"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Disclaimer: I have only seen one and a half episodes of "The Magnificent Seven" so I don't really know who they belong to. It know it isn't me, or anyone else who writes these fanfics apparently. I've been hooked on these stories since I discovered them in December of last year, and I must say I am amazed at the quality of the writing on this website. I have never done anything like this before, and I hope my writing can measure up. I haven't had this much fun in a long time! (I have no idea what that says about the quality of my life in general.)
Vin knew he wasn't supposed to answer the phone. Chris and Buck had been very clear about this, right from the first day he and J.D. came to live with them. The phone was for grown- ups. Sometimes people called Chris to tell him important things about work. Sometimes girls called Buck. He and J.D. were allowed to talk on the phone, to Uncle Ezra or Uncle Josiah, if Chris or Buck did the dialing. But under no circumstances were they supposed to answer the phone.
It was ringing now, and had been for five minutes. At least it seemed like five minutes to Vin, as he stood before it, not daring to touch it. He had just come into the house from the barn where he and J.D. were helping Buck with the horses. J.D. wanted to play 'Toy Story' until it was time to leave, and Vin said he would go and get Buzz and Woody from the toy box in their room. He was on his way back outside when he heard the phone. Where was Chris? He had heard him in the kitchen just a minute ago. Why wasn't he answering? It was Uncle Nathan - Vin recognized the number flashing on the display window. Maybe just this once, he could pick up the receiver and tell his uncle that he would go and find Chris for him. He knew Chris wasn't far away, and Nathan was surely tired of waiting and waiting and not getting an answer. That would probably be O.K. He'd explain to Chris later that he was just trying to help. Chris would understand.
He reached a wavering hand toward the receiver, took a deep breath, and picked it up. Just as he did, he heard a loud crash coming from the front of the house and Chris gasping through the line.
"Hello?" Chris sounded like he had just run a race.
"Hey, Chris, it's Nathan. Where'd I get you from?"
"It's O.K. I was just putting some things on the line."
There was another crash and what sounded to Vin like clothes pins skittering across the floor.
Vin tried hard not to giggle when he heard Chris swear. He knew he shouldn't have touched the phone, let alone be listening in on Chris's conversation. He didn't want his foster father to know he was there, so he was going to have to be quiet and try to hang up without making any noise.
He was going to hang up, he really was, but the mention of his name kept the receiver frozen to his ear.
There was a brief silence and Chris gave a long sigh.
"Where should I start?"
No, there was no way Vin could hang up now.
"I went to see his teacher yesterday - I told you that's why I had to leave early, right? Well, she tells me he still isn't settling in the way he should. Things have calmed down on the playground a bit since the fight last week. I think I put the fear of God in him about fighting at school, but she says he still won't do anything for her in class. He's not causing trouble, he just won't do anything. He sits there and stares out the window. And yesterday, at lunch, she caught him going through the garbage again."
"What happened to his lunch?"
"He told her he ate it and he was still hungry."
There was another silence.
"Was he sick this morning?"
"Nope. He's fine. Buck says he's just playing me - says he makes himself throw up every day before school hoping I'll feel sorry for him and won't make him go. Buck says it's an attention thing."
"I don't know, Chris, there might be something to that."
"All I know, Nathan, is that it's wearing me out. I haven't had a decent night's sleep in the three months since they got here. First it was the nightmares - havin' him wake up every night screaming his head off and takin' two or three hours to get him back to sleep. And we're just beginin' to get past that, and he starts gettin' sick. How come J.D. gets the flu and is down for a couple of days, and Vin gets it and is sick for two weeks? And then J.D. catches a cold and sneezes for a day or two, and Vin comes down with it and ends up with pneumonia? And now this business with school. Nothing's going to be easy with this kid, is it? J.D.'s fit right in - he's made friends and his teacher says he's smart as a whip - catches on to everything right off - she has to work to keep up with him. I've had Vin to the doctor and he's still sees the psychologist twice a week, but they haven't been a whole lot of help. And God, I've missed so much work! Everyone's been good about it, but I can't say as I'd blame Orrin if he called me on the carpet tomorrow and gave me the sack."
Vin reached a small finger toward the disconnect button and slowly pressed it. He gently returned the receiver to its cradle and stood once again staring at the phone. So this was what Chris really thought of him. He felt the tears welling and blinked them back.
None of these things were his fault. He didn't want to fight with those Grade Four boys. They came up to him before school that day and wanted to see what he had for lunch. There was no way he was just going to hand his lunch over to them. He had lived on the street. He knew better. So when he had simply stood and glared at them, they pushed him. And he pushed back. Then someone hit him, and he hit back. And the next thing he knew the teacher was there and he was sitting in the principal's office. And he was in trouble. Then he went home, and the teacher called and Chris bawled him out and that was that. No more lunch.
They came and took it from him every day now. Said they knew the little guy with the dark hair in Mrs. Miller's class was his 'brother' and if he didn't hand it over, they'd beat up J.D. Wanted to know why, if he was seven and J.D. was five, they were in the same grade. Figured Vin must be some kind of dummy, and decided that would be a good name for him. The Dummy.
Vin was in Mrs. Taylor's class and only got to see J.D. on the playground. J.D. was always busy and didn't have much time to spend with Vin at recess, but that was O.K. He could sit by the fence and watch his 'brother' and make sure that nothing bad happened to him. It made Vin happy to see J.D. happy, and the fence was a pretty good spot. Nobody except the Grade Four boys paid any attention to him anyway. That was why he didn't think anyone would notice if he looked through the garbage can. He knew he wasn't supposed to do it, and that Chris would be mad if he found out, but he was so hungry by the time twelve o'clock came. Sometimes he went through the can at recess and smuggled whatever he could find into his desk to eat at lunch. If he was still hungry, he'd go through it again when they went out to play at noon. Things were going fairly well until Mrs. Taylor caught him and called Chris and Chris bawled him out. Again.
He couldn't understand why he had to go to school anyway. Mrs. Taylor was nice to him until it was time to open their books to print or read. She always got 'aggravated' with him. That was an Uncle Ezra word. She said it to him one day and he asked Uncle Ezra what it meant. He said it meant annoyin', like when you tried on purpose to make someone mad at you. Vin didn't mean to be aggravatin'. He tried to print right, but he could never remember which way the letters pointed. And when it came time to read - he was sure there was something wrong with his book. The words in the other kids' books were obviously fine - they could read them, no problem. Mrs. Taylor must have given him a book where the letters were all messed up. They had to be. They made no sense to him at all, and looking at them made his head hurt.
And far as being sick - well, Buck might think he was faking, but he wasn't. The thought of school right now was making his tummy ache, and the bacon and eggs he had for breakfast were starting to roll around and around and soon they'd be wanting out of there. Sure enough, as soon as he thought about school, he had to run to the bathroom just in time for them to come flying out of his mouth and into the toilet. He flushed it and cleaned himself up, glad that J.D. was out in the barn with Buck and there was no one around to hear. He slipped through the living room and out the front door, the toys clutched in his grubby hands. Chris was still on the phone with Nathan.
All he wanted was to be with Chris. He liked Chris a lot and he felt safe around him. Chris certainly never said he loved him, which was all right, because the only person who had ever said they loved him was his Mama, and then she had gone and died on him. Vin wasn't sure what the word meant anyway. Buck told J.D. he loved him, and he hugged him and kissed him all the time. Vin didn't think he would like the hugging and kissing part, but he asked Chris one day what that meant, when somebody said they loved you. Chris had gone all quiet and said it's like when you are with someone, there's nowhere else you want to be. And when you're away from that person, you can't wait to be with them again. And when you think about them, your heart gets all big in your chest and you feel real happy. And if the person you loved was sad, then you were sad, and if they were hurt, then you hurt, and that you would do anything for them and they were the most important thing in your life. And that love lasted forever.
"How long is forever?"
"Well, it goes on and on and never ends. Just like outer space."
"So it's like when Buzz Lightyear says 'To confinity and beyond.' That's forever?"
"Yeah, that would about cover it."
"Did ya love Adam 'to confinity and beyond?"
"Yeah, I sure did."
Then Chris had gotten all still again and Vin crept out of the room. He didn't think Chris even noticed he wasn't there any more.
Vin didn't expect Chris to love him. He could certainly understand why he wouldn't. He trudged back to the barn, head down. Chris was sorry he let him come to live with him. It made Vin sad, but he was not surprised. He knew he didn't belong with Chris. He didn't belong here, didn't belong at school, he didn't belong anywhere. He was stupid. He was too much trouble. He knew this had been too good to last.
Chris ran a tired hand across his face.
"I'm sorry, Nate. Guess things are catching up with me right about now. I am worried about Vin, though. He's so thin and pale. He doesn't talk. Do you think he's happy here? Is there something else I should be doing? It scares me how much that kid has gotten to me. I just want to do right by him."
"You're doing fine, Chris. I'm sure it gets a bit overwhelming at times, but ya just gotta hang in there. Look how far he's come in the time he's been with you. It's normal to feel discouraged, but don't let it get you down. You're doing great."
"Yeah, thanks Nathan. He's something else, isn't he? He's so, so - old for his age. I think he's got more to teach me about life and living than I have to teach him. For the first time since I lost Adam and Sarah, I feel like I got a reason to get up in the morning. I'm so lucky to have him."
"We all are. He's an awesome kid."
Chris heard a voice in the background on Nathan's end of the line.
"Yeah, Babe, be right there," Nathan called. "Gotta go, Chris. Rain and I are off to the grocery store. The joys of domestic bliss. What have you guys got on today?"
"Buck and I are taking the boys to Wild West World for the day. They're so excited they could hardly sleep. Buck's got them so wound up they're not gonna need to get on the rides to be airborne. We'll talk to you later. Thanks for calling."
Chris hung up the phone and walked out onto the side deck, looking down across the yard toward the barn.
"Hey, guys! Ready to go?" He smiled as the 'big boy' came loping up the drive with his little dark haired charge hot on his heels. Behind them trailed his miniature Texan, curly blond head hanging, feet dragging in the dirt.
"We're burnin' daylight. Let's get this show on the road."
He smiled and ruffled Vin's hair as he came up the steps. All he got in return was a wan smile that didn't reach those haunting blue eyes and a small shy hand reaching for his.
Buck and Chris had lost them. Vin should have known something like this would happen. Chris didn't want him any more and he brought them to Wild West World to let them loose on their own again. He wasn't sure why Buck wanted to get rid of J.D. No, he definitely hadn't seen that one coming, but there was no doubt about it. Chris wanted him gone, and he supposed that J.D. was just collateral damage.
He wasn't sure why Chris had bothered to point out the First Aid building with the big red cross and told them to go there if they got separated. Maybe he wanted him to leave J.D. there. J.D. was crying, and it made it hard for him to figure out what he should do. It was hot, and he was thirsty, and getting hungry, too. Uncle Ezra had given him and J.D. each two dollars to buy themselves a treat. J.D. had spent his on ice cream and a paddle ball as soon as they arrived, but Vin still had his money tucked away in his pocket. He could buy J.D. a hot dog and they could get a drink at the fountain. The garbage cans would be full today, and he'd have no problem finding something for himself later.
He bought J.D. his lunch and they headed away from the crush of people that filled the main walkways. Vin found a quiet spot on the path to one of the less popular rides. The garbage can there was full to overflowing, and Vin found himself a hamburger that only had one bite out of it. The bun was soggy, and the meat smelled funny, but he found a squeeze pack of mustard and put that on, so it didn't taste too bad. He and J.D. sat on the low stone wall to have their picnic and when they were finished they threw the crusts at the birds. J.D. was happier, now that he'd eaten, and was content to play with his new toy and chase the pigeons while Vin sat and tried to think what to do next. His head was starting to hurt. He missed Chris already, and they had only been apart a few hours. Thinking about Chris was making him feel sad, and a little sick. He slipped down to sit on the walk and leaned his head back against the wall. Why was he the one who always had to figure things out? J.D. could run around and play and do whatever he wanted. Vin wished he could be the one who could just play and not have to worry about things. Well, not right now. He didn't feel much like playing at the moment. His tummy was starting to hurt, like it often did when he was worried. He shifted slightly on the ground, thinking it might relieve his discomfort, but the pain was still there. And getting worse. Suddenly, he gasped.
"J.D., quick, I gotta go to the bathroom."
He pulled himself to his feet, only to find that he couldn't straighten up. Another cramp tore through him and he stumbled along the path. J.D. ran up beside him.
"You gotta go to the bafroom, Vin?"
Vin didn't have the breath to answer. He just kept going, clutching his stomach. He finally made it to the brick washroom at the top of the track. He ran into the stall and got his pants down just in time.
"J.D.? Don't go anywhere. I'll be out in a minute."
"O.K. Vin. I'm gonna wash my hands."
Vin was a lot longer than a minute. He could hear J.D. singing as he pumped the soap and ran the water and held his hands under the air dryer. When Vin didn't come out, he did it all again, over and over while Vin was doubled up on the toilet as the pain clawed through him.
"Vin? Are ya comin' out now? I wanna go find Buck."
"Yeah, hold on. I's finished."
Vin emerged finally and washed his hands and splashed some of the cool water on his face. His tummy still hurt, but it seemed a little better and he couldn't leave J.D. on his own much longer. He took a deep breath and went back out into the stifling heat.
"J.D., let's go back down where we was b'fore, jist so's I can sit fer a minit and d'cide what ta do."
He took his 'brother' by the hand, and holding the other over his tender little stomach, they went back the way they had come. A woman and a girl were sitting on a bench in the shade close to the spot where they had eaten lunch, so Vin followed the curve of the wall just far enough beyond them so they wouldn't be seen.
"When are we gonna go find Buck and Chris?" J.D. pouted.
"We ain't gonna go find them."
J.D.'s eyes got big and his lower lip began to quiver.
"Don't cry. I'll take ya to the place with the red cross on it and Buck will come git ya. I ain't goin' back with ya though." Vin had to stop for a minute and grit his teeth against the pain.
"How come? Where ya gonna go? Chris is prob'ly missin' ya a whole lot."
"Nah, he ain't. I heared him talkin' ta Nathan. He don't want me no more. He says I gits in too many fights. He's mad cuz I eated stuff from the garbage at school. I cain't do nuthin' in school - cain't read, cain't spell - I's too stupid fer someone like Chris. He hates me cuz I gits sick too much and he's gonna git fired from his job cuz 'a me."
Vin stopped and gave a low moan as the pain increased.
"And I think I's gonna git sick agin real soon."
Vin swallowed hard as he felt the vomit rise in his throat, trying to hold it back, but it was no use. Before he could even lean to the side, he threw up all over himself. J.D. jumped back as another mess shot from Vin's mouth and landed in the middle of the sidewalk.
"Wow, Vin, do that again." J.D. was impressed.
Vin, albeit unwillingly, obliged with another torrent that surpassed the first in both volume and distance. He had one hand on the wall, trying to stay upright, but the spasms made his back ache and he dropped to the ground on his knees, one hand on the gravel before him, the other tight against his abdomen. His eyes were watering from the effort and tears streaked down his face. He was vomiting so violently he couldn't catch his breath, and his stomach! He had never had anything hurt so much. Not even when he was shot - that was nothing compared to the agony he was in right now. When was it going to stop? Maybe this was what dying felt like. He probably deserved to die. Right now he almost wished he would.
"Please don't ever make me come here again."
Lorraine Jefferson dropped onto the bench with a tired sigh. She pushed her sunglasses back up on her nose and rummaged in her backpack for a bottle of water.
"C'mon Mom, admit it, you're having a good time."
Lorraine lifted her glasses and glared at her ten-year-old daughter, Kate, who was balancing carefully on the stone wall that ran along the path.
"Do I look like I'm having a good time? This place is hell on earth. It's hot, it's crowded, it's expensive, it's impossible to leave. I was sure we were headed toward the exit. Did I give you the map? Look in your pack and see. Please?"
Kate jumped down from her perch and unzipped her bag. Lorraine leaned back, stretched her legs out in front of her and uncapped her drink.
"Why don't we just stay here for the rest of the afternoon. It's so peaceful."
The words were no sooner out of her mouth than she saw they had company. Two little boys were coming, hand in hand, down the trail toward them. Lorraine smiled and nudged Kate as the pair passed.
"Isn't that cute," she whispered.
The chubby dark haired boy was chattering away a mile a minute, scuffing up clouds of dust as he went. The older boy regarded her seriously as they went by. His face was white and haggard, but he had the most striking blue eyes she had ever seen. They were too young to be wandering around a place such as this on their own. Lorraine looked up the path behind them, then craned her head as they disappeared around a curve in the lane. They must have come to rest just out of sight, because she could still hear the voices, one soft and solemn, the other young and high. It was impossible not to overhear the heartbreaking conversation.
Kate had been listening too, and she looked up at her mother when the talking ceased and the retching started. She ran ahead and Lorraine followed, both rounding the corner to see the blonde crumple to his knees.
The younger boy looked up at their approach.
"I don't think Vin's feeling so good. He's barfing."
"Don't..." It was a warning.
"Sowwy, Vin." He turned his big dark eyes to Lorraine. "We're not s'pposed to talk to strangers."
"It's O.K. We're not strangers. I'm Kate, and this is my Mom. We're nice. You can talk to us. What's your name?"
Thank goodness for Kate.
"I'm J.D. We're lost..."
"J.D...." Vin was panting now and lying on his side in the dirt. "We's O.K. I's feelin' a lot better now. Ya don't need...." Vin tried to hold back a whimper as he curled around his stomach, and the vomiting started again.
"Oh, honey..." Lorraine bent down and pulled the trembling form up so her arm was across his chest. She brushed the damp hair away from the cold forehead as the little body heaved. Vin finally calmed and Lorraine thought he was finished when she felt him tense again. This time she felt the rumbling in the taut belly and Vin's hitching sobs.
"I's sorry, sorry..."
"It's O.K. darlin', it's O.K.." Lorraine rubbed the narrow back, alarmed that she could feel the ridge of bones so sharp beneath the shirt. "We'll take you up to the bathroom and get you cleaned up. Kate, get me your beach towel. Can you and J.D. carry the packs for me? We'll have things straightened up in no time."
She wrapped the shivering boy in the towel and gathered him into her arms. He sighed and laid his head on her shoulder as she carried him up to the washroom.
"Kate, just bring the packs in here. Perhaps J.D. would like to have a drink of juice. Why don't the two of you wait for Vin and me outside?"
Lorraine sat Vin on the edge of the sink and held him while Kate got out a frisbee and two juice boxes.
"We won't go far, Mom. There's some grass by the picnic table over there." She tucked a box of Teddy Grahams under her arm and took J.D.'s hand. "See you."
The pair waved and went out the door.
"Here, sweetie, let's get you out of these clothes."
Vin's eyes were closed, but he nodded weakly and let Lorraine strip him down. She was glad he couldn't see her face when she took off his shirt and saw how thin he really was. And those scars that crisscrossed his back. Who was responsible for this? She could feel her anger growing, and tried to choke it back. Vin didn't need to see that she was upset - the poor little tyke was miserable enough. She laid him on the towel and undid the button on the jeans and pulled off the soiled pants. She ran warm water in the sink and began to wash the emaciated body, uncovering more scars on the buttocks and thighs. Someone had abused this child, and badly. She knew the signs- she had seen them often enough at work. Her class at the alternate school was a haven for lost souls such as this little one before her. They were what brought joy to her life, these fragile spirits, when they grew and blossomed under her care. She had the keys to unlock the minds that languished in the labeled boxes that society had built for them - ADD, ADHD, dyslexic. These children would be lost in a 'normal' school where no one had the time or the training to deal with the special needs and abilities they had.
Vin twitched again under her hands and she wrapped him once more in the towel and held him over the sink. There was nothing left in his stomach now but bright yellow bile, which he spat into the sink without even a murmur of complaint. She sat him back on the floor and coaxed him to drink some water, which was no sooner swallowed than it was brought right back up.
"Sorry I bin sick. I don't mean to..."
"Chris is gonna be mad, Chris is gonna be mad..." He gagged and the cycle began again.
Half an hour later, she had Vin in a much too big pair of Kate's shorts and a pink T- shirt. She picked him up and he nestled into her neck.
"Kate! Kate! We've got to go."
Kate and J.D. appeared from under the trees. They gathered up the packs and the bag of dirty clothes and started for the First Aid station. Vin was limp on her shoulder and she could feel his heart racing against her chest. He was hot now, and Lorraine knew it was more than heat from the sun - his face was flushed and small beads of sweat lined his lip and his brow. Lorraine shifted her listless burden slightly as they reached the shelter, and was surprised to see a pair of uniformed police officers standing at the entrance. One stepped forward and blocked her as she moved to go in.
"Ma'am. We're looking for a pair of young boys who have been separated from their fathers. They've been missing most of the day, and from the description we've been given....Are these your children?"
"No, this is Vin and that's J.D. We found them off the path down by the one of the roller coasters. Vin's been sick and should be taken to the hospital."
When he heard the word 'hospital' Vin's breathing quickened.
"O.K., Ma'am, we can take over from here." The officer reached toward Vin and Lorraine pulled away.
"You can page his father to come and get him. I don't want him passed around any more than is absolutely necessary. Besides," Lorraine's face darkened, "I'd like to meet his parents. Kate, you two come in here and sit down."
Lorraine could hear the crackle of the police radios as she moved toward a chair. There was no way she was giving up this boy without being darn sure he would be safe.
"Where do you and Vin live?" Kate had J.D. on her lap and was bouncing him up and down.
"We live on a big ranch with lots 'a horses. I gots my own horse - well she's a pony really - her name is Patches on accounta she gots these big black, um, patches on her back and Vin's horse is Willow but he ain't allowed ta ride her right now 'cause he got in a fight at school and we got Game Boys, mines green and Vin's is blue, but he ain't allowed ta play with his 'cause he, well, he was takin' stuff outta the garbage in school cause he didn't have no lunch and ..."
J.D. continued to prattle on but Lorraine had stopped listening. She had seen this before, too, abuse in families that was directed solely toward one child while the other children remained unscathed. She could feel her outrage growing with every moment that passed, and by the time the two distraught fathers came bursting through the door, she was ready to fight. J.D. caught sight of the tall man with dark hair and a full thick moustache and leapt from Kate's lap and fairly flew into his arms. The man, who had to be Buck, scooped up the little boy and covered his face with kisses, unashamed of the tears that rolled down his cheeks. An equally tall blonde with piercing green eyes came up and stopped in front of her, his eyes never leaving the small bundle she held in her arms.
The boy stirred and moaned softly, but made no move to turn toward the voice. Lorraine could hold her tongue no longer.
"You are Vin's father?"
"Yes, I'm Chris Larabee. I can't thank you enough for finding our sons. This has been the worst..." The man fell silent and reached to push the tousled hair away from the pale face. "Hey, Cowboy..."
Vin eyes remained closed and he began to whimper softly.
Just then, three additional bodies materialized in the small building.
"Are they all right?"
"Where were they found?"
A tall black man came over, knelt beside Lorraine's chair and laid a gentle hand on Vin's back.
"How are ya doin' there Pard?"
"M' tummy really hurts. An' Chris is gonna be mad at me again."
"Why's that, Bud?"
"He hates me, Nathan. 'N I did a bad thing. I touched the phone. I heared him tell ya he don't want me no more."
Lorraine looked at Chris and almost felt sorry when she saw the look of distress on his face. Almost, but not quite.
"Mr. Larabee, I must say I have heard and seen some rather disturbing things this afternoon. I am afraid that I find myself unable to even think about letting you walk out of here with these children unless you can convince me that no harm will come to them." She tightened her grip on Vin and waited for a response.
"I'm Vin's foster father. He and J.D. have been with Buck and me for about four months now. We found them living on the street, eating out of dumpsters, completely on their own. We don't think J.D. was out there all that long, but Vin disappeared from a women's shelter two years ago and the records are sketchy as to where he'd been since then."
Chris stopped and looked at Lorraine, obviously wondering if he had to go on.
"We're ATF agents. Buck, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra." He nodded to each man in turn.
"How did the children come to be placed with you? Which Social Service Agency did you go through?"
"You must have dealt with someone. Give me a name and I'll make a few phone calls."
"Their social worker is Nettie Wells. I have a phone right here - we can call her now."
Chris had pulled out his cell phone and was dialing the number when Lorraine finally relaxed.
"I know Nettie from way back. We've dealt with each other a lot through work..." She took the phone from Chris and listened for the feisty woman's voice on the other end of the line.
"Nettie, I'm so glad we were able to reach you. I need you to help clear up what I hope is nothing more than a misunderstanding..."
Several minutes later, after Lorraine had been reassured by the social worker's comments, she finished her conversation and handed the phone back to Chris.
"Let me apologize now for my suspicions. I am a teacher and my job requires that I be able to recognize the signs of abuse and neglect, and that I act when I see them." She turned Vin and motioned for Chris to sit beside her. "Let's get this boy back where he belongs."
Once again, Chris stroked the pale face as Lorraine slid Vin onto his father's lap.
Chris bent his head over the blonde curls and proceeded to whisper into his son's ear as his arms circled around the tiny boy. Lorraine was heartened to see a small hand come up and fist itself into the dark material of the man's shirt.
"I'm sorry. I'm Lorraine Jefferson and this is my daughter Kate. Please, call me Lorraine."
"Nathan Jackson. My wife and I are the boys' doctors. Was Vin sick when you found him?"
"I think he had just begun to fall ill when Kate and I met up with them. That was probably about an hour and a half ago. And he's had diarrhea and been vomiting almost non-stop since then."
"Vin eated a hamburger outta the garbage for lunch," J.D. said helpfully. "He buyed me a hot dog with Uncle Ezra's money, but there wasn't enough for him ta get one. He said the burger tasted funny but he said he already throwed up before, after breakfast, and he was real hungry so he eated it anyway."
"Chris," Nathan tapped the blonde man lightly on the shoulder. "We best get Vin to the hospital. Sounds like he's got food poisoning and he's probably startin' to get dehydrated."
Chris got to his feet, cradling Vin in his strong arms.
"Guys, I guess we're on our way to Mercy General. We'll get Vin checked out and then head home."
"Mr. Larabee, would it be all right if Kate and I came along? We'd like to be sure he's going to be all right." Lorraine was gathering up her things as she spoke.
"Yes, of course." Chris gave her a grateful smile. " And thank you for everything you've done."
Getting Vin checked out and heading home took a lot longer than Chris had anticipated. It had been four days. Four long, agonizing days that Chris had spent, almost without interruption, sitting at the side of the big chrome bed, hand through the rails, clasping the small pale fingers in his own. The blonde curls feathered out across the pillow, eyes darting under translucent lids. The bloodless lips were parted, faint breaths whispering in and out with each rise and fall of the little chest. A plastic tube snaked across the bed into Vin's nose, a clear tube was taped to the side of his mouth and his left hand almost disappeared under the dressing that held his IV line in place. He had a severe case of food poisoning, which was especially dangerous because he was already malnourished, and in a weakened state from being sick only weeks before. He had been lying like this ever since Chris had carried him into the hospital on Saturday, still and silent, seeming to slip away a little more with each day that passed. Chris rubbed his free hand across his face and finally began to talk.
"Hey, Pard. Today'd be a good day to wake up. Willow's missin' ya somethin' fierce. If ya soon don't come home she said she's gonna break outta the barn and come in here ta see you herself. J.D. went back to school yesterday - he didn't go Monday because he thought you might wake up and he wouldn't be here. I promised I'd come and get him as soon as you open those blue eyes 'a yours."
He stroked the damp forehead.
"I talked to your teacher. She found out some boys had been taking your lunch. Why didn't you tell me what's been going on? You can tell me, you know, when things aren't goin' good for you. That's what I'm here for - to help you. I know you're used ta takin' care of yourself..."
Chris bit his lip and his voice faltered.
"You gotta come back to me, Cowboy. Mrs. Taylor says you've been havin' some trouble with your reading. You should've told me. You don't need to prove anything to me. You don't need to be afraid of me. You could never disappoint me, if that's what's got you worried. God, Vin, please open those eyes and tell me you're gonna be O.K. Please."
He took a deep breath and continued.
"Lorraine and Kate are coming in to see you today after school. Lorraine's a nice lady, isn't she? She's a teacher, and we've been talking about you, Lorraine and Ms. Nettie and I, and when you get better, she'd really like for you to go to her school. It's here in Denver, and I could drop you off on my way to work, and some days, when it's not too busy, we could get together for lunch. J.D. says he's gonna miss going on the bus with you, but you'll still get to spend lots of time together. And so will we." Chris was whispering now. "We're going to spent the rest of our lives together. Oh, God, please let it be so."
He rested his arm on the mattress and laid his head on it. Just then he thought he heard a noise, a faint breath of air sucked in, and looked up to see two bright blue eyes staring at him. Vin made a slight gurgling noise and those eyes widened in panic when he realized he couldn't speak. Chris stood quickly and smoothed his son's hair and smiled when the boy quieted under his touch.
"It's O.K. Cowboy." He let his hand rest on Vin's head as he looked down into the trusting eyes. "I know those tubes hurt, but they're helping you breathe and bringing ya food. You've been real sick, but you're gonna be O.K. now. I'm here, and I'm gonna stay right here 'til you get better. You hear that?"
Vin's hand tightened in his and he bent and kissed the now cool cheek.
"You're mine, Vin, and I need you with me. I already lost Adam and 'til I found you, I had a great big hole in my heart. I forgot what it was like to smile and laugh and be happy. I forgot what it was like to have a family to love. We're a family, you and me, and Buck and J.D. I love you, son, and we're gonna be together forever."
Chris could see his words had hit home and his heart skipped when he saw the love and trust in Vin's face shining back at him. He reached through the tangle of tubes and wires and took the boy in his arms.
"Yep, everything's gonna be great," he whispered. "Just you and me, Bud, to 'confinity', and beyond."