Old West Universe
Big thanks to Karen, who cheered me on and to Antoinette who beta’d it for me. Any additional mistakes are my own.
It was one of those beautiful spring mornings, the kind that made a man glad to roll out of bed and stand on the porch to watch the rising sun. It was still quiet around the farm house, the horses dozing peacefully in the field near the barn and the chickens still asleep in their coop. The sky was streaked with pink and gold.
Buck enjoyed the solitude. He was beginning to see what Chris saw in just sitting and watching the world as it began anew. A nest of baby chickadees called out their hunger as their parents flew in with offerings of bugs and worms. An owl, sitting up in the highest boughs of a lodge pole pine, hooted softly.
Vin joined him a few minutes later, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he trudged to the outhouse. The leather moccasins he wore barely stirred the dust since the air was heavy with moisture.
When Vin returned to the porch, he was more alert and looked toward the horizon. “It’s gonna be a pretty good day,” he offered softly.
Buck reached over and stroked the silky, honey-blond hair that was still wild from sleep and he nodded, “Yep, sure looks like it. You want to help me with breakfast?”
They returned to the cabin and Buck stirred up the coals in the cook stove. Vin was right there, handing him kindling and larger pieces of wood. They worked well together, each familiar with the routine. Vin pumped water into the coffee pot while Buck measured the beans into the small grinder. When he finished, Vin took the grinder and sat down to render the beans into grounds to go in the basket while Buck measured out the flour to make the biscuits.
Chris stopped in the doorway of his room and smiled at the scene before him. Vin was carefully setting the basket on the stem in the coffee pot while Buck stirred baking powder into the flour. Even though he and Vin had a special connection, the boy was slowly building a bond with the other adult in his life. At first, Chris had been just the tiniest bit jealous, but he had come to realize that neither of them was seeking to replace him in their lives.
“Morning,” Vin whispered as Chris came around behind him and leaned down to kiss the crown of his head.
“Morning,” Chris replied. “I’m gonna see to the stock, I’ll be right back.”
The three of them relished the quiet time, the time before JD woke up and filled the silence with his thousand and one questions and comments. Buck figured that the reason the boy slept late in the morning was because he used so much energy during the day. Just as soon as the biscuits starting browning and the smell of sausage filled the cabin, he would burst from the room and run for the outhouse. That was the beginning of his energetic attack on the day.
Buck measured the milk and poured it into the biscuit mixture, handing the bowl and spoon over to Vin to stir. While he was doing that, Buck floured the countertop. It was one of the earliest memories he had of his mother, standing at the counter watching her work the biscuit dough and rolling it out so he could cut it with the little glass into uniform round shapes before she transferred them to the pan and brushed them with melted butter to go into the oven. Even if he couldn’t put together a decent bowl of stew, he could make light, fluffy biscuits to go with anything Chris could put on the table.
“It’s ready,” Vin announced softly.
While Vin was cutting the biscuit dough, JD burst from the boys’ room and ran out the door. Buck watched him go, then turned to Vin, “He’s up early this morning.”
Chris broke up a bale of alfalfa and tossed it over the fence for the horses before moving to milk the cows. Daisy and Marigold shifted around in their stalls, long used to the routine. Chris set the milk bucket down and grabbed the small, three-legged stool. He had never learned to use the one-legged stool that he had gotten with the cows. Within a minute, he was settled into the rhythm of milking.
JD finished his business in the outhouse and darted out, letting the door slap back against the frame with a resounding ‘thwack.’ He was still fumbling with one of the straps on his coveralls when he reached the door to the chicken coop.
“Hey chickies! It’s time to wake up,” he greeted cheerfully. He pried the lid off of the large can where they kept the cracked corn and dipped out a scoop full. The chickens had heard him and rushed out of the coop, scratching eagerly at the ground in anticipation of being fed. JD carefully drizzled the cracked corn on the ground, maintaining a running commentary as he worked.
“Now you let her have some of that too, you greedy thing! Stop crowding, you’ll all get to eat. Move out of the way so I can give it to you,” he scolded. The chickens were oblivious, happily clucking and plucking up the little yellow bits as the boy scattered them on the ground. When the scoop was empty, JD grabbed the slightly battered bowl that hung on the side of the coop. While the hens were busy eating, he propped up the panel that covered the front of the coop and gathered their eggs. It had taken a few lessons, learned the hard way, for him to know how to handle the fragile brown and white eggs. When he had checked every last hay-filled box, he ducked out from under the overhang and carefully set the bowl on the ground. He lowered the panel gently, not letting it slam like the outhouse door. One of the hens ventured over to the bowl of eggs and started to light on it until JD shooed her away.
“Not this time, Belle, these eggs are for our breakfast,” he explained. Chris had told him that at certain times, they would leave the eggs in the box for the hens to hatch but only when the time was right or they would have too many chickens and no eggs to eat. JD petted the fluffy white hen as she fled from his hand and he picked up the bowl.
The cabin door opened and JD carefully came in, carrying the bowl like it was filled with a rare treasure. “Da! I got eleven this time!” he announced.
“That’s great, Little Bit! Set them on the table and go wash your hands,” Buck said as he was browning the sausage patties. He and Chris had taken turns at the meat grinder, carefully adding the meat and a few seasonings, so they could have a treat in the morning. JD gently slid the bowl onto the table and bolted from the cabin. “Don’t slam the-” Buck didn’t even get to finish before the door crashed against the frame.
Chris took over the cooking of the eggs. Somehow, he could always manage to cook them without breaking the yolks when he fried them. Both of the boys helped to set the table while Buck checked on the biscuits and transferred them to a basket. When the last egg slid from the skillet onto the serving plate, everyone was more than ready to dig in.
“Bless us, oh Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive,” JD intoned, doing his best imitation of Josiah, “Amen.” The word had barely left his lips before he reached out to snag a warm biscuit from the basket.
It was good to see the boys eat. When they had first arrived, they were skittish about food. Someone had told Vin that no one would want two little boys who ate too much and they didn’t want to be separated or sent away for eating too much. It had taken many reassurances that they could have as much as they wanted for them to learn to help themselves. Vin reached out for the small mason jar and dipped out a spoonful of the peach preserves that Nettie had given them.
Chris hid a smile at the look of pleasure that crossed his adopted son’s face as he bit into the warm, sweet biscuit. The boy would live on biscuits and preserves if they would let him. JD had broken his biscuit in half and was dipping it in the hot yolk before carefully bringing it to his waiting mouth.
After breakfast and the necessary cleanup, they all got ready to go into town. Josiah had gotten some desks from an auction near Red Bluff and they were using the old seamstress shop for a school. There were only ten kids but it was a start. Ezra had surprised them with a blackboard and a crate of books. The classes would have to fit around spring planting and fall harvesting but it was better than nothing.
JD sat in front of Buck, chattering excitedly about the start of school. Ahead of them on the trail, Vin leaned back against Chris, just taking it all in. Chris had assured the boy that he was proud of him, no matter how well he did in school. During the two years the boys had lived with them, Chris had worked hard to undo the damage that had been done to Vin’s psyche by people who had told him he was ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ because he had trouble reading. Chris had been working with him too, helping him to remember the letters by using little tricks. Vin hardly ever got mixed up anymore, except when he was tired or frustrated.
Since there was no place for a bell at the seamstress shop, Josiah rang the bell at the church to call the students to school. He was working on finishing the inside of the building so they could move the class into the church, as was the custom in many small towns. The students who lived in town burst from their homes while those who didn’t leapt from wagons or horses. A few carried supplies but most had only a lunch pail.
Hearing the bell, JD leaned forward and began bouncing his feet against Buck’s legs, calling out, “Hurry, Da! That’s the bell! We’re gonna be late!” Buck’s placid gray tensed but continued at the same pace until Buck clucked to him. It hardly mattered that they were only a score of yards from the building, JD was in a hurry to get there!
The boys settled into the school routine by the end of the first week. Josiah was a stern, but patient teacher, and the boys loved him. Having them in school also allowed Chris and Buck to take a larger part of the patrols, taking the load off of Nathan and Ezra during the day. Chris had felt badly about taking pay for doing only half of his job since the boys had come to live with him and Buck.
Rachel Levy and her sister Sarah were busy tying wild flowers in their hair while the other kids were exploring among the rocks beside the small lake. Josiah was teaching them about geography and topography and had brought them out of town so they could study the surrounding hills and valleys. Vin, JD and Tommy Potter were engrossed in the mud representation of the landscape that Josiah was making on a flat piece of rock. JD was holding the small rocks that they had decided to use for the town’s buildings. Tommy had some small sprigs broken from a tree and he was waiting his turn to put them in place. Vin had some long, thin twigs that were green enough to bend without breaking and had used a strand of his hair to tie the ends to make a corral.
School was drawing to the spring planting season and would be closed for a month. Josiah was assigning the students reading and writing projects to be brought in when they took up lessons again. All around the make-shift classroom there were the projects they had been working on. A bag of marbles was just the thing to help bored little boys work on adding and subtracting, especially after Josiah painted numbers on them. Canning jars were filled with pebbles or sand to teach fractions. Mrs. Potter donated a can of buttons to teach counting or matching or relative size, depending on what lesson Josiah was trying to get across to them. The children were excited about the projects and those who were going to be working during the break were not looking forward to the coming labor.
“Alright, boys and girls, I know that we have another hour before the end of the day but, since you have all been working so hard, I’m going to let you go early. Remember to keep up with your reading,” Josiah said, raising his voice over the shuffling of kids getting ready to bolt out the door.
Andy Soronson and his cousin Jack Laughlin came out of the bank and rushed for their horses. Lester Pruitt ran to the door and called out in a loud and frightened voice, “They’re robbing the bank!” In return for his effort, Jack pulled his six-shooter and fired off a round, hitting the gangly young man in the chest. Lester fell back, a scream of pain ending in a sigh of final breath and death rattle.
In the saloon, Ezra looked up from the game of solitaire he had laid out in front of him at the commotion in the street. He was at the batwing doors in time to see someone firing into the bank. To his horror, the door to the school room burst open just then and several of the kids ran out, racing up the boardwalk toward the church at the end of the street.
Nathan dropped the bundle of bandages he had been rolling and raced out to the landing at the sound of the first shot. He, too, watched in horror as the children ran up the boardwalk. He turned and ran, leaping down half a flight of steps in his rush to get to the street.
At the other end of town, Buck’s head snapped up and his booted feet fell off of the desk. He was grabbing for his Stetson even as he ripped the jail’s door open and stepped onto the boardwalk. He had his gun in his hand and took off running for the bank.
Josiah’s blood ran cold when he heard the first shot. The books he was stacking into a box fell from his fingers and he whirled around in time to see Vin and JD running toward the saloon where Inez usually gave them a glass of lemonade after class was ended.
Pony’s ears snapped forward as the echo of the gunfire rang out. Immediately, Chris clapped heels to his sides and the black gelding leapt into a ground-eating lope. Other shots followed the first, indicating that something was terribly wrong in town. Holding the reins in one hand, Chris had his gun in the other hand, ready to meet whatever danger came out of the town.
Ezra pulled his sidearm and fired, winging the nearest man and causing the horses to dance anxiously. The other man wasn’t yet mounted, bouncing on one foot while trying to pull up into the saddle.
Andy flinched as Jack fired past him toward the man in the bank’s doorway. He had the toe of his boot in the stirrup but he couldn’t mount because his mare wouldn’t stand still. Another shot was fired and Jack gasped in pain. Andy saw the brightly-clothed man who had come out of the saloon and he fumbled for his gun.
“Look out! Over by the livery!” Jack shouted as he swung his pistol around and fired again. Andy stole a glance before the black man ducked behind the open door. Giving up on the mare, Andy dropped his foot to the ground and pulled his other pistol, firing with both hands toward the man near the saloon.
Ezra hugged the wall as the window nearest his position shattered. He popped off another shot toward the robbers but the shuffling, stamping horses made it impossible to hit the man firing at him.
Nathan flung his arm around the thick, heavy wood door and fired at the men before ducking the return fire. He saw the man trying to make his way back into the bank and fired again, hitting him in the leg.
Josiah was running for the cover of the rain barrel as he took aim at the man on the horse. He fired and the man tumbled from the saddle where Josiah lost sight of him. Several more shots rang out before a tension-filled silence settled. For the space of two or three heartbeats, no one heard anything over the ringing of their ears … then an anguished scream rent the air and chilled all who heard it.
“JD! NO! Nathan! Oh God! JD!”
All eyes turned to see Buck kneeling on the boardwalk holding the dark-haired child in his arms. Blood already streaked the JD’s shoulder and a large puddle of it stained the boards beneath him.
“NATHAN! GET OVER HERE!” Buck screamed as he tried to stem the flow of blood from the back of JD’s head.
Pony made a sliding stop as Chris leapt from the saddle. In six strides, he was beside Buck. Panicked hazel eyes scoured the area before spotting the fair-haired boy huddled in the doorway of one of the boarded-up store fronts. He held out his hand but Vin didn’t move, he was too riveted on the blood seeping past Buck’s fingers.
Nathan and Ezra got to Buck and JD at the same time, the gambler having ducked into the saloon for a clean tablecloth from behind the bar. Josiah and Mary Travis came running from the other direction.
“Let me see him, Buck,” Nathan said, reaching for the small, limp body but Buck was too lost in his terror to realize that the healer was there.
“You hang on, Little Bit. You just hang on. I’ve got you,” Buck whispered as he rocked the child in his arms. He was so focused on JD that he couldn’t hear anything else.
“Buck, you’ve got to let me look at him,” Nathan tried again. When he didn’t get any response, he looked up at the others silently imploring them to help. Josiah reached around and took hold of Buck’s wrists as Ezra reached out to press the tablecloth against JD’s head. Buck resisted for a moment before he realized that Nathan was there.
Nathan placed his hand over the checkered cloth and drew JD into his arms, cradling the boy’s head against his shoulder. He rose quickly and strode toward the clinic with Ezra moving before him, shouting and strong-arming people out of the way.
Chris slowly knelt in front of his son and reached out to touch him. Vin gasped, blinking several times before vaulting into his father’s arms. Chris snugged his free arm around the small, trembling body as he holstered his gun. Josiah brought Buck to his feet and the foursome made their way to the clinic, ignoring the two dead bodies lying in the street.
Nathan gingerly lowered JD to the bed and gently lifted the thick, sodden pad of material. He was sickened to see the section of skull that had adhered to the cloth moving freely but it didn’t look like the thick, tough membrane that covered the boy’s brain had been damaged. He raised his head to speak and Ezra thrust a clean pad of bandage material toward him.
“Here, hold this while I wash my hands,” Nathan said, guiding Ezra’s trembling hand to hold the fresh pad in place. “Try not to press too hard,” he advised.
The door to the clinic opened again and Chris squeezed through with Vin in his arms. Buck stumbled through next and Josiah steered him into a chair. Sanchez moved to the cabinet and poured a shot of whiskey from the bottle Nathan kept there. He pressed the glass into Buck’s hand and guided it to his lips. Buck drank the entire thing, shuddering when it hit his stomach.
Finished scrubbing his hands, Nathan moved back to the bed. He could hear Josiah pouring water and putting it on the stove. Seconds later, his instrument tray was placed on the bedside table, complete with ether and the cone to administer it.
Chris was amazed that Vin’s small body could shake so hard, then he realized that it was he who was shaking. His trembling hand stroked the silky hair at the nape of Vin’s neck as he tried to comfort the boy. Josiah took hold of his elbow and pulled him to the rocking chair and Chris sank into it, automatically shifting to let Vin’s legs dangle on either side of the chair.
Buck stared at the blood on his hand for a long time before he drew a deep, juddering breath. He raised his head and looked at the small, still form on the bed. Immediately, he stood and made his way to the other side of the bed, going to his knees and reaching for JD’s small, still hand.
Several long, tense minutes later, Nathan had mapped out what he needed to do and started working. He didn’t know if it would do any good but he had to try. He gently peeled the pad of material away from the wound and carefully guided the loose section of JD’s skull back into place. He cleaned the area thoroughly as Ezra fed him fresh pads to replace the soiled ones. Josiah sterilized several lengths of the silk that Nathan used for stitches and was threading them onto the small, curved needles he would use to close the wound.
Chris found himself rocking, trying to soothe Vin and keep him distracted from the horror that was happening just across the room. His shoulder and the front of his shirt were soaked with the boy’s silent tears. It suddenly occurred to him that his son might be hurt and he stood up, moving to deposit Vin on the other bed. He ran his hands over the boy, pulling his shirt tails from his pants to touch bare skin.
Josiah noticed what Chris was doing and moved across the room in alarm. “Chris? Was Vin hit too?” he asked.
Looking up from where he was trying to keep Nathan’s work area free of blood, Ezra tried to see past Chris to where Vin sat on the other bed.
“No, he’s alright,” Chris finally managed to say as he pulled the child up off of the bed and crushed him tightly against his chest again.
Almost an hour later, as Nathan was putting in the last of the stitches, Vin’s tremulous voice was heard over the deafening silence, “Dad, is JD gonna die like his momma?”
Tears flooded Buck’s eyes and he lowered his head to his forearm, unable to bear the weight of his anguish. His thumb continued to move lightly, back and forth across the back of JD’s hand, even as his shoulders shook with his sobs.
“I hope not, son,” Chris managed around the lump in his throat.
“It’s in God’s hands now,” Josiah added as he reached out to touch the crown of JD’s head. He helped Nathan to turn JD so he could wrap the boy’s head with strips of cloth to hold the bandage in place.
Buck was startled when JD’s hand slipped out of his and he raised his head to see what was happening. Josiah and Ezra were holding JD up so Nathan could wrap his head. As soon as the bandage was in place, Josiah gently lifted JD and Ezra pulled the blankets back. Nathan made a wedge of the pillows to keep JD from moving. Ezra pulled off the topmost quilt and laid it aside, since it was stained with blood. Nathan situated JD and removed his little boots, setting them on the floor under the bed.
Chris thought that Vin had fallen asleep because the boy was so still in his arms. When he moved to try to lay his son down on the cot, Vin clung to him, struggling to keep his skinny arms around his neck. Chris tightened his arms around Vin and soothed the soft whimpering the boy made.
“I’ve got you,” Chris murmured. “I’m going to … see what they have at the restaurant,” he said to the others.
“I – I’ll take patrols tonight,” Ezra announced without taking his eyes off of the still child on the bed.
Chris glanced at Buck, who had yet to move from his place beside the bed, then nodded.
It was a long, long night in the clinic. Buck moved from his knees to a chair beside the bed. He hung on every breath JD took while gently running his thumb across the back of the boy’s hand. Chris took Vin to the cabin to tend to the stock and they stayed there overnight. Ezra made a patrol round at dusk and walked the boardwalks, checking that all of the businesses were locked down for the night. Josiah and Nathan remained in the clinic with Buck, watching over JD.
The sun rose on the small town, just as it had the day before but for the group of men in the clinic, it was only an abstract thought. JD’s temperature had started rising and they were taking turns bathing him with tepid water. Nathan was loathe to say anything but he was worried that the boy had yet to move or make a sound. His respirations were growing slower and his pupils weren’t responding to light as they should.
A muffled whimper roused Chris from his troubled sleep. Vin hadn’t said anything but his dad knew that the boy didn’t want to sleep by himself in the bed he normally shared with JD. Vin had wakened during the night, crying out his cousin’s name. Chris hadn’t slept much, his sleep disturbed by the image of JD’s blood flowing between Buck’s fingers.
“Hey, cowboy, it’s alright,” Chris soothed, running his hand up and down the boy’s back.
“JD!” Vin cried out, stiffening his legs and dragging at Chris’ nightshirt.
“It’s alright, I’ve got you,” Chris continued to murmur, holding the tense little body until it began to relax against him. “I’ve got you,” he repeated, nuzzling against Vin’s head.
They tended to the animals as quickly as possible before returning to town to check on JD. Josiah was just carrying breakfast from the restaurant when they arrived. Ezra’s mount was tied in the shade of the livery, mute testimony to the fact that he had taken the morning patrol. It didn’t look like Buck had moved from his place beside the bed since Chris had left the evening before. Ezra was sitting with Nathan at the small table near the window, looking more rumpled than Chris could remember ever seeing him. A fresh pot of coffee was brewing on the stove, the rich, strong aroma tempered by the herbs and other plant odors that filled the room.
Josiah unpacked the box from the restaurant, setting each of the large, deep crockery bowls on the table. Nathan went to a cabinet and pulled out a stack of tin plates and handed them to Ezra while he retrieved the flatware from a drawer.
The food was served onto plates quietly, as if they were afraid of waking the sleeping child in the bed. They crowded around the table with Vin sitting in his father’s lap.
“Buck, come over here and eat something,” Nathan urged. He glanced at Chris, silently conveying that they had not been able to convince the worried father from JD’s bedside all night.
“Not hungry, Nate,” Buck replied without looking away from JD’s face. He had just finished bathing the fevered body with tepid water before the others arrived.
Chris sighed before making a decision. He lifted Vin from his lap and scooted out from under him, settling the boy back in the chair gently. Meeting the eyes of each of the others, he nodded to them to go ahead and eat. He strode across the room and came to a stop in front of his friend and partner.
“Buck, you gotta eat,” he said.
“Not hungry,” Buck repeated.
“Buck,” Chris said again, his voice rising to indicate that he was nearing the end of his patience. “You need to eat something. You won’t be able to take care of JD if you don’t take care of yourself.” He allowed his friend to think about that for a minute before he reached out and took hold of Buck’s arm and urged him to his feet. He steered the man over to the empty chair and guided him to sit. Josiah settled a plate in front of him and poured a cup of coffee. But Buck was still looking back toward his son. “I’ll sit with him,” Chris promised.
The day stretched on interminably. They took turns bathing JD’s heated body and coaxing spoonfuls of water past his lips. Nathan took it as a good sign that he seemed to be swallowing and not choking on the liquids. Ezra left for a few hours of much-needed sleep, leaving the other cot for Buck, if he could be persuaded to lie down. Chris insisted that Vin spend a few hours with Mrs. Potter’s children. He didn’t want the boy languishing in the clinic. Vin protested, afraid that JD would awaken and think his cousin had left him, but Chris assured him that someone would come and get him if it even looked like JD was waking up. Mary stopped in to ask questions for the story she was putting in the paper. There wasn’t much Nathan could tell her other than they were waiting for JD to wake up.
It was early in the evening when JD’s hand twitched in Buck’s. The exhausted man held his breath, desperately praying that he hadn’t imagined it. Then JD’s whole body began to jerk and Nathan shouldered him out of the way.
“He’s having a fit!” the healer announced, carefully rolling the boy to his side in case he threw up. He guided Buck’s hands to JD’s legs, which were jerking beneath the blankets.
The seizure went on for almost a minute before it began to ease. Josiah handed off a damp cloth to clean away the spittle that had dribbled from JD’s mouth. Only when the boy was completely relaxed did Nathan remove the blankets and begin bathing the urine from where he had lost control of his bladder. He bundled JD in a fresh blanket and moved him to the cot so that they could change the bedding.
JD had two more seizures that night, each milder than the last. Nathan was worried that he would continue to have them when he recovered, if he recovered, and began to read up on what kinds of remedies were available for the condition.
Chris collected Vin from Mrs. Potter and thanked her profusely for keeping him busy. Vin hadn’t wanted to play with her kids, he just sat on the boardwalk and stared up at the clinic or across the road at the place where JD was hurt. Gloria finally asked him if he minded helping her unpack some new merchandise and he reluctantly agreed. She paid him in hard candy, half of which he carefully placed in a separate cone of paper to save for JD.
On the way home, Vin mulled over the situation, trying to work up the courage to ask Chris the questions that were burning on his tongue.
“You’re thinking awfully hard about something, cowboy,” Chris said as he rubbed Vin’s tummy with his free hand. “You know, sometimes it helps to talk about things.”
“I’s just worried about JD and how come he don’t wake up,” Vin said, so softly that Chris had to strain to hear him.
“Me too, son. Me too,” Chris agreed.
“What if he don’t never wake up? What’ll happen to him?” Vin asked.
“Then we’ll just keep taking care of him.”
“You won’t send him away to an orphans’ home?”
Chris tightened his arm around Vin’s body, pulling the boy back against him. “No, we won’t ever send JD away. I promise,” he said. ‘At least I pray we don’t have to do anything like that,’ he added mentally.
There had been a boy, back when Chris was growing up in Indiana, who drowned in the lake. His brothers managed to get him to shore and he started breathing again but he was never right in his head. The family took care of him for as long as they could until finally, they had taken him to a sanitarium. They visited faithfully … for a while … then the visits got farther and farther apart. The boy died some years later and it had been at least a month since any of his family had been to see him. Chris shuddered; he didn’t want to have to turn JD over to one of those places. He prayed that, if the boy couldn’t fully recover, that God would be merciful and let him die.
Things settled into a routine over the next several days. Nathan insisted that they start using diapers on JD, to cut down on having to change the bedding since he seemed to have no control over his bladder or bowels. Buck objected, saying that it would shame the boy to wake up wearing a baby’s diaper but he finally relented.
JD’s fever broke and he seemed to be resting easier after the fourth day. He started moving his arms and legs and trying to turn his head so Nathan made up some sandbags to keep his head still while it was healing. On the morning of the fifth day, Buck pointed out that JD was sucking his fingers. When Nathan suggested that they try using a baby bottle to get fluids into him, Buck was reluctant but he finally agreed. From then on, JD was given milk, water, broth and medicinal teas with a bottle.
Buck was overjoyed the first time JD’s eyes opened but his joy was short-lived when there was no recognition in the hazel depths. He didn’t appear to focus on anything, just opening and closing his eyes for a few minutes before going back to sleep. But Buck was optimistic, telling Nathan and anyone who would listen that his boy was getting better.
Planting season was over and classes were scheduled to resume in the church. Josiah had spent many productive hours sanding boards and driving nails to get the building ready to serve as the town’s school house. The solitude of working alone also gave him ample time to pray for JD. Even though no one had come right out and said it, Josiah knew he was responsible for JD’s injury. If he hadn’t dismissed early, the children would have been inside of the seamstress shop and not on the boardwalk when the shooting started. He prayed that the boy would not be made to suffer for his mistake.
Ezra’s horse plodded back to the livery after yet another patrol. The southerner had been taking over more and more of the patrols as his way to atone for being responsible for JD getting hurt. If he hadn’t been sitting in the saloon, he might have been able to stop the bank robbers before they managed to hurt the boy. Or, if he had been a better shot, he might have taken both of them out before they had a chance to shoot in JD’s direction. In addition to the extra patrols, he had been ordering books for Nathan’s medical library, hoping to help their healer find a cure for JD’s injury.
Nathan poured over the books that Ezra had delivered for him, searching for any information about head injuries. The problem was that there just wasn’t all that much known about serious trauma to the head and what effect it would have. The only thing that all the books seemed to agree on was the fact that the longer the patient remained unresponsive or comatose, the less likely they were to achieve any kind of meaningful recovery.
Buck was tired of spending every day at the clinic. Nathan had taken out JD’s stitches better than ten days ago and there wasn’t anything the healer was doing for the boy that he couldn’t do for him at home. To that end, he announced that he was taking his son back to the ranch. At least there, he could help with the horses and free up Nathan’s clinic. He broke the news to all of them over breakfast, which was the only time they could all be together.
“I want to take him home,” Buck announced. Where he had expected one or all of them to protest, there was only silence.
“But he isn’t all better yet,” Vin finally said, when it looked like none of the adults was going to respond. “Don’t he need to stay here for Nathan to take care of him?”
“Ain’t nothing more I can do for him,” the healer admitted.
“But, surely, there is something that can be done,” Ezra protested. “Perhaps, if we took him back east. There are doctors there-”
“I already sent to every doctor east of St. Louis and they all say there ain’t anything to be done for him. Either he’ll get better or he won’t,” Nathan said. “They just don’t know enough about the workings of the brain.”
“Are you sure it’s safe? To move him, I mean,” Chris asked.
“It’s been a month. The bone has healed, the stitches are gone. Buck’s been doing for him for the past two weeks. There ain’t anything I could do for him that he can’t,” Nathan replied.
“Alright, we’ll take him home then,” Chris agreed.
Vin was anxious and excited that day in school. He was certain that going home meant that JD would get better faster. Not that he was faulting Nathan – but he knew that he didn’t like being cooped up in the clinic and he had to think JD felt the same.
Nathan helped Buck bathe JD for the last time in the clinic. He packed up the diapers and the sterilized bottles that they used to feed him in a big basket. Several of the town’s ladies had been canning chicken and beef broth so it would be a while before Buck would need to get more. The healer also reminded Buck about turning JD on his side every so often so he didn’t get bed sores.
Chris set the parking brake on the wagon and leapt down from the box. He had padded the front end with fresh hay and covered it with a layer of bedding for JD to lie on for the ride home. Just as he reached for the stair rail, the door to the clinic opened and Buck stepped out onto the landing with JD in his arms. He carried the boy the way you would carry a newborn because JD was unable to hold his head up on his own. Behind Buck, Nathan came out carrying a large basket that was heaped up with quart jars of broth.
Guilt washed over the darkly-clothed man as he watched Buck descend the steep set of stairs. If he had finished his patrol sooner, he would have been in town and would have been able to protect JD from getting hurt. If he had been there, he would have killed the bastards before they got off a shot.
Buck handed JD up to Chris, who had climbed into the wagon bed, before climbing in himself. He took the basket from Nathan and set it near the stack of hay and bedding. No words were exchanged between them because none were needed. Chris climbed back into the box and released the brake, snapping the reins lightly on the wagon team and they were off.
Sitting in the new church/schoolhouse, Vin glanced out the window in time to see his dad driving the wagon slowly down the dusty road. He leapt from his desk and ran for the door, heedless of the fact that he was interrupting Tommy Potter during his book report.
“Dad! Dad!” Vin shouted as he raced down the steps.
Chris stopped the wagon in time for Vin to climb up the front wheel and pull himself into the box beside him. He hadn’t planned for Vin to come home with them and he was sure that the class day wasn’t over yet.
“Don’t you still have a few more hours of school left, son?” Chris asked.
“Aw, Dad, I want to go home with you and help get JD settled,” Vin protested.
Just then, Josiah reached the wagon and held out the lunch pail Chris had packed for Vin that morning, along with the small slate and Vin’s primer. “You need to read aloud for at least 30 minutes,” Sanchez reminded his student. “And practice your multiplication table.”
“Yes, sir,” Vin replied.
Josiah’s gaze rested on JD. If it weren’t for the unnatural stillness, one might never know there was anything wrong with him. He lay swaddled in a light blanket with two fingers tucked in his mouth, sucking them as an infant might suck its thumb. He wondered if that was how the child was destined to remain, forever a baby in a growing body, and how long his family would be able to care for him if he did.
“I’m still praying for you to get better,” Josiah said, reaching out to pat JD’s hip.
Alone in the clinic, Nathan sat on the side of the bed with a heavy heart. He kept thinking that he should have been able to do something; he should have been able to fix JD so that he would be like he was before. If he had learned more, if he had some kind of schooling, he might have known what to do for the boy.
Bringing the wagon to a halt in front of the cabin, Chris set the brake and climbed down. He reached out to boost Vin down before moving to the back of the wagon to help Buck.
“I got him,” Buck said, sinking to his knees and sitting down so he could stretch his long legs toward the ground. “If you’d grab the basket and bring it inside for me,” he called over his shoulder.
Vin followed Buck, darting past him to open the door. He jogged across the room and pulled back the curtain that hung in the doorway of the small room he’d shared with JD. But Buck carried his small burden into the other room and deposited him gently in the center of the big bed.
“Ain’t you gonna put him in our room?” Vin asked.
“Not right now. I need to be able to keep an eye on him so it’ll be better if he sleeps in here with me,” Buck replied, gently unwrapping JD and propping him up on his side by using two large pillows.
Vin’s heart sank. All morning, he had been looking forward to getting to sleep in his bed with JD. The month that his cousin had been at the clinic was the longest time they had been apart since he had gone to live with JD and his mother. In the clinic, the adults were always keeping him away from JD. A knot rose up in his throat and Vin bolted from the cabin, running past Chris as he unpacked the basket.
Chris quickly set the last two jars of broth on the shelf and hurried after Vin. He knew that it had been hard on the boy, being away from JD. By the time he reached the edge of the porch, Vin was already climbing the hill behind the barn. Sighing, he stepped off the porch and jogged across the yard. Unhitching the team would have to wait, an unhappy little boy was more important.
Tears blurred his vision but Vin knew the way to his ‘special place’ by heart. He climbed the steep path, falling several times and skinning his palms and elbows. He was winded by the time he reached the top and collapsed beside the large rock. Drawing his knees up, he wrapped his arms around them, buried his face and cried.
The view was rather pretty from the top of the hill. On a clear day, you could see for miles. Since JD had been in the clinic, Chris had been bringing Vin up here to look at the stars and to spend time with him. There were two ways up to the place and Vin had chosen the one Chris referred to at the ‘goat path’ suited only for little boys and those with cloven hooves. He much preferred the less steep, circuitous path that didn’t leave him winded when he got to the top. As soon as he got close enough to see, he could tell that Vin was crying. That was another thing that the spot was good for, it was a safe place to let out your emotions without everyone seeing.
Sinking to his knees next to Vin, Chris stroked the long, sun-blonded waves that lay against the back of Vin’s neck. He winced at the bloody little elbows that shook with the strength of the boy’s sobs.
“Can you tell me about it, son?” Chris asked several minutes later.
Vin raised his head, scrubbing his face against the shoulder of his shirt before speaking. “He’s not … even gonna … let me sleep … with JD,” Vin ground out between shuddering breaths.
“Buck just needs to get used to being home with JD again. Give him a day or two, then he’ll be settled down again and he’ll let JD sleep in your room. I’ll talk to him,” Chris promised.
It was a long afternoon in the cabin. Buck changed JD’s diaper and carefully washed the boy’s body. He warmed some of the broth and poured it into a bottle. He was not happy to be feeding his son like a baby but he understood the need to nourish his body while it healed. Now that they were home, he intended to start trying to feed JD with a spoon.
The door opened and Buck looked up from washing the bottle to see Chris staring at him.
“Something wrong?” Buck asked when Chris didn’t say anything.
“Vin’s upset that you aren’t putting JD in their room.”
“I’m not criticizing, I’m just letting you know what’s bothering him,” Chris interrupted. “He needs to see JD, to see that he’s getting better.”
When Vin slipped into the cabin an hour later, Buck was heating a pan of water on the stove. The boy’s blue eyes darted to the doorway to Buck’s room and he chewed on his lower lip anxiously.
“Do you think you could sit with JD for a few minutes? I need to visit the outhouse,” Buck explained.
Surprise darted across the expressive face before Vin nodded and hurried across the room. He halted at the door when Buck spoke again.
“Talk to him. He likes to be talked to, if he’s awake,” Wilmington said as he set the large pot of water aside.
Vin slipped into the room and stole up on the edge of the bed. JD lay on his side, propped up with pillows, with his fingers in his mouth. Vin reached out to gently brush his cousin’s bangs out of his eyes.
“Hey JD, I’ll bet you’re glad to be home. It’s been awfully quiet around here. Me and Chris have been real busy, takin’ care of the horses and stuff while you and Buck was gone. One of the hens hatched out some chicks. You should see them. They’re all yellow and fuzzy and they make little noises like this, ‘peep peep’ all the time.”
Buck smiled as he pushed away from the cabin’s outer wall and quietly snuck around to the front porch. He felt a little ashamed, that he had been afraid to allow Vin in with JD. It was just that he had gotten used to doing for the boy on his own, so that Nathan would allow him to bring JD home and he wasn’t used to having anyone else there to spell him.
In the morning, Vin crept out of his bedroom. He had been laying there, waiting for Buck to get up so he could help with breakfast. It was just one of the things he had missed while the family was split up. Quickly pulling on his coveralls, he wiggled his toes into his moccasins and hurried out to the wood box.
Buck rinsed the coffee pot and filled it, setting it on the stove and turning for the shelf where the bag of beans and the grinder was kept. He was still muzzy from sleeping and didn’t see the look of hurt on Vin’s face as he broke from their former routine.
Standing next to the cook stove with his hands full of kindling, Vin’s smile slid from his face. He watched as Buck measured the beans and ground them up to pour into the basket. After he put the basket in the pot, he turned and opened the door on the stove, only then noticing Vin.
“Morning, Squirt. Hey, you want to help me build the fire? I have to warm some water to bathe JD and heat him some milk,” Buck said as he took the kindling from Vin’s hands.
“Ain’t you gonna make biscuits?” Vin asked.
“Sorry, kiddo, I have to take care of JD,” Buck answered. He took up the large pot and set it in the sink and began pumping it full of water. “Why don’t you go gather the eggs? If I have time later, I’ll try to make some biscuits. I’ll have Chris pick up some bread at the restaurant too.”
Disheartened, Vin trudged out to the chicken coop and gathered the eggs. When he finished, he headed out to the barn to turn the horses out, which he had been doing since Buck and JD had been gone. He was pushing flakes of hay through the corral rails when his dad came out to help him.
Chris noticed that Vin seemed preoccupied. Usually, his son greeted him with a smile when they fed the horses but this morning Vin looked almost depressed.
“Why don’t you go in and help Buck make breakfast?” Chris suggested.
“He ain’t makin’ any biscuits this morning,” Vin sullenly replied.
“Why not? We’ve got all the makings.”
“He said he has to bathe JD and he don’t have time anymore,” Vin said, turning away so his dad wouldn’t see him cry.
Chris exhaled slowly while dragging his fingers through his hair. He knew that the familiar routine was so important to Vin and that he had been looking forward to the return of some measure of normalcy with Buck and JD coming home. It was going to take a while for them to settle into a new routine, one that revolved around the care that JD needed while he recovered … if he recovered.
When they returned to the cabin with the buckets of milk, Buck was just coming out with the basin of water he had used on JD. He carried it to the edge of the porch and tossed it away. Chris ushered Vin into the cabin and immediately set about making breakfast. He was pleased to see that Buck had at least peeled some potatoes and cut them up with some onions and started them cooking.
That evening, while Vin was outside playing, Chris stopped in the doorway to Buck’s room. He watched as his friend gently flexed and straightened JD’s limbs, to stave off the debilitating wasting that resulted from long periods of inactivity. Chris waited until Buck noticed him before he spoke.
“I need to talk to you about some things,” Chris said. He saw Buck look at JD, as if gauging whether or not he could leave him. “I’ll ask Vin to come in and sit with him,” Larabee announced, “I’m sure he would enjoy that.”
Once Vin was in the room, Chris drew Buck out to the barn and motioned for him to sit down on one of the hay bales. “We need to talk about your responsibilities around here,” Chris began. “If you’re going to keep him here and take care of him, we need to get a few things straight.”
Buck tensed as a bubble of anger surfaced. “Now, just a damned minute, Chris! If you think I’m not pulling my weight around here-”
“I didn’t say that,” Chris interrupted. “I’m just saying that we need to get a few things straight. I know that taking care of JD is important to you, it is to me too. But you’ve also got another child to think about. Vin has been worried about JD, feeling responsible for him getting hurt, and it looks like you’re shutting him out of his cousin’s life.”
“I’m not-” Buck cut in, but Chris raised his hand and continued talking.
“I’m just saying that you need to let Vin spend more time with JD. And you need to let me help you with him, too. You know I love that boy as much as I do Vin.”
“I’m not stopping you,” Buck replied.
“You need to get back to your normal routine, Buck. You need to do the things with Vin that you used to do. He needs the routine, as much or more than you do.”
“I’m trying!” Buck said, his voice rising in volume. “What more do you want me to do?”
“Let him help you make coffee. Make the biscuits with him. Surely JD can wait in the morning, for a little while, so you can do normal things with Vin,” Chris suggested.
“So, you’re saying I should neglect JD so that Vin doesn’t feel slighted?” Buck asked, coming to his feet angrily.
“No! I’m just saying … Why did you bring him home, Buck? Why was it so important for you to take him out of the clinic and away from Nathan?”
A long, tense silence fell between them until some of the anger faded and Buck’s shoulders slumped. He raked his fingers through his dark, unruly curls as his eyes filled with anguished tears. Chris took a hesitant step closer and Buck caught hold of him. Weeks of worry and fear poured out in one anguished sob.
“Let it go, Big Dog, let it all go,” Chris soothed. While he was unused to being the one offering comfort, Chris knew how because of the man clinging so desperately to him. It was a little scary, though, because Buck had always been the strong one. Finally, Buck’s grip on him loosened. Chris didn’t let go until Buck pulled away, then he rested one hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“I didn’t want …” Buck paused, as if ordering his thoughts. “I didn’t want him to … die in that clinic. I didn’t want to have to remember him lying there.”
“You think he’s going to die?” Chris asked.
“Don’t you?” Buck countered. “Doesn’t everyone? I’ve seen the looks on their faces, the pity when they looked at me. People don’t know how to talk to me anymore.”
Inside the cabin, Vin galloped one of their carved horses along the patchwork quilt. Another of the horses lay in JD’s lax hand.
“And then, Peso stops and raises up like this and he goes ‘neeee pbt’ and the bee comes flying out of his nose,” Vin explains. He looked up to see what the younger boy thought about the tall tale and was surprised to see a smile. “And he ran all the way back to the barn, bucking and kicking and shaking his head,” Vin continued, demonstrating with the carved horse.
Buck paused at the doorway, watching the older boy interacting with his younger cousin. It looked so normal that it brought a lump to his throat. Swallowing around the lump, he stepped into the room and ran his hand lightly over Vin’s head.
“The bee wasn’t in Peso’s nose,” Buck said, his mustache twitching above a smile.
“But it sure looked like it,” Vin countered. “And JD smiled at me.”
It was true. Since the accident, JD had not smiled or reacted to anything other than to suck on his fingers or a bottle.
“See, watch him,” Vin continued, galloping the carved horse across the blanket and imitating the squeal and snorting sound again while waggling the toy in the air to show the bucking and kicking he had done. And, just like before, JD smiled.
“Well, I’ll be damned. He smiled,” Buck agreed. “Hey, what do you say to me moving JD back into your room? Just to see how it works. If he keeps you awake, I can always move him back in here.”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Vin replied.
That night, Buck settled JD in the bed he had shared with Vin, carefully propping him up with pillows. They had put an oiled piece of cloth from an old rain slicker under him to protect the mattress. Vin was soon snuggled down in front of JD. They lay facing each other and Vin reached out to hold JD’s hand.
In the morning, Buck was exhausted. He had tossed and turned, getting up several times to look in on JD. Each time he pulled the curtain back, the boys had been asleep. JD’s hand had moved up to his face so he could suck on his fingers but the boys had otherwise been in the same positions they had fallen asleep in. Buck opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. The rocking chair sat out there, where Chris had moved it so he could smoke the night before, and he eased his weary body into it with a sigh. Some time later, he felt a hand on his arm and opened his eyes to find Vin standing beside the chair.
“Is something wrong? Is JD alright?” Buck asked.
“He’s still sleeping,” Vin replied.
Remembering what Chris had said the night before, Buck asked, “Would you like to help me make some biscuits this morning?”
“Don’t you have to give JD a bath?”
“Nah, I’ll let him sleep. We can put the water on and I’ll get him up when it’s ready,” Buck replied, reaching out to slip his arm around Vin for a moment. “Let’s go make some biscuits and maybe Chris will make us some gravy to dip them in.”
Chris smiled at the scene that greeted him when he came out of his room. Buck had turned the dough out onto the counter and was rolling it out while Vin stood ready with the glass to cut out the biscuits. There was a pot of coffee on one side of the stove and a pan of water heating on the other side.
They settled into a new sort of routine over the next few days. Buck and Vin started breakfast together. While Chris was making the eggs, they changed JD and got him washed up and dressed. Buck was determined to teach JD to eat again and, to that end, sat the boy in his lap and offered him little tastes of the gravy and egg yolks. Chris realized that it would be easier if JD could sit in a chair of his own and approached Josiah with an idea.
Ezra stopped on his patrol to check on Buck and JD. It had been almost a month since the pair had returned to the cabin and, except for the uninformative comments from Chris, he’d had no news of JD’s recovery. He swung down from the saddle and tied Chaucer to the hitching post as he looked around. The horses were in the corral and they called out a greeting to his mount, who responded in kind. Ezra stepped up on the porch and knocked on the door. Several moments passed without any response and the southerner began to worry. Easing his gun from its holster, he cautiously opened the door and peered inside.
The interior of the cabin was deserted. Ezra checked each of the bedrooms to be sure. He noticed that the special chair that Josiah had fashioned for JD. The chair was adjustable so that the boy could be partially reclined, since he still lacked the muscle control to sit fully upright. It resembled a canvas sling mounted on a frame. The only other place to check was the barn and Ezra doubted that Buck would take the infirm little boy down there but he had to check.
As he approached the barn, Ezra heard Buck’s voice and he was relieved. Pausing before making his presence known, he listened to see what the man was doing.
“That’s a boy, reach for it,” Buck urged. “You want it? Reach for it.”
Ezra stepped around the open door and saw Buck calling over his shoulder as he cleaned the stalls. JD was settled in a blanket supported by bales of hay, reaching for something dangling from the support beam. As he got closer, he realized that a number of the boys’ carved animals were tied to a pair of wooden dowels. JD was waving his arm at them. When Ezra stopped in front of the chair, JD’s attention switched to him and the boy’s hand reached for him.
“Hey Ezra! I didn’t hear you come in,” Buck greeted. Setting the rake aside, he leaned against the wall and smiled fondly at his son. “He’s getting better control over his arms,” he explained. “Vin suggested that we hang some of their toys up to get him to reach for them.”
JD smiled and made an uncoordinated grab at Ezra’s sleeve when the southerner reached out to set the makeshift mobile in motion. Immediately, JD’s attention returned to the toys and he reached for them, almost managing to grasp the closest one.
Pasting a forced smile on his face, Ezra made small talk with Buck for several minutes before he excused himself to complete his rounds. His hands were trembling when he tried to mount and he dug his heels into Chaucer’s sides as soon as he was in the saddle. He rode aimlessly for several minutes before drawing the animal to a stop and flinging himself down. Ezra pressed his knuckle against his lip until the urge to yell had passed.
Seeing JD that way was tearing him up inside. The boy had been so very bright and brought such happiness to everyone that it was painful to see him that way. Somehow, he had expected that JD would have gotten better, since he had been released from the clinic and brought home. He remembered teaching the boy to add and subtract using cards. JD had been so quick to pick up his numbers that Ezra had been challenged to keep up with him. He didn’t know how Buck could be so cheerful and optimistic about it when his son was so infantile now. He wondered how his own mother would have dealt with it if something like that had happened to him at that age. But he knew what she would have done, she would have shut him away in one of those awful asylums, visiting him only when it was convenient.
Warm tears flowed over his hand and Ezra realized that he had been standing there for a while. His lip was numb from being pressed against his teeth. He fumbled for his handkerchief and wiped his face. He resolved to contact some more doctors, seeking advice on how to help JD to make the most of his infirmity.
Spring waned and summer settled over the area with brutal vengeance. The sun beat down on the land, drying out the grass that the wet spring had allowed to grow tall and plentiful. Things in the town were busy. Hot temperatures made for hot tempers and the peacekeepers constantly had to break up fights in the streets and in the saloons.
“Aye, Dios mio! How many times must I tell you, Senor, I am not going on a date with you, not now and not ever! Nunca!” Inez announced, her voice rising in volume until she was shouting at the end of her tirade.
“Come on now, Darlin’ … you know you don’t mean it,” the drunken ranch hand slurred as he reached across the bar and tried to catch hold of her arm.
“I do mean it! And I would like for you to leave, Senor! Now!” Inez replied as she backed up against the shelf where the liquor bottles were displayed. Her hand slipped around behind her back and she grabbed a mostly-empty bottle of Red Eye.
“She’s just playin’ hard to get,” the drunk announced to his companion. “I’ll have her roped and branded faster than you can spit.” He slid off of his stool and started around the end of the bar.
Inez waited until he was within reach, then she slammed the bottle against the side of the man’s head. The drunken man staggered back, losing his balance and falling against another man, who was just coming down the stairs. The two of them went down in a tangle of arms and legs. The man who had come down the stairs shoved the other man off of him and the brawl started. The ranch hand’s companion took exception to the way his friend was bounced off of the bar and he launched himself at the other man.
The sound of glass breaking alerted the peacekeepers to trouble at the saloon. Chris and Nathan ran down the boardwalk, arriving just as the fight was pouring out into the street.
Josiah came from the school house/church after admonishing the children not to leave the building. As he was getting ready to close the door, he caught Vin’s wide, worried eyes.
Ezra hurriedly put the finishing touches on his string tie and checked his weapons before stepping out of his room. He allowed a moment to survey the situation before rushing down to leap into the fray, ducking flying debris on his way to where the main group of combatants was pressed into a corner. He began by tossing a few of the spectators out of the way, hoping they would take the hint and move on. Seconds later, he realized that Nathan was beside him, helping to pull the men out of the tight knot until they got to the ones who actually fought back.
Nathan grabbed one man and pulled him away from the fight and the drunken man swung on him, spinning around when the blow failed to connect. Immediately, Ezra’s fist connected with the man’s jaw and he slumped back into Nathan’s arms. The healer dragged the unconscious man out of the way before wading back into the fight. He saw that Ezra was trading blows with a rangy little man and decided to repay the favor. When the man swung on Ezra and missed, Nathan slipped an arm around the man’s neck and held him until he went limp, then moved him to lie next to the other man. Suddenly, the rapport of a pistol sounded and both Ezra and Nathan went for their guns. The crush of bodies fell apart, leaving one man dead on the floor. Ezra and Nathan quickly spotted the man who had fired and turned to take aim. The man’s eyes widened and the gun slipped from his fingers as he raised trembling hands.
The jail was filled to overflowing in a matter of minutes. Josiah helped Chris toss in one more drunken, belligerent soul before he hurried back over to the school to check on the kids. As soon as his boots hit the boardwalk, he saw the crush of faces at the windows disappear. His long legs easily devoured the steps and he opened the door on a silent and suspiciously well-behaved group of children, all of whom were sitting at their desks with their reading primers open in front of them. All except for one child, who was still pressed against the window.
Chris glared menacingly at the crowded cells and issued an order he fully expected to be obeyed without question or comment.
“Sit down and shut up or I’ll come back in here and shut you up,” Larabee growled. He looked directly at the ones he most expected to mouth off and saw the words wither on their lips as they looked away. There was no doubting who the Alpha male was in the room at the moment. Ezra leaned back against the wall, trying to control the knowing smile that he felt pulling at his face. He had barely managed to quell it when Chris turned around and fixed his gaze on the southerner. “Get their names and find out if any of them are hurt. I’ll have Nathan stop by when he’s finished with the undertaker.”
Having attended to his responsibilities for the moment, Chris stepped out of the jail and headed for the school. He had made eye contact with Vin as he was herding the unruly drunkards down the boardwalk and he could tell that the child was frightened. In the struggle to break up the fight that spilled into the street, one of the combatants had leapt on him, bearing both of them to the dusty ground where they had rolled around for a few minutes until Josiah lifted the man off of him and knocked him into oblivion. Just thinking about it made his jaw hurt and he resisted the urge to reach up and rub it. He climbed the steps and opened the door, scanning the darkened interior for his son.
“DAD!” Vin called out. He leapt from where Josiah had convinced him to sit at his desk to run and throw his arms around his father’s legs.
Chris brushed his hand over the dark blond tresses and rubbed the tense little shoulders. He waited patiently for Vin to look up at him. Finally, he was rewarded with a pair of concerned blue eyes.
“Are you alright?” Vin asked.
“I’m fine. I just wanted to come over so you could see for yourself,” Chris said as he continued to rub his thumb against his son’s cheek. “Now, you get back to your desk and finish your work. Hear?”
“Yes, sir,” Vin answered with a smile.
By the end of the school day, Chris had released several of the men from the jail, having warned them that he had better not see them in the saloon for a while. Inez had come down to identify the ones who had started it, although she admitted that the man who had been knocked down at first was probably the least to blame. He was released with the same admonition and paused only long enough to thank Inez for clearing him. Nathan had two in the clinic, both of whom had deep cuts from the myriad of broken glass in the saloon. The six men they kept in the jail were all part of the same bunch of ranch hands that had been coming in and making trouble every couple of weeks. Under normal circumstances, Chris would have stayed in town to help with watching the jail and making patrols but he was worried about how Buck would manage with both of the boys. He got up and moved out to the boardwalk as soon as he heard the cheerful shouts that heralded the end of the school day. Vin darted across the road and up onto the boardwalk, his lunch pail and slate dangling from his belt.
“Hey, cowboy, did you have a good day?” Chris asked as Vin hugged him.
“Yeah, it was okay. Did ya send all the drunkens home?” Vin asked.
“Where’d you hear that they were ‘drunkens’?” Chris asked out of curiosity.
“That’s what Uncle Ezra calls them, ‘drunken, illiterate cretins,’” Vin explained. “Does being drunken make ‘em sick?”
“Yeah, some of them were sick,” Chris answered, not quite making the connection.
“So, are you ready to go home? Is Pony still at the livery?” Vin asked. “Buck was gonna try to make fried chicken for supper. Ms. Nettie gave him a recipe for it.”
He was saved from having to answer by Josiah’s timely arrival at the jail.
“I see we still have several misguided souls inside,” Sanchez said as he lowered his body down in the creaking chair next to the pickle barrel that Buck had drawn a checker board on top of some time ago.
“I sent Ezra out to the ranch they’re working for with a message. He can pay for the damages and take it out of their pay,” Chris explained.
“Then I guess you’ll be heading for home?” Josiah asked, looking pointedly at Vin.
“I’ll take him home and help Buck with the horses, then I’ll be back to relieve you for a few hours,” Chris replied.
“You don’t have to do that. I can handle the jail tonight,” Josiah argued.
“But with Nathan stuck in the clinic and Ezra making patrols, who’s going to relieve you? When are you going to get some sleep? You have school tomorrow,” Chris argued.
That was one of the problems they were having. The town council couldn’t afford to hire in a ‘proper’ teacher for the children so they were making due with Josiah. Most of the time it wasn’t a problem because Chris and Buck could stay in town overnight if they had prisoners, tending to the horses when they took the evening and morning patrols. But since JD had been hurt, Buck hadn’t been able to take patrols and Chris doubted he would want to bring JD all the way to town for the night.
“Maybe I should just turn all of them loose and send the bill to their boss,” Chris offered lamely. “It isn’t fair to you to have to stay up all night and then teach all day tomorrow.”
“I can ride home, Dad. I know the way and I’ll be real careful,” Vin said.
Chris had no doubt that Vin could and would go straight home but that didn’t alleviate his concern over how Buck would manage with both of the boys all by himself.
“And I can help Buck with the horses just like I helped you when JD was in the clinic,” Vin continued, almost as if he was reading Chris’ mind.
“There’s only one problem, we rode in together this morning on Pony,” Chris countered.
Vin chewed on his lip as he tried to come up with a working solution to the problem.
“Why don’t you go ahead and take Vin home? I have some papers to grade and I can do that here as well as anywhere,” Josiah offered. “You can come back later after you take care of things at home.”
Chris mulled over the idea for a few minutes. If he took care of the stock and made sure that Buck was settled for the night, he could come back and mind the jail overnight, allowing Josiah to rest. In the morning, he could have Ezra watch over the prisoners while he went home and took care of things and he could bring Vin back for school.
“Thanks, Josiah, I appreciate it,” Chris said as he stood up.
Buck glanced over to where JD lay on the pile of pillows and blankets. He smiled upon seeing the hazel eyes following him across the cabin. It seemed that the boy was gaining control of his muscles as he raised one hand to grasp Buck’s as it came close to his stomach. JD had also begun to make noises. Nathan likened it to the way a newborn baby made sounds in response to what was happening around him. Buck heard a horse coming and moved to look out the window, parting the gingham curtains he had washed just the day before.
“There’s Chris and Vin,” he explained to JD. Nathan had encouraged him to treat the boy as normally as possible, although Buck would have done it anyway, in the hope that he might come to understand. As soon as JD heard Vin’s name, he smiled and began to swing his feet.
Vin hurried into the cabin, dropping his lunch pail and slate on the table as he called out a greeting to Buck and JD.
“I have to go help dad with the horses, Buck, he has to go back to town,” Vin explained.
“Why? Did something happen?” Buck asked, glancing worriedly toward the door.
“They arrested a bunch of men this afternoon and he’s going back to relieve Josiah at the jail,” Vin answered before taking a drink of the glass of water he had pumped for himself. “He said he’d pick me up in the morning for school.”
“Vin, can you stay in here with JD for a few minutes? I need to talk to Chris.”
“Sure, Buck, but hurry, I gotta get out there to help him,” Vin replied.
Crossing the yard to the barn, Buck saw Chris filling the water buckets in the stalls. He grabbed up a couple of buckets and carried them over to the trough, dipping them full and following his friend back inside.
“You don’t have to do this. Vin and I can handle the livestock,” Buck said.
“You’re going to have your hands full alone with both boys tonight,” Chris returned.
“Vin and I can manage. When are you due back?”
“I told Josiah I’d be a few hours. He had some papers to grade so he was going to stay at the jail. Ezra’s taking patrol this evening and Nathan’s stuck in the clinic with those knuckleheads,” Chris answered. “You better get back in there and see to JD.”
Buck drew his hands up to rest on his hips. Chris had just dismissed him like he was a … a woman; sending him back to the house to mind the children while he took care of the chores. Even as he was drawing breath to tell him off, Buck realized that Chris had been carrying a lot of their combined duties in town. Every month, Judge Travis had paid both of them, as if Buck was still working to protect the town.
“At least stay and have supper with us,” Buck suggested.
“I will,” Chris replied.
As soon as he got close to the cabin, he heard a sound he hadn’t heard in far too long; JD was laughing. Buck peeked in through the window and saw that Vin was tickling the younger boy’s ribs. JD was squirming, trying to roll away from the older boy’s fingers even as his hands tried to push Vin’s away. Buck moved away from the window and opened the door. Vin immediately rose from his crouched position next to JD and darted out the door. Buck watched as JD turned his head to follow the older boy with his eyes before his gaze flitted up to his adopted father; then JD made a sound that caused Buck’s eyes to fill with tears.
“Da,” JD called, “Da-da-da.”
The summer progressed, as did JD’s improvement. The little brunet’s muscular movement became more organized and he began to grasp at things. Buck noticed that he seemed to be gaining more control and could sit in the tub without too much support. Gradually, Buck began working toward getting JD to sit up unassisted. Josiah had built them a wheelchair for JD, so that he didn’t have to be carried all the time. With JD able to sit up, he also began to grab at the spoon when Buck fed him so Wilmington gave it to him and let him try to feed himself. It was messy the first few times and one of the few times that Chris seemed to become upset with the boy.
They were having pancakes, one of Vin’s favorite meals. Buck put JD in the wheelchair and set it close to the table. He cut the boy’s food into small, bite-sized pieces and drizzled them with maple syrup. JD grabbed for the plate just as Buck was trying to put it in front of him and knocked it from his hands. Buck grabbed for it and missed, knocking over the pitcher of milk Chris had just put on the table. The milk splashed all over the blond man’s shirt and quickly ran into his lap.
“Damn it, Buck! Can’t we have one normal meal around here?” Chris yelled as he leapt up, overturning his chair.
“What do you mean by that?” Buck demanded, his voice low and menacing.
“Just that he’s making such a mess. Can’t you just feed him like you used to?” Chris asked. “He’s wasting more than he’s eating.”
“He’s learning to feed himself,” Buck countered. “I seem to remember Adam doing the same things when he was little.”
Chris’ eyes flashed angrily and he jerked like he’d been slapped.
“Adam was just a baby,” he hissed.
“JD can’t help being like this. Do you think he wanted this to happen? What do you want me to do? Put him in an asylum so you don’t have to see him making a mess? Is that what you want?” Buck asked.
Chris slowly drew in a deep breath and looked over to where Vin was sitting, his fork frozen in mid air, his eyes filled with fear. Closing his eyes and letting go the indrawn breath, Chris shook his head.
“No, that isn’t what I meant. I’m sorry, Buck. I’m just tired. I’m sorry,” he repeated as he drifted away from the table. “I need to change. Finish your breakfast, Vin, I don’t want you to be late for school.”
Alone in his room, Chris toed off his boots and began to strip off his wet clothes. He hadn’t told Buck, or anyone else, that Judge Travis said he couldn’t keep paying Wilmington a wage if he wasn’t working for the town. He also told Chris that he needed to pick someone to replace Buck as peacekeeper. They had all hoped that JD would recover enough for things to go back to the way it was before but it was looking as if it wouldn’t happen quickly enough for Buck to keep his job. It wasn’t that they were in desperate need of the money, they weren’t, but he was worried about how his friend would react.
Buck never complained about being isolated at the ranch all the time but Chris knew that his friend missed the socializing and companionship he had in town. Nathan visited from time to time, to check on JD, and Josiah came out, usually on Sunday, but Ezra stayed away and that bothered Chris. It made him angry, that the southerner should completely avoid the little boy who had so looked up to him. Ezra always had a reason, always had some place else he had to be, whenever Chris invited him out for a visit. He always sent something home for JD, a new toy or a picture book, but he never set foot on the property or laid eyes on the boy and Chris knew that Buck had noticed and was hurt by the southerner’s actions.
When he had changed clothes, Chris came out of his room. Vin was gone, his dishes scraped clean and stacked in the sink. Buck was feeding JD, holding the boy’s hands down as he guided the fork into his mouth. The table and floor had been cleaned up and a fresh plate of eggs sat waiting at his place at the table. Chris avoided the questioning gaze Buck sent his way as he walked over to the door.
“Now who’s wasting food?” Buck asked softly.
Chris’ hand tightened on the doorknob for an instant, then he opened the door and walked out. Vin had brought Pony out of the corral and was talking softly to the black gelding. He saw that the boy had his lunch pail and slate and was ready to leave for school.
“Did you finish your breakfast?” Chris asked as he slung the saddle up over the blanket Vin had placed on Pony’s back.
“Yessir,” Vin replied quickly.
Once the horse was saddled, Chris pulled himself up and reached down to collect Vin. They rode in an uncomfortable silence for several minutes before Vin’s soft words intruded into Chris’ thoughts.
“Are you gonna make Buck send JD away?”
Chris closed his eyes as his hands tightened on the reins. He didn’t want to have this conversation now, not with Vin, anyway.
“No, son, I’m not going to make Buck send JD away. I overreacted. That’s all. Okay?” he asked, putting as much assurance into his voice as he could manage.
“JD’s getting lots better,” Vin explained. “He don’t even wet the bed anymore.”
Chris remembered when they had first come home, how he had practically demanded that Buck put JD back in the room with Vin. The still-recovering boy had no control over his bladder or bowels and wet the bed every night. Chris had been forced to buy another set of sheets so that Buck could change them every morning. That had been in addition to all of the clothing and blankets that Buck had to wash and hang out every day. Chris couldn’t find any fault with the way Wilmington was keeping up the house and taking care of JD. Nathan had warned them of the danger of bedsores, so Buck made sure that the boy was moved regularly and bathed every single day. Once, when Chris had complained about the rapidly dwindling pile of wood for the stove, Buck had somehow managed to fall, split and stack enough wood to replace what he was using to heat the water he was using.
“He’s getting lots better,” Vin repeated.
“I know, son,” Chris acknowledged.
For the next few days, Buck dressed and fed JD before the others, so that Chris didn’t have to see the messes he made. He also made sure that the cabin was immaculate in the evening when Chris came home. When Chris questioned why JD wasn’t at the table, Buck replied that he had already eaten and was playing in his room. It took until the third or fourth day for Chris to realize that his friend was shielding JD from him. The thought popped into his head when he was dipping up the stew Buck had made for supper and he dripped the liquid on the table. Buck hurriedly grabbed the dish towel and wiped up the mess.
Chris’ shoulders sank as he took in the tension wafting around the table. He looked over at JD’s empty chair and his stomach clenched. Vin was practically in his plate as he ate, so as not to make a mess. Chris noticed that Buck hadn’t put the tea pitcher on the table, but had filled the glasses at the counter and carried them to the table. Sitting back in his chair, Chris sighed.
“Buck, you don’t have to do this,” he said. “You don’t have to hide JD from me.”
“When were you going to tell me that you hired someone to take my place in town?” Buck countered.
“How’d you hear about that?” Chris asked. He had tentatively hired Dolf Jurgenson to watch the jail at night and to take the early morning patrol. The young man had only recently settled in the area but he was bright and level-headed.
“Nettie stopped by to bring me some things for JD, she told me,” Buck answered. “So, when were you going to tell me?”
“It’s only temporary, just until JD gets well,” Chris replied.
“I could still have helped in town. Mary would have watched JD for me. I could still cover the jail or patrols.”
“And what happens when the next gunfight starts in the street? Can you honestly tell me you would have your head on straight? Could you do that knowing that you might be killed and leave that boy all alone?” Chris pressed.
“Would he be alone, Chris?” Buck asked. “If something happens to me, will JD really be alone?” Instead of waiting for an answer, Buck got up from the table and left the cabin.
A heavy, awkward silence settled in the room, broken only by the soft scraping of Vin’s spoon as he finished his meal. When the boy was done, he carefully stacked his dishes in the sink and padded quietly into the bedroom he shared with JD. Chris heard Vin talking softly to JD and JD’s enthusiastic vocalizations in response. He picked up his spoon and tried to eat but the stew was cold, very much like the feeling that was settling in the pit of his stomach.
When he boiled it down to barest bones, Chris was uncomfortable taking care of JD in his present state of being. It made his heart ache to see the formerly bright, inquisitive child reduced to such infantile behavior. The thought of changing the boy’s oversized diaper several times a day made him feel … he didn’t know how to describe the overwhelming sadness that he was experiencing. It all came down to the fact that, if he’d been there when the shooting started, JD might not have been hurt at all. Deep down, where Chris kept his darkest thoughts and feelings, he blamed himself.
Chris told Orin that Buck was returning to work. He would take on his share of the patrol duties and watches at the jail. Chris traded for a small buggy that they could use to take JD back and forth if they had to bring him to town for some reason. Chris would take on a more active role in caring for the boy. He would handle the evening chores, feeding the boys and seeing to it that JD was bathed. At first, Buck was anxious about being away from JD but, as he saw that Chris could handle him, he began to relax.
As the days gradually began to grow cooler, life around the ranch picked up. There was winter hay to cut and bale, a calf to be sold, winter clothes to be bought and JD took his first steps.
Chris found that JD enjoyed being on the floor and often let the boy crawl around, but only after he admonished him that the stove was ‘hot’ and put the benches from the table in such a way that the boy couldn’t get over there. JD’s vocabulary was growing by leaps and bounds. His favorite word seemed to be ‘no’. Chris remembered when Adam went through that phase, nearly driving Sarah to distraction.
‘Adam, do you want to eat?’ Sarah would ask.
‘No!’ the toddler gleefully exclaimed, all the while pulling up on the highchair beside the table.
‘Do you want the toy?’ Sarah offered.
‘No!’ Adam shouted, reaching with both hands in a ‘gimme’ motion.
At the moment, JD was balancing against the table, shuffling his feet across the floor boards as he moved around and around. Chris noticed that he had grown a couple of inches since he had been hurt; his coveralls were several inches from the floor.
“JD, can you walk to me?” Chris asked, as he put the dish towel down and held out his hands to the boy.
“No!” JD crowed. But he released the table with one hand and turned to face Chris.
His heart was in his throat as he watched JD wobble unsteadily with only one hand on the table for balance. Chris edged closer, offering his hand to the boy and holding his breath. JD let go of the table, still staring up at Chris, who sank to his knees, much as he had done for Adam’s first steps. JD carefully raised one foot and moved it forward, holding his arms out from his sides as he swayed.
“That’s it. You can do it,” Chris urged.
JD took another hesitant step before tumbling into the outstretched arms that caught him and swept him up to swing around joyfully. He laughed, closing his eyes and tipping his head back.
They spent the rest of the afternoon working on JD’s ‘walking’ so they could show Buck when he got home. Chris held his hands and JD walked from the table to the rocking chair and back, then to the benches that sheltered the stove.
“Hot … no-o-o,” JD said solemnly.
“That’s right. The stove is hot,” Chris replied. It had been hard for him, at first, talking to JD, but he was comfortable with it now.
Buck stopped his gray gelding by the corral and lifted Vin out from in front of him in the saddle. He swung down and automatically began to loosen the girth strap in preparation for stripping the tack from the patient animal’s back. He had just pulled the saddle and blanket off when the cabin door opened and Vin called out to him.
“Buck! Come here! Hurry!” Vin shouted.
The saddle dropped from his hands as Buck ran across the yard and leapt up onto the porch. His heart was racing as he wondered what had happened while he was in town. Breathlessly, he burst into the cabin and scoured the room.
“Da!” JD exclaimed from where he stood between Chris’ knees. Raising his arms, he took a step toward the stunned, mustached man.
Buck started forward but froze at the imperative motion Chris made. Rocking forward on the balls of his feet, he watched as JD’s steps grew more confident. When he was more than half way across the room, his steps lengthened and he tumbled into Buck’s legs, laughing as he pulled on his father’s gun belt.
“Up!” JD demanded.
Buck swept the boy up into his arms and buried his face in JD’s shoulder, laughing and crying at the same time. He stumbled over to one of the chairs by the table and sat down, still clinging to his son. But JD squirmed, wanting to get down. Now that he could walk, there would be no slowing him down.
The fall festival was in full swing when Chris and Buck arrived in their buggy with the boys. It was the first time they had taken JD into town other than to trade him off and take him home since his injury. JD was on his knees, clinging to the low wall that ran around the short bed of the buggy. He was excited, bouncing and looking around at all of the people and activities as they rolled past.
Chris drove the buggy to where the rest of the wagons were parked around the church and got down, turning back to lift Vin down from behind the seat. Buck was lifting JD down on the other side, smiling at the enthusiastic way the boy tugged on his hand, dragging him toward the front of the church. He soon realized the reason for the rush when he saw Josiah striding toward them.
“Joe! Joe! Up!” JD begged.
Sanchez swept the boy up and set him on his shoulders, wrapping his hands around JD’s thighs and bracing his calves with his forearms to keep the excited brunet from kicking him. Josiah then turned around slowly and started back into the crowd of people mingling near the tables that lined one side of the street. JD’s hands gripped his hair on one side and his ear on the other but Josiah could care less, he was just glad to see how much the boy had improved.
Ezra stepped out of the saloon, mostly to get away from the unruly revelers. He righted the sleeves of his shirt and smoothed imaginary wrinkles from his coat as his eyes scanned the crowd. He didn’t figure on finding a good card game until the evening, since all of the men he saw were being dragged along by their wives. Nathan stepped out and stopped beside him, also studying the people milling up and down the street, nodding to those whose eye he caught. Then the healer spotted someone coming toward them and he smiled.
“Looks like Chris and Buck decided to come in after all,” Nathan announced. Larabee had been unsure the evening before whether or not they would attempt to bring the boys into town for the festivities.
Ezra followed the direction of Nathan’s gaze and spotted Josiah coming toward them with JD perched on his shoulders. Chris was right behind them, with Vin sitting on his shoulders while Buck brought up the rear, lugging a large picnic basket.
“Nate! Nate!” JD greeted, holding his arms out to the healer.
Nathan took the boy from Josiah’s shoulders, trying to set him on one hip while JD was determined to give him a hug.
“Do you want to say hello to Ezra?” Nathan offered, turning so that JD could see the other man. Before the accident, JD had been very fond of ‘Uncle Ezra’ and he expected the boy to reach out to the southerner. But JD looked over at the man in the brilliant green coat and laid his head shyly on Nathan’s shoulder.
“See, Uncle Ezra, I told you he was better,” Vin announced.
“So you did,” Ezra stammered. “If you’ll excuse me … I have to be …” his voice trailed off as he made a hasty exit from the boardwalk and headed for the livery.
Chris felt Vin sag and lifted the boy from his shoulders to stand on the boardwalk next to Nathan. He then turned a puzzled expression on Buck and Josiah. Both of them returned equally confused looks.
“Keep an eye on the boys,” Chris commanded before striding after Ezra.
Standing in the livery, Ezra’s hands shook as he held on to the top rail of Chaucer’s stall. He still felt sick at heart when he saw how much JD still had to go before he would be the intelligent little boy he had been. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could still see the blood seeping between Buck’s fingers and falling onto the boardwalk. He groped inside of his jacket until he found his flask and brought it to his lips, letting the aged, single-malt slide down his throat.
“You can’t even look at him, can you?” Chris asked.
Startled, Ezra coughed on the last swallow, wiping his mouth in a most un-gentlemanly way with the sleeve of his jacket before turning to face Larabee. The lie he had been about to utter died on his lips at the despair on the other man’s face.
“I just realized, you haven’t even seen him in months,” Chris continued.
Ezra looked down, staring at the flask in his hand, to avoid seeing the disappointment in Larabee’s eyes.
“Does he disgust you that much?” Chris asked.
His heart clenched as his head came up, “No! It isn’t that!”
“Then why? Why haven’t you been out to see him? Why did you run like a scalded cat when you saw JD today? He loved you before,” Chris said. He was confused. Ezra had always been good with kids. Chris remembered the Indian village, the way the southerner had drawn the children to him and encouraged them to work.
“I’m afraid,” Ezra replied, his voice so soft that Chris thought he had imagined hearing it. “And ashamed. It’s my fault! I had the chance to kill those murdering bastards before he was hurt and I missed! I contacted doctors all over the country … trying to find someone who could help him … to be like he was before.”
Silence settled between them as Chris tried to figure out how to respond to Ezra’s words. Part of the reason he had been so quick to let Buck assume all of the responsibility for JD’s care when he had first brought the boy home was the guilt he felt over not being able to protect him.
“And you don’t think you could ever love him the way he is now?” Chris asked. “No one blames you,” he continued, “any more than they blame me or Buck or Josiah or Nathan. Josiah told me that it was all his fault, because he let them out of class early. Buck tried to take the blame, saying that he should have been sitting outside, like he knew it was going to happen or something. Nathan blamed himself for not knowing enough to fix up whatever is wrong in JD’s brain. And I blamed myself for not getting here fast enough to stop it. I think it’s long past time to stop blaming ourselves. JD is alive. And he’s getting better every day. He can walk, he can talk and he’s potty trained, it’s more than we expected. Nathan thinks that his brain has to learn everything again, like the way a baby learns. Buck thinks … no, Buck believes that JD will get back to where he was, in time, if we’re patient with him.”
“Patience was never my strong suit,” Ezra said.
“So? JD won’t call your bluff. Play out the hand and see what you get in the next deal,” Chris suggested. “Isn’t that what gambling is all about?”
Chris and Ezra returned from the livery only to find that Buck and the boys had not waited for them. They made their way down the street until they found them. JD was up in Orin’s lap, eating a piece of peach pie. Vin was sitting with Josiah, helping the older man polish off a large piece of apple cobbler. Buck and Nathan were seated on the boardwalk, each working on yet another kind of pie.
“What? You couldn’t have waited for me?” Chris asked. “Where’s my pie?”
JD offered up the spoon he was using while Vin curled over his plate, unwilling to give up even a single bite of Miss Nettie’s delicious cobbler.
“That’s okay, Little Bit, you go ahead and eat it. I think I want a piece of that,” Chris said, eying Ezra’s heaping helping of blackberry cobbler.
“Alas, this was the last piece,” Ezra replied.
“And I don’t suppose you’d be willing to share?” Chris asked.
“I share!” JD called out, offering the bite of pie he had just pushed onto his fork.
“That’s okay, JD, you eat it,” Chris said, as Mrs. Potter handed him a plate with a large slice of apple pie on it. JD’s lip instantly stuck out and his chin quivered as he considered the food on his fork.
“I’d like to share,” Ezra offered as he maneuvered around the table to take the empty chair beside Travis. JD studied him for several seconds before he seemed to accept that Ezra was alright and extended the fork. Ezra took the pie into his mouth and smiled warmly. “Manna from heaven,” he exclaimed. He then put a bite of the cobbler in his mouth and moaned in delight.
“Me bite,” JD clamored, “Me try.”
Before Chris finished his pie, Ezra had JD sitting in his lap, carefully sharing the cobbler. Buck nearly choked on his fork when his son dropped a bite onto the sleeve of Ezra’s jacket but the southerner merely laughed and said it was due to be washed anyway.
In November, the peacekeepers were kept busy trying to run down a group that was poaching cattle from some of the outlying ranches. Judge Travis ordered them to increase their patrols to those areas, straining their already thinly-spread resources. Nathan was trying to stay close to town because Mrs. Conover was expecting her first child any day now and she was extremely anxious about the delivery. Chris and Buck took turns on the longer patrol routes so that one of them was always there with the boys but Mary Travis and Mrs. Potter were also helping out by minding the boys sometimes for a few hours so the men could rest or tend to their animals.
Chris cursed his luck. He had been just about to turn back for town when he noticed the tracks of several head of cattle. He followed them toward a small box canyon. Sliding from the saddle, he carefully snuck up to some rocks where he could see up into the canyon without being seen. It didn’t take long for him to positively identify Mr. Booker’s new steer and several of Mr. Lonigan’s spring calves. Now that he knew where they were holed up, he would have to ride back and gather a posse.
Josiah reached out and tenderly closed Mrs. Phipps’ unseeing eyes. The elderly widow had been living alone in the small cabin for as long as anyone could remember. She had already outlived all of her children and her grandchildren were scattered all over the place, from Denver to San Francisco. He knew where she was to be buried, in the plot next to her husband under the massive oak tree that they had planted when their first child was born.
Standing on the edge of the boardwalk, Buck looked up and down the street. He expected Chris or Josiah to be back by now. He was on his way to collect the boys from Gloria and take them to the restaurant for supper, since he hadn’t had time to make anything at home for them to eat. He spotted Ezra coming out of the saloon and waved to him, causing the southerner to change direction join him at the edge of the boardwalk.
“I was just about to partake of supper at the restaurant. Would you and the boys like to join me?” Ezra asked.
“Sure, I was just heading that way myself. Why don’t you get Nathan and go ahead and get us a table?” Buck replied.
Ten minutes later, the three men and two boys were seated at a corner table. JD was entertaining himself by counting the red and white squares on the tablecloth while Vin told the others about some game that he had been playing with the Potter children. When their meals arrived, they eagerly dug in, enjoying the fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy and fresh biscuits. Buck carefully removed the bones from JD’s chicken before letting the boy have the plate.
When they had finished the main course, the waitress came over to offer them a slice of the chocolate cake. Vin and JD instantly perked up but the adults declined the offer in favor of another pot of coffee.
“So, how have you been doing in school?” Ezra asked the boys.
“It’s alright,” Vin replied. “But JD don’t go to school no more.”
“Doesn’t go anymore,” Ezra corrected. “Why doesn’t he go to school?” he addressed his question to Buck.
“He’s not ready for schooling,” Buck said, his tone warning the southerner to drop it.
“He can’t never remember his letters, even worse than I used to be,” Vin explained.
Any further discussion was put on hold as Chris opened the door and looked around. When he spotted them, he crossed the room, his expression serious.
“I found out where the rustlers are holed up with the cattle. We need to gather a posse before they move them. Josiah’s getting a fresh horse and Tiny’s getting yours ready,” Chris announced without preamble. “I’ll ask Mary if she’d mind keeping the boys overnight.”
Mary Travis was indeed willing to keep the boys and Buck delivered them to her before heading for the livery to collect his horse. JD, picking up on the sudden increase in tension, started whining and clinging to Buck.
“I have to go and you’re going to stay here with Mrs. Travis,” Buck explained. “I’ll be back for you as quick as I can be.”
“Da! Take me!” JD begged as he tried to pull away from the blonde woman’s grasp.
“Be good, Little Bit,” Buck said before slipping out. He could hear JD crying and calling for him but he knew he had to do his job.
“I want Da!” JD shouted, “I want my Da!”
“He’ll be back,” Mary explained as she rocked the distraught child. “He’ll be back.”
Catching the poachers turned out to be as easy as riding in and shouting at them to give themselves up. The four men were scared witless after seeing Chris Larabee standing in the mouth of the little canyon. The decision was made that Buck, Ezra and Nathan would take the prisoners back to town while Chris stayed behind with the rest of the posse to keep an eye on the cattle until the morning when they could be safely returned to their respective owners.
Buck knocked lightly on Mary’s kitchen door rather than using the entrance through the Clarion office. The blonde woman opened the door with one finger pressed across her lips as she motioned for him to follow her. They padded through the kitchen and Mary let him peek into the sitting room.
“Sam called her his calf and it was he who named her Di … nah, Dinah. He was the one who moved her pen to a new place in the or … ch … ard, orch … ard, orchard every few days so that she might always have fresh grass,” Vin read from the primer he had propped up against his thighs. “She must be like Daisy’s calf, remember how much grass he eats everyday?” he asked JD. “Dinah loved play. She ran and jumped in her funny stiff leg …ged way.”
Pulling away from the doorway, Buck turned to Mary in awe. Vin didn’t like to read and he never, ever read out loud unless Chris forced him to.
“JD was pretty upset after you left,” Mary whispered, “and Vin was the only one who could get him to calm down. He’s been reading for the past half hour.”
“Thank you, Mary,” Buck said, his voice thick with emotion. On impulse, he grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her on the cheek before turning back to the door into the sitting room.
Stunned, Mary stood there, listening as JD called out to Buck. When she finally looked into the other room, Buck was sitting on the small couch with one of the boys on each knee while Vin finished the paragraph he had been reading.
“That’s a great story,” Buck said.
“You know that story?” Vin asked in amazement.
“Yep, my Ma used to read it to me. She taught me to read from a book just like that one,” Buck explained. “Did you get to the one about the snapping turtles?”
“Snapping turtles?” Vin repeated.
“The Pirates of Belle River,” Buck replied.
“Will you read it to us, Buck?” Vin asked.
Just then, JD yawned and turned to lay his forehead against Buck’s neck. He had been fighting sleep for the past ten minutes and, now that his Da was back, he was fast losing the battle.
“Why don’t you take the book with you and read it at home?” Mary suggested. “You can bring it back when you finish it.”
Christmas was a time of excitement and accomplishment for JD. Since Vin had begun reading to him regularly, the boy’s vocabulary was increasing by leaps and bounds. Buck and Chris were kept on their toes, answering the questions that bubbled up in the active mind. JD’s favorite question seemed to be ‘why’ and he asked it of anything and everything.
JD was set to return to school after the holiday break. Josiah had already started preparing the other kids in the class by explaining to them that JD had forgotten some of what he had learned and that they were not to laugh at him or tease him. He reminded each of them how they had struggled with some part of their lessons so that they wouldn’t feel too superior.
The entire cabin smelled strongly of the pine tree that Chris and Buck had cut down for the boys. They had strung popcorn and cranberries for decorations and Ezra had brought them some small glass ornaments, saying that he wouldn’t use them because he wasn’t putting up a tree in his room above the saloon.
“Isn’t Santa gonna bring you any presents?” JD asked, saddened that Uncle Ezra might be left out of the festivities.
“I’ve already gotten my present,” Ezra said as he ran his hand lightly over JD’s head.
“What did you get?” JD asked, his eyes bright with excitement.
“I got a very special present. Someone I care about came back from a long, long trip,” Ezra explained.
JD’s forehead wrinkled as he tried to figure out what his adopted uncle was talking about but he immediately dismissed the thought when Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out a bar of chocolate for him and one for Vin.
“One piece!” Buck called out after seeing the candy change hands. “One piece then you put the rest up. I don’t want you rotting your teeth out of your head, you’re too young for dentures!”
The boys were awake at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning, lying in bed whispering to each other about what they would find under the tree when they got up. Chris and Buck had told them that they had to stay in their room until one of the adults was up. Obeying the letter of the order if not the actual spirit, they silently slipped out of bed and lay on the floor, peeking under the curtain that served as a door.
“What do you think is in that big one near the wall, Vin?” JD asked.
“I don’t know. It might be for Dad or Buck.”
“I think it’s for you,” JD replied. “But I hope it’s for me.”
The boys got new clothes and toys and their stockings were stuffed with a candy cane, an apple and another chocolate bar. Around mid morning, they bundled up and got in the wagon to ride over to Nettie’s house for a turkey dinner. Chris had gotten the large tom turkey a couple of days earlier and took it over for her to prepare. Nathan contributed a ham that one of his patients had given in payment for his services. Ezra brought a crate of fruit and nuts that his mother had sent him in lieu of a visit, something he was truly grateful for. Josiah didn’t have anything to contribute in the way of food, but he arrived early with extra chairs and another table for all the people and food they expected to have.
JD returned to school after the first of the year, where he continued to make great strides in his recovery. To the casual observer, the dark-haired eight-year-old looked like any other healthy, happy child as he played with his cousin and friends. Only those who knew what had happened most of a year earlier knew the reason the boy sometimes struggled for a word.
It was a beautiful spring afternoon, the kind that made a man want for nothing more than a calm lake, a fishing pole and a can of worms. Buck checked his pocket watch and quickly excused himself from Miss Blossom’s company. With the boys back in school, he had found more time to get reacquainted with the lovely ladies at the saloon but he would never, ever neglect the true love of his life.
Chris was seated outside of the jail and nodded to Buck as he ambled over and sat down on the other side of the pickle barrel. The blond reached out and nudged one of the checkers before letting his gaze roam up and down the street. Buck made a counter move and glanced over at the schoolhouse/church.
“I’m sure he did just fine, Buck,” Chris said as he made another move.
“I know. I’m just … curious,” Wilmington replied, looking up the street.
Just then, the doors to the schoolhouse opened and the children burst out, running or leaping down the steps and scattering in all directions. Buck got up, tucking his thumbs into his gun belt as he waited for JD to come out. Chris rose and moved to stand beside his friend as they looked across the street. Finally, Josiah came out, blinking at the sudden brightness after being inside all afternoon. At his sides, JD and Vin waited for him to close the doors before taking hold of his hands and leading him over to the boardwalk.
“Da! Da! Lookit! I got first place!” JD exclaimed as he proudly showed off the blue ribbon pinned to his coveralls. The big spelling bee had been all the little brunet could think about for days.
“That’s great, Little Bit!” Buck replied as he squatted down to look at the ribbon.
Chris noticed the red ribbon pinned to Vin’s shirt and smiled, “I see you took second.” His son blushed, gingerly stroking the length of red satin before returning the smile.
Josiah caressed Vin’s head, knowing full well that the older boy had deliberately missed the last word so that JD could win. But it was information he would take to his grave. Nothing in the world would make him reveal the loving sacrifice that Vin had made for JD.
“I think that calls for a celebration. Let’s see what kind of pie they have at the restaurant,” Josiah suggested as he stepped up on the boardwalk.
It was one of those beautiful spring evenings, the kind that made a man glad he had rolled out of bed that morning. Buck cradled the cup of coffee between his palms as he inhaled a deep breath of the fresh air. It was quiet around the farm house, the horses dozing peacefully in the field near the barn and the chickens settled in their coop for the night. The sky was streaked with pink and gold as the sun dipped behind the mountains in the distance. It was a good way to end the day.