Judging the Book

Justice DeWinter

Chapter Six
It took three tries before Chris was able to get Josiah's old Suburban started. Normally Chris would have been cussing a blue streak by that point but an acute awareness of his passenger kept him tight lipped and silent. He didn't have to look to his right to know that Vin was sitting at the extreme edge of his seat, scrunched up just as tight against the door as he could possibly get. Chris was well aware of his temper and how it affected the people around him; more than once Buck had chastised him for 'bringing down the party.' The night was far from over and if he didn't want Vin to spend the whole time cringing in fear they were going to have to talk.

Chris cleared his throat as he turned on the overhead light. "We'd best let it idle a minute and give the engine a chance to warm up. I keep telling Josiah he should trade in this piece of shhh....crap but he say's it has sentimental value." As he spoke, Chris stared at his hands where they rested on the steering wheel. For the first time he noticed some small, dark stains and realized he hadn't bothered to wash off Larson's blood before he'd left the stadium. Shit. It's no wonder the boy is terrified of me. Probably thinks I'm as violent as his uncle. Hell, let's be honest, you're probably more violent than his uncle; the difference is you don't go around beating up defenseless kids.

"Look...Vin ...I'm sorry about what happened in the judge's office. I shouldn't have let my anger get the better of me like that. Buck and Josiah would both tell you I tend to be a bit short tempered and my people skills are almost non-existent." A quick glance at his passenger left him clueless as to whether or not his confession was helping or hurting the situation. The teenager still sat pressed up against the door with his head bowed and arms crossed tightly in front of his chest. Chris sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that you've got no reason to be afraid of me. I'm not mad at you and I'm not going to hurt you. I know this is hard for you to believe right now but things will get better. You've just got to hang in there. And if there's anything ..." Chris found himself hesitating for a split second but forced himself to finish his offer. "Anything I can do to help make this easier for you, just ask. Alright?"

There was a moment of silence and then Vin hesitantly nodded his head and answered softly, "Yes sir."

Chris waited for a few seconds but Vin remained in the same position, eyes fixed in the direction of his boots. Sighing again, Chris grabbed his seat belt and fastened it into place. "Right. Well, buckle up and we'll head over to the hospital. I'm sure Buck is starting to think we got lost."

At that point Vin did look up and his expression was one of confusion. He spotted the nylon strap across Larabee's chest and followed it down to the square buckle. Oh. He wants me to put on a seatbelt. He'd never used one before and it took him a moment of poking and pulling before he finally got it positioned and snapped into place.

Throughout it all Chris silently sat and fought the urge to just reach over and fix the belt for him. He remembered the condition of Larson's truck and was actually surprised that Vin managed to figure it out as quickly as he did. Kid's smart and tough. Put him with the right family and I bet he'll do well. Satisfied that the seatbelt was secure, Chris turned off the light and put the truck into gear.

Vin was relieved when darkness hid his blush of embarrassment. He probably thinks I'm stupid, wasting his time trying to get harnessed in. It's not my fault Bill didn't have any in his truck. Heck, probably wouldn't have used them even if he had. Leaning his shoulder against the door, Vin tried to get as comfortable as possible without putting too much weight on his back. Now that some of the excitement was dying down he was becoming more and more aware of just how sore his body was. He'd gone into the rodeo hurting and thanks to Standish and Bill he had fresh bruises on top of the old ones. Gonna be even worse tomorrow. Sure could use a shot of Bill's whisky right now.

The ride to the hospital continued in silence, both man and boy lost in their individual but very similar thoughts. Chris was thinking ahead; working out in his mind where he could put his unexpected guest for the night. The large, ranch style house had a spare bedroom but over the years it had gradually become a sort of storeroom. In fact, he couldn't remember actually being able to see the bed the last time he had gone into the room to look for something. But it was either there or the couch in the den. 'With the gun cabinet.' Chris winced at the uncharitable thought. How many times had he jumped to the teenager's defense, telling others that he wasn't dangerous and shouldn't be treated like a criminal? Yet here he was, hesitating to leave him alone in the same room with a locked cabinet of rifles and handguns. Well, it was one thing to be generous and a Good Samaritan; he didn't have to be reckless about it. Maybe with Buck's help they could clear out just enough of the junk to make use of the bed.

Vin was also thinking about the future but not about sleep. He wasn't concerned with where he was going to bed down for the night. As tired as he was, a pile of hay in an empty stall would seem like a feather mattress. What had Vin tense and worried was wondering what would happen before and after he slept. What would he do once they reached Larabee's ranch? How was he supposed to act? And what was he going to say to JD and his uncle? It may have been Bill that cut that strap but it's still my fault. I should probably apologize to them. That thought reminded Vin of the rough time he had given Standish and suddenly it didn't seem near as funny. Letting his forehead rest against the window, Vin gave a small sigh. Got a feeling it's gonna be a long night.

+ + + + + + +

"So...let me get this straight. You knew that any 'money' won from betting would be given to the King's Ranch so instead.... you made wager's with saddle's and harness' as the stakes?"

Ezra slumped a little lower in his seat and remained silent. What was there left to say? He'd confessed everything to his guardian and whatever punishment Josiah dished out he justly deserved. The teenager braced himself for the angry dressing down he knew was coming and wondered if he'd finally pushed the man too far. A sudden bark of laughter made him jump with surprise.

"You....actually thought..." Josiah paused as he gave another hearty chuckle of amusement. "You thought that the parents ....would just stand by...and watch their kids hand over their saddles?" More laughter filled the cab of the truck as Josiah shook his head in amazement. How could Ezra be so street wise and at the same time so naïve?

"Well...we did shake hands on the bets." Ezra wasn't sure if he was supposed to be defending his actions but he was too confused by Josiah's behavior. "And...I've never had trouble collecting before."

"Ezra, what a boy does with money given to him for snacks and souvenirs, that's one thing. A lot of parents give the money to their kids and never ask what they spend it on. But to expect them to just watch while..." Sanchez couldn't finish his sentence as laughter once more shook his large frame.

"So, judging by your reaction would I be correct in assuming that I am not going to be punished?" Ezra sat up straight and looked hopefully at his guardian. Maybe confessing really had been the right thing to do.

"Oh hell yes your going to be punished. Your ass is so grounded you'll forget you ever had a social life. And Chris won't have to worry about JD not being able to do his chores. I'll let him know tomorrow that you'll be filling in every available hour." Josiah couldn't help grinning even as he crushed Ezra's hopes of getting off lightly. He told me the truth. None of the boys showed up with the things they had bet so I would never have known he'd gambled. Lord help me, I think I'm finally getting through to him.

"Now, since we've still got a fairly long drive ahead of us, I think we can put the time to good use discussing the wages of sin."

Ezra sighed and slumped once more in his seat, allowing his head to rest against the window. Oh please, let this night soon be over.

+ + + + + + +

Chris found a parking space not too far from the emergency entrance of the hospital and had one foot out the door before he realized that Vin had not moved to even undo his seatbelt.

"C'mon Vin. We'll get a doctor to take a quick look at your back and ..."



Vin licked his dry lips and pressed himself a little tighter against the door. How far could he push Mr. Larabee before the man resorted to using force?

"I meant no sir. I don't need to see a doctor."

Chris pulled his foot back in and eased the door shut. His first instinct was to treat the boy just like he would JD or Ezra; but he'd never heard their voices shake with such desperate emotion. "Vin, Judge Travis told you there would need to be photographs taken."

"He didn't say it had to be tonight."

"Well, we're here now so we might as well go ahead and get it over with. Now c'mon, it won't be that bad." Chris pushed his door open but froze when he heard a muttered response. "What did you say?"

There was silence for a long moment and Chris was about to repeat his question when Vin shifted in his seat, pulling himself up a little straighter but still keeping his arms tightly wrapped around his chest.

"I said...it ain't your back." Vin felt like he was physically swallowing his fear as he forced his throat to work. In his mind he could see his uncle sitting on the floor of Travis' office, his face covered in bright, shining blood. How far? What was Larabee's snapping point? Might as well find out now, seeing as how they were right outside a hospital.

"It ain't your back...and it ain't your uncle." As he spoke, Vin felt his fear receding and anger taking its place. What right did they have, tearing his life apart like it was any of their business? "I done lost my horse and tomorrow their taking away the only kin I've got left. I'm tired and I'm sore. I don't want no pictures taken. 'Sides, they're just bruises, they'll go away after awhile. They always do."

It was the last statement that did it. 'They always do.' Chris shut his eyes against the images that small sentence invoked. How many years had Bill Larson been beating his nephew? How many years did it take to make a child so resigned to pain and abuse that the marks became 'just bruises'? He wasn't sure he ever wanted to know the answer to that question. As for the rest of it, Vin was right. Thanks to a few well meaning, busybody adults, the boy's whole life had just been ripped apart. And sure, they could say it was all for the best but had any of them actually done anything to prove it?

Chris decided to let Vin have his way and made his voice as soothing as possible. "Well, I guess we can wait and do it tomorrow; if you're sure you don't need to see a doctor tonight?"

"I'm sure. I done told you, I'm fine."

"All right, in that case you can wait here while I go in. Hopefully this won't take long."

Was it really going to be that easy? Vin couldn't believe that Larabee was backing down without more of a fight but as soon as he finished talking Chris opened his door and paused only long enough to grab two jackets out of the back seat. Within just a matter of seconds Tanner found himself sitting alone in the dark. Turning his head so that he could see the side mirror, he watch as Chris made his way through the sliding doors of the hospital and disappeared from sight. Hugging himself just a little tighter, Vin leaned his head against the window and tried very hard to not think about what it would be like tomorrow when he had to walk through those same doors.

+ + + + + + +

"Excuses me, I'm looking for Buck Wilmington. He should be here with a boy named John Dunne who has a broken arm."

"Let me check." The nurse seated behind the counter turned to her computer but before she could start typing, Chris heard a familiar voice call his name.

"Hey partner, over here."

Turning around, he spotted Buck standing in the middle of a hallway.

"JD's taking himself a little siesta in here." Buck gestured to a door at his left and stepped back out of sight.

The first thing Chris spotted when he walked into the small, dimly lit room was the bright, neon-green cast encasing JD's right arm from his hand to his elbow.

"Real eye catcher, ain't it?" Buck chuckled as he followed his friend's line of sight. "I tell you, kids today are spoilt. While we were waiting for the x-ray's to come back, a pretty little brunette came in with a whole cart full of different color gauze. Told JD he could pick whichever color he wanted. There must have been at least seven different colors."

"Uh-huh. And while he was deciding which color cast he wanted you got the brunette's phone number."

Buck patted his shirt pocket and grinned. "Phone number, address and a standing invite to her house for dinner."

Chris just shook his head and motioned to the sleeping boy. "Do we wake him or just carry him out like he is?"

"Nathan said he would probably sleep the rest of the night. When we get back to the ranch we should try and get him to drink some water and use the bathroom but he'll be too far gone for anything else." Buck's cheerful smile vanished as he rested a hand on his nephew's forehead. "I tell you Chris, that was one of the scariest moments of my life, seeing him just laying there in the dust. And then having to hold him still while the doc made sure the bones were lined up..." Buck used his other hand to quickly rub his eyes and abort the tears that threatened to fall. "Felt so knotted up inside I thought I was going to be sick at my stomach."

Chris understood Buck's feelings all too well and braced himself for the memories of his own lost son that he knew would begin to assail him. Closing his eyes, he was surprised when his first thought was of the teenager sitting alone in the dark, waiting for him to return.

Buck cleared his throat and broke the emotionally charged silence. "Well, no sense standing around here. You catch the doors for us and I'll carry him out to the truck. Nathan gave me a prescription to get filled so we'll need to stop by the all-night drugstore over on 5th before we hit the freeway."

Chris handed Buck his jacket. "Yeah, no problem. Should we grab a few snacks while we're there? I imagine JD's going to be spending the next couple of days just sitting around watching television and eating junk food."

Buck shook his head as he eased JD forward and held him upright while Chris draped the boy's jacket over his shoulders. "Nathan said to cut back on the sugar as much as possible since it actually slows the body's healing process. The kid's not gonna like it but the sooner he's out of this cast the better off we'll all be."

"Yeah, it is kind of an eyesore, ain't it?"

"You know, I've got to wonder," There was a slight pause as Buck lifted his nephew into his arms. "Do doctors give their own kids psychedelic, glow-in-the-dark band-aids and neon cast's or do they have to make do with the generic stuff like we had when we were growing up?"

Chris held open the first door for his friend and gave him a pat on the shoulder as he passed. "I've got a better question for you; do they charge extra for the colors and is it covered by your insurance?"

Buck groaned as he slowly and carefully carried his precious cargo to the exit. "Be just my luck they base the price on how annoying the color is, which means JD picked the most expensive one."

+ + + + + + +

Vin kept his eyes on the side mirror and was ready when he saw Larabee and Wilmington approaching the clear, glass doors of the emergency room. He'd rehearsed in his mind exactly what he would say to JD and his uncle in the way of an apology and had decided that it would be best to just go ahead and get it over with. Luckily he'd had the foresight to figure out how to undo the seatbelt ahead of time so he was able to get out of the truck and have the back door open for the men before they arrived.

It was a shock to see Buck carrying his nephew who appeared to be unconscious. The kid seemed a whole lot younger and smaller wrapped in his uncle's arms. Vin's heart skipped a beat as he remembered the judge's stern words regarding the dangers of falling from a horse. The speech he had ready suddenly seemed woefully inadequate in light of the near disaster caused by his uncle.

For a split second Buck was confused by the sudden appearance of another boy. It took his tired brain a moment to remember what Chris had explained over the phone regarding Vin Tanner and Bill Larson. He was in complete agreement with his partner about having the teenager bunk with them although it had been something of a surprise; having Chris be the one to suggest it.

Reaching the open door of the Suburban, Buck nodded his head in greeting. "Thanks. I ..."

"I'm sorry. It's my fault that ...that JD was hurt so bad. I know I can't never make it up to you but I wish I could. If there's anything I can do, I ...I ..." It was just plain wrong, seeming JD so still and quiet. Vin couldn't take his eyes off of the kid's pale face.

"Boy, look at me."

The no-nonsense tone of voice got Vin's attention quick. He looked up and felt his gut tighten in dread. Wilmington was a fairly big man and the dark mustache coupled with the dim lighting gave him an almost sinister appearance.

"Buck, he didn't ..."

"Stay out of it Chris. This is between me and Tanner." Buck kept his gaze fixed on Vin as he spoke. "Now you tell me straight, did you tamper with JD's saddle?"

It took Vin a half a second to find his voice. ".... n ...no sir."

"Did you ask your uncle to do it for you?"

"No sir."

"Did you know your uncle was cheating for you?"

"No sir."

"Then why in blazes are you apologizing for something you didn't ask for, didn't do and didn't want? Seems to me it's your uncle that should be asking for forgiveness." Buck's voice was still firm but the look in his eyes softened as he regarded the earnest young man before him. "Your heart's in the right place and I appreciate the sentiment but you can't take the blame for something that's not your fault. I don't hold you responsible for JD's broken arm and I'm sure he won't either, when he wakes up."

"Is he...will he be alright?" Vin felt a little better, knowing that Wilmington didn't blame him for his uncle's actions but was still concerned by JD's appearance.

"Oh sure; it was a clean break. Nathan said it should heal up just fine and not give him any trouble in the future."

"But he's so ...so..."

"Quiet and peaceful?" Buck smiled wistfully down at his sleeping nephew which was the closest he would ever come to admitting how much he enjoyed the boy's over-abundance of exuberance. "The doc gave him a shot to make him sleep through the night. His arm will ache for a few days but he'll be bouncing off the walls again before you know it. Now, what say we get him loaded and hit the road? I don't know about you but I am more than ready for this day to be over."

Chris stepped forward and helped get Buck and his nephew settled in the vehicle while Vin held the door out of their way. The task was accomplished in just a matter of minutes and soon they were parked in front of the Big B drugstore. Chris volunteered to go in while the others remained sitting in the truck.

From his position in the backseat, Buck had a pretty good view of Vin's profile. He used the light from the storefront to study the teenager while he silently worked to figure out what was nagging him about the boy. Deciding he needed more information, Wilmington carefully shifted his position, making just enough noise to get Vin's attention but not enough to disturb JD who was laying with his head on his uncle's lap.

Even with his eyes closed, Vin had been aware of Buck's scrutiny. He tensed as he heard the man moving about and was prepared when the silence was broken by the first question.

"Hey there Vin, I was just wondering, which school do you go to?"

"Four Corners."

Buck frowned. The only Four Corners school that he knew of was the middle school that JD was attending. He compared their ages together in his head using the number of times he'd watched Vin compete and in which group. When he added Ezra to the equation the answer became even more confusing. And if for some reason Vin was still in middle school, why hadn't JD mentioned him? The boy had come home more than once talking about other kids from the rodeo that he had seen during the day; surely he would have made some mention of Tanner.

Vin grew nervous as the silence stretched. His uncle had warned him that dropping school before he turned 16 was against the law but it had never seemed much of a problem before. No one ever came out to the farm and Vin only left it to attend rodeos. There had been a couple of times when other kids had tried to engage him in conversation and had asked about his school; his answer of, "Four Corners." had seemed to satisfy them just fine. Vin didn't know why Wilmington seemed bothered by the answer but he decided it would be best to try and distract the man before he could ask any more questions.

"Uh...JD was telling me that you used to compete in rodeos. He said that you won a fortune on one throw down. Is that true?"

"Wellllll...I wouldn't say it was a fortune, but it weren't no small potatoes. There's some good money to be made in the rodeo's, if you're willing to really work at it." Buck knowingly let Vin change the topic of conversation. If I think about it again I'll mention the school thing to Chris and let him pass it on to Travis. It's not really our concern but if I'm right and he hasn't been going to class, that might be useful information in getting the boy settled.

"That's what I'm going to do. I'm gonna do it for a living until I earn enough money to start my own ranch and then I'm gonna raise horses just like you and Mr. Larabee."

"Not a bad idea but you've got to consider what you're gonna do in the off season. Might be a good idea to get a job working on a horse ranch so that you can learn the trade first hand."

That did sound like a good idea and Vin nodded his head thoughtfully. "Yeah, might do that. Do you and Mr. Larabee hire people to work for you?"

"JD and Ezra pick up the slack for us so we haven't ..."

"Ezra? You mean that Standish kid?" Vin was so surprised he interrupted Buck without a second thought. "He works?"

Buck actually laughed; it looked like Ezra had made yet another erroneous first impression. "Sometimes, given the right 'monetary incentive', as he puts it. He has been known to even break a sweat now and then."

"Suppose next you'll be telling me he trained his horse all by himself."

"Nope. I had to help get him started but he put in the hours of riding and practicing. And he did the pole bending all on his own. Barrels is the only race I know."

Vin pictured Ezra and his horse, weaving through the line of poles during the rodeo. Next he tried to imagine the same thing but on a ranch in a practice ring, with Ezra in a t-shirt and dusty jeans. Nope. He just couldn't believe it until he saw it with his own eyes. But on the other hand, the horse was only half of the partnership. What good would it do to have a well-trained horse if the rider couldn't stay in the saddle? OK, so maybe Standish had put some work into getting ready for the rodeo, but helping out with the chores around a ranch? Mucking out stalls? No way.

"Here comes Chris. When we get back on the road I'll get him to tell you the story of the first time Ezra put hay out for the horses. Only boy I know that can take a one hour job and make it last half the day."

+ + + + + + +

When they finally reached the ranch house, it was apparent by the empty trailer that Josiah and Ezra had safely deposited the horses and then left. And if the trailer parked next to the barn wasn't a clear enough sign, the excited squeal from Peso as he checked out his new neighbors was a dead give away.

Vin kept looking in the direction of the barn while he once more held the door open for Chris and Buck. He knew Peso hadn't been brushed down and after listening to the horse carry on for a few minutes he decided that it would be pointless to even try. He just hoped Larabee had some good insulation on his house otherwise JD would be the only one getting any sleep.

Closing the truck door, Vin followed the two men up the front steps to the large porch and then into the house. As the lights came on, he was not surprised to see wood paneling and wood floors with lots of heavy, dark stained furniture that men just naturally seemed to prefer. To Vin it looked just like a ranch house ought to and he felt a sharp stab of envy that JD should be so lucky as to have an uncle like Wilmington.

"C'mon Vin, follow us. Buck, you need any help?"

"Nah, I got him. I'll holler if I need anything." Buck turned his body sideways as he spoke while maneuvering his way through the door to JD's room. Using the back of his arm, he got the light switch flipped up and had to squint his eyes against the sudden glare. The brightness made it past JD's closed eyelids as well and the boy moaned and tried to burrow his face against his uncle's chest.

"C'mon JD, you need to wake up just a little for a few minutes. Work with me and I'll get you settled as quick as I can."

Chris paused just outside the doorway long enough to make sure Buck did have everything under control then continued down the hall with Vin trailing behind him.

"You can use the this bathroom to take a shower. JD uses it so there should be everything you need; soap, shampoo, towels in the cabinet. I went ahead and picked you up a toothbrush at the drugstore and some deodorant. I think a pair of JD's sweat pants and one of his t-shirts will do for some pajamas. Do you want to try on a pair of his Jockeys or just go commando?"

"Uh, I'll uh..."

"I'll get you a pair to try." Chris backed out of the small room politely ignoring Vin's blush of embarrassment. "When you come out, bring your clothes to the kitchen. We'll go ahead and put them through the wash so they'll be clean for you to wear in the morning."

Vin nodded and began unbuttoning his shirt. He breathed a small sigh of relief as the door finally clicked shut giving him a moment of solitude. Even though it felt peculiar to be stripping down in a strange bathroom, he didn't dawdle. If Mr. Larabee was going to go through the trouble of washing his clothes before going to bed he certainly didn't want to keep the man waiting. He got his two shirts off while toeing the heels of his boots and was just about to skin out of his jeans when a quiet knock let him know that Chris was back with the promised clothes.

"Here you go. There's an old set of my pajamas there just in case JD's turns out to be too small. Have you thought of anything I might have forgotten? Do you need some ointment for your back?"

"Uh, no. No sir. I'm fine. Thank you."

"No problem. Kitchen is up the hall and to the left just past the dining room. Buck and I will probably both be there so if you do need something, just open the door and yell. JD has done it often enough so I know we'll hear you."


The door closed again and Vin took a deep breath then finished removing his jeans. If by 'going commando' Chris had meant not wearing any underpants, well he was used to that. The only cloth left on his body was the bandana still tied around his left hand. Pulling at the knot with his teeth, Vin carefully worked it loose and pulled the material free of the cut. The gash was deep and began bleeding again almost immediately. Vin quickly balled up the bandana and pressed it back against his palm. Damn. I guess I can just hold it in place while I take a shower with my other hand but the cloth is going to get wet. Vin debated on calling out for help or taking a quick look through the cabinets for some kind of bandage. Well, if Mr. Larabee did come back and what I needed was already here, that would kind of be a waste of his time. So I'll look first and then if I don't find anything I can still take my shower and ask him for something when I get out.

Having made his decision, Vin carefully began a methodical search of the few cabinets above and below the sink. He had almost given up when he decided to open a small white box that had a red 'x' on the lid. Inside he found just what he needed; a roll of gauze, some tape, gauze pads in little white, paper packages and even some ointment and a small pair of scissors. It was a pretty snazzy set up and Vin wondered if JD was maybe a little accident prone if he kept a whole box of medical supplies so handy.

Fearing that he had wasted too much time looking for the bandages, Vin quickly jumped in the shower. He gritted his teeth against the bite of the cold water and kept it on just long enough to get his hair and body wet for the soap. Turning the shower back off, he used his right hand to work a dollop of shampoo through his shoulder length hair and then ran the same hand across his body. He was done with the soap and ready to rinse off in just over a minute. Another blast of cold water, this time a little longer to get the shampoo out of his hair and he was all done. It was exactly the kind of shower he was used to taking at home and while Larabee probably wasn't as picky about the cost of water and electricity as Ben, he figured it was better to be safe than sorry.

The big, soft towel felt good against his skin and he fought to control his shivers as he briskly rubbed the water from his body. Despite the chill, he took the time to carefully hang up the towel to dry before trying on the clothes. He found that JD's things fit just fine, if a little loose in the waist and short in the leg. He'd worn worse. He had to think twice about trying on the briefs but decided in the end that Chris wouldn't have offered them if he hadn't wanted him to wear them.

Dressed and feeling a little warmer, Vin began the painful task of doctoring his hand. The bruises and welts on his back were a familiar ache and one he could almost ignore; the cut across his palm however, was beginning to throb in a way that was making him feel slightly sick at his stomach. The ointment he smeared into the oozing wound helped some and he hoped that he was tired enough that it wouldn't keep him awake.

It was little tricky getting the tape wrapped around the bandage and then cut to the right length but he did manage it and was pleased with the way it looked. He'd also figured out that if he kept his fingers curled in a loose fist, it kept the gash closed and stopped most of the bleeding. Deciding he'd done all he could, Vin ran the fingers of his right hand through his dripping hair to get the worst of the tangles out then gave his teeth a quick but thorough brushing. There, good as new. Vin looked at himself in the mirror and quickly revised his opinion. Well, maybe not new but good enough that Mr. Larabee shouldn't mind me using his sheets.

Carrying his dirty clothes in a tightly rolled bundle, Vin made his way barefooted down the hall, looking for the opening leading to the kitchen. The sounds of pans rattling and the wonderful aroma of cooking food lead him straight to his goal. He paused just outside the brightly lit room and drew in a lungful of the mouth-watering scents. He regretted it a second later as his stomach made a very unhappy sound and tried to claw it's way free of his body. At least, that was what it felt like it was trying to do. Vin quickly stepped into the room deciding the sooner he could bed down and get away from the delicious smells the better.

Wilmington appeared to be doing all the cooking while Larabee stood leaning against a set of cabinets, a dark scowl adding years to his face. Seeing the look, Vin hesitated just inside the doorway but Chris spotted him immediately.

"Well, that was quick. I think you might even have broken JD's record."

It was obvious that Larabee was forcing himself to be pleasant and Vin wondered again why the man had invited him into his home.

"Here, let me have your clothes and I'll throw them in the washing machine then show you where you'll be sleeping. Hope you don't mind a little clutter and the smell of saddle soap. We weren't really set up for guests." After he'd left Vin in the bathroom, Chris had immediately set about clearing off the mattress in the guestroom. The closet was already full so everything wound up getting dumped along the wall at the foot of the bed. It wasn't neat but at least the bed was now usable.

"No sir, I don't mind." Truth was it sounded just like his place back home. The barn was too leaky to keep the leather tack dry so all of Peso's gear stayed in his room. Vin handed over his bundle and watched Wilmington cook while he waited for Chris to return. From what he could see it looked like the men were going to be eating huge, hamburger patties and scrambled eggs. It looked like a feast and Vin found his mouth filling with so much saliva it took two swallows to get it all down.

It didn't take Chris long to start the laundry washing and if he noticed a lack of underwear he was considerate enough not to say anything. Walking back through the kitchen he gestured for Vin to follow him to the hallway. As he stepped past the teenager, he was startled to hear a very loud, gurgling, growling sound. Turning quickly he saw Vin's face flush a bright crimson just before the boy ducked his head.

"You haven't had dinner!"

Vin wasn't sure how to respond. The way Larabee said it, he felt like he was being accused of deliberately not eating. He settled for a noncommittal shrug of his shoulders and kept his burning face turned away.

"Sit down at the table. Buck..."

"Coming right up. Here you go pard, Buck Wilmington's famous chopped steak and ugly eggs. Careful, cause they're hot off the stove."

Buck might have called his egg dish ugly but at that moment it was the most beautiful plate of food Vin had ever seen. He barely waited for Wilmington to move his hand away before grabbing up a nearby fork and digging into the pile of colorful eggs. The first bite really was steaming hot and Vin sucked in a mouthful of air to try and cool it off before it scorched his tongue. Unfortunately the melted cheese retained the heat but rather than spit the food back out he reached for the nearest liquid to cool the burn.

"What would you like to drink? We've got milk, juice..." Chris looked around the open door of the refrigerator as he listed out the beverages and was just in time to spot Vin taking a large gulp from the bottle of beer he'd left sitting on the table. Buck picked up on his partner's sudden silence and turned to see what had caught his attention.

Realizing he was the focus of both men's stares, Vin pulled the bottle away from his mouth. Sheepishly he explained, "Eggs were a might hot." The rancher's continued to look at him with unreadable expressions. Vin noticed that Larabee was standing with a glass in his hand and figured he was being offered something to drink with his dinner. Quickly deciding he could save his host a little bit of trouble, he lifted the bottle and said, "Beer's just fine with me."

Shaking his head, Wilmington made a strange kind of stifled snort as he stepped back to the table and gently but firmly removed the bottle from Vin's hand. He made a couple of other peculiar sounds and his shoulders shook a little as he sat the beer on the counter before going back to his cooking. Chris simply said, "Milk it is," as he proceeded to fill up the large glass all the way to its brim.

"Thanks." Vin actually preferred milk to alcohol and took a big gulp before sitting the glass down next to his plate. He shot a quick glance at Larabee to try and judge his mood but the man seemed to be purposefully keeping his face averted just like his partner. Can't tell if they're pissed off or not. Wonder whose drink I grabbed? "Uh, sorry...about the beer ..."

Wilmington made another weird noise and began rattling dishes while Chris loudly cleared his throat before speaking. "It's okay, like you said, the eggs were hot."

Giving a mental sigh of relief, Vin focused once more on his food, carefully making sure the next bite was cool enough to eat. He was also careful to ration his glass of milk so that it would last until the last bite, which came a lot sooner than he'd been expecting. Looking up from his empty plate, he saw that both Larabee and Wilmington were barely halfway through their meals. Well, they probably had lunch and breakfast too.

"Nice to see someone appreciate my cooking for a change." Buck grinned and nodded to a large, flat box sitting on the table. "Help yourself to some desert if you want. Refill your glass and grab a couple of those doughnuts."

Another helping of milk? And doughnuts? Feeling a little numb, Vin silently stood up and carried his glass over to the refrigerator. Opening the door, he couldn't help but stare at the shelves loaded with food. Well damn. I guess there really is money to be made breeding horses. He was even more surprised to find not a cardboard carton of milk but a huge, white plastic jug. And it was so full he actually had to sit his glass down and use both hands to pour. Returning to the table, he was unaware that the expression on his face closely resembled that of 'shell shock.'

Chris and Buck exchanged quick glances of understanding. Unlike the old flannel shirt that Vin had been wearing, JD's light t-shirt did nothing to hide the teenager's too thin arms and bony shoulders. As the boy took his seat, Chris nudged the doughnut box a little closer. "There's a dozen so we each get three."

"Actually, JD don't get any until his arm is healed so you can have one of his too."

Slowly opening the green and white box, Vin breathed in the heavenly sweet aroma of sugar and yeast. Doughnuts. Round and golden; their thin, sugary glaze glistening in the light, so fresh that no matter how gently Vin tried to hold one, his fingers sank deep into the soft, mouth-watering pastry. Doughnuts.

Chris expected to see the desert disappear as quickly as the steak and eggs. Instead, he watched as Vin sat with his eyes closed, savoring each and every bite, holding each morsel on his tongue for a long moment before finally swallowing it.

Vin finished his first doughnut and only then did he take a big gulp of milk, emptying his glass to the halfway mark. The second pastry disappeared as slowly as the first and was chased down by the remainder of his drink. Sitting the glass down, he reached back to the box but instead of pulling out his third doughnut, he carefully closed the lid and slid the container back to the center of the table.

"Reckon I'll save the other two for in the morning, if that's alright?"

Chris found that he had to clear his throat before he could answer. "Sure, if that's what you want. Did you have enough to eat?"

"Yes sir. It was a really fine supper." Vin meant to add a 'thank you' to the end of his sentence but his mouth was suddenly taken over by a huge yawn that ended with an impressively loud burp.

"Scuse me."

The two men laughed and Chris pushed away from the table. "In some countries that's considered a compliment to the chef. C'mon, I'll show you where the bed is and I'll leave the light on in the bathroom in case you need anything during the night."

If the bedroom was cluttered or smelled funny, Vin never noticed. It was a good thing that Chris had been considerate enough to pull the sheets back because the teenager literally fell into bed, content to sleep in whatever position his body settled in.

Standing in the hallway, Chris waited to see if Vin would pull the blanket up or at least turn off the bedside lamp. Hearing a soft snore, he gave a small shake of his head and walked into the room. Deciding that nothing short of a 9.0 on the Richter scale would wake him up, Chris pushed and tugged Vin's legs into what looked like a more comfortable arrangement and then pulled the covers up to the boy's chin. Without really thinking about it, he gave the tousled head a gentle pat before reaching over to turn off the light.

Back in the kitchen, Chris found Buck loading the dishwasher and after swapping the wet clothes over to the dryer, he offered to finish cleaning up.

"Nah, I got it but I'll let you take care of breakfast in the morning. Why don't you go ahead and turn in for the night? Soon as I'm done here I'm gonna check in on JD one more time then hit the hay myself."

"Sounds good. I'm gonna try and sleep light but if you hear Tanner moving about ..."

"Don't worry, I can handle it." Buck suddenly chuckled as he wiped down the top of the stove. "The look on your face when he said, 'Beer's fine.' Can't wait to tell Josiah that one."

Chris couldn't help smiling as well. Giving his partner a silent wave 'good-night' he headed off to his own bed and some much needed rest.


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