by LaraMee

Disclaimer: Don’t own ‘em, didn’t create ‘em, don’t profit off ‘em.

Notes: A little bundle of smarm in the LB-OW AU. Almost exclusively Chris and li’l Vin. If I did it right, you might wanna have a tissue handy.

Dedication: To Joy, on the occasion of her birth. May you reap the rewards of your hard work and dedication to the LB AU, lady! YOU’RE AWESOME!

Chris Larabee sighed as he stared out the frost-laced window onto the moonlit landscape beyond. The ground was covered with snow; the trees with ice. It was the last night of the year and his heart was heavy.

A soft moan drew his attention from the window and he turned toward the source of the sound. Huddled beneath the pile of quilts was the child of his heart. Seven-year-old Vin Tanner. The little orphan had been sick with a fever for days now; since three days after Christmas in fact.

Chris and his friend, Buck Wilmington, had taken the boys into town on Christmas Eve. The plan had been for the boys to spend the week in town so they could enjoy the holiday celebrations before returning to the ranch. He and Buck would alternate staying with them and taking care of the day-to-day chores at the ranch.

The day it was his turn to ride out for a second trip to the ranch, a rather out-of-sorts Vin had begged and pleaded to go with him. The shy child was never comfortable in crowds, so Chris had decided that taking him home might be the more pleasant alternative for all concerned. He saddled both Pony and Peso and the two of them rode out just as the sun was turning the sky gray.

Vin continued to be sullen throughout the ride to the ranch, huddling in his coat and responding to the occasional questions asked him with a grunt or a single word. Arriving at their homestead, he shuffled along behind Chris, helping do the chores without complaint.

Chris had been shocked to realize they had worked well past lunch and nearly to the dinner hour. It wasn’t unusual for him, but the boys were like little alarm clocks, asking politely to be fed over the sounds of rumbling tummies. It was typically JD who protested the most, though, so the rancher decided that the older boy simply hadn’t wanted to be a bother. He quickly called a halt to things, coaxing the child to set aside his last chore without completing it.

They had gone inside, Chris sending the little boy off to clean up while he put on a pot of stew. When the tiny blond wasn’t anywhere to be seen by the time the pot began to bubble, Larabee went searching. He discovered the little orphan curled up on his bed, shivering.

Reaching down, he tenderly touched the child’s flushed face. Fever-bright blue eyes opened slowly, taking time to focus on him. Stroking damp blond curls off the tiny face, he said gently, “Reckon you’re not feeling real well.”

“No, sir,” the answer was a faint, raspy croak.

“Why didn’t you say anything, Pard?” When his only answer was a shrug, the tall blond sighed. Even after several months of living with him, the child was still afraid of being rejected for being too much trouble.

Nightfall was upon them, making a trip into town too risky. It was too far and too cold to travel with the sick boy. He would have to care for Vin himself, and wait for morning.

By sunrise, Vin was much worse, and snow was falling heavily. The tyke tossed and turned on his bed, muttering incoherently and shivering despite the layers of bedding covering him. Chris paced back and forth, cursing the fates as he tried to decide what to do. He could bundle the boy up and carry him into town through the storm. Or he could work with what he had at the ranch and do his best to wait out the illness.

Deciding that he would tend the child himself, Chris had boiled up some of the herbs they kept on hand, steeping them in a tea and carrying a mug into the little bedroom the boys shared. Vin lay listlessly on the bed, whimpering in his delirium. Lifting the child up to rest against him, he slowly fed him the tea, murmuring encouragingly as the bitter taste registered in the boy’s foggy mind.

The day had passed slowly between rounds of feeding Vin the teas and bathing the perspiration from the tiny frame. The fever continued to burn through the child despite his efforts. The snow stopped sometime during the afternoon, but he barely noticed it. His sole focus was on the tiny boy curled up in the bed.

The night passed in much the same way. He dozed in a chair beside the son of his soul, praying to see those big, blue eyes staring up at him. But they remained closed.

A third day dawned since young Tanner became ill, the boy showing no signs of improvement. In fact he began to wheeze, congestion growing heavy in the tiny chest. Larabee added a second and then a third pillow to the stack beneath the child’s head in an effort to ease his breathing.

Moving one of the other narrow beds into the kitchen, as close to the stove as he dared, Chris set pots of water to boil. Gathering the ill child up, quilts and all, he carried him into the kitchen and settled him on the bed. Retrieving the pillows once more, he propped the child up until he was nearly sitting up.

The vigil continued, the rancher tending the fragile child as best he could. He warmed a salve of fragrant herbs and spices, spreading it over the heaving, struggling chest and back. Lifting Vin up to rest against him, he felt the little boy snuggle against him, craving the comfort of the strong body. He stroked a calloused hand through the sweaty, tangled curls whispering soft words meant to comfort the ailing child.

The air in the kitchen was heavy with moisture from the steaming pots. Chris left the chair beside the narrow bed only long enough to fill buckets with more snow from outside the back door. As the hours passed, Larabee had to venture farther and farther into the yard to fill the buckets. And still the child showed no signs of improvement.

He watched the road for signs that someone was coming out to check on them, but there was nothing. He couldn’t blame them; the air remained frigid, keeping the world blanketed in snow and ice with no hint of warmth to melt them. As far as his friends back in town knew, he and his foster son were safe and sound. There was no reason for anyone to brave the harsh weather to come visiting.

Vin began coughing, harsh barks that caused his tiny body to spasm. He woke the weary man sitting beside him, the seemingly permanent frown creasing the handsome face. A hand stroked his flushed face, soft words reached his ear as the big man sought to comfort him. The child was unaware of any of it, his existence nothing more than fever and pain.

“Sh, it’s all right, son, it’s all right,” Chris murmured gently. Then as the little body went rigid and the coughs became strangled gasps, he lifted the child up, placing a bowl beneath the lolling head. He balanced Vin against him, pounding the narrow little back as hard as he dared. It seemed like hours before he was rewarded with several jerking movements as the unconscious child began to bring up the vile congestion.

The hours passed without note once more, as Larabee aided the boy in riding himself of the crud that had invaded his tiny body. Finally, he felt the child go limp and a long sigh escaped his lax lips. Chris groaned, fearing the worse as he shifted the child in his embrace. Then a few hot tears trailed down his face as he reassured himself that his son was still alive.

With Vin quiet and breathing easier, Chris bathed and dried the tiny body and placed him in a clean nightshirt. Gathering up dry bedding, he carried the tiny boy back to his bedroom, placing him back in his bed. Covering him to the chin with clean quilts, he left long enough to change his own sodden clothing and to take the pots off the stove. Replacing them with one that began to heat some broth, he returned to the child’s bedside.

He had managed to coax the seven-year-old to drink a few sips of broth, but otherwise Vin had lain unmoving ever since. Other than the occasional moan and the slow rise and fall of the tiny chest, there was nothing to show that young Tanner was still living.

Another moan brought Chris from his thoughts and he moved to sit in the chair that he had spent so many hours in. Vin was becoming restless, his head tossing back and forth on the pillow. The big man took one tiny hand in his, stroking it gently as he sought to comfort the boy as well as to coax him to wakefulness. “Hey, Pard, it’s okay. You’re gonna be fine, come on, open up those big blue eyes for me.”

Long, thick lashes fluttered against pale cheeks and then slowly near-translucent lids lifted to reveal dark, dull eyes. Those eyes moved back and forth as if they were searching for something. Then the colorless lips parted and a single word was spoken. In a raspy voice, Vin called, “Mama?”

“Sh, it’s okay, Pard. You’re just dreaming, it’s okay. You’re safe, Vin –“

“Mama… I’ve missed ya.”

Larabee realized that the child – his little boy – was staring at something beyond him. All of the stories about people seeing those they had lost just before passing themselves came to the blond. His tired, overwrought mind screamed, the sound escaping in a soft groan. “Vin… no…”

“Mama… ya come ta… git me? Ya ain’t gonna… leave me… ag’in… are ya? Mama… I miss ya.”

“Vin… no… please,” Larabee begged. He dropped to his knees beside the bed, reaching out to stroke the tiny face once more. The little blond continued to stare lovingly toward the space beyond the bed. Sometimes he spoke in a halting, breathless voice. Sometimes he seemed to be listening, his face taking on a peaceful countenance.

“Mama, sing… fer me.”

Chris buried his face in the quilts, sobbing as he witnessed the child converse with his dead mother. In a hoarse whisper he beseeched, “Please, God, don’t take him away from me. Please… you’ve taken one family already. Please, please don’t take Vin, too. I can’t lose him, God, please… I can’t lose him.”

Exhausted beyond words, in both body and soul, the hardened gunslinger found himself unable to lift his head from the bed. He sought out one tiny, cool hand, wrapping his fingers lightly around it. His voice muffled by the thick bedding, he continued to pray, “Please, don’t take him…don’t take my child… God, he’s mine as much as… as much as Adam was. God, please… I can’t lose him. Don’t take him from me. Oh, Lord, Sarah! Please, help me sweet woman!”

The heartbreaking scene continued until both players fell into an exhausted sleep. Vin’s face was peaceful, a smile on his lips as he continued to listen to his mother’s voice, now raised in song. Beside him, Chris’ face was twisted in pain as he continued to beg for mercy. Finally the room grew quiet, even the lamp guttering and going out, leaving only the sound of the wind blowing beyond the little homestead.

Then from somewhere came a faint lightening of the darkness. Larabee stirred at a tender touch; someone stroking his hair. The touch was familiar and he called softly, “Sarah.” Then he shifted, whispering another prayer as he settled back into sleep, quieted by that touch and the faint sound of someone singing a lullaby.

The morning sun cast a single ray through the window, its light and warmth tickling the tall blond to consciousness. Blinking open weary eyes, he tried to remember where he was. Then he felt a hand stroke the back of his head. Not quite awake, he whispered, “Sarah?”

“Ch… ris?”

Turning his head, the rancher beheld a sight he thought he would never again see. Wide, blue eyes stared at him with recognition. A laugh bubbling through him as relief overtook him, the blond cried in a hoarse whisper, “Vin!”

The first day of the year was bright and sunny, the air crisp and clear and warm. The ill child had wakened at last, bringing joy to his guardian’s heart. Chris bundled the boy up and carried him to the kitchen where they settled together in the rocking chair sitting there. The rancher spooned sweetened mush into the waiting mouth; rejoicing in the child’s returning appetite.

After a few bites, the little boy sighed and snuggled against the broad chest contentedly. He hadn’t said much, only a word here and there, but seemed clear minded and alert.

With a smile, Larabee set the half emptied bowl aside and placed a gentle kiss on the cooling forehead. As he watched, Vin drifted off into a healing sleep. His own contentment was obvious as he rocked the child gently, hugging him close. It would take some time, but he had no doubt that his adopted child would recover.

Letting his heavy head fall back against the head rest, the tall blond gave in to the long hours of stress and worry. As he felt the warmth of slumber wrap itself around him, he heard the faint sound of voices. Two voices, one with an Irish lilt and the other with a Texas drawl. As diverse as they were, though, the two voices blended in a rich, heavenly harmony. As the two people in the rocking chair slept, those two voices sang softly to them, comforting them with a mother’s lullaby.

The End