Future LB - OW
Summary: Vin wants to prove that he can track and nearly pays the ultimate price when he helps Chris track down some horse thieves.
Chris stepped out of the quiet room, closing the door behind him. He tried to hide his pain, but it was impossible. Especially from the people he was facing. “There's no change.”
Buck stood nearby, leaning back against the wall, uncharacteristically chewing on his lower lip. “He's young, Chris... and strong--”
“But he's not invincible. Damn it! Why didn't he listen to me?”
“Because he is young, and strong... strong-willed, that is... and he wanted to prove himself.” Josiah said softly.
“He didn't have to prove anything. Not to me,” Chris argued.
“He thought he did.”
“I've never tried to put expectations on him... nothing he couldn't reach!” The words that passed between them were barely more than whispers but the anger was palpable.
“Not in word, brother, but in deed.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“He looked up to you... looks up to you,” Josiah amended when the blond shot him with a fiery glare. “He wanted to make you proud, and that's what lead him here.”
“I... no, I never... damn it!” Chris knew that the older man was right; could see it with a sudden clarity that he'd avoided since sun-up. Spurs jingling, he stomped to the other end of the landing, but didn't go down the stairs. He couldn't, not now. The thought of being any farther away from the clinic than he was, was too much. He gripped the railing around the landing, and stared out over the dark street. Here and there a lantern was lit, but otherwise the town was all but invisible. He could hear the distant sounds of merriment and knew that Digger Dan's was reaping the rewards of a cattle herd moving past their little town. For a minute he raged at the sounds of people enjoying this evening, but finally tamped it down. They had no idea that there was a life and death battle going on.
Heaving a sigh, he turned and leaned back against the railing. Reaching into his pocket he retrieved a cheroot and a tin of matches, lighting the thin cigar, he drew in the rich smoke and blew it back out slowly. Repeating the action three more times, he felt the anger slow enough to keep him from killing anyone. Then his attention was drawn by the clinic's door opening. In a few long strides, he met the others at the far end.
Nathan took in each of the faces of his friends before he spoke. “Finally got the bleeding stopped, but...”
“But?” Ezra urged him to complete his diagnosis.
“I don't know if it's gonna be enough. He's lost about all the blood a body can lose and still keep on livin'. I... if he loses any more, he... well, he ain't gonna make it.”
“Lord help us.”
Chris didn't put his thoughts into words. He couldn't, because he couldn't breathe. His body went cold and he seemed to detach from it. Vision was a dim tunnel, black around the edges. Hearing focused in on the rushing sounds of his own blood; voices a buzz just beyond. He felt someone grab onto either arm and he was pulled, stumbling, across the landing and set on one of the chairs there.
Buck knelt beside his old friend. “Chris? Hey, you still with us? Nathan?”
“It's the shock of things, it's finally all caught up with him. Just keep an eye on him, get him to drink some whiskey if you can. I've gotta get back inside.” The healer returned to his clinic.
Ezra retrieved his flask and removed the stopper before handing it over to Wilmington. Buck pressed it against the blond's mouth, relieved when Chris accepted it and drank from the flask. After a few swallows, Buck drew it away.
Slowly Chris seemed to return to his body. Finally he looked up at the other men; his gaze hollow except for a deep, deep sadness. To no one in particular he said, “I can't lose him.”
“You can't think like that,” Ezra responded to the tone of hopelessness. “You must have faith that he'll get through this.”
A flash of anger, then, “Faith... what's faith got to do with anything?”
“It could have everything to do with it,” Josiah said gently.
“Chris, you gave up once before. Are you gonna give up now, too?” Buck asked in a firm, not quite angry tone. “He's gonna need all of us pullin' for him but, if you want to just give up now, then do us all a favor and get the hell on outta here.”
The others looked at Wilmington as if he had lost his mind, and Chris looked at him with frank surprise. All he said was, “I'm not leaving.”
“Then you need to hit your knees and say a prayer, or get your mind wrapped around the fact that he's gonna survive, or anything else that'll bring him back to us.”
With something akin to respect, Larabee said, “Yes, sir.”
The landing grew silent then, as the men sat and waited, their minds filled with prayers and thoughts of the days that came before; that led to this somber time.
Buck Wilmington looked up from the cook-stove as the back door slammed open. His friend and the co-owner of the small spread they ran, entered looking like a storm cloud on two legs. “Damn, Hoss, what's goin' on?”
“Damn it all, they got another one!”
“One of the horses?”
“Yes, the black. I almost had it saddle broke, too.”
Setting the spatula he was using to fix breakfast aside, Buck asked, “Same men?”
“Yeah, I think so. I'm gonna head out and see if I can track them.”
“You haven't had much luck so far,” Buck pointed out.
“I know, but what else can I do? Roll over and let them steal us blind?”
With a sigh, the taller man shook his head. “No. I'll go into town and see if Josiah can keep the boys with him for a couple days.”
“No, then they'll just double back and steal them all while we're both out looking for them. You stay here and camp out in the meadow tonight so you can watch for them. If I don't find anything by tomorrow, I'll come back home and we'll come up with another plan.”
Buck simply nodded and turned back to finish breakfast. A short time later, Vin and JD came in from morning chores, both boys laughing and joking as they sat down at the table.
“Boys, I'm gonna head out and see if I can find whoever it is that's stealing our horses,” Chris explained.
“Can I go with you, Pa?” Ten-year-old Vin asked hopefully.
“What about school?” Chris asked.
“Aw, Pa, it's a waste of my time. I can't get much of any of the stuff the teacher's teaching us.”
“No, it's not a waste of time,” Chris said firmly. “I know it's difficult, but you need to keep trying.”
“Well, what if I catch him up when you both come back?” JD asked. At eight years old, he had moved quickly through the primers and exercises, keeping the teacher on her toes with things to challenge him. He was much more at home with a book than his cousin ever had been. “Tomorrow's Friday, so we'd have the whole weekend to study when you get back.”
Ignoring the low grown his son responded to the younger boy with, Chris said, “That's a good plan, but riding out after these men, it could be dangerous.”
“What if I promise to stay back?” Vin asked. “I'll follow your orders to the letter, Pa.”
“You're always sayin' that I've got the sharpest eyes you've ever known, that I can see a fly half a mile away. Maybe I could spot something you've missed.”
Slanting a look at his adopted son, Chris asked, “You saying I'm getting old?”
Stifling a laugh, Vin replied, “No sir. I'm just asking you for a chance to let me do something I am good at.”
Seeing the look of hope in his son's face, Chris said, “You'll do whatever I say without argument? If I say stay back, you'll stay back?”
“Yes, sir!” He snapped a smart salute, smiling a small, crooked smile.
“Alright but, I promise you this. If you don't follow my orders... to the letter... you'll be on kitchen duty for a month.”
They rode slowly, Vin slightly in the lead as he used his tracking skills to follow the signs left behind by whoever was stealing their horses. The summer before, he'd been allowed to stay with the Indian tribe, learning from Kojay and his son, Chanu. They had found him an eager pupil, who had picked up tracking and hunting skills as easily as JD picked up math and reading skills in school.
Just as the sun neared its zenith, he stopped, putting up a hand to stop his father as well. Behind him, Chris watched as the boy cocked his head and seemed to be listening to something only he could hear. Then he dismounted, sliding off Peso's back without a sound. Pulling a handful of grass, he tossed it into the air to test the slight breeze. Turning, Vin walked back to where he sat patiently in the saddle.
“They're down in the canyon. Sounds like two, maybe three men, with about a dozen horses.”
Nodding as he took in the information, Chris said, “Okay, you stay here with the horses.” Dismounting, he loosened his Colt in its holster and pulled his rifle from its boot. Looking his son in the eye, he said, “You stay here, understand? No matter what you hear, this is as far as you go.”
Swallowing his disappointment Vin said simply, “Yes, sir.”
“If it gets quiet, you wait no longer than half an hour. If I don't come back in that time... you ride out.”
“No argument, remember? Vin, you've done your job and got us this far. Now, if I don't come back, there's nothing you can do for me. You get back to the ranch and tell Buck. He'll take it from there.” Placing a hand on the youngster's shoulder, he said, “Promise me, Vin.”
Ducking his head to hide the tears that threatened to spill, Vin nodded. “I promise, Pa.”
Ruffling the boy's hair, he said, “You're a good son, Vin Tanner.” With that, he walked away quietly, moving toward the edge of the drop off.
It seemed like his Pa had been gone for hours, but Vin knew that, realistically it hadn't been more than twenty minutes. At the same time, he was growing more and more impatient. There hadn't been a sound out of place; no gunfire at all. He began to pace back and forth, fear growing as his impatience did. What if Chris didn't come back? He didn't think he could stand to be an orphan again. He had no doubt that Buck would let him stay, and no one would treat him any differently. But it would all be different without his Pa there.
He fingered the fringe on the soft, buckskin shirt he wore. He had been wearing buckskin since his time with the Indians, and felt most comfortable in them. He wore a shirt and pants to school, or any time they went into town at his father's request, but wasn't nearly as comfortable in what he privately referred to as “white man's clothes”.
“What should I do?” He mumbled. What if his Pa was in trouble? What if they'd managed to get the drop on him without firing a shot? If he only went to the edge of the drop off, that would only be ten or twelve feet from where he stood right now. Wouldn't that be the same as “right here”? He could go to the edge, take a quick look around, and be back in a minute. If his Pa was in trouble, he had his rifle as well. True it was only to be used to kill game, but he might be able to scare them off if he needed to. He wouldn't be breaking his word, really, maybe just bending it a little.
He was padding across the soft, summer grass before he realized it. Just as he reached the edge a shot rang out, then another. Before he could react, there was a firefight, shots ringing out from the ground below and from the ridge on the other side. He took another step forward, then checked himself and stepped back and sprinted back toward the horses. Just as he reached Peso he found himself out of breath and dropped to his knees. Then a burning pain made itself known and he looked down to see blood spreading across his shirt, just under his ribs. “Oh no,” he muttered even as he pitched forward into the darkness of unconsciousness.
Larabee moved up the side of the canyon as quickly as he could. Behind him, three men lay sprawled on the ground, never to move again. They would go back to the ranch and he would return with Buck to gather the horses and take care of the men who had stolen them.
Just before he cleared the top of the canyon wall, he called out, “It's me, Vin!” Frowning when there was no response, he quickened his steps. “Vin?”
It took a moment for him to register just what it was that he was seeing. The two horses stood where they'd been ground tied, although they seemed a little anxious. Then his gaze landed on a small, dun colored lump on the ground. “Vin!”
He crossed the distance between them in a few quick strides, dropping to his knees beside the child. “Vin?” Carefully he turned him over and groaned when he saw the dark, spreading stain. Looking up into the boy's face, he saw just how pale he was; how pinched his fine features were. “Vin? Can you hear me son?”
“Yeah, it's me. I'm gonna get you home, okay? I'm gonna patch you up and get you home.” He could hear the fear in his voice and prayed that the injured boy didn't. “Okay? Vin?”
“K,” it was barely a whisper.
Pushing aside his almost paralyzing fear, Chris took off his shirt and ripped it into strips. Cutting the lacings on Vin's shirt, he gently pulled the buckskin away, then the undershirt beneath. Nearly vomiting at the sight of the ruined and bloodied flesh, he quickly and carefully bound the wound as well as he could. That finished he lifted the child in his arms and carried him to where his horse waited. Shifting Vin awkwardly in his embrace, he mounted Pony and took up the reins. Knowing that Peso would more than likely follow after them, he nudged his horse forward, quickly going to a full out gallop. They had to get help.
“Buck!” Chris screamed the name as soon as they were near enough for the other man to hear him. He saw his old friend come to the door of the barn, then begin running toward them. “Buck, get the wagon!”
“What happened?” Buck called out, even as he turned and began to run back toward the barn.
While Buck got the wagon ready, Chris carried his son from the horse to where the wagon sat. He directed his friend to spread some blankets across the straw that lay in the wagon bed while he filled the other man in on what had happened. Together they got Vin settled in the wagon and Chris settled beside him, carefully lifting the child's head and shoulders and pulling him partially into his lap. He waited impatiently as Wilmington climbed into the wagon seat and sent the horses to a run with the crack of a whip. Larabee was soon oblivious to everything around him, focusing in on the boy in his arms. From time to time Vin's eyes would flutter open and then close again. He moaned whenever the wagon hit a rut in the road, crying out from time to time as the pain roused him.
It seemed to take hours for them to get into town, but they made it much more quickly than usual. Pulling hard on the reins, Buck got the horses to stop just outside the livery. He jumped out, calling to Yosemite as he went to the back of the wagon and took Vin from Chris. Without hesitation he ran toward the stairs that led up to Nathan's clinic, yelling for the healer as he did. By the time they reached the landing, Jackson was waiting for them.
“He's been shot,” Chris explained quickly. “He's lost a lot of blood.”
“Okay, get him in here,” Nathan pulled open the door to his clinic and waved the men through.
They laid him on the bed, stripped the boy to the waist and Nathan began to probe the wound. From time to time Vin would cry out, leading Chris to sit beside him on the bed, holding his son to keep him quiet, and talking to him in a soft whisper.
“Buck, go get some water. Lots of it.” Nathan instructed without taking his eyes away from his work.
The others were there by this time, Josiah and Ezra having heard the ruckus on the street. After delivering the water, Buck left just long enough to go ask Gloria Potter to watch JD for him for the time being. Better the younger boy stay away from what was going on for now.
Jackson looked up into the stricken face of the gunfighter and shook his head. “It's bad, Chris. Real bad.”
“What are you saying?”
“I'll do everything I can, but... Chris, he might not make it.”
“No.” The word was delivered in a strangled voice and tears rolled down Larabee's face. Reaching out with a trembling hand, he stroked the sweat soaked, tangled hair of the child he had let into his life and his heart. Shaking his head, he repeated, “No.”
The sun had set and rose again, spreading a too cheerful light over the landing. The scene there deserved shadows. Three of the men came and went, going for food, drink or a few hours of restless sleep. The forth never went any farther than the clinic; he paced back and forth like a caged lion at times, at others he sat like a statue, not even acknowledging his friends. Inside the clinic, a battle was being waged against death. Nathan, with Josiah's help, managed to remove the bullet in Vin's side, thankful that it hadn't damaged anything vital. Still, the blood loss was what he was worried about. If they couldn't keep him alive long enough to rebuild his blood supply, there was very little else that any of them could do.
Buck had brought JD up to see his cousin, knowing that he would never forgive himself if he kept the boy away. JD had tried to be strong, talking to the older boy as if he were awake; doing his best to get him to open his eyes but, finally, dissolved into tears, begging Vin not to die. Buck had gathered the child into his arms and carried him outside. Standing him on the landing, he wasn't surprised when JD ran toward Chris but, when he began screaming at him and hitting him with his fists, Buck hurried to pull him away.
“JD, come on now. Chris ain't to blame for this.”
“Let him be, Buck,” Chris said softly. “He's right. If that boy dies, it's all on my head.”
“Don't do this to yourself, Pard. You did everything you could to keep him safe.”
“No. I should have sent him to school. He'd have been safe there.”
Knowing that his friend was in no shape to hear anything but his own guilt, Buck dropped the argument. They would talk later. He just hoped that it wouldn't be over Vin's grave.
The vigil continued through another night and another day, into the following night. Each hour was at once a blessing and a curse, because while he didn't die, neither did Vin improve. He ran a fever so high that he shivered as if he were freezing. Chris sat on the bed, his back against the headboard, cradling the trembling body in his arms. From time to time he murmured a few words, intended only for his son, while he ignored everyone else around him. He had yet to eat anything since the morning he and Vin had ridden out, and he would only take a few sips of water or whiskey when it was all but forced on him.
“Chris, killin' yourself ain't gonna help that boy a little bit. You've got to keep up your strength, or you're not gonna have the energy to hold him much longer without eating a sandwich or something.” Buck pleaded with him.
“Why don't I hold him for a little while, so you can go out and stretch your legs.” Josiah offered, “Go get something to eat and, hell, go to the privy.”
“I'm more suited to staying up through the night, Mr. Larabee. Why don't I take over for a while and you go get some sleep.” Ezra suggested.
All of it met with silence, Chris not even looking at them when they spoke to him. He sat with his head back against the wall, staring across at the opposite wall, or his head was down, as he spoke to his unconscious son, or simply watched him breathe. Finally the other men simply sat nearby, or out on the landing. Waiting.
Nathan tended the child's wound, diligently bathing his fevered brow, coaxing a spoonful of water or medicine down him, or checking for more bleeding. And each time he tended the boy, he looked into the father's haunted eyes and said softly, “he's holdin' his own, Chris.”
It was the morning of the third day of their vigil, the sun barely making its presence known beyond a wall of heavy, gray clouds. Chris had been bullied into seeing to his own needs twice finally, even if it was only for a few minutes rather than the few hours that they all hoped for. He had even agreed to lay down on the bed beside his son, although he still did nothing more than doze for a few minutes at a time.
He lifted his head at the sound of the clinic door opening slowly. As he watched, JD crept into the room, padded across the floor, and came to stand beside his cousin. He didn't seem to see Chris lying there, so the blond stayed quiet, knowing that the younger boy was still angry with him.
“Vin? It's me, JD. I'm... I'm sorry I haven't been around much. Da doesn't let me come up, 'cause he thinks I'm too young to be here. But I had to come, 'cause I miss you. Vin, I miss you soooooo much, it's boring over at Miz Potter's and I'm so lonely 'cause you're not there to do chores with and to play with. Please, Vin, you've gotta wake up. Please? I need you.”
Chris heard the younger boy begin to cry, dissolving into great, gasping sobs. He was torn; if he said something, he could destroy any hope of JD ever speaking to or trusting him again. But he couldn't simply lay there, ignoring the child's pain. Finally, the father in him won out. “JD?”
The little brunet's head snapped up, and he stared wide-eyed at the other side of the bed. “Chris!”
“I... I'm sorry, I didn't know anybody else was in here.”
“It's okay, JD. Would you like me to step out on the landing for a while; let you sit with Vin?”
JD pondered the question but, after a few seconds, shook his head. “No, I... I don't wanna be in here all by myself. I thought I did but... Chris, I'm so scared!”
Easing himself up off the bed, Larabee moved around the bed and drew the chair up beside it. Hesitantly he pulled JD up into his lap, and the two of them sat there, watching Vin.
“Has he waked up?”
“Not really. Sometimes he opens his eyes, but I don't think he's really awake.”
“Has he said anything?”
“Nothing that makes sense. He mumbles a word or two once in a while, that's about it.”
“Will he be okay?”
“I hope so, JD.” He couldn't bear to outright lie to the boy, and that's what simply saying “yes” seemed like. A lie. Because for all his hoping and even praying, he still felt as if every breath the unconscious child took could be his last. Hugging JD closer, he repeated, “I hope so.”
“Mr. 'Siah is gonna have a special meeting at the church later today. He said he's gonna lead everyone who comes in a prayer that Vin will get better.”
“That's nice of him. I hope he has a good turn out.”
“I hope that they pray so loud that Vin can hear them all the way up here.”
“Mm hm,” Chris found himself relaxing, his head laying against the back of the rocking chair, his arms wrapped around the eight year old's middle.
“Are you gonna die?”
Blinking blood shot eyes, the gunman asked, “What?”
“Well, Da didn't know I heard him yesterday, when he was talkin' to Miz Potter. He told her that he's 'fraid that if Vin dies, that you're gonna follow him. Doesn't that mean you'll be dead too?”
Something seemed to break inside his chest, and he found himself saying, with conviction, “I'm not gonna die, JD. Neither is Vin. He has too many people wanting him to stay alive.”
“Okay,” the little boy replied softly.
An hour later, Buck came up, looking for his son. He smiled when he found the little brunet wrapped in his oldest friend's arms. Both of them were sound asleep, soft snores rattling through the room. As quietly as possible he padded across the room, and checked on Vin. He smiled when he found the child cooler than he was before. He seemed to be resting easier, as well.
The day was warm and the sun had returned, the air still fresh after a long day of rain. Chris opened the window, letting the fresh air into the clinic, drawing a deep breath, he enjoyed a few seconds, just listening to the people walking by below. Then, to his surprise, he heard a soft voice calling to him.
Turning, he smiled as he saw a pair of unfocused, blue eyes peering at him from the bed. “Hey, cowboy!” He hurried across the room and sat on the edge of the bed. Reaching out, he stroked back the tangle of chestnut hair from his son's forehead. “How're you feeling?”
“Yeah, you've had a rough few days. Are you thirsty?”
“Okay, I'm gonna holler for Nathan, then I'll get you a drink of water.”
Sprinting from the room, Chris went to the edge of the landing and scanned the area below. Smiling when he saw Mary Travis walking down the boardwalk, he called out to her and asked her to fetch Nathan. When the newspaper woman saw his smile, she smiled in return and hurried away toward the restaurant.
Stopping only long enough to pour a glass of water from the pitcher sitting on the table, Chris returned to find his son still awake, although his eyes were already growing heavy. “Don't go to sleep yet, Cowboy, let's get some water in you.” Setting the glass down, he carefully lifted the little boy up and, slowly, began to feed him the water.
Just as Chris sat the half empty glass down, the clinic door opened. “Chris?” Nathan was there, a mixture of fear and hope on his face.
“He's awake, Nathan!”
“Pa?” Vin said uncertainly, “what's wrong?”
“Sh, nothing, Vin, don't worry, okay?”
“Let me just check you out here, Vin,” Nathan pulled back the blankets and did a brief exam. Vin frowned up at him for a moment, then drifted in and out while the healer checked him over.
Turning toward the hovering father, Jackson smiled as he said, “I think he's outta the woods.”
Chris dropped back in the rocking chair with a relieved smile. “Thank God.”
“Amen,” Josiah's voice boomed from the door. He entered the clinic, following closely by Ezra, Buck and JD.
A few days passed. Francis Cochran and a few of the other men had volunteered to go out and take care of the stolen horses and the horse thieves already, finding a very disgruntled Peso and Pony wandering loose in the barnyard as well. They had tended to the forgotten animals and the rest of the livestock as well. Buck and JD finally went out and checked on everything themselves. Chris had even been talked into leaving long enough to get a bath, shave, change his clothes and eat a full meal.
Returning to the clinic, he found Vin sitting, propped up by pillows. Ezra was sitting on the edge of the bed, carefully spoon feeding the child oatmeal and molasses. The gambler was spinning some yarn that had Vin mesmerized, and barely aware of the fact that he was being fed.
“Hey, Cowboy!” Chris greeted his son. “Ezra keeping you entertained?”
“Hey, Pa! Yeah, he's tellin' me about the time he saw an animal called an Ellie-fant.” Even though he didn't speak much above a whisper, his tone was jubilant.
“Well, I'm sure your father would like to spend some time with you--”
“Go ahead and finish your story, I'd like to hear it, too,” Chris cut him off, settling in the rocking chair and smiling.
“Well, alright, then... where was I?”
“The Ellie-fant wrapped its trunk around the lady's middle...” Vin supplied.
“Ah yes. Well, I was expecting the young woman to scream or call for help. Instead, she smiled and waved to the crowd. The Elephant then proceeded to lift her completely off her feet and there she was, dangling from its massive trunk. Then, it loosened its grip, and slowly rolled her back down, until she slid back to her feet! I was spellbound by this feat of bravery...” Ezra continued to describe the circus act while he finished feeding the oatmeal and molasses to the young boy. By the end of his tale, and the bottom of the bowl, Vin was drifting off to sleep. Dropping the spoon into the bowl, Ezra carefully removed the towel that he had spread over young Tanner's upper body to catch any spills or other mishaps.
Chris was glad to see that most of the oatmeal found its way into his son's stomach. “Thank you, Ezra.”
“My pleasure, Chris, I assure you. I'm quite relieved that master Tanner seems on the road to recovery.”
“So am I. I can't tell you how...” Chris stopped and drew in a deep breath. “If he hadn't recovered...”
Standing, Ezra placed a hand on Larabee's shoulder. “But he will, my friend. Your son will be up and about soon, and ready to take on the world once more.” With a nod and a two fingered salute, he left the clinic. Behind him, Chris smiled and shook his head.
Over the next few days, Vin grew stronger, until he was well enough to go home. He took Chris carrying him down the stairs with good grace, but did pull the blanket up over his head to keep people from staring at him. With Buck's help, they got him settled in the back of the wagon, which had been piled high with hay and covered over with thick quilts that Ezra had brought down from his room. Chris climbed in beside him, settling Vin so his head was resting on his thigh.
Buck and JD sat on the wagon seat and Buck set the team forward at a walk. It took almost twice as long as usual to get home, but they knew just how fragile Vin still was. Nathan had loaded them down with medicines, bandages and instructions on how much the boy should be allowed to do.
Chris carried him inside to the bedroom he shared with his cousin and settled him in bed, making certain that he was as comfortable as possible. Vin did his best to stay awake and enjoy the sensation of being home, but he couldn't manage it, and was soon soundly sleeping.
The other three members of the little ranch did their best to go about their usual daily return, but one or another found reason after reason to make their way into the little bedroom. Vin slept most of the day, waking only when Chris brought him something for dinner. The little boy grumbled at the bland diet but managed to eat most of the bowl of mush and the biscuit with a glass of fresh milk to wash it all down. Chris took him to the privy and dressed him in his nightshirt, checking to find that the bandage was clean before tucking the little boy back into bed.
“How long 'til I'm better, Pa?”
“I'm sure it'll seem longer than it actually is. Nathan reckons that, by next week, you'll be up and moving on your own to the porch or the privy.”
“A whole week?”
With a slightly disgusted look, Vin protested, “I'm gonna grow to the bed by then.”
Smiling, Chris said, “I promise I won't let that happen. Now, I'm gonna go get--”
“Vin's medicine, comin' up,” Buck said as he entered the room, a mug in hand. “All ready for ya.”
“Thanks, pard,” Chris said.
“Yeah, thanks...” Vin wrinkled his nose as he took the mug from his father and began to sip at it. “This stuff tastes like liquid cow plop.”
The two adults couldn't help but laugh at that comment, simply happy that the boy was feeling well enough to complain. They stayed with him until he finished the medication and drifted off to sleep. Chris eased the extra pillow out from under him and settled him more comfortably before pulling the covers up to his chin.
Chris wasn't certain what woke him, but he was on his feet, padding barefoot in his long johns by the time he was completely awake. Reaching the room that the boys shared, he peered inside. The moon was full, filling the room with silver light, allowing him to see the boys asleep in their beds. When he saw Vin moving restlessly, he moved across and bent over the narrow bed. “Vin?”
“Hm?” Vin's eyes blinked open, but he didn't seem to have been asleep.
“What's the matter?”
“My side hurts.”
Laying the back of his hand across the boy's forehead, he was relieved to find no fever, but he knew that, if Vin was so readily admitting to the pain, he must be bad. “I'll go get you something for the pain.“
A few minutes later, Chris was back with a glass of water laced with the pain medication. He handed the glass to the boy and sat down beside him while Vin drank the water. Seeing the face the boy was making, he smiled and asked, “Still taste bad?”
“Don't think it'll ever taste good.”
“Well, as long as it gets rid of the pain, I hope it's worth it.”
Handing the empty glass back, Vin said, doubtfully, “I reckon.”
Chris started to stand, but something made him stay. “Mind if I sit here while you go to sleep?”
“Wouldn't mind it,” Vin admitted. He lay back, but didn't seem ready to go back to sleep quite yet. Tentatively his hand slipped over the mattress and found his father's, a contented smile gracing his features when Chris wrapped his hand around his.
After several, quiet minutes, the boy said softly, “I'm sorry, Pa.”
“I didn't follow your orders.”
“Want to tell me about it?” He'd heard bits and pieces when his son lay, insensate, during the long hours in the clinic, but knew that the boy needed to explain what had happened.
“Well... I got worried. I hadn't heard nothin' for so long... no guns, no hollerin'... I got worried that somethin' happened to you. I knew you wanted me to stay with the horses, but... I moved over closer, to see if I could see anything. I... I figured that I wasn't really goin' against your orders, 'cause I was only walkin' a few feet over. Then the shootin' started, and I ran back over to the horses. I didn't even know I was hit 'til I got there. I'm sorry, Pa, I should'a listened to you and done what you said.”
Reaching out and stroking the child's hair, Chris said, “Yes, you should have. But the shot was a stray... one of the rustlers was up on the canyon wall. That's the only thing we can figure... it was just bad luck. Vin, I should never have let you go with me. Sometimes I forget that you're still growing and learning, and I think that you're older than you are. I put you in an awful position, Vin, and I'm sorry.”
“You trusted me, Pa, and I made a bad decision.”
Smiling, Chris said, “How about we just say we both messed up, and learned a lesson.”
“Sounds good to me... does that mean you're gonna have kitchen duty for a month, too?” Vin grinned.
Laughing now, Chris said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
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February 27, 2012