"Little Britches" Universe

During the next few weeks, the boys really began to settle in. JD was in heaven. He still missed his mama, but he had Vin and Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris and all the horses.

Vin was okay with the way things were going. He believed Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck wanted him, but still had a hard time relinquishing taking care of JD, and he worked much too hard for a normal seven-year old. Chris and Buck tried to find ways for him to ease up, but it was difficult to get him to agree. He initiated work on his own before they knew he was doing it and they found it hard to scold him for doing something well. It was obvious he was still battling the fear of being sent away if he couldn't work hard enough, but with all his hard work, he was also going through a difficult time with his back. Nathan figured he was in a growth period, and the pain was worse because of that.

Vin never complained about anything. Part of it was his nature since he wasn't a complainer, but part of it was fear. Boys who complained were punished or sent away. It was easy to forget Vin's back hurt him because he hid it well. Chris would notice times when Vin sat down too slowly or when the pain was simply too much and the boy would be unable to contain the gasp that escaped.

It didn't take long to figure out that the tears Vin shed when he was sleeping were because of the pain in his back. It was nearly a nightly occurrence for Vin to get up in the middle of the night and go sit in the rocker by the fire. It had somehow become a safe haven for the seven-year old and surprisingly, Chris would find himself heading for the fire as well. It was a safe haven for both Chris and Vin. In the darkness of night, both could express the caring that they would never show to anyone in the light of day. Chris would pick up the half asleep boy and wrap him in the throw cover and then he would rock him, while gently rubbing his back. When Vin was sound asleep, or when Chris was ready to give up the treasured intimacy, he would carry Vin back to the bed and tuck him in. Chris came to cherish those moments although sometimes memories of Adam would be overwhelming. He didn't know if Vin even really knew what was going on. The young boy never mentioned it during the daylight hours, and he never seemed alert enough in the night to know what was happening. Vin didn't allow hugs or touches when he was awake, except from JD but under the cover of darkness, he would soak up as many caresses as he could.

Vin was still fighting his nightmare, or as JD called it, "your dream." It was a nightly occurrence - with the dream coming just before it was time to wake up, and a frightened JD waking Vin from his nightmare. Vin was always very quiet in the morning. He wouldn't talk to anyone before breakfast. It was soon apparent that this wasn't discourtesy or anti-social behavior; it simply took him that long to get himself together after his nightmare.

It was nearing seven weeks since the boys had come to the ranch - and the nightly ritual was still the same. But this night, as Chris sat rocking Vin, he could tell Vin was really awake. The boy seemed unusually tense. "It's ok Vin, just relax," soothed Chris.

Vin shifted uncomfortably. When Chris began to rub his back, Vin moaned softly.

"It's really hurting you tonight?"

Vin nodded.

"I'm sorry it hurts so much Vin. Let's just try to get it relaxed."

Vin's whole body shook with a sob and Chris found couldn't help himself as he pulled the miniature Texan tight to his chest with a big hug. After a couple minutes, the sobbing subsided and Vin's breathing evened out. Chris could tell sleep was catching up to the boy but this night Chris was compelled to hold him longer than normal.

When he started to get up to take him to bed, the little voice in his arms said, "No, please..."


"Let me sleep here. Please. If I go back to bed, I'll jest wake up JD. He'll be scared."

Sensing the fear in the pleading voice, Chris settled back down with the boy. He knew that Vin's concern for JD was an excuse to hide what the boy was really feeling. "Can you tell me about it, Vin?"

Vin's response was an immediate and emphatic "No!"

Chris started rocking again and after a few minutes he could feel Vin calming again. He was surprised to hear the soft voice in the darkness. "I dream about my Ma and Pa." Chris just kept rocking, letting the boy talk if he wanted. He felt Vin tensing up again as he continued. "A bad man got me and my pa. Told my pa he would pay for 'restin' his son... He hit me lots of times... it hurt awful... my pa, he cried. He was tied up and couldn't make him stop..." Vin was trembling. Chris rubbed his back gently trying to soothe him. "The man thought I was dead... but I was playin' possum... He..." Vin flinched "...he shot my Pa..." The tears rolled freely. "...Tahshew found me... He buried my Pa and took me to Mama. When I got well we went to Boston to live with JD's mama. Then Mama died." The young voice fell silent. Chris rubbed Vin's back some more. "Then JD's mama died a few months later... and we went to the orphanage," he sighed.

Chris continued rocking. "Vin, I'm really sorry about your parents and what happened to you." Vin seemed content with the comment. A few minutes later Chris continued. "Vin?"

"Yes, Mr. Chris?"

"You know your room?"


"Another little boy used to live there." Chris sighed. He couldn't believe he was telling Vin about Adam, but somehow it felt right.

"Was he your son?"

Chris smiled. Vin was sharp.

"Yes, Vin. His name was Adam. He was six," his voice trailed off. Chris felt Vin shift in his lap and he knew the boy was trying to see his face in the darkness.

Vin found Chris's cheek with his hand. He brushed away the tear and patted his cheek. "It's all right Mr. Chris... You don't have to say no more."

Chris found himself smiling at the comfort the boy was offering. "I do have to say more Vin. I need you to know about Adam because I know you'll understand. He was just six when some bad men came and killed him and his mama."

"Did they hurt you?"

"No..." hissed Chris. "I wasn't there." He paused as guilty memories flooded through him. The remorse that he had not been home, that perhaps he could have stopped the tragedy.

"I'm sorry they hurt you," said Vin.

"Vin, I just told you they didn't hurt me."

"Not your outsides, Mr. Chris. They hurted your insides." Vin leaned his head against Chris's chest, listening to his heartbeat. Chris could hear Buck's gasp from his bed across the room. The kid had nailed it.

"Did you hurt real bad right here?" asked Vin putting his hand on Chris's chest.


"That's where I hurt, too. When does it stop hurting, Mr. Chris?"

Chris tried to pull himself together. He wanted to tell the kid it would go away tomorrow and he'd be fine. He wanted to chase away all the pain Vin had been through in his short life, but he couldn't and Vin would know if he tried to lie to him. "Well Vin, I don't rightly know. It's different for different people. I know for me it still hurts, but there are things that make it feel better for a while too."

"What things?"

"Well, time passing helps some. It makes the pain not as sharp. Being around others helps sometimes. And good friends help too, like Buck. The pain doesn't ever go completely away, but you don't want it too either, because you want to remember them. Somewhere along the line, those memories start being the happy things instead of the sad things. But until then, you gotta let your friends help. I have to tell ya Vin, one of the best things that helps me is you."

"Me?" Vin looked up at Chris.



"I don't know exactly, Vin," said Chris honestly. "I reckon part of it is that you help me to care about someone else besides myself."

"Like now?"

Chris smiled. "Yes, Vin. Like now." He could feel Vin starting to give in to the sleep that wanted to claim him.

"Mr. Chris?"

"Yes, Vin?"

"Thank you for lettin' me tell you why I's scared... and for tellin' me 'bout Adam..."

"You're welcome, Vin."

There was silence as Vin's breathing became more and more steady and Chris knew that he would be asleep soon.

"Mr. Chris?"

Chris smiled, remembering how Adam could keep asking one more question to stay awake.

"Yes, Vin?"

"I like rockin' with you."

"Me too, Vin. Me too."

Chris could have sworn he heard a sniff from Buck's bed and then Vin's soft snore began. Chris just settled back in the chair. He wasn't going back to his bed tonight.

+ + + + + + +

Sunlight was streaming through the window when Chris was awakened by the sensation of someone nearby. He opened his eyes, remembering the burden on his lap. JD was standing about two feet from his face with his grubby little hand ready to check under Chris's eyelids. Buck stood right behind JD, grinning. Chris looked down at Vin and saw that he was still sound asleep.

"I'll take him," said Buck softly.

Chris nodded. Buck scooped up Vin, carried him to the bed and tucked him in. He'd had a long night and could use the extra sleep. Chris was still in the rocker when Buck came back.

"Mr. Buck, Mr. Chris says his legs are still sleepin!" announced JD.

Buck grinned.

"Mr. Buck, how can his legs still be sleepin' when he's waked up?"

Buck chuckled. "Come on, Little Bit. Let's go get some water." He took JD by the hand and led him to the door.

"But I want to see his legs waked up."

Buck rolled his eyes and led JD outside.

+ + + + + + +

Vin slept another hour before the pangs of his empty stomach drove him from in bed. The sun was brightly shining through the small window. As he stretched, he realized that he hadn’t had the nightmare! A momentary fear surged through him as he realized he had slept late and he would be in trouble. But then he relaxed, remembering being with Mr. Chris during the night. It was okay. Mr. Chris would have awakened him if he wanted him up earlier. He slipped into his clothes, yawning a few times. His tummy growled at the smell of the bacon, urging him to hurry a little faster.

The other three were at the table eating when he walked out. "Well, good mornin', sleepy head," said Chris with a smile.

"Mornin'," responded Vin still a little groggily. He rubbed sleep from his eyes and stood still for a minute trying to orient himself. His mind seemed full of cobwebs and his body was slow to respond. Chris and Buck had to stifle chuckles as they saw Vin's eyes widen and he ran out the door just when his body reminded him of an urgent need.

A few minutes later Vin reentered the house looking a bit more comfortable, although he was blushing. Buck dished him up some breakfast and he ate hungrily.

JD wasn’t used to being so quiet as long as he had been that morning. Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris had 'shushed' him all morning. He squirmed on the bench, trying his hardest to be quiet, but there was just too much he had to know. He finally burst out with what was on his mind. "Ya sick, Vin?"

Vin shook his head as he took a bite of a biscuit.

"Ya sleeped a long time," insisted JD. To JD, sleeping a long time meant that you were sick.

"I was tired, JD." He reached over and spread some jam on JD's biscuit.

"I thought we was *never* gonna have breakfast." The dark haired boy rolled his eyes for emphasis. "I was starvin'."

Vin playfully poked his little cousin in his round tummy. "Doesn't feel like ya starved."

"Yeah... Well...Yeah..." JD fumbled trying to think of a defense. "Well... Mr. Buck puts too much on my plate and I have ta eat it all!" said JD, proud that he had answered his older and wiser cousin, causing them all to laugh.

The others cleaned up as Vin finished his breakfast. When he was ready to go outside, Chris stopped and sat down on the edge of the bench that Vin and JD shared at meals. "Vin, I don't want you to overdo today. No mucking the stalls or chopping firewood. I want you just to relax. Let's give your back some time off. Okay?"

"Ok Mr. Chris. You want I should ask you 'fore I do something?"

Chris smiled. "Just for awhile. I don't want you to have to hurt as much as you did last night..." He stood and walked to the door, and then turning back to Vin he added, "I don't like it when ya hurt, but I sure liked talkin' last night." Vin smiled as Chris walked out into the front yard.

+ + + + + + +

A few days later during the hot afternoon, they took a break at the creek. Chris and Buck were content to sit in the shade while the boys ventured down by the water. Chris sighed as he watched Vin. He had taken up his all too familiar stance – sitting on a nearby rock watching over JD - instead of playing.

As the afternoon progressed Chris saw something happening that made him smile. Vin had scooted off the rock and was gradually edging closer to JD's position in response to JD's "treasures" he was finding. Chris elbowed Buck.

Buck tipped his hat up off his face and sat up. "Well, I'll be."

They watched as Vin kept getting closer until his feet were finally in the water. He waded into the cool water until he was about knee deep. JD was saying something to Vin, but they couldn't make it out from where they sat. Chris broke into a big grin as Vin reached down and playfully slapped the water, dowsing JD.

"HEY!" yelled JD and then he began splashing Vin. There it was, that wonderful sound of Vin's laughter. JD jumped on him and they both went under, bringing both men to their feet, but the boys came up laughing and Vin steered them a couple steps closer to shore. The splashing continued with poor JD getting absolutely drowned.

"Mr. Buck! Mr. Buck! Help me!" he called.

Buck quickly pulled off his boots and socks and headed toward the water. He stubbed his toe on a rock and grabbing his foot, he began hopping around on one foot making the boys laugh.

Chris watched with delight. He could see the boys stop and watch Buck, but he could also see the conspiracy Vin started when he figured it wasn't a serious injury. Vin leaned over to JD and whispered something that JD responded to with a vigorous nod.

"Mr. Buck, are you all right?" called JD.

"Yeah, Little Bit, I just bumped my toe," answered Buck, rubbing his sore toe.

"Mr. Buck, why don't you put it in the water. It might help," said Vin.

Chris grinned. Buck didn't realize Vin had it in him. The seven-year old was always so quiet and serious, Buck never saw it coming.

Buck fell for it, hook, line and sinker. The moment he set his foot in the water, he was bombarded by two boisterous little boys. In a matter of minutes, he was completely soaked and JD was squealing with delight.

Chris ran quickly to the scene when he saw what happened next. Buck had grabbed Vin and pushed him under the water just as JD jumped on Buck from the other side, diverting his attention. Vin bolted from the water and would have kept right on going but, on seeing Chris standing there, he forced himself to stop, standing in front of him on trembling legs. "Vin?"

"I'm all right... I'm all right... I'm all right..." He wasn't answering Chris. He was reassuring himself.

"You sure, Pard?" asked Chris, kneeling down to eye level, and pushing the wet hair out of Vin's face.

"Yeah. It just scared me when he pushed me under."

"So, get even," said Chris. When he looked over at Buck who was still wrestling with JD, he missed the light that came into Vin's blue eyes.

When Chris looked back at him he saw Vin swallow hard, as if he was still afraid.

"Want me to go with you?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded and held out his hand. Chris stood, took the hand, and walked the boy back to the water. Vin stopped at the edge, apparently afraid to go back in and waited as Chris sat down and took off his boots and socks. As he was doing so, he missed the grin Vin gave Buck, and then his imitation of Buck's bobbing eyebrows. Buck splashed JD to keep himself from warning Chris.

Chris waded into the water with Vin, approaching the war between JD and Buck. Vin slipped on a rock and went under. Chris automatically bent over to reach down and help him up. The combination of Vin grabbing his arms in apparent "panic" and JD jumping on him from behind drove Chris face first into the water. JD squealed as Buck grabbed him, hoping Chris wouldn't be too mad. Vin came up coughing, and Chris forgot being mad when Vin's cough became an uncontrollable giggle. Chris realized he had been had when Buck and JD joined in the laughter. Full-scale war broke out again with Buck and Chris going at each other as well as the boys. It broke up a few minutes later when Chris realized Vin was out of the water sitting on his rock again. He walked over and could see Vin shivering despite the heat of the day.

"Ya ain't mad are ya, Mr. Chris?"

"Naw. Didn't figure you being a trickster though... Ya cold Vin?"

Vin nodded with obvious shivering.

"Well ya ain't got any fat there to keep ya warm." He sat next to Vin, pulled him onto his lap and wrapped his arms around him offering his body heat along with the sun. He was wet too, but the sun would dry them quickly. "Buck, you watch out JD don't get too cold." Buck nodded in response. They had already ceased splashing each other and were now exploring the wonders of the creek.

Chris and Vin were quiet as they watched the other two explore. Chris felt Vin's shivering stop and his breathing evened out. Chris was starting to feel drowsy. He shifted and was surprised when the little one on his lap shifted in return. Vin turned his head, snuggled it under Chris's chin, and began snoring in earnest. Chris chuckled and gently closed Vin's mouth and the boy returned to his soft snore. Chris enjoyed the closeness for a few more minutes, then carried Vin over by the trees and laid him on the blanket. He went back to the creek, chatting with Buck and JD as Vin napped.

+ + + + + + +

About half an hour later Vin woke up feeling that something was wrong. He could feel it deep inside. When he looked up, he saw what he thought had to be the biggest bear in the world. It was the biggest bear he had ever seen, but then again, he had only seen one in his entire life. It was standing only a few yards away from Chris and Buck and JD. They had seen it and it looked like they were frozen in place. The older men knew that there was nothing they could do but run.

Vin didn't take any time to reason it out. He picked up Mr. Buck's rifle, focused on nothing but the bear and his own breathing, intent on protecting his family. He was so focused that he didn't hear Chris yelling, "No!" He took his aim, let out half a breath as he squeezed the trigger. He was shocked as the kick from the shot tore into his shoulder, knocking him down.

The bear stopped in his tracks and turned toward the noise that caused him the pain and then began heading for Vin. The little boy scrambled to his feet and took aim again. His shoulder was hurting him something fierce, but he didn't have time to think. He fired again, and this time the bear went down mere inches from his feet. Chris ran past the bear, grabbed his own rifle and fired three more shots into it. He then scrambled frantically to Vin, who was laying on his back in the dirt.

Chris was sure the bear hadn't touched the boy so maybe he had passed out from the fear of the situation. No, there was definitely a grimace of pain on Vin's face. As he carefully took Buck's gun out of Vin's grasp, Vin let out a scream when the rifle jostled his arm.

"Vin! Vin!" Chris could hear JD crying. He was terrified by the bear, but his cousin's scream was more upsetting to the five-year old. "Vin," said Chris softly. Breathing hard, Vin opened his eyes. "It’s okay, Vin. The bear is dead. Are you all right?"

Vin struggled to control his breathing. When he finally spoke, his words surprised Chris. "I think Mr. Buck's rifle is too big for me."

Suddenly Chris knew what was wrong. When he carefully unbuttoned Vin's shirt and pushed it back, he could see that the shoulder was red and puffy. Vin closed his eyes tight, groaning in pain.

"Buck!" called Chris, laying a firm hand on the small boy’s chest. "Stay still Vin. I don't want you to move at all."

Buck approached carrying JD, who had his little arms latched tightly around Buck's neck. "Chris?"

"I think the kick from the rifle might have broken his shoulder."

"I'll go get Nathan," Buck said as he tried to tug JD's arm loose. As it became obvious JD wasn’t going to be pried free from his neck any time soon, he said, "We'll go get Nathan," correcting himself.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat beside the hurt boy, reluctant to move Vin in case he caused more damage to the hurt shoulder. He watched as Vin's eyes open again and this time the little boy focused on the bear. He could see the obvious fear lingering in the blue eyes.

"It's big..."

"Sure is Pard, but you killed it. You saved all our hides." Chris moved in between Vin and the bear to block his view. "Where'd you learn to shoot?" Forgetting about his injury in his embarrassment, Vin shrugged his shoulders, crying out in pain. Chris laid the back of his hand gently against Vin's forehead and brushed across it gently. "Easy son. You did good, Vin. Saved us all."

When Vin shivered and cried out with the pain the involuntary movement caused, Chris quickly went to his horse and grabbed his jacket and canteen. Chris wasn't sure if the kid was cold or if he was going into shock but either way, he knew he had to keep him warm. He covered Vin with the large jacket and placed a comforting hand on his uninjured arm.

"It hurts awful, Mr. Chris." Vin was trying not to complain but the pain was so intense, he couldn't help it.

"I know, Vin. Buck will bring Nathan, and he'll fix you up. He'll give you something to help it feel better."

Vin nodded, wincing again at the pain that small movement caused. Chris watched the struggle Vin was having with the pain and decided he needed to get Vin back to the house. He knew that they would have to move him eventually and decided to risk it now. With all the shivering the kid was doing, Chris thought it best to get him back to the house and as warm as he could.

"Vin, I'm going to get you back to the house." Vin didn't seem to hear him. "Vin?" repeated Chris.

"Yeah?" His response was almost inaudible but he didn't open his eyes or make any movement.

"I'm not gonna lie to ya, Vin... It’s gonna hurt a lot but when we get back, I can get ya warm."


"Here we go." As Chris lifted him, Vin screamed in pain and after a few intense moments, he mercifully faded into unconsciousness. Chris fought back his fear at the stillness in the usually energetic form and carefully carried the boy to his horse. As gently as he could, he put Vin up on the saddle and steadied him while he mounted. He headed back to the cabin knowing that Buck had to pass the cabin to bring Nathan back to the creek. He'd leave his horse out front so Buck could see they were home.

+ + + + + + +

Chris settled Vin on his bed in the main room. He knew the boy wouldn't be able to sleep in the bed he shared with JD with the way the younger boy thrashed at night. Chris stoked the fire and tried to think of anything to keep the injured boy calm. He placed a cool cloth on Vin's forehead and began to talk to him quietly. He found out during their late nights together that the young boy liked stories so he told him Adam's favorite story as they waited for Nathan and Buck to arrive.

It was about an hour before Chris heard riders coming. He stepped out onto the porch to make sure they didn't pass the house in their haste to get to Vin. "Nathan! In here." Chris went back inside without waiting for the healer, knowing that Nathan was not far behind him. Having heard about the accident, Josiah and Ezra had accompanied Buck and JD as well.

"Chris," said Nathan as he entered the small house and moved to the little patient, "how’s he doing’?"

"I hated to move him, Nathan, but he was shaking so bad, like he was cold."

"He was probably in shock. Ya done fine Chris. Let's have a look." Nathan sat gently on the edge of the bed. He could tell easily which shoulder was injured, but he checked the boy over thoroughly for any other injuries as well. Vin winced and moaned softly as Nathan prodded, but he seemed to be much calmer than he had been by the creek. He stood back up and thought for a moment, deciding on what supplies he would need. Stepping back, he accidentally bumped into Chris. When Nathan looked up, he saw the reason why he felt so closed in. There were four men and a little boy crowded into the small area. "Why don't y'all wait outside? Give the poor boy some room ta breathe. Chris, bring me the bandages from that bag."

"Is his shoulder broken?" asked Chris as he gathered up the requested supplies while the others went outside to wait.

Nathan ignored Chris’s question for a moment, focusing his attention on his patient. "Vin, I'm gonna sit you up now. It might hurt a bit, but I need you to sit up so I can wrap you up a bit."

"Ow!" cried Vin as Nathan moved him. Tears trickled down his cheeks despite his obvious effort to not show the pain. Nathan quickly wrapped the bandages around Vin, securing his arm to his chest.

"I can't move! I can't move!" yelled Vin, panicked.

Chris gently cupped Vin's chin in his hand. "Shh, Vin," comforting the distraught boy. "It's all right. We have to wrap your arm to your chest so it doesn't move. This way it can get better." Vin was violently trembling, trying to understand the words. "No one is tying you up Vin. You're arm just needs to be still."

Nathan's soothing voice joined in as Chris released Vin's chin. "You're lucky, Vin. Your shoulder is just badly bruised, but it isn't broken. It will heal up in a week or so. You can put up with this bandage until then, can't you?"

Chris shook his head in disbelief that Vin wasn’t hurt worse. Buck's rifle was powerful and could easily have snapped Vin's tiny shoulder as he gripped it tightly when firing. How the kid managed to fire it the second time was beyond him.

"It's all right Chris. Ya done good," repeated Nathan, seeing Chris's distress. No doubt about it, there was no blood relation here, but Chris was definitely in parent mode. Chris was hovering close to Vin, trying to find a way to help the tiny boy. Nathan turned his attention back to the little patient who was trying desperately to wipe away the tears with his free hand. He ladled up a spoon of laudanum and Vin drank the foul tasting liquid with a grimace.

It was over. Vin knew it. It was all over before it really had a chance to begin. He couldn't work with his arm tied up. They would send him away. He and JD would be split up and there was nothing he could do. He had broken his promise to JD's mama. Tears began to flood down his cheeks. Despite his best effort, Vin began to sob.

Nathan pulled the little boy into a hug. "What's wrong, Vin?" he asked softly. Nathan's eyes widened in surprise and Chris turned away with a grimace when they were finally able to make out the heartbroken words.

"I cain't work no more."

Chris took a deep breath and turned back to the large black man hugging the tiny white boy. "Nate, I'll take him." Nathan moved a step back and Chris picked up Vin and carried to inconsolable boy to the rocker. He sat down with Vin and began to salve his fears once again. "Vin, you don't have to work to stay here, remember? We aren't going to send you away because you got hurt. Hell, you saved our lives." Chris continued to rock Vin while Nathan quietly cleaned up his supplies before he went outside, giving the two "men" a chance to talk in private.

"I's tryin' Mr. Chris. I's trying really hard not to be no bother." Large tear reddened blue eyes looked pleadingly at Chris."

Chris stopped rocking and looked directly at the little boy in his arms. "You aren't a bother, Vin," he assured.

"I's only seven," sobbed Vin. "I don't knows how to do ever'thing right."

Chris began to rock again. "You don't need to Vin. We'll take care of you."

Vin was quiet for a few moments as he struggled to stop the sobs that convulsed his little body. Chris felt Vin lean heavier into his chest as the laudanum took effect. Vin's body shook as he sniffed in a breath and sighed it out.

"I want my mama," Vin confided softly.

Chris turned Vin's face against his chest and caressed his cheek with a callused hand. "I know, Vin," he whispered. "I know. You're going to be okay. You just rest now."

+ + + + + + +

When Chris was certain that Vin was asleep, he carried him back to the bed and tucked him in. He went outside and joined the group on the porch, closing the door softly behind him.

"He asleep?" asked Nathan.

Chris nodded, unable to speak for fear of the emotions tumbling out with the words. Buck ducked his head slightly looking into Chris's eyes. Yup. Vin had sucked the big guy in, hook, line and sinker. "He got to ya," said Buck matter-of-factly.

"I was doing just fine until he said, 'I want my mama'," said Chris, swallowing hard. "Life shouldn't be that hard on a kid. He's terrified we're going to get rid of him because he's injured and can't work." Chris shook his head sadly. "I don't know how I can make him understand."

"It just takes time, Chris," Josiah. The conversation quickly died away as Ezra returned from the corral with JD in tow.

"Mr. Chris? " asked JD, peering past Buck at the doorway. "Where’s Vin?" "Vin's fine, JD. He's sleeping right now," assured Buck.

"But - but, it's daytime," protested JD.

"His shoulder is hurt, JD," said Nathan. "I gave him some medicine to help him feel better but it made him sleepy."

"I wanna see Vin," JD declared, sticking out his chin.

"No, Little Bit," said Buck. "Not now. He needs to sleep, and it'd be mighty hard for you to keep quiet that long."

"But - but, what iffn he has his dream?"

"I'll watch him, JD," said Chris. "You go play for awhile."

JD stepped behind Buck and wrapped himself around Buck's leg. Buck looked down, wondering what was happening now. "But - but, what if the bear comes back?"

Buck reached down and scooped up JD. "That big ole bear ain't never comin' back, Little Bit." He held JD up looking at him eye to eye. "Vin killed that bear, and Chris made sure of it. It can't come back any more." Buck could see that JD's fear was not easing. "How 'bout if we just peek at Vin, and then you and me can go take care of Fire?" JD nodded enthusiastically as Buck carried him to the door. He was anxious to see Vin, but he was excited that he could help take care of the stallion. Chris pushed the door open and Buck held JD out so he could see Vin.

"Is Vin okay?" whispered JD and Buck bit back a chuckle. The kid's whisper was nearly loud enough to wake the dead. Fortunately, laudanum made you sleep like the dead, so Vin hadn't even stirred at his cousin's question.

"Yes, Little Bit. Vin is fine," said Buck as he pulled JD back to him. "You think we can see about Fire now?" JD stole one more quick glance at his cousin before nodding his head. Buck swung JD up onto his shoulders and headed for the stable.

+ + + + + + +

With the help of Nathan's teas and a little laudanum, they managed to keep Vin quiet for two days, but that was all the boy could tolerate. Once he had figured out that the bandage was helping, Vin was able to control his fear, but by the end of the third day he was out of the bandage and in a crudely fashioned sling. He had sweet-talked Buck into setting him free while Chris was in town. Vin didn't seem any worse off, so Chris let it slide.

At the end of the week, Nathan came to check on his little patient bringing Josiah and Ezra along with him since Chris had invited them all for lunch.

"Where's Vin?" asked Nathan.

Chris didn’t say a word. He just simply looked over at Buck. Since it was Buck who had freed him, it was up to him to face the music with the healer. Their conversation was interrupted by JD's squeal as he came barreling around the end of the house, colliding with Ezra and his cup of coffee. Vin was just a step behind trying unsuccessfully to stop as he too collided with Ezra and JD. Chris and Buck winced as the three went down in a tangled heap. The two men raced over, fearing further injury to Vin.

Only the sweet sound of giggles could be heard. All four adults were relieved that there were no tears. JD found his way out of the pile first. "I's sowwy Mr. Ezra."

"That's quite all right, Master Dunne. I believe I must have been in your path," said Ezra brushing some of the dirt off his jacket. "Are you all right, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin hopped up and brushed off his knees. "Yep. I'm sorry. Did we hurt ya?" He reached over to brush some of the dirt off Ezra's legs.

"Vin, you all right?" asked Chris. Vin nodded. "Where's your sling?" Vin looked around sheepishly, then shrugged.

"I think I left it by Peso," said Vin as he and JD ran to find the sling.

"Well, I can see I'm not needed here," said Nathan with a grin.

"I beg to differ, brother. It appears Ezra may be in need your services," Josiah said as they watched Ezra retrieve his mug and move stiffly towards the porch.

Ezra glared at Josiah. "Did I ever tell you, I hate children?"

Buck grinned. "Sure, Ez. 'Bout as much as I hate the ladies." He slapped the southerner on the back, the force raising a cloud of dust as Chris called the boys for lunch with a smile. There was nothing like family.

The End

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May 2001