"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe

DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fanfiction based on the television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters, settings or song references. I don't own the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from anything contained in this story.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Thanks to J.K. Poffenberger and S. Berry for creating the LB universe and opening it to others write in it. Thank you to Barbretta Hayden for bringing the boys to the ATF universe. Thanks, Mog, for the ATF universe!

Thanks to my sister for her creative assistance, and my brother and nephew for sharing their experience with the procedure detailed in this story.

Last but certainly not least, thanks to LaraMee, SueN., Winnie, and Deirdre for mentoring this fledgling author. Also, thanks to Becky for sharing her medical expertise. I especially want to thank the kind, generous, and understanding Deirdre, for patiently going through this with her red pen. Thanks, Pards, you have no idea how much it means to me!

COMMENTS: TrackerGirl

Saturday, December 21 – 9:30 AM
Denver, Colorado

Chris Larabee sighed as he reflected that his quiet days of living alone on the sprawling ranch in the mountains outside Denver had ended. His life had been altered drastically when, less than a year ago, two orphans had entered his life. He and his best friend, Buck Wilmington, were raising the orphaned cousins and giving them the love and care they deserved.

Chris knew his life would never be the same—at the very least, Christmas this year would be dramatically different from the last several. After his wife Sarah and son Adam died, Chris adopted the tradition of spending the holidays at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. This year, he would celebrate the season with two young boys.

“Guys, are we going or not?” Chris called from the kitchen, impatiently jingling his car keys.

“C’mon, Vin! We can’t be late or we’ll miss Santa!” JD Dunne loudly seconded the suggestion that they leave for the ATF Christmas party. The five-year-old rushed into the kitchen, pulling Buck’s hand while Buck carried the boys’ coats.

“Where’s Vin?” the blond agent asked.

“In the baf’room,” the dark-haired moppet informed the men.

Seven-year-old Vin Tanner leaned his throbbing head on his crossed arms, resting against the pedestal sink. “Please, please don’t let me get sick,” he begged. “I don’t wanna mess up Christmas.” He slowly stood and gingerly moved his stiff neck. “Vin, ya ain’t sick,” he firmly told the wan face in the mirror. “This is gonna be a great Christmas for Chris. Ya ain’t sick!”

“Vin?” Chris’ voice approached.

The thin body straightened, as the youngster pasted on a bright smile and opened the bathroom door.

“I’s ready, Chris,” Vin told his foster father. “Can we go now?”

On the way to the holiday festivities, JD chattered excitedly about seeing Santa and asked Buck endless questions about who would be at the party, what was there to eat, and how many toys could he ask Santa for.

“Little Bit, take a breath,” Buck laughingly told his foster son. “Give Vin a chance to get a word in.”

“‘s okay, Buck,” Vin said quietly, supporting his head against the back of the upholstered seat. He was sure that the splitting ache in it would make his head explode if he moved it much!

Chris looked at Vin in the mirror, and then met Buck’s eyes. “Cowboy, what are you going to ask Santa for?” Chris asked the older boy.

“I dunno…” Vin began, rubbing his neck.

“I do!” JD exclaimed. “I want…oh, no! We gotta go back home! I forgot The Big Toy Book!”

Buck and Chris laughed and told him that Santa would know what JD was asking for without looking at pictures in the Toys ‘R Us catalog.


Saturday, December 21 – 12:00 PM Noon
Denver Ballroom, The Marriott Denver City Center

Chris circulated among the ATF personnel attending the party with their families. As a team leader, he was one of the hosts for the festivities. He stepped back against a garland- and light-wrapped column as several boys ran by shrieking, followed closely by a little girl with a sprig of mistletoe.

Chuckling, Chris stopped for a glass of punch and looked for the two small boys who had disappeared with the “big boy”—Buck Wilmington—as soon as they arrived at the party. Earlier in the day, Chris had seen them in line to talk to Santa, JD chattering excitedly as he gripped a candy cane in one hand and chomped on cookies held in the other. The older boy had no snacks as he stood quietly next to his cousin, nodding at something JD said. Now that he thought about it, Chris wondered if the slight flush on his charge’s cheeks was due to the room being crowded and too warm. “You worry too much,” he chastised himself. “You’re getting soft, Larabee.”

With a self-deprecating smile, Chris surveyed the gaily decorated room. He had lost track of his family in the meantime.

Peering around the oversized Christmas tree, he winced as the audio system screeched with feedback over the familiar strains of Winter Wonderland. Thankfully, the music was quickly cut off.

“CHRIS!” JD shouted from across the room. Chris saw his family—Buck and the boys, as well as Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and Rain—sitting at a table decorated with reindeer, enjoying a variety of holiday fare from the plentiful buffet.

Chris approached the table and asked, “Lunchtime, already?” He smiled at the pizza sauce adorning JD’s hands as he waved them animatedly. Ezra cautiously caught the closest hand and placed it beside the brightly colored Santa plate in front of the hazel-eyed tot.

“Chris, we been watching for you for a looooooong time,” JD informed him. “You sure do talk a lot.”

Chris’ eyebrows shot skyward in astonishment as he looked at the loquacious boy, while his agents burst out laughing.

“Yeah, Chris,” Buck chuckled with a knowing wink. “Quiet down, would ya?!”

Chris looked at his foster son and rolled his eyes. The little boy with the soulful blue eyes giggled and slid his gaze to the empty seat next to him.

"I saved it for ya..."

"Thanks, Vin!" Larabee ruffled the curly, sandy locks. He noted with slight concern that the boy had barely touched the food on his plate.

As Chris sat down, JD said, “Guess what? We’re gonna sing to old people then go to Unca Nathan’s house.”

“Sing to old people, huh?” Chris responded, and looked to Buck for clarification.

“Master Dunne, one should not refer to ‘old people.’ They are the elderly, or seniors,” Ezra advised.

“But they are old," the five-year-old protested. “...older than Unca ‘siah even.”

That started another outburst of laughter.

“I guess if they’re older than I am, I can go with you to sing?” Josiah asked.

“Please come,” Vin entreated, concerned that his new family wouldn’t be together for the day. He pushed his plate away, making a small face before he focused his pleading sky eyes on the big agent.

Where are we going?” Chris asked a bit more forcefully, since none of the adults had provided details.

“To Carol’s!” the youngest piped up.

“Where?” Chris asked, puzzled.

Nathan responded, “Rain and I are part of a group that goes to the nursing home by our house and sings for the residents.”

“Yeah, sing Christmas to the Carols!” JD agreed. “But can other people listen, too?”

“JD!” Vin growled at his cousin, then rubbed his sore throat. He didn’t understand why they were going to sing to Carols this afternoon, either, but he didn’t want the grown-ups to get tired of all the questions.

“JD, honey,” Rain said. “‘Carol’ is a special name for a Christmas song. So when I said ‘sing Christmas carols,’ I meant sing Christmas songs to anyone who wants to listen.”

“Oh, I get it!” the hazel-eyed urchin said, laughing. “Duh!” He then noisily launched into Jingle Bells, accompanying the music that had restarted.


Saturday, December 21 – 5:00 PM
Nathan and Rain Jackson’s home in Denver

The visit to the eldercare facility had been a great success. The residents were so grateful for the choral event and were delighted by the two charming boys. Now the group was back at the Jackson's home, reluctant to end the wonderful day.

The sweet smell of warm cookies and hot cocoa should have been inviting, but it only made Vin’s stomach churn and his head spin dizzily in the warm room. The boy moved to the window, acting as if he were looking at the holiday decorations outside. In reality, he greedily welcomed the slight draft of cool air as he wearily rested his feverish forehead on the chilly pane.

'Vin, ya ain’t sick,' he reminded himself. He didn’t want to upset Nathan and Rain, since they were being so nice to JD and him. More importantly, the serious child didn’t want Chris to worry about him.

“Rain, you are one fine baker,” Buck complimented the beautiful woman. “With your schedule, when do you have time to bake and decorate Christmas cookies? These sugar cookies are wonderful!”

“Not to mention this delicious hot cocoa. Singing those carols sure makes a man thirsty, right Vin?” Josiah added, putting his hand on Vin’s shoulder. “Are you going to drink your cocoa?”

Vin shook his head slightly and smiled up at the big man. He stepped closer to his foster father, slipping from under Josiah’s hand. “I’s too full of pizza, I think.”

“You think so, do you, cowboy?” Chris said, pulling the thin boy against his side and looking apologetically at Josiah. Vin was still somewhat shy about being touched.

Josiah winked to let them know he wasn’t offended.

Chris shifted his hand to the back of Vin’s neck, and thought the boy felt a bit warm. Studying his foster son closely, he measured the flushed cheeks. As if aware of the scrutiny, Vin glanced up and smiled, his cerulean eyes overly bright.

Ezra said, “I know you are quite busy in preparation for your travels so...”

“Where are ya goin’?” JD interrupted.

“To visit Rain’s family for Christmas,” Nathan replied.

“You won’t be here with us for Christmas?” the little imp said. “But I thought we was your family.”

“You are my family!” Rain stated emphatically. “But I haven’t seen my mama and daddy for a long time. I miss them and they miss me.”

“And me! They miss me, too,” Nathan added, chuckling. “So, before you leave, we have something for you.”

“All right!” the youngest whooped. “Can we open presents today?”

“It ain’t Christmas yet, JD,” Vin told him. “We still got … ummm,” Vin turned to Chris. “How many more days?” he whispered.

“Three,” Chris whispered back.

“Three days, JD,” said the older boy.

“So?” JD asked, somewhat belligerently. “It’s okay to open presents on 3-days-before-Christmas.”

Vin glared at his cousin, who quickly subsided. “You’re right. We should wait,” JD said quietly.

“Boys, it’s Nathan and Rain’s house, so they decide when gifts can be opened,” Buck said.

“And I say ‘now!’” Rain stated.

“Yippee!” JD shouted, and ran to the tree. Vin followed him slowly since his neck had begun to ache more fiercely.

Nathan handed each boy a brightly wrapped gift. “Go on, now,” he said.

JD needed no further encouragement, as he ripped into the paper and flung it aside. The adults chuckled at his enthusiasm.

“Wow!” he shouted. “A real Avalanche shirt!”

“Nice jersey, JD,” Buck said approvingly. “You’ll look like a pro hockey player in that.”

“Look, Vin!” JD said excitedly. “It gots my name on it!” The boy held the jersey to his chest, displaying the name DUNNE emblazoned across the back.

“Cool!” Vin enthused.

Chris noticed that Vin hadn’t opened his gift yet. The sensitive seven-year-old was so used to putting JD first that he held back his own excitement to allow his friend to be the center of attention.

“What did you get, pard?” Chris asked Vin, smiling at the boy.

The blue-eyed youngster looked at Chris and determined that he could now open his own present. He carefully removed the paper and then opened the box.

“Did you get a hockey shirt, Vin?” JD asked, hopping up to peer over the side of the box. “Huh, did ya?”

“Nope!” Vin told him, beaming. “It’s a football jersey, number 7!”

“And it has your name on it, too,” Chris said. “Looks like you’re an official Denver Bronco,” he added, noting the team’s logo.

Vin’s lop-sided grin appeared as he pulled the jersey over his head. JD quickly followed suit, donning his own gift.

“Well, Nate,” Josiah said. “I’d say the gifts were a hit!”

Vin looked up and said, “Thanks, Unca Nate. Thank you, Aunt Rain.” He then nudged JD, who ran over and hugged the Jacksons, bubbling over with excitement as he too thanked the couple.

“Gentlemen and lovely lady, I believe it is time that I vacated the premises,” Ezra announced.

“Huh?” JD said, wrinkling his nose at the undercover man.

“He said it’s time we all headed home,” Chris interpreted. 'Especially since it appears Vin is running a fever,' he thought to himself.

“Ezra, Josiah, you’re welcome to come out to the ranch if you don’t have plans for the evening,” Buck invited.

“Yeah,” JD agreed. “I don’t want today to be over yet!”

The agents accepted the invitation and the party moved to the ranch.


Saturday, December 21 – 7:30 PM
Larabee Ranch

“So, boys, do you have plans for the next few days?” Ezra inquired, a slight smile on his face. “Anything special to do?”

“Are ya kiddin’ me?” JD asked incredulously, popping up like a jack-in-the-box. “We hafta cut down a tree and decorate it, go shopping, wrap presents, maybe sing to Carols, go to church and sing Happy Birthday to Jesus, …” the list of tasks was recited without the boy taking a single breath.

“And Santa’s gonna come, right Chris?” Vin added, lifting his head from the cushioned arm of the sofa to look at the blond.

“Right, cowboy!” Chris assured him, patting the gangly leg that he could reach.

“JD, I’m glad you mentioned Jesus and his birthday,” Josiah said from his position in front of the fireplace. “Did you know that we give gifts at Christmas because Jesus is God's gift to the world?”

“But what about Santa Claus?” the two boys asked together.

“Well, have you ever heard Santa Claus called St. Nicholas?” the gentle giant questioned. “St. Nicholas was a real minister who liked to give gifts in secret to the poor. He’d toss food or money through open windows. If the windows and doors were closed and locked, he’d drop the gift down the chimney.”

“Santa Claus is St. Nicholas?” Vin clarified. “How old is he?” the boy pondered.

“Ya know that Santa’s magic. Age doesn’t matter,” Buck said.

“An adage that Mr. Wilmington firmly believes,” Ezra deadpanned under his breath from his seat next to Chris.

“Why doesn’t each of us tell what our most treasured gift has been?” Josiah suggested, looking at the faces of each person in the room.

“What’s ‘tredured’ mean?” the five-year-old asked, wrinkling his nose at the man.

“A treasure is something precious, a gift from the heart given with great love,” the eldest agent explained. “For me, my most treasured gift was a picture drawn by my sister, Hannah. Ezra?”

“I believe it would be an antique deck of cards. What about you, Buck?”

“Hmmm, that’s gonna take some thinking,” Buck said, tapping his finger on his chin.

Chris looked at Vin, who was staring silently at his hands in his lap. He seemed to be trying to make himself invisible.

“Vin?” Chris said softly. “’you okay?”

“’m fine,” the boy responded, then leapt up and ran to his room.

The agents looked at Chris in concern. He waved at them to remain seated as he followed the distraught child.

“Hey, cowboy,” Chris asked tenderly. “What’s going on?”

Vin turned from where he was standing in the middle of the room, his face a mask of pain. He walked to the closet and pulled out a tattered bag. Chris recognized it immediately—it was from Vin’s past, something that JD insisted had to go to the hospital with Vin when they first found the boys in that warehouse.

With shaking hands, the youngster reached into the bag. At the bottom, his fingers touched a small parcel wrapped in tissue paper, caressing the paper before lifting the item out.

Chris drew his brows together. “What is it, Vin?”

Carefully, gently, with tears brimming in the blue pools of emotion, the shaken child opened the wrapping and displayed a baby’s blanket. He gasped for breath as he fought against tears.

“Vin?” Chris prompted.

Vin pulled the worn fabric to his face, softly rubbing the threadbare silky edging against his cheek. “This is m’ baby blanket,” he whispered. “From m’ mama.”

“Your most treasured gift,” Chris breathed softly in understanding, overwhelmed by the difficult life his young foster son had endured.

The emotive sky eyes turned toward his hero, and a single tear slipped down his cheek. “It don’t work,” he said sadly.

The father’s heart in Chris broke at the sorrow in those windows to Vin’s soul, and he felt the tears well up in his own green eyes. “Tell me what you mean,” he said softly as he sat on the bed. He lifted the forlorn figure and settled him on his lap, rubbing comforting circles on the warm little back.

“Mama…” the boy started, then stopped and sniffed quietly. “This is the only thing I have left of Mama. She made it for me, so’s I would be safe and warm when I’s jist a baby.”

Chris looked more closely at the small quilt clenched in his son’s fists. It was made of blocks of soft fabric; some were pieces of velvety flannel in pastels, others were squares of brushed cotton with ABC blocks and baby animals. There even was a print of tiny beige horses with blue saddles scattered across a field of pale green. He could see the slightly uneven stitching and realized that the blanket was handmade with a mother’s love.

Vin sniffed again, then continued. “When m’ mama got sick and went to the hospital, I didn’t know what to get her for Christmas. I d‘cided to give her m’ blanket, so’s she would be safe and warm, and would get better and come home.”

Chris tightened his arms around the distressed child to offer his silent support. He was afraid that he knew how this story would end.

Shimmering blue pools searched his father’s face. “It didn’t work. I loved her all I could, but the blanket didn’t work. She didn’t get better and she never come back home to me!”

The pools overflowed and tears ran down Vin’s hot face. Chris hugged the boy fiercely, as his own tears fell unchecked.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered in his foster son’s ear, holding him close and rocking gently.

He held the shaking body until it quieted, then moved to the bed and continued holding the boy. When he felt Vin’s weight shift and relax, and heard the deep breaths of sleep, he stood and laid the boy on the top bunk. He removed his foster son’s jeans, and covered him with the comforter. The baby blanket was still held tightly in Vin’s hand. Chris brushed the unruly curls from the boy’s face and tenderly kissed him good night.


Sunday, December 22 – 6:30 AM
Larabee Ranch

“Vin, are ya awake?” JD 'whispered', loud enough for Buck to hear as he passed by the boys’ room.

Buck looked in and saw a pajama-clad JD perched on the ladder to the top bunk, peering intently at the bedclothes-covered lump that was his cousin. The big man grinned as he scooped the dark-haired imp into his arms, shushing him as they left the room.

“Vin, ya ain’t sick,” the feverish figure mumbled tiredly to himself, groaning as he rolled over and registered the continued ache in his head and neck. “Git up and git moving. We’s gonna get the Christmas tree t’day.”

He dragged his protesting body from the warm nest of his comforter, and looked down in surprise at the Broncos jersey he still wore. His elfin face flushed red as he realized he’d fallen asleep and had to be put to bed like a 'baby'.

Sighing heavily, the sick boy wearily gathered clothes and dressed himself, not removing the favored jersey.

Three heads rose from the table when Vin listlessly shuffled into the kitchen. Chris critically appraised his son’s small form, noting the bright spots of color on his cheeks and the careful way he moved, as if in pain.

“G’morning, cowboy,” he greeted warmly with a soft smile. “Hungry?”

“Naw,” the shaggy head shook his reply. “I think I’s still full ‘a pizza.”

Chris and Buck’s eyes met briefly, both men realizing that Vin was feeling lousy since the growing boy rarely turned down a meal.

Buck shrugged then turned to JD. “Little Bit, let’s get dressed so we can get outta here and find us a tree!”

“All right!” the youngest exclaimed, hazel-eyes glowing as he ran to his room.


Sunday, December 22 – 12:45 PM
Larabee Ranch

“This has gotta be the bestest Christmas tree ever, huh, Vin?” the little boy enthused, running around the room as the men wrestled the tree into its stand.

“Yep,” his cousin responded, with a small lop-sided grin, inhaling the fragrant pine that strongly scented the room.

“Are ya finished, guys? Can we eat lunch now? What are we gonna eat? When are we gonna decorate? Can…”

“Whoa, there, Little Bit!” Buck broke in, laughing at the rapid-fire questioning. “One thing at a time, okay?”

He looked at his best friend and said, “I got this now, Chris. Why don’t you take the boys and get lunch started.” He winked at Vin, including him in the laughter at the exuberant five-year-old’s antics.

“Hooray!” his foster son whooped, dashing into the kitchen. The blond agent shook his head, placing a hand on Vin’s shoulder. “C’mon, Vin. Let’s make sure JD isn’t destroying the kitchen.”

The four sat at the table. The seven-year-old toyed with his food, his head resting heavily in his hand.

“Elbows off the table, Vin,” Chris admonished. “And please eat something, okay?”

“I jist ain’t hungry,” the little boy replied, head ducking down.

“How about just eating your soup?” the mustached agent suggested. “Chicken noodle, it’s good for what ails you!" he added, lightly gripping Vin’s shoulder.

“You haven’t eaten anything today, pal,” his foster father said. “Eat your soup or you can’t help decorate the tree.”

The wide blue eyes shot to the men, to check if his parent was serious. Yep, he was serious. Sighing heavily, Vin sullenly pulled his bowl closer. He forced himself to swallow the hot soup to please Chris, despite the fact that his whole body hurt and his belly felt like it was upside down.


Sunday, December 22 – 3:30 PM
Larabee Ranch

Chris and Buck were stringing the Christmas lights, under JD’s supervision. The blond looked at his foster son blinking sleepily from his seat on the hearth.

JD followed his gaze and said, “C’mon, Vin. We need your help.”

With his hand on his stomach, the older boy stood and said, “I think I’m gonna lay down for a few minutes.”

When Chris moved to put his hand to the tousled locks across the child’s forehead, Vin ducked aside and said, “’m fine, jist sleepy is all.”

“Okay, Vin,” Chris responded. “We’ll call you when the lights are up and it’s time for the ornaments.”

“’kay,” the boy agreed listlessly, and left the room.

Chris glanced up the stairs occasionally, as a gnawing feeling grew in his gut. A short time later, Chris gave in to his parental intuition and jogged upstairs. He walked into the boy’s room and found him sitting up, quietly sobbing as he half-heartedly wiped at the vomit on his jersey and the bedding.

Chris crossed the room and put his hand on Vin’s forehead, checking for fever.

“Why didn't you tell me you felt sick?” Chris gently asked the trembling child. He rubbed his hand through the sweat-dampened curls as he lifted Vin from the soiled comforter.

“I’s sorry,” the boy cried miserably. “I didn’t mean to!”

“I know, Vin,” Chris soothed, "but part of caring for someone is letting them care for you when you're sick or hurt. ‘You trust me?


"Then you should have told me...right?"

Gently, he carried his foster son to the bathroom and removed the damp jersey. He touched the flushed cheeks and was alarmed at the heat. “Let’s get your temperature, pard,” he said.

After wiping the shivering boy’s face and upper body with a cool washcloth, Chris gave him a glass of water. “Just small sips, son,” he cautioned.

Vin nodded obediently, quietly sipping the cool liquid.

“Sit tight while I go change your bed,” Chris instructed as he directed the shaking body to sit on the edge of the bathtub. He grabbed a bathsheet from the linen closet and swathed the slim boy in it.

The blond man returned to the small bathroom and gently placed the probe of a thermometer in his subdued foster son’s ear. His eyes widened as he read the instrument—almost 103 degrees. Had Adam ever had such a high fever, he wondered with no small amount of panic.

“Buck!” he bellowed, then soothingly rubbed the small back when the child jumped at the shout.

The big man appeared in the doorway, one hand on the shoulder of the bouncing dark-haired tot.

“Please call the doctor, see if we can get Vin in today,” Chris requested.

“It’s Sunday, Old Dog,” he reminded the worried father, eying the sick boy with concern. “But we’ll see.”

The pediatrician assured Buck that a stomach virus was making the rounds. She wasn’t troubled by the high fever, and recommended that the boy drink plenty of clear liquids to avoid dehydration and help settle the nausea. A child’s dose of Tylenol was suggested for the fever.

“Call me tomorrow and let me know how he’s doing,” she added before Buck ended the phone call. “Tell Mr. Larabee not to worry, it sounds like Vin has the flu.”

Buck relayed the information to his friend, who was reclining on his big bed with the afghan-bundled child resting securely in his lap. Vin lethargically blinked at Buck, then closed his eyes and burrowed closer to his foster father’s broad chest. Buck gently rubbed Vin’s arm and turned to his own foster son.

“C’mon, JD, let’s let them rest a while,” Buck told the worried child, holding out his hand. JD climbed off the bed from his position at Chris’ hip, looking after his cousin.

“Get better fast, Vin, ‘kay? We got lots to do, don’t forget,” he said to the boy.

“I will,” Vin solemnly promised the youngster, looking at him through blue slits. Then his heavy lids dropped again and he snuggled to a comfortable position.


Monday, December 23 – 4:45 PM
Larabee Ranch

The phone rang and Chris answered quickly so as to not awaken the restless patient.

“Yes, his fever is down, but it’s not gone yet,” Chris answered the pediatrician’s question. “And he says he still has a headache.”

The man listened quietly, then watched as the sky eyes opened slowly, blinking as the disoriented boy regained his bearings.

“I don’t know,” he responded. “Hold on a minute.” Putting his hand over the phone, Chris called, “Hey, Vin. Will you do me a favor?”

Vin blearily swung his gaze to his foster father.

“That’s it, Vin, touch your chin to your chest, like this,” Chris demonstrated, dropping his chin down.

The little boy sat up, and copied the blond’s movement. He hadn’t moved his chin far when he involuntarily yelped, “Ow!”

Uncovering the phone’s mouthpiece, he reported, “Yes, that move seems to be painful. What does that mean?” He gestured for the boy to lie back down.

After a brief pause, Chris said, ”MENINGITIS!” He rubbed his hand over his face and turned away from Vin. Fear clutched the father’s heart as he said, “Yes, ma’am, right away.”

The man hung up the phone, briefly leaving his hand on the receiver as his shoulders dropped. 'Dear Lord, meningitis!' Just the thought of the disease frightened him.

“Chris?” a tentative voice shakily reached him.

He straightened and smiled reassuringly at his foster son. “Give me a minute to call Buck,” he said. “Then you and I are goin’ to see the Doc.”

“I feel better, honest,” Vin quickly protested.

“Okay, let’s see what we can do to make you feel great for Christmas, all right?”


Monday, December 23 – 8:45 PM
Hospital Emergency Room

“I wanna go home,” the boy whimpered. “Please, Chris, let’s go home.”

Chris’s heart warmed as he realized Vin’s defenses were down and he had just admitted that he thought of the ranch as home. He ruffled the unruly mop of curls and said, “Not just yet. We have to wait until the doctor says we can go.”

Chris had to turn his head as the twin sapphire lasers cut into him, and said, “Sorry, pal.”

“Am I gonna die, Chris?”

The blond head swiveled quickly back to the forlorn figure swallowed up in the hospital bed. “No, Vin,” he stated emphatically, putting his big hand on the small chest. “You are not going to die.”

“Hey, none of that talk!” the pediatrician admonished as she walked in to hear the last of the conversation. “You’ll be just fine!” she winked at the boy. “Can I borrow your dad for a minute?”

Vin frantically clutched at his foster father’s hand even as he nodded uncertainly.

“May I sit with you, Vin?” a silky Southern drawl enquired as a warm smile was offered to the patient.

“Unca Ez,” Vin cried, as he seized the undercover agent’s hand with both of his own.

Ezra nodded smoothly to his boss and the white-coated doctor as they left the cubicle. “So, young man, tell me what you have been up to in this oh-so-charming facility.”

The boy’s brow wrinkled as he pondered the man’s words. “We’s been here forever, Unca Ezra,” he complained. “First we had to sit out there with bunches of sick people, then we finally come in here to talk to the doctor and they made me wear this,” the boy added, scornfully indicating his hospital gown. “And ain’t nothin’ even happened yet.”

“My, my,” Ezra sympathized. “How can such ill treatment make a body regain health?”

“I dunno. I jist wanna go home,” the emotive blue eyes focused on the green-eyed man. “Can we go home, Unca Ez?” he asked plaintively.

Uncharacteristically, Ezra found himself at a loss for words when faced with the appeal in those cerulean orbs. He patted the boy’s shoulder with his free hand—his other still imprisoned in the patient’s clasped hands—and tried to gather his thoughts.

“Oh, Mr. Larabee, you’ve returned!” he said with some relief when the man approached the bedside.

Chris quirked a brow at the thankful tone, then turned to his foster son. “Vin, the doctor wants to run some tests.”

The boy’s eyes flew upwards at the serious manner in which his foster father spoke. “What kinda tests?” he asked, his voice quivering.

“I’m not gonna lie to ya, Vin. The first is called a lumbar puncture, and it’s painful.”

Ezra gasped almost soundlessly. 'Dear Lord, a spinal tap? The poor child.'

Tears flowed from the boy’s eyes as he cried silently. “I’ll be good,” he promised the ATF leader. “I’m better now. Please can we go home?” he sobbed.

'Awww, hell,' Chris groaned to himself. He swept the child, blankets and all, into his arms. “I’ll be right here with you, every step of the way.”

“As will I,” Ezra seconded.

The men watched as Vin reached down deep inside himself and stoically stopped his tears. Chris hugged the boy close and explained the procedure to him. “You will feel some pain as the numbing medicine goes in your back, but after that, you won’t feel much, if anything. Take deep breaths and hold onto my hand until the pain quiets down.”

As the medical team approached, Vin’s eyes darted frantically around the room, seeking an escape. Vin whimpered as he was removed from Chris’ arms and laid on his side, body curled tightly into a fetal position. A nurse leaned over Vin to hold him in position, and Vin responded like a cornered animal. He thrashed his arms and legs as he struggled to free himself, shouting “No! No!”

“Vin!” Chris’ calm tones broke through and stilled the child’s agitated movements. “I’ve got your back, Vin,” Chris continued, firmly clasping the trembling hands.

Panting harshly, Vin stopped and looked into his foster father’s warm green eyes. With the slightest of nods, he indicated that he was ready. Vin again curled up on his side, his knees pulled to his abdomen. This time, Chris firmly but gently held him to make sure he didn’t move. Following the nurse’s instructions, he placed his right arm around Vin’s thighs, and his left arm about the boy’s neck. He locked his hands in front of Vin, maintaining eye contact.

The nurse remained next to Chris, holding Vin’s hands. She explained what the doctor was doing, since neither Chris nor Vin could see. “The doctor is cleaning your back now with sponges and an antiseptic. Okay, Vin?”

“Uh-huh,” Vin gritted through his teeth. “’s cold.”

“It’s very important that you not move,” she continued. “Now the doctor will give you some medicine. You’ll feel a pinch and it might sting a bit.”

The doctor injected the local anesthetic, and then draped the area. Vin sobbed quietly, but remained motionless.

“Okay, Vin,” the nurse said. “You will feel some pressure while the needle is being pushed in. Stay very still.”

Chris could feel the small body stiffen slightly in his arms. “Deep breaths, pard,” he whispered. Sky blue eyes swung to Chris’ face, and the absolute trust in their depths overwhelmed the man. “I’ve gotcha, Vin.”

“Almost finished, sweetie,” the nurse told Vin. When the doctor finished the procedure, she removed the needle and placed an adhesive bandage over the injection site.

“How ‘you doing, Vin?” Chris asked, his calm tone belying his apprehension about what the child was enduring.

The nurse guided Chris to release his hold on Vin, then she rolled the boy to lie flat on his back. “Relax now, Vin,” she told him. “Stay on your back to keep from getting a headache, okay?”

Vin nodded drowsily and maintained his grip on Chris’s hand. As they waited for the test results, Vin dozed off. He woke to the sound of his foster father’s soft voice, speaking to his friend, “Ezra, how much longer can it be? I don’t want Vin to still be here on Christmas Eve.”

Given the man’s agitation, Ezra assumed there was more to that statement than met the eye. “It already is Christmas Eve,” he said, indicating the clock behind Chris.

Chris swung around and watched the hands creep towards 1:00AM. He swore softly, then asked, “Will you please find someone? What the hell’s taking so long?”

Ezra raised one hand to his forehead and tipped an imaginary hat in acknowledgement before he strode from the cubicle.

Vin softly patted his foster father’s hand where it lay on his chest. Comforted, he fell back to sleep.


Tuesday, December 24 – 4:00 PM
Larabee Ranch

Vin lay on the sofa, dozing fitfully as he had since the return from the hospital. He knew he had viral “mennagitis”, not the kind from bac-teer-ya, which was the bad kind. So he didn’t have to take any yucky medicine. The doctor said he’d be better in a week or so. By then, Christmas would be long over.

He really couldn’t say that he felt better, but he did know that he didn’t feel worse. He didn’t think he could feel worse ‘less he was dying.

At that thought, the wide blue eyes popped open. Was he dying? Chris said no, but that was before the tests. Being sick at Christmas time was not a good thing. Maybe he was gonna die, just like his mama! On Christmas Day! Oh, no!

“Hello, Cowboy,” he heard the gentle voice of his foster father. “Decided to join us?”

He turned his head and saw his family smiling at him: Chris, Buck, JD, Unca Ezra, and Unca ‘siah.

“Hey, y’all,” he greeted weakly.

“Vin, it’s Christmas Eve and we’re gonna eat supper then we’re gonna open presents, okay, only one present, well, actually two, one from Unca Ezra and one from Unca ‘siah, and then…” the dark-haired scamp clapped his hands over his mouth, as if to keep the words from spilling out. “Sorry,” he beamed angelically at a more moderate volume. “How are ya feeling, Vin?”

“’m fine, JD,” he assured his cousin. “It sounds like we got a busy night.”

He focused on the blond man, and asked, “What should we do first?”

The men chuckled and suggested that it might be best to eat first, so they had the strength to get through their big plans.


Tuesday, December 24 – 7:00 PM
Larabee Ranch

After dinner, Vin felt like a balloon with all the air let out. It was a huge effort to walk from the dining room table back to the sofa. 'I sure dunno how I’s gonna keep up with JD tonight,' he thought tiredly.

Seeing the boy’s exhausted demeanor, the gray-haired agent suggested that they let their food digest while he read the Christmas story.

“Yay, Unca ‘siah! Great idea,” the dark-haired dynamo shouted. “Then we open PRESENTS!”

Vin offered a half-hearted grin, the lop-sided smile warming his worried father’s heart. Chris sat next to the boy and gathered him onto his lap, settling the tousled curls under his chin. Vin heaved a quiet sigh of satisfaction, listening to the comforting rhythm of the heartbeat under his ear.

Josiah opened his worn Bible and began, “This is from Luke 2: 1-20.  In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree…”

Vin watched the shadows created by the dancing flames in the fireplace move over the faces of his family. The gentle giant continued,
“…She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

“They’s mean! Making ‘em sleep with the animals,” JD interrupted, glaring fiercely.

“JD, they weren’t being mean…” Buck began.

“You won’t let us sleep in the stable!” the five-year-old pointed out.

“Well, that’s ‘cuz we have room for you in the house, and beds for you to sleep in,” his foster father explained. “I’m sure the innkeeper would have preferred to let them have a bed, but he just couldn’t help out any more than offering the stable. Understand, pard?”

“I guess so,” he mutinously agreed. “But it still ain’t nice!”

The adults chuckled at his vehemence. Chris squeezed the slight form in his arms, and Vin nodded thoughtfully.

The melodic baritone of the preacher and the strong arms of his foster father combined to lull the recovering child to sleep. As he drifted in that state between awareness and slumber, he heard pieces of the story:

“…keeping watch over their flocks at night…”
“…Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men…”
“…found Mary and Joseph, and the baby…”

Vin murmured softly when his foster father stood and carried him to bed, but did not wake up.


Wednesday, December 25 – 3:10 AM
Larabee Ranch

Chris came awake instantly, alert for the sound that woke him. He got out of bed and walked to his foster son’s room.

Vin lay facing the door, tears streaming down his face and his breath coming in hitching gasps. When he saw his foster father, the tears fell faster.

Chris went to the top bunk, holding out his arms for the distraught boy. Vin sat up and reached for the man, moving readily into his embrace.

Chris carried the boy to the rocking chair in front of the fireplace, noting that Vin’s left hand fiercely clenched his treasured baby blanket. He pulled the afghan from the sofa and wrapped them both in it.

“What’s goin’ on, Vin?” he asked gently. “Are you still feeling puny?”

Vin rubbed the silky edge of the blanket under his nose, almost believing he still smelled the floral scent of his mother’s perfume. He stared intently at the glowing embers banked safely in the fireplace.

“I’s jist thinkin’ too much to sleep any more, I guess,” he said, shrugging.

“Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout?”

“Jist happy that me and JD gots somewheres to stay now. It ain’t no fun sleepin’ in the cold when ya ain’t got a bed,” the solemn blue eyes held an old soul as they gazed at his foster father.

Chris hugged the boy closer and set the rocker to a quiet rhythm. “Thinkin’ ‘bout Jesus and Mary and Joseph, huh?”

“Yep,” his young charge replied. “All in all, they’s lucky ‘cuz they’s a family, even if they did sleep in a stable.”

The blond agent shook his head slightly, awed by the simple wisdom of the child in his arms. He gently rubbed circles on the thin back, not certain if he was soothing Vin or himself.

Vin inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly, before cuddling even closer. Both sets of eyes closed and they drifted off to sleep.

Vin thought he had just closed his eyes, when he felt the mists of slumber parting. He cracked open his eyes to check whether dawn had broken, and found that it was still dark. He felt completely relaxed, almost as if he were floating.

“Baaaaa,” a sheep bleated as it was forced to move around the object in front of it. Said object abruptly sat up and looked wonderingly around at the surreal scene.

“Where am I?” he panted, eying the sheep surrounding him. No buildings were in sight. The only light that broke the dark night was a blindingly brilliant star overhead.

At the sound of voices, Vin stood. He shivered in the cool night air, and realized he still gripped his baby blanket. He awkwardly wrapped the small covering around his shoulders, and followed the figures—shepherds?—he saw.

They had to be shepherds. They looked just like the statues Chris had under the Christmas tree in the N’tiv’ty scene, Vin thought to himself.

The shepherds walked to a cave in the hill, and the boy could see the nearby buildings of a small town. He followed them to the cave, amazed that the bright star seemed to be going to the cave as well.

Vin glanced around, seeking any threats. He sure hoped there were no trolls in the cave. Reassured, he stepped forward, only to stop in awe.

There was a baby, lying shivering in the manger! Next to the manger was a beautiful woman with a mama’s eyes, full of love for the little babe.

Although Vin felt cold and shivery himself, he did not hesitate to take the warm blanket from his shoulders and offer it to the baby’s mama. His neck ached from his trembling, but the woman’s beautiful smile warmed him.

She took the offering and wrapped the infant snugly. She reached for Vin, and he moved into her open arms without a second thought. She hugged him and kissed his forehead. Holding his pale cheeks between her palms, she asked him in a low voice if he knew how much his mother loved him.

“I reckon I do, ma’am,” he whispered.

She smiled affectionately, and told him to remember his promise to his mother, and always be true to her.

“Yes, ma’am,” he promised. He sank down into a pile of straw next to the young family, feeling an overwhelming sense of love and peace. He struggled to keep his heavy eyes open, but could not fight his recovering body’s needs.

He again felt the relaxed, floating-on-air sensation, and gave in to it completely. The mists of sleep gently surrounded him and carried him away.


Wednesday, December 25 – 6:30 AM
Larabee Ranch

“Whooo-hoooo!” JD shouted exuberantly. “Santa came last night!”

Chris jerked awake at the shout and grimaced as his body let him know that sleeping in a wooden rocking chair was not a good idea.

Buck had glanced in Chris and Vin’s rooms on his way to quiet the high-spirited scamp. Seeing empty beds, he assumed he was the last one up.

As he joined JD, he winced in sympathy at the pained look on Larabee’s face. “Need some help there, pard?”

“I can’t move,” the blond gritted between clenched teeth. “My backside has gone to sleep!”

Buck’s booming laugh accomplished what JD’s yell had not—Vin woke up.

“Wha’s goin’ on?” he rasped, his cranky face scrunched in concentration as he tried to orient himself.

“And merry Christmas to you, too,” the mustached scoundrel told him gleefully.

“Hey, Vin! You ain’t sick no more, are ya?” his cousin asked.

Scrawny arms and legs flailed about as the boy tried to escape the confining afghan. Free at last, he stretched and said, simply, “Nope.”

Chris reached for the boy’s hand, and turned him around so he could see his face. Hmm, no flushed cheeks. The blond laid his wrist on the seven-year-old’s forehead and said, “No fever. How’s your neck?”

Vin bobbled his head to and fro, all around, and announced, “Fine.” Then he threw his hands in the air and said, “What are we waitin’ for? It’s Christmas!”

At the sight of Vin’s empty hands, Chris looked around the chair for the baby blanket. He shook out the afghan and brushed down his clothes.

“Whatcha doin’, Chris?” the boy asked his foster father.

“I’m looking for your blanket. You had it when we came out here last night,” Chris answered, concern filling his voice.

A secret smile stole onto the elfin face. Vin was thinking about how warm his blanket was keeping that special baby, and the beatific smile of the baby’s mama.

“Chris,” Vin tugged on the man’s hand. Chris sat in the rocker and gave his attention to the boy. The earnest child put his small hand on his foster father’s stubbled cheek and said, “’s okay. I know where the blanket is. It works again. It’s a gift of the heart, like Unca ‘siah said. I gave it in love, and it works!”

Chris could only wonder at the words of his foster son, and then the boy launched himself at the man in a fierce hug.


Wednesday, December 25 – 10:00 AM

“How can he be better, Buck? How is that possible?” Chris asked his friend as he stood in the doorway and watched the boys happily playing with their new toys.

“Well, pard,” the big man said, gripping his best friend’s shoulder, “Christmas is the season of miracles.”

“It’s just so…” the blond was at a loss for words.

“Amazing? Unbelievable?” his friend offered.

“Exactly!” Chris laughed. “Let’s get the dishwasher loaded and get back in there with our Christmas miracles.”

Buck turned on the radio while they cleaned the kitchen. As they completed the task, the news came on:

“A mystery today in Bethlehem. In the Grotto of the Nativity within the Basilica of the Nativity, thought to be the birthplace of Jesus, authorities found a handmade baby blanket, still warm as if from an infant’s body. The quilt doesn’t appear to be a local craft, but no one can explain its presence in the grotto, which is not accessible to the general public. The faded and threadbare blanket looks…”

As the announcer’s voice continued, the men turned astonished looks on each other.

“You don’t think?”

"Nah, couldn't be!"

Christmas 2002