"Vin Tanner, right?" Nathan held out his hand as he greeted the teenager. "Hi, I'm Dr. Jackson. I'm sorry we couldn't have met under better circumstances."
Vin shook the hand that was offered him and mumbled a polite "Hello."
Nathan kept his expression neutral but he shot a worried glance toward Chris. When Larabee had mentioned over the phone that Vin didn't seem to be doing too well, he'd been expecting depression and maybe some signs of exhaustion from lack of sleep. Looking at the teenager, Nathan's first instinct was to order an immediate battery of tests and start pushing fluids. There was no doubt in his mind that the kid was sick. The only real questions were how sick and what was causing the illness.
Chris caught the look that Nathan directed to him and gave a small shake of his head. Mentally he urged his friend to wait and let Vin have his meeting with his uncle before starting an exam. He had a feeling that the teenager would be more cooperative once that ordeal was behind him.
It had been difficult; watching Vin's steady physical decline since discovering his uncle had burned their house. It was obvious the very next day that the boy hadn't slept and at the following meal times he'd only picked at his food. When asked a question he responded in one-word sentences and soon began avoiding human contact all together, spending most of his time in the coral with Peso. Even JD's antics had been unable to raise more than a ghost of a smile or any real positive response.
Chris had tried on numerous occasions to talk to the teenager and even offered to take a look at his hand which was obviously bothering him. It had become quickly apparent that Vin held Chris to blame for the disaster his life had become and that he wanted as little to do with the rancher as possible.
Larabee's own nights had become restless as he began to doubt his actions and motivations. That night at the rodeo, had he stopped Larson because he wanted to save the boy from a beating, or because Larson had pissed him off during the confrontation with Judge Travis? Why had he insisted that Tanner stay at his house? Guilt? Would Tanner have been better off without his interference? And why was he starting to dread the day Nathan would call and say that Larson had passed away? When that happened Vin would leave the ranch and be placed in a foster home and his responsibility for the teenager would be over. That was a day to look forward to. Wasn't it?
Tired of second guessing himself and glad that someone with authority was going to see to Vin's care, Chris stepped back after making sure that Nathan had the situation under control.
Jackson must have understood the silent message or perhaps he figured the same thing out for himself because he gave a small nod and gestured down the hallway. "Your uncle is in room 312, that's the third one on the left. Chris can wait out here with me while you go inside."
Blue eyes dulled by fatigue, suddenly widened in panic as Vin looked toward his uncle's room. He was supposed to see his uncle alone? He didn't know why the thought terrified him but it did. He wasn't afraid of his uncle physically doing anything, after all the man was dying and couldn't even get out of bed. It was just . . . what was he going to say to Bill? What could he say? 'Sorry you're dying. Why'd you burn down our home? Hope you rot in hell you stinking old bastard.'
"Vin, would you like me to go with you?"
Chris surprised both himself and the teenager with his offer. He had nothing to say to Larson and would have been perfectly fine with never seeing the man again. And hadn't he just tried to physically distance himself from the situation?
Vin's first thought was to say 'no'. He'd spent the last few days rejecting every offer of help made by the rancher and it felt strange to even consider accepting it now. Somewhere deep inside he knew Larabee wasn't to blame. He knew that the fault for everything lay with himself. If it weren't for him his aunt would probably still be alive and Bill wouldn't be lying in the hospital waiting to die. And maybe what his uncle had said was true; maybe he was also to blame for his mother's death. And if his uncle had been right about that, maybe he'd been right about all the other things he'd said. Maybe he was worthless and good-for-nothing. Maybe he did deserve all the bad things that happened to him.
And then there was Mr. Larabee. If what Bill said was true, and he was just a waste of oxygen, then why was Larabee trying so hard to help him? Even after the trip to his burned out home, when he had tried to take all his anger out on the man. Even after trying to hit him and cursing at him, Larabee had held him while he'd cried. It was the first time since his aunt had died that someone had held and comforted him.
It didn't make any sense and he was just too tired and worn down to think about it anymore. Besides all that his head was really beginning to hurt and maybe it would be a good idea to get Dr. Jackson to look at his hand before they left.
"Vin?" Chris became concerned when the boy just stood there staring at him. Well, not at him exactly, more like through him.
Vin blinked and brought both his vision and his thoughts into focus. "Yeah. I mean, if you don't mind."
"No, I don't mind." And he really didn't. Giving Nathan a quick nod, he followed Vin down the hall. When they reached the door, he stood quietly behind the boy and waited patiently for him to gather his courage.
Comforted by the knowledge that Larabee was just one step behind him, Vin slowly pushed the door open and stepped into the room. Of the two beds, only the one near the window was occupied. An assortment of machinery that beeped and hummed hid the patient's head and Vin edged further into the room.
'Shit! That can't be Bill.' Vin froze in place as he got his first clear look at his uncle's face. Skin that had been a ruddy bronze appeared bleached to a pasty white. The once round cheeks were sunken-in and the eyes beneath the bushy brows were dark and dull. And all of that was beside the bruises and cuts from the accident. Stepping closer, Vin couldn't help but think how frail and harmless his uncle looked. And old. When had his uncle become an old man? Had his hair been that gray before the accident?
"So, like what you see?" The hoarse, gravely voice broke the silence and caused Vin to jump back a step. "Gonna . . . celebrate . . . when I'm dead? Have yourself . . . a party. . . with your new . . . friends?"
Larson was forced to stop speaking as a coughing fit stole his breath. Larabee used the interruption to step forward and place a comforting hand on Vin's shoulder.
Vin welcomed the touch as he shook his head in denial. "No sir."
"Liar. Bet you . . . can't wait . . . to bury me."
"Larson." Chris could feel the slight tremor running through Vin's body and fought to control his anger. "If that's all you've got to say . . ."
"You! Stay . . . out . . .of this." Bill struggled for breath and raised a shaking hand to point accusingly at the rancher. "You . . . caused this. You . . ." Another wracking cough stopped his angry words and left him gasping for air.
In an unconscious attempt to shield Vin from further verbal abuse, Chris moved until he was standing slightly in front of the boy. "Save your breath and your accusations. You've got no one to blame but yourself for this and least of all Vin."
"So . . ." Bill wheezed and wiped tears of pain from his eyes. "So . . . that's how it is. Yeah . . . yeah . . ." Larson seemed to lose his focus for a moment as he looked toward the window. He mumbled something else and then fell silent except for the rasp of his breathing.
As short as the exchange had been, Vin was still horribly shaken by the harsh words. And where-as he'd spent the last few days feeling unpleasantly warm, he suddenly felt chilled to the marrow of his bones. The floor beneath his feet seemed to shift to the left and he reached blindly for a wall to catch his balance. Pressing his shoulder against the smooth, white surface, he tried to focus on his uncle's face but it was like looking through a misty window.
Chris was aware of Vin stepping away from him but did not look back, assuming that the boy was just trying to distance himself from the hateful words of his dying uncle. He kept his attention fixed on Larson and was ready when the man finally turned his gaze back to the room.
"Vin doesn't deserve your hate or your anger. Don't let that be his last memory of you. Don't go to the grave cursing your only remaining kin. Do you really want these to be your final words to him?"
Larson blinked his eyes clear and stared at the rancher as if he had never seen him before. "Why . . . do you care? What . . . does he mean . . .to you?"
The questions caught Chris off guard and he had to think carefully before answering. "Josiah once said," Chris hesitated as he tried to remember the words of his friend. They had been discussing Ezra at the time and his guardian had tried to explain his own feelings toward the boy. "Josiah said that all children are born innocent, only to be corrupted by the sins of the adults around them. He said we should all set better examples for them and never hesitate to step forward and offer our love and support just because they don't belong to our family."
Chris looked down at his hands and thought about the emotions that had driven him to step forward the night of the rodeo. "Your nephew is just like any other child. He needs to know that there are adults in this world that do care and want to see him grow up and be happy. He deserves at least that much. To know that there is more to life than pain and sorrow. To know that there is a place for him in this world and that he doesn't have face it alone."
Larson's wheezing breath filled the silence that followed. He stared at Larabee for a long moment before turning his face back to the window.
"I had a son. Henry. Smart. Strong. Graduated high school." Bill's words came haltingly but clear. "Came home one day. Grinning. Said, Daddy, I'm gonna see the world. Can't settle down to farming just yet.' He'd enlisted that morning. Two weeks later . . . he was gone. Got lots of letters and postcards. He was happy. Learning new things. Meeting new people. Seeing new places. I was so proud. Came home for a visit. Took him to town in uniform. Showed him off. Told everyone, 'That's my boy.' I was so proud."
Bill raised a shaking hand to wipe his eyes as he continued. "Six months later we got word. . . he'd been killed . . . damn training exercise. Fell and broke his neck. They said . . . they said there was alcohol in his blood." Bill's voice began to shake with his anger. "Said my boy had been drinking! Was a damn lie! He never . . .never . . ."
Overcome by emotion and the weakness of his body, Larson fell into another fit of coughing so severe that Chris started to reach for the nurse call button. Bill waved him back and fumbled for a cup of water. Chris helped him drink then settled him back on the bed, his anger at the man having left in the light of their shared loss.
"He was a good boy. The best. My only son. Taken from me before he turned twenty-one. Then, less than a year later . . . Clara got a call. . . from a lawyer. Telling her about Vin. I didn't want him. Didn't want no boy . . . trying to replace my son."
Chris decided it was time to let Bill know he wasn't the only one who had lost an only child. "I had a son too. He died when he was only seven in a car accident. I lost my wife too." Stepping back, he shook his head sadly at Larson's missed chance. "Vin wouldn't have replaced your Henry. He would have been your second son. You could have made a place for him beside Henry. You could have had two sons to be proud of."
"Maybe. Maybe. What about you, Larabee? You had a boy . . . you afraid of trying again? Got enough room . . . in your heart . . . for a second? Or are you . . . all talk?"
Chris knew immediately what Larson was asking of him and was at a loss for words. Did he? Could he? He remembered the day of the rodeo and watching Vin compete. He'd noticed how talented the boy was and had thought, 'He's a hard worker. He's dedicated. He's got skill and a lot of patience.' When he watched Vin accepting the award, he'd seen the boy tip his hat politely to the judges and knew the boy respected his elders. Then finally he'd noticed the caring way which Vin had treated his horse and was sure that the boy had a good and gentle heart. Chris suddenly remembered thinking at that moment 'Some lucky father must be really proud right now.' And somewhere deep in his heart, hadn't he wished it was him?
Bill kept his eyes focused on Larabee's face. He watched the play of emotions and knew when the rancher reached his decision. 'Well boy, it may be too little too late but it's the best I can do from here. At least I'll die knowing you've got a second chance. Don't be a fool and waste it. This man will do right by you if you let him.'
With a resigned sigh and small shake of his head, Chris interrupted Larson's silent apology to his nephew. "There will have to be some documents written up making me his legal guardian. And you should also make out a will so there won't be any question about him getting the farm."
Larson gave a hoarse bark of laughter and waved a hand in dismissal. "Farm ain't worth two cents. You'll be lucky . . . to get enough money to pay off the . . . damn doctors . . . and bury me." Bill turned his head to see what Vin thought of the new arrangement. "Well boy? Ain't you got nothin to say?"
Chris turned as well and cursed as he discovered the teenager slumped on the floor. Moving quickly, he lifted Vin up and carried him to the empty bed.
"What. . .what's wrong with him?!" Forgetting his own weakness, Bill pushed and pulled himself upright to get a better look at his nephew.
"It looks like shock! Call a nurse! Hurry!"
When JD had come to live at the ranch, Buck had insisted that both he and Chris take a few first-aid courses, 'just in case.' Even though he'd never had a reason to use the knowledge, Chris did remember the course on treating shock. Some of the most obvious signs to look for were cold, clammy skin, rapid pulse, shallow breathing and fainting. Vin was exhibiting all of those symptoms.
"Yes Mr. Larson, what . . ."
"Get a doctor in here! My nephew is dying!"
Barely a minute passed before Dr. Jackson flew into the room closely followed by two nurses and a cart loaded with equipment. Nathan took one look at Vin's face and agreed with Chris' diagnosis.
"Give me two lines, heated, wide open. Get his feet elevated. I want a blood work up, white blood cell count stat. And tell the lab to start a culture." Nathan worked as he spoke, checking Vin's pupils then ripping open his shirt to listen to his heartbeat. "Insert a catheter, get a specimen down to the lab as well. What's his BP? Chris, move back and give us some room."
Chris stumbled back until his legs came up against Larson's bed. Looking down, he saw the look of bewilderment and near panic on the man's face.
"What . . .happened . . . to him? Why . . .why'd he . . .?"
"The night of the rodeo, he cut his hand, it may have gotten infected."
"Looks like septicemia alright." Nathan spoke over his shoulder as he removed the bandage from Vin's left hand. "Blood poisoning. We'll start an antibiotic treatment immediately."
"Wait!" Larson grabbed hold of Larabee's arm with one hand while reaching toward Dr. Jackson with the other. "I remember . . . boy's allergic . . . one time . . .penicillin . . . near killed him."
Chris supported Larson as he suffered another round of coughing. "You heard, Nathan?"
The next few minutes were filled with Nathan issuing orders to his two nurses. Finally the frenzy of activity died down and he gave his last set of instructions. "Ann, call ICU let them know we're about ready. Stacy, find out what happened to the urine sample. If Joe is working, remind him he owes me."
Drawing a deep breath, Nathan stepped away from Vin's still form and turned to face the two anxiously awaiting men. "Well, he's young, and I assume before the infection he was healthy, so if he responds to the antibiotic treatment he should make a complete recovery."
"How soon will we know?" Chris glanced at Nathan but found his gaze drawn back to the too pale features of the unconscious teen.
"Hard to say for sure but I guess sometime within the next 48 hours. Barring any complications."
Closing his eyes, Larson gave in to his body's fatigue and collapsed on his bed. Nathan immediately stepped forward to check his heart rate and breathing, frowning as he listened to Bill's chest. He made adjustments to the oxygen level and increased the flow of the intravenous drip.
"Don't . . . waste. . . your time . . . on me. You . . . take care . . ."
"Hush. I've got time enough for both of you. How's the pain? I can increase the morphine . . ."
"Later. Got . . . things to do. Need . . . my wits . . . about me." Bill looked past Nathan's shoulder and stared at his nephew. Turning his head, he caught Chris' understanding gaze. "You . . .still . . .?"
"I'll call my lawyer right now. I'll also give judge Travis a call and let him know what we're doing." A sudden thought struck Chris and he smiled grimly. "Although I don't think he's going to be all that surprised."
Nathan looked from one man to the other, clearly confused by their exchange but before he could ask, Ann returned with an orderly. "Doctor? ICU is ready."
"Right. Mr. Larson, I'll keep you informed on Vin's condition. He probably won't wake up until sometime tomorrow. Chris, can you give me a minute out in the hall?"
Chris followed Nathan out the door and watched as Vin was wheeled to the elevator. Nathan gave the rancher a moment and then cleared his throat to get his attention.
"I don't know what you and Larson have planned, but I think you should know, his condition has worsened considerably. The excitement was too much for his system to handle."
"Twenty-four, maybe forty-eight hours. He may not live to see his nephew regain consciousness."
"Shit." Chris turned and paced a few steps down the hallway, one hand rubbing at base of his neck. "It just gets better and better, doesn't it? Are you going to tell Larson?"
Nathan nodded his head. "I'm going to give him some time to calm down, order a couple of more tests just to be sure, then yeah, I'll have to. Chris, what's going on? Why do you need to call judge Travis?"
Bowing his head, Chris drew in a deep breath of air and held it for a long moment before letting it out in a deep groan. "If you can keep Bill Larson alive long enough, he's going to make me Vin's legal guardian."
A cascade of emotions crossed Nathan's face as he silently stared at the rancher. Surprise. Disbelief. Confusion. Doubt.
Chris growled in irritation and reached for his cell phone. "Look, you just do what you have to and . . . "
"Chris," Nathan put his hand out and caught his friend's arm. Looking deeply into the other man's eyes, he gave a small smile of reassurance. "I think it's a great idea. It just caught me off guard. Now Buck I could see jumping into something like this but you, you're the ultimate planner. How much shopping did you do before you settled on that phone and your service contract?"
Returning Nathan's smile, Chris apologized. "Sorry. You're right, this isn't like me. I just hope I'm making the right decision."
Giving Chris a slap on the shoulder, Nathan did his best to put his friend's mind at ease. "I can't imagine a better guardian for Vin. You call that lawyer, I'll make sure that Larson is able to sign the papers."
As Nathan turned to see to his other patients, he heard Chris call his name, a note of desperation in his voice.
"Nathan, am I . . . will I have a boy to be the guardian of?"
"I'm going to do everything I can. No promises but the odds are in his favor. And I'd say his chances will be even better if when he wakes up he knows that there is a home and someone who cares waiting for him."
+ + + + + + +
"Gently now. Watch that line. Here, move that pillow down a little more. Good."
"Ms. Elaine? Dr. Jackson said to tell you that the natives are getting restless."
"Hmmph. We'll see about that. The very idea of letting that many people in to visit a patient just out of ICU is ridiculous. You tell Dr. Jackson . . . no, on second thought I'll tell him while you get another blanket. The very idea. What does he think this is, a petting zoo?"
The voice faded and disappeared behind the soft thump of a closing door but there were other sounds to take its place. A soft hum, an occasional beep, the rustle of fabric and the squeak of rubber soles on a tile floor. Vin listened to the sounds from the darkness behind his closed eyelids. He felt content to just lie still and let the random noises wash across him. It was an oddly peaceful, floating kind of sensation and he was reluctant to risk losing it by opening his eyes.
"Ma'am I assure you, we shall be as quiet as the proverbial church mice. The last thing any of us want is to endanger the fragile health of our dear friend who has so recently teetered on the brink of death's door."
That voice with its southern twang was familiar. Vin could almost feel his brain struggling to pull the memory free of the blanketing darkness.
"Hmmph. Well keep in mind that this is a hospital and there are other patients here trying to rest. And mind you don't get him overexcited and if he shows signs of getting tired . . ."
"Yes Ms. Elaine, I promise they won't stay too long and I'll be with them the whole time."
"Hmmph. Very well doctor."
This new, deeper voice was also familiar and one he had heard recently. The more Vin focused on the voices, the more aware he became of his body and his surroundings. He resisted at first, wanting to keep the darkness between himself and . . . something. Something he didn't want to face. Didn't want to deal with. Something terrible. Only problem was, the more he tried to escape, the more awake he became.
"Why is he moaning like that? Is he in pain? I thought you fixed his hand so it wouldn't hurt anymore. Is there something else wrong with him? Is that a needle stuck in his arm? That's what they call an IV right? What's that other tube? That's not . . ? Ewww."
"JD, hush. And don't touch nothing. And watch where you're walking. Just sit the bag down over there. And no you can't play with the bed controls. Nathan, why is he moaning like that?"
"He's just waking up Buck. C'mon Vin, time to open those baby blues. You've got a whole room full of visitors that have been driving the nursing staff crazy for two days. The sooner you wake up, the sooner they can clear out and I can start getting on Ms. Elaine's good side again."
"Good side? Brother, if that old biddy has a good side then my chili is a gourmet masterpiece."
"More like a gastronomic massacre."
"Ezra, did you say something?"
"Why no Josiah. Just clearing my throat. Ahem. Ahem."
He knew those voices. He knew those names. Ezra. JD. Buck. Nathan. Josiah. He could put faces with those names. But there was supposed to be someone else. Another voice. Another name. An important one. Someone he had to see again.
Chris. Chris Larabee. And with the name came a flood of memories. The rodeo. JD's accident. Ezra's accusations. Judge Travis. Bill. It all came back to him with a suddenness that forced his eyes open and caused his body to jerk in response.
"Whoa there son. Easy does it. We just wanted you to wake up; didn't mean to have you jumping out of bed just yet."
Vin blinked his eyes clear and slowly the people around him came into focus. It seemed like everywhere he looked there was a face smiling down at him.
"Wha . . .wh . .?"
"I bet your mouth and throat are as dry as a desert. Here, let me sit you up some and then I'll give you a little bit of ice."
Nathan adjusted the angle of the bed then carefully spooned a small helping of the crushed ice into Vin's mouth watching him closely as he sucked and swallowed.
Vin nodded and Nathan gave him a little more. "Good. We'll stick with ice for a couple of hours and then we'll see about starting you on some liquids. The sooner we can get some solid food in your system the sooner we can get your strength built back up."
"Man Vin! You look like sh . . . I mean you look terrible."
"Ow! Well he does."
Vin ignored Buck and his nephew and looked to Nathan for answers. "What time is it?" Had to be late. The blinds and curtains were closed on the window but the way he felt he figured it must have been several hours since his disastrous visit with his uncle. He vaguely remembered Bill and Chris talking, though he couldn't remember what they had said. The whole morning now had a kind of dream like quality to it. Still felt a little like a dream but the cold ice against his tongue reassured him that he was awake.
"What time is it? Let's see, going on eight-thirty. In the morning."
'Morning?!' No wonder he felt so weird. He'd slept almost a whole day! That would probably also explain why Larabee wasn't in the room. No reason for him to stick around. Of course, that didn't explain what the others were doing here, especially Standish and his guardian.
His surprise and confusion must have been clearly evident on his face because Nathan patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. "Don't worry, it's only natural to feel a little disorientated right at first. You'll also tire quickly because your body is very weak. Don't fight it if you start to feel sleepy again."
"Can we give him the presents now? I want him to open mine last. The balloon and flowers are from Buck. I told him you were too old for balloons and flowers were for girls but he said they were traditional." JD leaned in close, his cast bumping against the bedrail on Vin's right. In a voice that was a little too loud to be a whisper, he clued Vin in on what he thought Buck's real motive was. "I think he was just looking for an excuse to talk to the lady working the flower section. She was wearing a tight sweater and had huge . . . Ow! Quit poking me!"
"Less talk and more action." Buck took the large shopping bag from his nephew and reaching in, pulled out a brightly wrapped box. "Sing out if you need help tearing the paper."
Vin stared at the gift placed across his lap and then looked up at the expectant faces crowded around his bed. "What's this for? It ain't my birthday."
"Told you, it's a get-well gift. We each got you one. See?" JD reached into the bag and pulled out another, smaller box. "Even Ez shelled out some of his car money for a present."
"Yes, well as Mr. Wilmington stated, it is customary when one is visiting a recuperating patient." Ezra wanted it clearly understood that he was not giving Tanner a gift because he actually liked the other teenager or in any way felt the slightest bit guilty about him being in the hospital. Why, he hadn't even seen the boy since the night of the rodeo. Alright, so maybe he had made a couple of phone calls to JD and maybe he had inquired as too Tanner's health and well-being but it had only been idle curiosity, nothing more.
"Oh." Feeling very uncomfortable under such close scrutiny and more than a little unsure about how he should be reacting to such unexpected generosity, Vin shifted his arms to reach for the first present. He was surprised at how much effort it took just to lift his hands and he noticed for the first time the thick wrapping of bandages around his left palm.
Following his gaze, Nathan took a moment to explain and give some simple instructions. "I had to make an incision in your palm to drain the infection. You'll need to be careful and not get the incision wet for a while and of course keep it clean. It shouldn't hurt as bad as before but I'll still give you a sling to wear because you might forget and try to use it before the stitches are out."
Vin nodded his head and began trying to open one of the gifts with just his right hand. 'Dang. What'd they make this paper out of? Can't hardly tear it.'
Josiah nudged Ezra forward. "Ah, maybe you could use a little help, from someone with two working hands."
Rolling his eyes heavenward at the sheer unfairness of it all, the older teen lifted the package and began carefully picking at the taped ends.
"Ez, it ain't your gift and at that rate Vin's gonna be asleep before you get the first flap undone."
Once again JD spoke the truth. Vin's eyelids drooped lower and lower despite his valiant attempt to remain awake.
"OK guys, maybe we should wait until tomorrow for the gifts. I think Vin's ready for some more sleep and I wouldn't be surprised if Ms. Elaine showed up any minute to kick us out." Nathan worked the controls on the bed as he spoke while Ezra and Josiah gathered up the unopened gifts.
Vin was fast asleep before the bed was fully reclined and everyone paused for one last look at the recovering teenager.
Buck couldn't resist reaching over to rub his hand gently across Vin's head. "Can't believe we almost lost him. . . " Turning his head, he gave a loud sniff and cleared his throat before continuing. "Before we even really had him. Should have . . . should have taken better care . . ."
JD moved to his uncle's side and wrapped his good arm around the man's waist. "But he didn't die and now he's gonna live with us forever and we can all take care of him. Besides, aren't you always telling me that if you get a second chance at something, take it and don't look back?"
Buck returned the hug and wiped his eyes. "Thanks JD, I needed that."
"C'mon brother, what say I buy us all a second breakfast? I'll bet JD's ready to eat again." Josiah began ushering the others toward the door, fully aware of his own ward's attempt at hiding a few tears.
Josiah remembered the night that Buck had called to let them know that Vin had collapsed and been admitted to the hospital. Ezra had taken the news especially hard. Getting the teenager to open up about his feelings was like pulling teeth but Josiah had at last gotten the boy to admit that he felt responsible for Vin's ordeal.
In an attempt to put Ezra's mind at ease, Josiah had pointed out what might have happened if he had not falsely accused Vin of cheating and gotten Chris involved. Vin might still have gotten blood poisoning but instead of being in a hospital when he collapsed, he might have been out in the country too far away to reach medical help in time. It had been something to see, the look on Ezra's face when he realized he might have actually saved the other boy's life.
As he followed the others from the hospital room, Ezra was even more confused about his feelings toward Vin than before. He hardly knew the boy but for some reason it was very important to him that Tanner live. And though he would never admit it to anyone, he found himself looking forward to the days when he visited the ranch and both Vin and JD would both be there.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee wandered through the hospital gift shop, an old shoebox tied shut with string clutched beneath his left arm. He didn't know what he was looking for. He didn't know why he was looking. He was supposed to be upstairs waiting for Vin to wake up. He regretted having missed the morning visit when Buck and the others had gotten to see Vin awake but he hoped that the contents of the box he carried would make up for that.
The gift shop was not that big and as Chris wandered down the center aisle for the third time he finally admitted to himself he was just stalling. Nathan, Josiah and Buck had all volunteered to be the one to break the news to Vin but Chris had insisted that it needed to be him. There was a great deal that the two of them needed to discuss and it probably wouldn't all be covered in the first meeting but the most important things would be it would be best if it was just the two of them alone.
'So quit stalling and get your butt up there where it belongs. It's too late for second thoughts now; Travis has seen to that. Still can't believe he had the papers written up and ready to go. If his wife hadn't been sitting there . . .' But Mrs. Travis had been in the room, no doubt strategically placed there just to keep Chris from punching her smug bastard of a husband right in the nose.
And now the only thing left was to break the news to Vin. Shaking his head in disgust at his foolishness, Chris turned and headed determinedly for the door.
"Would you like some help finding a gift?"
The polite inquiry did not slow Larabee's footsteps but it did bring his head around to reply with a polite, "No thanks." It was at that moment that he caught his first glimpse of the glass case that served as the checkout counter. Most of the objects displayed were bits of jewelry and a few small trinket items that were best suited for women who liked a lot of sparkle. But what caught Chris' eye and made him pause just inside the door was a gleam of silver; the reflection of light off the highly polished surface of a 10 key harmonica.
Moving back to the cabinet, Chris bent low to get a closer look at the instrument. He half expected it to be nothing more than a toy and was pleasantly surprised to see the name Hohner stamped on the gleaming surface. Seeing the instrument lying there with it's open case brought back a memory from his own teen years.
He'd been thirteen or fourteen when he'd taken a bad fall and broken his ankle. Back then there hadn't been video's or hand-held games to pass the time and books would only hold his interest for so long. By the third week he'd driven both his parents near the edge with his constant complaints of boredom. Then one afternoon his dad had started pulling out old boxes from his closet and searched for over an hour until he found a small, dented metal case. Handing it to Chris he'd simply said, "Here, learn to play this."
Chris smiled as he remembered the days that followed, sitting on the porch huffing and puffing away. His dad had given him just enough time to start getting frustrated and then stepped in with the real lessons. What a surprise that had been, hearing a real song being played by his father who had never seemed all that interested in music before. Looking back on that time, Chris had to admit that those harmonica lessons might have been the best times he'd ever had with his father.
Making up his mind, Chris pointed to the small instrument while reaching for his wallet.
+ + + + + + +
Waking up the second time wasn't near as difficult as the first though still a little confusing. As Vin opened his eyes he was both relieved and a little disappointed to find himself alone in his room. He spotted the balloon and flowers sitting right next to his bed and then the brightly wrapped presents on a small table a few feet away. For a moment he wished that their positions had been reversed and then decided that it didn't really matter since he still felt too tired and lethargic to struggle with the gift-wrap.
Vin sighed and closed his eyes. It was nice of Mr. Wilmington and JD to visit him and bring him a present. And seeing Ezra with Mr. Sanchez had been a real surprise. He knew from JD that Ezra had called several times during his stay at the ranch and had wanted to come riding but was being punished for gambling. At the time he hadn't really cared much, being too wrapped up in his own misery; now he found himself wishing he had gotten at least one chance to go riding with the older boy.
Of course now that would never happen. In fact, he'd probably never see any of them ever again. 'Probably why they came by to visit. I must have fallen asleep before they could say good-bye.' A tear formed and rolled down Vin's cheek before he even knew he was unhappy enough to cry. He swallowed back the lump that formed in his throat and mentally scolded himself for such foolishness. 'Don't be silly. You're just feeling sorry for yourself and where has that ever gotten you? So what if you won't ever see them again? Not like they care, why should you? They were just being nice. Like JD said, it's traditional to visit a sick person and take'em gifts.'
Vin continued to think about his situation and the more he did, the more depressed he became. He guessed that he would probably be moved straight from the hospital to whatever foster home had been chosen for him. 'I won't ever see Peso again. At least I know they'll take good care of him. Him and JD did seem to be getting along alright. I guess I should be grateful for that.' Another tear made good its escape and Vin had to sniff hard as he fought to hold back the rest.
'I wonder if I'll have to visit Bill again before he dies. I suppose I should if they offer to arrange it. I don't know why though, he didn't sound like he was happy to see me the last time. Probably wished it was me lying there instead of him. Almost was I guess. But I'm gonna live. And he's gonna die. And then I . . . I won't have anybody.' This time Vin couldn't stop the tears that rolled down his cheeks in a steady flood of despair. 'He might not be the best uncle in the world but at least he's mine. He gave me a place to live and he let me ride. When he's gone . . . I'll . . .I'll be all alone.'
Suddenly the world became a huge, terrifying place filled with unknown's and uncaring strangers. Where would he go? Who would take care of him? How would he be treated? Would he better off or worse? What if the foster family he was put with decided they didn't want him? Would he be locked away somewhere until he was an adult? Why hadn't Mr. Larabee come to say good- bye?
And there was the deep-rooted source of most of his misery. Vin's chaotic thoughts about his future came to a crashing halt as he realized just how important that one question was to him.
Why? Why was seeing Larabee so important? What difference did it make if he never saw the rancher again? Was it really that big a deal? Did it really matter whether or not Larabee cared enough about him that he would at least pay one last visit before washing his hands clean of the whole matter?
Yes. Yes it did. Because if a man like Chris Larabee cared then that meant that he was worth something. That he wasn't just a burden to others until he was old enough to earn his own money and support himself. If Larabee had come by to see him one more time, just to say good-bye and maybe wish him good luck, it would have given him just enough hope to keep going. Now . . .now . . .
"I wish I was dead."
"Don't say that!"
Vin's eyes flew open and he quickly blinked them clear of tears so he could see the person standing just inside the doorway.
"Don't ever wish you were dead!"
Chris Larabee strode into the room and stood towering over Vin's bed. "Why did you say that? Did Nathan tell you about Bill?"
"About Bill? What . . .?" Vin was trying hard to deal with the shock of seeing Larabee in person and it took a moment for his brain to shift gears. "What about Bill? Is he worse?"
Chris opened his mouth but instead of speaking, he paused and took a deep breath to give himself a chance to calm down. When he'd stepped into the room he'd been expecting to find Vin still asleep or maybe awake and watching television. He hadn't expected to find the boy lying alone in semidarkness with his face a mess from crying and wishing himself dead.
Sitting the shoebox on the floor, Chris reached for a tissue and silently began wiping the tears from Vin's cheeks. He couldn't help but notice that the boy's hair and pillow were both soaked and he felt a wave of guilt that he had wasted so much time in the gift shop.
Vin's eyes never left Chris' face and he could tell from the man's expression that he was upset. Not angry exactly, at least not at him but something was definitely eating at the man. And he was acting strange, not saying anything, just helping him get cleaned up. Something bad had happened, Vin just knew it.
"It's Bill isn't it? He's gotten worse, hasn't he?"
Chris cleared his throat as he tossed the used tissues in the waste can. "Vin, I'm sorry I have to tell you . . . Bill died the night before last."
Vin frowned in confusion. That didn't make any sense. How could he have died two days ago if he'd just seen him yesterday afternoon? Unless . . .?
"How long . . .? How long have I been here?"
"You went into shock while I was talking to Bill. Do you remember going into his room to visit?"
It was hazy but Vin did remember. He remembered getting dizzy and leaning up against the wall while Chris talked to Bill. He kind of remembered trying to ask for help but at that point everything just went dark.
"You had blood poisoning from the cut on your hand and it was hard to find an antibiotic that would fight the infection and not make you even sicker. You were unconscious for two days. You almost . . . we almost lost you."
Bill was dead? Two days?! Bill was dead?! He was gone?! Vin hiccoughed as he fought back the sobs.
"Vin, Vin listen to me. This is important. Bill told me some things that he said would be important for you to hear. Are you listening? He said to make sure that you knew that I was with him most of the time and that he didn't die alone. He didn't want you feeling guilty that you weren't there for him. Bill said that even though he didn't deserve it, that you would feel like you had somehow failed and blame yourself."
Chris grabbed another handful of tissues as he continued speaking. "Bill wanted you to know, that he was sorry for all the pain and grief that he put you through." Fumbling with the tissues, the words spilled from Chris' mouth in a rush. "He never intended to ask you for forgiveness because he didn't feel that he deserved it but he did want you to know that he was sorry and he hopes that you'll have a happy life from here on out. He said to make sure that you understood that you were never at fault. That you were always good and didn't . . . didn't deserve . .."
Chris gave up with the Kleenex and gently gathered Vin into his arms. He felt the boy's tears soak into the fabric of his shirt and let a few of his own fall onto the matted locks of hair beneath his cheek. "He cared about you Vin. In his own way, though he might never have showed it, he did care. I'm sorry it couldn't have better for you two. I think in the end he realized just how much he'd missed out on. If he could have had it to do all over again, I think he would have done better. I know it's not my place to say, but I hope that someday you'll be able to forgive him."
+ + + + + + +
What was that sound? It was familiar and strangely comforting. There it was again, the rustling sound of pages being turned. A newspaper. Someone was sitting by his bed reading a newspaper. Chris. He knew without looking who was with him. He didn't know why Mr. Larabee was being so nice and keeping him company but it made him feel better knowing he wasn't alone.
This time when Vin opened his eyes, he wasn't confused about the date or time. And since he was lying on his side, the first thing he saw was Chris Larabee sitting in a chair, his feet propped on the metal frame of the bed and a newspaper held between his hands. Vin blinked in surprise.
"You're wearing glasses!"
If Chris was startled by Vin's sudden announcement, he gave no sign of it. Lowering the paper slightly, he tipped his head and looked over the top of the thin, wire frames. "Something wrong with that?"
"No. I just didn't know you wore them."
Chris laid the paper aside and removed the glasses, tucking them into a slim case that he kept in his shirt pocket. "I only need them with very small print or when I'm tired."
Vin smiled and rubbed his cheek against the pillow. "Does that mean your getting old?"
"No, it means they're making the news print too small and I need more sleep."
Chris stood up and stretched his back. "Feeling better? Want some water to drink?"
"Here, I'll raise the bed up for you. Let me know when to stop."
When Vin was settled and had his drink of water, Chris rolled the small table forward that still held the unopened presents. A new box had been added and Vin gasped in surprise when he saw it.
"That's . . . how?!"
Chris picked up the worn men's shoebox and handed it to the stunned teenager. Vin placed the box on his lap and began fumbling with the knotted cord that held it shut while Chris explained how it had come to be in his possession.
"When Bill left the rodeo, he went straight back to your house. He admitted that he drank all the way and wasn't thinking too clearly by the time he reached it. He remembered going into your room and taking his anger out on your things. Bill thought he might have picked up the box intending to open it later and so it wound up behind the seat of his pickup. I was able to go to the impound and . . ."
"Did . . . did he say why he burned the house?"
"He thought it was an accident. He was smoking and he said he might have dropped a lit cigarette. Least ways he didn't remember intentionally setting a fire. Do you want some help with that?"
Vin sighed and took his hand from the string that was now even more tightly knotted than before. "I think we're going to have to cut it."
Pulling out his pocketknife, Chris removed the string then stood back to give the boy a moment of privacy.
It was safe. He hadn't lost it forever. Reaching into the open box, Vin carefully lifted out the picture lying directly on top of the stack of random papers and photos. The color image was of a young woman and a small child, sitting on the edge of a fountain. They had their arms wrapped around each other and were grinning at the unknown photographer. It was the only photograph Vin had of his mother or of himself as a child. His hand shook as he carefully returned it to the safety of his shoebox.
"Thanks for getting it for me. It's all I've got left of my mom. That and my birth certificate." Vin placed the lid back on the box and rested his hand protectively across the top. "I don't reckon they'll mind me keeping it, will they?"
Chris was confused. "They?"
"The folks at the foster home. Or wherever I'm going to from here."
"Ah, about that foster home." Chris began pacing the floor at the foot of the bed, his whole posture and movements suddenly becoming very self conscious and nervous. Vin had fallen into a deep, exhausted slumber after learning of Bill's death so Chris hadn't had a chance to tell him the rest of his news. "When I was talking to your uncle . . .while your were passing out . . . we kind of reached a decision. That is, he asked me to do something and I agreed. I think it'll work out for the best and Buck and JD seemed happy with the idea. Travis had the papers ready to go and my lawyer didn't see a problem with it since Nathan testified that Bill was still in his right mind when he signed his name. The will was a little tricky but I think we got that settled too."
Vin was starting to feel dizzy following Chris' movements around the room while at the same time trying to make sense of his disjointed speech. So far all he had gotten out of the flow of words was that Buck and JD were happy about something that Chris had done and the rest involved Bill, the judge and a lawyer.
Seeing the frown of confusion on Vin's face, Chris stopped his pacing and rested his hands on the footboard of the bed. He still couldn't bring himself to meet Vin's gaze so with his head bowed, he finally blurted out the truth.
"Bill signed the papers making me your legal guardian so you'll be living with me from now on. I wish I could have talked it over with you but there wasn't time and . . . and . . .well, that's just how it is."
"You're . . . gonna be my guardian? Like Mr. Sanchez and Ezra?"
Chris finally looked up as he nodded his head. "Yeah, like that."
Vin tried to wrap his mind around the idea and found it just too hard to believe but at the same time he didn't doubt it for one second. And it felt good, like someone had just opened a window in his heart letting in a flood of fresh air and warm sunshine. It felt right. But there was still one question that he desperately needed answered.
Chris returned to his chair, moving it closer to the bed before perching on the edge of the seat and leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. Staring at his clasped hands, Chris took a moment to gather his thoughts and then looked into Vin's eyes.
"I won't lie to you, I had a son that died when he was just seven years old. I've spent the last few years trying to put the pain behind me and get on with my life but it's hard. If it weren't for Buck . . . I don't know where I'd be right now. But I do know that even with his help, I still spend most of my time thinking about my son and dreaming of what might have been. I'm telling you this now because I don't want you to think I'm looking for a replacement." Chris glanced away and took a second to clear his throat before continuing. "But if the opposite had happened and I had been the one that died living Adam behind, well. . . I hope that someone would've stepped forward and taken care of him and seen to it that he had a chance to grow up healthy and happy. I know you're almost grown but you've still got a few years left and you need someone to see to your needs until you're able to take care of yourself. I told your uncle that every child deserves a chance to be happy and if I can, I want to give you that chance. I think you deserve at least that much. That's the best answer I can give you. I'm doing this because I can and because I want to. It feels right."
It was those last three words that did it. Vin stared deep into Larabee's green eyes and felt a grin slowly spread across his face. Chris returned the smile and the two shared a special moment of perfect understanding.
"Good afternoon! And how are we doing today? Sitting up I see. Any dizziness? Nauseous? Are your drinking plenty of water?" The blond nurse that strode into the room barely waited for Vin to nod or shake his head before moving on to her next inquiry. "Ready to try some broth? Are you having any sharp pains in your hand? No? Very good. Just let me take your temperature and check the catheter and then . . ."
"CHRIS?! She's . . . she's touching my . . .!!!"
It was the first time that Vin had been really awake when a nurse went to flip back his covers and the teenager flushed beet-red from his toes to his hairline. Chris fought to control his laughter as he rested his hands on Vin's shoulders and held him steady during the terrible ordeal.
"There, all done." The nurse pretended not to notice the panicked embarrassment of her young patient. "I'll have one of the other nurses bring you a tray with some broth and maybe later you can have a bowl of Jell-o."
Vin slowly relaxed as the nurse finished straightening the covers and turned to leave. He was just on the verge of breathing a sigh of relief when the woman paused just inside the door.
"And after you've eaten I'll be back to give you a sponge bath."
"Easy Vin, relax. It won't be that bad. These are trained nurses; you haven't got anything they haven't seen before."
"She's a girl!"
"I'm sure she's learned to live with it. Here." Chris reached over to the table and picked up a small metal case, which he handed to Vin. "Something to take your mind off your impending doom."
Vin slowly opened the case and gasped in surprise when he saw the gleaming harmonica. "But, I don't know how to play."
"Do you like it?"
"Then you'll learn."
+ + + + + + +
"Shouldn't we knock first? Hey! Quit shoving!"
Vin looked up just in time to see JD stumble into the room thanks to Ezra's hand planted firmly between his shoulder blades.
"Dr. Jackson said he was awake and expecting us so what point is there in knocking?"
"It's polite. Buck says you should never just barge into a man's room because you never know if he's decent or not."
"Yes, well that may be true for Mr. Wilmington but seeing as how Vin is not a man and hardly likely to be caught in a compromising position there was no worry. Besides, we're in now so it is a moot point."
JD rolled his eyes as took a seat at the foot of Vin's bed. As he drew his legs up to sit Indian style, he caught a glimpse of the harmonica in Vin's hand.
"So how are the lessons going?"
"Great. Can't wait until I'm out of here and can really give it a blow. Nathan thinks maybe two more days. Something about counting white blood cells or something." Vin shifted his position to make room for Ezra as well; but just as he had on his previous visits, the older boy took the chair instead. "So what's with all the 'misters'?"
Before Ezra could answer for himself, JD spoke up with his own explanation. "Oh, Ez's just found a new way to irritate the adults. They can't really say anything to him because he's being polite."
"I am merely showing my respect. As you may know, familiarity breeds contempt."
Vin and JD shared a look and a grin. Ezra jumped to his feet in exasperation. It was clear from the other's reactions that once again they knew he was lying and he was determined to find out how. Just as he opened his mouth, Vin gave him the answer to his unspoken question.
"Wha . . .what?"
Holding up his right hand, Vin wiggled his fingers in example. "You're fingers twitch. Ain't much of a give away but it's enough."
"Uh Vin, I don't think Josiah wanted him to know that."
Looking at his hand like he had never seen the appendage before in his life, Ezra was slow to decipher JD's comment. When he did, his head snapped up and he glared at the boy he had considered something of a friend.
"You knew?! You knew and you didn't tell me?"
"Now Ez . . ."
"Ezzz-Rahh. My name is EZRA. Two syllables. And I'll have you know . . ."
Vin jumped in before the irate teen could launch a full-blown verbal assault. "Take it easy Ez. I'm sure JD will be just as good at keeping this a secret too. Won't ya?"
"Keeping what a secret?"
"My question also Mr. Tanner. What is there left to reveal?"
Vin leaned back against his pillows and smiled at the two boys. "Think about it, now you know about the twitch and you know that they know about the twitch but they don't know that you know that they know."
Ezra and JD both stared at Vin in confusion. With his calculating mind always on the lookout for an advantage, Ezra was the first to realize the potentials of the new arrangement.
"Mr. Tanner, I believe this may be the start of beautiful friendship. Anyone for a game of cards?"
"I can't believe you let them go riding."
"Simmer down Nathan. It was either them or us." Buck handed the fretting doctor a beer before resuming his seat on the couch. "Had to be the worse case of cabin fever I've ever seen."
"I'm afraid Ezra didn't help things by insisting on taking Chaucer out on the trails." Josiah took a sip from his own bottle before continuing. "I asked him to stay in the pasture but he said the sun was giving him a headache."
"And you believed him?"
Josiah shrugged his shoulders. "Didn't see a wiggle from any of his fingers. And he did take a couple of aspirin that I offered him."
Nathan simply shook his head and took a seat on the couch with Buck. Before he could voice any additional concerns, Chris entered the room and dropped heavily into his recliner.
"Well, that was the real estate agent. She just got the report from the appraiser on Larson's farm."
Buck handed Chris the last beer, which he gratefully accepted. "Good news or bad?"
"Good actually. Seems that there's a lot more acreage there than Larson was actually using. Mary thinks she can divide it up so that Vin can keep a chunk of it and still make enough money off the rest to cover all the bills."
"Well, that is good news." Josiah lifted his beer and all the men gave a silent toast of agreement. "So there wasn't anything left at all on the place that could be salvaged?"
"Just an old jeep that Vin say's belongs to him. Seems he's got plans of fixing it up and driving it when he turns sixteen."
"Uhm, speaking of Vin, have you talked to him about school yet?"
Chris sighed as he started picking at the label on his bottle. "Not yet. Did pull his records though. He was having serious problems before he dropped out. It looks like he might have to go to a special school or start back at the fifth grade level."
Buck shook his head. "You may get him into the classroom but that's probably about it. Boy's got too much pride."
"He's got just the right amount of pride; but you know how cruel kids can be. In a regular class he'd be the odd one out. And if I send him to a special school it'll be the same as telling him he's not as smart as his peers and that's not true. Vin is very intelligent, he just lacks book learning."
A recent memory suddenly brought a smile to Chris' face. "Vin bought his horse back."
Nathan had been filled in on the details of the events that followed JD's fall at the rodeo and knew that Chris had bought Peso from Bill Larson. "Where'd he get the money?"
"Bill still had the cash I gave him for Peso in his pocket. It was given to me with all of his other possessions. I showed it to Vin and told him we could just forget about the deal but he said 'No.' He took the money and insisted that I call Travis and have him write up a new bill of sale. The court house was our first stop after we left the hospital."
Chris leaned back in his chair and there was an unmistakable note of respect in his voice as he finished the story. "When we got there Vin asked me to read him the document out loud and insisted on a couple of good changes. Then he had Orrin make three copies. He's got one in his shoebox, he asked Travis to keep the second and the third is in my safe. He's got good business sense and he's sharp. He just needs the right setting and I know he'll catch up on his education."
Silence filled the room, as each man thought about the teenager in question. Suddenly Josiah snapped his fingers as he was struck by a sudden inspiration. "Brother, I've got the perfect solution! Home schooling."
Buck was the first to respond with a loud bark of laughter. "Home schooling? Yeah, I can just see Chris standing in front of a blackboard."
Before Chris could defend his capabilities, Josiah finished his thought.
"Not Chris. You remember Mrs. Potter? Her husband owned the package store just outside the State Park and died of a heart attack two summers ago. Well, she sold the business and between that and the insurance she has enough money that she can stay home with her two kids. She home schools them and she even offered to take Ezra in last year when his principle threatened to string him up by his thumbs. I'll bet she'd be happy to add Vin to her class. And you know she won't allow any teasing by her kids."
Chris liked the sound of the idea and agreed that it would be the perfect solution. "I'll get in touch with her tomorrow. Once we've worked out the details I'll break the news to Vin."
Bucked rubbed thoughtfully at his mustache. "Hmm. If JD wasn't signed up for those special advanced computer classes next year I'd see about sending him there too. Of course if he did go, the poor woman would never get a word in edgewise."
Since they were discussing the absent teenagers, Nathan decided to satisfy his own curiosity. "The boys seem to be getting along well together. How is JD taking to Vin actually living here?"
Buck grinned. "He loves it. Told me the other day it's like having both a big brother and a little brother at the same time. Vin's been showing him some roping tricks and in exchange JD's pulled out all his old games and videos that Vin's never seen before. It's kept them both out of trouble and from under foot. Until today I haven't heard one complaint of 'I'm bored' or 'there's nothing to do'."
"And then I had to go and bring Ezra over. Sorry about that."
Chris waved aside Josiah's apology. "Chaucer needed the exercise and the fresh air will do the boys some good. Besides, what possible trouble can three teenagers find on a Quarter Horse ranch?"
"Right, Buck and I will round up the horses. Josiah, you fetch some bottles of water from the kitchen and load a couple of saddle bags with some supplies. Nathan, you'll find a first aid kit under the sink in the hall bathroom. They've already got a forty-minute head start so let's move it."
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