Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: Betaed by the wonderful LT. This story takes some inspiration from Wendy W's fics Keepsake and Extended Family.
Chris stared into the fire; lazily he considered putting on one more log. Behind him he could hear the scratch of pen on paper. Buck was writing a letter, he had already started three times, only to give up and throw the result on the fire. Chris had not once thought to ask him what the letter was about. If Buck wanted you to know something, he told you, if he didn't he said nothing and there was no point asking him. That said, Chris was curious, he had never known Buck to write a letter. He must have nodded off, because the next thing he knew the pen and paper had been put away and there was no sign of the letter.
"Hell of a day," Buck suddenly commented, as he sat at the table, looking into the fire.
"I never thought something like this could happen to me. I mean I never thought of getting married. I never wanted kids." He suddenly pulled his eyes from the fire to look at Larabee. "Don't get me wrong, I loved Adam, I can't tell you how much, don't have the words. But I never wanted kids of my own and now... I don't know..."
"I know what you mean, it just feels right. It's like it's what was meant to happen; Josiah says its divine will."
"Not sure about that, I just know today was perfect."
Judge Travis had been in town. It was four months now, since JD and Vin had come to Four Corners. The judge was happy they were in a good place and officially made them wards of court placing them in the custody of Christopher Larabee and Buck Wilmington. They had explained to the boys that this meant they were now officially fathers and sons. Little JD had been so happy, he'd whooped and shouted for joy. Vin been a little more guarded, but he was just as happy. They had gone to the restaurant and had steak followed by pecan pie, to celebrate.
One Saturday, some three weeks later, JD was outside the jail playing with his marbles. Chris had taken Vin to Potter's store to buy a new shirt. He had snagged his on a nail in the barn and ripped it beyond repair. A noise drew JD's attention to the end of the street. He looked up to see the stage coming into town. As he watched, it pulled up outside the saloon opposite the jail. As the passengers alighted, his attention was immediately drawn to the tall pretty lady in the blue dress. Behind him the door opened. He looked around and up, smiling at his father.
"Come here, Little Bit." Buck reached down with his arms extended.
Needing no second bidding, JD allowed himself to be swung up onto his father's hip. Together they stepped off the boardwalk and headed across the street. Buck came to a stop in front of the pretty lady. JD could feel his Pa trembling, which made him anxious.
"You came," Buck stated, his voice thick with emotion.
The pretty lady smiled at Buck, and her smile reminded JD of his father.
"Of course I came," her accent was as thick as Ezra's. "And who is this?" She looked at JD.
"Ma, I'd like you to meet your grandson."
The woman and JD both stared at Buck.
"JD son, this is my mother, Elizabeth Wilmington."
As JD stared open mouthed, Elizabeth composed herself in no more than a second and extended her hand to the small boy.
"Well, now, that means I'm very pleased to meet you."
JD took her hand and shook it. "Are you really Buck's mama?" he asked.
"I sure am."
"JD?" There was no response to his father's question. "Hey Little Bit?" Buck gave him a little jiggle.
"Run along and find Chris, bring him here with Vin."
Once the boy was safely out of earshot, Elizabeth turned to her son.
"He must be at least four years old. Why am I only hearing about him now?" she demanded.
"Actually he's five, he's just a mite small is all," Buck explained. "And he's not exactly my son. I've adopted him, sort of. Him and his cousin came here on the orphan train, but no one wanted the two of them together and we couldn't split them up. So we sort of ended up with them."
"Me an' Chris, I'm JD's guardian and Chris is Vin's."
"So when did all this happen?"
"A few months back."
Elizabeth's frown was back. "And you only thought to tell me now?"
"We only got official papers the day I wrote the letter, I was worried in case the court said no, I didn't want to get your hopes up."
Elizabeth visibly relaxed, then put her arms around her son and pulled him in to a long hug. "I have missed you so much, how come you hardly ever write, let alone come and see me?"
"You know I ain't' much for writing Ma, an' New Orleans is a long ways off."
"Piss poor excuses, boy!" She gave him a playful slap.
"I'm an old lady, I shouldn't be coming all this way to visit you; you should come see me."
"You're not old,"
"Damn well am!"
"Ma, you're not even 60, hell you're hardly even 50!"
"I'm old enough." She pulled him back into her arms. "But you're still my baby boy, and I do miss you."
Buck rested his cheek on the top of his mother's head. "Me too, me too."
Just then their reunion was interrupted by JD's high-pitched shouts, as he led Vin and Chris down the street.
Introductions were made all around. Elizabeth took special notice of Buck's best friend, Chris, whom she had heard of through her son's letters but had never met. She offered her condolences. "I am so sorry to hear of your loss, although I know it was a time ago now."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"And you must be JD's cousin Vin, I'm very pleased to meet you." She bent over and offered her hand to Vin.
"Pleased to meet you, Ma'am" Vin shook her hand and smiled, instantly liking the lady with the kind blue eyes and dark curly hair. If she was Buck's mother, he was sure she was a nice lady.
"So where can a lady get a drink and something to eat around here?" Elizabeth asked standing up and looking around.
"Inez has enchiladas today," JD announced with glee.
"Well, I have never had enchiladas, but they sound delicious. What do you say Vin?"
"They're good," he agreed.
She reached out her hands, one to each boy. "Well, you best take me to where these enchiladas can be found, I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." JD giggled. "And what is so funny about that?"
"That's what Buck always says," Vin explained.
"That's because I taught him well."
Ezra was in the saloon at his normal table playing solitaire, when the family group came in. He looked at the lady, who was being led in by the boys, with some curiosity. He didn't have to wonder who she was for long.
"Uncle Ezra! This is Buck's mama, come to visit," the small boy gushed.
Ezra immediately stood and offered his hand to the lady. "What a delightful honour to meet you."
"Why thank you, Sir." Elizabeth turned to her son and wagged an accusatorial finger. "You didn't tell me there were fine southern gentlemen here."
Chris almost choked, Buck just grinned. "Well now Ma, I wouldn't exactly call Ezra a gentlemen."
"Sir, you wound me." Ezra clasped his hand to his heart.
"Don't push it, Standish," Chris growled in a low voice.
Ezra glared at Chris, then turned a dazzling, gold toothed smile on Elizabeth. "I do hope, dear lady, that you and I will have a chance to get better acquainted during your stay in our small town."
"I'm sure that would be delightful," Elizabeth told him.
Moving on, they located Inez, who was very happy to meet the mother of Señor Buck. She provided plates piled high with her delicious food. The boys tucked in eagerly, explaining the various dishes to Elizabeth as they went along.
"So where do you live?" she asked her son.
"At Chris's place. We raise horses. Its a little ways out of town. I was hoping you could come stay for a bit, getting to know the boys, you know, visit awhile - can you do that?"
"For my darling boy, I can do anything."
"That's great!" Buck grinned from ear to ear. "You can have my bed, I'll bunk down in the main room. Guess I'll need t' hire a buggy." He looked down at his son. "JD, can you stay here and take care of Ma while I go to the livery?"
JD, sitting between his father and his grandmother, watched the conversation with curiosity. He wasn't sure what was really going on, but he knew his father was happy, and that is good enough for him. Wiping chili sauce across his face, he grinned.
"Vin, you stay here, too. Don't let JD eat too many of them apple fritters," Chris ordered his boy as he stood to go with Buck.
Vin's mouth was full of sweet corn, butter glistening on his chin, but he nodded his understanding.
As they turned to go, Buck looked back to Ezra. "We're all coming back into town tomorrow, meet everybody properly, okay?"
Ezra acknowledged this with an affirmative tap to his hat. "Perhaps I should reserve a table at the restaurant?"
"Mighty fine idea, why don't you do that." With that Chris tipped his own hat and followed Buck out onto the sunlight.
Once they were alone, Chris turned to his oldest friend. "Why didn't you tell me she was coming? A little warning would have been nice!" he growled as they walked towards the livery. "For that matter, how come you never told me she was still alive? I always assumed she was dead."
"I never told you that," Buck reminded defensively.
"Whatever, you should have told me she was coming."
"I didn't know until today, I never got a reply to my letter." He went on to explain that Elizabeth insisted she had sent a replay, giving details of her journey and expected arrival day. Buck however, had never received it. Chris remembered that a stage coach had been wrecked some way east of Four Corners, just over a week ago. The chances were the missing letter was one of the dozens that were scattered across the prairie when the coach overturned.
Chris took a moment to digest this. "Well, she's here now, and of course, she is welcome in our home."
Buck visibly relaxed. "Thanks."
"Come on, we better get a buggy arranged."
"We better find out how much luggage she brought first, we might need a whole wagon."
As they rode back to the ranch, Vin kept Peso close to Chris. As usual, he wasn't saying much. JD and the other hand, sitting next to Elizabeth in the buggy, was talking up a storm. He had all kinds of questions, but what he really wanted to hear were stories of Buck as a boy. She did her best to answer his questions, much to Buck's embarrassment.
"Was Buck little like me when he was a boy?" JD asked, hopeful that he might yet grow up tall.
"No, I'm sorry honey, Buck was always a big boy. He used to get into lots of trouble, because people thought he was older than he was."
"Well, one day he managed to get a ticket for a burlesque show, and to this day, I don't know how he got that ticket, but he convinced them he was seventeen."
"How old was he?"
JD put his hand over his mouth and giggled. He didn't know what a burlesque show was, but he understood it was a grown up thing and Buck shouldn't have been there.
Chris looked over at Buck, who was smiling. "That true?"
"Oh yeah, what a night."
"Got yourself an education, did you?"
Buck looked over at Chris. "Well, I didn't see nothing I hadn't seen before, but it was a hell of a nice show, I'll tell you that."
Chris was slightly puzzled and somewhat incredulous. At thirteen, he had known nothing about girls and a show like that would have been a real eye opener.
"If you say so."
Elizabeth was now telling JD about some incident in which Buck had been caught stealing apples.
Once they were at the cabin, the boys helped bring Elizabeth's two modest sized bags inside and showed her around, which in such a small cabin didn't take long. Buck quickly stripped the less than clean sheets from his bed and put on the fresh ones they had picked up from the laundry in town, while Chris saw to the horses. Then, while the boys gave Elizabeth as tour of the rest of the property and introduced her to the horses and chickens, Buck and Chris were in the barn, stuffing fresh straw into a pallet for Buck to sleep on while his mother was staying in his room. It was that or the hay loft.
"Why have you never mentioned her?" Chris asked. Just this once, he was going to get Buck to tell him something without waiting for it to be volunteered.
"Why didn't you?"
Wrong footed, Chris looked up, leaning on his pitch folk. "Why didn't I what?"
"Tell me about your family?"
"Buck, you were part of my family, why would I tell you about it?"
"Not Sarah, your own family, mother, father, brothers, sisters? You have never once mentioned them, not in all the years we've known each other. All I know about you is you were in Indiana when you were about 17, a fact I learned less than a year ago, and you most likely grew up on a farm, since you know how to milk a cow. That is the sum total of my knowledge of the life of Chris Larabee before we met in the army! So do not go and get all high and mighty on me, 'cause I didn't tell you my mother was still alive. At least you knew I had a mother! For all I know, you were raised by wolves!"
With that, Buck snatched up the mostly full pallet and marched back toward the house.
He was still sewing up the pallet when his mother came in.
"Well, that is a sight I never thought I'd see." Buck frowned at the remark, not really understanding. "You sewing, I didn't even know you knew how to thread a needle, let alone use it."
"Needs must, a man has to learn to take care of himself."
Noting the irritated edge to his voice, she moved closer. "Of course, I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that I'm not used to seeing a man sew."
Buck went back to his task with more speed than was needed and promptly stabled his thumb with the needle. "Damn!" he cursed, sucking on the injured digit.
"Why don't you let me finish that, while you make some coffee," she suggested.
"Be my guest." He put the needle down and practically stomped over to the stove.
"What's wrong?" his mother asked softly.
"Buck Wilmington don't give me that, your 'nothing' as about as believable as the infamous 'fine'. We don't have secrets, so tell me. If it's me, I can go back to town."
Buck took a deep breath. "It's not you, well not directly. Your coming here kinda brought up some issues me and Chris have been avoiding, for more than a while."
"Is there something about you two I should know?" Elizabeth asked, suddenly thinking she didn't know her baby boy as well as she thought she did.
Buck was putting the coffee pot on the stove. "What?" Then he realised what she thought. "Oh no, nothing like that. It's nothing really. We'll work it out, it's probably my fault, usually is."
Elizabeth secretly despaired. How many times had she tried to get her son to see his needs were as important as others? Before she could say anything, the boys came back. JD came running in, his hands still wet from the pump. Vin followed more slowly, carrying a basket of eggs, which he showed to Elizabeth.
"My, what is this?" she asked, watching as, with all due care, he placed it on the table.
"Eggs," Vin explained simply. "There's enough for breakfast," he added, perhaps worried she'd think there wasn't enough for her.
"So I see. Goodness, that will be nice."
Neither boy saw her shoot a worried glance at her son, whose earlier anger melted into what could only be called a smirk.
"You boys all washed up?" Buck asked. In response, both boys held up their hands. "Okay then, I'm gonna make Ma some coffee then get the food started. You go and get your readers, I expect Chris 'll be in soon."
JD beamed, while Vin's face fell. In no time, JD was back, primer in hand.
"Buck's Ma?" he began, standing in front of Elizabeth.
She looked up and smiled. "Yes dear."
"Can I read to you? Sometime I read to Chris, if Pa is cooking, but can I read to you?"
She smiled. "Of course, let me just finish this ." She tied off the cotton and placed the finished pallet on the floor and picked up the mug of coffee Buck had made for her. "Right, I am all yours."
Chris stood in the barn and watched Buck storm off and silently swore. It had never occurred to him that he was as guilty as Buck of keeping his past secret. No, he corrected himself, not secret, private. Had he really never told his friend anything about his family, not once. He tried to think back over their time together, to the war, but in all honestly he had to admit, Buck was probably right. He usually was. Chris was always amazed at Wilmington's ability to recall, almost word for word, conversations they had had years before. Resolving to do something about the situation, he finished his chores and headed into the house.
Vin was confused and uneasy and frustrated and unhappy and guilty, and that was a lot of emotion for one seven-year-old to handle. He had been pleased that Buck had a mother and she had come to visit. He knew if his mother came to visit, he'd be so happy, so he knew Buck was happy and that was a good thing, and it made JD happy, so that was even better but it wasn't fair. Why was Buck's mom still alive and his was dead? Buck was really old, he was a grown up. Grown up's didn't need moms any more, but he was just a little boy. He wanted his mother, he needed his mother! He wished it was Buck's mother that died and not his. Then he felt guilty, because he shouldn't want someone to be dead, especially not someone's mother. Buck was really nice, he was fun and kind and he loved JD so much. It was wrong to want his mother to be dead.
But there she was, Buck's mom, sitting in Chris' rocking chair, the one he made for Mrs Chris but never got to give her, the one he rocked Vin in when his back was sore. She was sitting there, listening to JD read to her, just the way Chris listened to him. JD read well. He made it sound so easy, he almost never had to ask what a word was or sound it out, not like Vin. That wasn't fair either, because JD was just a little kid, he wasn't even old enough to go to school, not really.
JD finished reading and looked up at Elizabeth.
"That was wonderful dear, you read very well, much better than Buck did when he was little," she complimented.
"Hey!" Buck protested from the stove.
JD giggled, holding his hand over his mouth.
"It is true and you know it."
"What was your school like?" JD asked his father.
Buck turned and looked, not at JD, but at his mother and there was a look that passed between them. Vin saw it, he didn't understand it, but somehow he knew something was being held back, someone was lying in some way and that made him uneasy.
"Buck's school was very small," Elizabeth explained.
"Little Bit, you run along and put your book away," Buck instructed.
JD wanted to ask more questions, but didn't. With a glance back at Elizabeth, he did as he was told.
"Vin honey, do you want to read to me?" Elizabeth asked.
NO! Vin screamed in his head. I read to Dad, not you, you don't belong here. He shook his head, clutching his book to his chest.
Just then, Chris came in. "When's supper?" he asked, even before the door was closed.
Buck stuck his little finger into the strew he was stirring to gage it's temperature. "Ten minutes?"
"Fine." Chris took in the room, Vin, standing there, primer clutched to his chest, Elizabeth, sitting in the rocker by the fire, JD trotting back from the boys' room, smiling as usual. "Is it reading time, son?" he asked Vin.
Vin gave a relieved nod.
"Well, let's go someplace quiet." With that, he placed his arm across Vin's shoulder and steered him toward his own bedroom. As soon as he touched his son, he felt a wave of tension leave his body. Damn, this situation is rubbing off on him now!
Supper passed without incident. Vin's reading session had gone much better than normal and Chris was considering that the bed room, with no distractions, was a better place to do it. For once, JD managed to eat with out spilling or upsetting something and with only a limited amount of food on his face.
Elizabeth had watched with amazement and pride as her son had helped cut up the bigger pieces of meat and expertly wiped the food from his son's face. She had always known he loved children, was good with them, would protect them from any harm, but this was different. True, he had only known JD for a few months, but it was clear how much he loved the boy. Blood didn't seem to matter, JD was his son and her grandson.
"Buck's Ma?" JD's voice cut though into her thoughts.
"Are you gonna cook breakfast?"
A look that could only be called panic hit Elizabeth's face.
"No Little Bit, it's Chris' turn to make the breakfast," Buck reminded.
"But she's a lady, ladies is best at cooking," JD reasoned.
Buck tired not to laugh.
"Buck Wilmington, you say one word and I will tan your hide don't think I can't!" Elizabeth warned her strapping six foot three son sternly.
"You can whoop Buck?" Vin asked, then covered his mouth with his hand, amazed he'd spoken out loud.
"You better believe it!" she told him with a wink.
Buck decided it was time to move the conversion way from him. "The thing is, Ma doesn't cook much."
JD looked at his father and back at Elizabeth. "But all ladies can cook," he stated with the kind of certainty only a five-year-old could have.
"Not if they weren't taught to cook," Elizabeth explained. "You see my mother didn't teach me to cook so I never learned how."
"But who made food for Buck when he was little?" JD persisted. Clearly, the idea of a mother not cooking for her child was beyond his comprehension.
"Someone cooked for us."
"Like in a restaurant?"
"Yes, dear, like in a restaurant."
JD's mouth made a big 'oh'. "So is that why Buck can't cook good, `cause you didn't teach him?"
Elizabeth took a look around the table. Buck looked fit to bust, Chris looked amused and Vin, looked...actually she had no idea what he was thinking. "You don't think your father can cook?" she finally asked. After all, they had just eaten a very nice meal. "I though the stew was excellent."
"That's `cause Mrs Potter made it," JD explained. "She makes stew and chicken pie and Miz Inez makes all kinds of nice Me'ican food but not too spicy 'cause Vin don't like it like that but I do, don't I Pa?"
"You do seem to like it hot," Buck confirmed.
"An' Chris makes biscuits and gravy and chicken and dumplin's that Mrs Chris teached him how to make and they is the bestest thing ever, `cept for Miz Nettie, she makes pies and cookies and cakes."
"Goodness me," Elizabeth managed to say, before he continued. "Doesn't Buck cook anything nice?"
"Hum," JD thought hard for a while. "He makes good bacon, real crispy."
"Or burnt, as the rest of us call it," Chris explained.
"Don't stop you eating it and coming back for seconds," Buck countered.
"I like it crispy," JD explained to Elizabeth.
"Which is why I cook it that way," Buck pointed out, mostly to Chris.
"And beans," JD continued, "Pa makes nice beans, 'cept if you eats too many they make you "
"Time to clear the table," Chris announced hurriedly.
With the table cleared, Buck set about the dishes, while Chris went out to do a final check on the stock. To Vin's annoyance, Elizabeth sat back down in the rocker.
"Boys, time to get ready for bed," Buck instructed.
There were the usual protests from JD that he wasn't tired, while Vin just glared at Elizabeth before turning and heading to the bedroom. Chris wasn't back, and Buck had his arms in a bowl of soapy water, when there came a high pitched call of. "PAAAAAAAA!" from JD.
"Yeahhhhhhhhh?" Buck called back.
"My laces is stuck!"
Buck cursed, shaking his hands off and looking about for a cloth to dry them.
"Why don't I go?" Elizabeth asked, rising from the chair.
Buck looked over his shoulder. "Do you mind? He pulls on them so they go into a knot."
Vin was frankly horror struck when Elizabeth came into their room while he was changing for bed, but she didn't seem to notice, just smiling at him before turning to JD.
"JD, can I help?" she asked.
JD didn't blink an eye at the arrival of this relative stranger, he just lifted his foot. "My boot's stuck," he explained.
Elizabeth shook her head and knelt down in front of the bed upon which JD was perched and began to pick apart the knot in his laces. With a deft touch and longer finger nails than his father, she soon had the job done.
"Thanks Buck's Ma."
Elizabeth sat back and looked at her new grandson. "You know, 'Buck's Ma', that's a bit of a mouthful, don't you think? Perhaps we should find a different name for me? What do you think?"
JD's face scrunched up into a frown, finally he nodded. "What?" he asked bluntly.
"Well, let's think. My name is Elizabeth, so you could call me that, and my friends call me Beth. But since you are Buck's son and he is my son, that makes me your grandmother."
JD's frown turned into a look of puzzlement, then happiness. "Fer real?"
"Absolutely, so do you think you'd like to call me Grandma?"
JD nodded enthusiastically.
Elizabeth turned to Vin. "Vin?" she asked.
"NO!" Vin suddenly shouted, running from the room.
He was running so hard and so fast he didn't even see Chris as he came in and ran straight into him. Bouncing off his father, he landed on the floor with a thud.
"Hey there Cowboy, what's the big hurry?" Chris asked, bending to help his son up.
"Make her go away!" Vin demanded as he regained his feet.
"What?" Buck asked in shock.
Before he could say more, Chris held up his hand, silencing him. "Vin, son, what's the matter?"
"She, she, she made it all different, she changed it!" he gasped out. "She sat in the rocker, it's our rocker, not hers! And, and " he tried to catch his breath, tears now flowed unchecked. "She made you and Buck mad at each other. And now she wants to be our grandma, but we already got one, we got Miz Nettlie! And she's a real grandma, she can cook good and mend clothes and, and and she knows how to shoot too! I don't want her to be my grandma, I want Miz Nettie. I want it like it was! So make her go away!"
With that the tirade ended. Vin stood there, his slight shoulders heaving as he gasped for breath, back handing tears from his eyes, while everyone else in the room just stared at him.
Chris took a deep breath, then he did something, that while it had quickly become second nature to Buck and JD, was rare for him. He picked Vin up and hugged him, then turned and walked out of the house. For a second or two after the door closed, the silence remained. Then there was a loud sniff and a thunder of little feet as JD charged across the room and flung himself at Buck, tears streaming down his face.
Buck enveloped him in a hug. "Hush Little Bit, it's okay, I'm here, Buck's got you," he soothed.
"I 'ov Miz Nettie too!" JD wailed.
In a relatively short time, the boys had not only accepted their new guardians as their fathers, but nominated the town's other three lawmen as honorary uncles. Just one month ago, Chris and Buck, along with the other three, had been forced to leave town in pursuit of a gang of rustlers. Nettie had willingly agreed to look after the boys while they were gone. It hadn't been easy to persuade them to go, even more difficult to get Vin to promise to stay there and not come after them, but in the end he did agree. Chris and Buck never found out what happened in those eight days, but when they returned, the boys announced that Miz Nettie was now their grandmother.
"I know you do, it's okay." Buck looked over at his mother, who, if it were possible, looked more upset than JD.
"I didn't know," she whispered. "I'll be in the bedroom." With that she quietly withdrew.
Buck took JD over to the rocker and settled down with the distressed five-year-old on his lap.
Chris took Vin no further then the steps to the front porch. They sat there together until Vin was cried out.
"Can we talk now?" Chris asked.
The only answer he got was a slight nod of the head against his chest.
"You know that Miz Wilmington is only visiting, right? She's not going to stay forever."
"And that Buck loves his Ma a lot, and he wants to spend some time with her?"
"Yeah," came the muffled admission.
"I know it doesn't seem fair, that his ma is here and yours can't be, but that isn't her fault, is it?"
"You know that if she left now, Buck would be very sad. Do you want that?"
Vin looked up and frowned. "Course I don't. But she made you unhappy," he persisted.
"No, not really. There are some things Buck and I need to sort out. Miz Wilmington just made us think about them, which is, I guess, a good thing," he admitted to himself as much as to Vin. "I know she sat in the rocker, but it's the best chair we have, actually it's the only comfortable chair we have, and when you have a lady visitor you always give her the best chair."
When it became clear that he and Buck were going to keep the boys, their most urgent problem was that of suitable accommodation. To begin with, they all stayed at the boarding house, with the boys sharing a room between those of the two men. The best solution was to extend Chris' cabin and add some out buildings. It was heartening to find how many people were prepared to help them. Nathan and Josiah helped with the building, Tiny, from the livery, also lent a hand when he could and loaned them a team of heavy horses and his biggest wagon. Ezra claimed he had no free time, since when he wasn't working as a lawman, he was gambling, which to him was job, not a pastime. However, he located beds, bureaus, wardrobes, even a cookstove and had them delivered, all for a bargain price. Mary Travis collected clothing for the boys and Mrs Potter made curtains and sold them everything they needed to set up home at cost. There was some talk about not having a fire place in the main room, since there would be a cookstove in the room, producing heat, but Chris insisted they needed a real fire to sit around.
The rocking chair was the only bit of furniture to survive the fire at his original home. He'd been making it for Sarah, for her birthday. It was finished and he'd hidden it in the barn, which survived the fire. Other than that, the only other seating they had, not counting the chairs around the dining table, was a bench seat with storage underneath. Though practical, it was hard and narrow. Most evenings, Buck stayed sitting at the table. Chris mentally kicked himself that he hadn't thought about getting something more comfortable for his friend to relax in during the evening. He briefly wondered why Buck hadn't said anything about it, but dismissed the thought. He knew Buck couldn't afford a nice chair at the moment, and he'd never ask for anything.
"I tell you what," he began, smiling at down at Vin. "When we go into town, we'll have to ask Ezra if he knows were we can get another chair, something Buck can sit in by the fire."
Vin thought about this for a while. Finally, he nodded, accepting the explanation and thinking the solution to be fair.
"What about Miz Nettie?" he asked.
"Well, first off, Buck's Ma is really JD's grandmother, so you don't have to call her 'Grandma' if you don't want to, but even if you did, you know everyone has or had, two grandmothers."
"So you see Little Bit, my Ma can be you're grandmother as well as Miz Nettie," Buck finished his explanation.
Huge, tear reddened eyes stared up at him. "Yer not funnin' me?"
Buck shook his head. "I wouldn't fun you about this, it's the truth, I promise."
Buck gave his son another reassuring hug then made him promise to stay in the rocker, while he went to speak to his mother.
Knocking on the bedroom door, he didn't wait for a response before going in. Elizabeth was folding a blouse, one of her bags was open on the bed.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Packing, what does it look like?
"No, please," Buck all but begged. "I haven't seen you in so long."
"My presence has upset the children," she reminded him softly. "They must come first."
"Of course, I know that, but I explained it to JD, he understands now. Just give Chris a chance to talk to Vin please?"
Elizabeth never could resist her son when he looked all lost and hurt. She put her arms around him and pulled him in for a hug. "Very well, I will wait, but assuming Vin understands, there are still those issues between you and Chris to sort out, and don't think I don't know what they are." She felt Buck tense up. "He's your best friend, the two of you are raising these boys together, there should be no secrets between you." She pulled back and looked up at him. "Tell him the truth."
"Okay," he finally admitted. "When you're gone." Elizabeth hit him on the chest. "Tomorrow." She hit him again. "Tonight."
JD was still sitting obediently on the rocker when almost simultaneously, the bedroom door and the front door opened. His big eyes darted from side to side, trying to work out if everything in his world was still alright. Seeing smiles all round he kicked his legs in excitement and clapped his hands.
With the boys finally in bed, Elizabeth discreetly withdrew to her room, leaving Chris and Buck to have the 'talk' that was long overdue.
Chris reached up to the top shelf of the sideboard, and pulled a small bottle of whisky from behind the jar of molasses. He poured them each a small measure.
"Here." He handed one glass to Buck, then settled in the rocker.
As usual Buck sat at the table.
"We need to get another chair," Chris began. "Something more comfortable than that thing." He pointed to the bench seat.
"Don't need to do it on my account," Buck responded.
"Vin doesn't like to share the rocker, so we need some other chair to offer guests."
Buck nodded his acceptance.
"I didn't grow up on a farm," Chris began.
Chris shook his head.
"So were did you grow up?"
"Pennsylvania. My father was a coal miner. We were dirt poor. I have two sisters, both younger than me. My father, Michael Mick to his friends he was a bully, used to beat the shit out of me whenever he got the chance." Chris lifted his glass as if to drink, but just turned it, watching the amber fluid roll around inside. "To him, my sisters were perfect, he treated them like princesses, what ever they wanted they got." He paused. "I guess they didn't really get everything they wanted, but it sure felt like that. Nothing I did was good enough. He was a big man, but I was skinny, really, really skinny and kind of short for my age. He though I was a weakling, he used to call me 'the useless runt'. I had to do most everything at home except the cooking and washing. I cleaned the grates, shovelled coal - coal I scavenged from the waste heaps around the mine. I swept, I scrubbed the floors," he chuckled. "I even scrubbed dishes. And no matter what I did, it was never good enough."
"What about your mother?" Buck asked when no more information was forthcoming.
"Mother was thin like me, skin and bones, other than that, I look like the bastard. She hated him, at least I think she did, but she'd promised to love, honour and obey and that was what she was going to do, no matter what." He looked at Buck and smiled. "She tried to be a good mother, she even tried to protect me but it cost her. I never saw him hit her, but he knew how to use words to hurt. He made her feel like she was nothing, a skivvy who's job was to take care of him and his girls." Chris took a deep breath and went back to looking into his glass. "When I was fourteen, I finished school on the third of July and my father told me I'd be starting with him down the mine on the fifth. I spent the fourth with them, well with my mother really. Then, when they were all asleep, I left."
Chris pulled his eyes away from the whisky and looked back at Buck. "I've never been back. And I swore if I ever became a father, I'd be a nothing like him."
"You're a great father, pal," Buck assured.
"You really mean that?" There was genuine concern in Chris' question.
"Sure I do, can you doubt it?"
"Yes, yes I can. The only example I had was him. When Adam came along I had to work out what to do on my own."
This was a side of Chris Buck had never seen. The Chris Buck knew was always so sure of himself, so decisive. The Chris Buck knew had always been good with children, something, that until now, few people knew or would ever have guessed.
"Well don't doubt it, you're a good father. If God forbid anything ever happens to me, I'll lie easy in my grave knowing you're looking after JD. So where did you learn to milk a cow?" Buck asked, hoping to lighten the mood.
"Good luck, maybe fate. There I was, no money, a few clothes and less than a day's worth of food, walking out of town all on my own, no idea where I was going, where I was going to sleep, how I was going to eat... All I knew was I was away from him. Around dawn, I'm walking down this road and there are these cows all over the place."
"Cows?" Buck asked.
"Cows, just grazing on the road side. At the back of them, this man with a dog were trying to get them to move, so I offered to help. I broke off a branch and start beating this cow on the behind, no idea how dangerous that was. Anyway, it worked, got them moving. I helped the farmer get his cows back into the field. Turned out his son had broken his leg. He couldn't afford to pay anyone to help him while the boy healed. I offered to do it for room and board and he agreed."
Chris finally drank some of his whisky. "Happiest three months of my life, at least at the time. After his son was up and about he couldn't keep me on, but he put me in contact with this old farmer, further out of town, he needed some help, I worked for him for two years. That was how it was, farms, ranches, lumber mills, I just worked my way west. Met some genuinely good people and some not so good, learned how to shoot and ride, even how to build my own house.
"And how to milk a cow," Buck added smiling broadly.
Buck looked past Chris into the fire.
"Ma grew up in Charleston," he began. "the reason she can't cook is 'cause she grew up rich. Bet you never would have guessed I came from rich folk?" he asked with amusement.
Chris shook his head.
"Her father was a sea captain who made a heap of money and became some kind of merchant, never been exactly sure what he did, don't reckon Ma really knows. She was the oldest of six. They lived in this big house with slaves, a cook, maids, steward, coach man, house boy. She had everything she wanted, never had to do a days work. When she was fifteen there was a ball, it was her first real, grown up ball. Some young ship's officer paid her a lot of attention, too much attention as it turns out. She had no idea what was happening, she didn't even know she was pregnant, not 'til her maid explained it to her. They kept it a secret for as long as possible, but in the end her father found out." Buck stopped to glance at the closed bedroom door, then looked back at Chris. "He sold the maid, for helping her hide it and he threw her, his eldest child, his own daughter, out of the house in the clothes she stood up in."
Chris swore softly. "What did she do?"
"Walked the streets, going to the houses of her so called friends, asking for help. No one would help, not even her grandmother, but she at least did give her an address, a place she said where girls like her were welcome. Ma thought it was some kind of charity home."
"But it wasn't?"
"Hardly. It was a bordello, a nice one, but still a cat house. They took care of her 'til I came along, then she had to pay them back." He looked over at Chris, trying to gage his reaction, but Larabee's expression was unreadable. "So anyway, she didn't want to stay in Charleston, she knew too many of the men, they were her father's friends, her friend's fathers and brothers. As soon as she could, she moved west. In the end, we ended up in Baton Rouge. Most kids like me are sent away to school when they're six or seven, but Ma wouldn't let me go, so I grew up with her and the other ladies, but no men. You had a bastard for a father, I had none at all. Everything I learned about being a father I got from you, from watching you with Adam."
"You're a good father," Chris assured.
"I know, because I learned from the best. Ma told JD I went to a small school " He gave a little laugh. "I never went to school. Decent, respectable kids weren't allowed to play with me. I might have contaminated them or lead them to the devil or, oh I don't know what. Znyway I got my schooling from Ma and a few of the other ladies."
"Must have been a hell of an education," Chris commented. And a very lonely way to grow up, he added silently.
Buck grinned, knowing now that his revelations weren't going to change anything between them.
"You could say that. We do have one thing in common, I left home when I was fourteen as well. Not because I had to or even really wanted to, but I knew if I was going to be more than a 'whore house brat', I needed to get away, make my own way in the world, some place no one knew me. Near broke Ma's heart. These days, she runs her own house, one of the finest in New Orleans."
"She's done well for herself," Chris commented.
Buck nodded. "She could retire now, nice house, a maid and a cook, but she'd get bored."
"What about your father?" Chris asked. "The sailor?"
"Yeah, him, he'd gone back to sea a few weeks after the party. Ma tried to contact his family, but they wouldn't acknowledge her."
"So he could still be alive?"
"What was his name?"
"Caleb Gregory." Buck looked at Chris and lifted his glass. "A real bastard, who needs him."
Chris lifted his own glass. "Mick Larabee, another bastard we don't need."
While Chris had told Sarah about his family, he hadn't been able to tell her about his father. He was her husband, her protector, the father of her child. She didn't want to know about the short, scrawny kid who was treated like dirt and beaten by his own father. Buck had been conditioned from birth, not to let anyone outside the 'profession' know where he lived or how his mother earned her living. There hadn't even been that many people he'd told he had no father. It was a huge relief for both of them to finely be able to tell someone. They talked for hours, sharing childhood memories, almost getting to know each other all over again.
The next morning the atmosphere in the little cabin was much lighter. Vin understood were Elizabeth fit into his new family, Buck and Chris were more at ease with each other, Elizabeth knew she was welcome to stay and because everyone else was happy, JD was happy.
Even though it was Chris' turn, Buck cooked breakfast. To prove a point, he cooked two batches of bacon, one crispy, one not so crispy. He even fried the eggs rather than scrambling them. More times than not, Buck's fried eggs, or 'flat eggs' as JD called them, turned into scrambled, but today he made sure to keep a close eye on them.
Later they headed into town, where the boys enthusiastically introduced Elizabeth as their 'other grandma' to their uncles and all their friends. Nettie wasn't in town, but Chris and Buck assured them they would visit her before Elizabeth needed to return home. Ezra said he knew exactly were to find a chair. Elizabeth left money on account with Gloria for the winter clothes the boys would need in a few months time. Of course, she didn't tell her son or Chris about this arrangement, it was strictly between the two business women. She did ask the two men's permission before treating the boys to candy and a gift for each from the store. JD chose a picture book of animals from around the world, Vin a ball.
Buck and his mother sat on the porch watching Vin patiently try to teach JD to catch. Elizabeth smiled as the little boy dropped the ball again. Unperturbed, he gathered it up and threw it, rather ineffectually, back to Vin.
"I know you hate to ask, but if there is ever anything you or the boys need, all you have to do is ask. You do know that, don't you?" she asked.
"I know Ma. It's good to know you're there if we ever need you."
"Just so long as you don't forget."
"I could never forget you."