A Little Souvenir

by Estee

Notes: I’d like to say thanks to Phyllis for all her help on this totally JD-less story, and thanks to Laura who was kind enough to leave the Ponderosa and once again try to help with my negligent use of sentence fragments and rampant ellipse abuse.

This story is the result of too much time spent thinking about poor little Vin losing his mama at such a young age, and his poor mama having to leave her little boy behind, possibly all alone in the world.

Btw, there’s no such town (that I know of) named Big Tree. As for ‘Putrid Fever’– was it typhus or diphtheria? I was fairly vague with the descriptions and symptoms, but I was thinking typhus, since diphtheria would have been much easier to contract and spread.

Any comments can be sent here: estee@mchsi.com

Story moved to Blackraptor in October 2009

There were times when Chris Larabee just needed to get out of town, to go off on his own and blow up, or act up, or do whatever it took to restore his peace of mind, to save his sanity and dignity and friendships. Thankfully, most times he was able to predict when his mood was about to swing and get out of town before he ended up doing anything he may later regret. These times usually coincided with certain dates on the calendar, but there were other times when a simple word, or scent, or perhaps even the sight of some thing would unexpectedly trigger a memory from his past, and it was like something inside him would just snap and suddenly his mind would cease to work rationally. And he’d be completely unable to control his temper, unwilling to bear the kindness or pity or sympathetic glances from his friends and the rest of the townsfolk.

Some of the time, he’d head to Purgatorio; some of the time he’d just head to no where in particular -- anywhere that had a saloon. Lately he’d find himself heading to a little dustbowl of a town called Big Tree, just across the Texas border. It had everything he needed, a saloon that served rotgut whiskey, folks that minded their own business, and a blue-eyed beauty who seemed just as lost and lonely as he was.

“Bring me back a little souvenir this time,” Buck had told him with a wink as he’d handed him his reins. Good ole Buck -- always there for him, always amazing him with his patience and loyalty. He’d been the target of Chris’ vicious temper more times than he could count, but still his old friend remained, strong and steadfast – like a rock. Like a mountain.

A little souvenir, huh? Chris smiled as he felt the small body slouch, leaning more heavily into the crook of his arm. He wondered what Buck would think of this souvenir?

It wasn’t dark yet, so he figured they’d keep going for a few more miles anyway. With the pace they’d been traveling he needed to get in as much time in the saddle as he could if he wanted to make it home tomorrow.

He shifted his own weight in the saddle and pulled the small boy into hopefully a more comfortable position, amused at the ability of children to fall asleep anytime, anywhere. Except when you wanted them to, of course. His thoughts carried him back to another time, another child: a small angelic face, a beloved voice pleading to be allowed to stay up when it was long past his bedtime. “Please, Pa?”

“Mr. Chris?” A different voice, but the same tone distinguished by a lazy drawl.

“You doin’ okay, pard?”

“Yeah, but I . . .” A different small face, no less angelic looked up at him, cheeks stained rosy. “I gotta go,” he whispered discreetly, as if there was anyone within a day’s ride to hear him.

“Well, uh . . ..” He looked around, immediately singling out a place that would suit them for both camping as well as the more pressing need. “Okay, was thinkin’ we ought to be stoppin’ for the night anyway.” He dismounted, pulling the child down with him. “Why don’t you go on over there,” he pointed to a scraggly looking shrub, “and take care of business. We’ll make camp right by this here rock.” He watched the boy scurry toward the bush, and shouted – only half kidding - for him to be sure to check for critters. The boy stopped, turning to look over his shoulder, his big blue eyes going wide. Chris smiled and nodded toward the bush. “Go on.” The boy turned back toward his goal, making his way more cautiously now.

Chris chuckled and loosely tethered the horse’s reins into the bare branches of a drought stricken sugar pine. The area was dry, but even more so this year. They hadn’t received the normal amount of rainfall that accompanied the monsoon season. It looked as if it hadn’t rained a drop in months. Not too far away, a few feet from the partially sheltering bluff, he found a shallow depression filled with cold ashes, remnants of another campfire, evidence that the road was at least occasionally traveled -- most likely by outlaws, banditos and the lawmen on their trails. This was a dangerous place to travel alone, but Chris had never given that much thought, until now.

Hefting the saddle from his horse, he set it on the ground and glanced toward the shrub where the boy was just stepping out, still tucking his shirt in. “You wanna see if you can find some branches, and we’ll get a fire started.” Shouldn’t be too hard to find, since pretty much everything was dry as dust, and looked about ready to go up in flames. The kid’s eyes lit up and he nodded, happy to make himself useful. Unlike most kids Chris knew, this one seemed eager to work, eager to please. Whatever family he ended up with would be getting more than they bargained for. He might look a bit scrawny for his age, be a bit on the quiet side, could use a haircut -- but the kid was tough, scrappy; he had heart, courage and spunk. Just like his mama . . ..

~ ~ * * ~ ~

“So, tell me Sam, what’s a nice girl—“

“--like me doin’ in a place like this?” she finished, her eyes twinkling with humor. “Well, a girl’s gotta make a livin’ somehow.”

“Yeah, but . . ..” He let his voice trail off, trying to think of a tactful way to put the question – and then wondering why he cared to know.

“Well,” she continued, sliding her fingers lightly across his chest, seeming to sense his unease, “a few years back I tried to open myself a little diner, ya know?” She tilted her head to one side, her expression thoughtful. “Thought it’d be a good thing. Figured some good, home cookin’d be ‘preciated by all them cowboys who been out on the trail for too long.”

Chris nodded, understanding. The dusty little town had one saloon, a dilapidated hotel, an overpriced mercantile, but no decent restaurant. You could get a meal at the saloon if you came at the right time of day and were hungry enough to eat whatever they had on ‘special.’ That was the closest thing the town had to a restaurant and he’d always been a little curious as to why. “And . . .?” he prompted her to continue.

“Well, ya see, there was one little problem,” here she frowned, looking a bit petulant if anything, but her delicate fingers kept moving, stroking his skin. “I didn’t take too kindly when folks complained about my cookin’.”

Chris almost choked on his laughter at the image of this tiny sprite of a girl pitching a fit, facing down some big burly cowboy who’d complained that his food wasn’t fixed to his liking.

“It ain’t funny!” she scolded, the delicate, stroking fingers then curled into a fist and she socked him in the shoulder.

Which only made him laugh harder. “Ow.” He rubbed the offended area as he tried to get his laughter under control. “That bad, huh?”

The scowl she cast at him suggested he was in danger of being hit again.

How bad could it have been? “Most cowboys I know ain’t all too picky about what they eat,” he said, with laughter in his eyes. “Your cookin’ couldn’t have been that bad…could it?“

“You wanna know what happened?” she practically shouted. “Or ya just wanna poke fun at my cookin’!”

The story was too good; he had to hear the rest. He forced himself to look serious, or tried to anyway. “Tell me what happened.”

“Well,” she frowned and bit at her lower lip, suddenly looking nervous and shy – appearing even younger than she had just a few minutes ago, “one day, I kinda left some taters on the stove a mite too long, and well…the next thing I knew there’s smoke comin’ out of the kitchen, and I tried to go put it out, but someone just grabbed me up and carried me outside. I tried to fight ‘em, but dadburnit, they wouldn’t let go! Anyways, the place burnt down and nobody even tried to put out the fire. They said it was prob’ly for the best, since I wasn’t much of a cook!” She huffed and folded her arms across her blanket-covered chest. “What do they know?”

Chris knew he probably shouldn’t find the tale funny, especially considering the tragic events of his own life -- but between the look of righteous indignation on her face, and the idea of her cooking so bad that folks would be thankful her restaurant days were over -- he just couldn’t stop himself from bursting into laughter.

And when she stuck her chin out defiantly, threw back the blankets and started to get out of the bed, declaring, “I can cook!” Chris pulled her back down, pressing her warm, bare flesh to his as he rolled her beneath him. With a sultry smile, he looked into her heated blue eyes and whispered, “You sure can,” then kissed her passionately, taking her breath away as he stoked an entirely different kind of fire.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

The boy dropped another load of twigs into the pit then stepped back and brushed his hands off. The dry wood immediately caught and a moment later, a warm fire blazed to life. Whereas a couple hours ago they’d been sweating under the relentless rays of the sun, now with the sun gone down, it was getting uncomfortably chilly. Chris turned to ask the boy if he was hungry, but he’d already run off for what Chris assumed was another load of kindling. It wouldn’t hurt to have some extra to keep the fire going through the night.

A short time later the boy reappeared, but instead of offering another armload of sticks, he held out a scrawny jackrabbit, speared clean through. “You caught that?” he asked with surprise.

The boy nodded, looking a little pleased with himself. “I can skin it too, if’n ya let me use your knife.”

Chris caught himself before letting out a laugh. The youngster was dead serious, and the last thing Chris wanted to do was make light of his offer. Well, that’s the second to the last thing he wanted to do; the last thing would be to hand over his blade to a five year old. “That’s okay,” he told him with as much seriousness as he could. “Why don’t I do it?”

“I can do it,” the boy insisted, apparently not liking his ability questioned.

“I’m sure you can,’ Chris assured, a hint of a smile on his lips. “But, since you caught it, it’s only fair that I clean it.”

That seemed to appease his manly pride and he nodded, handing over his catch.

“How in the world did you manage to find this guy?” He wasn’t only surprised that the boy had caught the rabbit; he was surprised that there were any rabbits around to catch.

“It was just there,” he answered with a shrug. “And, when I’s fixin’ to make my stick sharp, it didn’t move the whole time.”

Probably didn’t have enough energy, Chris thought, looking down at the half-starved creature. The rabbit was skin and bones – and fur, probably hadn’t eaten in quite awhile. Probably wasn’t even worth skinning, but the boy looked so pleased that Chris couldn’t bring himself to let him down by mentioning that. Besides, it would be worth the effort if he could get the kid to eat a little something, even if it was just a bit of sinewy old rabbit hide.

“Why don’t you see if you can grab us a little more firewood?” Chris suggested, as he set to preparing their meal. “Don’t wander off though, stay close to the fire.” When the boy nodded, Chris went back to his task. He thought back to their first meeting, which is what had inspired his caution for the boy to stay close.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris woke to an empty bed, vaguely wondering when his companion had excused herself. He hadn’t even heard her leave. Well, he reminded himself, it wasn’t like he had any sort of proprietorship on her. He usually saw her in the evenings, and didn’t even know how she spent her days. Maybe sleeping? He sat up and stretched then made his way over to the basin. Definitely need a shave, he thought, as he splashed cool water over his face.

He cleaned and dressed with more care than usual for reasons that he wasn’t quite willing to admit. He kept reminding himself all the while that this girl was in fact a saloon girl, not exactly the type of woman you take home for your family to meet. Shaking his head, he wondered why he was even thinking these things?

As he descended the stairs, he heard her familiar voice outside, only it wasn’t the sweet, teasing drawl he was used to. Her voice was raised, frantic sounding as she called out a man’s name. The desk clerk was standing at the hotel’s entrance, holding the door wide open. When Chris looked out into the sunlight and spotted her, he was surprised at her unkempt appearance. She looked half put together, shoeless and it was obvious that her long, golden hair had yet to see a comb this morning. He wondered who she was calling for, and felt a twinge of jealousy that another man could be the focus of her intensity.

When he stepped out onto the boardwalk he noticed there were others gathered along both sides of the street, watching her but not offering to help. He saw a few turn away, shaking their heads and going back to their business. When she realized he was standing there, she immediately came to him and clutched his arm. He noticed her face was wet with tears, and he couldn’t help be concerned, no matter that she was seeking out some other man. “Please, Mr. Larabee,” she pleaded. “Please help me find him.”

Mentally, he kicked himself, but nodded in agreement. He couldn’t find the strength of will to deny her. ”What’s he look like?” he asked, looking up and down the street and still wondering why nobody else was coming to her aid.

“He has blond hair, it’s a little long,” she gestured to her shoulders, “and blue eyes. I don’t know where he could be,” she said, eyes searching every possibility. “He’s about this tall,” she added, almost as an afterthought, and held her hand waist high, causing Chris to almost stumble backwards. “He’s just turned five!”

With his mind going in several directions at once, he set out to help her search for the missing boy, now understanding her frantic efforts. What he saw next had him reaching for his gun, and most likely he’d have shot first and asked questions later, if the boy hadn’t looked completely at ease. Three Indians had halted at the edge of town and the older one hoisted a tiny blond-haired boy down to the ground. The child came running toward them with open arms, shouting, “Mama!” Chris scratched his head and watched her sweep him into a hug. Mama?

Samantha picked the boy up and turned around in haste, only to run into Chris who was still trying to piece together everything that had happened in the last few minutes. “It’s his . . ..”she frowned, looking momentarily uncertain, then resolved, “It’s his grandfather,” she said to Chris in a tone that was half apology-half defiant. He nodded and looked down at the ground, not sure what to say or if he should say anything at all. When he looked up she was gone, hurrying down the street with the boy in her arms, and the Indians were gone as well, nowhere to be seen.

Chris decided that it might be a good idea for him to be moseying along, too.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

They ate their supper in silence, Chris making sure the boy had the biggest share of his catch. It was tough, but warm and possibly better for a growing boy than the jerky he would have had. Most importantly, the boy ate it all without any coercing and for that Chris was grateful. After they’d finished and cleaned up their mess, Chris laid out his bedroll. He was glad he’d brought an extra blanket. The boy may be small, but he took up more than his share of space during the night, and he always managed to kick his blanket completely away by the time he woke in the morning.

After he had the bedding arranged, he sat down, leaning back against his saddle. The boy looked a little apprehensive, like he wasn’t sure he was welcome. Chris wondered at this – after seven nights on the trail, with the same routine every night, you’d think he’d know by now. With a smile, he patted the spot beside him then held out his arm. “C’mere.”

That was all the invitation needed. The boy scooted beside him, settling against his side then he tilted his head back, looking up at Chris with intelligent, but sleepy blue eyes. He seemed too content for someone so young that had just lost his mama. But Chris knew it was just a moment of respite, the calm before the storm. He was pretty sure that all too soon the nightmares would return -- like they had every night. And the child would wake up, face wet with tears, crying for his mama – just like he had every other night. So, he pulled the boy closer, thankful that he was able to offer whatever security the boy might need, and willing to do so for as long as he possibly could -- well, at least until they got back to town.

It wasn’t too much longer and he heard the soft snoring that indicated the boy had fallen asleep. Head still tilted back, eyes closed, mouth open – adorable as hell. Chris smiled and maneuvered them lower to the ground, resting the boy against his shoulder and gently closing his mouth. Damn, but it felt good to have a small body snuggled up in his arms again. It had been too long, too long that his arms had ached to hold his son – ached to even remember what it felt like to hold him. No memory could compare to this – to the real thing -- and he realized that he was beginning to like this too much; he was allowing himself to get too attached. He knew that he needed to take a step back, but the thought of doing so made his chest feel uncomfortably tight, like he couldn’t get a decent breath.

He forced his lungs to expand then relax -- and then did so again. Once they got back to Four Corners, Josiah would know what to do. The preacher would be able to help him figure out what was best for the boy. There had to be some family, or some mission that would be willing to help the kid find a family. Of course, he wouldn’t just hand the boy over to them though, not unless he was assured that a proper home would be found. And even that unsettled him, because how would he know for sure?

When the time came, would he be able to just hand the boy over on some stranger’s word that a suitable home would be found? Chris wasn’t so sure he could do that. But, maybe they’d let him meet this family first, just so he could be sure they were fitting, that they’d treat the boy well. Poor kid had been through enough in his young life; the last thing he needed was to end up with some nightmare of a pa or ma. The thought occurred to him that appearances were sometimes deceiving, that even if he did get to meet this family, and even if he thought they looked suitable, it wouldn’t necessarily mean they were. He’d seen that plenty of times in his life. A family that seemed happy – but in truth, the father was a drunk or maybe beat the kids, or both -- or worse.

Jesus, he needed to clear his head. Closing his eyes, he hoped that with a halfway good night’s sleep things would make more sense in the morning. Because if he kept thinking like this….

To his surprise he fell right asleep, only to find his dreams filled with disturbing visions of angry drunken fathers beating tiny faceless children. Chris woke with a start, his body trembling. He wiped a hand over his face and looked down at the boy beside him, glad to find him sleeping peacefully. By the position of the moon, he calculated that it was close to midnight. He struggled to sit up a bit, and the boy held on tight, not willing to relinquish his warmth or security. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep deeply enough to dream at all. Usually when he was on the trail he only allowed himself to doze. But then, it had been an emotional couple of weeks.

Closing his eyes, he let his thoughts flow freely and was taken back to the small town he’d left several days ago, and to the woman they’d buried there. Samantha, who had once been a mystery to him, was still a mystery in some ways – but not as much as before. During his last stay in Big Tree, Chris had learned everything he needed to know about the girl, and then some.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

He’d come into town, hoping to see her, talk to her, feeling as if he might have become addicted to her somehow. When he couldn’t find her, he’d asked where she was, only to find out that she’d taken ill. Nobody was able to say what was ailing her though, so he’d gone to the boarding house where she lived, hoping to find out, or better yet, find her on the mend.

Her door was opened by the same small boy he’d caught a glimpse of during his last visit. “My mama’s sick,” he’d told Chris, and when Chris looked inside the room he spotted her lying on the bed, looking frail and feverish…and alone.

“Do you think I could come in?” Chris asked, thinking it would be best to leave, but finding himself unable to.

“I don’t know you,” the boy answered, looking up at him with suspicion.

“Sure ya do,” Chris replied easily, “I’m Chris, I helped your mama look for you the last time I was in town.”

“Oh yeah,” he nodded, seeming to study Chris for another moment. “Y’ain’t from here, are ya? Mama said you’s from a long ways away.”

“Yep, a place called Four Corners, about a six or seven day ride from here.”

“Well,” he slowly opened the door wider, “Mama’s sleepin’. She ain’t up to havin’ company.”

“Maybe I could just see if there’s anything she needs,” he offered, “or anything you need.”

The boy allowed him into the room, and Chris looked around, it was small, with a bed, a dresser, a small table and two chairs. “How long has your ma been sleeping?”

“A long time. Mrs. Grayson brung us some soup,” the boy pointed to a tray on the table, “but Mama didn’t want none.”

“What about you?” Chris asked, noticing that both bowls appeared untouched. “Looks like there’s some good soup going to waste.”

“I’m not hungry.” The child glanced worriedly at his mother then back at Chris. “Mama didn’t say I had to eat my supper.”

“Ah, I see.” Chris assumed that whoever Mrs. Grayson was, she’d been taking care of them. “Where did Mrs. Grayson go?”

The boy shrugged and sat down at the table, but didn’t move to eat the soup.

“Is she going to be back soon?” He was wondering if he should leave, not wanting the woman to be frightened to find a stranger in the room.

The boy just shook his head, looking puzzled.

“No? Won’t she be checking on you and your mama?”

“No, she just brung us the soup is all. Was bein’ nice, I reckon.”

Chris frowned, trying to figure things out. “Is anyone checking up on you, being that your ma’s sick?”

“No! I can take care o’ us.”

“Of course you can, but how about a doctor, or someone like that? Has there been anyone to look in on your ma?”

The boy’s shoulders slumped. “Ain’t no doctor round here, and ain’t nobody lookin’ in on her. I get what she asks for, but she….” He hesitated, glancing again at his mother, lying so still and pale. “She said I ain’t s’posed to get too close. She said I might get sick if’n I go past this line,” he pointed to a wooden floorboard a couple feet from the foot of the bed, “or this line,” he pointed to a floorboard that ran perpendicular to the other. The two ‘lines’ were obviously created with the intent of keeping the boy a safe distance from the bed. “You best not get too close, neither.”

Chris nodded, barely hearing the warning because his mind was too busy trying to figure out what was going on. If she were contagious, why would they leave the boy in the same room, and if she wasn’t…well, he still wondered why nobody had be looking in on them. “Was your mama sick yesterday?”

“Yeah. She’s been sick for,” he looked down at his hand and began counting the days on his fingers then held them up to show Chris. “This many.”

“Seven?” he asked in disbelief. “She’s been sick for seven days?”


“Shit.” A muffled giggle reminded him of the tender ears nearby. He hadn’t meant to curse, and when he looked at the giggling boy -- hand over his mouth, blue eyes dancing -- Chris tried to give him a disapproving look, but it was damn hard.


He turned at the sound of the weak voice, and went to her side. “Hey, I was wondering how long you were planning to sleep.” He smiled and touched his palm to her forehead. Warm, but not too hot.

“What are you doin’ here?”

“You’re not happy to see me?” He smiled, raising a brow.

“Just . . .didn’t think you’d be comin’ back again.”

He wondered why she thought that – was it because she had a kid, or because the kid’s father was Indian? “Well, guess you were wrong.”

She smiled at him, and he could tell she was finding it hard to keep her eyes open. “Guess so. Don’t happen too much.”

He wasn’t sure what she had meant. Was she saying that most men didn’t come back, or maybe just him? Or maybe she was just confused and had meant to say that she hadn’t been expecting him.

She shook her head and looked at him with the tiniest spark of mischief. “That I’m wrong.”

“Ah.” Chris snorted. “Is that a fact?” She nodded, and he could tell she was growing weaker, just from the short time she’d spent talking to him. “Why don’t you close your eyes and we’ll debate that later?”

“You’ll be here?”

“Yeah, I’ll be here.”

“You shouldn’t,” her brow creased, blue eyes looking worried. “You could get sick too.”

“I’ll wash good,” he assured her and winked. “Beside, too late now, I’m already here.”

“Mama?” Chris turned toward the small voice; the boy looked hesitant, standing with his toes just outside the imaginary boundary line.

“Hey, squirrel,” she said, smiling at him with her eyes full of love. Even sick as she was, Chris thought she looked like an angel. “Be good . . .for . . .Chris.”

The boy nodded, managing a tremulous smile for his mother. But, she was already asleep.

~ ~

Chris had managed to get the boy to eat a few spoonfuls of the soup and drink a little water, before settling him in his lap for a story that served its purpose and put the boy to sleep. Although he hadn’t known it at the time, it was the only first of many stories he’d tell this particular boy. He tucked his coat around the child and carefully laid him in the corner where he’d apparently been sleeping.

When he stood, he realized Sam was awake again. “Hey there,” he said quietly, pulling a little wooden stool close to the bed to sit beside her. “How are you feeling?”

“Tired,” she admitted with a weak smile, her eyes flitting around the room, searching.

“He’s sawin’ logs in the corner over there,” Chris told her, answering the unspoken question.

She nodded and swallowed hard, wincing at the pain it caused. He got her to take a small sip of water, but that’s all she could manage.

“We was young, didn’t know nothin’,” she told him, her voice a harsh whisper. It took Chris a moment to realize who and what she was speaking about, but then he nodded in understanding. “Didn’t care what our parents said, only cared that we’s in love.” Her pale cheeks tinged with color at the admission, and Chris smiled gently, reassuringly. Yes, he knew that feeling – had known it at least once before, remembering a time when just the thought of Sarah was enough to drive him to distraction.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me,” he said kindly, patting her arm and hoping that she could see in his eyes that he wasn’t about to judge her.

She never mentioned how they’d met, and Chris was hesitant to ask the question, not wanting to cause her more pain than she was already in. He did ask her what had become of the man, almost immediately regretting that he had asked. The flash of pain in her eyes nearly broke his heart. She looked away for a moment, struggling for detachment in her weakness. “My pa killed him,” her voice choked with emotion, a tear slid down her temple and he brushed it away with his thumb.

He wanted to tell her that he knew what it felt like to lose someone you loved, but he didn’t know if such things were possible to say without sounding hollow. They always sounded that way to him. He touched her hand, unnerved at how cool her skin felt. There was a quilt folded at the foot of the bed and he reached for it, pulling it up to cover her. She managed a weak smile of gratitude then closed her eyes. “When you get better,” he said, his thumb smoothing over her eyebrows, “What d’ya say me, you and half pint over there just head on out of here and never look back?” It was so spur of the moment, just slipping out of his mouth and he wasn’t sure where it had come from, but it felt right. He waited for her to deny him or make a joke of his offer, prepared to argue either now or later.

She was quiet so long that he thought maybe she’d fallen asleep, but finally she turned to him, opened her eyes and looked at him with amazement. “For real?”

He almost laughed. “Of course, for real.”

With a smile, she closed her eyes again. “I lied…before,” she whispered, still smiling. “I can’t cook.”

“Good thing I can.”

There was silence for several long minutes and he thought for sure this time she was sleeping, but she turned her head towards him again, a peaceful look on her face and said, “You’re somethin’ else, cowboy.”

Chris choked out a laugh, glancing down at his spurs then back up to her peaceful features, and whispered. “So are you.”

He stayed the rest of the night at her bedside, with the boy sleeping in the corner. His mind was too busy to rest, making plans for the morning; plans for the future. Part of the time he spent questioning himself, his feelings, his motives…and whether he ever deserved to be happy again. Were the emotions he was feeling for her really love? Surely it couldn’t be this easy to love again. He certainly didn’t deserve it; he didn’t deserve to find happiness in this lifetime -- but maybe she did? He hadn’t been there to save his own family, but maybe this was some sort of chance to redeem himself, if only in his own eyes. And he did care about her, couldn’t stand it that nobody else did, and couldn’t stand that nobody saw the things that he saw when he looked in her eyes. She was beautiful, inside and out. And if nobody here could see all that she was and all that she had to offer, well, he’d take her far away from this place.

First thing he needed to do was get this room aired out, get some fresh bedding; maybe he’d pay someone to get a bath up here – that always felt good after being sick. There was a familiar emotion threatening to burst inside him; he tried to control it, shove it back – instinct and fear that anything making him feel like this would surely be ripped away.

It had been a long time since he’d had anyone to take care of, probably been even longer since anyone had taken care of her, but he was pretty sure that between the two of them they’d be able to work it all out. As far as he knew there was nothing and nobody to keep her here. And lately he’d been spending half his life making the trip back and forth. Leaning against the wall, he let his eyelids slide shut, thankful that the regret and second-guessing he’d been expecting all night had never come. He finally dozed off, visions of the future lulling him to sleep -- never suspecting that when he woke up in the morning she’d be gone.

~ ~

There had been only a handful of people at her funeral and he wondered if there would have even been a funeral if he hadn’t happened to show up when he did. They stood dry-eyed as he read a passage from the Bible then left in a hurry to get back to their tasks. In the distance, hidden from public view, Chris had seen the three Indians watching them curiously. He wondered what tribe they were from, what relationship they had with the woman, and more importantly what, if any, intentions they had for the boy.

Chris was well acquainted with the way some folks tended to cling to their ignorant beliefs, allowing their irrational hatred to fester and infect everyone around them; he had witnessed the effects of it more than once in his life. But what he witnessed over the next few days from the citizens in the tiny town of Big Tree would always stand out in his mind.

“Nobody wants his type around here.”

His type? The helpless, innocent, orphaned type? What else could they mean?

The boy had blond hair and the bluest eyes Chris had ever seen. He was a beautiful child and he was all alone, had just lost his mother – how the hell could they turn their backs on him? Chris wanted to cry damn near every time he looked at the boy --how could they not feel any compassion?

He was angry at the unfairness of her life, and the untimely-ness of her death. He was angry that she’d been taken away before he could show her a better life, but glancing at the boy, he knew that his anger and his grief would have to wait this time; his emotions would have to be put on the back burner, because the child needed him, and Chris needed, more than anything, to be there for the child and do everything in his power to save him.

As the days went by, his emotions steadied, and he accepted that there was nothing he could say to change any minds. There was no concern for the boy’s welfare and no one blinked an eye when Chris informed them that he was taking the boy with him.

After putting a handful of wildflowers on his mama’s grave and saying his last goodbyes, the boy turned to Chris with solemn eyes and slumped shoulders. “Is my mama an angel now?”

Chris lifted him into his arms. “Yeah, she is. She’s an angel.”

The little boy laid his head on Chris’ shoulder. “Reckon she ain’t in the ground then,” he said softly, assuring himself. “Reckon she’s up in heaven with the other angels.”

Chris nodded, rubbing the little one’s back as the boy fought a losing battle to hold back his tears. “It’s okay, just let it go, pard, I got ya,” he whispered the words over and over, feeling utterly helpless but aching to offer some sort of comfort. He held on for a long time while the boy cried his heart out and when the worst of it was over, Chris settled him in the saddle and the two of them rode away without looking back. “Let’s go home.”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris yawned and opened his eyes. Beside him, the small body began to stir, struggling to escape the confines of the blanket tangled around him. At least there been no more nightmares, for either one of them. As his thoughts and mind cleared and focused, he realized that this had been the first night since his mother had passed away that the boy had slept peacefully through the night. He’d also kept covered up, which was equally good, since it had gotten downright frosty during the overnight hours. Chris sat up, then helped the boy untangle himself so he could sit up as well.

He set some water to boil while he and the boy each went their own direction to take care of nature’s call. “Watch out for critters,” the kid called over his shoulder, a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. Chris grinned at the unexpected humor, another trait he must have picked up from his ma. The boy responded with a grin of his own, then disappeared around the rocks.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the temperature climbed along with it. Right now the warmth felt good, the sun’s rays chasing away the chill of the night, but all too soon that heat would grow uncomfortable, practically unbearable. Chris just kept reminding himself: One more day’s ride and they’d be home.

When they’d finished, they returned to the campfire and began rolling up the bedding and gathering the few items they’d unpacked. Chris saddled his horse and poured the rest of his coffee over the dwindling fire, making sure it was entirely out before they left. When he hefted the boy into the saddle Chris noticed a small leather pouch, an Indian’s medicine bag he thought, hanging from a cord around his neck; he hadn’t noticed it before. Climbing up behind him, Chris offered the reins. “You want to drive for a while?” Chris took the enthusiastic nod as an affirmative and handed them over, not too surprised when the boy seemed to know what he was doing and prompted the horse forward and back onto the trail. “Where’d you get this?” he asked, reaching around and tapping the pouch with two fingers.

The boy looked down for several seconds then shrugged. “I . . .don’t know?”

He sounded mystified, distressed, so Chris patted his shoulder. He was curious, but they had a long ride ahead of them, time enough for Chris to coax any information the boy might be puzzling together in his head. There’d been so much going on that he couldn’t fault the kid for having a memory lapse. He had no intention of pushing the boy, but before very much time had passed, Chris again heard the boy’s soft drawl.

“In my dream last night, I saw my grandfather…and he gave me one like this, but . . ..” There was a long pause. “It was a dream.” Another pause then, “Was it a dream?”

Chris took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Where was Josiah when ya needed him?

~ ~ * * ~ ~

He’d purposely taken his time skirting the Indian territory, uncertain what they would do, but willing to give them the opportunity – even though it had scared him more than a little to be so vulnerable. He’d felt pretty sure they wouldn’t harm the boy, and was hopeful they would leave him alone as long as they didn’t perceive him as a threat.

There had been three of them watching Chris and the boy as they traveled -- always the same three, keeping an eye on them, yet keeping their distance. They never approached, nor had they given any indication of wishing to speak with him. And although Chris was sure the boy had noticed them, he’d never once acknowledged their presence.

Maybe they were related by blood, but apparently the three weren’t any more willing to accept this boy than the townsfolk had been. And when he thought about it, he could understand their reluctance, in a way. They all lived in a world of preconceived notions, inequality and narrow-mindedness. The boundaries and limitations had been set long ago, and anyone daring to challenge them put themselves at risk of being scorned, cast out, or worse. Maybe they were protecting him, not denying him. A man could hope.

After a while Chris had lost sight of the three and the further they rode, the more certain he’d felt that they were no longer being followed. That had given him a huge, unexpected sense of relief – of freedom -- like a weight had been lifted from his chest, allowing him to breathe deeply. He’d done what he’d felt was the right thing to do and he was pretty sure they’d known what it was that he’d been offering. He’d given them the chance to stake their claim on the boy, and they had declined.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

The thought that there’d been intruders of any kind in their camp while they’d been asleep made him feel a little sick to his stomach. He was so sure he hadn’t slept deeply enough for anyone to sneak up on them. Especially after the nightmares he’d had. There hadn’t been any obvious signs that they’d had company during the night, not that they would have actually left any. Yet, perhaps they had left one.

Chris waited a long while before finally he asked, “Can you tell me about your dream? About your grandfather?”

He didn’t have to wait long for a response, and he figured the boy must have still been thinking about the dream too. “He talked to me, my grandfather did…in my dream,” he offered, glancing over his shoulder and up at Chris, with eyes completely guileless. “I don’t ‘member all of it, but I ‘member he said I’s fixin’ to go on a journey, and I might not see him for a long, long time. He said I shouldn’t be sad cause he’s always with me, right here, “he tapped his chest. “And that I’s gonna be just fine,” the boy nodded resolutely. “That everything’s gonna be just fine now.”

“It sure is.” Chris wasn’t sure what to think or what else there was to say. Something must have happened, something he didn’t understand, or couldn’t figure out. This was Josiah’s specialty, and hopefully the preacher would be able to give him some sort of insight.

The kid nodded his head. “He said this,” he looked down at the pouch on his chest, then back at Chris, “is to protect me on my journey.”

“Never can have too much protection.” Which was always true, anyway you looked at it. Whatever the hell had happened, the important thing was that the boy seemed content, happy, proud that his grandfather had spoken to him. Whether it was real or not didn’t really matter much to Chris. All that mattered was that the boy was happier than he’d been for days, and in Chris’ mind that’s how kids were supposed to be -- happy.

They rode the rest of the morning in a comfortable silence, stopping for a few hours when the sun was at its peak then continuing on toward their goal. Chris had purposely taken his time going home, for several reasons. The heat – especially in the afternoon --was a big factor, and the lack of water along the way made it downright dangerous to push very hard. Thankfully so far he had always managed to come across some source of water before the canteens went dry or the horse dropped over. But once again, they were getting low on water and all the usual places he’d come across today had been completely dried up. Then there was the boy; Chris could tell he was in pain, although he tried his best to hide it. Maybe it was just too much time in the saddle, but he planned to have Nathan take a look at his back as soon as they got home. Mostly Chris wanted to take his time to make sure that they weren’t going to pass on whatever illness had taken Samantha’s life. A precaution he couldn’t avoid taking. It was going on two weeks since they’d buried her – eight days since they’d ridden out of Big Tree, and Chris hoped that was time enough.

“So,” Chris said, trying to keep things light, “your grandfather happen to mention if we’d get home in time for supper?” It was supposed to be a joke, but his stomach growled at him, apparently not finding the humor.

It made the boy giggle though, and that’s what he’d hoped for. “Nope.”

“Nope? You sure?”

“Yep, all he said was . . ..”

“Was what?” Chris gently prompted him to finish.

“Well, I think he said I’s already home.”

Already home? Chris shook his head, his smile growing as understanding set in. He didn’t need Josiah to explain this one to him. The meaning came through loud and clear as a bell. He didn’t usually believe in fate or visions or Indian medicine, but he had the strange feeling that someone bigger than all of them must have a hand in at least this particular circumstance. And he was a little amazed to realize that he didn’t really seem to mind too much – in fact he might even be grateful. His stomach growled again. “You sure he didn’t say anything about supper? I’m awful hungry.”

The boy tilted his head back, grinning as he looked upside down at Chris. “I could maybe get us another rabbit, or maybe a snake if’n you’re that hungry.”

That wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind. “I think I can wait,” Chris laughed, and in a playful tone told him to keep his eyes on the road.

~ ~

The moment he recognized the distant outline of buildings against the familiar landscape, he pointed them out to the boy. “That’s it. We’re almost there.”

And a little later, as they rode down the dusty main street of Four Corners, he recognized the outline of a tall, dark haired man standing against the familiar…well, standing outside the saloon. Chris pointed this out also, and said, “That there’s Buck.” The boy had already heard an earful of Buck tales – at least the ones that were suitable for his ears – because there just weren’t too many tales to tell that didn’t include his best friend. He slid off the horse, trying to hide how stiff he was feeling and how much pain his backside was causing him. Once he had his legs under him, he pulled the boy down to stand beside him.

Buck was leaning out, one hand gripping a post, a huge smile on his face. “Hey Chris, where you been?” His voice was loud, cheerful, and comforting to Chris’ ears. Home. “We’s just about to send the cavalry out after ya.”

Chris shook his head, “Buck,” he greeted, his grin matching that of his oldest friend. He put a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder and pulled him a little closer, knowing that meeting Buck Wilmington could be a little overwhelming no matter how big you were.

“I see you brought back a little somethin’, this time,” he said, amusement battling with curiosity.

Well, you did ask for a souvenir, he thought about saying. Although he was pretty sure this wasn’t what Buck had in mind at the time, besides, he was pretty sure he was gonna keep this one for himself – at least for now. “Buck, I’d like ya to meet Vin Tanner. He’s gonna be stayin’ on with us a while.”

And just like Chris knew he would, Buck crouched low to the ground, smiled broadly and held out a welcoming hand. “Hello there, Vin. It’s good to meet ya.”