Little Britches Universe
Buck tried to not to let JD see how badly he was hurt, the boy was scared enough as it was, but his head pounded and he was having trouble concentrating, and his eyes refused to stay focused. The vision of the small boy before him was little more then a fuzzy blob most of the time. The pain in his trapped ankle had become bearable, but the stabbing pain that accompanied each breath had got steadily worse.
Buck talked JD through the process of taking the end of the rope and wrapping it around a sturdy looking branch. Finally the boy returned, the rope end still held proudly in his battered little hand. With hands that were shaking slightly Buck tied of the rope off.
"JD, I need you to go back up to Beau," Buck instructed, he could see the boy didn't want to, he was filthy, wet and scared. As Buck continued to speak the little bottom lip began to quiver. "I know you're tired JD, but you have to take the rope back to Beau and do as I tell you. I need you to be brave a bit longer son, then I'll be free and I can take care of you."
That was music to JD's ears. He wanted nothing more then to have Buck look after him, keep him safe, and get them home safely to Vin and Chris. Wilmington told the bright boy to take the loop end of the rope back to his horse and settle it over the horse's shoulders. He made sure JD wasn't going to put the rope around the horses withers and not around his neck.
"Now you have to do this carefully, when you have the rope on him, you lead ol' Beau down the track that way." Buck pointed in the direction he wanted the rope pulled. When it's alright to stop I'm gonna fire my gun." Buck pulled - with some difficulty - his pistol from its holster, relieved to find it was undamaged and still clean. "Then you stop, but - and this is real important JD - don't let Beau move until I fire again." The last thing he wanted was the tree rolling back onto him once he was free. "Can you remember all that?"
JD frowned, the ever persistent rain, ran into his eyes, making him blink. "I think so," he finally admitted.
"After I fire the second time, you can lead Beau back to where you started and wait for me." Buck studied the boy, praying he understood and could remember the complicated instructions. "Tell me what you're gonna do."
It took JD even longer to get back up to the horse this time. For Buck waiting below it felt like it took hours, but finally the rope moved, slowly, agonisingly slowly the slack was taken up, then the rope went taut. Buck tightened his hand on the gun, ready to fire as soon as he was free. The rope shuddered and the tree rocked. The bearable pain in his ankle suddenly ignited in white-hot agony, and he screamed as the branch was scraped across it. In some part of his mind he was praying JD couldn't hear him. Suppressing any further screams, he forced himself to pull his ankle out, and once it was free and there was no chance the tree could roll back on him; he pulled the trigger again. After the gun's report there was a short time delay while the tree continued to move, then it stopped, rolled back some way then finally stopped altogether.
JD held on to the horse's reins, that was what Buck told him to do; when he heard the gun, stop the horse, and wait for the second shot. Once he heard the second shot he obediently led the horse back to his starting place and waited. That was what Buck told him to do, take the horse back and wait. Buck was going to come now, everything would be alright. So he waited. The rain still fell, he was getting cold, but he stayed there, holding on to the patient horse - waiting. It never occurred to him that Buck wouldn't come. He had total and complete faith in his adoptive father. Buck loved him, Buck protected him, taught him and he didn't lie. So even as it started to get dark, the boy just stood and waited.
Josiah took a deep breath and releasing the sturdy support of the cell bars he struck out across the room hoping he could stay upright long enough to reach the distressed boy. After three shaky strides he made it, grabbing the edge of the desk for support. Gratefully he sank down to the floor, resting his back against the heavy desk close to where Vin sheltered.
"Vin?" Josiah called, hoping his voice was loud enough to reach the boy over the storm's din, but was still soft and comforting. "Vin, son, look at me."
It took several more pleas before wide, distressed, blue eyes peeked out at him.
"Come on son, come to your Uncle Josiah and tell me all about it."
Vin debated with himself. What he really wanted was Chris to come and the terrifying noise to stop, but Chris wasn't there and Josiah was, he had always felt safe with the big former preacher. Finally he uncurled enough to crawl out from under the deck and into Josiah's lap.
Ignoring his pounding head and raising nausea, Sanchez wrapped his arms around the boy. "It's won't last long, it's be over soon, I promise," he assured.
Almost on cue, the sound on the metal roof began to lessen. Yet even as it did Josiah could still feel Vin trembling in his arms.
"Have you been in a storm like this before?" he asked.
Vin shook his head.
"I know it's loud, but we're safe in here."
"Sounds like guns," Vin whispered as he rested against the broad chest.
Josiah hadn't though about that, indeed the hailstones on the roof did sound like volley fire, but how would Vin know that, he wondered.
"Have you heard guns sound like that?"
Vin's grip on Sanchez's shirt go stronger. "When they killed Pappa."
Clearly he wasn't speaking about Larabee whom he normally called 'Chris' never 'pappa', besides Chris wasn't dead. Vin didn't speak of his real father and only rarely about his mother. What they knew came from JD; Vins father had been a lawman, and had been killed, probably doing his job.
"Can you tell me about it?" Vin shook his head. "Is it a secret?"
"Will you tell me what you do remember?"
Vin looked up into gentle, blue eyes; eyes of a man he trusted. "I's hiding, then it started, loud, lots of noise, like now. Don't 'member what happened but Mamma found me, she said Pappa 's dead and we had t' run away."
Josiah didn't press the scared boy for more information. He speculated that a whole gang had ambushed Vin's father. If Vin had been there and survived he was a witness, no wonder his mother went on the run. It was only one possible explanation, but he would pass on this little snippet from Vin's past to Larabee as soon as he could. The drumming on the roof lessened some more, and a quick glance out of the window confirmed that hail had turned to rain. Finally Vin began to relax.
"You should go t' bed Uncle 'Siah, Uncle Nathan said I had t' look after you," he announced.
Sanchez almost laughed at the sudden change in he boy's demeanour. With some difficulty he pushed himself to his feet and - having decided against the cot in the cell - rested in the chair behind the desk. Vin was struggling to pour out a mug of water from the big pitcher when the door flew open; Chris and Nathan came in supporting Ezra between them.
Buck was determined to make it back to his son and his horse alone. JD had done enough, the poor boy was so scared and tired, all he needed was his father to take care of him and take him home. However, reaching the track and thus the boy and the horse was proving more difficult than he had anticipated. The saturated loose face of the landslide gave no purchase, for every two paces forwards, he slipped back one. Dragging his injured ankle behind him didn't help either, he was forced to pull himself up the slope on one foot and his hands. Each breath was accompanied by stabs of pain in his chest, what was worse, breathing itself was getting harder to do; it was as if a vice was slowly tightening around his chest. At least the nausea that had threatened to over take him had receded, though not the headache that accompanied it. In an effort to get more purchase he grabbed a sturdy looking stick and used it as an anchor, plunging it into the wet soil and using it to pull himself up with, before pulling it free and repeating the process.
How long it all took he has no notion, time, indeed the whole world closed down on him, until there was nothing left except the small stretch of ground in front of him, the next mountain to be climbed. He refused to let himself look up to see how far he had to go. All he did was move, if he kept moving he'd get there - eventually - if he stopped he'd most likely never move again. The world around him got darker, he just prayed that was because it was getting late.
Heedless of the rain and the wet, JD sat hunched on the sodden ground, his battered hand clenched around the reins, peering over the edge of the track and down the rain washed slope, searching for some sign of Buck. The uneven ground, constant rain and fading light made it hard to see, but eventually he spotted a dark figure clawing his way up the slope.
"Buck!" he squealed springing to his feet. Now JD had a dilemma, he wanted to go and help Buck, but that would mean leaving Beau and disobeying Buck. Even as he stood there, the battle waging inside him, Buck edged closer. "Buck!" he called again.
The wonderful sound of the small boy calling his name gave Buck the extra energy he needed to make the last few yards. With one last effort he crested the ridge and collapsed on to the track, trying desperately to pull in the oxygen his body craved past his damaged ribs.
"Buck?" JD asked anxiously, crouching down beside his stricken father. "Please Buck?"
"Just just give me a second here Little Bit," Wilmington gasped out past the fatigue and the pain as he lay there in the mud.
A second turned into a minute than two. Don't go to sleep. Buck told himself, his body screamed at him to stop, rest, don't move. But that just wasn't an option.
Finally he looked over at his horse, looking as wet and bedraggled as the rest of them. Beau had never looked so high to him. Just one more effort, just get on the horse, get JD on and let ol' Beau take us home. With jaw set and blocking out every instinct that said 'don't move' he forced himself to sit up.
"Come here you," he called, holding his arms out to the desperate five year old.
JD practically flew into the offered embrace, Buck had to react faster then he thought he was capable of at that time to protect his damaged ribs from the impact.
"I wanna go home," JD sobbed.
"Me to," Buck confessed.
After a well deserved hug that both man and boy needed, Buck had JD lead Beau over to him and with one hand in the stirrup he managed to pull and lever himself up beside the horse. Once he had cut away the rope that still hung around the faithful creature's shoulders he tried to mount. It took only one tentative attempt to prove he couldn't bear any weight in his damaged ankle. Most likely broke, he speculated to himself, in a strange detached way. Theoretically he could mount from one foot, hopping his good foot up into the stirrup and swinging the bad one over the saddle - but theory was one thing, practice was another. He had JD stand the other side and pull down on the stirrup with all his might, then he tried the tricky manoeuvre. Once, twice, three times he missed, but on the fourth attempt, just as strength and will were fading he made it, almost kicking JD in the head as he swung his useless foot over the saddle.
JD instinctively lifted his arms to be hoisted into the saddle, but Buck just sat there, hunched over, a white-knuckle grip on the saddle horn, riding out the white-hot waves of pain that the manoeuvre had ignited. In silent desperation JD just stood, arms raised in longing, his faith undiminished. Finally Buck looked down at him.
"I can't lift ya boy, where did you stand to get the rope?" JD pointed to the boulder. "Well hop on up son, we need to heading home."
Elated, JD scrambled up the rock and stood patiently until Buck had the horse in position and could lift JD safely across. Settling the small boy in front of him, Buck pushed the big grey on along the trail, putting both their lives in his horse's ability to find home.
"Clear the desk!" Nathan shouted as he and Larabee manoeuvred Standish into the room. The gambler hung between them, conscious, but letting them take his weight, his face ashen. Vin scrambled to obey; sitting at the desk, still dazed and uncoordinated Josiah did his best to help. Once the surface was clear the two men helped Ezra to lie face down on the hard surface. Man and boy gasped as one as they got their first look at the huge shard of glass protruding from the gamblers back. As Nathan set to work, Chris quickly explained what had happened.
In a no time at all Josiah had positioned himself on the office chair at Ezra's head. Chris had cut away the blood soaked and ruined silk shirt and poured out a bowl of water. Nathan had laid out his instruments and washed his hands. Vin stood back, he wanted to help, but no one gave him a job to do and he was unsure if he was wanted, so he retreated back into the corner of the room. His Uncle Ezra looked so vulnerable lying there on the desk. As he watched Josiah bent his head and appeared to be speaking to Standish, one huge hand enveloped one of Ezra's much smaller hands.
"Ezra can you hear me?" Nathan asked.
"The glass is in my back, not my ear," Ezra ground out.
"Yeah, I'm sorry. Look I don't think it's in very far, you're breathing okay and not spitting up blood."
"Thank the Lord for small mercies," Ezra commented.
"Amen to that," Sanchez agreed.
"What I mean is I don't think it's in your lung - but "
"But " Ezra echoed.
"If I pull it out in one go you're gonna bleed like a stuck pig, so what I want to do is ease the glass out and clean and stitch behind it as I go. It'll take longer and I'm not gonna lie to ya "
"You couldn't lie to me if you tried Mr Jackson," Ezra commented.
"You'd be surprised. But on this occasion I'm giving it to you straight, it's gonna hurt."
"How marvellous, you amaze me. Do whatever you think is best sir, I trust you."
Nathan stood still a moment, temporarily stunned by the very rare admission from the wily gambler. Then he nodded and began to give Chris instructions; everyone had forgotten Vin, standing scared and lonely in the corner of the room. He had been so desperate for Chris to come back, but now that he was there he hardly even noticed Vin. Vin felt guilty that he wanted Chris' attention when Ezra needed him so badly. To begin with the delicate procedure went well, Chris eased the glass up a little, Nathan washed the area and stitched it. Ezra tried not to move, but it was all too clear how much it hurt. Josiah had lowered his head and was speaking to Standish, what he was saying was between the two of them, but it did seem to be helping him to keep still. The second group of stitches went in with no problem. The third group proved to be a problem. The space between the glass and Ezra's torn back was just too narrow for Nathan's big hands, he just couldn't manipulate the needle. Chris offered to have a go, but his hands weren't that much smaller.
"I could do it." The voice was very quiet, the men almost didn't hear it.
Josiah looked up at the boy, he had moved forward a little. "You sure?"
Vin nodded, taking another step forward.
"I don't know," Nathan worried.
"He's been learning to use a needle from Nettie," Chris supplied. The boys honorary grandmother insisted that every man should know how to sew on a button, sew on a patch, repair a seam and darn a sock. She has started by getting Vin to help her darn her horse blankets.
"Whatever you do gentlemen, would you hurry," Ezra reminded them.
Nathan turned to look at Vin. "You'll have to do exactly as I tell you." Vin nodded his head vigorously. "It will hurt your Uncle Ezra, but you have to carry on, even if he asks you to stop."
Vin looked past Jackson to Ezra.
"I have faith in you, my young friend," the injured man assured.
"I can do it. I wanna help," Vin confirmed.
Nathan helped Vin wash his hands and got the needle ready. Then he showed the apprehensive boy what he had done already.
"Now you have to forget that this Ezra, it's just a piece of material that you need to repair," Nathan coached. "Ready?"
Following Nathan's instructions to the letter Vin pushed the needle through and once Nathan had cut the thread, his slim nimble fingers made short work of tying off the knot. His face a mask of furrowed brow concentration, tongue protruding from his mouth, Vin put in the last five stitches. Then as Nathan cleaned up the wound and bandaged it, Chris cleaned and bandaged the small cuts on the back of Vin's hand where it had rubbed on the shard of glass. Once Ezra was settled in one of the cells - after Nathan had refused to move him across the street to his own bed - he called Vin over to him.
"How can I thank you, Master Tanner?"
Vin blushed and cast his eyes down. "'S okay Uncle Ezra, I wanted to help you, weren't hard."
"Nevertheless, I insist on paying my debts, once I am vertical and mobile, and the weather is more cement, you and I will take a trip to Mrs Potters emporium."
"Huh?" Vin frowned and looked around for an explanation.
Larabee came to his side, kneeling beside his son, and placing an arm across his narrow shoulders. "He said that when he is better, and it stops raining, he'll take you to Potters store and buy you a treat."
Vin pulled his eyes from Chris and back to Ezra. "Really?"
"Now I think we need to let Ezra rest, how about you tell me what you've been doing?" With that he lifted Vin up, and instantly the boy wrapped his arms and legs around the lean gunman and laid his head on Chris' shoulder.
A sigh escaped the boy. "Not much, when can we go home?"
"Soon I reckon, looks like the rain is letting up."
"Are Buck and JD alright?" Vin wanted to know.
"Sure they are, they'll be at home, nice and dry, don't you worry."
"Buck dont like thunder."
Chris frowned, wondering how Vin knew that, Buck did his best to hide his fear, he had once admitted to Chris he knew it was irrational, but he couldn't help it.
"JD 'll be there, he'll be brave for JD."
"I don't like hail," Vin admitted.
Suddenly it dawned on Chris that he had left Vin alone during what must have been a terrifying expedience. He hugged the boy closer as his own guilt washed over him.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here."
"You had to work, Uncle 'Siah was here."
It almost sounded like the old Vin, simply accepting that life wasn't fair, that bad things happened to him and that it was all his fault somehow. But there was a difference now, this was Vin placing his very limited trust in someone other than Chris, Buck or JD. This was Vin realising that just because Chris wasn't there it didn't mean he didn't love Vin or care about him, he had accepted that Chris had other responsibilities, and these weren't more important than Vin, just different.
The rain let up and finally stopped just after dusk. Nathan kept both Josiah and Ezra in the jail until the morning, then, satisfied he has recovered from the concussion and that none of the numerous injuries he had received from the flying wood were likely to bleed again or showing signs of infection, he let the former preacher go home. Ezra, Nathan insisted, had to be moved to the clinic, he wanted him where he could watch him for at least another day. Needless to say Standish insisted he was 'fine', which produced an unexpected tirade from the normally placid healer.
"You are not 'fine'!" Nathan ranted. "You idiot! How can you be fine after having half window removed from your back? Well? I'm waiting ?"
"Mr Jackson, I merely "
"Don't use all them fancy words to cover up your stupidity. I don't mind fixing you up, you did a brave thing, not your fault you got hurt. But I'll be damned if I'm gonna let you make my life more difficult just 'cause you're so stubborn and mule headed."
"I didn't mean "
"You never do mean it, thats the trouble. And what about Vin?"
"What of young Mr Tanner?"
"Do you know how scary that was for him, he's only eight for God's sake. Don't make him think he did all that for nothing."
Ezra lay there his mouth open, trying to form a riposte to this argument, but he couldnt, so in the end he let Nathan and Chris put him on a board and carried him over to the clinic. The street was still inches deep in mud and a small stream still ran down the centre, but the raging torrent of the day before had vanished as fast as it arrived. With a good meal inside them and Ezra safely in the clinic, Chris and Vin mounted up and headed for home, neither of them had ever felt so relieved to be leaving the town.
As they rode, they passed evidence of the storm's intensity. Broken branches were everywhere, small landslides, vegetation and crops beaten flat by hail and rain. Mud from streams and creeks that had burst their banks covering fields and trails. Roofs caved in, outbuildings swept away.
Vin looked at one battered homestead as they rode by. "Will the house be alright?" he asked tentatively. The small ranch house was his refuge, his safe place, he couldn't bear the thought of something happening to it, that in some way it had failed to protect its small family.
"It'll be fine, me and Buck built that cabin to last, don't you worry," Chris assured confidently. Lord if you can hear me, it better be alright or I'm gonna have to reconsider my allegiances here.
Because of the mud and swollen creek, it took longer than normal to get home, but as the small ranch came in sight they were both relieved to see that, although a little battered, things looked to be mostly alright. There was no sign of Buck or JD. Vin and Chris had been expecting a welcoming committee, but there was no one. Heading to the barn, man and boy dismounted and led their horses inside. Only when the big barn doors were open did they see why no one had greeted them. Beau stood in the middle of the barn, still fully tacked up, munching hay. Near him, on the ground, was a huddled dark mass.
Dropping Pony's rein Chris ran forward to the two figures on the damp barn floor. Buck and JD lay together, Buck on his side with JD curled up in the curve of his body, a large horse blanket covering both of them. This confused Chris, why were they sleeping out in the barn? If Buck could get a blanket to cover them with - why not go into the house? Man and boy were both filthy but clearly still very much alive, the loud raspy breathing coming from both of them attested to that.
"Are they ?" Vin asked from the doorway, were he stood apprehensively, still clutching Peso's reins.
Damn! Chris cursed his thoughtlessness, he had been checking the pair but hadn't reassured Vin they were alive.
"They're both still alive." Chris assured. "Put Peso away and come here."
As Vin came to him Chris stood up holding the limp and apparently lifeless JD in his arms.
They placed JD on the boys bed, and telling Vin to stay with his cousin, Chris ran back to Buck. Filled with a new confidence and remembering how his Uncle Nathan had tended to Josiah and Ezra, Vin began to take off JD's mud-caked clothes, speaking to the five-year-old all the time.
"What's the matter JD? Why don't you wake up now? It's morning you know - bet the chickens missed you. Please JD?" But there was no response.
Vin had time to strip JD of all his clothing and pull the blankets up over the small boy before Chris banged on the door with his foot. Vin pulled the door open to allow Larabee to come in with Buck. The taller man was upright and apparently half awake, Chris had one arm around his lean waist, holding on to the injured man's belt on the far side and holding on to his friends hand as it hung over his far shoulder. Buck was holding one foot of the ground; he looked pail and drawn.
"'M okay Junior, you just take care of Little Bit for me," Buck assured with a weak smile.
"I will, Buck, I promise."
"I know you will Vin, I trust you."
Vin spent the next few minutes keeping watch over JD and running to and fro helping Chris. Then Chris came over to look at JD himself.
"Vin I need to go and get Nathan, I don't want to do it, but I'm gonna have to leave you here to look after them. Buck's got a broken ankle - least I think it's broke, he's asleep again." In fact Wilmington had passed out, probably as a result of the head injury Chris had found, but he thought that saying Buck was asleep would be less scary for the eight-year-old.
"I can go for Nathan," Vin offered. The boy could see Chris didn't like the idea, but he pressed on. "I'm too little to help Buck, please, Peso is fast and I know the way, I can do it, please let me try."
It was true, if Buck became delirious and tried to get up or started to choke, there was little young Vin would be able to do about it. Vin had already proved how responsible he was, his actions in the sheriff's office had attested to that. It went against his better judgement, but Chris gave a nod. With that small affirmative gesture, Vin was heading to the door.
"I'll be quick, don't worry," he called as he ran out, and headed for the barn.
Don't worry? Oh son if only it were that easy.
"Uncle Nathan!" Vin shouted as he ran up the clinic steps two at a time. "Come quick!"
The dark head appeared at the door, worry all over the gentle face. As fast as he could Vin explained what they had found at the ranch.
"Chris?" Nathan called as he ran into the house.
Larabee's came into the main room, relived to see the healer but concerned he couldn't see Vin.
"Is he in the barn?" he asked.
"He rode to the Well's place to get Nettie, it was his idea, I had to arrange for Mary and Inez to keep an eye on my other patients - especially Ezra. Where's Buck? In his room?" Nathan moved forward, only to be stopped by Chris.
"You let him go to Nettie's?"
"Chris, from what he said we could use her, he's a smart, responsible kid, it made sense for him to go." With that he pushed past Larabee headed toward the casualty.
Unable to do anything about the situation, Chris tried to put his worry about Vin to the back of his mind and concentrate on helping Nathan. JD, Nathan believed, was just exhausted and suffering from a heavy cold, he didn't have a fever and his lungs sounded clear. As Larabee has suspected Buck's ankle was broken. His boot had to be cut off, revealing ugly bruising and swelling, but thankfully no misalignment so it didn't need to be reset, only splinted. There were cuts and grazes all up the damaged leg, running in all different directions. He had at least three broken ribs, more were probably cracked. The head injury had bled freely, and the open wound was caked in dry blood and the mud that seemed to cling to the skin with limpet-like tenacity. In addition to all these injuries, there were cuts, grazes and bruises everywhere. The damaged ribs had caused congestion to accumulate in Wilmington's lungs, so Nathan insisted he be propped up on a stack of pillows and rolled blankets. Despite all that was done to him Buck did little more than moan and groan - once or twice his eyes flickered open, but he couldn't seem to keep them that way.
They were just about to bath the inert JD when Vin arrived with Nettie, who instantly took over the task. There was considerable activity in the little house, what with baths to be got ready, food to be prepared, patients to be seen to, so mush activity that non of the adults noticed that someone was missing.
Nettie was just about to put food - ham and eggs - on the table when she noticed her 'grandson' wasn't there. Normally as soon as food appeared so did Vin.
"Where's the boy?" she asked.
The two men looked around, but Vin wasn't there. "Best check the barn," Nettie suggested.
Chris went running outside and there, in the poor light of the barn, he found Vin. He was staggering under the weight of Buck's saddle.
"What are you doing out here son?"
"You didn't need me, so I came to see to the horses." Chris looked around, all their horses were unsaddled and safely in their stalls. "I've watered all of them I just need to put this away and give them hay, I'm nearly done."
Chris sighed inwardly. "Here, I'll take that." He lifted the heavy saddle from the boys trembling arms. "How about I help you, Nettie's got lunch ready - you hungry?"
"Yup!" Vin beamed at the thought of Nettie's cooking.
Larabee watched the slight boy as he headed off to finish his self-appointed task. Chris put the saddle down and sat down on a nearby bench. "Vin come here."
Vin had been heading for the loft to get hay for the horses, but now he turned back to his father. Once he was standing in front of Chris, the lean man placed his arms around the boy. "Have I told you how proud I am of you?" Vin just stated at him. "You helped look after Josiah, then Ezra, what you did to help Ezra was very, very brave." He lifted Vin's bandaged hand. "It's not something everyone could do, lots of adults couldnt do that." The hint of a smile appeared on Vin's face. "When we got here and found Buck and JD, you didn't panic, you did what was needed, rode for help. Nathan said it was your idea to get Nettie?" Vin nodded. "That was a real smart idea, you were right, we needed her." Vin's smile grew. "I am so proud of you Vincent Tanner." He pulled Vin closer for a real hug. "Love you."
Vin's smile became a huge grin as he returned the hug, holding on to Larabee with all his strength. "Love you too."
Finally father and son pulled back, both self consciously back-handing tears away.
"Will Buck and JD really be alright?" Vin asked.
"Nathan says yes, but it'll take time, especially for Buck, we need to look after them carefully and they are gonna have to stay in bed for a few days."
Vin frowned. "They won't like that," he commented knowingly.
"Oh I know, so I'm gonna be counting on you for help."
"I can do it."
"I know you can."
"I think the horses can wait until after lunch for their hay. You ready for some of Nettie's cooking?"
Vin nodded enthusiastically, taking his father's hand and started to pull him toward the house.
Nettie had to go home to see to her own stock. Nathan, happy that his patients were sleeping peacefully, left explicit instructions and then he too returned home, promising to return in the morning. Chris finished feeding the horses, leaving Vin in the house watching the two sleepers.
"JD!" the panicked cry came from Buck's room.
Vin leapt to his feet and ran into the room. "Buck!" he called.
"JD, I gotta find JD, he's all alone." Buck was attempting to get out of bed.
Vin flew to his side, pushing back on his shoulders. "No Buck, no!" he pleaded. "JD's okay, he's asleep in bed." Buck continued to struggle. "Listen, JD's okay."
After a moment the big man stilled a little. "Vin?"
"Yeah it's me, you're at home, everyone 's alright. Uncle Nate said you gotta stay in bed."
Buck stared at the boy, his tired brain having trouble processing what he was hearing. "I need to find JD," he repeated.
"I'll get Chris, you stay there 'till he comes. Promise?"
Slightly confused, somewhat desperate dark blue eyes fixed on the slight boy. Finally he nodded. Running as fast as he could Vin flew outside. Chris was doing some emergency repairs - the storm hadn't left the ranch entirely undamaged - before dark. Even before Vin reached him he could see the boy's urgency and came running.
Once Chris reached the bedroom Buck repeated his need to find JD. It was clear that he wasn't fully aware of his location. Seeing no other alternative, Chris lifted the still sleeping JD and carried him into Buck, laying him gently next to his father. Buck ran a hand over the boy, checking he really was there, all in one piece. He stroked JD's hair and examined the battered fingers, each one wrapped in a neat white bandage - all except the left thumb, which was firmly in the boy's mouth.
"See Buck, he's here, he's fine. Nathan checked him over, he just needs to sleep," Chris reassured his old friend. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Buck didn't look up, he just continued to stroke JD's hair, gazing at the slumbering boy beside him in the bed. "Landslide, it swept us away, I was trapped, he he saved me, he's only a little guy but he saved me." Wilmington relaxed back on to the pillows, eyes already closing.
Chris left them, he had no intention of separating the two of them just yet, it was clear they needed each other.
"Had-oh," JD greeted Buck, as he woke the next morning, his voice thick with cold.
"Well hello sleepy head." Buck reached out and ruffled his hair.
JD rolled onto his stomach and then knelt up beside Wilmington, examining him and their surroundings.
"Are'd you all wite?" he asked.
"I'm gonna be fine Little Bit, sounds like you've got yourself a cold there."
JD nodded, sniffing dramatically to emphasise the point. "Are dee home?"
"You sure are," announced Chris coming in with a tray loaded with Buck's breakfast. Vin followed him, grinning wildly at his cousin.
"Chris, Vin!" JD cried out in joy. Then he spotted the food. "I'm hungry," he announced.
Chris smiled, if JD was hungry there wasn't much wrong with him. "Well why don't we leave Buck in peace and you come and have some breakfast at the table?"
JD frowned, looking from Buck to Chris and back, then he shook his head and crawled closer to Wilmington.
"You know, I don't reckon I can eat all this, how about you help me out here Little Bit?" Buck offered.
JD looked up, a shy smile on his face once more. Buck winked at Chris. Larabee could see Buck was in pain, and in need of rest and some peace, but while JD needed him, he wouldn't give in to his injuries. As JD tucked in enthusiastically to the oatmeal and biscuits with honey, and Buck sipped at his coffee, JD told the tale of the landslide. With his usual enthusiasm he made is sound like an adventure. Vin listened with rapt attention. Chris cast a few glances of incredulity at Buck, but Wilmington confirmed that JD was telling the truth.
" And ten Beau brought us tome an' the barn door was open an' he wen' inside an' stopped an' I told you " He looked at Wilmington. " that we was tome but you was asleep an' ten you felled off and I gotted off an' you wouldn't wake up so I put the blanket on you."
"Come here you." Buck lifted his hand as far as his damaged ribs would allow, and instantly the five-year-old clambered into the embrace. "You're my hero Little Bit, did you know that?"
A week later, Ezra, still stiff and walking with an unnaturally straight back, met the Larabee/Wilmington family in town as they arrived on a wagon, Buck propped up in the back with two happy boys either side of him. Buck told the others what JD had done. Ezra declared both boys to be heroes. He escorted them to the store, where each boy received a new storybook, a whole long stick of hard candy and a new toy; Vin got a real baseball and JD a red train made from tinplate. But much as they appreciated their gifts and basked in the admiration of Ezra and the others, it was the love and pride of their fathers that meant the most to them.
As they headed home, Vin rode beside Chris and JD rode in the back with Buck, he was showing Buck his train. "It's a real fine train JD, you take care of it."
"I'm gonna put it on the shelf, with Mamma's bible," JD explained very seriously.
"Mmm." JD was running the train along the edge of the wagon.
"Love you little guy."
JD turned around and stared at the man beside him, then he wrapped his little arms around Wilmington's neck and planted a very wet kiss in his cheek.
"Love you too."
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