Green eyes squinted open, blinked then closed tight again. Several minutes passed. A tired brain started sluggishly processing memories. Green eyes opened again, this time focusing on the glowing, digital numbers of the bedside clock, which couldn't possibly be right. Must still be dreaming. But the brain was waking up and insisted it wasn't dreaming. So that meant the numbers on the clock were real and probably accurate. Green eyes closed one more time and a low, drawn out groan floated into the silence of the bedroom.
It couldn't possible be 9:15. Chris pushed back his covers and slowly levered himself into a semi upright position. Running one hand through his hair, he picked up the clock with the other and stared again at the numbers.
"Shit. Can't be right. I never sleep past eight."
Sitting the clock back on his nightstand, Chris rose and stumbled over to his dresser where a wooden bowl held the items from his pockets and his Timex watch.
"Damn it. Why didn't Buck wake me?"
"Cause I'm just now getting up myself." Buck's voice, still gravelly from sleep, came from the hallway. Chris opened his bedroom door and saw his partner shuffling toward the kitchen. "Feel like a horse slept on me."
"Know what you mean. I think I had the rest of the herd in my bed. Start the coffee and I'll check on the boys."
Grabbing a t-shirt off the back of his chair, Chris pulled it on as he headed toward the guestroom. From the morning light coming in through the window, he could see that not only was the bed empty, it was also neatly made up. At first he was only surprised that Tanner wasn't still asleep; a second later he became concerned when he thought about how silent the house was.
Stepping over to JD's door, he peered in and saw that while the bed was not made up, it was also not occupied. Since Buck would be in the kitchen, Chris decided the first place he should look for the missing teenagers was the den.
A sigh of relief escaped his lips when he spotted the tell tale flicker of the television screen and heard the unmistakable 'clink' of a metal spoon hitting the side of a bowl. Walking into the room, he found JD sitting on the couch, his right arm resting comfortably on a stack of pillows. In front of him sat a tray table that held a box of his favorite cereal, a pitcher of milk and an especially large, ceramic bowl. JD was deftly welding his spoon with his left hand while raptly focused on the cartoon violence silently taken place in front of him. Well, silent to Chris. Looking closely he spotted the small black earphones and the wire leading to the receiver next to the television.
Chris' feeling of relief faded rapidly as he looked around the room and found JD to be its only occupant. Entering the teenager's line of sight, he gave the boy barely enough time to pull out one earpiece before asking him, "Have you seen Vin this morning? He's the boy from last night who . . ."
"Whose uncle cut the strap on my saddle. Nasty dude." JD removed the second earpiece and laid the set on the tray table. "Yeah, Vin was in the kitchen when I got up. I think it's cool you and Buck are letting him stay. He thought I'd be mad at him because of his uncle but it's not his fault, you know? Did Ezra really try to beat him up because I was hurt? That's just so wicked. I mean I didn't think Ezra really liked me that much. I mean we get along and all but you know. So anyway, Vin helped me get settled here and got me the cereal but I'm glad you're up cause I think I'm supposed have some pain killers and my arm is really starting to hurt. Is Buck awake cause maybe he knows."
"Yeah, Buck is in the kitchen making coffee. I know we filled a prescription for you last night, I'll get him to bring it to you." Chris turned to leave but stopped when he remembered his original goal. "Where is Vin?"
"Umm, you might try the barn. He asked me if there was going to be anything I couldn't do with a broken arm and I told 'You bet, none of my chores!' so then he asked me what they were and I told him and he said he would take care of them as a way of paying you back for the food and all. I told him I didn't think that was really necessary but he seemed pretty set on it so I told him where all the stuff was and he headed out, uh let's see, before X-Men came on but after Dragon Ball so that was about an hour and a half ago."
"Barn. Got it. Thanks." Keeping up with JD's running monologues was hard enough when a man was wide-awake. Straight out of bed and without his morning cup of coffee, Chris considered himself lucky to escape with an answer he could actually understand.
Walking into the kitchen, Larabee sniffed appreciatively at the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. He must have made a sound without realizing because Buck chuckled and answered him.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I don't know what our ancestors did without this stuff."
Chris accepted a mug of the dark, steamy liquid and eased himself into a chair at the table before answering. "They didn't do anything. Check the history books. All the really great inventions didn't happen until 'after' coffee became popular." The first burning sip made his eyes water. The second opened his sinuses and killed the dull ringing that had filled his ears. When he got the third swallow down Chris felt the gears of his brain engage and suddenly remember that JD was waiting for his painkillers.
"Damn. Buck, I'm sorry. JD is in the den and his arm is hurting him."
"Don't worry. I'll take him a pill and then fix him some breakfast. Vin was with him?"
Chris sat his cup down and rubbed his eyes. "No and JD's already had cereal for breakfast. Vin helped him get settled then went out to the barn to take care of JD's chores."
Buck simply shook his head as he left to take his nephew a painkiller. Wilmington considered himself to be a good judge of character and just from the short time he'd spent with Vin he felt a strong desire to help and protect the teenager. 'Hope he gets a good foster family. Maybe they'll even find him one that will let him keep riding.'
+ + + + + + +
Taking one more swallow of coffee, Chris stood up and made his way to the backdoor where he kept a pair of old boots and a light jacket. Squinting against the glare of the morning sun, he walked slowly toward the barn, his gaze sweeping across the connecting coral and the fields that lay beyond. He spotted the dark form of Vin's horse, at the far side of the fenced ring and could tell by the animal's pose that it was listening to the faint sounds of the other Quarter horses that were hidden by the distant trees.
'It was Tanner's horse. He's my responsibility now.' Chris mentally corrected himself as he drew closer to the barn. 'What the hell am I going to do with him? I guess the first thing will be to have the vet come out and give him a thorough checkup. Probably hasn't had one in years.'
Hearing the approaching footsteps, Peso turned his head and gave a loud, quizzical nicker. Deciding that the man had nothing for him, the horse turned his attention back to the surrounding countryside.
'Yeah, definitely one of Bandit's. Buck will be surprised. I'll have to ask Vin who his dame was. Maybe with some work we can get him tamed down enough to sell.'
Entering the barn, Chris paused to give his eyes a chance to adjust to the sudden change of light. The structure of the barn was simple and functional. Stalls lined either side of the wide aisle that ran up the center with another set of doors at the far end. To the left and right of where Chris stood were two rooms, one for tack and one for feed. The bales of hay were kept in the loft overhead.
Spotting a wheelbarrow halfway up the aisle, Chris walked past the first few empty stalls and reached the open gate just as a shovel full of manure came sailing out to land neatly on the growing pile.
"Good morning." Chris announced his presence before stepping in front of the stall.
Vin froze when he heard the cheerful greeting. He'd been thinking about and dreading this moment ever since he'd woken up with the first hint of dawn peeking through his window. Well, truthfully ever since he'd gotten over his confusion at waking up in a strange room and had a chance to remember exactly what had happened the night before.
He'd tried staying in bed until Chris came for him but the minutes had just seemed to crawl by. Deciding he would feel better with his own clothes, he slipped quietly down the hall and through the kitchen to the small room that held not only the washer and dryer but also a large wooden bench and a rack filled with jackets and hats. Several pairs of boots and sneakers sat in front of the bench and Vin spotted his own pair of worn boots neatly lined up with the others. Opening the dryer, he was a little dismayed to find a full load of clothes that he had to sort through to find his.
A few minutes later he was dressed in the jeans and shirts that he'd worn the day before and left sitting on the dryer were the remaining clothes, neatly folded and stacked.
Walking back through the kitchen he spotted the doughnut box on the table and remembered that he still had two more of the delicious pastries waiting for him. Stepping to the hallway, he listened for any noise that would indicate either Larabee or Wilmington were waking up. Hearing what sounded like a muffled chainsaw, he correctly guessed that both men were still asleep. Vin returned to the table and opened the box but hesitated before reaching inside. His eyes shifted over to the refrigerator as he remembered the large jug of milk that he'd been allowed to help himself to the night before. 'Well, they didn't mind last night, don't guess they'd feel any differently this morning.'
He had to open three cabinet doors before he finally found one that contained glasses and then he was careful to choose one that was about medium size. Filling it to the brim, he carefully carried it over to the table and then settled himself down for what he considered to be the best breakfast he'd had since his aunt had died.
He'd just finished licking the sugar from his fingertips when he heard a noise in the hall that sounded like someone staggering into a doorframe. Moving quickly, Vin was just in time to see the door to the hall bathroom close. 'Must be JD that's awake and moving around. Guess I'll just wait here for him.'
It didn't take long for the younger boy to reappear and make a beeline straight for the kitchen. JD held his right arm cradled against his chest and as Vin watched him approach he could almost swear the cast was glowing in the dimly lit hallway.
It also looked like JD was walking without really seeing where he was going and Vin was forced to step back out of his way to keep from getting run down. Only when JD was in the kitchen and had turned on the lights did he seem to come fully awake and aware of the other teenager's presence.
Vin held his breath as JD silently regarded him with a puzzled look on his face.
"You... you spent the night here?"
"Cool. I'm gonna get some cereal. You want some?"
"Uhm, thanks but I already had a couple of doughnuts."
"Doughnuts? They bought the doughnuts? Awesome!"
JD quickly spotted the tell-tale box and smacked his lips in anticipation. "Did they get some chocolate ones with sprinkles? Those are my favorite."
"No, they're all plain but you ...umm.. aren't suppose to eat any."
"What?! Who said? When? Why?"
Vin shoved his hands in his jeans pockets and hunched his shoulders. Looked like he was going to have to apologize for more than just Bill's cheating. "Last night. Your uncle said you didn't get one on account of your arm. In fact, he ... sorta let me eat one of yours."
"What's my arm being broke got to do with eating a doughnut?" JD rested his right arm on the table while he opened the lid and counted the remaining pastries. "Whew. There's still eight left. You had me worried for a second there. Do me a favor and get me a plate down from the cabinet next to the sink. You know these things are best when they're warm. Twenty- three seconds in the microwave for three of them. Thanks. Hey, could you pour me a glass of milk? Better make it a mug with a handle. I'm probably going to be a little clumsy till I get used to doing everything left-handed. And probably just when I get good at it it'll be time to take the cast off. So what's up with you? Did Buck invite you over to keep me company? How long can you stay?"
Well, this was it, time to explain exactly what had happened at the rodeo and why. Keeping his eyes on the floor and shoving his hands even deeper into his pockets, Vin told JD the whole story from Ezra's accusations, to meeting Buck at the hospital. He told nothing but the truth using plain and simple words. His mouth was dry by the time he was finished speaking and silence fell once more in the kitchen.
"Geez. That really sucks about your uncle. I'm glad Chris and Josiah were there. I can't believe Ezra blamed you though. I mean I'm not calling you a liar but he should have known you didn't need to cheat to win. Heck, I drew the worse calf in the show. Now if I had gotten number six, well that would have been different. And he actually hit you? Ezra? I didn't even know he could make a fist. I'll bet he hits like a girl though. Or did he give you that bruise on your face? So if your uncle is going to jail does that mean you can stay here permanently cause that would be just so way awesome. We could go riding together and play video games and maybe you could help me out with my roping. Can you get me some milk? Thanks."
Vin blinked and slowly straightened up from his hunched position. "You ... ain't mad?"
"At you? Why should I be? Cause of the doughnut? Naw. I'll just eat one of Buck's. Serves him right, you know?"
Even if he'd tried really hard, Vin doubted he could have kept the smile from his face. "You're something else kid."
"Thanks. Hey! Who are you calling a kid? And hurry up with that milk; my doughnuts are ready."
JD ate his share of the pastries sitting at the table while Vin kept him company. They discussed all the things that JD wouldn't be able to do with a cast on his arm, which was a mixed assortment of good and bad. Good, no chores; bad, no riding. Vin couldn't do anything about the latter but he did offer to help with the work.
"Nah, I don't think Buck would agree. You're like a guest ...you know? Anyway, I'm done with the doughnuts so now I'm ready for some cereal and my shows are about to start. Help me get a tray table set up in the den and we can watch some toons while I eat. Sure you don't want some? This stuff's got frosting, chocolate and marshmallows."
"No thanks. Do you ever eat a breakfast that ain't made entirely of sugar?" Vin fetched a folded table from the rack that JD pointed out to him and also grabbed up the box of cereal. His sore hand twinged a bit but he ignored the pain.
"On the weekends either Buck or Chris will usually cook up a pretty fancy spread; lots of meat and eggs with fried potatoes and some kind of fruit. I'm surprised they're not up yet. Guess they were both pretty tired from last night. Just set the tray up right there. You brought the cereal? Great. If you look in the cabinet next to the one with the glasses you'll see a big, white bowl; bring that and a spoon from the drawer to the left of the stove and grab the pitcher off the counter and fill it about half way up with milk. Oh, and better get a stack of napkins just in case. Thanks."
And that was how Vin had left JD, sitting on the couch, watching cartoons and eating cereal so sweet it made his teeth ache just looking at it. He didn't know exactly how long ago that was but he had managed to check on Peso and work the chill out his muscles by cleaning out half the stalls in the barn. He might have gotten more accomplished but the cut on his hand made shoveling the manure and pushing the wheelbarrow painfully difficult. Now Mr. Larabee had arrived and he didn't know if he'd done a good enough job or if the man was going to think he was just as lazy and good-for-nothing as his uncle did.
"Good morning." Chris called out the greeting to keep from getting hit by flying manure as he stepped through the door. Peering into the dimly lit stall he spotted Vin in a back corner, shovel poised over the next pile of droppings. "Might be a bit easier with some light to see by. Buck and I installed a switch in each stall in addition to the master switch by the main door." Chris demonstrated this by reaching up and turning on the single bulb that hung above the center of the stall.
Vin squinted against the sudden brightness, his eyes having gotten used to the semi-darkness of the barn interior. He nervously licked his lips and managed a hesitant, "Thanks," followed by a polite "Morning."
Chris noticed right off that Vin wasn't wearing work gloves and that the bandage on his left hand was smudged with dirt. He frowned and stepped further into the stall but froze when he saw Vin back into the corner.
"JD must not have told you about the gloves we keep in the cabinet in the tool shed. It's probably not a good idea to get dirt under that bandage." Chris gestured to Vin's injury while he spoke, trying to make his voice as light and calm as possible. But that was hard to do when all he kept thinking about was how much he wanted to beat Larson into a bloody pulp. "Anyway, rule number one on this ranch is no work before breakfast. Buck and I don't usually sleep this late but we're up now and we'll get some food on the table. Why don't I empty this load while you go back inside and get cleaned up?"
"I had breakfast before JD woke up." Vin gave a mental sigh of relief. Maybe Larabee couldn't help looking so pissed off all the time. "I had them two doughnuts left over from last night. And a glass of milk. Not as big a glass as you gave me with dinner. Kind of medium size. And JD did tell me about the gloves but I wasn't sure which pair was his and figured I didn't really need'em for this. Didn't think about getting my bandage dirty." Vin suddenly realized that he was talking nearly as much as JD and he quickly directed his attention back to the pile of manure he'd been set to shovel up when Larabee had arrived.
"Two doughnuts aren't much of a breakfast and you're welcome to wear whichever pair of gloves fits you the best. Now throw that pile in the wheelbarrow and I'll take it out while you put the shovel away. And I intend to pay you for any work that you do while you're here so keep track of how many hours . . ."
"Pay?!" Vin froze once more, this time with the shovel loaded and lifted in mid-air. "I ain't doing this for money. This is to make up for what my uncle did to JD and to pay you back for giving me a place to sleep and something to eat. I'm not asking for no money." Didn't Larabee understand? He wasn't loo king for handouts and or a free ride. Hard work was all he had to give and he was proud of the fact that he could do a job well, even if it was only mucking out stalls.
"I know you're not asking to get paid but you will be. JD gets an allowance in return for completing his chores and I'm sure Buck will figure out something for him to do so he can keep earning that money. And we keep telling you, your uncle is the only one that can make up for his actions; we don't hold you responsible." Chris stepped forward and gently but firmly pulled the shovel free of Vin's tight grip. "And as for the food, you're an invited guest of this ranch and food comes free with the bed. Now go inside and take care of that hand. And if you want to be helpful you can see if JD needs anything while Buck and I are cooking breakfast."
Vin opened his mouth to argue but at that same moment the sharp, clanging ring of a bell echoed through the air. There was a brief pause and then another loud clang. Chris frowned and seeing the confused look on the teenager's face, he quickly explained.
"We set up the bell so that if one of us was needed back at the house, a person could ring it a certain number of times for whoever they wanted. I'm one ring, Buck is two and JD is three."
"Guess that means that you need to go." Vin reached for the shovel in Chris' hands. "I can take care of this while ..."
"It can wait." Turning to the wheelbarrow, Chris dumped the last load of manure than propped the shovel against the side of the stall. "Now c'mon. Get cleaned up and then you can watch television with JD until breakfast is ready."
Vin reluctantly followed Larabee across the yard and to the back deck of the ranch house where Buck stood waiting.
"Phone for you Chris. It's Nathan. I thought he was calling just to check on JD but it seems he needs to talk to you too."
"Thanks. Vin is going to wash up and then keep JD company while we get breakfast ready."
Buck smiled at the teenager but shook his head. "Afraid JD's not very sociable right now. All that sugar he had this morning plus his pain killer; he's passed out on the couch in the den."
Vin paused at the base of the stairs then started to turn back to the barn. "In that case I reckon I can just . . . "
"Wash and help Buck with the cooking while I see what Nathan wants." Chris used one hand on Vin's shoulder to steer the boy up the short flight of steps and across the deck. "I'll take the call in my office Buck."
"Right. Phone is on the kitchen table." Wilmington cheerfully took over the job of shepherding the unhappy teenager and kept Vin moving in the right direction. "C'mon sport, kick your boots off then head for the bathroom. I'll get you one of JD's t-shirts that you can wear after you clean up."
Chris picked up the phone off the table but waited until he had reached his office before speaking.
"Nathan? This is Chris."
"Good morning Chris, Judge Travis asked me to give you a call."
"Yeah, I'm supposed to bring a boy named Vin Tanner in for ..."
"No, that's not what I'm calling about. Well, not exactly."
There was a long pause and Chris could imagine Nathan rubbing his eyes with his fingertips as he struggled to find the words he needed to explain his reason for calling.
"Just spit it out Nathan. What's wrong?"
There was another slight pause followed by a long sigh. "Alright. Chris, they brought in Bill Larson this morning."
"Brought in? You mean the police arrested him?"
"No, I mean admitted into the hospital. The police were investigating a report of a vehicle off the side of the road and discovered Mr. Larson in his truck. It looks like he got drunk and then wrapped it around a tree."
"Well, the passenger side took the worst of the damage. Luckily he was alone but he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. He's got some broken ribs, a broken leg, a concussion and some facial lacerations from the glass. The injuries from the accident are bad but not that serious, all things considered. The hours spent in the cab of his truck before the police found him have added complications. He's still unconscious."
It definitely wasn't good news but it didn't seem to warrant the kind of reluctance that Jackson was exhibiting. "Nathan, what aren't you telling me?"
"To put it bluntly, he's dying. I'm not sure he'll last a week."
"But you just said . . ."
"It's cancer. The man's insides are eaten up with it. Colon, liver, lungs ... he might have lived six more months or maybe even a year but not much longer than that."
"Yeah. Look, under the circumstances Travis says there no need for Tanner to undergo an exam unless you think he needs to be treated."
"No, no he appears to be fine."
"That's good to hear. If you want to bring him to the hospital I can explain his uncle's condition in person and make arrangements so he can see him for a few minutes."
Chris gave that some serious thought. It would be easier to have someone else break the news to Vin about his uncle but that would mean misleading him about why they were going to the hospital. No, he would break the news himself. He explained that to Nathan who agreed.
"Might be best to just keep it simple. His uncle was in an accident and we discovered that he is dying of cancer. He may or may not wake up but he probably won't live more than a week."
"Simple. Yeah. OK if I call you back later?"
"Sure. Uh, there was one more thing. Travis wanted to know if you could keep the boy with you until . . . well until his uncle passes away. He thought it might make it easier to arrange visits just in case Larson does wake up."
"Makes sense. I'll call the judge later and let him know it's no problem."
"In that case I'll keep your number handy and if there's a change in Larson's condition I'll call you immediately."
"Thanks Nate." Chris turned off the phone and rubbed a hand through his hair. Nothing about this weekend was turning out to be simple and he would be really glad when it was over and the whole ordeal behind him. A sudden wave of guilt made his stomach churn. Over for him but just beginning for Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Vin kept his eyes focused on the road, watching for the beat-up, old mailbox that marked the dirt drive leading to his home. He tried to keep his thoughts focused on the journey as well but they kept circling back to his uncle. His uncle who had been in an accident. His uncle who was lying unconscious in a hospital. His uncle who was dying. His uncle who would probably be dead before the end of the week. His uncle who was the only kin he had left in the entire world.
"Vin, is this it?"
Chris' voice drew his thoughts back to the road just in time. "Yeah, turn right here. Careful though, got more potholes than road. After a rodeo we'd usually stop here and I'd take Peso out and ride him to the barn. Easier on his legs that way."
"I can see why." Chris reduced his speed to a crawl and kept both hands on the wheel as he navigated his truck between the large holes. "Must be how the Grand Canyon got started."
Chris' attempt at humor didn't even get a ghost of a smile and he sighed inwardly. The boy had taken the news of his uncle in silence, not asking a single question. He'd simply accepted everything Chris told him and then waited to be told what would happen next. It had been unnerving to see those blue eyes staring back at him so calmly. Buck thought it might have been shock but Chris had a feeling it was something more akin to defeat. The boy was giving up. Fate had dealt him a bad hand and he was ready to fold.
Of course it had been JD who'd found the one bright spot in the whole situation.
"Hey, that means I'll have time to show you some of my games and we can watch some movies and there's this great trail going up to the creek..."
It was obvious that JD had only been trying to cheer Vin up but Chris had had a feeling that what the boy really needed was some time to come to grips with the loss of his uncle. Riding out to his home to pack his clothes had seemed like a good way to kill two birds with one stone.
As Chris eased his way past another gaping chasm, he suddenly became aware of the faint clouds of smoke drifting through the trees on either side of the road. He also realized that he could smell the acrid scent of burning wood and tar. Glancing over at Vin, he saw that the boy was sitting forward in his seat, his frowning gaze fixed intently on the road ahead.
"Were you and your uncle clearing some land by burning?"
Vin silently shook his head 'no' in response.
A sick feeling of dread settled in Chris' stomach as he neared the end of the trees and the road opened out onto the open land of the farm. His worst fear was confirmed when the smoke thickened and the remains of a one story, cinderblock building came into view. It was obvious from the blackened windows and lack of a roof or a front door that the place was completely gutted. Smoke still floated out from the structure that must have burned all through the night until every flammable object had been reduced to ashes.
Chris stopped his truck several yards away. He was at a complete loss as to what to say or do. Words seemed woefully inadequate and he didn't know Vin well enough to offer any form of physical comfort. The awkward silence filled the cab of the truck and Chris found himself squeezing the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were turning white. He had to say something but what?
"He burned it, didn't he?" Vin's voice was little more than a hoarse whisper, as his eyes remained glued to the remains of his home. "Why? Why'd he have to burn it?"
"Vin, I don't . . . I just don't know." The look on Vin's face was a terrible mix of confusion and anguish. Chris couldn't bear to see it but he also didn't want to continue looking at the smoking ruins of the house. Shifting his gaze to the side, he spotted the barn and grain silo, which Bill Larson apparently had not set fire to. Even from a distance Chris could tell that they were both in such bad shape it would take more money to fix them than to just build new ones. A tractor and what looked like an old army jeep sat rusting near the barn. The weedy, half plowed fields that lay beyond the dilapidated structure completed the image of poverty and neglect. Even without the burned house it was a depressing sight.
"I think we should leave." Chris waited for a few seconds but Vin made no sound of agreement or protest. "I'll call Travis and let him know what happened as soon as we get back to the ranch." Turning the truck around, Chris headed back for the main road, hitting a few more potholes in his haste to escape the mindless destruction. Vin remained silent and Chris found himself once more struggling for words.
"When we get back to town we'll stop off at K-Mart and get you some clothes. A few pairs of jeans and some t-shirts." Chris glanced over to see if that suggestion would get a reaction but Vin had his head turned and was looking out the side window.
"Vin, I'm sorry about what happ..."
"Sorry?" The word was softly spoken but carried so much emotion that Chris found himself suddenly holding his breath in dreadful anticipation.
"You're sorry?" Vin slowly turned his head until his wide, blue- eyed gaze was fixed on Larabee's face. "You. . . It's gone. Everything. I don't . . . I don't have anything. My clothes . . .I had . . . pictures . . . my mom and and . . ."
In his mind Vin could see the way his room had looked the morning of the rodeo. The small bed with the worn quilt that his aunt had made just for him. The beat up old dresser with the crooked drawers, the top of it covered by an odd collection of rocks and bits of wood that had caught his eye. A small bird's nest sitting on his windowsill. The braided rug beside his bed. Pages from old magazines that his aunt had let him cut out and hang on his wall. Pictures of animals and exotic places he dreamed of someday actually seeing. It was all gone. Nothing but soot and ash. And the shoebox hidden beneath his bed; the one that held the only picture he had of his mom. Gone. Forever.
"I got nothing left. And all you can say," Vin struggled to get the words out. "Is you're sorry?"
Vin drew a deep shuddering breath and then continued, his voice getting steadily louder. "It's gone. Everything. Everything! And you're SORRY?!"
When the attack came Chris was only half surprised. He slammed on the brakes and threw the truck into park before lifting his arms to block the sudden rain of blows. Luckily Vin was slightly hampered by his seatbelt and the close confines of the cab. His shouted, sobbing curses echoed from the windows as he first punched then kicked at the man he blamed for the total destruction of his life.
Chris was able to get his own belt off before attempting to quell the emotional and physical storm that Vin had erupted into. He caught one wrist and then the other and managed to pin the boy's shoulders against the door. He had to twist his hips to dodge the toe of a boot and soon found himself entirely on the seat with one knee pressed on Vin's thighs. Vin's body was a straining, jerking coil of energy and Chris was soon panting with the effort of holding him still.
With a last, wordless cry of anger, Vin suddenly gave up the struggle and allowed his arms to go limp. When the first sob escaped his throat he squeezed his eyes tightly closed in shame but he couldn't hold back the flood of tears and they raced freely down his burning his cheeks.
Chris felt his throat thicken with emotion as his own vision blurred with tears of sympathy. Releasing his hold on Vin's wrists, he moved back on the seat just far enough so that he could reach the latch on the boy's seatbelt. Removing it, he wrapped one arm around Vin's shoulders and pulled him into a tight embrace. If anything the wracking sobs grew in intensity and Chris found himself gently rocking the boy while holding him close. He offered no empty words of comfort. No meaningless apologies. What he did offer was strength and support and a silent promise to do whatever he could to help through the rough week ahead.
+ + + + + + +
"L Bar W, Larabee speaking. Hey Nathan. He is? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Uh...right now I suppose. I'll need a chance to clean up a bit first so it might be about an hour, hour and a half. Yeah. Yeah. OK. Bye."
Chris hung up the phone and turned to find JD staring at him with troubled eyes.
"Vin's uncle just woke up. He's asking to see him."
"Oh. You want me to go and get him?" JD quickly stood up from the table, not waiting for an answer.
Ever since JD had first met Vin, he'd thought he was an alright kid. A little on the quiet side maybe but that just made him a better listener. Learning that his uncle had been beating him had been a real shocker. JD knew that there were adults like that in the world; men and women who thoughtlessly hurt their own children or even worse, hurt the children of other parents. But his knowledge was the clinical, watered down version that he got through the special 'awareness' classes that the school periodically held. It was one thing to hear a teacher talk about child abuse and something else to actually know a kid that was a real victim.
Of course, Vin didn't really act like a victim. That first day had been kind of fun, all things considered. When JD had woken up from his unexpected nap, he'd been surprised to find Vin hovering anxiously over him. It seemed that Chris and Buck had decided that repairs to a portion of the north side fence couldn't wait another day and had asked Vin to stay inside and keep an eye on him. And it looked like the teenager was taking his assigned job very seriously.
It took about thirty minutes but JD was finally able to get Vin relaxed enough where he would sit down on the couch and watch some shows on the television. They spent about an hour just flipping channels and then at JD's suggestion the two had moved to the kitchen to rustle up some lunch. Together they'd inspected the contents of the refrigerator and the freezer and then decided on hotdogs and chips with Vin doing all the fetching and carrying while JD pointed out where everything was stored. When Vin had asked how many hotdogs he could have, JD had shrugged his shoulders and simply said, "I guess however many it takes to fill you up."
Twenty-five minutes and seven hotdogs later the two boys returned to the den where JD introduced Vin to the world of video gaming. That kept the teens occupied for the rest of the afternoon until JD suggested that they fix dinner and have it waiting for when Chris and Buck returned. He'd been thinking of making a quick and easy pot of spaghetti by using jarred sauce and shredding a head of lettuce for salads. Vin remembered seeing a pack of ground beef in the refrigerator and offered to make chili instead; provided they had the tomato sauce and beans. A quick search turned up all the necessary ingredients and JD kept Vin company while he cooked. When the two ranchers had returned home, they'd been pleasantly surprised by the delicious aroma filling the kitchen. It seemed that not only could Vin cook chili, he could cook 'good' chili. Vin didn't say anything in response to the praise but it was easy to tell by his expression that he'd been pleased.
Everyone had gone to bed early that night after having made plans for the next day. Vin would go with Chris to fetch some of his clothes while Buck would stay in and take care of his nephew. Of course, things hadn't gone exactly as they'd planned.
JD was still haunted by the look he'd seen on Vin's face when he had returned a few hours later. The older boy had ignored JD's cheerful greeting and gone straight to his bedroom, closing the door firmly behind him. Chris had entered the house with his hands full of plastic shopping bags loaded with an assortment of clothes. Motioning for JD and Buck to follow him to the kitchen, he'd quietly explained what they'd found at Larson's farm. Neither he nor Buck could answer JD's simple question of 'why'.
When Vin had emerged from his room hours later, it was like all the energy had been sucked out of him. He didn't smile. He didn't frown. He didn't show any emotion at all. And if JD had thought Vin was quiet before, well he hadn't known the real meaning of the word. Chris and Buck had both warned JD to leave Vin be, to give him time to deal with the pain and the loss. JD had listened to his uncle and Chris at first but after a couple of days had gone by he'd started thinking that leaving Vin alone wasn't such a good idea. In fact, just that morning he'd gone to Buck and suggested that maybe Vin was actually sick or something. Buck had reassured his nephew that the teenager was just suffering from stress and he would be fine.
Well, now that Vin's uncle was awake, maybe things would get better. Maybe it'd be like in the movies and Bill would ask for his nephew's forgiveness and Vin would have pity on the dying man and the two would reach an understanding before Bill died. With that hope in mind, JD hurriedly slid his broken arm back into his sling and went in search of the older teen. It only took him a few minutes because Vin had taken to spending all his time in one of three places; beside the coral where Peso was kept, seated under the big cedar tree that overlooked the lower pasture or lying on his bed staring up at the ceiling. JD checked the bedroom first and coming up empty, headed out the backdoor.
JD found Vin sitting next to the cedar tree, but he wasn't looking out at the view. Vin's right shoulder rested against the tree and his head was down like he might have actually been sleeping. As JD walked around to the side, he noticed that Vin was once more cradling his left hand on his lap with his right hand clutching his elbow. JD frowned at the sight. Maybe he was just a thirteen-year-old kid and didn't know much about being hurt or sick but it sure seemed to him like there was more going on with Vin than just grief. 'Well, he is going to the hospital today. Maybe Nathan or some other doctor will see him and notice something's wrong.'
"Hey Vin, the hospital just called." JD paused to give Vin a chance to lift his head and look at him. 'Geez! He looks like crap. How can Buck and Chris think this is OK?' The boy took a second and cleared his throat before continuing. "Your uncle is awake and asking to see you. Chris says he'll take you as soon as he gets cleaned up."
"Bill's awake?" Vin heard the words and knew they were important to him. Hadn't he been waiting all this time just to hear them? And if it was that important, shouldn't he be feeling happy or relieved, maybe a little nervous? Scared? Something? Something other than this sick, empty feeling in his head. Maybe it was a lack of sleep. What had started out as just an ache in his injured hand had spread until his whole body felt like one big, sore muscle. It was hard to fall asleep and when he did, strange dreams would wake him back up at all hours of the night. And the ache had even reached his stomach, making it nearly impossible for him to eat.
So now he had the news that his uncle was awake and wanting to see him. Did that change anything? Were things any better than they were a few minutes ago? Still didn't have a home. Still didn't have a horse. And in a few days Bill would be gone as well and then he wouldn't have a family. It was like someone was taking a giant eraser and wiping out his life one piece at a time. No, JD's news changed nothing and the effort that it was going to take to stand seemed way too great for so little return. Vin closed his eyes and almost wished the hand with the eraser would come for him next.
JD didn't know what Vin was thinking but tried to sound positive as he could confirmed the news. "Yeah, Bill's awake. Chris is getting ready now to drive you to the hospital." JD grew even more concerned as Vin neither spoke nor moved. "Maybe I should go get Buck . . ."
"No. No, I'm fine." Somewhere Vin found the strength to push himself to his feet. "No need to bother your uncle."
"Vin, it ain't no bother and . . ."
"I said I'm fine. Just leave me alone." Anger. So there was an emotion he could still feel. And it gave him the energy to walk across the yard and into the house. But why was he angry at JD? Just because the kid wanted to help? Vin sighed. Seemed he could still feel guilt too.
"Sorry JD, didn't mean to snap at ya."
"Sure Vin. It's OK. You want a Coke or anything while you wait for Chris?"
"No. I'll just sit on the couch till he's ready."
JD watched Vin shuffle into the den and felt his own temper starting to flare. Reaching a decision, he turned and marched back out the door.
+ + + + + + +
"Buck?" JD stepped into the barn and yelled for his uncle. "You in here?"
"Up here sprout. What ya need?" Buck's voice floated down from the loft along with a few wisps of straw.
"Nathan called and said Vin's uncle is awake. Chris is getting ready to take him to the hospital." JD watched the opening to the loft and in a few moments Buck's face appeared looking down at him.
"Well, I suppose that is sort of good news. At least Vin will get a chance to talk to him before he passes away. Do me a favor and ask Chris to stop by the grocery store on his way back. We're out of milk and . . ."
"Buck, why are you and Chris treating Vin like you don't really care what happens to him?"
Wilmington frowned in confusion. "What do you mean? Of course we care JD. If we didn't care we wouldn't have taken him in or seen to it that he has clothes to wear or. . ."
JD waved his hand and cut his uncle off. "Yeah, yeah I know you've done all that but I'm not talking about the physical stuff. I mean, it's like, well . . ." His voice trailed off as he tried to put into words exactly what he was thinking. He finally hit on the idea to use himself as an example. "OK, it's like this; I can't even sneeze around you without getting a thermometer stuck under my tongue. If I frown you immediately ask me what's wrong and 'do I want to talk about it.' Chris is almost as bad except he always goes to you first. But neither one of you have tried to talk to Vin or checked his temperature or looked at his throat or offered him some Tylenol . . ."
". . . and you know he ain't eating and if you look at his eyes you can tell he ain't sleeping . . ."
". . . and I'll bet it has something to do with his hand cause he doesn't use it unless he has to and . . ."
Buck sighed and rubbed a hand across his mustache. "Step back away from the ladder so I can climb down. We need to talk and I don't plan on doing it while hanging upside down."
"See? See? That's just what I mean. I'm not the one you need to talk to. It's Vin you need to talk to. Or maybe Chris should be the one since he kind of started all this; although I guess to be fair Ezra was actually the one that really started it since he was the one that blamed Vin for what his uncle did but still . . ."
Stepping off the ladder, Buck allowed his nephew to continue ranting while he drank a bottle of water and cleared the dust out of his mouth. When he was ready he laid a hand gently on JD's shoulder and steered the boy over to the stack of hay waiting to go out to the field.
"JD, shut up and sit down." Buck sat down as well so that he could look his nephew straight in the eyes while he spoke.
"You are family. You are my nephew and probably the closest I will ever come to having a son. I care very much about what happens to you because I love you. I ask you to talk to me when something's bothering you and I make you take medicine when you're sick because a part of loving you means I worry about you and I want you to be safe and happy."
Buck paused and took a deep breath before continuing.
"I feel sorry for Vin and I hate that he's having to go through all this but there's really not much either I or Chris can do. When he first came here it was only supposed to be for one or two nights and the judge didn't give Chris any real authority or legal responsibility over Vin. We don't treat Vin like you because we can't. He's not family and he's only staying here until his uncle dies."
JD opened his mouth to argue but Buck continued talking. "And yes, he does look sick and both Chris and I have noticed and we have offered to take him to see a doctor but he refuses to go. Now we could have forced him, that's true but we thought it might be best to wait and keep from upsetting him even more." Buck looked down at his hands and thoughtfully traced a line across his left palm. "But now that you've mentioned it, maybe Chris should insist on having a doctor look at that hand while they're at the hospital."
"Anyway, you need to understand JD, in a few days Vin will be placed with a foster family and they will do all the things for him that Chris and I do for you. It's not that we don't care about the boy, because we do. And we both want what's best for him and we hope that things will work out but . . ."
"Then why can't he just stay here with us?"
JD leaned forward and stared earnestly at his uncle. "We didn't use that spare room for nothing except storage and I don't mind sharing a bathroom. He knows how to work with horses and you could split my allowance with him and let him keep doing some of my chores even when my cast comes off. Vin could stay here and we could be his foster family. You could get the judge to make it all legal and then you and Chris could take care of him just like you take care of me and I bet he'll be a lot happier here then he would be with any other foster family cause he knows us already and on top of that Peso is here and he could keep riding and competing in the rodeos and . . ."
The flow of words came to an abrupt halt as Buck effectively placed his hand across his nephew's mouth.
"JD," Buck shook his head sadly as he lowered his hand. "If it were just up to me then, yeah, maybe. I'd certainly look into it. But technically, this isn't my house and Chris would be the one to decide whether or not Vin could stay."
"Well let's ask . . ."
"And that's exactly what we are not going to do." Buck moved so that he was sitting next to JD and put his arm across the boy's shoulders. "Listen, you weren't here when Chris lost Sarah and Adam and I'm not about to try and make you understand the kind of hell he went through after they died. I moved in so that I could keep an eye on Chris and make sure the horses were cared for. He never has gotten over the grief but he has come to accept it. When he was finally thinking straight again he signed half the ranch over to me as a way of saying thanks and invited me to stay at the house as long as I liked."
Wilmington pulled JD a little closer as he continued talking. "When I got the letter from your mom's lawyer telling me that I was now your legal guardian, well I just about had a stroke. I didn't know anything about raising kids and to be honest my first thought was to find another relative to take you."
"Really?" JD looked up at his uncle's face in disbelief.
"Really. You've got to understand, I'm a confirmed bachelor and the thought of settling down with a house full of kids, it's downright terrifying."
"So, what changed your mind?"
Buck grinned and ruffled JD's thick hair. "You did. The first moment I laid eyes on you. There you were, sitting in that big leather chair in the lawyer's office, hugging a toy truck to your chest so tightly I figured there'd be tire tracks across your stomach. All it took was one look at those big, dark eyes and I knew there was no way I could let someone else have you. But that meant I had to either make Chris understand or find another place to live."
"Well, since we're both living here I guess Chris was OK with me moving in, right?"
"Mmmm, not at first. You probably don't remember but it was just the two of us here for a couple of weeks. That was because Chris went to stay at the log cabin up on the lake when you first arrived. It was hard on him, but he knew how important it was to me and he's a good friend. The best. And that's why I won't put him in that spot again. If we asked, he'd probably agree to let Vin stay just as a favor to us."
"You say Vin looks rough, but have you really taken a look at Chris lately?"
"Well, no. . ."
"Then maybe you should. Vin ain't the only one not getting much sleep." Buck gave JD a pat on the back as he stood up. "I'll talk to Chris and make sure he gets Vin checked out by a doctor so you can stop worrying about that. And I've known Judge Travis for several years now and I'm sure he'll do everything he can to see to it that Vin gets a good home. As for the horse and competing in rodeos, well, maybe something can be arranged after he's settled down. Satisfied?"
JD stood as well and carefully thought over his uncle's words. Giving a small sigh and a shrug of his shoulders, he finally nodded his head in agreement. "I guess. Um, Buck? I think maybe there's something else you need to know."
Wilmington paused at the door to the barn and waited for JD to continue.
"I uh, don't think Vin's been to school for a while. He didn't come right out and say it but . . ."
"Chris and I have already figured that out, so that's something else you can set your mind at ease about. JD, I promise he'll be taken good care of. One day some family is going to consider themselves very lucky that Vin Tanner came to live with them."
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