Don't Leave by Jeanne

"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe

Chris had won, and he climbed gingerly into Josiah's car. He wasn't sure he'd won anything when his shoulder started to ache and they hadn't even left the parking lot yet.

Josiah pulled out into traffic; it was going to be a long drive. Normally it was 40 minutes to Chris' house but he had the feeling that this was going to seem to be a much longer trip. He watched as Chris leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He was determined to wait and let Chris start the conversation.

Chris had every intention of talking, just as soon as he got some energy. He tried to relax with the gentle movement of the car. He drifted for a while and suddenly he was back on the mountain.


Chris looked around and spotting a trail of broken bricks he began to follow them. As he walked he looked around. The country was so beautiful and green. The grass broken only by the spattered bricks scattered along the trail. Up ahead was a sharp edge where you could see out across the mountain range. Vin had been a little frightened by it the first time they'd come here, worried that they would fall off. But by the time they left it was his favorite place. He loved looking out at the layers of mountains that seemed to go on forever.

Chris stopped. Vin was sitting at his favorite place; only he had his back turned to the vista. He sat cross-legged and his head was bend down. "Vin?"

Vin looked up. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you."

Vin looked down and plucked at the grass in front of him. "Oh."

"Why aren't you looking out Vin, you love to watch here?"

"There's nothing there, it's all gone. It was just a fairy tale anyway."



A bump in the road woke Chris up. He blinked and looked around.

Josiah looked at him from the corner of his eye. "You ok, Brother?"

"I don't know Josiah. Let me tell you about my dreams now."


"Yeah, I just had another one."

Once Chris had described his dreams to Josiah they rode in silence.


"I'm thinking Chris. This isn't exactly my field."

They finished the ride in silence. Chris watched the house as they drove up but no little boys ran out to greet them. He got out and walked slowly toward the porch. Glancing around he saw Vin sitting in the shadow. "Vin?"

"Hello, Chris."

"You ok?"

"I'm fine."

Nathan came out "What are you doing just standing out here, get in the house and off your feet." Nathan shooed Chris inside.

Vin watched, but made no move to follow them inside. Chris was home, now what was he going to do?

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

It had been the week from hell. As the days passed Vin got quieter and the quieter Vin got the quieter Chris got, until he was like some dark avenging angel waiting for the right time to swoop down and carry them away. JD was on the verge of tears most of the time and when Buck came home from work he tried to do damage control. Finally in desperation he took Friday off and he and JD went into Denver for some quality time alone.

Mrs. Potter was off also helping her teens get ready for school. Everyone, except Vin and Chris thought that a weekend alone was just what they needed. Vin saying he was tired had gone to bed right after supper. At least when he was in bed asleep then there weren't any questions that had no answers.

Early the next morning Chris went to check on Vin. The bed was empty and not really worried Chris dressed and went down to the barn figuring that Vin was with Peso. Only when he got there Peso was missing. Feeling a little tingle of worry Chris went back to the house and looked more carefully in the boys room.

Vin's backpack was gone and a jacket. In the kitchen Chris found where he'd taken several snack bags of trail mix and some granola bars. A canteen was gone also.

"Where'd you go Vin." Chris stood on the porch looking all around. His eyes stopped on the trail leading up into the mountains. "Damn it Vin."He turned back to the house gathering his coat and Vin's heavier coat and some supplies and headed for the barn.

Saddling Pony was harder then he expected. Throwing the heavy saddle up on the horse one handed stretched the still healing stitches in his shoulder and the sore muscles. Once he was ready to go Chris pulled himself up gritting his teeth at the pain.

Chris turned Pony toward the trail. Stopping only to pull out his cell phone and calling Buck. The message service came on. "Buck, Vin took off. I think he went to where we camped out before. I'm going after him. You won't be able to reach me up there.  Don't worry I'm ok, I'll take it easy."

Chris nudged Pony into a good mile-eating walk, but even Pony's easy walk jarred his shoulder and made it ache. He reached up and gently rubbed it but was determined to get to Vin.

By the time Chris reached the valley that he thought Vin was at his knuckles were white from gripping the saddle horn. The pain seemed to grow with each step the horse took throbbing down to his bones. He was concentrating on just staying on Pony when he heard the welcome whinny from Peso. Looking up he saw Peso grazing, reins looped around his neck. Peso was looking at them ears forward, glad to see his stable mate. Pony shook his head up and down and whickered back.

Chris sat up straighter and looked around for Vin. Not seeing him he urged Pony on closer to the cliff edge that he somehow knew Vin was at. He saw Vin finally sitting on a big rock looking out. Biting his lip he, dismounted, but had to lean against the horse until the world stopped spinning. Taking a deep breath Chris let go and on unsteady legs walked toward Vin.

"Vin?" Chris called softly.

Vin wouldn't turn around. "Go away Chris."

"I can't Vin."

"Yeah you can, me and Peso are just fine. We don't need you, we don't need nobody."

Chris took several unsteady steps closer to Vin. "You mind if I sit down? I don't feel so good."

Vin for the first time looked at Chris. "Chris?"

Chris started to reach out and fell to his knees.

Vin jumped up and ran toward Chris. "Chris? What's wrong?"

Chris tried to see through the swirling colors and the waves of nausea that had become his world. Then suddenly he felt small hands guiding him down and leaning him back against the rock. He took several deep breaths with his eyes closed. Finally his stomach settled and he opened his eyes to see worried blue ones.

He tried to smile. "It's ok Vin, I...I just wasn't ready to ride that far yet." He reached out and touched Vin's cheek. For the first time in days Vin didn't flinch away.

Vin chewed his lip trying to decide what Uncle Nathan would do. He reached out. "Let me look at your bandage."


"Let me see if you're bleeding."

"No Vin I'm alright, I just need to rest."

Vin shook his head, "Let me look. Uncle Nathan told us to check for bleeding first. He's been giving JD and me First Aid lessons. Says we need all the training we can get cause we're accident prone, just like the rest of you. He was trying to sound mad but he was laughing too. How come Uncle Nathan does that?"

Chris shook his head, he'd drifted a little, "What? Oh, 'cause he doesn't like us being hurt, and because he worries so he acts like he's mad cause he's really worried."

"That doesn't make sense."

"Yeah it does, grown up sense."

"Oh," Vin leaned over and moving the coat aside he unsnapped the shirt and pulled it away from the bandage. "Chris, it's wet. I think your bleeding again at least a little."

Chris reached up and felt the bandage. "Yeah. I think your right." He pulled his shirt further away from the bandage and looked under it. The tissue around the stitches was red and inflamed and it looked like one or two had torn loose, but the bleeding had already stopped.

"It's ok Vin, it's already quit." Chris patted the bandage back down and his shirt. He looked up at the sky. "We need to get home. There's a storm coming and it looks like it's coming faster then they predicted."

Vin shook his head.

"Vin we have to go, up this high it could snow, not just rain."

"But its still summer."

"Yep it is, but in the high country you can have snow even in summer." Chris tried to stand but the dizziness came back and he sat back down with a huff. He started blinking his eyes but everything had that far away look and feel. "Vin?" Chris shook his head trying to clear it but only made things worse, and he knew he was going to pass out. Everything started to fade out and he could feel himself breathing harder. He fought to stay conscious. He had to get Vin to safety. Trying to slow his breathing and regulate it he concentrated on staying in the here and now. "Vin, listen to me, you have to get on Peso and head home."


"You have to. The storm is coming faster then I thought and you have to get down lower. Find Buck and he'll come for me."

Vin couldn't believe what Chris was saying. "No, I won't leave you and you can't make me."


"NO! Your sick, if I leave you.... If I leave you here in the storm you'll die. I won't do it." Vin looked around desperately seeking a solution to their situation. His eyes stopped on a spot behind the wall of trees. "Chris, we could stay in the cave we found."

"What? No, Vin that wasn't even a proper cave, just a scooped out spot."

"It would be big enough for the two of us. I ain't leaving you Chris."

Chris looked at the stubborn little boy. He realized he was in no condition to 'make' Vin do what he said, and their best chance for survival was to make do. "Ok, but you have to do exactly what I say."

Vin nodded in agreement.

"Go get Pony and bring him over here."

Vin jumped up and ran toward Pony, slowing down as he approached the horse. "Easy Pony." He walked slowly with his hand out. Pony watched him his ears flicking back and forth. Vin reached for the reins and led the horse to Chris.

Chris used the saddle to pull himself to his feet biting his lip against the increasing dizziness. "Ok, lead him slowly toward the cave, I'm going to walk beside him."

For a brief moment Chris considered mounting and trying to get himself and Vin off the mountain, but he knew he'd never make it, at least here they might have a chance.

It took an agonizingly long time to reach the mouth of the cave. It was nothing more then just a scooped out spot in the sandstone rock. No more then seven foot deep and maybe a littler wider. The roof was only about five feet high so Chris had to crawl in but Vin had plenty of room. The opening was small hiding the rest of the cave from sight. Chris let go of the saddle and stumbled toward the opening. He stopped at the entrance and leaning against the rock caught his breath. "Vin, get the saddle bags and your coat. Look inside. There should be a couple of those shiny space blankets. Go spread one out against the back wall." Chris was gasping when he finished, still fighting to stay on his feet.

Vin did as Chris directed and when he came out he pulled on Chris' coat. "Come on Chris you gotta lay down." Chris sank to his knees and crawled to the back of the cave. He tried to sit up but Vin pushed and pulled until he was lying down.

"Ok. Do you think you can take the saddle off Pony?"

"I'll try."

"Ok, if you can't just take him back to Peso and take off the bridles and shoo them toward home. They'll be all right. Then.....then try to gather some wood. Vin, I think I'm going to pass out soon. Don't worry, just get everything inside and..."

"Chris. Chris..." Vin reached out and touched Chris. His cheek felt so warm yet he was shivering. Vin pulled the blanket over him and went out side. He studied Pony for a few minutes. He was a 60 pound boy contemplating removing a 100 pound saddle from a 17 hand high horse. He loosened the cinches and pulled on the stirrup until the saddle finally slid off Pony's side. Pony turned his head and snorted at this strange new way of getting rid of his saddle. "Pony, be still. I know this isn't the way you're supposed to do it but it's all I can do."

Vin gathered the reins and lead Pony back to where Peso was grazing. Slipping off the bridles Vin leaned into Peso's neck. "You and Pony go home now, you have to get Buck for us." Peso nodded his head and whickered. "Go on now." Vin stepped back and waved his arms. The horses turned and started trotting down the hill.

Vin slung the bridles over his shoulder and started gathering wood. The wind was picking up and it was getting darker and colder. When he had an arm full he took it to the cave and then went for more. Each trip increased the pile of wood. He checked on Chris each trip to find him still sleeping.

Finally it was so dark and it had started to rain, he couldn't go back. Vin pulled the saddle inside and turned on the flashlight. He'd thought about how to hang the other silver blanket over the entrance to block the rain or snow and thought he had it figured out. Then he could build a fire. The smoke would escape over the top of the blanket and the heat would be radiated back toward Chris.

Vin concentrated on building a small fire not only for heat but also for light. He'd have to climb up to wedge the edges of the blanket into the cracks of the rocks and he was hoping it would work. He was getting tired and his hands were so cold. He glanced over at the sleeping form. Don't worry Chris. I'll take care of you.

Wedging the blanket corners with the help of some little sticks and he could feel the difference in the warmth of the cave right away. He looked outside and the rain had turned to snow. It was coming down heavily. He put some bigger pieces of wood on the fire and crawled over to where Chris lay.

"Chris? Chris wake up now."

Chris thought he heard someone calling from far away but it was so cold, he could feel his teeth chattering. "C...Cold."

Vin signed, he didn't know what to do. He was so tired and cold too. He lifted the edge of the blanket and scooted under next to Chris. He could feel the heat and it felt good. Maybe he'd warm Chris up too. Snuggled close, Vin drifted off to sleep.

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Buck was tired and JD was asleep in his arms as he carried him into the dark house. Where was everybody? Buck turned on the lights as he went through the house. No Chris and no Vin. He carefully laid JD down and covered him then went back to the living room to look around.

It was almost dark, mostly due to the dark rain clouds that had blown in. He looked in the usual places, but there was no note. Puzzled he looked out the kitchen window. The barn door was open. "What the hell?" Buck charged out the back door and ran in the rain to the barn turning on the light and looking around.

While he was there he fed the horses and looking around he noticed that Chris' saddle was missing as well as the two horses but Vin's saddle was still on the rack. With a bad feeling growing he finished and went back to the house. Pulling out his cell phone from his jacket pocket he checked his voice mail.

"Buck, Vin took off. I think he went to where we camped out before. I'm going after him. You won't be able to reach me up there. Don't worry I'm ok, I'll take it easy." Buck listened to the message twice.

"Oh, God." He looked out the window toward the mountain and could see the misty white that signified snow in the higher elevations. "Damn, Chris now what?" He started calling the rest of Team 7. Then paced until they arrived. The wind blew harder and the rain pored. Which did nothing for his mood.

Nathan was the first to arrive. "What do you mean Chris and Vin are up on the mountain? In This?"

"Chris left a message on my cell. Vin ran off and he went after him. That's all I know. Chris, Vin and the horses are missing and if they went to the high country they're being snowed on right now."

"He took off on a horse? That... that...." Nathan clinched his jaw trying to calm down. His anger was fueled with worry. Chris wasn't ready to be riding. Not at all, and not in bad weather. God the man was infuriating.

The others showed up, but there was nothing they could do until daylight. So they spread out on various chairs, couches and beds trying to sleep until action could be taken.

Buck called Mrs. Potter asking her to come early to watch JD while the rest of them went searching.

The storm was over long before dawn and the sky was clear and colorful as the sun came up. Buck looked out the window as he fixed coffee. "Damn," he slammed down the pot and ran outside. A bedraggled Peso and Pony stood in front of the barn door heads down looking for all the world like the two most pitiful orphans ever.

Buck approached the horses carefully looking for sighs of an accident but they were fine out side of being wet and miserable. He let them in the barn and they went to their stalls demanding to be fed. Buck quickly threw each horse some hay and headed back to the house to get the others. They would have to ride up the trail; it was too rough and narrow for a vehicle. He decided to take JD's horse for the extra one and to pack supplies. They would leave Pony and Peso home. But made a mental note to double lock their stalls. They would not be happy being left behind.

Once Mrs. Potter was there to watch JD the rest saddled up and prepared to ride. Nathan mumbling to himself going over the supplies he was taking.

JD was unusually quiet watching everybody. "Da?"

Buck went to him and picking him up hugged him tight. "It's going to be ok, Little Bit, we'll find Chris and Vin and bring them home. You stay and help Mrs. Potter fix a big supper for us. OK?"

JD hugged back as tight as he could. "Ok, I'll try. I love you, Da."

Buck bit the inside of his lip, "I love you to Little Britches." Setting JD down he turned and mounted. "Lets ride."

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Vin woke up; he noticed several things at once. The fire was almost out, the wind was blowing and he was hot. No it wasn't him it was Chris. He carefully got out from under the blanket and getting a hand full of twigs blew on the embers to start the fire again. He slowly fed the small flame until it took hold and then added more, bigger wood. Once he had the fire going he peeked outside. It was still night, he could see the stars and the moon. The light reflected on the snow. The wind was icy, luckily it wasn't blowing toward the cave but past it carrying away the smoke from the fire and leaving the fragile curtain hanging.

Vin turned back to the fire only to see Chris watching him. "Chris?"

"Hey Little Man." Chris licked his dry lips and his voice was hoarse and dry. Vin got a canteen and took it to Chris. Giving him a drink. "Thanks, kiddo. Where's the first aid kit?"

Vin looked around, "I'll get it."

Chris carefully sat up and when Vin handed him the kit he looked through it. Finding what he was looking for he took two aspirin and swallowed them with more water.

"Are you ok Chris?"

"I'm better Vin. I guess I wasn't ready for such a long ride. Are you ok?"

"I'm fine."


Vin turned quickly away, "Are you hungry, I'm hungry I got some trail mix." He quickly began digging in the pile of stuff he'd dragged inside the cave.

Chris pulled the blanket around his shoulders trying to stave off the chill he felt coming.He knew he had a fever and he needed to stay warm. How were he and Vin going to get home? He just hoped Buck had gotten his message. There was no way he was walking out of here.

Vin put more wood on the fire and crawled over by Chris. Chris opened the blanket and his arm and let Vin curl up beside him. They sat in silence for a while watching the fire. Chris was waiting for the aspirin to start working. He felt himself nod a few times and could tell by the relaxed feel that Vin had drifted off to sleep again. Some how he had to get past the boys defenses and get him to talk. To work out why he was shutting himself off from everybody around him.

Chris knew and understood such a reaction. He'd done it himself after Sarah and Adam had died. The difference being he'd been a grown man and Vin was a child, admittedly a very self-sufficient one with a high survival instinct but a child nevertheless. What did he say, what could he say that would help Vin understand why he was acting the way he was. For that matter did Chris understand it all? Chris leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. He felt so utterly awful that he knew he wasn't thinking straight. He was to the point that he counted the heartbeats that paced the throbs in his shoulder between pops and crackles from the fire.

He almost drifted off when he felt Vin move. Raising his head he looked down at the boy. Vin's head rested on Chris' thigh and his hands were opening and closing as if trying to grab something. He tossed his head, moaned and said something that Chris couldn't understand. Vin rolled again and batted at his face. There was little catches in his breathing. Chris rubbed his arm, "Vin? Hey, Little Man, it's ok, you're just dreaming." With the touch and the soft voice Vin quieted and seemed to relax once more.

Vin woke slowly. He opened his eyes and could see light beginning to show over the blanket. Sitting up carefully to keep from waking Chris, he crawled over and added the last of the wood to the fire. He glanced at Chris who was still sleeping and then crawled over and looked outside.

The sun was up and shining and had started melting the snow. Shivering slightly Vin went outside in the hopes of finding more firewood nearby. His feet crunched in the frosty snow and he walked around to warm up and gathered another arm full of dead tree branches.

Going back inside he glanced at Chris who shivered and moaned at the cold air. Vin laid the wood down and went to Chris. He reached out and touched his face. He was so hot. "Chris....Chris.." he said louder. Still the sleeping man wouldn't wake. Vin was frightened, "CHRIS... wake up. Please wake up." He shook Chris by the shoulder forgetting his injury in his anxiety.

Chris moaned and tried to pull away. " Do...don't, hurts.." He struggled to open his eyes. "Vin? What...what's wrong?"

"You wouldn't wake up, Chris, and I don't know what to do now."

Chris licked a dry tongue over dryer lips. "Water and some more aspirin."

Vin dug out the aspirin and handed then and the canteen to Chris.

"Lay down, Chris."

Vin helped the sick man lay flat and covered him up. He knew Chris was worse and needed help. He brushed his hand down Chris' cheek. Chris smiled tiredly. With out opening his eyes he said, "You're a good boy Adam. Where's your mommy?"

"Chris, it's me Vin."

"Be a good boy and find your mommy for me. I don't feel to good."

Tears ran down Vin's' face. "Chris, please, wake up, it's me, Vin. Chris?"

Chris tried to open his eyes, it was so hard and his head hurt so and it was so hot in here. Why didn't they turn down the heat? "Can''s so hot in here. Vin?"

Vin swiped at the tears with his fist. He had to get help for Chris. Chris was very sick. Vin looked around the cave and began to prepare to leave. He set the canteen and first aid kit by Chris and tucked him in tight. Then he banked the fire so that it would continue to burn slowly for hours. Once this was all done Vin kneeled beside Chris.

"Chris? Chris I'm going for help. I'll bring Buck back and he'll make everything better. Chris??" Sighing, Vin got up and taking a last look at the person that meant the most in the world to him, he left.

Once out side Vin squared his shoulders and started walking. He knew the way back to the house. But it was a long way and it would take a long time to walk it.

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Vin walked and walked. His feet were freezing. Sneakers were definitely not good shoes to walk in snow on. The sun was high in the sky now and the snow had turned to mush except in the shade. Vin stopped a minute and looked around. He figured he'd been walking most of the morning now. He was tired, hungry and his feet hurt but he wouldn't let himself stop. Chris needed him to get home. He had to find Buck and get help. Thinking of how sick Chris was made him walk faster; taking his hands out of his pockets he began swinging his arms as he walked.

Now the sun was directly overhead and his feet were leaden. Still Vin kept walking. He couldn't stop. Chris needed him. He looked down watching each foot rise and go forward and down. Left, right, left, right. His mind repeated over and over and over. Then suddenly there was something in front of him and he couldn't go forward anymore. Vin tiredly looked up. He blinked and shook his head, " Buck?" He could see Buck's mouth move but couldn't hear over the roar in his ears. "Buck, Chris is sick. I need to get help."

Vin's eyes rolled into his head and he collapsed into Bucks' arms.

Buck scooped up the little boy, "Nathan?" Before he could turn Nathan was right there beside him.

While Buck held him Nathan did a quick examination of Vin. "He seems to be ok, just exhausted. His feet are wet and probably near froze but he's just tired. Vin?"

Vin struggled to wake up. "Uncle Nathan, that you?"

"Yep, its me."

Vin started struggling "Uncle Nathan, Chris' sick, he needs you. Let go! I ain't no baby. Uncle Nathan, we got to get to Chris now. I was coming to get you."

Buck set the squirming child down. "Easy there, hoss, we're going. All you have to do is show us the way."

Vin looked at Buck and then for the first time around at the others. "You all came to find Chris?" He whispered.

Josiah reached for Vin as Buck lifted him up. "Not just Chris, Vin. We came looking for you too."

Vin's eyes got bigger. "For me, you came looking for me?"

Josiah nodded solemnly, "for you Vin. We came looking for you, your family and family sticks together even when it hurts."

Buck mounted up and turned to Vin. "Can you show us where Chris is?"

"Yeah, but your too big. Just go back that way." Vin pointed the direction he'd come from. Puzzled at the remark the men headed out.

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Chris lay very still trying to remember where he was and just exactly how he got here. He was hot, yet the air felt cold and it was dark, he could tell without opening his eyes. He thought about opening them but that seemed to take too much effort. He let out a little groan as he tried to roll over. It felt like he had rocks in his bed. His thoughts froze and his eyes flew open to the unpleasant sight of the cave. Turning his head he saw that the fire had burned down to embers casting a red glow on everything. "Vin?" Chris called softly, and then clearing his throat he called louder. "Vin? Where are you?"

Chris tried to sit up and after several false starts managed to push himself up against the back of the cave. He looked around, spotting the canteen and first aid box he reached for them with shaking hands. Taking small sips of the tepid water he tried to remember what had happened. He remembered Vin being there snuggled up next to him and he remembered vaguely the storm. Chris frowned, from somewhere he thought he remembered Adam being here. Shaking his head and rubbing his forehead between his eyes he thought, Larabee your losing it. Where was Vin? Chris pressed harder into his skull, why did he 'see' Adam every time he thought of Vin?

Too weak to try to stand he crawled over to the hanging blanket and pulled. It took four good tugs, but the blanket came down letting in the early afternoon light and the fresh air. Chris crawled further out and looked around. He could see lots of small boy muddy tracks leading to and from the cave entrance. His eyes scanned over the small canyon valley looking for movement that would tell him where Vin might be. Then it came to him. "Oh God, he's trying to walk back home alone." Chris failed miserably in his attempt to stand and leaning back tried to stop his fading vision. His fist fell to his side and he once again fell unconscious.

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Vin was fighting to stay awake. It was a losing battle the swaying walk of Josiah's' big horse and the warmth of his coat and big arms around him lulled Vin's tired body into relaxing and sleeping.

Josiah could feel him slowly relax and go limp in his arms. It took half the time to ride back the way Vin had walked but still it was late afternoon when they reached the valley.

Josiah bent down and spoke softly. "Vin, wake up. We need you to show us where Chris is now."

Vin sprang awake his whole body tense as he looked around. He swallowed and pointing he said. "There see where the trees kinda bend toward the south. Behind them is a rock face and a little cave. It's hard to see sometimes. Chris is there. We stayed the night out of the storm there."

Josiah urged his horse forward and was followed by the others. As they got closer to the trees they dismounted and walked. Nathan was the first to spot the black clad man against the dark rock face the last of the afternoon sun catching the gold of his blond hair.

Vin broke away from the others and ran up to Chris. Falling down on his knees he reached up and placed his hands on Chris' cheeks. "Chris? I brung the others, Chris wake up now. Uncle Nathan's here to make you feel better. Chris?" Vin pressed and shook his hands just a bit.

Green eyes slowly opened. They showed confusion at first then recognition. "Vin? Where were you? I called but you didn't come."

Tears shone in the blue eyes, "I had to go get help. I had to something for you. I..I love you Chris."

Chris reached up with leaden arms and encircled the trembling little boy. Pulling him close he laid his head on the top of Vin's curls. "I love you too Little Man. You did good." As Vin buried his face in Chris' neck, Chris looked up at his rescuers and smiled. "Howdy boys. Come out for a ride?"

"OK, that's it. Josiah you unpack the packhorse. Ezra you take Vin and get him into some dry clothes and Buck you will help me with that fool sitting there." Nathan stepped forward barely able to contain the anger and relief he felt finding Chris.

Ezra recognizing the danger of being caught in the fallout that was bound to happen, gently grabbed Vin's arm. "Come Mr. Tanner and we shall get you warm and dry." He practically carried Vin away from Nathan and Chris. Josiah was in front of them as he began to unpack the packs Nathan had so carefully added. He absently handed Ezra the bag with a change for Vin and carried the rest over to Nathan. He approached carefully in order not to distract his long time friend from the well-deserved tongue-lashing he was handing out to their leader.

"...crazy. Do you think your superman or something? Do you realize you could have busted all the stitches and bleed to death? Got your self a fever as it is and how long since you ate anything? You could have called you know. No not you, 'Mr. I can do it myself Larabee'. We would have come looking for the boy we would have helped, but no you had to do it right then. You couldn't wait for us. Damn, G..."

"Nathan!" Josiah interrupted.

Nathan shut his mouth pressing his lips to a thin line keeping the curse inside. The whole time he'd raged he'd been looking over Chris. Noting the flush from fever and the weakness. He pulled the shirt open and took the bandage off relieved to see that though the wound had bled some it had stopped. "You take anything for the fever?"

"Some aspirin."

"How long ago?"

Chris shook his head, "Don't know, before Vin left, I think."

Nathan nodded and carefully cleaned the wound area and taped a clean bandage on it.

Ezra was pulling off Vin's soppy socks and gasped. "Nathan, I think you should come over here when you are finished with Mr. Larabee."

Both Chris and Nathan look over at Ezra. Nathan put a restraining hand on Chris, "stay here." Then he got up and went over to where Ezra and Vin were.

Ezra was holding a filthy sock in one hand and a small foot in the other. Taking a closer look Nathan saw that the foot was covered with blisters. Some of which had broken and bled. Grimacing at the pain Vin must have been feeling Nathan went back and grabbing his bag and replaced Ezra.

"Vin, I'm gonna wash your feet with some special cleaner and then put some medicine on them. Then we're going to cover them with some clean warm socks. But it's gonna sting Ok?"

Vin looked doubtful but nodded his head in agreement.

Nathan began washing the weeping blisters. Vin hissed in pain but didn't pull away. By the time Nathan was finished there were tears running down Vin's cheeks but he never said a word.

While Nathan was tending his two patients Buck was looking around at the area they were in. While the little cave might hold Vin and two adults there was no way all of them could fit inside. Buck studied the outside of the cave and decided that he and Josiah could, using tarps make a lean to at the entrance. This way Vin and Chris could spend the night inside while the rest of them could stay fairly warm and dry under the tarps.

Buck explained to Josiah and Ezra what he had in mind and the three set about to build the shelter and gather enough wood for the night. They could leave at daylight but it was already too late in the day to try to leave now, even if Chris could travel.

Once Nathan had Vin's feet doctored and covered he carried the boy over to Chris and set him down beside him. Giving each a stern look he said. "Stay there until we have a place fixed for you. Looks like we're going to have to stay here tonight and I need to fix you two a bed and get something warm in you."

Chris looked as if he was going to protest but Nathan cut him off. "Not a word Chris Larabee! Cause anything I got to say to you ain't fit for some ears. So I'd just as soon not say anything." Then turning on his heels he walked away before anyone had a chance to speak.

Watching Nathan's retreating back Vin leaned over to Chris. "I think Uncle Nathan's really mad this time. He almost said a bad word. Uncle Nathan doesn't say bad words." Vin whispered.

Chris whispered back. "I think you're right. This time he's really mad."

Once there were beds made to Nathan's satisfaction he helped Chris go inside and then carried Vin, trying to keep him off his feet. Having to get down on his knees once inside the small cave.

"Now both of you'll lay there and rest until we get some supper ready. Then tomorrow we'll head home."

Nathan left before either could say anything. Once outside Buck questioned, "How are we going to get them home?"

Nathan shook his head. "We'll see, I don't think either one of them need a medi vac. We may be able to just ride down. Take it slow. But I'll know more tomorrow after they've both rested and eaten. Chris isn't showing sighs of infection, I think it's just a matter of him doing too much too soon. The man has no sense when it comes to taking care of himself."

Buck shook his head, "He had to get Vin, Nathan. I know how he thinks and all he was thinking of was Vin."

Nathan shook his head, "Yeah, I know."

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

It was a slow ride down to the ranch. They stopped often to let Chris and Vin rest, both of them acting subdued in the face of Nathan's anger. When they did reach the house a worried Mrs. Potter and a frantic JD raced out to meet them.

"BUCK!!! Where you been? I'm so glad your home. You found Vin and Chris? I missed you so much. Mrs. Potter's got lunch ready. I'm about starved. I saw a chipmunk this morning."

Buck reached down and pulled JD up in front of him. "Slow down Little Bit your running out of breath."

"No I ain't."

"Yeah you are, now be quiet and I'll tell you all about our adventure as soon as we get Vin and Chris settled. Ok."

JD looked around Buck. "Hey, Vin."

Vin sneezed, sniffed " 'ay, JD."

JD frowned, "You got a cold, Vin."

Vin sighed, "Yeah." And he sneezed again.

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Chris lay propped up in his bed. He'd managed to talk Nathan out of the hospital by promising to stay in bed. A thing made easier and harder because Vin had also been banished to bed with his sore feet and a bad cold.

Well medicated with a cough and cold syrup Vin laid owlishly listening to Chris read while he sniffed and sneezed. Both of them were under strict orders to stay in bed, getting up only for bathroom calls. JD had been banished from the sick room and was being entertained on the town by his Uncle Ezra. This, so the two could rest in peace. And since Vin seemed to rest easier with Chris, they were bedded together.

Chris finished the chapter and glanced down at Vin. "You can stop if you want. I know it's tiring to keep reading aloud." Vin said in a raspy voice.

"Ok. You're about half asleep anyway."

"Yeah." Vin yawned a big jaw-cracking yawn. "Only I don't want to sleep yet."

"Why, Vin?"

"Cause. .. 'Cause I might have another dream. If I stay awake until I'm real, real tired, I sleep hard and don't dream at all."

"Are your dreams all bad Vin?"

"Nah, sometimes I have real happy ones, but not often. Most times they're just dreams, but I never know when the bad ones are coming."

Chris gently reached down and brushed a lock of hair from Vin's eyes. "Bad ones, you mean like the one you had about me?"


"Would you tell me about it Vin? I would like to know about your dreams."

"I don't know if I can. I mean I don't....I don't talk good enough. Maybe if I was older or smarter...."

"You're smart, Vin and you can still tell me even if you don't talk like Ezra. Besides no one talks like that, but Ezra."

Vin looked up at Chris with trusting eyes. "I'll try. Well, it starts kinda like walking into the middle of a picture show. Everything is all shadowy and all I can really see is you, but Buck is beside you I can feel him. You're all hunched down behind something and you're listening to Uncle Ezra talking to someone.

"Then you say a bad word." Vin grimed. "Lots of bad words. Buck too. Then you're running and shouting and ...and everything stops. There's this giant pain that makes everything go all white and then black." Vin's hand goes to his shoulder. He begins to rub it. "I couldn't see you anymore, but I could hear you gasping and calling for Buck. Then," Vin shrugged, "I woke up. I was in your bed but it was still dark so I....I waited for someone to come."

"Waiting for who, Vin?"

"Don't know. Someone...someone comes when you're asleep and tells you....." Vin stopped and buried his face in the pillow. "I stayed awake this time. If I stayed awake it wouldn't be so bad maybe. Then Josiah came."

Vin was trembling and Chris gathered him on to his lap holding him tight. Thinking perhaps he understood. "Were you asleep and someone came and told you about your mama?"

Chris felt Vin nod.

"And you were afraid someone would come and tell you that I was dead too." Again Chris felt Vin nod. "But I wasn't dead Vin. I was hurt but I'm going to be fine."

"But I...don't want it to happen again."

Did he mean the dreams or losing someone? Both, Chris decided. "Vin, you can't stop dreaming. I had a dream too."

Vin raised his head looking at Chris. "You did? When?"

"When I was in the hospital. I dreamed about you and a brick wall."

"A wall?"

"Yeah." Chris glanced at Vin and then looked at his hands. He twisted the wedding band he still wore. "See sometimes losing someone you love hurts so much that to stop the hurt you kinda build a wall around yourself. That's what I did. I didn't even want Buck around, but he just wouldn't go away. I guess I kept that wall for a long time. I never wanted to hurt again like I did when Sarah and Adam died. I tried very hard not to care about anyone or anything, that way I couldn't get hurt again."

"What happened?"

"You happened."


"Yeah, when I found you in that warehouse the wall cracked and it's been falling down ever since."


"Vin there's something you need to know. You and JD will never be alone again. If.. if I were to die Buck would take care of you, or Ezra or Nathan or Josiah. There will always be some one to take care of you and JD. I can't promise that I'll always be here, but I can promise that there will always be one of us here for you."

Vin snuggled closer to Chris. He didn't know what to say. He needed to think about what Chris had said.

Chris leaned back and closed his eyes. His hand rested lightly on Vin, taking comfort in his nearness, hoping he'd said what Vin needed to hear. His thumb absently rubbed over his ring and he got a sudden flash of broken and scattered bricks before he too fell asleep.

Nathan peeked in the darkened room sometime later to find a sound asleep Chris curled protectively around a sleeping Vin.

 7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Vin woke to a dark house. He waited then carefully crawled out of bed trying not to wake Chris. Standing still just long enough to make sure he tip toed out. Yawning and sniffing he looked in his bedroom and then headed for the living room.

Josiah looked up from his book. "Looking for something Vin?"

"Where is everybody?"

"Well, Buck and JD went to pick out some videos for you to watch while you're sick and everybody else went home for the night. You and Chris slept a long time. Is Chris still asleep?"


Josiah patted the seat beside him inviting Vin to join him. Vin went over and sat down looking up at Josiah.

After a few minutes Vin asked, "Josiah, can I ask you a question?"

"Anything, Vin." Josiah smiled with relief he'd been hoping for a chance, maybe to talk to Vin.

"If Chris died would you take care of me?"

Whoa, not the question he'd expected. Josiah looked Vin straight in the eye. "In a heart beat, Vin."


"Yes, why do you ask?"

"Chris, he told me that he got papers that if anything happens to him one of you guys will take care of me and JD."

"That's right. Chris asked each of us if we'd be your guardians if anything were to happen. Not one of us hesitated, we would all be happy to take care of you, but Vin you have to believe that Chris will be around a long time. You can't worry all the time about him. It's not good for you."

Vin sighed, "I know. It's just ... I don't know. It's just there was never anyone there before and now there's all of you and it just feels weird."

"Good weird or bad weird?"

"Good weird. No body cared about me and JD before except our mamas."

"And now there's all kinds of people who care and you don't understand why?"

Vin ducked his head. "Yeah."

Josiah took one small hand in his "will you do something for me?"


"Close your eyes and picture you and your mama holding both hands facing each other in a circle."


"Now your mama leaves, but then there's JD and you two are holding hands in a circle. Now picture Buck joining your circle, then Chris. Do you see it?"


"Ok, now in this circle is Ezra, Nathan and me." Josiah paused and waited for Vin to nod. "So all of us are in the Circle. Does the circle include Aunt Rain?"


"What about Maude?"

Vin giggled. "I don't think she'd want to hold hands."

"Well, perhaps you're right. What about if Aunt Rain has a baby, is the baby in the circle?"

"Yes." Vin opened his eyes and Josiah waited, he could almost see the wheels turning.

"Uncle Josiah, its not just me alone anymore. It's me and JD and Chris and Buck and all of you guys. So no matter what me and JD will always have some one to take care of us. Some one to love us."

"You got it kiddo. The faces may change sometimes but the circle of family will be unbroken."

Vin gave Josiah his sunshine smile. Josiah put his arm around Vin pulling him close and began to hum,

"Will the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by."

The End

Authors note: An old Christian hymn came to mine as I was finishing this. Josiah would definitely know it.

WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN? Words by Ada R. Habershon, music by Charles H. Gabriel

You can picture happy gatherings

Round the fireside long ago,

And you think of tearful partings,

When they left you here below:


Will the circle be unbroken

By and by, by and by?

In a better home awaiting

In the sky, in the sky?

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