They were standing in a straight line. Chris was at one end with Buck beside him. Then, came JD, Nathan, Ezra and Josiah. There was no fear in their eyes. The only emotion visible on their faces was defiance. Vin tried to turn to see who had aroused such strong feelings. The simple movement brought excruciating pain, making him whimper. As he took deep breaths to try to fill his empty lungs, a familiar odor wafted up his nostrils - chewing tobacco. What little air he had managed to inhale escaped in a frenzy of dread. Ignoring the agony it produced, he forced his body to turn so he was facing his family. A pistol pointed at the five men and the little boy, Chester Blackwell grinned at Vin as he squeezed the trigger. Chris crumbled to the ground, red staining his chest. The smile grew broader as bullet after bullet left its chamber.
"Master Tanner, wake up."
The soothing lilt of Ezras southern drawl dissolved the nightmare. Vin shuddered. Sweat rolled down his face and neck as he forced his eyes open.
"Mr. Jackson has assured me you are in dire need of fluids, Master Tanner." Ezra held a cup to Vins lips.
Vin greedily gulped the temperate water, allowing it to soothe his dry mouth and aching throat.
One hand gently supporting Vins head, Ezra deliberately kept his words simple, "Would you care to talk about your nightmare?"
As the empty cup withdrew, Vin shook his head. No one would understand.
"Sometimes," Ezra carefully lowered Vins head back to the pillow, "it helps to share your concerns."
Shuddering, Vin tried to regain his composure. The horrific sight of Chris lying dead on the ground replayed in his mind, beginning again as soon as the previous showing had ended.
"Would you prefer to speak to Mr. Larabee?" Ezra nodded towards the man occupying Nathans bed.
Though he knew it would hurt as much in real life as it had in his dream, Vin twisted until the sleeping man came into view. The position made each breath he took an encounter in torment. He ignored it, drinking in the sight of the slow rise and gentle fall of the black-clad chest. Candlelight threw shadows across the pale face, emphasizing the dark circles under the feathered eyelashes. When he sensed Ezra rising from the chair next to his bed, Vin pleaded, "Dont wake im."
"If you need him," Ezra softly insisted, "he would want to be here."
Shifting so he was resting against his pillows, Vin quietly admitted, "Im dreamin bout Blackwell."
"Thats to be expected. He hurt you rather badly."
Vin was tempted to continue to allow Ezra to believe the nightmare dealt with his own beating. But he knew lying would not provide the solace he so desperately sought. "In my dream," Vin contradicted, "he shoots Mr. Chris."
"Like he shot your father?"
Shocked, Vin stared at the gambler. He hadnt deliberately kept what happened to his father a secret, but the only people who knew were JD and Chris. Or, so he had thought. Feeling betrayed, he averted his gaze, staring unhappily at a stain on his blanket. "Howd ya know?"
"Mr. Larabee wanted us to be aware of what had happened to your father in case you needed our assistance. As much as hes tried, he cant be with you every minute."
Remembering the gunslingers pale face, Vin also recalled all the other times he had awakened in the last week and found Chris at his side. He lifted his gaze, demonstrating his approval of Larabees decision. He could tell by the half-smile on Ezras face the gambler understood the implication of the action.
"Are you sure you dont want me to rouse, Mr. Larabee? Are you hurting? Should I retrieve Mr. Jackson?"
Vin slowly shook his head. "After he shoots Mr. Chris, he shoots Mr. Buck, then JD, Mr. Josiah, Mr. Nathan," Vin hesitated, his eyes searching the gamblers face, "and then he shoots you, Mr. Ezra."
"Nightmares, Master Tanner, distort the truth, making events appear far worse than what actually occurred."
The terror that had filled Vin during his vision, returned. "You were all dead, and I was alone."
"Master Tanner, you will never be alone again. As long as one of us is alive, you will have a home. Even if someone were able to take us all out, Mrs. Travis and Miss Nettie wouldnt let anything happen to you. Half this town would be proud to call you their son."
Vin studied the green eyes closely, knowing adults sometimes thought it necessary to deceive children. There was no sign that was what Ezra was doing. Vin had never known the gambler to lie to him. In this regard, he trusted Standish even more than he did Chris Larabee. Chris would lie to make him feel better. Ezra wouldnt because he had been in Vins shoes. While his apprehension was lightened, Vin faintly confessed, "Dont want no home cept with Mr. Chris."
"Its fortunate, then, that Mr. Larabee feels the same way."
This time, Vin didnt need to search the gamblers face to look for the truth. He could hear it in the dulcet tones. He let his eyes close. He was so tired. But sleep brought Blackwell. Fighting the weights on his eyelids, he forced them back open.
"You cant stay awake forever, Master Tanner."
Surprised Ezra understood his fear, Vin stared at him with tears in his eyes.
The gambler squirmed under the intense gaze. "Go to sleep, Master Tanner. I will be here if Mr. Blackwell returns to plague you."
Vin obeyed, expecting to feel the malevolent presence of the man who had tried to kill him. Instead, he only found relief. There was someone watching his back - someone he could trust.
Buck watched the boy roll over in his sleep. Light from the almost full moon spilled into the tiny bedroom, illuminating its occupant. JD had barely spoken two words to him since they left Four Corners. The disappointment emanating from the brown eyes broke Bucks heart. Had he been wrong? Should he have let JD see Vin sooner?
The soft mutterings of the little boy who talked almost as much in his sleep as he did when he was awake ended Bucks silent recriminations. If JD had seen Vin, he wouldnt be sleeping quietly. He would be screaming his fear as he was chased by monsters. Buck was as sure of this as he was of his own name.
While his mind could rest easier, Buck couldnt convince his heart. He missed the hugs and the big eyes filled with trust and love. He even missed the constant chatter.
Turning away, his gaze rested on the empty rocking chair in front of the fireplace. And he missed the soft conversations he would often overhear between the man and the boy who occupied it on an almost nightly basis. Chris and Vin, two souls bruised and battered by life, had found a way to heal. They had each found the one person who could help them heal.
His own spirit aching, Buck crossed the room and dropped onto the chair. Pulling the afghan hanging over the top of the chair into his arms, he hugged it to his chest, wishing it were a small boy with black hair and brown eyes.
The thump of footsteps on the porch outside the infirmary brought Chris to his feet. Despite the familiarity of the sound, his hand rested for a moment on the butt of his pistol. It would be a while before he would feel safe - before he would feel Vin was safe. Squeezing the boys hand, Chris moved away from the bed to make way for the tiny visitor about to descend upon them.
"JD, you wait here for me," Buck instructed, pointing to the chair Chris had vacated. "Ill be back in a little while."
Chris rested a questioning gaze on his oldest and dearest friend when there was no response from the little boy. Usually, JD would be animatedly promising to do what he was told - and doing the exact opposite once Buck was out of sight.
With a soft sigh that could be frustration or disappointment, Buck growled, "Did ya hear me, JD?"
Surprised by the sharp retort, Chris put a hand on Bucks shoulder. It was a gesture of puzzlement as well as support. Buck inclined his head, which Chris interpreted as ,Ill tell ya later. Knowing he didnt dare leave the two boys alone, Chris reluctantly accepted the decision.
As soon as the ladies man was gone, Chris picked up his book and crossed to the chair nearest the window. The room was small, but he wanted to give the cousins as much privacy as he could - without letting Vin out of his sight.
"Are ya mad at Mr. Buck, JD?"
Chris had been impressed with Vins intelligence and courage even before he met him. When faced with being separated from his cousin and breaking the promise he had made to his aunt, Vin had chosen to run away. For a seven-year-old, he had done very well. Now, his drawn lips telegraphing his pain, Vin had still picked up on the tension between Buck and JD, and was obviously concerned.
"Yeah." JDs legs swung gently beneath his seat.
The swings became stronger, nearly unseating the tiny body. "He lied ta me."
It never ceased to amaze Chris how gentle and encouraging Vin could be with his younger cousin. He often sacrificed his own desires for JD - something Chris was trying to put a stop to. It wasnt good for JD to have his own way all the time, nor was it fair to Vin.
"He didnt tell me you was hurted til yesterday, even though we come ta town evry day," JD angrily revealed.
"He was tryin ta protect ya, JD."
Again, Chris was awed by Vins insight. Though he hadnt liked lying to JD any more than Buck, Chris had agreed with the decision, despite the fact he had been unwilling to lie to Vin under similar circumstances. JD had suffered enough in his young life. Seeing the badly injured Vin would have only made things harder for him, not easier.
"Momma said lyins bad."
"JD, do ya remember in the orphanage when I stealed them crusts of bread?"
"Uh-huh, we sure was hungry."
"When Mr. Rayner asked ya if I took em, ya said no."
JD dropped his chin to his chest. "I didnt want ya ta git hurted."
"Ya lied," Vin quietly pointed out.
"I didnt want ya ta git hurted," JD repeated, tears rolling down his chubby cheeks.
"I know ya didnt," Vin soothed.
"Do ya think Momma would be mad at me fer lyin?"
"Ya saved me from a beatin. I think shed be glad. Just as she would be glad Mr. Buck loves ya enough ta lie. He didnt let ya see me cause he didnt want ya ta be hurted either."
"Mr. Buck would never hit me," JD indignantly defended.
Chris hid a smile behind his book. Even though he was mad at Buck, JD was quick to come to his defense.
"He didnt save yer outsides from bein hurted, JD." Vin corrected. "He saved yer insides."
Chris swallowed the gasp rising in his throat. One night, while they were sitting in the rocking chair, Chris had told Vin about Sarah and Adam. Vins response had been to pat Chris heart, recognizing where his pain emanated. How had someone so beaten down by life retained such sensitivity and compassion?
JD looked down his shirt as if he could see what was under his skin. "How does ya hurted yer insides?"
"Do ya remember how ya felt when yer Ma died?"
A subdued JD nodded.
JD paused in thought. His head tilted, he asked, "Mr. Buck lied so I wouldnt be hurted like that?"
"I bin awful mean ta Mr. Buck."
It took everything Chris had to stay in his seat. He wanted to take the sad boy in his arms and comfort him.
"Hell fergit as soon as ya tell im ya love im."
Chris was so proud of Vin, he was surprised his heart didnt burst from his chest. At the same time, he was filled with a deep sadness. A child of seven shouldnt know so much about pain, the physical or emotional kind.
Familiar footsteps covered the distance from the stairs to the infirmary entrance. When the door didnt open immediately, Chris knew Buck was gathering his courage to face the little boy he thought hated him. Chris didnt even try to pretend to be reading any longer. He looked forward to seeing his best friends face when he discovered the change that had transpired in his absence.
The door slowly opened. Buck had barely stepped across the threshold when a whirlwind crossed the room and attached itself to his leg.
"I wuv you, Mr. Buck."
Tears almost blinded Chris as he watched the tall man kneel and wrap JD in his loving arms. Wiping his eyes and hoping no one had noticed his lapse, Chris reclaimed his seat next to Vin, wishing he could copy his old friends show of affection. He had to settle for grasping a small hand in his. It wasnt enough, but it was better than nothing.
Swaying as he held the little boy to his chest, Buck choked, "I love you too, Little Bit."
Vin closed his eyes, exhausted by JDs visit. Even subdued by worry for his cousin, JD was so animated he seemed to suck the energy from everyone and everything around him, making a person feel drained when he left.
"Vin, are you hurtin? Should I get Nathan?"
While hating the oblivion the healers drugs sent him to, Vin craved it as well. There, nothing could touch him, not the pain of his injuries, Chris fear or Blackwells specter. He fought the temptation to find escape in Nathans medicines. His throat hurt after talking so much, so he shook his head to answer Chris question.
"I want ya to know," Chris looked down at the hand, sandwiched between his own, "how proud I am of ya."
The praise was as welcome as it was unexpected. Except for his parents and JDs mom, Vin had rarely heard a kind word, much less admiration for anything he had done. He wasnt sure why, but the ache in his chest eased - the ache that came from his insides, not his outside. Now, he knew it was time to sooth Chris insides. The gunslinger hadnt said anything, however Vin knew he felt guilty, blaming himself for the attack. "Mr. Chris, it werent yer fault."
"I agreed with Buck. JD shouldnt --- "
Vin quickly interrupted, "Blackwell hurtin me werent yer fault."
A mask covered Larabees face, hiding his reaction. "I invited him into the camp."
"So did my pa."
Puzzlement cracked the facade. "I thought Blackwell was after yer Pa fer bringin his son in ta be hanged?"
"He was." Vin paused, his voice becoming more raspy with every word. "Pa hadnt never seen the father. He didnt know til it were too late. Jus like you."
Chris shook his head, his pain audible in his voice. "Im sorry I made you relive yer worst nightmare."
"Ya didnt. Blackwell did."
"Ill be more careful from now on."
Vin didnt hear the pledge; he heard the distrust that had given it substance. "Dont wanna be scared anymore."
"What do ya mean?"
"Blackwells dead. Dont wanna hide from strangers no more." Feeling as though his throat was full of razors, Vin longed for a drink of water. His gaze rested on the glass on his bedside table, conveying his desire.
The aching boy tried not to moan, knowing how it tore at the gunslingers heart, as he was lifted and the rim of the glass placed against his lips. The lukewarm liquid brought momentary relief to his raw throat.
"Ill try, Vin." Chris gently laid the weak head back on the soft pillow. "Ill try ta trust, because you want me to. I aint makin no promises though."
Vin smiled at the growled pledge. It was less than he wanted but more than he had expected.
Buck hefted the last load of wood onto his shoulder and carried it into the cabin. Turning carefully in the small space, he ducked going through the door into the boys bedroom. Trying to avoid the stubborn child standing unhappily in the middle of the room, he placed the lumber on the top of the pile. Stretching his back, he ruefully realized the easy part was done, now came the hard part.
"I dont see why we need nother bed," JD huffily pouted, walking over to sit crosslegged on the cot he shared with Vin, his arms over his chest.
Sighing tiredly, Buck knelt in front of the boy, putting his big hands on the tiny knees. "Vin needs a bed of his own."
"But I like sharin wif him."
"I know ya do, Little Bit. Right now though, ya could hurt im."
The brown eyes grew large under the long bangs. "Id never hurted Vin."
"Not on purpose," Buck hastily agreed. "When yer sleepin, ya cant control what ya do. Ya could roll over on his arm or hit his chest. Ya could hurt im without meanin to."
"Maybe Vinll wanna sleep with me anyway." JD looked up with a hopeful gaze.
Knowing JD could use his eyes to coerce someone into doing whatever he wanted, Buck shook his head. "You boys cant sleep in the same bed til Vin is healed." Buck put a finger under the quivering chin and caught the pleading orbs with his own. "Is that clear, JD?"
"Yes, Mr. Buck."
"So now what, Mr. Buck?"
JD bounced back with a speed that took Bucks breath away. He had to smile at implied we in the statement, knowing JD would be more of a hindrance than a help. But he didnt care. The boy was glued to his side again. There was no other place he wanted JD to be.
"Now," Buck explained, "we put the wagon away and take care of the horses."
"Then we start buildin the bonkbeds?"
Hoping the mispronunciation wasnt a warning of the future, Buck gently corrected, "Bunkbed."
"Will we?" JD pressed.
"Yes, we," Buck emphasized the pronoun, "will."
"I git the top bonk."
Placing a hand on the boys shoulder as he started to skip from the room, Buck shook his head. "We already talked about this, JD. Vin is the oldest. He gits ta choose."
"That aint fair." JD stomped his foot.
Now, Buck knew why JD got his own way most of the time. It was easier to give in than to fight with him all the time. Unhappy at being the bad guy once again, Buck was determined to stand his ground. "JD, I will not discuss this any more. Vin will choose which bed he wants, and youre not to tell him which one you want first." When he could see a protest forming on the pouty lips, Buck held up his finger. "If you do, you wont be allowed around the horses for a week."
Defiance still shone on the flushed cheeks as JD capitulated. "Ill let Vin choose."
"Ya want Vin ta be happy, dont ya?"
"Yeah. Will dis make him happy?"
"Yes, I think it will."
"Then, lets git ta work."
Following the determined little boy out of the cabin, Buck smiled proudly. JD may have had to be prodded to do the right thing, but he had never had any doubt the young boy eventually would. It just took JD a little longer to see both sides of an issue. He was only five and had already lost a lot in his short life. He could be forgiven for his small selfishness.
Chris gazed down at the sleeping boy, never tiring of the view. When Adam was born, Sarah would often awaken to find her husband leaning over the cradle just watching the innocent face. She would laugh indulgently at his obsession before dragging him back to bed. He had never thought he would experience the joy and wonder of such boundless love again.
Those first weeks after Vin came into his life, he had beaten down his emotions, afraid to give them free rein. Now, he knew it would have been infinitely worse to never have loved Vin. Or to never have had that love returned. He was a whole person again, not the shadow he had been since Sarah and Adam died.
"Chris," Nathan quietly admonished, marking his place in his book with his finger, "Vin is doing fine. He dont need ya sittin side him all the time no more. Go git some sleep."
Though he would admit to himself he was exhausted, Chris didnt want to leave. Nor did he want to appropriate Nathans bed, as he had done far too often in the last few weeks. "Im fine."
"I wish I had a dollar fer everytime I heard ya say that. Id be a rich man."
"Watch it. Yer startin ta sound like Ezra."
"If yer gonna be insultin, Ill kick ya out."
A smile curved Chris lips. "Sorry."
Nathan rose and crossed to stand next to the gunslinger, his eyes resting on his patient. "We got lucky."
"What?" Chris looked up at the troubled healer.
"I dont know what we wouldve done if wed lost him. Those are mighty small shoulders ta have so many people dependin on em."
Hearing his own thoughts echoed by his friend, Chris was surprised. "We?"
"Ya dont think yer the only one who loves him, do ya? Or that Bucks the only one who loves JD?"
"Of course not." The protest was automatic. Chris had never really considered how deeply the others cared about the two boys. Because he had guarded his own heart, he had assumed his friends had done the same. He thought they worried simply because that was the kind of people they were. The same caring that had made them choose to help keep the peace in a backwater town.
"Them boys aint got two surrogate pas, they got five," Nathan indignantly muttered. "And dont ya fergit it."
"I wont," Chris solemnly vowed, returning his attention to the sleeping boy. "And neither will Vin."
Vin walked slowly up the stairs to the church. While grateful for the concern radiating from the man beside him, he knew he must continue on alone. When they reached the top, Chris put his hand out to open the door. Without saying a word, Vin put hisown much smaller one over it. Blue eyes met green, speaking words only they could hear.
Nodding his understanding, Chris pulled the heavy door open, but his feet stayed planted where they were. "Ill wait fer ya right here."
A dip of his head indicated Vins gratitude. It had been two weeks since the attack. Nathan had finally agreed to allow Vin to go home - with certain stipulations: no riding and no chores. As hard as it was for him to refrain from the latter, Vin reluctantly agreed. It was still difficult for him to believe that anyone would want to keep him when he couldnt work. However, Chris had quickly accepted the restrictions as well. There had been no anger or disappointment in his voice or on his face. In fact, he had looked happier than Vin had seen him since the assault.
While Vin was eager to go home, there was one thing he needed to do first - talk to Josiah. Every time the preacher had come to visit him, Nathan or Chris had been present, allowing them no privacy.
Entering the dimly lit sanctuary, Vin saw Josiah sanding one of the front pews. The thickly muscled arms were covered with a mixture of sweat and sawdust. Vin took a step forward, only to hesitate when he saw the cross on the wall.
"All Gods children are welcome in his house, Vin," Josiah softly encouraged, laying down his tools.
Vins eyes stayed glued to the cross. "Even when they done what I done?"
"God extends his hand to anyone who needs it." Josiah grabbed a towel and wiped his face, hands and arms. "Of course, not everyone is willing to take it."
Dubious about whether he understood what the preacher was saying, Vin cautiously took a step forward certain he would be struck dead for his crime.
Taking a seat in a pew near the middle of the church, Josiah asked, "What do you think youve done that God would disapprove of ?"
"I killed a man," Vin quietly reminded him, surprised the preacher had needed to ask which sin he had committed.
"Vin, God understands you had no choice."
"You said He has ten commendments."
"Commandments," Josiah gently corrected.
His distress transmitting itself in his inability to fill his lungs, Vin winced with every rise and fall of his abused chest. "One of them was we aint suppose ta kill."
"God doesnt want us to kill out of greed or anger, but he expects us to defend ourselves when faced with someone like Blackwell. He loves us, and will forgive us if we are truly sorry for what we done, but we also have to forgive ourselves."
Visibly calmer, Vin sat in the pew behind the preacher, afraid his trembling legs wouldnt support him any longer. "Even though I done wrong, ya think I might go ta heaven when I die?"
"If anyone deserves a place in heaven, its you, Vin Tanner."
Vin stared into the preachers watery blue eyes, wondering what he had said that had upset the spiritual man. "Then, Ill see my ma and pa again?"
"If thats what you think heaven is," Josiah whispered, "then yes, you will."
Regaining his feet, Vin smiled, the first since he had been injured. "Thank ya, Mr. Siah."
"Thank you, Vin."
"I didnt do nothin," Vin said in surprise.
"On the contrary." Josiah brushed a hand across his teary eyes. "You have renewed my faith in mankind."
Once again, Vin wasnt sure he understood what the preacher was telling him, but his mother, his aunt, and Mr. Chris had taught him to be polite. "Yer welcome, Mr. Siah."
Chris threw another log on the fire before sitting in the rocking chair in front of it. When he stared into the flickering flames, he didnt see Sarah and Adam as he would have just a few short months ago. He wasnt seeing anything at all. He was waiting...waiting for the nightmare that was once again visiting Vin on a nightly basis.
When the boys first came to live on the ranch, Vin would dream of the night his father was murdered. Almost every morning, he would wake up screaming. As he began to feel more secure and loved, the phantoms slowly faded. When they left to sell the mares at the auction, he hadnt had one for a month.
Now, they were back.
Straining ears heard a soft whimper. Chris was out of his chair and in the boys room before another could follow. In the diffused light of the fire, he saw Vin thrashing in his new bed. Knowing better than to try to hold the disoriented boy down, Chris gently shook him awake. When the writhing stopped, he cupped the square jaw with his hand. A thumb gently caressed the soft cheek. "Its all right, Vin. Its just a nightmare."
A shudder shook the small body. "Kin I sit with ya?"
Untangling the blankets, Chris carefully lifted the boy off the top bunk and into his arms. Although grateful for the warmth of the fire on the chilly night, he didnt want to take any chances. The memory of the fever that had gripped Vin in those first days after the attack was still too vivid. As soon as he was settled in the rocking chair, he wrapped the afghan around the trembling body. He had missed this weight in his lap. Knowing how close he had come to never feeling it again, he sighed contentedly.
"Blackwell killed my pa. He was goin ta kill you, Mr. Chris."
Wondering if Vin was going to reveal what he had needed to see Josiah about, Chris agreed, "You saved me."
"Why was I able ta save you and not my pa?"
Chris felt as though someone had buried a stake in his heart. He could almost feel the enormity of the guilt settling on Vins thin shoulders. What could he say to ease the boys burden? It was a cross he shouldnt have to carry.
Desperately wishing Josiah was here with his soothing voice and sound advice, Chris hesitantly offered, "Youve watched Ezra during one of his big games?"
Though the observation was more a statement of fact than a question, Chris waited for Vins nod of confirmation before continuing. "He can get rid of four of the five cards ta try ta improve his hand. But once the new cards are dealt, he has to play them, good or bad. Life is like that. We have ta play the cards were given, no matter how much we wish we could discard the ones that hurt us. Like what happened ta you and yer pa, yer ma, JDs ma "
"Your wife and son," Vin quietly interjected.
Though he knew he shouldnt be, Chris was surprised Vin could look past his own pain to empathize with anothers.
"Is there a way ta cheat like Mr. Ezra does?"
Chris buried his smile in the soft curls on top of Vins head. "fraid not." Knowing how observant Vin was, curiosity got the better of him as he probed, "When have ya seen Ezra cheat?"
"When he was playin that man who was pretendin ta be Mr. Nathans friend."
All amusement disappeared as Chris recalled the man who presented himself as Nathans friend, yet had taken every opportunity to humiliate and embarrass the black healer. Chris remembered the card game with Ezra well. In a few short hours, the gambler had won the mans money and destroyed his dignity. At the time, no one had cared how he had done it, only glad that the friend had been humbled. "How did Ezra cheat?"
"He dealt from the bottom of the deck, but," Vin hastily added, "only ta that man. Fer everyone else, he played fair."
Chris was surprised at the feeling of satisfaction that washed over him at the gamblers behavior. Still, he couldnt allow Vin to think he approved. "Ya know what Ezra did was wrong?"
"The man werent nice ta Mr. Nathan."
"It dont make cheating right."
"Never." Chris nodded. "In the games we play, just as in life, we have ta play the hand were dealt. They arent always bad, ya know. Sometimes, we get a winnin hand, like when you and JD came ta live with me and Buck."
"I sure wish Mr. Ezra could teach me to deal cards so I only got winnin hands," Vin wishfully sighed.
Careful of the splinted arm and tender ribs, Chris held the boy as tightly to his chest as he dared. "So do I," he softly whispered. "So do I."
Buck checked under the tree near the house before entering the barn. At five years of age, JD contended he was too old for naps after lunch. However, a full belly coupled with awakening at such an early hour - which had gotten earlier since Vin came to them - and the hard work of maintaining a ranch, usually forced the little boy to literally drop in his tracks wherever he happened to be for an involuntary snooze. Sometimes, it would last for as little as ten minutes. Normally, he would sleep for almost an hour. They had learned to keep track of the time, if he slept longer, he would be bouncing off the walls at bedtime.
Checking the haystack, Buck only found the cat with her new kittens. Looking in each of the stalls, he finally discovered the sleeping child curled up on a flake of hay in Pesos stall.
One down, one to go.
With JDs location uncovered, Buck exited the barn to check on Vin. Today was the first day Chris had resumed his duties as one of the Four Corners peacekeepers. He would be spending the entire day in town, leaving his partner and friend to look after Vin. Buck was feeling the pressure.
When he spotted the boy down by the mares pasture, his heart dropped. His long legs eating the distance, he quickly arrived at his destination. Trying to appear unconcerned, he crossed his arms on the top rail of the fence and rested his chin on them. "You all right, Vin?"
"A little tired."
Surprised by the admission, Buck straightened. "How bout I help ya up into yer bed?"
"Id rather stay here."
His tender heart breaking at the soft sigh of submission, Buck knelt and carefully picked the boy up in his arms. Sitting Vin on the top rail, Buck put his hands on the knobby knees to keep a secure hold. He felt hed won a major victory when Vin leaned back against his chest with a whimper of contentment.
Following the boys blue gaze, Bucks eyes rested on Blackwells horse. Though still underweight, her bone structure wasnt as prominent and her coat had luster. White patches that had grown over old scars liberally dotted the golden hide, visible proof of her mistreatment. Fearful the mare would be a constant reminder of not one but both traumas Vin had endured at her masters hands, Buck reminded, "Ifn its gonna be hard fer ya ta have her here Vin, we kin find her a good home."
"Its all right, Mr. Buck. Shes happy here."
Proud and amazed at the young boys strength, Buck had to swallow several times before he could get words past the lump in his throat. "Shes gonna need a name."
"Thats JDs job."
Hoping he was doing the right thing, Buck insisted, "I think this time you should be the one to choose."
"Cause shes gittin a second chance at life. Jus like you and Mr. Chris gived me and JD."
Buck was glad there was no one to see the tear rolling down his cheek. Though he knew he could never convince the boy in his arms, it had been he and Chris who had been given the second chance.
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