for ask.

“Yes, well, I’ll have to remember that.”

“Come on, I’ll give ya a ride back to the ranch.” Vin stood up then helped Ethan up, too.

“Ow,” the boy said when he tried to test his weight on the injured ankle.

“Best not do that, or ya might make it worse,” Vin instructed.

“Thank you for that oracle of wisdom,” Ethan said, giving him a condescending look. “I appreciate your offer, but I thought you said you were on some important errand?”

“I reckon I can run you back to the ranch first. Wouldn’t want to leave you out in the weather.” The snow flakes were coming down more steadily now, and the wind had picked up a little, too.

“I appreciate that,” the boy said seriously, then glanced up at the horse. “I’ll drive.”

Vin gave him an incredulous look. “Nuh-uh.”

Nuh-uh?” Ethan mimicked the word derisively.

Vin just shook his head. “My horse.”

“My horse,” Ethan mocked him again, which brought a slight grin to Vin’s face. “I’m older than you, therefore I should drive,” he stated with an air of authority.

Vin rolled his eyes. “My horse, therefore I drive. Besides, you don’t even know where to go.”

Ethan made a sound of dismissal, then dug in his pocket and pulled out a coin. “How ‘bout we flip for it? I call heads.”

Vin’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Let me see that coin, first.”

“Whatever for?” Ethan replied, deftly flipping the copper coin into the air.

In a move that obviously surprised and impressed Ethan, Vin snatched the coin in mid air. Sure enough, it was a two-headed mule, just like one his Uncle Ezra carried around. In fact, now that he thought about it, this boy reminded him a lot of his uncle, except he loved Uncle Ezra and the boy was plain getting on his nerves. “Just like I thought.” He nodded smugly and flipped the coin back to Ethan. “I’m driving,” he said firmly. “You want a ride, you hop on back.”

”Fine,” Ethan said, throwing his arms up in exasperation. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you to respect your elders?”

Vin ignored the comment and let the boy use his shoulder to boost himself into the saddle, then carefully climbed in front. Ethan might be his elder, but Vin had his pride, too. No way was he ridin’ in back on his own horse.

“Sorry I can’t take ya all the way to town, but you can stay at the cabin ‘til I get back with Chris and Buck,” Vin said as they started back down the road.

“As long as it has a roof and it’s warm,” Ethan said, sounding grateful.

“It’s warm, and has a roof.”

“And food?”

“Sure, we got food.”

“Good, I could really use a nice hot meal.”

Vin hesitated, chewing his lip. He didn’t want the older boy to think he was a baby, but the truth was, “Uh, I ain’t ‘xactly allowed to use the stove.”

Ethan snorted. “Figures. I suppose there are no servants either?”

“Servants?” Vin glanced over his shoulder in disbelief.

“Yes, servants.” Ethan rolled his eyes. “As in someone to cook and clean?”

“We all take turns doin’ that. We don’t need no servants.”

“Great, I suppose you don’t even have indoor plumbing?”

“We got indoor plumbin’,” Vin answered defensively. He was pretty sure the pump Chris had rigged up at the sink was considered indoor plumbing. “Most fellers would be grateful just to be out of the cold.”

Ethan didn’t say anything for several minutes, then he said in a quiet voice, “I am grateful to you, Vin.”

Vin could feel the boy shivering so he snapped the reins, urging Peso to go a little faster. “My Uncle Nathan’s a healer. Maybe he can take a look at your ankle, too.” If Nathan couldn’t come, maybe Buck could fix it up . . . as soon as Vin found them. Not that Buck was particularly gifted at healing, but he knew a thing or two, and he was always good at cheering ya up and making ya forget whatever was paining ya. That was a special gift in itself.

“You certainly have a lot of uncles.”

“Yeah.” Thinking about his uncles always brought a smile to his face. A couple years ago, the only family he had was JD, and he’d been thankful for that. Now, he was blessed to have more family than he’d ever had before, and the thought of it still amazed him.

The snow was coming down pretty hard now and the wind was whipping it in their faces. It was hard to see where he was going, which worried Vin. He hoped Chris and Buck and JD were somewhere warm and safe and not out in this weather. Even if that meant they were still in Eagle Bend.

Chris set the coffee pot on the stove and went to check on Ezra. He was coughing some, but other than that, he seemed to be sleeping soundly. The pillow and blankets were damp, although when he laid his hand against Ezra’s forehead it didn’t seem quite as hot as it had been when they’d first arrived. Maybe the fever was breaking?

He opened the chest to get some fresh bedding, wishing there was a way to change it without disturbing Ezra. He didn’t think there was, but he figured it’d be worth it anyway. Ezra would be a lot more comfortable with clean bedding.

He managed to get Ezra up and sitting in a chair while he quickly changed the sheet and pillowcase. He also got the man to drink some water, which had to be a good thing. He only wished he had some tea, or something that would help the rattling he could hear in the man’s lungs. It wasn’t long before he had Ezra back in bed, covered with warm dry blankets.

“Thank you, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said with a sigh then he opened his eyes as if suddenly becoming aware of everything. “Vin?” he asked, his brow creased with worry.

“Buck’s heading out to look for him,” Chris said, pushing him back down when it looked like he was trying to get out of bed. “Don’t worry, Buck’ll find him.”

“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t even realize I was ill. It just . . . hit me, all of a sudden. I can barely remember anything after arriving here . . . the day before yesterday?”

“More like three days ago.”

“Good Lord.”

“Doc Carter thinks it’s Influenza. They lost a few folks over in Eagle Bend, mostly older folks, but he thinks it’s past, for the most part. There were no new cases by the time we left.” He could hear Buck outside now. He must be ready to go. “By the way, if you don’t mind, Buck’s gonna borrow that fancy mule of yours.”

“Of course I don’t mind.”

They heard the door open and Buck stomp his feet. Chris leaned through the doorway, a wry smile on his face. “You’re supposed to do that outside, big guy.”

Buck looked down at the snow he’d just brought in. “Oops, sorry.” But Chris didn’t think he was too sorry. “It’s colder than a--”

“Don’t even say it,” Chris cut him off, not in the mood to hear any of Buck’s colloquialisms for the weather.

Buck just grinned at him then nodded to the stove. “That coffee ready yet?”

“Yes.” Chris halted the big man before he could cross to the stove then pulled out a chair and pushed Buck down into it. “Here.” He set a mug of coffee down on the table. “Just stay there,” he ordered, then grabbed the broom and started sweeping the snow toward the door. “You’re as bad as a kid, tracking snow all over the place.”

Buck couldn’t keep from chuckling. “Sorry about that, Miz Nettie.”

“If I was Miz Nettie, more than likely, you’d have this broom up your—“

“Ah! Don’t say it!” It was Buck’s turn to cut him off, but he was still grinning as he cautiously sipped the hot coffee. The instant he saw Chris glance worriedly at the window, the grin faded and he set the mug back on the table. “Well, I reckon I best get going.”

Chris looked away from the window, his eyes meeting Buck’s. “Drink your coffee first. It’ll warm you up some.”

Buck nodded, taking another sip.

“Buck . . ..”


Chris just stared down at the table for a long moment then shook his head. “Nothing. Never mind.”

Buck had already known what his friend was thinking. “Don’t worry, Chris. I’ll find him.”

It was snowing and blowing badly enough that Vin didn’t even realize he was home until he saw the light in the window. He slid off his horse and led it up to the porch, and then it dawned on him that there was a light in the window! Did that mean Ezra was better? Ezra’s horse was tied to the rail, so Vin figured he must be feeling better. Or else he’d noticed that Vin was gone and even though he was still real sick he was planning to go out looking for him. It was a good thing he’d come back, because even if Ezra was feeling better, Vin was sure he shouldn’t be going out in the cold already.

“Can ya get down?” he asked Ethan, who was still up in the saddle.

When Ethan attempted to move his injured leg, he winced. “I’m not sure. It’s really hurting. Is there someone inside who could come out and help me?”

“Yeah, hold on a minute. I’ll be right back.” And suddenly his legs felt like they each weighed a ton. Everything seemed to move too slowly and he found he was barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Somehow, he made it to the porch, but the world around him started to tilt and spin. He blinked, trying to stay focused. What was wrong with him? He was so close, all he had to do was step up – but his legs just wouldn’t cooperate. Then he was falling, the snow biting at his exposed skin as he landed on his hands and knees, then he pitched forward and everything . . . the horses, the porch, the light in the window . . . and Ethan blurred and faded away.

While Buck was donning an extra pair of socks and long johns, Chris gazed into the fire, thinking back to when they’d first found Vin and JD. He remembered looking into a pair of solemn, blue eyes and feeling as if he already knew the boy. Still, he had tried so hard to emotionally distance himself from the boys, to the point that he’d almost fooled himself.

As for Buck, it was like he’d fallen under a spell. Right from the start, he’d made it no secret that he wanted to keep them both. Chris had remained stubborn, insisting it was in their best interest to find them a family, or families. Now, just the thought of losing one of the boys sent a spike of pain through his chest. He thanked God that he’d never carried through with his original intentions.

The boys had somehow managed to restore his soul, to give him a reason to start living again, and to make sure he was living right, so he could be the best example possible. The same went for Buck. While he was still -- and probably always would be -- fond of the ladies, that all came second, after his responsibilities to the boys, and the ranch. Finding these two children had changed their lives, maybe it had even been their salvation. Surely God wouldn’t take one of them away so soon?

A loud thump from out on the porch startled him and slid his Colt from its holster.

Buck had heard it too, and was out of his room at the same time Chris was edging toward the door. It could be that the wind had knocked something over, but neither man was in the habit of taking chances. Drawing his gun from the belt he’d hung on the wall, Buck moved to the other side of the door, giving a nod that he was ready.

Slowly, Chris reached out with his left hand. In a quick motion, he twisted the door handle and pulled the door open. The last thing they’d expected to find was Vin, lying face down in the snow.

“Shit.” Both men swore then tucked their guns away in unison. Chris was the first to reach Vin and carefully roll him over.

Buck glanced up and noticed that the boy had managed to hitch his horse next to Ezra’s, but apparently he hadn’t been able to get much past that. He noticed Chris seemed unable to do anything other than stare into Vin’s face, as if he couldn’t believe it was really him. “Come on, Chris. Let’s get him inside.”

Carefully, Chris lifted Vin into his arms, as if he were a fragile treasure. “He’s so cold,” he said, as he carried the boy through the door and over to the hearth.

Buck took one more look around, thinking that he ought to get the horses into the barn, and then deciding they could wait a few more minutes. He might need to ride to town, but he wouldn’t know until they got a good look at Vin. “I’ll get some blankets,” he offered, after shutting the door.

By the time he had the blankets out of the old trunk, Ezra was up, albeit unsteadily, and standing in the doorway staring down at Vin. Chris had already removed the boy’s hide coat and was working off his small boots. The coat and boots were saturated, along with the rest of his clothes. Buck stepped around Ezra, giving his shoulder a squeeze as he passed. He set two wool blankets beside Chris then hurried for the boys’ room to get some fresh long johns, and anything else he could think of on the way.

“Chris?” Vin’s small voice was a welcome sound. Chris brushed the long bangs back from his forehead and frowned as he laid his palm against the boy’s forehead. His hands were cold and his cheeks were cool, yet rosy. His forehead felt way too hot, though. Still, he managed to give the boy a smile when he saw the bright blue eyes looking up at him.

“Hey, there, son,” he said quietly. “You had us scared for a while there. We didn’t know where you were.”

Vin seemed to think on that for a minute, then he licked his lips and frowned. “Was lookin’ for you.”

Now wasn’t the time to discuss whether or not Vin should have gone out searching for them, alone. “Yeah, we kind of figured that. It’s a good thing you decided to come home. It’s pretty nasty outside.”

“Where’s Ethan?”

Chris stilled, looking puzzled. “Who?”

“Ethan. He hurt his foot. Might be broke.” Vin looked around the room and then with a sigh, his eyelids slowly closed. Chris resumed stroking the too warm forehead. He had no idea what Vin was talking about. There hadn’t been anybody else with him when they’d found him outside, had there?


“Yeah, pard?” Buck came out of the boys’ room with a pair of clean long johns and a nightshirt.

“Could you go take a look outside and make sure nobody’s out there? Vin said something about someone else, who might be hurt. I don’t know if it’s the fever talking or what.”

“Sure thing, Chris.” Buck handed him the clothing and grabbed his coat off the hook again. “Do you need me to ride into town and get Nathan?”

“Nah, not tonight.” Chris shook his head. “If he’s worse in the morning, one of us can try getting through then.”

“All right, then,” Buck pulled the collar of his coat up around his neck and put his gloves on. “I’ll bed down the horses and be back in a bit.”

“Thanks, Buck.” When the door closed, Chris glanced up to find Ezra all but melted into the old rocking chair with a blanket wrapped around himself and his glassy eyes fixed on Vin. “How are you feeling, Ezra?”

“I feel like Atlanta, after Sherman,” he said, then began coughing into a fancy embroidered handkerchief.

“That bad, huh?” Chris couldn’t help smiling a little when the man finished coughing. “Why don’t you go back and lie down?”

“No, thank you. I’d rather stay here for a bit, if you don’t mind.” He studied Vin for a few moments as Chris deftly changed the boy into the clean dry clothes Buck had brought in. “He has it too, doesn’t he?”

Chris lifted Vin and wrapped him up in a blanket. “Maybe.” With one hand, he slid another chair closer to the hearth then sat down and settled the small boy against him. “Probably, he’s getting pretty warm now.”

“I’m so sorry, I had no idea that I was coming down with anything.”

Chris gave him a rueful look. “Nobody’s blaming you, Ez.”

“Yes, well . . ..”

”So quit blaming yourself,” he added, then shook his head sadly. “Some things we don’t have any say in.”

When Buck finished in the barn, he came back inside and Chris heated some broth. After getting Ezra to drink a mug, they managed to get him back to bed. Vin had taken a few sips of broth and a little water, too. Ezra’s fever was much lower, while Vin seemed to grow warmer as the minutes passed.

What began as a battle to get the little boy’s temperature down soon turned into a long night of struggling to keep it from going any higher.

Vin kept mumbling about Ethan and finding Chris and something about finding Ethan’s momma. Chris didn’t know anyone named Ethan. He wondered if it was someone from Vin’s past, maybe one of the orphans he’d known before?

At some point Chris managed to talk Buck into catching a few winks. It wouldn’t do anyone any good if they were both exhausted in the morning. He lost track of time as he focused on trying to fight the boy’s fever, get him through the coughing spells, and coax him to drink as much as he could. Thankfully, Vin finally seemed to settle down enough for Chris to get a cup of much needed coffee.

He forced himself to drink the dredges of one pot and started another. While he was waiting, he happened to glance out the front window and was surprised to see the sun was already up, although mostly hidden behind cloud cover. Usually by this time, he had the chores finished and breakfast on the stove.

Chris wondered how JD was doing. He hadn’t been happy about being left at Nettie Wells’, even though he usually loved to play with her little niece, Casey. He and Buck had been worried about the boy being exposed to the illness going around, and felt it was best to leave him at the Wells’ ranch since it was pretty remote.

Buck slept late into the morning, and Chris busied himself with chores and keeping a close eye on Vin. It was sometime around noon when he heard the sound of hoof beats out in the yard. Buck came out of his room, yawning and pulling up his suspenders, just as Chris looked out the window to see Nathan and Josiah dismount and tether their horses.

Most of the snow had melted by then, but from the way the sky was looking Chris predicted they’d be getting more soon. The two men came inside, the chill of the outdoors lingering only a moment in the warmth of the cabin.

“How’s everything in town?” Chris asked as he poured them both a cup of coffee to help warm them up.

“Pretty quiet,” Josiah answered before taking a sip of the coffee.

“That’s ‘cause most folks are too scared to come out and cause trouble,” Nathan added. “But, nobody else seems to be getting sick and we didn’t lose anyone.”

“Well, that’s a comfort,” Chris said then nodded toward the back rooms. “I got two more patients for you here, though.”

Nathan’s eyebrows shot up. “The boys?”

“No, not both of them, anyway. JD’s at Nettie’s,” Chris told him. “It’s Ezra and Vin. Ezra seems to on the mend, but Vin came down with it after Ezra. He was outside last night, looking for us and I’m sure that didn’t help much.”

Nathan set his coffee down immediately and went to the boys’ room and began to check Vin over. Josiah handed him his bag, before he even asked for it and he smiled his gratitude then looked at Chris. “Remember that group of soldiers came through town last week?” he asked as he pulled out his stethoscope. “The doc seems to think they’re the ones who started this whole thing. Says they came through Eagle Bend a few days before that.”

Chris thought about that for a moment while Nathan listened to Vin’s lungs and heart. He remembered the soldiers passing through, but he couldn’t remember any of them being sick.

Nathan put the instrument away and pulled out a pouch that Chris suspected contained some awful tasting remedy that Vin would not appreciate. Right now, he’d be happy to hear Vin complain about it.

Ezra was awake by the time Nathan entered his room. After a brief examination, the healer agreed that Ezra was indeed on the mend, but in no condition to even think about riding back to town yet. Amazingly, Ezra didn’t put up an argument. He was too worn out from the short trip, he’d insisted on taking, to the outhouse earlier.

Nathan and Josiah headed back to town before supper, but not before making sure Vin had taken some broth and drank some of his infamous herbal tea remedy. He was still doing the same, not any better, but no worse either and he’d been well enough to make an awful face over the taste of Nathan’s tea.

Ezra was able to join them for supper, but ran out of energy before he’d even finished his soup. Buck helped him back to Chris’ room and got him settled. By the time he came back into the kitchen, Chris was just starting to doze at the table. Buck shook his head, realizing that the man had gotten very little sleep in the past few days. “Come on, stud.” Pulling Chris to his feet, he manhandled him to his own room, since Chris’ was already occupied. When Chris attempted to protest, Buck cheerfully pushed him into the bed. “Nighty-night, Chris.”

After cleaning up the supper dishes, he went to check on Vin. Thankfully, the boy had been sleeping more peacefully since Nathan had given him the tea. Buck dipped the cloth they’d been using into the basin. After he’d wrung it out and folded it in half, he pressed it against Vin’s forehead. The boy sighed, turning his head toward Buck, his eyes opening just a little. “Buck.”

Buck smiled at him as he trailed the cloth over his cheeks and down his neck. “Hey there, little pard. How ya feelin’?”

“I’m hot,” Vin complained, his voice sounding hoarse.

“Yeah, I know,” Buck murmured, continuing to wipe the cloth over the boy’s skin.

Vin lifted his chin then sighed as Buck trailed the cloth down his neck and chest. “That feels good.”

Buck smiled, dipping the cloth in the basin again. “I think your fever’s comin’ down. Maybe I ought to get you another cup of Nathan’s tea?”

Vin made another face at that and shook his head, but relaxed when Buck pressed the cool cloth to his skin. A few moments later, Buck was pretty sure the boy was sleeping again, so he decided he’d wait a bit longer before trying to coax him to drink the awful tasting tea.

Vin wasn’t sure where he was. Nothing looked familiar to him, not that he could see too much with the thick fog all around. There was grass under his feet and the ground was kinda squishy. There were trees all around, but not like the trees he was used to seeing. These looked like the cypress trees he’d seen when he’d gone east after his momma had died. As far as he knew, there weren’t no place like this in New Mexico territory, so where in the heck was he and how did he get there?

As he continued to walk the fog began to clear some, although not completely. In the distance, up a hill, he saw a big white house, and figured it was worth a look. Maybe someone there would be able to give him directions, but he knew to be careful. Even if there were folks around, it didn’t mean they were friendly.

When he made it to the house, he was unsettled to find that other than the very front – which looked perfectly in tact -- the rest of the house was open. There were no walls, nothing more than a frame. By the look of it, the house had been almost burned to the ground. The front door was closed, and for some reason he opened it, stepping inside what he guessed had once been a grand house. He wasn’t sure, but he thought maybe it was one of those big plantation houses that he’d seen pictures of before.

“What are you doing here?” A familiar voice startled him, and he turned to find a boy seated at a table.

“Ethan? What are you doing here?” Vin looked around in amazement. Other than the table and a few chairs around it, everything else in the house had been destroyed. The table and the boy seated at it looked strangely out of place among the rubble.

“I believe I asked you first, this time” Ethan replied with a grin.

“I . . . I don’t know,” Vin admitted distractedly as he took in the destruction. There were piles of debris, broken china and shards of glass lying all around, but he could tell that the room had once been a fancy dining room. “I don’t even know where here is?”

“Well, perhaps I can enlighten you.” He gestured vaguely at their surroundings. “Welcome to my humble abode. Or what’s left of it, anyway. As you can see, the Union army chose to do a little redecorating during their latest pilgrimage.”

Vin opened his mouth to say something, but wasn’t sure what there was to say. He’d heard about things like this happening during the war, but he didn’t know they still went on. He wondered where Ethan’s momma was, then remembered the boy saying something about meeting her for Christmas in Eagle Bend. He was pretty sure this wasn’t anywhere near Eagle Bend, so why was he here? Wherever here was. He looked down at his feet and found a broken, tarnished frame and picked it up to look at it. The photograph it held was of Ethan, along with a man and woman he assumed were his parents.

“Where’s your ma and pa?” he asked, curious that the boy was here alone.

“My mother, is . . . who knows?” he replied with a chuckle, not looking up from his cards. “Probably out somewhere, on business, of course. And, I don’t have a father.”

“Well, who’s this then?” Vin asked, holding out the photograph.

“That is . . . was my step father, although, I’m not allowed to speak of him.” Ethan glanced up at Vin, noting his puzzled expression then he reached out for the picture and gazed at it sadly. “I miss him,” he said, his voice wistful. “I always thought he was my father, until . . .. We were happy, everything was fine until . . . the war.”

Vin felt like he should say ‘I’m sorry,’ or something to make Ethan stop looking so sad, but then he wasn’t sure if there was anything anyone could say to make a person feel better about losing someone they loved.

“My step father,” he continued, “went off to fight for the Confederacy, of course. My mother was furious. She begged him, she threatened to leave him, she even tried to convince him to take a trip abroad, but he would hear nothing of it.” Ethan sighed, then set the picture aside and began shuffling the cards again. “I know she loved him, but when he left . . . it was like she . . . changed. Somehow she just seemed to cut off all her feelings, for him . . . and everyone. That’s when she told me he wasn’t my real father, and tried to pretend we’d never been a real family. It makes me so mad, sometimes I want to scream at her, but in the end, I just feel sorry for her.”

Vin felt sorry for Ethan’s momma, too, almost as sorry as he felt for Ethan. He was pretty sure Ethan wasn’t looking for pity or sympathy though, so he kept quiet.

“You really shouldn’t be here, Vin,” Ethan said, never looking up from the deck of cards he was shuffling. “You should go home.”

“What about you?”


“Yeah, you ain’t gonna stay here by yourself are ya?”

“Where else would I go?”

Vin thought about that for a moment. Since he wasn’t sure where he was, he really didn’t know how he was supposed to get home. But if it was dangerous for him to be there, that meant it was also dangerous for Ethan. “Well, you’re welcome to come home with me, although I ain’t rightly sure how to get there.”

The boy glanced at him, his eyes glittering with amusement, and maybe some other emotion, too. “Why, thank you, Mr. Tanner,” he said, in a voice that suddenly seemed a little deeper and more familiar to Vin. Then he neatly placed the deck face down on the table and drew the top card. “But, I believe you’ll find that I am already there.” Looking up, he flashed an enigmatic smile and held out the card he’d drawn. It was the ace of spades.

Vin opened his eyes to find Uncle Ezra sitting in the chair beside his bed. “Uncle Ezra,” he whispered, gazing at the man in wonder. “It’s you.”

“Yes, Vin, I’m right here.”

Vin was in and out the next day, but the day after that, he finally woke up with a somewhat clear head. He felt damp and sweaty and uncomfortable, but managed a smile for Chris who was sitting in a chair by his bed.

“Well, hello, cowboy,” Chris said, leaning forward and laying a hand on Vin’s forehead. “I think your fever’s finally broke.”

He could remember seeing Ezra’s face, but he wasn’t sure if it had been real or a dream. The last clear memory he had of his Uncle Ezra was of him being very ill. “Uncle Ezra?” he asked, trying to raise his head and look around.

A moment later, Ezra appeared, looking a whole lot better than he had before. “Good to see you awake, Vin.”

Then he remembered his Uncle Josiah had been sitting there at some time, talking to him about angels and such. Vin wondered if they’d been worried he was going to dream with angels?

“Buck went out to Nettie’s to fetch JD.” Chris moved to sit on the edge of his bed and helped him sit up to take a drink of water. “Nathan was here earlier and said he thought it would be okay for him to come home tonight.”

Vin didn’t remember JD going to Nettie’s, but at the moment, his memory seemed a little cloudy. The only thing he was sure of was that the water he was drinking tasted real good, so he gulped down as much as he could, until Chris pulled the glass away. “Slow down, there’s plenty more.”

“Is it Christmas?” he asked next.

Chris looked a little bit sad as he shook his head. “Sorry, pard, Christmas was yesterday.” He set the glass aside and hugged Vin close, looking down at him with concern in his eyes. “Don’t worry about that, though. We decided to wait and have our own special Christmas, as soon as you felt up to it.” He cleared his throat and leaned closer to Vin before continuing, “I have to tell ya, though, I already got my Christmas present.”

Ezra had taken up the chair beside his bed, and he leaned forward placing his hand on Vin’s. “That goes for me, too.”

Vin felt his cheeks grow warm. He studied Ezra for a moment, remembering the dream he’d had and wondered if any of it had been real. Maybe someday he’d find out? It was all so confusing and he was starting to get tired again. He yawned, feeling perfectly safe and comfortable with Chris and Uncle Ezra close by. He fell asleep again without even realizing he’d closed his eyes.

The next time Vin awoke, he found himself looking into a pair of big brown eyes. It took a moment for him to get his bearings then he cleared his throat and smiled, “JD!”

That was all the encouragement the younger boy needed. He climbed up on the bed and began his characteristic rambling. “You sleeped for a long time, Vin! Mr. Chris said you was just tired from bein’ sick, but I thought you was never gonna wake up! You wanna come and see the tree? It’s real big and we dec’rated it with popcorns and cramberries and pinecones and lots of stuff. And Miz Nettie bakeded us gingerbreads and cookies with icin’ on ‘em, and we got presents! I got a boat and some marbles and peppermints and mittens and a scarf and you got a boa--”

“Whoa, there, Little Bit!”

Vin was glad to hear Buck’s cheerful voice and he turned grateful eyes to the man who’d become his second father. Truth was JD had lost him after the first couple of sentences.

Buck just grinned, shaking his head as he plucked JD from Vin’s bed. “You’re not supposed to tell people what they’re going to get.”

”Oops,” JD slapped a hand over his mouth then looked up at Buck with repentant eyes. “I didn’t mean to, it just came out.”

Buck set him on the floor and gave him a pat on the behind. “Why don’t you go ask Ezra if he’ll heat some water for us?”

Vin coughed, then struggled to push himself up. His arms felt weak and his brain felt a little sleep muddled, but other than that he felt a whole lot better than he had the last time he’d woken up.

Buck adjusted his pillow to give him a little support then smiled and winked. “You feel like trying to eat some soup?”

Vin nodded, now that he thought about it his belly was feeling pretty empty.

“Be right back.” He pulled the blanket up a little higher then stood up.

Vin tried to push himself a little more upright and couldn’t believe just doing that could make him so tired. His arms felt weak and his brain felt a little muddled, but other than that, once he got situated, he realized that he felt a whole lot better than the last time he’d woken up. He had hazy memories of the past few days, of waking up and drinking tea or broth, coughing a lot, and his head and chest hurting. Suddenly his face burned as he recalled being helped to use the chamber pot. He hadn’t cared at the time, but now . . .. He pulled the covers up to his chin and tried to push away the urge creeping up on him, although there was no denying it. He had to go.

A few minutes later, Chris entered the room, carrying a tray. He smiled at Vin and set the tray on the crate that doubled as a nightstand. “How are you feeling?”

Vin pulled his blankets up higher and cast a wary look from the soup to the cup of tea, then to his pa. “Uh . . . I kinda gotta go,” he mumbled, the last words barely audible.

Chris already figured on that, though. He reached under the bed, and had to bite his cheek when Vin’s eyes went round as saucers and what he could see of the boy’s face turned crimson. “D’you . . . uh, need any help?”

Vin shook his head emphatically.

“Okay, I’ll be right outside the door incase you need . . . anything.”

Vin didn’t move until Chris had closed the door behind him. Then he pushed away the blankets and climbed slowly out of the bed. He had to lean against the bedpost for a moment to make sure he had his legs under him then he glanced up at the door again, praying that it would remain closed until he was finished.

Who woulda thought bein’ sick could be so humiliating, he wondered? If he had anything to say about it, he wouldn’t ever get sick again -- and if he did, well, he’d just crawl off to the woods or somewheres nobody could find him and he wouldn’t come back ‘til he was all better.

Later that evening, Chris sat in the rocking chair with Vin, watching through the window as the snow came down in big wet flakes. Already, a layer of white glistened over everything from the ground on up. Amazing, how in just one evening the drab, familiar landscape could be made to appear white and fresh and new. The bundle in his lap shifted then snuggled against him, letting out a contented sigh. Chris looked down at him. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah,” the boy answered quietly. “Snow looks real pretty, don’t it?”

“Yep, it sure does,” Chris agreed. “I don’t recall ever seeing so much snow, not around here, anyway.”

For several minutes, neither of them spoke, they just continued rocking back in forth, enjoying the view outside and the peacefulness of the moment.

Vin thought back on the evening. JD had been right about everything. There’d been a great big Christmas tree and presents and all sorts of things. All of his uncles had stopped out to see him, but they’d left when it got dark out. JD had already opened his presents, but they’d saved Vin’s. He felt kind of bad that he hadn’t had any presents for them, but they’d said his getting better was good enough – which, felt kind of good, but kind of embarrassing too.

He’d reluctantly brought up a question about the boy he’d met on the road to Eagle Bend. He’d thought for sure the boy had come home with him, but Chris and Buck told him, again, that there had been nobody with him when he’d gotten home that night. Uncle ‘Siah said something about maybe it being an angel sent to watch over Vin and see to it that he got home. Vin had never heard of such a thing, but he wasn’t going to say so to his uncle.

With a yawn, he tipped his head back to look up at Chris. “Chris? Do you believe in angels, like Uncle ‘Siah said?”

”Well . . .” Chris kept rocking as his thoughts wandered back over the past few days. “I don’t know, Vin. Josiah seems to think they’re real, and he knows a lot about things like that. More than I do, anyway.” Chris couldn’t help smiling at the memory of Vin telling them that ‘Ethan’ had reminded him a lot of Uncle Ezra. While the rest of them had tried not to laugh at the image of Ezra as angel, Josiah had simply murmured – albeit, with some amusement, ‘the Lord does work in mysterious ways’.

Nobody could deny that it had been a miracle Vin had made it home that night. With the storm that blew in, he never would have made it to Eagle Bend. Even so, Chris wasn’t so sure he believed in angels, and he couldn’t seem to quiet the small voice in his mind that questioned: if such beings existed, where had they been when his wife and son needed them?

Of course, Josiah had an answer for that, too. Many times over the past few years, the former preacher had tried to explain to Chris that God had His reasons for doing the things He did. And sometimes, He allowed us to understand His workings, and sometimes they were simply beyond man’s comprehension. Josiah had told him that those were the times when we were called on to have faith – faith to believe that God didn’t allow things to happen without reason, and that now, Sarah and Adam were safe and happy and waiting for the day the Lord saw fit for Chris to join them. It was something he wanted to believe – that God wouldn’t have let them suffer, wouldn’t have allowed them to die for no reason. Sometimes, he almost believed it and other times it seemed so completely unjust that he just couldn’t fathom it at all.

Right now, though, as he gazed out the window, the moonlight shimmered on the freshly fallen snow, it was hard to deny God’s existence. The miracle he held in his arms only reinforced that, for surely Vin had arrived in God’s perfect timing, and like a light, he had chased away all of the darkness Chris had been lost in.

Vin’s eyes were closed and his breathing was even; his lungs still rattled a little, but sounded better than the day before. Chris gently pressed his lips to Vin’s forehead, still slightly warm, but much cooler than it had been. “Yeah, cowboy,” he whispered even though he was pretty sure his son was asleep. “I guess I do believe in angels.”

the end