"Little Britches" Universe

Disclaimer: Everything remotely familiar belongs to CBS and other powers that be. The characters of the Magnificent Seven were used with the up most respect, and no money was made by this production. Dang it.

Notes: Special Thanks to JK Poffenberger and S. Berry for this wonderful Universe, and allowing us others to play in it. I would also like to give credit to other authors who have created some of the ideas I used in here to keep with continuity. Winter, JK, everybody else, thanks for the great stories and inspiration. I hope nothing offends.

Feedback always welcome.

Contains some profanity.

Size: Approx 139K

"Maybe he flew too close to the sun." Five year-old JD Dunne scrunched his face up in serious concentration and looked up at Buck Wilmington, who tried to hide his smile.

"Now that’s one possibility, son." The tall rancher knelt down beside the injured bird in question and pushed the brim of his hat back some. "What do you think, Vin?"

JD’s cousin was two years older than him, but tended to act older than Buck’s 30 years at times. The two boys were opposites in most respects, JD's dark hair and eyes contrasted with Vin's blond hair and blue eyes, just as their personalities differed drastically. Vin was quiet and thoughtful, where as JD tended to be more vocally expressive, as their friend Ezra Standish would say. The seven year-old had more patience than Wilmington himself and his cousin had none at all.

"Well?" JD nudged Vin. "What do think, Vin?"

Tanner was quiet for another moment, silently watching the young hawk that they’d freed from a bramble bush before reaching out and stroking one golden feather. "Sure looks like he could have burned some of his feathers off."

"See." JD squatted down closer to the bird; satisfied it wouldn’t bite him now that Vin had touched the creature. "I told ya’s he was like Icky-Rus"

Vin looked up at his cousin. "Icarus, JD. I-car-us." The seven-year-old patiently sounded out the word.

JD shrugged his shoulders. "That’s what I said. Like that boy in the story Chris told to me. And that’s what I’m gonna’ name him...Icky-Rus."

"Whoa there, short stuff." Buck grabbed JD’s hands before he could scoop up the wounded bird. "No one said we were going to take this critter home with us."

"But he’s hurt." Vin’s large blue eyes quickly lifted to meet Buck’s and the lawman knew he was in trouble.

"Now listen here, junior, I ain’t about to fall for none of them looks. You know what Chris said. No more animals. That skunk was the last straw."

"But we can’t just leave him here," Vin pointed out. "He can’t fly. No tellin’ what will get him."

"Yeah, well I know exactly what will get us if we take him home."

The blond-haired boy looked down again at the hawk and then back up at Wilmington. "But he’s an orphan now, like me an’ JD."

Buck groaned. Not again. "I know. Just like that baby fox was an orphan and just like that little doe that lost her mama didn’t have any family. We ain’t running a farm, boys. We have a horse ranch, with all the animals we can handle."

"But you just gotta’ help him, Buck." JD’s lower lip trembled and he climbed into the big man’s lap. "He’s bleedin’ and he’ll leave if you don’t."

Wilmington sighed. "JD, the bird might die anyway if we take him. He’s probably lost a lot of blood by the looks of that wound on his wing."

"Mr. Nathan will fix’em," Vin assured, continuing to stroke the frightened animal. "Remember, you said he was the best doctor ever when he saved me from that rattler."

"Nathan doctors people, Vin, not animals."

"He fixed my Miss Peeps," JD was quick to point out.

Buck rolled his eyes, silently cursing Jackson for dabbling. To humor JD, the town doctor had actually bandaged one of their chicken’s feet when it had gotten cut on some wire. The five- year-old hated the sight of blood, and just like his cousin he couldn’t stand by and watch anything suffer, especially his favorite chicken appropriately named Miss Peeps.

"All right." The rancher gave in, just like he always did.

Both boys cheered and the hawk fluttered around on the ground, trying to make an escape but not getting very far.

"See. Icky wants to come home with us." JD clapped his hands.

"He’s coming, but on some conditions."

Vin cocked his head to the side and looked slightly suspicious. He had learned about some of Buck’s conditions over the last few months and wasn’t all too sure he liked them. "What sort of ’ditions you talkin’ about, Bucklin‘?"

Wilmington would have laughed at Vin’s damned good Chris Larabee imitation if the boy hadn’t looked so serious. "First, you two half-pints get to tell Chris about the bird, and secondly, you both have to do extra chores to pay Nathan for his trouble."

Buck smiled to himself. He was beginning to get the hang of this parent thing.

"Deal!" JD shouted, and Vin nodded, holding back an ear-splitting smile of his own.

"Deal." Buck stood and shifted JD so that he was now on his back, little arms tightly fastened around his neck. He winked at Vin. "Now go get me one of them blankets we brought for the picnic so Icky-rus won’t dig those big talons of his into our hide."

Vin sighed. "Icarus, Buck." He took off towards Peso in a gallop, but shouted over his shoulder. "I-car-us!"

"That’s what he said!" JD yelled back, nearly deafening Wilmington in the process.

Buck just shook his head and tried to think of what he was going to use for an excuse this time. The orphan thing just didn’t work as well for him as it did Vin.

Damn, Chris was going to kill him.

+ + + + + + +

The sun was just starting to set behind the ranch house when Chris rode in. Peso and Beavis greeted Pony, who picked up speed as they headed for the barn. Larabee completely understood his mount’s desire to be home and bedded down for the night. After eight hours of eating dust while on the trail of some would-be bank robbers, Chris was ready for nothing more than a good hot meal and a nice warm bed.

Four months prior, that would have been an easy request. But these days things were different at the Larabee/Wilmington household.

Chris was quickly reminded of that very fact as he heard the cabin door slam open just about the same time that JD Dunne’s excited voice broke the peaceful quiet of the barn. "Chris! Chris!"

The worn out rancher dismounted and let his head briefly rest against Pony’s saddle. "I’m getting too old for this."

He knew it had been too much to wish for that the exuberant five- year-old had worn himself out on the fishing trip with Buck and Vin. The kid was an absolutely perfect angel in his sleep and just for that night, that’s exactly how Chris had wanted to find him.

"Chriiiissss!" The boy skidded around the corner of the barn door; nearly tripping over the long nightshirt he was wearing as he practically leaped at Chris.

Despite his weariness Larabee couldn’t stop the warm feeling that spread through him as he caught the little boy and JD wrapped his arms around him and held on like he hadn’t seen him in a year. "Guess what, Chris?"

"What?" Chris barely had time to get the word out before JD wiggled out of his arms and began chattering away.

"We found Icky-rus. Just like in your story, Chris. Not a boy, but a bird. He flew too close to the sun. Burned his wings. He can’t fly. So we brought him home with us. And Mr. Nate is going to come and fix’em. Like Miss Peeps. So’s he won’t leave like that boy in the story, Chris. Me and Vin’s gonna’ pay him. You’re not mad at Buck, right?"

JD was talking just as fast as his little jaws would work, and beyond the amount of breath his lungs would allow.

"Slow down, JD." Chris shook his head and knelt beside the boy, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Remember to breathe like I told you."

The kid nodded. "Okay."

Larabee glanced down and caught sight of two very bare feet sticking out from under JD’s long shirt.

"Uh, JD, what else did I tell you?" Chris tried to sound stern, but he could feel the smile trying to force its way onto his face as JD looked like he'd just got caught sticking his fingers in the honey jar.

The dark-haired boy looked down at his toes, his excitement of the story momentarily forgot. "To be good?" JD raised impossibly huge hazel eyes to gaze innocently at the lawman. "I was real good, Chris."

"Where are your shoes?" Chris raised an eyebrow. "I thought we had a deal about putting your boots on before coming outside?"

JD seemed to think for a moment, before a sweet smile appeared between his chubby cheeks. "I missed you."

Larabee couldn’t stop his laugh this time at the charm tactic worthy of Buck Wilmington. He reached out to ruffle the kid’s hair as he caught the slightest movement out of the corner of his eye just before something pounced on his back. Sticky hands covered his eyes and JD giggled.

"I did it!" Vin whooped in triumph as he latched onto the rancher. "I caught ya’, sneaked right up on ya’, Chris, and you didn’t hear me or nothin’."

"You were quiet as a mouse," JD cheered. "You got Chris good."

A sudden rush of memories flooded the rancher’s mind as the sound of the boys' laughter filled his ears and the fresh scent of Vin's just washed hair tickled his nose. Before the two children had come to live with him and Buck flashes from his past were painful, especially ones of his dead son, but these days they mostly brought a smile to his face.

Just like now, and that had everything in the world to do with the seven year-old now hanging off his back.

"You sure did, cowboy. You’re turning into a real tracker." Chris took hold of the two honey-coated hands and pulled Vin over his shoulder and plopped him down next to JD. "But what are you going to do now that you’ve caught me?" he growled.

"Run!" JD squealed in delight, recognizing the game that Buck often played with the boys.

He took off towards the door, but Vin only leaned against the rail as a lop-sided grin spread across his face. "Tanners don’t run."

Chris smiled, relishing in the changes he was enjoying watching take place in Vin. Although he was still much quieter than his cousin was and reserved around most people, Vin was slowly shedding the shell he’d protected himself with when he and JD had first arrived. He talked more, and laughed more, and touched more, and the changes, although subtle, were very noticeable and very significant to Larabee. Vin was really beginning to trust in the new life that they had started.

As Larabee reached out and tickled the blond boy into submission, he realized that he could say the same for himself.

"Did JD tell you, Chris?" Vin asked between giggles, a definite twinkle lighting his blue eyes.

Larabee let go of Vin, but continued to kneel at his level. He pulled his hat off and sat in on Vin's head, pulling the brim down over the seven-year-old's eyes. "Tell me what, cowboy?"

Vin pushed the hat back far enough so he could look at Chris. "About Icarus."

Before Larabee could answer, another burst of laughter brought both their attention to the doorway where Buck had just entered carrying an upside down JD.

"Down, Buck," JD gasped out.

Wilmington continued to hold the squirming boy upside down. "You going to remember your shoes next time, short stuff? Little boys who don't wear shoes have to walk on their heads. Didn't you know that? "

"I'll remember." JD laughed harder as Buck pretended to let him fall, only to catch him before he could come anywhere near the ground. "I promise, Buck."

The mustached rancher deposited his charge safely on the ground and handed him the boots he was holding. "Good, ‘cause next time it happens, no riding Beavis for a whole week."

"Yeah right," Chris snorted, standing and finally pulling Pony’s saddle off of him. "Just like he wasn’t suppose to go on the next fishing trip."

A look of complete innocence crossed Wilmington’s face. "Are you insinuating I’m not good at making these boys mind?"

"No," Chris grinned, handing Vin his bridle and saddle blanket, "I was saying you are terrible at saying no to these boys."

"I say no all the time," Buck defended.

"Yeah, but then you turn around and change your mind."

"Isn’t anything wrong with that." Wilmington ruffled JD’s hair and winked at him. "Women do it all the time, and I have always appreciated the keen insight of the fairer sex."

"Hmmmh." Chris grabbed the horse brushes and handed one to Vin and another to JD. "Insight is the last thing you appreciate about a woman, Bucklin."

"What do you 'preciate about a woman, Buck?" JD looked up at the gunslinger as he began to help his cousin brush Pony."And what's a sex?"

Wilmington looked momentarily caught off guard and glanced to Chris for a little help, but Larabee just smiled and went about feeding Pony. "Well, JD, I appreciate a lot of things about women," he finally answered, purposefully avoiding JD's last question.

"Like what?"

Buck sighed as he heard Chris' soft laughter from the other stall. "Well, I like the way they look, and the way they smell, the way they walk, and the way they cook. Shoot, I like just about everything there is about them."

JD continued to brush Pony, but he nodded at the rancher's explanation." I think Casey Wells looks like one of them bridge trolls Ezra was tellin' me about and she smells like a rotten egg too. She can't even walk as near as fast as I can and the only thing she cooks is them stupid ol'mud pies." The dark-haired little boy looked back up at Buck. "I don't 'preciate nothin about her."

"That's 'cuase she's a girl, JD," Vin explained from the other side of Pony. "Girls aren't women."

JD stopped brushing and peeped around the big horse's front legs, "They aren't?"

"Nope,"Vin continued on, unaware of Chris and Buck standing behind him, waiting to hear the seven-year-old's take on the situation. "See, JD, our ma's were women. They were pretty, and smart, and soft, and smelled like summer roses. Remember?"

JD thought for a second."Kind of like Miss Mary?"

Vin nodded. "Yep, now that's a woman."

Buck burst out laughing and Chris shook his head. Vin was nothing if not perceptive.

Wilmington threw his arm around Larabee's shoulder. "You're gonna' have your hands full with that one, pard."

About that time JD looked around Peso again. "Buck, does Miss Mary have sex?"

It was Chris' turn to laugh as he scooped Vin up and put him on his shoulders. "I'm not the only one, partner. I'm not the only one."

Buck rolled his eyes heavenward. "Now dang it, JD! You gotta' stop asking me so many darn questions."

"Why?" JD stepped out of the way as Chris led Pony past him and to his stall.

"Because he ain't smart enough to answer them, JD." Larabee winked at the little boy. "That's why."

"I can answer them!" Buck looked indignant as he watched Chris and Vin head out of the barn.

JD stepped up beside him and took his hand. "That's okay, Buck." The five-year-old waited for the rancher to look down at him.

" I 'preciate you even if you ain't smart."

Wilmington smiled, his heart swelling as he picked up the little boy. "Why thank you, JD. I'm glad somebody around here does."

"I ain't the only one." JD yawned and laid his head on the lady's man's shoulder, wrapping his fingers in the rancher's dark hair.

"Really?" Buck closed the barn door behind them, and one-handedly put the slide-lock in place."Who else appreciate's ol'Buck?"

"Icky-Rus. You saved his life."

Wilmington glanced towards the cabin at the mention of their new friend. Oh, shit. Vin and Chris were already inside. " Icarus!" He gripped JD in his arms and took off in a run towards the house.

"BUCKK!" Larabee's voice echoed around them like thunder and stopped the other rancher in his tracks.

Wilmington winced and wondered briefly if hawk tasted anything like chicken, as he decided whether or not it would be safe for him to go in or not.

"Chris sounds surprised." JD lifted his head and looked towards the cabin.

Buck sighed. "I'd say surprised isn't exactly the right word, son."

"You think he'll let Icky sleep in me and Vin's room?"

The rancher shook his head. "JD, we'll be lucky if me and Icarus ain't sleeping in the barn."

The five-year-old clapped. "Yeah! Me too. Me too, Buck."

The look of pure joy and excitement on JD's face finally made Wilmington laugh. So what if Chris beat the shit out of him, or at the least relegated him to kitchen duty for a week. JD and Vin were happy, and in the rancher's book, that would be worth just about anything his oldest friend could dish out.

+ + + + + + +

"He looks kind of sad." JD peered in the large rabbit pen that Icarus had been calling home for the last week.

"He wants to be outside, flying again." Vin leaned against the chest in his and JD's room and stuck his fingers in between the wire so he could touch the half-grown hawk.

"But he ain't ready to fly yet. Doctor Nathan said so." JD looked up at his cousin. "He should stay with us a bit longer."

"Mr. Nathan said we should at least let him try and fly, even if he might not be ready yet." Vin frowned. "Icarus needs to be free, JD."

Vin knew what his cousin was thinking. The same thing he thought about the deer and the skunk and the three-legged bullfrog that he had hidden in a box under their bed for two whole weeks. JD wanted to keep Icarus.

"You know he's a wild animal, right?"

"I know," JD said miserably, falling back on their bed. "But he likes it here at the ranch. He likes me."

Vin had to laugh. JD had six out of his ten fingers bandaged up because Icarus had nipped him, and he'd long since given up trying to latch onto the hawk like he was one of their laying hens. Buck had said that a snapping turtle could snatch one of JD's toes plumb off and the little boy would still try to bring the animal home. Vin reckoned that was probably true.

"What'cha laughing at?" JD raised up on his elbows and stared at his cousin.

"Nothin'," Vin grinned, "just thinking about Icarus and how his family must miss'im."

"Family?" JD stood again and looked at Icarus. "He don't have any family. Remember, he's an orphan."

Vin shook his head forcing a serious look on his young face. It was an expression he'd seen Mr. Josiah use plenty of times when he was saying something that he thought the boys should think hard about. "What if he does have a family? What if they're out looking for him?"

The five-year-old continued to look at the hawk, his hazel eyes meeting the golden brown ones. "You think his ma's worried about him?"

Vin nodded. "Could be and if we don't let him go then they might never be together again."

JD looked up at Vin. "Maybe that's why he's so sad. He wants his mama."

"I reckon that could be it."

JD sighed, but then a slight gleam flashed in those huge eyes and Vin recognized trouble. "Miss Peeps could be his mama!"

"Miss Peeps is a chicken, JD!" Vin threw his arms up in the air. "She can't be his ma. "

The dark-haired boy crossed his arms over his chest. "Can too. It don't matter none that she ain't no hawk."

"It does too. They ain't family," Vin tried to explain.

"Uh huh!"

"Don't be mule-headed, JD!" It was the seven-year-old's turn to get mad. "We're letting him go today!"

"I ain't mule-headed!" JD shoved his cousin.

"You are too!" Vin pushed JD back.

"Am not!" JD yelled, shoving the older boy harder.

"Are too!" Vin pushed the smaller boy again, causing JD to bump into Icarus' cage. The hawk fluttered and squawked his own take on the argument.

Buck chose that moment to rush into the small room that the boys shared. He'd heard the commotion just as he and Chris were coming across the yard from the barn, where Nathan Jackson was checking on one of their pregnant mares. The window in the bedroom was open and between the shrieking from Icarus and JD's high-pitched hollering, nothing on the ranch could have missed their argument.

The dark-haired rancher wasn't surprised to find the cousins squared off and ready for battle, but he was quick to intervene. "What is going on?"

"Vin called me a mule head!"

"JD's being JD again!"

Both shouts came simultaneously and Buck dropped to his knees between the two to prevent them from coming to blows.

"Am Not!" JD cried.

"One at a time." Buck held up his hand and pointed a finger at JD. "And no shouting."

"Vin called me a name." JD rushed to be the first, although his voice was much quieter now. He looked at Buck. "What's a mule head?"

Vin shook his head and answered before Wilmington could. "It means your stubborn like Mr. Josiah's old mule, Sampson."

The five-year-old's face turned blood red and he leapt for his cousin. Buck easily caught him and stood up, putting some distance between the two boys. "Now calm down, half-pint."

"I'm not an old mule!" JD cried, struggling to get away from Buck. "I ain't Sampson! Take it back!"

"I said you were stubborn." Vin folded his arms across his chest and glared at JD. "And you are!"

"I ain't stubborn!" JD's loud squeal brought more squawking from Icarus as well as Chris Larabee into the fray.

"What is going on?" The blond rancher repeated his partner's earlier question as he took in the scene that greeted him.

This time Vin, JD, and Buck all tried to answer at once. Chris shook his head and bringing his fingers to his mouth, he let loose a loud whistle that quieted all the kids in the room, including Icarus. "One at a time!" he barked.

Vin was the first to answer. "JD wants to keep Icarus. He even said that Miss Peeps could be his new mama."

"Vin called me a dirty old mule." The five-year-old's lip trembled slightly and he stopped wrestling Buck's embrace. "And he said we weren't no family."

"Did not!" Vin looked incredulously at his cousin. "I didn't tell him no such thing, Chris."

"Did too!" JD yelled back, his hazel eyes shining with unshed tears.

Chris glanced at Buck, who looked about as flustered as Icarus did at the moment. He nodded for him to sit JD down.

"Sounds like you two have had a slight misunderstanding, little pards." Wilmington sat JD down and gently nudged him towards Chris.

Larabee knelt down so that he was eye level with the small dark-haired boy. "Now, JD, I told you when I let Icarus stay that it was only going to be for a little while. It wasn't permanent. Remember?"

JD looked down at his boots but nodded.

"Buck and I both explained to you that he had to go when he was well enough to fly."

JD scuffed the toe of his shoe on the floor. "You said 'jest for a little while' when me and Vin came too. Are we gonna‘ have to leave soon?"

The lawman automatically felt his heart clinch as he heard the slight intake of Vin's breath and felt Buck move closer to them. So that's what it was.

"JD," Chris reached out and lifted the little boy's chin, "you understand that Icarus is a whole different situation than you and Vin. Right? He's a wild animal, son. Animals can take care of themselves."

"I thought Icky-Rus was an orphan, like me and Vin, and Miss Peeps could be his new mama."

JD looked over his shoulder at the other rancher. "Like Buck and me," he glanced back to Larabee, "and you and Vin."

"JD..." Chris started but a hand on his shoulder effectively cut off his reply.

Buck knelt down beside his partner and pulled JD close to him. "That was a really nice idea, JD, but there's only one problem."

JD looked up at the older man. "What's that?"

"Well you see, son, Miss Peeps has an awful lot of chicks already. More than she can handle really. You've seen how she's worried until everyone of her feathers is white as they can be and why half of them has fell out on the barn floor. It might be hard for her to take care of ol'Icarus like he deserves to be watched after."

"She has more kids than Miss Potter does," JD pointed out, and Buck laughed. "That she does."

Wilmington glanced up at Vin and then back to the little boy in his arms. "But I bet if Miss Peeps didn't have any chicks or she'd lost one of them babies, then she'd snatch Icarus up in a heartbeat."

JD's eyes grew wider. "She'd 'dopt him?"

Buck and Chris exchanged looks before Wilmington swallowed hard and smiled down at JD. "I know she would if she could, JD. If she thought she could take care of him proper."

That seemed to satisfy the little boy and he looked at the hawk's cage for a moment and then back at Buck. "I'm not a mule head, am I?"

This time Chris reached out and pulled Vin over to him. He raised an eyebrow. "You want to answer that one, cowboy."

Vin sighed. He still thought JD was mule-headed, but he also recognized that look on Chris' face. "You ain't mule-headed, JD. I'm sorry I said that to ya’." It wasn't said with the greatest conviction but Chris seemed satisfied.

And so did JD. "That's okay." JD smiled and grabbed Vin's hand, all worries forgotten for the moment. "We could let Icarus go now if you want?"

Vin looked at Chris who smiled and nodded. "That sounds good, JD. Maybe he'll find an empty nest, just like we did."

JD grinned and started to reach for the cage door when Buck quickly grabbed his hand. "Not so fast, little bit. You might need those other fingers of yours to eat with."

Wilmington winked at Vin. "Why don't we let Chris do those honors. He probably tastes so bad that Icarus would think long and hard before he tried to take a hunk out of him."

Both boys laughed and Larabee glared at his friend. "You're the one with the animal magnetism, Buck. Why don't you do the honors?"

"Too dangerous," Buck slapped his friend on the shoulder, "we don't know what kind of affect I might have on poor Icky-rus if he turns out to be a she."

Chris rolled his eyes. "You are so full of crap, Buck."

Wilmington merely grinned and picked up JD. "Are you really full of crap, Buck?" Larabee heard the little boy ask as he and the other man entered the main living area of the cabin leaving he and Vin alone in the room.

Chris looked down at Vin, and then up at the hawk. "You all right with this?"

Tanner shrugged and walked over to the cage, letting his fingers rest against the front where Icarus was looking out at them. "I want him to be able to fly again. I don't like seeing him in a cage."

Larabee nodded and joined the seven-year-old in front of the bird. "Setting him free is the right thing to do."

Vin didn't say anything for a moment, but then he looked up and his blue eyes locked with Chris' green ones. "Then why does it hurt so much?"

Chris shook his head sadly and let his gaze travel to the window and beyond. "Letting go of something we love is never easy, son. Even when it's for the best."

The seven-year-old watched the blond rancher. Chris had that sad look on his face again. The one he got sometimes. The one that made Vin's chest hurt inside.

"I guess people are kind of mule-headed about love, huh?" Vin finally spoke, and when Chris glanced back down at him, the look was gone, replaced by a lop-sided grin.

Larabee reached out to ruffle the seven-year-old's long blond hair. "Yeah, that they are."

Vin grinned also. "Does love make people full of crap too?"

Chris shook his head, his smile widening. "Sometimes, I suppose."

Tanner nodded. "Then I guess that explains a lot about Buck and JD, don't it?"

This time the rancher laughed. "Yeah, Vin, I think it does."

"Chris, I think I'm ready to let Icarus go now."

The rancher nodded. "Me too, cowboy. Me too."

+ + + + + + +

"Why ain't he flying, Doctor Nathan?" JD leaned over the porch railing and watched with intense concentration as once more Chris Larabee tossed the

young hawk into the air only to have him flutter back to the ground.

"Don't rightly know, JD." Nathan Jackson bit his lip and studied Icarus as Chris gently scooped him up and allowed the hawk to latch onto his gloved hand. "That wing of his should be healed up by now."

"Maybe he forgot how?" JD looked from the town's healer to Buck , who was reclined on the steps. "Like when Buck forgets to wash the dishes after breakfast."

Nathan hid his smile as Wilmington glanced sideways at him.

"Maybe he's just lazy like Buck." Chris added, having overheard the five-year-old. He and Vin and Icarus joined the others in the shade.

"Very funny," Buck grumbled, refraining from using the one -fingered salute that he would have given his friend before the boys had come along. JD had picked up on 'that' piece of body language right fast.

"Icky's not lazy!" JD protested, reaching up to stroke the hawk that was sitting complacently on Larabee's wrist now.

Icarus allowed the attention, looking more bored than anything.

"Is he still hurt, Mr. Nathan?" Vin's blue eyes shone with such concern that Jackson felt compelled to reassure the two children. Unfortunately, he didn't

know what to say.

The doctor stepped around JD and gently lifted the hawk's wing that had been injured. Icarus nipped at the unfamiliar hand prodding him and JD giggled.

Chris' stern warning look quieted the five-year-old as Nate continued his ministrations more carefully this time. "I ain't no animal doctor, but it looks to me like that graze has healed up completely. I was for certain that he might be ready to take to the sky today."

"Might he be crippled?" Vin didn't realize that he'd said the words out loud until everyone looked at him.

He didn't want it to be true. He had once seen a little boy at the orphanage who couldn't walk and had heard the things people whispered about him. He also knew what happened to horses that hurt themselves so badly that they couldn't run anymore. If Icarus couldn't fly, then what would happen to him?

"Icky's crippled!" JD cried, his scared eyes searching out Wilmington's. He wasn't sure what crippled meant, but he didn't like the way it sounded one bit, nor did he take to the terrified look on his cousins face.

"Take it easy, squirt." Buck reached over and pulled the little boy onto his lap. "Vin was just asking a question. Ain't nothing wrong with old Icky that can't be fixed."

Despite Buck's reassurances, the look that Chris and Nathan had shared gave Vin an uneasy feeling in his stomach. People killed horses that were crippled and threw away children that were less than perfect, nothing Buck could say would change that. The little blond swallowed hard and braced himself. "Is that it, Mr. Nate? Is he crippled for life?"

The earnest blue eyes tore at Jackson's heart. It was like the boy had read his mind. It was quite possible that the hawk would never fly again, which meant that it would never be able to hunt again. Or be able to

survive in the wild.

What option would that leave him with. Or, God forgive him for thinking it, what decision would that force Chris and Buck to make.

Nathan cleared his throat, pushing the negative thoughts from his mind for the time being. "He's not using the wing, Vin. But I ain't rightly sure why, or

if it's permanent. Sometimes a body can look healed up on the outside, but can still be mighty hurt on the inside."

"I thought ya' could cure him, Doctor Nate?" JD's fear had been replaced by disapproval now. "You fixed Vin and Miss Peeps. Why can't you help Icky?"

"JD." Buck's serious but gentle tone cut off JD's accusation and the boy mumbled a quiet apology to the healer.

Jackson knelt down and ruffled JD's hair. "That's okay, JD. I understand you being upset and all. It's not easy seeing something you love hurtin'."

"What's going to happen now?" Vin asked quietly, and Chris sighed as he placed Icarus back in his cage and shut the door.

There was that look again. The one that Vin got when he seemed to sense something terrible on the horizon, either real or imaginary. It always made Chris' heart ache.

"We give him another week, cowboy. If he ain't doing better we'll decide what's best for Icarus then."

Vin nodded, looking at the hawk who tilted his head to one side and opened and closed his beak, as if to ask why the child looked so heartbroken.

Icarus had no clue what fate held for him, but Vin had a notion. One way or the other he was bound and determined that Icarus would fly by next week.

"I think Icky-rus is hungry," JD spoke up, nodding to the bird. "See how he's opening his mouth?" The five-year-old proceeded to lift his own head and open and close his mouth.

Buck laughed. "So that's how you tell, huh?"

JD nodded confidently. "Sure is."

Vin rolled his eyes at his cousin. "Dang, JD, you and Buck must be hungry all the time."

This time it was Chris and Nathan’s turn to laugh. "Boy sure is observant," Jackson chuckled, standing once more.

Buck also stood, sitting JD back on the porch. He raised an eyebrow at Vin. "Sounds like someone's pickin' up on Chris' bad sense of humor." He ruffled

the small boy's hair and Vin grinned. "We'll just see who get's an extra honey biscuit for lunch."

"I do. I do!" JD jumped up and down. "And Icky-rus too!"

"Birds don't like honey, JD," Vin pointed out quickly, shaking his head at his younger cousin's antics.

"Icky does," JD insisted. "That's why he bited my fingers." The five-year-old held up his pudgy little hands. "He didn't want to miss a drop."

Buck and Chris looked at each other. "You've been giving Icarus honey, JD?"

JD nodded enthusiastically. "He liked it."

Larabee shook his head, glancing at Icarus with a new born respect. "It's a wonder he didn't lose those fingers."

"Dang it, JD," Buck kneeled next to the dark-haired boy," I thought I told you not to feed that bird by yourself."

JD shrugged. "You said not to feed him any worms, Buck. And not to feed him that fish me and Vin caught. And one day you told me to not feed him the chick's feed." JD gazed up at Wilmington, not quite sure why the big rancher looked so upset. "You didn't say nothing about honey biscuits."

Buck sighed. "Next time, just ask me before you give him 'anything' to eat all right?"

"Okay," JD nodded. "Can we eat now?"

Wilmington grinned. "Yeah, we can eat now." Buck stood and shot his friends a look that dared them to laugh. Okay, so maybe this parenting thing wasn't as easy as he thought.

Jackson shot Chris a wicked grin anyway as he turned to follow Wilmington and JD into the cabin. "A hawk with a sweet tooth, who would have thought it?"

"Nothing surprises me anymore, Nate." Chris chuckled to himself and started for the house also, but stopped when he noticed Vin wasn't coming.

"Vin, aren't you hungry?"

"Do you think spirit animals are real, Chris?"

The question caught Larabee off guard and once again he wondered at how the seven-year-old's mind worked sometimes. Chris stepped away from the doorway and closer to where Vin stood by Icarus' cage. "What do you mean by spirit animals?"

Vin shrugged one shoulder and leaned up against the porch railing behind him. "Well, Mr. Josiah told me and JD that the Indians believed that all animals were our brothers. He told us that everyone had an animal that watched over them. He called them spirt animals."

Chris pushed his hat back some and scratched his head. He'd have to remember to have a talk to the preacher about putting certain notions in the boys' heads. "Well, Vin, sometimes I think it isn’t a question if things are real or not, but whether a person believes them to be real."

Vin looked slightly confused at the answer, so Chris tried it again. "It only matters what 'you' think is true, cowboy."

Tanner looked down at his feet a moment, considering what the rancher had said. When he looked up again a slight smile was on his face. "Like when JD believes that the bridge troll lives under our bed no matter how many times you and Buck try to tell him different?"

Chris smiled. "Yes, just like that."

The seven-year-old looked at the hawk and then gazed up at the rancher. "Do you have a spirit animal, Chris?"

Larabee's first instinct was to say no, to say that he'd never thought of such a thing. The look on Vin's face stopped him and he remembered the chief of the Indian village. What was it that Kojay had called him...Black Eagle?

And hadn't he seen an eagle at the lake the day that he and Buck had ridden into Four Corners only to spend most of the evening looking for two lost orphaned boys?

Maybe it wasn't exactly what Josiah had been telling the boys about, but Chris had always felt partial to the animal, and any answer would probably be better than a simple 'no'.

"The eagle," he finally replied.

A lop-sided grin tugged at the corners of Vin's mouth. " I won't tell nobody."

Chris pointed his finger at the blond boy. "Make sure you don't. Buck would never let me hear the end of it."

Larabee snaked a hand around the back of Vin's head and gave him a playful shove towards the door. "Now let's get inside before JD scavenges our food for Icarus."


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