"Little Britches" Universe

It hadn’t taken Rain long to set the break and clean Vin’s other various injuries. She’d made the seven-year-old some tea and persuaded him to drink it with a promise to see JD as soon as his cousin was awake. When Vin had finally drifted off, she’d ordered Chris out of the teepee.

The rancher had been reluctant to leave Vin, but also relieved to get away. One more look into the tortured blue gaze and he was sure the guilt was going to overwhelm him. He wasn’t surprised to find Buck sitting near Red Cloud’s tent.

"We almost lost them." Buck's voice was quiet, and he didn't lift his head from his hands when his partner joined him on the ground. "We may still lose JD. That head wound has Red Cloud worried, I can tell."

"Don't." Chris sat next to his friend and looked out at the expansive land around them. "He's a tough kid, he'll make it." Rain had insisted that fresh air would make him feel better, but Chris decided a good stiff drink would have suited him much better.

"How's Vin?" Worry thickened the rancher's voice, as his blue eyes searched his best friend's face.

"His arm's broken like we thought, and he scraped his knee up pretty good, but Rain doesn’t seem to think he busted anything inside. She wants to wait until Nathan gets here to be sure. I think he’ll be okay."

"No thanks to us." Wilmington looked away from his friend. "Damn it, I can't imagine not having those little boys in my life, Chris. I don't know how to handle that."

Larabee bit back on the memories beckoning to him, as he watched the sun finally set. This wasn't the same. Vin and JD weren't his sons. Hell, he'd warned Buck about becoming attached. "You can't be with them every minute, Bucklin'. It's impossible. You know that." Chris pulled his hat off and raked a hand through his hair. "I know that. It‘s part of the problem."

The dark-haired rancher shook his head. "I never meant for this to happen. I thought them being at the ranch would be good for you. For all of us."

It had been good. Hadn't it? "You were hoping for the best just like you always do, pard." Using that Buck logic. "There isn't anything wrong with that."

Buck sighed heavily. "If I'd just said no when they wanted to bring that damn hawk home with them..."

"And if we had just went and checked on what they were doing in the barn earlier," Chris interrupted his partner, "... and if Ezra had asked what they wanted with that wax..., and if I hadn’t read them that story." Larabee shook his head. "It's no good, Buck. Sometimes terrible things happen and it's no ones fault. Besides, we aren‘t use to thinking like parents."

Wilmington swallowed hard and looked down at his hands again. "I can't get over seeing JD laying on that ledge, not moving. I won't ever forget that. Or hearing him scream and not being able to make things right. It's like..." Buck caught himself before he could finish his thought.

It was like the night he and Chris arrived at Larabee's ranch to find it burned to the ground. He'd never forget the way the air felt, or the smell...or finding Adam and Sarah. God help him, he couldn't do it again. And he knew Chris couldn't.

"I know." Chris' soft admission stunned the other lawman for a second. "I care about them too."

Buck had never doubted it, but he never thought his friend would ever admit it either. "Those two have a way of getting under a person's skin, don't they?"

Larabee's hard emerald glare softened and his eyes implored for his friend to understand. It was now or never. "It don't mean we should keep them, Buck. It may be that they deserve better than we can offer."

Wilmington felt the bile rise to his throat as his stomach flip-flopped. He knew it was coming, but hearing it out loud still felt like an unexpected blow to his gut. Surely Chris didn't think they could just turn and walk away after four months. Hell, Buck couldn't do it after the first four hours, let alone four weeks, and never after the last four months. It'd be like cutting his own heart out.

"What are you saying, Chris?"

"I think you know exactly what I’m saying, pard."

And he did. Buck looked away again.

Sure he'd agreed with Chris when the other man had insisted that they not make any permanent decisions for a while, not make anything legal, but he'd had it in his mind to keep those boys from the get go, and he wasn't losing them now.

Hell, he'd been pretty happy with the place he'd made for himself in Four Corners. Chris was in his life again, he had a job he liked, and he'd found good friends he considered family in Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah. Even his and Chris' boyhood dreams of owning the best horse ranch west of the Mississippi was looking possible. But when he had laid eyes on JD and Vin. Well, he'd just known, they'd make his world complete.

He needed JD, and JD needed him. And whether Chris Larabee wanted to face it or not he needed Vin, and Vin sure as hell needed him. And Vin and JD needed each other. They all needed one another. How could it get any better than that? How could something so right, be wrong?

"Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong." Buck stood and paced a few feet, before whirling back to face Chris. "They’ve had enough people dump on them in their life. You’ve seen those scars on their back and legs. You see how Vin shies away from touch like some whooped pup and how JD wakes up from nightmares nearly every night. It’s amazing that either one of them trusts us at all. But they do. And if we break that trust that’s got to be wrong, pard."

Chris stood also, his muscles jerking with tension. How dare Buck point out things he‘d obsessed over for months. "Letting Josiah find them a real home is what’s best for them, Buck. Making sure they are safe and cared for isn’t wrong."

"Keep telling yourself that, pard. Maybe you'll believe it one day. But I know we were meant to find those boys, and I'll be damned if I let you screw this up just because your scared shitless."

Chris glared at his friend, surprised at the conviction in his tone, but before he could reply a familiar piercing scream broke the air and both men jumped to their feet. "JD!"

+ + + + + + +

JD's eyelids felt like they were as heavy as Peso's saddle and the little boy was afraid he'd forgotten how to work them when it took a lot longer than usual to get them open. His head hurt something fierce and he couldn’t remember ever feeling quite so dizzy before, or having as many spots that hurt on his body either.

And when he did finally pry his eyes open what he saw was much scarier than any bridge troll he could imagine. A large, dark face, with piercing black eyes loomed over him. Glistening white hair streamed around the withered features staring at him and streaks of red marked each side of the creatures face. Any thoughts of pain fled his mind, as his heart pounded against his chest like a hundred horse hooves and he fought to remember how to breathe.

The five-year-old had never been so frightened in all his years but for the life of him he couldn't scream. Instead he squeezed his eyes shut again and hoped that he was just having a bad dream. He tried to reach for Vin, who should have been right beside him if he was truly sleeping, but someone was holding his arms down. In a moment of panic he mustered all his strength and kicked out with his tiny feet. A satisfying yelp was his reward but when he opened his eyes again, the monster was still there.

This time JD screamed.

Not because of the creature who had finally released him, but because he had just tried to sit up and the many bruises and abrasions on his body had suddenly made themselves known. When he caught his breath, the little boy made it to his knees and scampered into the corner of the tent, trying to make himself as small as possible. He pressed his back into the soft leather hide and pulled his legs into his chest, trying to control the fear he was feeling.

"Calm, little one." A voice spoke, but it wasn't coming from the scary thing that had frightened JD. It was another person, and after a shocked moment and a lot of blinking JD realized that the person speaking to him was a real live Indian. "We will not hurt you."

As he inched closer, his hands held out, it was easier for JD to get a good look at him. The Indian had long black hair that hung past his shoulders. One side was braided and an eagle feather hung from it's end. He wore buckskin pants with no shirt, but a small, leather pouch ensconced with beads hung from around his neck. "I am Kojay, and this is my grandfather, Red Cloud. He is The People’s medicine man."

JD glanced at the white-haired native that he had mistaken for a monster, and swallowed hard as Red Cloud nodded to him. He spoke softly in a language that JD didn't understand, but it was the gourd that the man had just pulled from an animal-skin bag that grabbed the child's attention.

It was brightly painted and feathers adorned it, but it was the sound that it made that JD liked. When Red Cloud shook it or turned it upside down, it sounded like rain hitting their barn roof. Red Cloud continued to shake the stick as he began to chant softly.

Despite the fact that the words were unknown, JD felt his heart start to slow, and his breathing became easier. Even the terrible pounding inside his head started to soften. In fact, before he knew it, the old Indian was right in front of him, and he was even considering taken the withered hand offered to him when a very upset Buck Wilmington burst through the flap opening of the teepee.


The child jumped, the spell broken, and he nearly bowled the medicine man over in his attempt to make it to the rancher as quickly as possible. "Buck!" The little boy yelled and practically climbed up Wilmington's leg, latching himself around Buck's neck, and burying his face against the rancher‘s shoulder.

"I told you I should have stayed in here," Buck shouted loudly at Kojay, the emotional roller coaster ride he'd been on for the last four hours starting to take it's toll. "It's not like he ain't had enough scares for one day."

Red Cloud eased himself to a cross-legged position on the floor and spoke to his grandson, who chuckled softly and looked at Buck.

" What are you laughing at? My boy's hurt and I don't think that's one bit funny."

Kojay laid a hand on his friend's arm. "Grandfather says that Little Thunder comes by his gift to shake the ground naturally. He says calm winds do not spring forth from a storm."

Buck rolled his eyes. "Well I didn't ask Red Cloud's opinion now did I. I just wanted him to help JD." Wilmington hadn't been too fond of the medicine man since he'd given him a remedy nearly a year before that had kept him in the outhouse most of the day and night, but then again the man had at one time saved Chris and Ezra's life, and that was cause enough to forgive him.

"Nathan and the others were riding up as I came in, I’ll have Nate take a look at him."

Red Cloud spoke and Kojay motioned for Buck to place JD back on the animal skins he'd been sleeping on. "Grand father wishes to check Little Thunder's wounds." The chief put his hand on Wilmington’s shoulder when he looked hesitant. "Your healer will ask him to."

Chris entered the teepee now along with Nathan, who was still breathless from the daring ride in with Josiah and Ezra. Both men stayed near the entrance.

Buck met Jackson’s eyes and the man motioned for him to do as Kojay had again asked. He gently pried the five-year-old's hands from around him and sat JD on one of the large bear skins. "Come on, JD, let Red Cloud take a look at you, son, okay."

"NO!" JD tried to crawl back to Wilmington but Red Cloud caught the back of his shirt and stopped him. The medicine man quickly offered the gourd to the little boy before he could even think about screaming.

Up close the rain stick was even more enticing. The outside was colored black and gold and there were red horses painted along the sides. JD wiped at his eyes and looked to Buck who nodded for him to take it. JD reached out and took the object and tentatively shook it. A slight, tired, smile appeared on his face as he looked up at Wilmington and noticed Chris for the first time.

"Look, Chris" he turned it over again."Rain."

Larabee walked closer and knelt down next to the five-year-old, so thankful to see him awake. "I see that. It's like magic."

JD nodded and looked at Red Cloud. "Magic."

The old man spoke a word in his own language, but JD must have assumed that he agreed, because his grin widened, and he turned the shaker over again.

Chris laid a gentle hand on his head and glanced to Buck. "Looks like he's feeling some better."

Red Cloud spoke and Kojay looked at his friend. "Red Cloud says the danger has passed since your son has woken. He no longer fears that the gods wish to see him this day."

"It's good that he's awake," Nathan agreed, moving in to watch as Red Cloud removed something that looked like mud from a clay jar and rubbed it on the cuts on JD's arms. The five-year-old didn't seem to notice as he played with his new toy, but when the medicine man went to unwrap the bandana from the wound on his head, JD flinched away from him."No!"

Red Cloud removed his hand and exchanged words with Kojay once more, who handed the old man another clay pot. The medicine man began to chant and JD's eyes grew wide as he watched Red Cloud dip his fingers into the vessel only to wipe them across his own forehead. Where his fingers touched his face, three long streaks of red paint appeared. He then dipped his fingers in again, and smeared then across each of JD's cheeks.

Nathan hid his smile, as Kojay handed the little boy a small feather and JD's hazel eyes grew impossibly larger. "Grand father says that you are now part of our tribe, Little Thunder, and he says that young braves do not fear his medicine."

JD swallowed hard and glanced from Buck to Chris, before looking at Red Cloud. He clutched the rain stick to him and squeezed his eyes shut, but didn't move away when the Indian reach for him again.

Buck grinned as JD endured the medicine man's touch with only a whimper and squeezed the little boy's hand when it was over. "You can breathe now, half-pint."

"I'm better." JD's eyes flew open and he smiled.

Red Cloud touched his face and nodded, before handing a small wooden cup to Buck. It was Kojay who explained the medicine man's wishes to Wilmington. "It is for the boy to drink. It is strong medicine."

Buck looked at Nathan who nodded, but the rancher still brought the liquid to his own lips and tasted it. "Damn sort better than what you give us," he growled, glancing to Jackson.

Chris stood as Red Cloud started to leave and looked to Kojay. "Tell him we're grateful for his help. We'd like to repay him somehow."

Kojay spoke in the language of The People to Red Cloud who looked at Larabee and replied. Although most of his words were not familiar to Chris, the sentiment seemed to come across with ease.

Still, Kojay translated. "Grand father says that he is a father too, Black Eagle. And he has lost sons, and sons of sons. He would wish that on no man, especially one who walks in friendship and honor with The People. You owe him nothing."

Chris nodded and watched as the medicine man left. He then turned to the Chief of the village and clasped arms with Kojay. "If we can do anything, you know where we are."

Kojay smiled. "Chanu has told me he has a new friend. He called him the white Hawk." The Indian let go of Larabee. " The spirits have linked our paths, old friend, just as they have the eagle and hawk."

The rancher held the dark gaze for a moment, a chill passing through him briefly, before he merely nodded.

"Buck?" JD had finished all the tea like Red Cloud had instructed, and Buck was now tucking him under one of the deer skins.

"Yeah, squirt?"

JD's voice was almost a whisper now as he clasped the rancher's hand. "Do you know where we are?"

Wilmington leaned down on his elbow, his face close to the little boy's. "Where's that?" he asked in a whisper also, his blue eyes twinkling with mischief.

"In an teepee, a real teepee." JD yawned, despite his amazement. "Is Vin here too?"

Buck smiled. "You bet he is, JD. He‘s fine."

The five-year-old pulled the lady’s man a little closer. "Buck?"

"Yes, JD?"

"Am I a real brave now?"

Buck ran his hand through the little boy's hair, grinning from ear to ear. "You sure are, little bit."

The five-year-old's eyes fluttered closed, but he fought to hold them open for a minute. "Buck?"

"Yes, JD?"

"Does that mean I can have my own horse now?"

The rancher chuckled softly and he let his hand rest over the boy’s eye’s. "Sleep, JD. Go to sleep."

JD grinned and pulled two of Buck’s fingers apart so he could peek out with one eye. "Buck."

The dark-haired rancher sighed. "Yes, JD?"

"I love you."

Buck’s heart constricted and his grin faltered. He felt his eyes sting and he had to swallow hard before he could speak. "I love you too, JD."

+ + + + + + +

The moon was full and every star seemed to be glowing a little brighter as Buck joined Chris on the outskirts of the village. Nathan and Rain were with Vin and Ezra had promised to stay with JD in case the little boy awoke again and was frightened. It was a miracle both boys hadn’t been hurt worse than they were, but Buck felt certain he and his friends had yet again beat the odds.

Wilmington hadn’t wanted to leave JD so soon, but he and Chris had a talk to finish.

"JD still asleep?" Chris didn’t turn to face his friend, but continued to gaze at the luminescent orb above them.

"Yeah," Buck sighed heavily and Larabee finally looked at him.

"Something wrong...Did he...?"

"No," Wilmington was quick to cut off his partner’s line of thinking, "I’m just glad they’re both all right."

"Me too." Chris turned back around.

"We can make this work, Chris. I know we can. And I know you want to."

"It’s not about what I want." Larabee shook his head. "It isn’t about what you want either, damn it." The blond rancher faced his friend. "It’s about what they need."

"They need us!" Buck grabbed his friend’s arm. "Can’t you see that?"

Chris shook his head, anger and sorrow coloring his green eyes. "I’m not the one who’s blind here!" Larabee jerked away, and shoved Buck. "You don’t know what it’s like to lose a son!"

The dark-haired lady’s man looked as if his oldest friend had punched him. "I know better than most." Buck said softly. "I ain’t gonna’ let it scare me off though."

Chris jerked his hat off and threw it on the ground, wishing like hell there was a wall in front of him to punch, anything to take his frustration out on.

"Damn it, Buck. We just don’t have the same perspectives on this. Nothing’s going to change that."

Wilmington stepped away from his friend. "Nothing’s going to change the way I feel, Chris. I just hope to hell, something changes for you before you wake up and realize a man don’t get too many second chances in this life."

Larabee didn’t reply. "I’m going to check on Vin. I want to tell him that his cousin’s going to be just fine."

Chris didn’t try to stop him, didn’t try to explain further. Just as before when he couldn’t give the answers he’d wanted to give to Vin, he now couldn’t offer any comfort or encouragement to Buck. Looking back up at the stars, Chris did the only thing he could think of. He prayed for yet another miracle that he wasn’t sure he was deserving of.

+ + + + + + +

"I have something to show you, JD." Buck looked down at the little boy, who was sitting on his bed playing with the gourd that Red Cloud had given him. The five-year-old ignored him.

Wilmington rolled his eyes heavenward. "I have something to show you, Little Thunder." Since leaving the Indian village JD had insisted upon being called by his real name.

The little boy sighed heavily. "Okay." He sounded miserable, but at least he looked at Buck.

It hadn't been easy on the exuberant five-year-old to stay in bed the whole 5 days that Nathan had insisted upon. Living up to his new name , JD had complained about it loudly and very, very, often. Every ten seconds if you believed his cousin's take on the situation.

Vin hadn't been as vocal about his discomfort with the contraption he was wearing on his arm, but he'd been out of the house only after two days of rest, leaving JD even more miserable.

"What is it?" JD asked. He had gone beyond pouting after the first three days of confinement, and now he was merely sullen and slightly grumpy.

"Well, now, that's a surprise."

A slight sparkle flickered in the hazel eyes and JD straightened his slumped shoulders as he peered up at Wilmington. "What kind of surprise?"

Buck's grin widened. "The kind you have to go outside to see."

"Yeah!" JD yelled throwing back the small blanket he'd been covered with. He dropped the rain stick next to his wooden horses and scampered off the bed. "Let's go!"

"Aren't you forgetting something, squirt?" Buck called out to JD before he could fly out the door.

The five-year-old stopped and looked down at his bare feet. "Boots."

"Unless you want to try your hand at walking upside down." Buck motioned for JD to come over to him so he could put his shoes on. "Besides, this is my surprise and I want to do it the right way."

JD grudgingly did as he was told and waited as patiently as he could as the rancher put socks and boots on his feet. He even endured having his hair combed, although he protested it's importance.

"Now for this." Buck pulled the bandana from around his neck and proceeded to roll it into a blindfold.

"What's that for?" JD asked curiously. "We gonna' play pin the tail on the donkey?"

"Nope." Buck merely spun the five-year-old around and proceeded to cover his eyes with the cloth.

"I can't see nothing." JD giggled and Buck caught his arm before he could tear the bandana from his eyes.

"That's the whole idea, half-pint. This is a surprise!"

"Hurry!" JD was practically bouncing up and down as he tried to manage finding the door himself, as Buck stood and grabbed the blanket from the boys' bed.

"Hold on there, son." The rancher caught him before he could bump into the wall. "All we need is you falling down and bumping that head again. I don‘t think any of us can take another week like this last one."

JD laughed as Buck picked him up and pretended to stumble about the room like he couldn't see either. "You look like old Sampson after he got into that barrel of Mr. Gentry's home brew." The rancher threw the blanket around the little boy's shoulders to ward off the chill and staggered for the door.

The little boy giggled harder and when he finally felt the cool spring breeze on his cheeks he let out a loud whoop that shattered the early morning quiet.

"Here they come!" JD heard Vin yell and he squirmed in Buck's embrace.

"Hurry, Buck!"

"Now, JD, patience is a virtue." The smile could be heard in the rancher's voice and he couldn't help but to laugh at the grunt of disapproval from the boy in his arms.

"Hurry up, Buck!" Vin called this time and JD moved his head trying to search out from which direction his cousin's voice was coming.

JD heard the creak of the barn door as it was held open for them and instantly smelled the hay and the horses. "Are we coming to see Miss Peeps?" he asked, rotating his head as if he could see if he just moved the right way.

"Nope," Buck answered.

"What then?" JD pleaded.

"He sounds awful anxious there, don't he?" Chris' voice had JD looking to the right and reaching out his hand.

"Get me."

Larabee shook his head at the commanding tone of their littlest one's voice, which had grown more authoritative and demanding over the last week, but did as the five-year-old requested.

He shot the other rancher a glance to curb the stupid smirk on his face, but ended up smiling himself. Hell, there wasn't much use in denying it. He was sure they had both spoiled the boys to a point of no return, but considering the scare they had all endured, he was willing to let it slide another day or so. Even though he was still confused about what to do about their current situation, he wasn’t about to talk to Josiah until the two boys were completely recovered.

"Now keep them eyes covered." Buck instructed as he handed over JD to the other rancher. "Vin and me are going to get your present ready."

"I get a present?!" JD squealed. "Is it my birthday all ready?"

"Nope. This is just for being JD." Buck called as he and Vin went to the back stall of the barn where their prize mare Lady was kept.

The little boy tried to follow the sound of Wilmington's and Vin's voices as he heard them laughing, but Chris was keeping a tight hold on him. "Hold still, JD. They're almost here."

JD heard a horse he thought was Lady and tried to reach out and touch her. "Lady?" He could feel the horse's breath on his face and giggled when she stretched her head forward and lipped him. JD had been diligent in giving the expectant mother extra carrots each day, and she had a fondness for the sugar cubes he'd sneak on occasion also.

Buck nodded and Chris lifted the blindfold from JD's face. The little boy smiled but looked a little disappointed. "Is this my surprise? I seen Lady lots of times, Buck."

Vin came around from the other side of the horse and he smiled mischievously up at JD. "Don't you think she looks some different, JD?"

The five-year-old's face scrunched up and he stared at the large Gray. But before he could answer a slight movement behind Vin caught his eye and Chris was sure the boy had stopped breathing.

A small nose appeared from around Lady's front legs, followed by two, long, wobbly legs and finally a head complete with ears and two very large brown eyes. In moments a shaky, red and white painted colt stood looking curiously at the newcomers from it's mother's side.

"Lady’s baby!" JD's voice was barely above a whisper, but it held all the awe of someone who'd just witnessed a blessed miracle. "The baby horse!"

Chris laughed and looked at Buck, who quickly wiped at his eyes. The rancher hid his grin as he sat JD on the ground and gave him a little nudge forward. "Take a look, but go easy."

JD's hazel eyes were as wide as Buck had ever seen them and he didn't know which one looked more amazed at the sight before them, the five-year-old or Lady's new foal.

"Can I touch him?" JD still whispered as he finally gazed at Buck.

"If he'll let you." Buck laughed and JD carefully reached out to touch the small horse that didn't stand no taller than he did.

The baby animal flinched closer to it's mother at first, but allowed JD's small hands to brush against it's nose. JD giggled. "He's littler than me!"

"He's the smallest horse I ever seen." Vin agreed, letting his own hand rest on the little horse's neck.

"He sure is pretty." JD's grin grew even wider as the colt let him get closer.

"Takes after his daddy." Buck smiled at the two boys. "Old Fire will be mighty proud he has such a fine son."

"What are you going to name him, JD?" Vin looked at his cousin, who was still staring at the tiny horse in wonder.

"I get to name him?!" The little boy quickly focused on Vin.

"Of course you do." Buck carefully knelt next to JD. "Who else would name your horse, but you?"

It took a moment for it to sink in, but when it did, the look that came across JD's face was priceless. At least Wilmington believed nothing could be more valuable to him than the mixture of excitement and innocent bewilderment that played on the little boy's features. He'd cherish and remember that moment forever. "He's mine?"

Buck's voice didn't seem to want to work at the moment, and luckily Chris rescued him. "Well, we discussed it," Chris winked at Vin, "my partners and I did, and we felt that you, being the only man at the ranch without a horse that is, should be the one to get Fire's first born."

JD was speechless as he looked from Chris to Vin and then finally to Buck. "You mean it?"

Wilmington nodded, and cleared his throat. "You bet, little bit. He's all yours, and by the time he's old enough to break and ride, why you'll have grown into a mighty fine rider."

"Wow!" JD exclaimed, sending the colt back a few faltering steps. "You’ll teach me to ride when I get big?" The little boy looked at Buck, who glanced to Chris.

The green eyes held something behind them that Buck couldn’t quite read. He and Chris hadn’t discussed the boys leaving since that night at the Indian village, but they hadn’t talked about how long they would stay either. Finally Chris answered the five-year-old. "We both will, JD."

"So, what are you going to name him?" Vin asked again, grinning from ear to ear. For some reason he felt better than he had since the day they‘d taught Icarus to fly.

JD looked to his newest treasure and bit his lip. After several long minutes of intense scrutiny the little boy grinned. "Seven," he pronounced proudly.

"Seven?" Buck and Chris asked simultaneously, but Vin grinned.

"That makes sense." The seven-year-old nodded.

"What makes sense?" Chris crossed his arms and looked at the small horse as if he'd missed something, which in fact he had.

"His markings," JD pointed to the colt's face. "See, Buck?"

Sure enough, the white prominent blaze on the foal's face started over his right eye and traveled in an almost perfect straight line across his head before angling down and painting the length of his nose. "He has a seven on his face."

Wilmington laughed and glanced up at his partner. "That he does, JD. Lucky number seven!"

"Through the eyes of children," Chris mumbled, but not so low that his oldest friend didn't hear him. Buck stood leaving the two boys to their excited discussion of their newest family member and caught Larabee's eyes.

"Give's a man a fresh perspective on things, don't it, pard?"

Larabee held the other man's blue gaze. He knew Buck meant for them to keep the boys. Had from the first days he'd laid eyes on them. Damn, he wanted to keep them too. But it was hard to let go, and hold on at the same time. "I guess it does."

Chris could admit now that since the first day that Vin and JD had come, he had felt like he was the one standing on the edge of the Devil's Horns, waiting for the big drop. Afraid of what would happen if he stepped closer, more afraid of what would happen if he stepped back.

He felt trapped. Like Icarus had in that cage, but he’d been afraid to fly. He was afraid of feeling that kind of freedom again. He was afraid of getting too close to the sun, just like Icarus had.

"Does that mean what I think it means?" Buck’s blue eyes held all the hope and wonder of a child’s on Christmas morning.

Chris didn’t have a chance to answer as JD stepped in between the two men and pulled on the dark-haired rancher’s sleeve.

"Buck, can Seven sleep with me and Vin?" JD's question brought a chuckle from Wilmington and he gazed across to his oldest friend.

"Why don't you ask Chris about that, squirt."

"Can he, Chris? Can he sleep in mine and Vin's room?"

Larabee shook his head and smiled. "No, JD, he most certainly can not."

As he watched the little face in front of him set in lines of determination, Chris thought maybe it was time he followed Icarus’ lead, stop dragging his feet and spread his own wings.

"Why not?" JD sounded his favorite question. "Our bed’s plenty big enough."

Larabee scooped the little boy up and met Vin's twinkling blue eyes as he did. In the distance he could have sworn he heard the cry of an eagle, or maybe it was a hawk.

"Because, JD, horses don't like bridge trolls. That’s why."

The barn erupted with laughter. It wasn’t as hard as he’d thought it was going to be. In fact, Chris would take flying over falling any old day.

The End
July 11, 2001

Comments to: earthsong_71@yahoo.com