+ + + + + + +
The search party was on their way back to town when JD, Vin, Ezra and Josiah encountered them. They were tired and discouraged.
"We have been searching both sides of the river as far as Old Stone's Ford," Mary told them, pushing the loose strands of her hair behind her ears and smearing some mud on her cheek in the process. She and a few other women were riding a small wagon with the remnants of the food they had brought the men. "I'm sorry, Vin, JD, but we really needed to go back, before it's too dark. Tiny and a few others decided to go on and camp out."
"Thanks, Mary. And thanks for what y'all have done," Vin told her. "We'll catch up with the rest of the search party and work from there. Any word from Nathan?"
"No. We saw where he made camp and some other tracks, indicating that he stayed at this side of the river, but he was too far ahead of us. Maybe he has already found them."
Vin didn't sound hopeful and for a second JD wanted to yell at him. Nathan could have found them, couldn't he? Then he let the reality of the situation sink in and he knew why Vin was so bleak, so devoid of emotion. It was because there actually was very little hope. The two boys had been dragged along by a raging river and gone for two nights and almost two days now. Hastily he rode on, away from the others, not wanting to show his emotions in front of all those people from town.
He couldn't help it, he was mad at them, real mad. He knew Nathan had no choice when someone called on him, especially when it was to save a life, but he couldn't shake the feeling that this wouldn't have happened to any of the other children in town. That everybody had sort of forgotten about the two boys when their guardians were no longer around.
"I'm fine, Josiah."
"No, son, you're not." Josiah rode up close to him and sighed. "It's always hard when it's about children, very hard. This isn't the first search party I've been on since I live here and it never gets any easier."
"Really?" JD asked, fuming. He was so not interested in what had happened to other children right now, only what happened to Chris and little Buck. Bright, happy, endearing little Buck, all alone out there with Chris and probably very, very scared right now. Or worse, probably worse....
He couldn't bear the thought that the boys might not be there anymore to greet him when he came home from a patrol, or sit with him and Vin at the table to eat, filling the house with their chatter. Or that he might never hear their footsteps running up and down the stairs again, never hear Buck tell a story with his arms all wide and an earnest expression on his chubby face, or Chris giggle when Vin teased him, a sound they had been hearing more and more, but still not nearly often enough.
He couldn't bear the thought he might never see Buck running toward him again, jumping into his arms with unwavering trust that JD would catch him, his small arms tightening around JD's neck.
He felt eyes on him and when he looked up, he saw it was Vin. He saw the same thing in those eyes that he knew was in his, fear. Fear of losing those two young boys that had claimed such a huge part of their lives.
And, he realized, had made their lives infinitely richer, made it... whole, complete.
It suddenly drained the anger away from him, recognizing that fear.
It was much, much easier to be angry.
The four didn't talk until they reached the fort. No one was there anymore, but they saw a clear trail alongside the river, left by a number of men traveling on foot.
"What will we do?" Ezra asked. "Ride up to the search parties already out there and join them?"
"Seems the best course," Josiah agreed. "A true search cannot be condoned from the back of a horse."
"Wrong," Vin rasped. "We gotta go faster 'n walking."
"But Vin, there is too much underbrush and other places you can overlook when you go too fast," Josiah protested.
"That's what the search parties can do. We're gonna ride on and search for somethin' else. We're gonna search for the place the boys left the river and backtrack the trail they left. If we see them sooner, fine. If not, it's the only way to be sure. Two of us will search this side of the river, two of us the other side. I'll cross the fort, JD takes this side, he's the best tracker after me."
Ezra nodded and turned to Josiah. "Is it acceptable if I go with Vin? I have grown weary of JD's coffee."
Josiah smiled. "I understand, brother. Shall we, JD?"
"Sure, fine by me. What do we do when someone find tracks? Or... or the boys?"
"Fire three times in the air, then three times more," Vin suggested.
JD nodded. He watched Vin and Ezra ride into the water, but was itching to go on before they even made it across.
"Let's go, Josiah."
Without looking back he rode away, as close to the riverside as possible. When necessary he and Josiah would leave the land and ride through the water, so they would be able to keep their eyes on the riverbank at all times.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was hot. He didn't like being this hot. He felt funny too.
Not in a good way funny, but yucky funny. Like when he had been sick and his Ma had worried all the time, staying with him even when she had to work. Was he sick now? But why? Was it because he had fallen into the water trough?
He felt a hand on his forehead, nicely cool. Just like his Ma had done the last time he had been sick.
"Ma?" he whispered, pleased that she was there.
A voice answered, as if from far away. "Buck? Are you awake? Can you drink a little?"
Something was wrong with the voice, but Buck couldn't make out what. He couldn't think about it either, because suddenly he realized how very thirsty he was. Hopefully he opened his mouth and then his head was lifted a little and he felt something against his lips. It felt strange, not like a cup, but he didn't care when the water came into his mouth.
He loved the water. It was even cooler than the hand. He loved how it dripped down his chin and on his chest, leaving trails of coolness. When he felt it fall all over his hair, he sighed contently.
"'S Nice, Ma," he mumbled, before drifting off again.
+ + + + + + +
Chris looked at Buck in confusion, clutching the piece of bark, shaped like a low rimmed oblong bowl, to his chest. It was all he had been able to find to carry water in and it only worked if he walked very carefully, the water spilling out of it easily.
It had been painful to hold Buck's head up and when he had put it down after Buck had stopped drinking, his back had spasmed and the rest of the water had spilled all over Buck's head.
Luckily it didn't matter, Buck had even liked it. He had smiled and mumbled it was nice.
Buck's reaction made Chris remember something else from his own time in the orphanage, fighting the fever. Something he had forgotten at first. He remembered now that when everything was so hot and awful, he had woken up one morning to this great feeling of coolness on his face. One of the nuns had been wiping his forehead and cheeks with a wet cloth, a very young nun who had even smiled at him.
Hesitantly Chris put his hand on Buck's forehead again. Yes, Buck was still hot. And he liked it when Chris had spilled the water on him. Like when he had wanted to be in the water, in the river all the time when he had been so hot from the sun, before the storm.
Resolutely Chris worked himself to his feet, still clutching the piece of bark to his chest. He had a plan, something he could do. When he was back at the creek, he wasn't just going to fill his bowl, he was also going to take a piece of his shirt and make it wet. For Buck, to put on Buck's face like that nun had done for him.
Chris trudged as fast as he could to the creek, impatiently ignoring the brief spell of dizziness. It made everything so much better when he could do something and help Buck. He didn't have to think so much then.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan stopped Mary's horse, again, to look around. The trees were sparse here, the river spilling out into the Great Plains behind the hilly country around Four Corners. He wiped his brow and tried not to sway in the saddle. He didn't have that much longer before it would be dark and he wanted to look around here especially. Here was where the river broadened and started to flow more slowly. Here was where he expected the river might have let the boys escape its clutches.
Again, for what fell like the thousandths of time, he yelled their names.
"Chriiiiis! Buuuuck! It's Nathan! Answer me, please!"
He cocked his head, listening, but like all the previous times, there was no answer. He wiped his eyes and sighed.
He wasn't going to lose hope, not with these two boys. They had survived too much, they had to have survived this.
+ + + + + + +
Chris couldn't do it any longer. It wasn't just his back, but also his head. It was pounding again and he couldn't use his eyes properly anymore. He had been wiping Buck's face for some time now, but there was no response from the younger boy at all, nothing. And his arms were starting to ache too.
He needed to lie down a bit, just for a little while, just until he felt better.
Carefully he put the bark with water on a safe spot, the piece of wet shirt beside it. He hoped Vin wouldn't be mad about the shirt, a shirt was real expensive. He didn't think so, though, he was pretty sure Vin would understand why he had ripped it apart. Vin always seemed to understand.
Cautiously, so he wouldn't disturb Buck, he rearranged some of the leaves to make a new bed for himself right beside his friend, when he heard it.
Was that a voice?
There, he thought he heard it again, very soft, as if it came from far away.
He cocked his head, all his attention solely on listening, but there was nothing anymore.
Buck whimpered and Chris looked down at his friend. He had to swallow a few times when he saw how bad Buck looked, his hair all sweaty and his face all red, his mouth hanging half open.
He thought he heard something again, but is was so soft, it might have been anything. He knew there was no way he could investigate now. It was getting dark and he might not find his way back to Buck.
His head hurt too much anyway.
With a sigh he curled up beside Buck and closed his eyes.
Next he was riding Pony, a little ahead of Vin on Peso. The wind ruffled his hair and Vin's drawl was all around him. He couldn't really understand what Vin was trying to tell him, but it didn't matter, Vin's voice was surrounding him like a warm blanket, keeping him safe.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan sighed and finally stopped Segin. There was no use in searching any further, it was too dark. He looked at the other side of the river and made a decision. Tomorrow he would cross to the other side and search back until he reached the place where the river left the hills. Then he would ride to where he was now and search further until noon, when he would cross back and search this side. It would be slow going, but he had the gut feeling here was his best chance to find the boys.
If only at least one of his friends had been here.... It would have made the search so much easier with one of them on either side of the river. If only... well, he knew a much better one, if only he hadn't left those two vulnerable boys alone, if only he had taken them with him....
He didn't think he would be able to face his four friends ever again if Chris and Buck didn't come back.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin, we need to stop."
"Vin, in the name of sanity, it is getting dark! How do you propose we will find them when we can't even see our own hands anymore? This is preposterous."
"Ezra, you wanna quit, you quit, I ain't stoppin'."
Vin took one of the torches he had made on their last stop, then hesitated. No, not yet, he could still see more by natural light than by the flickering circle a torch would provide, throwing everything else into darkness.
"I do not want to quit, I want to find Buck and Chris just as much as you do, how can you even suggest that?"
Vin didn't answer, not caring for Ezra's feelings right now. He wanted to find the boys before they had to spend another night outside, hurt and alone. Because there was no doubt in his mind they were hurt, they had to be after having been dragged along by a raging river, it would even be a miracle if they had sur....
No, he wasn't going to think about that. It made him nauseas just thinking about that.
"Chris!" he bellowed, "Buck!"
On the other side he heard the answering shouts of JD and Josiah, Josiah's voice booming through the growing darkness.
Soon he would have no choice but to light the torch. He didn't know what JD and Josiah wanted to do, but he wasn't too concerned about that. Nathan had already covered their stretch.
Peso snorted and tossed his head. "Move," Vin told him impatiently.
"If I may point out, our horses are very tired."
Vin knew, off course he knew, he simply chose to ignore it. They could go on a little while longer with the slow gate they were traveling right now.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was happy. He was riding Pony in full gallop and best of all, Vin was there, right by his side.
Only, where before Vin's voice had been a soothing presence all around him, Vin sounded agitated now, calling out for him from behind. Confused Chris looked over his shoulder to see what was going on, and his heart stopped. Vin was gone, completely gone.
"No!" he wanted to scream, but it came out as a whisper. "No, Vin...."
Again he heard Vin's voice, urgent and pleading, as if something was very wrong. "Chris!" he was calling, "Buck!"
With a gasp Chris opened his eyes, finding himself under the tree with Buck whimpering beside him.
Vin wasn't there.
Only his voice was, following him from his dream, calling out for him and Buck.
Suddenly Chris bolted upwards. There, he had heard it again! And he wasn't sleeping now; he knew he wasn't sleeping because his back was hurting again.
Excitedly he stood up, forgetting about his pain, forgetting even about Buck, he had heard Vin!
He didn't notice Buck moving restlessly where he left him, all his attention was on the voice he had heard.
+ + + + + + +
Vin's heart lurched and for a second he thought he was going to be sick. He had heard a high, young voice, calling out urgently. Excitedly he called out again, Ezra joining his voice. Angry he held up his hand and hissed, "Quiet."
He needed to listen.
Yes, there, he heard it again! Calling out, he turned Peso and plunged through the trees between him and the sound.
"Chris! Chris, keep callin'!"
The answer was music to his ears, a balm to the pain he had felt stabbing inside him from the moment he had heard the two boys were missing. It sounded weak, but he knew with a certainty it was Chris.
"Viiiin!" High and excited.
He almost ran Peso over the boy, who suddenly appeared in front of him, closer than Vin had thought when he had heard the weak calls. Luckily Peso was surefooted and twisted away just in time.
Chris fell anyway, a dark shadow sitting on the ground, the white of his eyes showing where he had tilted his face upwards to Vin. And then Vin was off his horse, not bothering with Peso at all, only one destination in his mind.
"Oh God, Chris," he moaned, picking up the boy and taking him in his arms. Chris seemed to stiffen, but Vin had no time to wonder about that, because next small arms entwined themselves around his neck and a small face buried itself against his chest, hot tears dampening his shirt.
"I'm here, I'm here now," he soothed, rocking slightly with the boy in his arms. "Sssh, sssh, I'm here, yer safe, you and Buck are safe now." Gently he pushed the clinging boy away from him a little. "I just need ya to do one last thing, all right? I need ya to tell us where Buck is."
"B... Buck!" Immediately Chris pushed him away and worked himself back on his feet, grabbing for Vin's hand and tugging at it. "We gotta go to Buck. He's really sick and I didn't know what to do. I l... left him under the tree to find you, but now he's all... all alone."
Chris' voice had a catch in it that stabbed right through Vin's heart. He stood and swept Chris back up into his arms. If Buck was as sick as Chris made it sound, than Chris must have been desperate and feeling very alone out here, with no one but him to take care of the little boy. "Y' ain't alone no more, Chris. I'm here and Ezra too, and the others are nearby. We'll take care of Buck, you'll see. Jist tell me where to go."
"There." In the now almost dark Vin had difficulty to work out where Chris was pointing, but he managed to work it out and soon they were on their way, Ezra following with the two horses. The gambler hadn't said a word so far, but he radiated tension, so much even that the horses were reluctant to follow him. Vin knew how much Ezra had come to like the boys, especially Buck and he understood Ezra's worry. Hell, he was feeling that same worry gnawing at him, right from the moment they had encountered Chris on his own, without the exuberant young boy at his side.
It turned out Chris hadn't been walking far and soon they reached a huge tree at the edge of a clearing. At the base of its trunk, between big, gnarled roots, there was a small hole, just right for two boys to snug themselves into. Vin put Chris on the ground and knelt down. He was impressed when he saw the bed of grass and leaves Buck was lying in, but every thought of congratulating the boy beside him on a job well done flew out of his head when he touched Buck and felt the heat radiate from him.
The small boy was consumed with fever.
Hastily he gathered Buck into his arm, dislodging something that had been stacked carefully between some of the roots. Water fell over his trousers legs and he saw with surprise it was some kind of bowl shaped piece of bark.
"Mister Tanner?" Ezra asked, his voice tight.
"He's real sick, Ezra. We gotta get him to Nathan."
"Shall I give the sign?"
"Not yet, once we're at the river's edge. We gotta cross, not have the others cross to us, 'cause Nathan's at the other side."
"Vin?" A small voice asked beside him. "Is... is Buck gonna be all right?"
"I...." Damn, Vin had promised he would never lie to Chris, but even without having had a proper look at the eight year old, due to the darkness, he sensed Chris had been through enough. He opened his mouth to say something soothing, when Chris spoke himself. "He's... he's got the fever, don't he? In the orphanage there was always boys dying because of the fever."
Aw, hell. He couldn't stand it, not right now, so he took the coward's way out. "Nathan's a very good healer, Chris. He'll know."
"All right." So soft, so full of trust. It was suddenly weighting heavily on him, that complete trust he felt Chris had in him, but it was also something that filled him up with warmth.
"Ezra, get on yer horse, then I'll give ya Buck. Sooner's we get him to Nate, the better."
"Immediately, Mister Tanner." Ezra took off to the river's edge as soon as he had Buck in his arms. Vin looked at Chris, not liking what little he saw of the boy in the dark. Something was wrong, he sensed it in the way Chris was holding himself stiffly and unnaturally erect. So instead of vaulting on Peso and then give Chris a hand in hauling him up, he lifted him carefully and put him in the front of his saddle instead of behind him. He mounted and with one arm around Chris, who immediately leaned back against him, he followed Ezra to the riverside.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra couldn't remember the last time he had been this scared. He was no expert when it came to diseases, but he knew without a doubt that Buck was very sick. The little boy hadn't reacted to anything and right now was lying fearfully limp in his arms, the dark haired head resting in the crook of his arm. Holding Buck securely against his chest, he spurred Chester on to more haste, wanting to find Nathan as soon as he could.
When he was at the waterside, he hesitated. He didn't know the river like Vin probably did and he had no idea how deep the water was here. Didn't you need to keep sick people warm and dry? He thought that was the preferential method of treatment. He didn't think plunging into a cold river was the best thing for Buck right now.
At least he could warn the others while he waited for Vin.
Soon three sharp shots reverberated through the air. Ezra waited, counting softly to five, and then shot three more. Immediately an answering shot sounded from across the river. Then Vin was there.
"How can we cross this river without risking Buck's health further?" he asked, clutching the small boy to himself.
"Ya got yer slicker with ya?"
"Of course I do. In this infernal season it's imperative... oh, oh, yes, I see."
Vin was already dismounting. "Where'd ya put it?"
"Behind my saddle, under my bedroll."
Together they carefully rolled Buck in the heavily oiled raincoat. Then Vin took off his own buckskin coat and wrapped it around Chris.
"Let's ride," he told Ezra tersely when he was done. Ezra nodded and forced his unwilling horse into the water.
The crossing was a nightmare. Vaguely he thought he heard some voices calling out over the water, but he was too busy to keep Chester going, while at the same time keep Buck as safe as he could. The cold water drenched him as far up as his hips, then suddenly Chester snorted in fear and lost his footing. With a yell and a kick he drove the horse forward, forcing it to swim the few meters before it found ground again. He clutched Buck desperately against his chest while the water was all around him, drenching him up to his middle and then Chester lurched forward, lifting them out of the water until only his legs and feet were still submerged.
His expensive boots would be totally ruined.
In his arms Buck stirred and a soft, almost mewling sound came from him, making Ezra forget everything else.
"Hang on, Buck," he whispered, "hang on, we're almost there and then we'll find Nathan. Surely he will know what to do, you'll see."
Chester snorted, the horse clearly exhausted, but then they were there, at the other side, and Josiah and JD were there as well, talking to him anxiously.
"Ezra? What's going on? Why did you two come this way? Is that Buck? Oh, no, what's wrong with him? Why's he not reacting? Ezra, talk to me!"
"He has a fever, JD, I'm sorry."
"No! Is it bad? Give 'im to me."
Ezra was reluctant to part with the young boy, but he knew he had to. JD was Buck's guardian, not he and had the right. He handed him over still wrapped in his slicker. JD took the boy carefully in his arms and opened the raincoat, so he could see the boy that had stolen so many hearts in Four Corners. He gasped when he saw the sick little boy.
"Oh no, what do we do now?"
"We're gonna find Nathan," Vin answered. He had made it to land as well and was busy putting Josiah's dry coat around the huddled form in front of him. "Since he's not here, I gather you two didn't overtake 'im?"
"No, we didn't," Josiah confirmed. "Maybe we should shoot into the air again, he can't be so far that he wouldn't hear it."
"I'll shoot my mare's leg, he'll probably recognize the sound."
Three heavy shots reverberated through the air, followed a few seconds later by three more.
"Now let's get to him," Vin ordered, already spurring Peso on.
Josiah moved in front of him. "I'll go ahead and check out the trail for any trouble. You take care of Chris."
Ezra let JD go after Vin, bringing up the rear, all his senses alert for possible danger. He stayed close to JD, from time to time trying to get a glimpse of the little boy in the young sheriff's arms.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan grabbed for one of his knifes when he heard the first shot, rapidly followed by two more. He had only time to think "What the hell...?" when three more shots sounded. He didn't move, all his senses alert and not long after he heard another shot, a single one this time.
Something was happening back along the river, but what?
He stood up from where he had been dozing beside a small fire and threw dirt on it, not wanting to attract someone with ill intent. God, he hoped there weren't any outlaws around and about, not with Chris and Buck lost and alone somewhere.
He grabbed his gear and his tack and soon had Segin ready to leave. He only had to decide where he would leave to. Toward the sounds, to investigate? Or move away, hide somewhere?
It could be the search party he knew would follow him out of town, maybe they were in trouble. Damn, but he didn't want to go back and maybe miss an opportunity to find Chris and Buck.
He fastened his bedroll, emptied his small kettle and coffee mug and stowed them in his saddlebags. Then he mounted, still unsure as to what to do.
Three more shots ripped open the silence of the night, followed a bit later by another round of three.
They were signs, calls for others to come.
And this time they had sounded suspiciously as if coming from Vin's mare's leg. He knew Vin wasn't the only one carrying a sawed off, but it wasn't a very common weapon and the chance it was Vin out there, shooting, was very large.
With a curse he spurred Segin forward, in the direction of the shots, back along the riverbank.
+ + + + + + +
They rode as fast as they could; they all wanted to reach Nathan as soon as possible. In his arms JD held the too quiet small body of Buck and he had to fight hard to keep his tears from falling. They wouldn't do Buck any good right now.
It was just so hard, the initial joy tearing through him when he realized that Vin and Ezra had found the boys, only followed by this gut wrenching fear when he found out Buck was very sick.
They just had to find Nathan; Nathan would know what to do.
The small body in his arms started squirming and JD looked down anxiously. No use, it was too dark to see Buck clearly. All he knew for sure was what he felt through Ezra's slickers, the heat radiating from the suddenly so small and fragile body and the shivers coursing through it.
Strange, he had never once thought of Buck as fragile. Vulnerable, yes, and hurting, calling from him the need to protect the boy, but never fragile. Buck was big for a four year old and boisterous, always running around, laughing, his high voice talking almost constantly.
He wanted to hear that merry voice so much.
So where was Nathan?
"Stop." It was Josiah, his voice booming through the night, scattering his thoughts. He was only barely in time to stop Milagro before he came too close to Peso. Milagro would never run into another horse, but little did Peso care. The ornery beast kicked at every horse that came too close upon him from behind.
"What?" he yelled, irritated that they stopped, now. "We gotta find Nathan!"
"I think we found him," Josiah yelled back. "Nathan? Is that you?"
"J'siah? Yer back? Whadda ya doin' and who's there with ya?"
"We're all here."
"All?" A dark figure, only visible because he was darker than the night itself, suddenly appeared and JD almost yelped, even if he knew it was the healer.
"The boys too, Nathan." It was Vin this time who talked. "We found 'em. But they ain't doin' too good, 'specially Buck. He's very sick."
"Sick?" Nathan had closed in on them and his voice sounded worried. "How sick we're talkin' here, Vin?"
"Boy's burnin' up with fever. I don't know how long, but Chris was pretty upset when we found 'em and I think Buck's been sick for a while now. Ain't he, Chris?"
"He was sick when I woke up," Chris' much higher voice said. "I... I tried to help him, honestly."
"Chris, from what I seen, ya did one hell of a job. Don't worry 'bout it, this ain't yer fault."
JD heard Ezra mutter something unintelligible beside him and then Josiah was with them, telling them they were going to make camp a little further away where Nathan said was a creek.
"Is it near?" he asked anxiously. "I think he's very sick, Josiah."
"Why can't we simply make camp in this spot?" Ezra groused. "The boy has had enough."
"I think Nathan wants clean water at hand to tend to the boys, Ezra. Come, he said it's near."
It was. The others dismounted and JD saw Vin reach up for Chris' much slimmer figure. Then
Nathan was beside him, reaching for Buck and JD hastily gave his precious bundle to the healer, the only one he knew could maybe help. He jumped from his horse and, completely ignoring the animal, followed Nathan.
Nathan went to a creek, formed by the heavy rain. He put Buck down and opened the slicker, yelling for them to make a fire.
"Damn, JD, his fever's too high and you packed 'im all in." The slicker stayed underneath Buck, so he had something to lay on and then Nathan started to peel off his clothes.
JD ignored the accusation. His eyes were riveted on the small body, barely discernable in the dark, lying there so unnaturally quiet, the breathing sounding harsh and difficult.
"Is he dying, Nate? Please tell me he ain't, tell me you can help him."
"JD, shut up." Josiah was suddenly right beside him, grabbing his arm painfully and whispering his words urgently. "Just shut up, right now." JD looked up in confusion, only to see Josiah nod his head backwards. He turned his head to where Vin stood, his arms filled with a dark shape topped by a mop of light hair.
Oh, shit, Chris.
Then Nathan's voice came through the darkness, calm and clear. "I ain't gonna lie to y'all, the fever's high and I gotta get it down, but don't go thinkin' the worst jist yet, all right? And treating the boys 'll go a whole lot easier if'n I got some light to work with, so if y'all would hurry up with that fire? J'siah, could you get me my saddlebags?"
Josiah immediately let go of JD's arm and disappeared into the dark. Ezra grabbed JD's hand, muttering something about Vin not being much help right now, dragging the young sheriff away.
"At the moment it is in Nathan's hands, JD. We had better provide him with what he needs, so he can do his job properly. And let's hurry, please, the sooner we are back at that boy's side, the better."
"Y... yeah, I guess so."
JD was in a daze, but Ezra was right about one thing, they had to give Nathan all the help he needed. And right now that was a big, blazing fire, providing him with light and heat. JD was going to see to it he got that and everything else, so he could keep Buck alive.
But before he followed Ezra out into the dark, he went to Vin and the other boy that had stolen his heart.
"Chris? Are you all right?"
"Y... yes, JD, I'm f... fine. But Buck... is Buck gonna die?"
"No, don't you think that! I'm sorry if my question scared you, I just... I was worried and it was a stupid question anyway, you heard Nathan. He'll make him better."
"But Buck's got the fever. In the orphanage the... the boys who got a fever? Lots of them d... didn't come back."
"Buck will," JD said, putting every ounce of conviction he could in his voice. "You'll see. Nathan's a real good healer, you know that, don't you?" He stepped closer and picked the boy out of Vin's arms, needing to hold him for a while and to feel that Chris at least didn't have a fever.
He felt the small arms sneak around his neck and the small head burry itself against his shoulder and he held on for dear life.
"Why don't you two go and see how Buck's doin'?" Vin said softly, giving JD's shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "I'll go take care of the horses and help Ezra and Josiah make camp.
"Thanks, Vin." JD carefully made his way over to Nathan and knelt beside him and Buck, Chris still in his arms. Nathan was wringing out his wet bandana and then started to wipe Buck with it. Both JD and Chris looked on anxiously.
"Nathan?" JD finally asked.
"It's too soon to tell, JD. If only I get the fever down, than he'll have a good chance."
Chris gasped and JD tightened his grip around the now trembling boy. "I... I tried to help," Chris whispered. "I tried, JD, really I did!"
"I know, I known, Chris. It'll be all right, you'll see, it'll be all right." The words became a litany, as much for JD's own reassurance as Chris'.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan worked hard to cool Buck down. He knew it was the only thing that could save the four year old, that and a proper treatment of any wounds he might find, but he couldn't even begin without a fire. He needed its light and he needed its heat.
"Y'all hurrying up out there?" he called impatiently. And cringed. He didn't really have to see Chris and JD to know they had picked up on his tension. What did he say to them? He didn't have much reassurance to give; all he could do was his best. And he would give it all of his best.
A match flared and then the first flames appeared. Vin and Josiah were busy bringing the fire to a roaring height as soon as possible and Ezra was coming back with even more wood. Then the bigger logs caught fire, Vin put some burning torches in the ground as well and Nathan could finally see his patient properly, including the filthy piece of cloth he had already felt around Buck's leg, but hadn't wanted to touch without light.
Now it was the first thing he needed to deal with. He took out one of his knives and cut the rag off. It exposed an ugly wound, red and swollen. An infection, just as he had feared. He quickly looked Buck over completely, which showed him the leg wound had to be the main source of the fever, hoping fervently it was the only source and Buck hadn't contracted some kind of disease as well, walking through the wild country, drinking and eating who knew what.
Gently prodding the unresponsive boy, he was relieved to find Buck hadn't broken anything. The little boy was covered in bruises though, which had to hurt and he also had some small cuts, some of which were infected as well, but not as bad as the leg wound.
Vin was at his side immediately.
"Need ya to put this here knife in the fire." Vin nodded, his eyes on Buck's small leg.
"What's wrong, Nathan?" JD asked, also looking at Buck's leg.
"Leg's infected, I need to clean out the wound."
"But... but I cleaned it, Nathan, I did, I swear," Chris said, his voice trembling.
Nathan looked at the blond boy and smiled at him. Gently he put his hand on one of Chris' legs. "Ya done good, Chris, don't ever doubt that. But no matter how well you clean a wound, there's never a guarantee, it can still get infected. Don't mean you did something wrong, ya hear? It happens to me too." When Chris didn't answer, looking at him dubiously, he squeezed the leg a bit. "Ya hear me, Chris? 'S far as I can see, you took good care of Buck. You kept him alive, didn't ya?"
"But he's got the fever," Chris said, again expressing his fear. Vin knelt down and gently took him out of JD's arms.
"It's like JD says, Nathan's the best healer we know. It'll be all right, Chris, stop worryin'. That's our job now."
"You gonna tuck him in?" Nathan asked.
"First he needs somethin' to eat, then, yeah."
"I'll wanna look him over after I've finished with Buck."
"You better," Vin mock growled. When he walked away, he was whispering softly to Chris, holding him tight.
Nathan sighed and brought his attention back to the other boy. He would have to trust Vin to take good care of Chris until he could look him over. Right now Buck was his first priority.
"JD? Can you get my knife?"
"Thanks," he told the young man when he returned with the heated knife. "Can you hold 'im while I clean the wound? Maybe talk a bit to him, let him know yer here?"
"I will," JD said softly, determined. He took hold of Buck's two small shoulders and waited. Ezra stood behind him, his eyes never leaving Buck, while Josiah placed yet another load of wood on the fire.
Nathan put the knife on the ugly wound and made a small cut.
Buck cried out, a pitiful scream with no real strength behind it. Steeling his heart, knowing this was the only way to safe Buck and his leg as well, Nathan carefully reopened the wound. Buck cried out again, while JD was urgently talking to him. Nathan was just debating if he could risk giving such a young child, one that probably had not eaten the entire time he was missing, some laudanum, when Buck went limp.
"Nate!" JD yelled, panicking.
"It's all right, JD, he passed out, which is the best thing for him right now."
With a sense of relief that Buck wouldn't feel the rest of the procedure, he cut further into the wound, releasing a trail of blood and yellow pus. He heard Ezra gag before he retreated hastily.
He also heard Chris cry and then Vin's soothing voice overrode the small sound.
He blocked it all out, concentrating completely on Buck, barking for some water to be heated and another knife to be put in the fire, never doubting his orders would be followed as fast as humanly possible.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was clinging to Vin with all his might. When he had heard Buck scream he had felt sick, different sick from when he had to throw up, but still sick.
All he wanted was to go home and for things to be as they were before the storm. Before Vin and JD left to go after a gang.
Carefully he patted Vin, feeling him over wherever his hands could reach, wanting to make sure Vin wasn't another dream and was really there.
"What's wrong?" Vin asked softly, rocking him in his arms. Chris snuggled even deeper against his guardian. He never wanted to leave those arms again.
"Nothing," he said. "Did... did the gang shoot at you?"
"Nah. They were all asleep when we found them, so all we had to do was tie 'em up." Vin put his hand under his chin and lifted it, so Chris couldn't avoid looking in his guardian's face. "I' ain't hurt, Chris. None of us is, 'cept you 'n Buck."
"I told Buck I should clean his leg again, but he... he didn't want me to, 'cause it hurt. I... I should've done it anyway. And then, today, he was so s... sick!"
"Chris, once again, ya did good. You kept him alive, always remember that."
"Of course if you hadn't disobeyed JD's and Vin's orders in the first place, you wouldn't have had to try and keep him alive," an angry voice said.
"Ezra...." Vin warned with a low growl.
Chris looked up. Uncle Ezra was standing between them and the fire, making it difficult to see his face. He seemed angry though, Chris recognized it in his stance. He had too much experience with men who were angry. Not even thinking about it, he buried himself as deep as possible against Vin, one hand clutching at the ring around his neck.
"Well, it's true, isn't it? I heard JD warn them explicitly not to go to the river without adults, but they went anyway. And now look! Buck is only four, but Chris is of an age he should have known better." Abruptly Ezra turned and walked away.
Chris suddenly felt very cold inside. It was true, they had disobeyed a direct order and now the grown-ups would be mad. He knew he had told Buck that Vin would never beat him, but that didn't mean Vin couldn't get mad. Seeing one of his uncles so angry with him, made him aware how serious the situation was.
Buck loved Uncle Ezra. He loved all of their uncles, but it was something special with Uncle Ezra. Chris knew for a fact that Buck's warm and friendly heart would be broken if Uncle Ezra would be this mad at him.
"Are you going to punish me for disobeying?" he asked Vin, resigned.
"Probably, don't know yet. Right now I'm jist too happy to have ya both back."
"But what if Buck...."
Chris couldn't say it. He knew people died on you, but he so much didn't want to think about that right now. And what if Uncle Ezra would stay mad at him forever and ever if Buck, if he....
He pushed himself away from Vin, suddenly feeling very much alone again. If Buck didn't get better, nothing would ever be right again.
Vin put him down on some blankets and knelt beside him. Again he put a hand under Chris' chin, forcing him to look up. "Son," he said softly, "whatever happens, I'll be there for you, ya know that, don't ya? Always."
He nodded, swallowing when he heard Vin call him 'son'. His heart had lurched when he heard it and it had felt... strangely good.
And yes, he did know. He could trust Vin.
"Good. So will the others. Ezra's upset right now 'cause he's scared for Buck and he ain't used to feelin' like that, but he'll come around, you'll see. Now, you wait here while I go and see 'bout some food."
He nodded again. It was easier than starting an argument about not being hungry. He huddled inside Josiah's coat, sitting stiffly on the blankets, staring into the flames of the huge fire and trying to ignore the pain in his head and the fear in his heart.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was pacing restlessly while Nathan was at last examining Chris. Ever since Chris started heaving after a single piece of bread he had waited anxiously for the healer to have some time in between his caring for Buck to take a look. Now JD and Josiah were wiping Buck down to try and cool him, giving Nathan some breathing space and some time for Chris.
"And?" he asked when Nathan gently tucked the blanket back over the boy.
"I don't like how his back looks, Vin. And he's got a nasty head wound. That's probably where the vomiting comes from, looks like he's got a concussion. Walkin' around and caring for Buck, 'stead of lying in bed in a dark room ain't done him much good."
"But he'll be all right?"
"Yeah, with the proper care and rest he'll be all right, but I want him in bed as soon as we're back in Four Corners. Vin, you gotta keep an eye on him, that back's gonna be painful for some time. No working in the livery for at least a month."
"He'll hate that."
"Probably. That's why you'll need to keep an eye on him," Nathan grinned. Then he sighed and brushed a hand over his face. He looked exhausted, Vin realized.
"When'd ya get yer last sleep?" he asked suspiciously.
"Truth? With being on the trail last night looking for these two and caring for the McLean boy the night before?"
"I did get some sleep at the McLean's, but I sure could've used more."
Vin nodded. "Why don't you catch up right now? Looks like Josiah and JD have it under control for the moment and if somethin' happens, you better be fit."
"You're probably right. I'll go see how they do and give them instructions."
"Good. Take JD's bedroll, I don't think he'll be usin' it tonight."
Nathan grinned. "Ain't that the truth." Then he was gone to the other side of the fire. Soon Vin heard him give instructions, especially about symptoms they needed to wake him up for immediately. Vin smiled and shook his head. Nathan could be very bossy when it came to the care of his patients. He sat down beside Chris, resting one hand lightly on the boy's shoulder, his mare's leg within easy reach.
"You okay, Chris?" he asked softly.
"Yes," came the muffled reply, but nothing else. Vin sighed. He needed to talk with Ezra, Chris had hardly said anything since the gambler's harsh words. But not right now, not with fear and emotions running rampart the way they did. Tomorrow would be better. Tomorrow they would go home, with the boys, alive.
Buck too. He simply had to believe in that.
+ + + + + + +
Morning dawned with everyone tired, but very, very happy. Chris saw it the moment he woke up. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, he had wanted to wait and hear how Buck was doing, but somehow he had ended sleeping anyway.
He vaguely remembered dreaming about the river dragging him and Buck along, and then Vin had been there, holding him. Vin wasn't there now, he was with the others and they were all standing beside the fire, holding mugs and grinning.
Immediately excited he wanted to jump up and go to them, to ask about Buck. With everybody so happy, Buck had to be fine, he just had to be, didn't he? But when he tried to move, he couldn't. He simply couldn't, it hurt too much.
"Hey, Cowboy." Vin was suddenly there, kneeling beside him and holding out a mug. "Glad you woke up, it's time to go home." He was still grinning. "And guess what? Buck's fever broke, so now Nathan thinks he'll be all right. Here, I got milk for you, from Mrs. Potter. She insisted I took a flask with me. I'll put it down and you take yer time wakin' up, while we strike the camp and ready the horses."
"All right," Chris whispered. He looked after Vin and then tried to push himself up more carefully. It was awful, but he managed. He wished his head wouldn't throb so much, though.
"Hey, Chris." This time it was Nathan. He looked tired, but like Vin he was grinning all the time too. "How you feeling?"
Chris quickly looked in his mug and mumbled, "Fine." Nathan shouldn't be here, he should be with Buck. "Is Buck really gonna be okay?" he asked. He knew Vin would never lie to him, but he wasn't a doctor either, Nathan was.
"His fever's down, that's the most important thing. I've cleaned his leg wound again and his other cuts and he's sleeping a good sleep now. If nothing happens, I'd say he's going to be just fine. And now I want to look you over before we leave for town."
Town, home. Chris desperately wanted to go home. He nodded and put down his mug. When he looked up Nathan's smile was gone. The healer was frowning now, his eyes on the mug. "Why didn't you drink it? You still feeling sick?" he asked.
Chris tried to shrug it off, but the movement made him gasp. "Only a little."
"Sure," Nathan snorted. "Turn around so's I can see yer back and yer head wound."
Chris did just that, trying to make it look casual. He wasn't going to be the reason they couldn't go home. Behind him he heard Nathan sigh. "You're back's killing you, ain't it? Why didn't you say something? I know Buck's sick worse than you, but your health's important to. Ya gotta tell me when something's wrong, so's I can help you."
"Yes, Sir," he answered meekly, upset that now Nathan was angry with him too.
"Hey, it's okay, I'm jist telling you," Nathan said softly, ruffling his hair. Then the healer's hands were tracing his back, carefully prodding him, but still making him hiss in pain. His head was pushed forward, so Nathan could check his head wound as well. At some point Vin must have returned, because he heard his guardian ask, "How is he?"
"In pain. His back spasmed up during the night. He's gonna have that for a couple of days, he's bruised bad. But the head wound's looking good. Wait, I'll get you a salve you can rub on his back, it'll help the muscles loosen up faster."
"Thanks, Nate, 'preciate it."
"You're welcome. And you, Mister," Nathan poked him gently in the side, "on yer tummy. Vin's gonna rub a salve in before we go."
"But I wanted to see Buck!" Chris felt he could move a little again and the last thing he wanted to do was lay back down. His back hurt a lot worse after he had been lying down for a while.
"After the salve's rubbed in. It'll help with the pain. I'm gonna go get it."
"Come, I'll help ya get comfy," Vin said softly. It was a good thing he did, because it was so hard to move and it proved difficult to go lay on your belly when you couldn't really support yourself on your arms. He tried to, but the pain knifing through his back made him think twice.
Then Nathan was there to give Vin a blue jar and the next thing Chris knew was that something cool was rubbed softly onto his back, something that soon became pleasantly warm.
"Feels good?" Vin asked.
He nodded. It did feel good.
When his whole back was done, Vin wrapped him in a blanket and JD brought Peso. Josiah lifted him up in his broad arms, which was kind of bad, because he wasn't a little baby anymore, but then he was on Peso, with Vin holding him and things were fine again. Both JD and Josiah smiled at him and petted his leg before leaving for their own horses.
"They ain't mad?" Chris asked.
"They're happy to have you two back," Vin said. "We all are. We'll talk about the river and why we want you two to obey later, but right now we're all just glad you and Buck survived." Vin's arms tightened around him, holding him close and Vin whispered, "We thought we had lost you two, Chris. We really thought...." A deep sigh, then Vin murmured, "But now everything is all right again."
Chris basked in that feeling of Vin wrapped all around him, keeping him safe. Then he thought about Buck.
"Can I see Buck now?"
"Yeah, come. JD's holdin' him."
It was difficult to see Buck. He was wrapped in a blanket too, and he was fast asleep, with his head resting against JD's chest. All Chris could really see was his hair and a little bit of his face. He reached out, wanting to feel for himself the fever was gone. JD immediately understood and carefully held the little boy out to Chris, so Chris could touch him.
Buck still was a little warm, but it was nowhere near the awful heat Chris had felt yesterday.
"My fever, when I was in the orphanage, was lots longer," he told them, gazing at Buck in awe. "Lots! I'm glad he's not sick that long." Maybe Uncle Ezra wouldn't be so mad now and come talk to him again. He was the only one of his uncles who hadn't come to him, even for a little while, that morning.
"Oh, Chris," Vin murmured, pulling him back safely in his arms. Then he explained, "You probably had a sickness in the orphanage, but Buck's fever was because his wound had gone bad. Once Nathan cleaned it, what was making Buck sick was gone."
Chris stiffened, thinking about the wound on Buck's leg. It had been such an awful wound and he hadn't really wanted to clean it, it was too... gross. Now he knew that had almost killed Buck.
"I should've cleaned it better," he admitted.
"I told ya, and I know Nathan told ya, you done good helping Buck. Don't you ever believe otherwise. Come, let's go home."
Chris smiled, relaxing again in Vin's arms. Once they were home, everything would be all right again.
+ + + + + + +
They had met up with the search party, the men cheering loudly when they saw the boys in Vin's and JD's arms. They had thanked the men profusely, but not long, needing to get the boys home fast. Vin was relieved when he saw the houses of Four Corners loom up in the distance. Buck was having a fever again, the ride not doing him much good and he didn't like how pale Chris was and how nauseas. Nathan had assured him it would pass once they had Chris in bed in a dark room, so his head could settle, but it worried him all the same.
Vin had already decided he wanted Chris in his room, so he could keep an eye on the boy during nights as well. JD felt the same about Buck. They both had a need to keep the boys close.
Besides, they didn't know how long Buck would be sick, but it looked promising, while Nathan was adamant that he wanted Chris in a dark room for at least two weeks.
"He's been up and about while he should be lying down," he told Vin, "so I don't dare try and see if one week is enough. Lots of doctors, with a head wound and a concussion like that they recommend four weeks."
"Four...!" Vin nearly choked on that idea. Keeping Chris locked up in a bed in a dark room for four weeks... he didn't even want to think about that.
"That's worse than any punishment I can come up with for disobeyin' 'bout the river," he said in dismay.
"Let's see how he is after two weeks. More might not be necessary, might be he only looks this bad 'cause he's been walking around with that concussion." Nathan looked at the sleeping boy with a sad smile. "Ezra's goin' on about Chris being the most to blame 'cause he should've known better and could've stopped Buck, but truth be told, I think Buck's the one to blame. When I got to town, they told me Buck was missin' and Chris went after him. Tiny saw him run to the river on his own, so I think Buck was already there and Chris went to go get him."
"Really?" Vin almost turned back to the search party to go ask Tiny. He remembered now how Tiny had patted Chris' leg and told him he'd done a great job. He hadn't thought about it just then.
"Then why didn't he protest when Ezra got mad at him?" he wondered out loud.
Nathan shrugged. "Maybe he's gotten so used to trying to protect Buck all the time that he didn't even think about it, simply acted to keep Buck out of the line of fire."
Vin nodded, frowning down on the blond head resting against his chest. Hell, he really had to get that boy to lighten up.
+ + + + + + +
The whole town walked out to see the boys being brought in. There were cheers and congratulations, although a lot of people looked worried as well when they saw the unmoving bundles in Vin's and JD's arms. They left Josiah and Ezra to tell everyone how the boys were doing and to take care of the horses, while Vin and JD took the boys inside with Nathan.
They settled Buck first, Vin allowing Chris, who had woken up when they entered the town, to come along. It would be a while before Chris could be with Buck again, what with Nathan insisting on Chris having to stay in bed as well.
When they put Buck in JD's big double bed, he opened his eyes and looked sleepily around him. Seeing the joy on Chris' face at that, JD was glad they had allowed Chris to come with them to settle his friend. Buck's big, blue eyes opened wide when he saw JD and the young sheriff felt his heart constrict when Buck happily whispered "JD!" and stretched his arms out at him. He couldn't lean down fast enough to give the little boy a fierce hug. Then Buck looked at Chris. "Home?" he asked the other boy, barely audible.
"Yeah, Buck, we're home," Chris told him.
Buck's smile widened even more and his eyes fell shut again.
Chris looked up anxiously at Nathan, who quickly reassured him. "Don't worry, he's sleeping again. That's the best thing for him right now. And speaking of the best thing, off you go now as well, young man."
"Can't I sleep with Buck?"
"Oh no, it'll be a coming and going here. We gotta keep him cooled down for now, I gotta keep an eye on his leg wound, keep it clean and frankly, I think he'll be up to chattering and a more lively company within a few days. You, on the other hand, need quiet."
"I... I do?"
"Yeah. But Vin says you can stay in his room." Nathan held out his hand. "Come on, I'll tell y'all about what's wrong with ya and why you're so nauseas and got trouble seeing. You do, don't ya?"
Chris blinked at him, astonished, before he let his hand slip in the big, black one. "But I didn't tell!"
"Nope, and we're gonna have us a little talk 'bout that too, young man, while I examine you. Vin, if you could bring us some hot water and soap?"
"Sure. See you in a minute, Chris."
Then they were gone and JD was left with Buck. He dragged a chair he kept in his room close to the spacious double bed and sat down, looking at the little boy with fondness. He put his hand on Buck's forehead, sighing when he felt the heat. It wasn't near as bad as it had been last night though and he hoped Nathan was right, that it was only a reaction to the ride. Through the open door he saw Vin pass with a bowl full of water and some towels. A few minutes later he hurried the other way, followed by the thumps of someone running down the stairs.
JD returned his attention to Buck, carefully stroking the sweaty hair from the slightly flushed face. He didn't look up when he heard Vin return, but he did when not long after another set of footsteps climbed the stairs. A few seconds later Josiah passed his door, carrying an old blanket. He shook his head, wondering what was going on, but unwilling to leave Buck alone, even if the little boy was fast asleep.
He ignored any other comings and goings, until a set of footsteps stopped right at his door and then entered his room. When he looked up, he saw Nathan, standing with a bowl of water, still steaming, in his hands.
"I'm gonna take a look at Buck and clean him some better. You wanna go and see Chris for a while, I ain't going anywhere."
"Yeah, I would. How is he, really? I mean, you want him to stay in bed for two weeks!"
"At least, maybe longer." Nathan put down the bowl and some towels on JD's nightstand. "It's the only way to treat a concussion, keep stimuli away from him, like light and noise. That's why we have to keep the room dark and keep everything silent in the house."
"Aw, Nate, that's... that's hard on a boy."
"I know, but it's the only thing to do."
"But why? He didn't look too bad...."
"Not compared to Buck, I know. Still, he's nauseas, dizzy, got trouble seeing...."
JD sighed. He smoothed Buck's hair a last time and then quickly left to go and see Chris.
Vin's room was already dark, a blanket covering the window Vin never had bothered to get drapes for. When he entered, Josiah stood and left, after a last smile for Chris and a pat on the shoulder for Vin. "You two and Nathan take care of those boys," he said softly when he was near JD, "Ezra and I will take care of the town."
"Thanks, Josiah." The dark room and Josiah's soft voice made him whisper as well. He walked up to the bed, also a double one.
"Hey, Chris," he whispered. "How you doing? Nathan said I need to keep quiet, so I thought I'd better whisper."
Chris smiled at him, but didn't answer. He looked freshly scrubbed and his eyes were drooping. JD leaned forward and planted a gently kiss on the clean hair. "I see you're almost asleep, so I think I better go again. See you later."
"Later," Chris mumbled, his eyes closing completely.
When JD straightened up, he saw Vin staring down at the boy. "Do we really have to be this quiet?" he asked a little louder.
Vin nodded again and sat down in the chair beside the bed. "I'm jist glad we got them back alive, JD. I can tell ya, I ain't ever been that scared before in my life."
"Me neither," JD agreed. "Well, maybe once, when my mother was so sick and I got scared she'd die."
They looked at each other solemnly.
"Buck and Chris didn't die," Vin finally said. "They're here, with us, safe."
JD nodded. That was all the truth he needed.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra carefully opened the door to JD's room, not wanting to wake Buck up if it turned out the little boy was asleep. The second fever broke the night after they got home and Buck was now two days free of fever, but he was still sick and weak and needed a lot of sleep.
Not now, he didn't. The moment Ezra looked inside the room Buck sat up, clutching his train and looking eagerly at the door. His face fell when he saw Ezra and the gambler felt a sharp pain when he saw it. He hesitated, but then decided to step inside anyway.
"Hello, Buck," he said softly, walking up to the young boy. "How are you?"
Buck put his train on the blanket and absently tried to ride it over the course material. "I's fine, Uncle Ezra," he said in a tone of voice indicating he was anything but fine.
"Really?" Ezra was instantly worried. He debated if he should get Nathan immediately, or find out a bit more about what was ailing his young friend. Deciding that with Buck it was always safer to find out first, he sat down in the chair beside the bed.
Knowing that misdirection often did get one in the right direction eventually, he nodded at the red train Buck was holding. "I see JD brought you your train?"
Not good, normally Buck would get all enthusiastic about his favorite toy.
"Is something wrong with it?"
"What? Oh, no, it's fine." And then Buck sighed, a deep, deep sigh.
This was getting him nowhere. Maybe the direct approach would be best after all. "I couldn't fail but notice you weren't happy to see me, young Master Wilmington." Normally 'Young Master Wilmington' would have gotten at least a giggle out of the boy, but this time Buck's eyes opened wide in dismay.
"Oh, oh, I's really glad to see you, Uncle Ezra, really! It's just that...."
"Just what, Buck? Maybe I can help?"
Buck peeked up from under his hair. "I's hoping you might be Chris." A sniffle followed. "Why don't Chris come and see me? Is... is he mad at me, 'cause I got us into trouble?"
"Whatever for would Chris be mad at you? You didn't get anyone into trouble."
"But he's gotta be mad, why else won't he come? He ain't...." Buck gasped and his eyes grew even bigger, but now with fear. "Uncle Ezra, is Chris... sick? He was sick when we tried to get home, really sick. He... he puked and he didn't wanna eat the berries."
To Ezra's dismay he saw tears starting in Buck's eyes.
"No, no, don't worry about Chris," he hastily tried to assure the little boy. "Chris is indeed sick, but he'll be all right. He was sick because he had hit his head and now Nathan says he's gotta stay in bed, but he'll be fine."
The tears came in earnest now. "I knew he was sick, Uncle Ezra. I knew, but he didn't wanna say! And it's all m... my fault."
"No, Buck, it's not. You are only four years old, you didn't know better." Ezra sat down on the bed and carefully gathered the boy on his lap. Buck threw his arms around him and started sobbing against his shirt.
"But I did know! I... I knoweth I wasn't sup... supposed to go to the river alone, but I did! And then Chris came and tried to get me out and the wind and water had gotten so strong and he couldn't get us out and... and... and... now he's sick!"
Ezra frowned. There hadn't been any more talking about the boys going to the river, everyone was too concerned about them getting well first and he had never bothered to bring it up again himself either.
"Buck, are you telling me you went to the river alone?"
Wanting to be sure he heard correctly, Ezra asked, "You went to the river all by yourself, without Chris?"
"Uh huh...," came muffled from his chest again. Then Buck added, "But Chris was riding Pony and no one was there and it was real hot and Nathan said we'd get sick in the water trough." The last statement mystified Ezra, but he sighed when he let the rest sink in.
"Buck, listen, Chris will be all right. Do you want to see for yourself?"
The feeling of a head nodding against his shirt was all the answer he got.
"Then you must listen carefully. Remember that I said Chris was sick from a wound in the head? Well, he has to stay in a dark room for that and it has to be very quiet in there, do you understand? Very, very quiet." Buck pulled his head away from Ezra's chest.
"Like a mouse?" he asked seriously.
"Like a mouse."
"Then I can see Chris?"
"Yes, then I'll take you to see Chris, but only for a little while. Remember, you're still sick yourself."
"Yes," Buck agreed, holding up a bruised hand. "And I hurts to, see."
I do see, young Master Wilmington." This time it brought the giggle he had longed for and his solemn kiss on the bruise brought another.
"All right, off we go. I will carry you." He wrapped one of the blankets around Buck, lifted him and carried him through the hall to Vin's room.
"Where's JD and Vin?" Buck asked, holding on tight.
"JD's in the jail, working and Vin had to go tend some minor chores. Don't worry, he'll be back soon. Here we are."
This time he didn't open the door as carefully as he had done with Buck, the squirming boy in his arms made any subtlety impossible. Again it didn't matter, since Chris was wide awake. He looked at Ezra with apprehension and it brought a pang to Ezra's heart. He clearly had some fences to mend here. But then Buck poked his head out of the blanket and said brightly, "Chris!"
"Buck," Chris yelled back, struggling to sit upright. Ezra winced inwardly when he saw how stiff and how difficult Chris moved.
Then he told Buck sternly, "Did I not tell you to behave with the utmost quiet?"
"You're not quiet," Buck said brightly. "Can I go in bed with Chris?"
"I do not know if that is wise. After all, Chris needs peace and silence."
Chris scowled at him, but didn't say anything. Time to own up. With a dramatic sigh Ezra placed Buck next to him. Then he held out his hand to Chris, who looked at it dubiously.
"Hey, Uncle Ezra, why'd you wanna shake hands with Chris?" Buck asked, eyeing his hand curiously.
"I need to apologize to your friend. Therefore I humbly offer my hand to him, in the hopes he will accept those apologies."
Now Chris looked at him, his eyes hooded. He still didn't accept the hand.
Ah, well, he had deserved it. "I do apologize for blaming you in all this, Chris. I now know Buck was the real culprit of you two."
"I's no cul... culpit!"
Ezra ignored the little boy, his eyes staying on Chris. "And even if you had been the one to instigate this unfortunate trip to the river, I still should not have overreacted the way I did. There was no call for it. Can you please accept my apologies and can we go back to being friends?"
"You were mad at Chris?" Buck interrupted once again. "But... Uncle Ezra!"
Buck's indignation was what broke through Chris' defenses. He clutched at the ring hanging around his neck even now and then reached out for Ezra's hand. They shook solemnly.
"Thank you, Chris, for this second chance."
"So, how are you feeling?" Ezra fell into the chair standing beside Vin's bed and looked the boy over. Chris was still too pale. "You better lay down. You too, Buck, or I will bring you back to your own room this instant."
"Aw, Uncle Ezra!"
"And be quiet." This time Ezra remembered to whisper. It was Chris' wince and the grab for his head that convinced him.
"Chris?" he asked.
"I'm fine, Uncle Ezra. Just bored."
"Bored, I can imagine that. Perhaps some reading...."
"I ain't allowed to read."
"Not? How about a nice game of cards."
"I... I don't think that's allowed too. Nathan don't want me looking too much at things."
"Are you at least allowed to listen?"
Chris stared up at him with that same apprehension when he had walked into the room and Ezra could kick himself. This was going to be a slow process.
"Merely wondering if listening to stories, spoken in a soft voice, might be allowed. If that is the case, I might alleviate some of your boredom."
"Oh, a story!" Buck yelled, then held his hand for his mouth and looked at Ezra with big eyes. "Sorry," he whispered.
"If you want to listen in on this story, you had better be quiet from now on. I mean it," Ezra threatened. "And Chris, please lay down completely. That maneuver can't be good for you. Come, let me tuck you two in."
When Vin came back from his chores, that's how he found them, in his room. Chris and Buck on his bed and Ezra in the chair beside them, telling an incredulous story that held the boys spellbound. But not so spellbound they didn't see him and gave him a huge smile. He smiled back and stepped out of the room again. After all, the boys were in good hands.
Buck Wilmington was bored. In fact, he was pretty sure he had never, ever been so bored in all of his life! But JD had given him that look and he hadn't asked why he couldn't go and play outside again.
He sighed and leaned back on the couch, swinging his feet against the upholstery, just so he had something to do.
It had been fine when he was still feeling so bad he didn't want to do anything. While he was still really sick, lying in JD's bed, having everyone come and look at him and be nice to him had been kind of fun, even. Or lying in Vin's bed with Chris, listening to Uncle Ezra or Vin telling stories or JD telling jokes, that had been nice too.
But then Uncle Ezra had stopped telling stories. Instead he brought this big book and read from it. Chris loved it and Buck supposed it was kind of neat, with knights in it and sword fights and all sort of adventures. Only, it also had these awfully big words, bigger than Uncle Ezra's words. And whole pages where there was no fighting or nothing, just... talk. Chris liked it, though, so Uncle Ezra kept reading it.
Buck sighed. Uncle Ezra was way more with Chris than with him now, ever since Vin had lifted him up and away, telling him he couldn't visit Chris no more because he made too much noise and was moving too much over the bed. Which was so unfair, because Chris had been just as noisy! And he couldn't really help it, could he, that he had to do something for himself, because the story in the book had gotten to a boring part?
He did hear Vin talk very sternly to Chris later on, when he had tried to sneak back to Chris. So he had sneaked downstairs instead, trying to find JD. JD had not been happy and had carried him right back to bed, no matter how much Buck tried to explain to him that he was really, really, really rested! Lots!
He sighed, swinging his feet a little harder against the couch. Why would no one believe him when he told them he was feeling better? He did feel lots better, better enough to go outside. But whenever he tried to reason with JD, JD would get that funny look Buck couldn't remember from before... before the storm and the river, and Buck would immediately stop arguing and climb in JD's lap instead, to comfort him.
Least he was allowed out of his bed and downstairs a bit. Chris had to stay in Vin's room all the time, in the dark. That probably was even more boring, even if Uncle Ezra came around to read to him lots.
He looked up the stairs, waiting anxiously. Nathan was there, to see if Chris could come out of Vin's room and didn't need to stay in the dark all the time anymore. He was just thinking about sneaking upstairs to find out what Nathan's decision was, when he heard a door open, followed by footsteps coming to the stairs. He also heard voices, talking softly with one another.
Buck kept his eyes on the top of the stairs, ignoring JD, ignoring Nathan, ignoring Vin. He held his breath and then....
"Yeah!" he shouted, jumping off the couch and racing the short distance to the stairs, his eyes on the blond boy who stood at the top, a blanket wrapped around him and arguing with Vin about being carried.
"Chris!" Buck yelled, "Chris! You can come out of your room!" He started jumping, but not for long. JD ran down and grabbed him, lifting him up in his arms. Normally Buck wouldn't mind, but right now he didn't have time for JD, he was way too happy to finally see Chris.
Chris turned and waved. He was getting his foot on the first step, when Vin lifted him from behind.
"I told ya, I ain't lettin' ya go down them stairs alone," he groused at Chris.
If Chris and Vin said more Buck missed it, because JD carried him back to the couch. "Come on, Son, let's get you comfortable." With a sigh, the young sheriff added, "Again."
"I's fine, JD!" But right now Buck didn't feel so fine. He was actually glad when he was back on the couch, with a blanket nice and comfy around him and a mug of hot milk in his hands. Bestest of all, though, was Chris sitting right next to him, also with a mug of hot milk in his hands. He was squinting, like the light was too bright, which was nonsense, since it wasn't very light in the house at all.
Buck tried to stop the huge yawn, thinking about all the fun things they could do now Chris was finally downstairs as well. He yawned again, leaning back in the cushions. A hand was suddenly there to take the milk away from him, to straighten his hair and to tuck his blanket up. And then JD was holding him and he saw Vin take Chris in his lap. When he looked up, he saw Uncle Nathan busy with his bag full of stuff to help people, and through the open door Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah came inside, exclaiming in happiness when they saw Chris downstairs.
All was well in his world.
He was home, they were all home.