Return Journey

by WendyW

Ezra slapped futilely as the cloud of dust churned up from a passing wagon drifted down to settle on his coat. Wagons, buckboards and buggies rattled back and forth along the busy street, the chaos only worsened by the mass of dodging pedestrians and horsemen.

"Off the street boys," Nathan ordered as he swung another sack onto the wagon bed. "And that did not include you Ezra," Nathan added as the gambler deserted the chore of loading to follow the boys back to the safety of the boardwalk.

"That's a lot of stuff," JD queried, wide-eyed as more goods continued to be loaded.

"Wagon will be slower than the train, JD," Buck explained. "It'll take us nearly a week to get home."

"So are we're goin' now?"

"Soon. Ezra, how about you find Chris if you're that keen to avoid loading?" Buck suggested as the gambler fussed and straightened his jacket.

JD pushed between the men pressing hard against Buck's leg to tug at his back pocket. "Then we'll be ready?" The younger boy was bored with all the rules that had been placed on him during his hospital stay. A wagon trip seemed like the perfect adventure.

"Soon, JD. W hen we find Chris."

"I'm not particularly fond of wandering the streets aimlessly, Mr Wilmington." Ezra brushed aside the request. They might as well have been a public conveyance for all the thanks or acknowledgment they'd received from Chris Larabee. As aggrieved as Ezra chose to be he also found the current behaviour troubling for while Larabee could be abrupt with others he was never off-hand with his family. Yet at every opportunity the man disappeared and when he was present he remained disturbingly silent. He had even declined to be involved in the planning of this journey, leaving the task to fall to Josiah, the more familiar wagon master of the group.

"So don't be aimless, ask around." Nathan suggested with impatience.

"I'll go get him," Vin offered, swinging under the rail. He'd barely spoken to his Pa, who'd disappeared just before breakfast.

"No you don't." Josiah scooped the escaping boy up, delivering him into Nathan's waiting arms to be hoisted up into the wagon bed. "I'll gather in our missing brother."

Josiah searched the room where the boys had spent most of the past week, tracing hallways and stopping to enquire if anyone had seen the blonde man. Exhausting the possibilities indoor, Josiah exited the rear of the hospital to the alley. There he found the object of his search resting on an upturned packing crate apparently contemplating the outhouse door opposite.

"Chris?" His call drew no response and it wasn't until he was within a few feet of the man that Chris raised his head. "Are you feeling ill?" Josiah asked, concerned that the man chose to remain here in the squalid alley.

"No." Nothing further was offered but Chris showed no interest in moving.

"We're loaded, Chris. Time to go home." Josiah resisted the urge to place a hand under the man's elbow and help him to his feet. Chris had clearly been maintaining a distance from the group and Josiah didn't want to press him here in the dim alleyway.

Larabee rose stiffly, pulled the crutches into place and made his way slowly down the side of the building to the street. He didn't reach the wagon instead stopping when the buzz of excited voices and arguments over bedding selections struck him. He unconsciously staggered a pace back under the onslaught.

"Chris?" Nathan called, seeing the unsteady movement. "Chris you all right?"

"Fine." Chris moved forward trying to allay Nathan's concern. He didn't want to draw attention.

"We're ready to load up, Chris. You're in the wagon with Buck and the boys."

Chris just nodded in reply and moved toward the wagon under his own power, choosing a tangent that left him out of reach of the others. He couldn't avoid Josiah's hand, as he was unable to make the climb into the wagon unaided. He counted heads automatically but was somehow still saddened.

His family was here.

His family was healing.

His family was going home.

His gaze brushed past anxious blue eyes without pausing, trying to ignore the reminder of his failure. He'd agreed to this journey and now they were leaving empty handed, bruised and broken. He turned to sit on his assigned bunk but a sharp hot pain flooded through the damaged knee as it twisted bringing angry tears too readily to his eyes. He grimly held in his cry, blinked quickly to clear the blurring then dragged air though clenched teeth as he lifted the injured limb onto the bedding. The wagon began to move but Chris chose to ignore the boys' excitement, turning his face toward the dusty canvas covers.

Vin was disappointed to see Chris turn away as he had so many times recently. He sat back at the rear of the wagon, ignoring the two bunks currently taken by the adults. He was content for the moment to watch the busy city recede as the wagon cleared the traffic and started to pick up speed.

JD was too excited to settle and stumbled as the heavy wagon lurched around a corner. He gasped and cried out as tender ribs were battered against the edge of a bunk. Buck quickly drew the boy up onto his lap and secured him gently with his arms.

Vin glanced back quickly to ensure that his cousin wasn't hurt. He stared for a moment, watching Buck move around to ensure JD was comfortable, whispering something he couldn't hear over the rumble of wheels on the hard-packed trail. Vin looked to the silent still figure on the other bunk but returned his gaze to the passing view from the back.

The day passed quietly and easily and the passengers who'd expected to be bored found themselves dozing the hours away, miscalculating just how recovered they actually were. It was late in the afternoon when Josiah steered the wagon from the main trail into a wide clearing but the fading light was still sufficient to prepare the evening camp and allow Nathan to carefully inspect his now weary patients.

Chris pulled a blanket from the wagon, bundling it up to grasp it's weight and still negotiate the rocky ground with his crutches. He ignored the camp preparations and hobbled away from the others. Vin saw the activity and trotted over to assist, straightening the blanket out, carefully checking for stones beneath. He watched with surprise as his father settled down onto the ground away from the rest of the camp.

"You sleepin' now, Pa?" Vin asked, surprised at the early preparations.

"Just resting, Vin."

"We're gonna eat soon. Josiah's mixin' up a real good stew 'n it's the last of the fresh bread tonight." Vin didn't see how this could be passed up.

"Not hungry, Vin."

"You don't wanna just come sit with us?" Vin asked, disappointed.

"Just going to rest here in the quiet, Vin."

Vin was confused. Hadn't they just spent the day resting? Surely Chris wanted to talk to him now, or even just sit with him. While JD had kept the day from becoming too boring he had felt the absence of his father. Shoulders drooping in disappointment, Vin backed away.

Buck had witnessed the odd exchange and although seated too far to hear anything he could see by Vin's reaction that something wasn't right. "Nathan, is everything okay with Chris?" The man had become distant as if worrying over something. "His knee's not wrecked permanently is it?"

Nathan was inspecting Buck's now well healing stitches. "You're looking good here, Buck. The fever's gone but I don't want you to push things. You might feel fine in the morning but it could still flare up in the evening if you're overtired."

"Chris?" Buck prompted as his question was ignored.

"He has to be careful and let that knee heal slowly. Otherwise he's healing fine, cuts and bruises just like the rest of you."

"Then why?" Buck jerked his head in the direction of the figure lying under the blankets away from the group.

"Says he's tired, Buck. The man looks tired, same as you." Nathan's enquiries of Larabee had been rebuffed all day. Nathan was at least thankful that being restricted to the wagon was keeping his notoriously difficult patient off the injured leg.

"But I'm sittin' here just about starving for that stew of Josiah's. Chris didn't touch his food this morning. He has to be hungry by now if he's feeling okay."

"I know that Buck but I can't see that anything else is wrong, at least nothing that I can fix."

"He wasn't this quiet at the hospital," Buck added, confused by the recent changes.

"He was probably occupied by other things."

"Well JD and Vin took all our attention but they're doing fine now." Buck suddenly thought that perhaps Larabee was shielding him from something. "Aren't they?"

"They're both fine." Nathan reassured the worried parent.

Buck wondered if this was the onset of one of Larabee's dark moods. It had been some time since he'd witnessed it, before the boys' arrival in fact. Although Larabee was definitely in a mood this didn't feel the same. There was no edge of anger to the man, in fact there was more of a void where he should be.

Buck's eyes fell on the hip flask Ezra pulled from his coat and considered that perhaps the lack of access to alcohol had changed Chris' reactions. Was this anger without the fuel? Was this a slowly consuming ember rather than the wildfire he'd previously witnessed?

Ezra noted the interest and considered the previous weeks trials. "Mr Wilmington, would you care for a libation?"

Buck hadn't been looking for a drink himself and shook his head quickly in refusal. "But thanks for the offer," he added.

His only thought was one of relief that the liquor wasn't readily at hand if his friend was going to plunge to any depths. No one needed that at the moment, least of all the boys. Buck made his way over to the wagon to where he'd left JD. The lingering aches from his damaged ribs tired the small boy so Buck had left him to nap in the wagon when they'd stopped.

"Hey papa," JD yawned, the cherubic face split wide. Buck grinned at the contented boy who leaned out for a hug.

"Lets get you out of there." Buck started to manoeuvre into position to take JD's weight securely without hurting either of them.

"Oh, no you don't." Nathan stepped in quickly to lower the small boy to the ground. "No heavy weights on that shoulder," he admonished Buck.

The group remained together in quiet conversation long after the evening meal was consumed. All felt compelled to make the most of the rare occurrence of friends and family gathered together, even if the circle was currently broken by Chris' continued refusal to join them. Vin had left a gap beside him in the hope that his father would change his mind but the space remained vacant and Vin eventually stopped turning to check for his absent parent.

When the boys were finally convinced to bed down for the night the adults' conversation turned toward the unusual withdrawal of their friend.

"Are you sure this behavior is not from a head injury?" Ezra asked. He'd had less contact with Larabee, riding rather than traveling in the wagon but it was still clear that a problem existed.

"He's physically recovered. The doctor gave no indication that there'd been anything unusual with his injuries," Nathan explained.

"Besides, he wasn't like this before," Buck interjected. "He was just like ...Chris...just usual. I agree something's bothering him but when he gets this way it's just best to give him some space and let him sort it out."

"Space is not a commodity we have in any supply," Ezra pointed out. "Besides, while we are content to ignore and be ignored, others are not." Ezra felt compelled to stand up for Vin.

"Speak for yourself Standish. We're not all planning to ignore this," Nathan defended.

"Look," Buck interrupted sharply, not wanting any argument on the topic. "I'm just saying we should let him handle this himself."

"And if he doesn't?" Ezra continued to press.

"Then I guess we'll have to push, but not here and not now. When we're back on home ground." Buck turned sharply at the sound behind him. "Hey, what are you doing awake?"

The flickering firelight revealed tangled hair, skewed shirt and sock-clad feet. "Couldn't sleep," Vin whispered.

"Bad dreams?" Buck asked, beckoning the child over.

Vin shook his head, wincing at the too rapid movement. "Just not sleepy."

"Vin, do you have another headache?" Nathan asked, catching the sign of discomfort.

Vin frowned and considered his answer. It was still the same dull feeling he'd had all day. It wasn't really pain. "No."

Another small figure came stumbling back toward the firelight at the sound of voices. "Why's everyone 'wake?"

"Because it's not our bed-time but it is well past yours," Buck corrected both his wandering boys.

JD stood close behind the seated man, draping himself over the strong back and leaning over Buck's good shoulder. "Vin's awake," he pointed out.

"But he's going back to sleep, just like you are."

"Can't sleep," Vin reminded Buck.

The boys had slept on and off all day so it was no surprise to anyone that they were now awake late in the evening and looking for entertainment.

"Lets see if I can't do something about that but you need to be back under those blankets." Buck would normally have stood, dragging JD up on his shoulders as he did so but his current injury prevented that. The still healing shoulder made him realise just how often he would pick up one of the boys or wrap them in a hug and just how much he missed the touch. Twisting out from under the small boy, he stood unsteadily waving away Ezra's offer of assistance.

"I got 'em," he insisted as he herded the two boys away from the adults.

"Vin, pull your blanket closer here," Buck instructed.

"Won't I roll on JD 'n hurt him?" All the warnings in the hospital still weighed heavily on Vin's mind.

"I think you two are safe together." Buck was sure Vin was missing the attention from Chris and perhaps JD's company would help him to sleep. The boys curled together like puppies as Buck unfolded another story for them. He was tiring himself so the tale of pirates and gold was brought to a swift conclusion, the boys not asleep but at least settled quietly.

"Sweet dreams," he whispered, kissing each brow. Considering everyone's recent dreams it was intended as both blessing and plea. The firelight flickered, reflected in blue orbs now midnight dark. "Close 'em," Buck reminded gently, pulling the blankets up a little higher and tucking it closely around the boys' huddled bodies.

Buck stopped to make a silent review of his sleeping friend. At least he assumed Chris was sleeping as his body was still but his face was turned away.

Maybe it was nothing.

Maybe Chris just needed to be home where he could rest and relax.

Buck stretched and yawned. They'd all feel better when they were home. He decided to retire for the evening, wishing his fellow travelers a good night and crawling under his own blanket.
It was much later that night when the thrashing brought Nathan to his feet. He had been taking his turn standing watch over the camp and his friends, alert for interlopers. This attack came from within and was not entirely unexpected.

"Chris." Nathan laid a hand on the rigid shoulder, the mumbled words indistinguishable but the distress obvious.

Larabee stilled at the touch as instincts took over and thrust him abruptly from slumber. He jerked away, his eyes snapping open and hand reaching for the holstered pistol that lay by his head. Recognition of friend and not foe took only a moment and his fingers released their hold on the bone handgrips to scrub through sweat soaked hair. Dragging a shuddering breath through clenched teeth he raised his eyes to meet not only Nathan's concerned gaze but also Vin, who'd deserted JD in concern for his father.

Chris refused the silent offering.

"Go back to sleep, Vin," he instructed his voice rough and low. "I'm fine," he declared to all, dismissing the concern and ignoring the unasked questions.

Nathan was surprised by the harsh rejection of Vin and steered the stunned boy back to his original sleeping place, unable to provide much comfort to either friend. "It was just a dream, Vin. Chris is all right."

Josiah had also woken at the disturbance and slowly stretched having decided that since he was now awake he would take over the watch, even if a little early. Nathan offered a quiet explanation as he surrendered his place to Josiah, leaving the Preacher with only quiet snuffling and snores for company. It wasn't long before Chris began to move restlessly again but Josiah chose to leave him to sleep undisturbed as the low noises continued without any real sound of distress.

Vin was not so easily dissuaded by his father's dismissal and lay without sleeping until the signs of dreams again returned to his father. Dragging his worn gray blanket with him, Vin crept silently to Chris' side to lay as close as he could without touching.

Josiah was not surprised at the silent offering of comfort and even less surprised when the low mumbling and restless movement ceased. Now that his friends were once again settled for the night he turned his attention to the darkness beyond.

The preacher preferred to take the last watch to truly welcome in the new day. Time was marked by the slowly changing sky as black waned to a deep blue and finally a pale gray. Light filtered up in thick hazy bars of pink and purple as if a faded rainbow lay stretched flat across the horizon. The pale colors soon burned away in the slow rise of the glowing orb. Dawn broken, Josiah stirred himself from his uncomfortable boulder and returned to stoke the fire, rebuilding the smoking embers ready for the morning coffee. Only then did he discover Vin had moved silently back to his original bed before anyone in the camp woke.

Josiah hustled his sleeping passengers from their blankets, receiving groans and complaints from the weary bodies in denial of movement. He ignored the less then complimentary remarks thrown his way, finally resorting to dragging the cover's from the slumbering gambler to hasten him from his bed.

Vin was always early to rise and today was no exception. Seeing that his father was waking, he decided to make another approach. He didn't understand why his father continued to turn away from him but he had to try again.

Vin steadied a brimming cup of coffee and walked it carefully across the camp. "Pa, I brought ya coffee?" he offered, waiting anxiously for a response. "Pa?"

Chris Larabee watched the camp begin to move in preparation for breakfast. He didn't move with them. He wasn't hungry. He wasn't interested in food. He blinked at the figure that suddenly appeared before him, not having noticed Vin's approach. He raked his eyes up and down the boy automatically, assessing the fading bruises that colored the side of Vin's face highlighted by pale cheeks. Chris accepted the coffee, thanking Vin automatically but setting the cup aside.

Vin warmed for a moment as those eyes trailed down him in their usual habit, inspecting him silently for scrapes and bruises. Vin was reassured by the familiar behavior but then disappointed to see his offering was placed aside and his presence again ignored.

Josiah watched the exchange with curiosity and concern. Nathan had said Chris was healing and just tired. Buck believed that space and time would again settle the man. The Preacher felt compelled to at least try and broach the subject again as it wasn't in Larabee's nature to wait placidly or to follow another's lead.

"Another fine day for our journey," Josiah observed. He pushed on when he received no response. "You've been very quiet, Chris. Talking through you thoughts would perhaps help you to see where your troubles lie."

"Nothing to talk about, Preacher. I'm fine." Chris saw the obvious disbelief but turned his head aside as he felt his chest tighten and the hot pressure build behind his eyes. "I'm tired. There's nothing to discuss." He hoped Josiah would drop the subject. It took all his energy to hold the dam in place but if his friends tried to push it would all shatter. He refused to allow that to happen. He'd failed in enough of his responsibilities this time.

"Well, at least join us for breakfast because we have another long day ahead." Josiah could see that Chris was not intending to open up to him, not here or now. Perhaps Buck was right. "We'll be home soon. Everyone's doing their best to deliver you all there safely."

To do what he hadn't been able to do, Chris added silently.

Disappointment curdled in his stomach, making him grateful he'd refused breakfast. He knew he should be relieved that his friends were taking his family home and yet he wasn't. His chest still ached and he had to swallow over and over to force back tears that blocked his throat. The dream continued to return, its thick black tendrils of fear ensnared him and refused to release their hold even when he woke. He couldn't fight them, not when he awoke to more threats than he had ever dreamed existed.

He knew what this trip could have been. A lone journey to an empty house that would never be a home again.

But his family was safe and returning to their home but still the dream persisted. Each time he woke with his heart pounding, his throat closed and his body flooded in grief. Even in daylight the bleak heartache swamped him at unexpected moments.

Chris knew he had no reason to grieve. For days he'd watched his family heal but instead of rejoicing in their company he saw only what he stood to lose. His withdrawal was causing the others to worry but it was all he could do at the moment to hold himself together. His only defence was to ignore the questions, avoid the concern and ride out the waves. He sighed inwardly as their healer approached again.

Nathan forced all his patients into a morning inspection before breaking camp. Again he could find no clue to Chris' withdrawal as he barely acknowledged the intrusion, only responding in single words to his questions. The boys however were more active. Delicate prodding of JD's ribs showed no movement but the painful attention was more than enough to convince the little boy that he was still injured and he should continue to travel in the back of the wagon.

Vin waited for Nathan's inspection but his impatience could be detected in fingers that curled and uncurled. He had other more important concerns than his occasional headaches.

"Is Pa sick?" Vin knew something was wrong. Surely Nathan could make Chris feel better.

"Your Pa is fine. He's just a little tired. How's everything else?" Nathan asked.


"Any other aches and pains?" Nathan found himself reluctant to question Vin directly about his back. He had encouraged Larabee to seek another's opinion and while a spark within him was appeased at the confirmation of his treatment, he was bitterly disappointed for Vin and his family.

Vin knew what was being asked but he'd already decided that too much trouble had already come from his old injury. "It'" He stopped himself from saying the word, remembering Buck's joke in the hospital. "There's nothin' else." He shifted slightly away from the healer, testing if Nathan was finished. When there was no further move to detain him, Vin slipped away quickly to help hitch the horses.

The group decided to roll up the canvas sides of the wagon as the day appeared to hold fine warm weather. Buck entertained the boys with stories and word games but Vin was disappointed to see that Chris remained distant on the other bunk, appearing to not listen nor offer any story of his own.

"Pa, don't you want to play?" Vin prompted, shifting from his position at the back of the wagon to try to force the man to face him. It was only the morning. He couldn't be tired all ready.

"Vin." Buck grabbed the boy as he moved forward, redirecting Vin quickly. "How about you ride up front with Josiah?"

"No," Vin tugged at the hold. "Pa?" he demanded, a note of irritation now in his voice.

"Vin, leave him for now. Go on up front." Buck propelled the boy past him. "Josiah?" As the driver turned back, Buck nodded toward the child now standing behind him.

"Welcome, young Vin." Josiah easily swung Vin's slight weight up beside him. "A day in the driver's seat for you?"

Josiah looked over at his co-driver but the boy was twisted back, studying the man lying silently at the side of the wagon. Josiah didn't need to turn any further to observe the expression on Larabee's face. It would be the same as it had been the last few days. Josiah had found his attempts to draw the man out rebuffed. He could provide no solace with words if the man closed his ears and refused to listen.

"Vin." He waited until the young boy turned back. "Don't fret son. Sometimes a little space is needed so that you can put your thoughts in order. He'll soon be ready for you again." Josiah wanted to ease Vin's worry, uncertain if his words were empty but relying on the strength of his voice to bolster the boy.

Vin nodded politely at Josiah. "Yes, sir."

Vin had heard the adults' discussion the night before but he believed what he saw and what he saw wasn't right. He glanced back once more but found Chris still turned away. Sighing quietly he raised a hand and beckoned to the distant rider.

Ezra had been attempting to enjoy the day for what it was, a pleasant ride in fair weather. It was unfortunate that the day had been required to begin so close upon the heels of dawn. His solitary voice of dissent at their early departure had done little to dissuade the plans of his fellow travellers. He shifted his balance as his horse danced energetically sideways. Turning back in a tight circle he lifted his head to check on the following wagon only to find a hand raised to him, but not in greeting.

Ezra answered the signal and turned his horse back toward the wagon. Ezra held a certain amount of sympathy for those forced to travel in the jostling vehicle, held at the mercy of Josiah's long-winded narratives.

"Would you care to accompany me for a short while, Mr Tanner?" Ezra inquired as he moved in close to the wagon and kept pace.

"Yes please, Ezra." The wagon was keeping a sedate pace and Vin slipped easily from his high seat to the carefully steadied horse. Ezra heard the happy sigh as Vin settled in behind him.

"Peso has missed your company." Ezra offered, opening with a safe topic of conversation.

"He okay?"

"Yes. He has made severe demands on the timberwork of his stall but he is in high spirits." Ezra waited but was surprised when Vin failed to continue with such a favored topic. Vin's question, when it came was a completely different subject and one that Ezra didn't particularly wish to discuss with the boy.

"Ya think Pa...Chris is okay?"

"Mr Jackson has said that he is well," Ezra confirmed not sure he should share his own private concerns.

"But...what if...he's not?" Vin asked hesitantly. He needed someone else to see this.

"I'm sure that everything will be fine," Ezra offered, attempting to allay Vin's obvious fears.

His comment was met with silence. Just as Ezra began to hope for a change in the topic of conversation he felt the small hands tucked into his belt suddenly release their hold and Vin's weight disappear from behind him. They were only trotting and the drop was hardly dangerous but the sudden departure of his passenger shocked Ezra. He wheeled his horse around to cut off the boy's determined march. Ezra cursed silently for giving in to his own weakness and trying to gloss over Vin's very correct concerns. He knew better than to feed the child platitudes.

"Vin." A Standish did not raise his voice but Ezra's strident call came close. "Vin."

Vin halted his steps at Ezra's serious tone but kept his gaze fixed on the wagon in the distance as it slowly lumbered toward them.

"Mr Tanner what may I ask, caused your precipitous departure over the rear of this equine?" Ezra demanded, as he pulled his horse to a halt before the boy.

Vin's face turned up for a moment to glare at the obstruction in his path before the flashing blue gaze dropped to study his dirt scuffed boots.

Ezra swung down from the saddle when it became apparent that there would be no response. "Vin."

Ezra's persistence only caused Vin to side-step the horse and continue back to the wagon. Refusing to accept any more moody silences on this journey, Ezra clamped a hand around the boy's upper arm as he started to move away. "I asked you a question, Vin. It is only polite to answer."

Vin was surprised at the restraint. Ezra rarely laid a hand on him, for any reason. While he didn't struggle against the hold he did pull back testing the seriousness of Ezra's grasp.

"I asked somethin' too," Vin reminded. "Ya lied."

Ezra was startled and hurt at the accusation. "I did not lie to you," he defended.

"Ya said he was fine 'n he ain't." Vin tried to turn away but found Ezra held him in place.

"I'm sure Buck, Nathan and Josiah have told you that as well. I don't know anything more than they," Ezra explained helplessly. He released Vin's arm, his fingers brushing the sleeve in apology, straightening creases in the fabric.

"Everyone has said so but I know it's not true." Vin pleaded for understanding. "That's why I asked ya. Ya'd tell me."

"But I don't know the answer, Vin." Ezra explained gently. "We just don't want you to worry. It's not a lie."

Vin could see Ezra didn't understand why he'd been asked. Why his answer mattered. "I know Nathan 'n Josiah want to make things sound better but that's not what you do."

"I make things worse?" Ezra wasn't sure if he should be offended.

"You make 'em true. Bad or not."

Ezra understood that Vin was too smart, too old and too experienced not to detect an adult's obfuscation. But all that didn't alter the fact that Ezra really didn't know what the problem was with Larabee. However there was one thing he believed to be true. "Vin, I do believe it will work itself out."


Ezra shook his head, regretful of the doubt he heard there and unable to do more. "No, Vin. I want it to be true but I can't promise such a thing." Ezra would not speak empty words again when Vin could clearly hear their hollow echo.

"I want it too," Vin whispered.

"Shall we continue our excursion together?" Ezra could see the wagon was very close now and allowed Vin the option to return to his former mode of travel.

"I can still ride with ya?"

"Certainly. As long as you promise to remain on my horse this time."

The riding didn't continue beyond midday as the heat of midday soon brought a return of Vin's headache and he was ordered back to the wagon under Nathan's instructions. Vin was disappointed to find that the wagon sides had been rolled down to block the sun for while it was shady it felt closed in. JD demanded Vin's attention having been denied his company most of the morning so Buck took the opportunity to move on to the driver's bench beside Josiah as the boys entertained themselves.

Vin kept a subtle watch as the afternoon progressed hoping for some sign that Chris had finished his resting and thinking but he didn't raise a single glance. He tried to approach his father again only to have Buck quickly turn and wave him back to his place. Dejected, Vin drew his knees up and laid his head on them. The afternoon sun struck Vin's face making him squint in pain and turn his head the other way. He ignored JD's pleas, no longer interested in playing games.

Buck turned at JD's raised voice, obviously aggrieved by something Vin was doing or not doing. He was not surprised that tempers had begun to fray in the confined space so Buck called JD over and lifted him carefully up on to his lap, hoping a change of scenery would divert the bored little boy.

"Nobody won't talk to me. Vin won't play." JD listed his woes to his Pa, upset at being ignored.

"Maybe Vin's just tired."

"He got to ride," JD pointed out. The younger boy considered it unfair that Vin had been allowed to do fun things today and now refused to play.

"Well, you can help drive with Josiah and me" Buck suggested. "I'm sure Vin will play later."

Buck turned back to smile reassuringly at Vin after making his promise but found he was ignored. The quiet boy was sitting folded against the rear tailgate, knees draw to his chest, his head resting just staring dejectedly at the man across the wagon. Buck gave a weary sigh at the thought of the moodiness spreading.