Main Characters: Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Ezra Standish
Universe: post-WWII AU
Book I of "The Long Way Home" trilogy
Warning: implies past child abuse and child endangerment
Author's Notes: Much love to Val and Brate, who stuck by me and this story. For this, credit really belongs with them.
Summary: Two brothers arrive at Four Corners with no father. A father without a son shuts the world away in Four Corners. They'll meet halfway to find the way home. This is Book I; the father's journey.
When the bus rumbled away, it coughed a goodbye of dark smoke to his face.
Looking around, Vin saw no one was paying attention to them. Everyone was running around like colorful ants in a picnic.
Four Corners was the kind of place that benefited from being close to Denver, yet it was far away enough to be small and old-fashioned, quaint-like for bored rich folk wanting to "get away from it all."
Most people weren't looking to permanently stay in Four Corners either. It was a pit stop to and from the big cities like Denver and Colorado Springs, so no one bothered remembering faces who might not be there tomorrow.
It was perfect.
Two tiny fingers slipped into his hand curled around the handles of the beat-up burlap duffel he'd held onto since Tascosa. Vin glanced down at the unblinking green eyes tilted up toward him. The child leaned heavily against his thigh, lower lip stuck out. Someone was pooped.
"Up?" Vin guessed.
A nod and two little arms lifted. Vin stooped down. He waited until arms curled carefully around his neck before he hugged the small body to him. As he rose—oof, the pipsqueak was getting heavier—there was a wheezy honk from that darn stuffed, yellow-bellied, bright green alligator squished between them.
"Quiet, Gatey," Vin grumbled half-heartedly. He squared his shoulders and hefted the small body closer to him. Little gray dusty shoes kicked him.
His throat ached from talking with a deeper voice than he really had. Vin's lower back twinged from trying to stretch his spine up inches more when he spoke to the tickets clerk and the old lady in the seat across the aisle of the bus. Luckily, she had been more interested in telling Vin about her granddaughter than his story about riding cross-country to meet their mom.
A soft cheek rested by his ear and a soundless yawn tickled his nose. Vin eyed the service clock hanging by the arrivals area. He made a face. Yeah, they need to hunker down somewhere soon. Besides, the duffel hanging off his grip was getting heavier and heavier.
The station wasn't very busy; it was too early for people to come back from work from Denver. There was still a lot of people though, enough so a deputy was patrolling its shiny floors. Vin stayed behind a pillar and warily watched the dark-haired officer nodding as some went by with smiles for him.
When the deputy drove away in a black and white patrol car with the lettering "Four Corners Sheriff's Department," Vin exhaled slowly. He checked the boy he held, who'd been quiet the whole time.
"Hungry, Ezra?" Vin whispered into his ear. He'd have to get used to calling him Ethan in front of other people. Ezra didn't like it though; at three, he didn't understand why people couldn't know their real names or why Vin wasn't really eighteen. He ignored Vin whenever he called Ezra "Ethan," but that's what their new passports and birth certificates said: Ethan and Vincent Simpson. Vin'd had to keep his name though, otherwise it could confuse Ezra.
But right now, between them, Ezra could just be Ezra.
"There's a place to eat inside this station. Want to get a hamburger? Maybe a hot dog?" At the head shakes, Vin hesitated. "We could get a sandwich?" Another shake. Ezra fidgeted in Vin's hold and then dropped his head on top of his toy. Gatey squawked. Ezra did it again and it honked louder.
Yeah, it was almost time for bed for cranky toddlers, but lunch had only been some of the cold gravy-soaked fries off Vin's meatloaf platter, the grilled cheese sandwich ignored despite being cut into four smaller triangles.
Vin jiggled Ezra in his arms. That got him a tiny smile. Ezra hugged his neck tighter. Vin tried again, "You have to eat dinner. Maybe some spaghetti?" Ezra screwed up his face. "How about a pork chop?" He paused before adding, "No circles. And I'll buy ice cream."
Ezra seemed to think about it for a moment, tilting his head back that kinda reminded him of a grownup. There was a second, Vin really, really thought Ezra would say, "Yes," in that squeaky voice he'd remembered.
When Ezra only nodded, Vin forced himself to swallow back the funny lump in his throat.
"Okay," he croaked. "Maybe Gatey want some fries, too?"
The answering beam of sunshine completely squeezed the rest of that lump away.
* * * * *
Maude once told Vin that sometimes the best way to hide things was in plain sight; hide it in a place with a mess of people. She told him a list of such places although at the time, Vin thought she was just a pretty lady with weird taste in bedtime stories. But in her clear, soothing drawl, Vin could hear her telling him and Ezra about the lockers bus stations normally have for people to keep their stuff in.
After dinner, the duffel went into one of them, but he kept the oversized dirt-colored knapsack that was as big as Ezra. Vin stuffed the duffel in the locker, taking care not to look at it, not to check inside it, and not to look back toward the locker when they walked away.
Ezra needed to skip to catch up with Vin's longer legs. Gatey bounced in the tiny rucksack that hung off Ezra's shoulders. It held all their important stuff because no one would think to steal from a little kid..
A bump into the back of his knee made Vin pause and Ezra caught up. He stuck a sticky hand into his.
Well, not all of their important stuff.
The adults wandering around the station smiled at Ezra licking the ice cream cone, with an "Aw, will you look at that?" on their faces. He was sort of cute for a kid, Vin supposed. Ezra has those cheeks old ladies like to pinch and even if he jumped, he could barely reach Vin's hip. His green eyes were like pieces of soda pop glass and clearly didn't match Vin's blue ones. But his light colored hair—although not as yellow-white golden like Maude's—was close enough to Vin's. If no one looked too careful, they looked enough to be family.
By itself, Vin's hand wrapped around Ezra's tightened. No, they were family.
The tug in his grip made Vin look down. Ezra peered up at him, his ice cream dripping forgotten on the station floor.
"Sorry." Vin steered Ezra toward the waste bin and watched Ezra stand on his tippy-toes to throw the ice cream away. He chuckled at Ezra's face when Ezra considered his chocolate-covered fingers. Most kids would happily like the treat clean off their fingers. Most kids weren't Ezra.
Vin poked his brother on the shoulder to catch his attention. "Okay, let's get you washed up."
The station's bathrooms were clean, the urinals over by the back wall, a row of bright white sinks sunk into a painted wooden counter the color of sweet potato pudding. There were fresh flowers in cheap, plastic blue vases. Vin snorted. There was even a bowl of blue and white chewing gum Chiclets on the counter. Next to it, there was a just as colorful stripped bowl with a slick sign that read "Penny."
Vin peered inside the dish. He grunted.
Sure enough, there were a couple of copper pennies in the bowl. Someone had even chucked in a whole nickel. What a crazy town! He tilted the bowl to show Ezra who craned to see, one hand fisted around Vin's jeans so he could get some height, not that it worked. Ezra stuck a finger into the bowl, rattling the coins around. He quickly got bored of the sound and went to jump in and out of every empty stall instead, playing peek-a-boo with Gatey hanging out of his shoulder sack.
Music floated into the restroom from a radio Vin could hear but not see. All the sinks worked; the stalls were wide with wooden shutter doors that ran nearly all the way to the floor. Vin ducked inside one and peered below. He could barely see Ezra's ratty sneakers; he had to press his cheek down real low to do that. He chuckled when he spied Ezra's fingers wiggling at Vin from under the short opening. He gave them a tweak. Gatey squeaked back at him. Vin warned Ezra to step back before he came out of the stall.
"Looks good," Vin told him as he wet a hand towel from their pack. He made machine gun noises as he scrubbed Ezra's face, behind the ears like Momma taught him, and gave it to Ezra to clean his fingers himself because the brat wouldn't hold still to let Vin finish. Ezra rested his chin on the sink counter. Well, tried. Even on his toes, he could barely reach.
"You're such a runt," Vin murmured, smiling as he rinsed off the towel. He felt Gatey hit him on the back of his knees. "Hey! Watch it or I'll give him a bath."
Ezra stuffed Gatey back into his dark blue rucksack.
Vin snorted as he wrung the towel dry and washed his own face, behind his ears as well and the back of his neck. He combed his hair. His bangs flopped over his eyes, like a sheepdog. Charlotte in his history class once said it made him look older. Wonder what Charlotte would think of him now?
Gloom dropped onto Vin. His shoulders slumped. Aw, what was the point thinking about that? He combed his hair back, squinting at the tuffs of hair he could see behind his ears. Maybe he'll let it grow out anyway. Vin blew at his bangs hanging over his eyes. Then again, maybe not.
The warmth of Ezra leaning close to his leg made Vin look down. He snickered. Ezra tried to copy Vin with the comb before Vin interrupted him, fixing that mess of sandy hair to something less of a rat's nest, back into the side part Maude liked. He canted his head and studied Ezra. Maude did a better job though.
"Brush your teeth," Vin told Ezra as he fished out a dented tin cup from their pack. He gave it a sniff before he filled it. He took out Ezra's favorite green toothbrush, squeezed out what he could from the flattened tube of paste and gave them both to Ezra.
"Use the cup. Sink's too tall," Vin warned. He dug around his pack until he found the beat-up sign he'd swiped from their first bus stop. He smoothed it out and considered it.
The blocky handwriting claiming "Out of Order" was still legible. Vin had kept it between the pages of his mathematics textbook—why he saved the dumb book he wasn't sure—so the sign would stay clean. He fished out a penny from his pockets and swapped it for some Chiclet gum. He hoped they didn't mind he took two.
Chewing both pieces loudly, Vin went down the row of stalls and chose the one that was between two lights. Shadowed and toward the back, Vin figured no one was going to bother checking an "out of order" stall when there were eight others working. He placed his gum on the corners of the sign and stuck it on the middle of the door.
There was a slight pressure against his knee. Vin looked down to see Ezra against his left leg, green eyes focused on the sign like he knew what it said. Probably did.
"Just for tonight," Vin told him. He crouched to meet his eyes. "Then we're gonna find a place. Remember? I'm gonna get a job." Vin grinned. "Then we can move to an even better place. Just you and me."
Ezra wiggled until he twisted his rucksack around.
"And Gatey," Vin laughed. "But I ain't getting him his own room. He's too little. He can stay in your room."
Ezra nodded solemnly.
Vin sobered. He framed Ezra's face with his hands. Ezra stared back just as seriously.
" One more night, little brother," Vin murmured. He peered up at Ezra hopefully. "Okay?"
Ezra nodded. He'd never even pause to think about it and darn it, Vin felt that dumb lump in his throat again. He carefully pulled Ezra to his shoulder, felt Ezra press his face into Vin's neck, his fists clutching the flaps of Vin's oversized cracked bomber jacket he'd bought at a Salvation Army.
The two stayed there for a while until Vin's knees started to bother him. Then, with a loud sniffle, Vin straightened. He ruffled Ezra's hair, cackling watery until Ezra squirmed free and batted his rucksack with Gatey at his knee. Gatey honked inside its home.
Feeling loads better, Vin brushed his own teeth and washed his flushed face again. He went into the stall and stowed their big pack close so he could stretch his legs out on it. He wiped the toilet and pulled down the lid. Ezra climbed up to his lap and how lousy was it that they both automatically knew how to sit right so neither one of them would fall off?
Vin felt Ezra relax against his chest, head tucked under his chin. His fists were now around Vin's middle, or at least as back as his little arms could reach and grabbing some of his shirt layers. Vin opened his jacket so he could zip Ezra up in it with him. He felt Ezra yawn.
"Night," Vin whispered. Ezra nodded against him before he relaxed.
Vin stayed awake a bit longer. He listened to the muffled bus announcements outside the restroom. He listened to the music floating into the space, but it was set so low, Vin couldn't figure out if it was a man or a woman or even if a person was singing at all. Closing his eyes, it almost sounded like Momma when she used to hum to him when he was sick in bed.
Eyes burning, Vin rested his chin on the tousled light hair. It was soft against his cheek and tickled the corner of his mouth. Ezra fidgeted until Vin murmured some quiet words into his ear. Ezra tugged his handful of shirt and went back to sleep.
Vin sniffed again. He wondered what his friends were doing back home. School had just ended. Did they miss him now that he was gone? Or did they keep going to Lawson's Drugstore for a soda without him?
With Ezra glued to him, Vin couldn't wipe his eyes, not without dropping him off his lap, and that was never, ever going to happen. So he just squeezed his eyes shut tighter until he could feel something hot trickle down both sides of his face. He kept doing it until he felt dried out. He hugged Ezra closer to him, rested his head back on one of the stall's walls and drifted off to sleep under the hushed strains of Momma's voice.
* * * * *
"…told him that was a dumb thing to do and you know what he said to that? Nuts, I tell ya! And with…"
Vin jerked awake at the loud guffaw that arrived with a bang of the restroom door. Heart hammering, Vin sat there, listening as two, maybe three men came in, cursing and laughing—and peeing from the sounds of it—before they tromped out again.
The fidgeting from the lump burrowed in his jacket told him Ezra was awake, too. Vin checked his wristwatch. He grimaced. Oh well, they were supposed to get up in an hour anyway. He pulled down his zipper and Ezra wormed free. Vin nearly burst out laughing at the standing up hair and scowl Ezra made when he was freed of the jacket.
"Morning," Vin teased. He smoothed a palm over Ezra's head, thought of a better idea and shuffled both hands through Ezra's hair instead, mussing it up more until it stood up like a porcupine.
Ezra squirmed, wiggling, bony elbows bumping into Vin's chest and stomach until Vin finally set him down.
The sign was taken back, gum cleaned off. Vin made sure they both did their morning clean up. He caught Ezra making a face when Vin took a tentative whiff of themselves. They'd been able to sneak in to the last city's YMCA. It had been big enough that no one noticed an extra teenager or kid tagging along with a family. They'd used the showers there, but Vin doubted Four Corners would have anything like that.
"I'll figure something out, Stinky," Vin told Ezra, grinning when Ezra screwed up his nose as if saying, "You're stinky."
At that moment, Vin's stomach gurgled. Ezra cocked his head and poked him in the belly.
"Breakfast?" Vin suggested. The place in the bus station was open all day.
Ezra lifted up his rucksack high above his head. Gatey's bright green fuzzy face stared at Vin with its glassy blue eyes.
"Fries?" Vin's face fell. "Don't Gatey want anything else? Maybe a pancake? An egg?" At Ezra's quivering lower lip, Vin exhaled sharply but couldn't get annoyed at Ezra. "Okay, but if he don't finish it, I'm stealing his fries."
Gatey bopped him on the knee again and Vin ended up briefly chasing them around the restroom, laughing his head off for both of them.
* * * * *
Sure enough, Vin and Ezra ended up eating the rest of Gatey's fries. At least Ezra had a bite of his chocolate chip pancake, too. Weird though: Vin could have sworn he'd ordered the cheaper plain one. The waitress said it was a mistake in the kitchen, including the three sausages Vin got with his single fried egg.
She kept coming back, refilling their milks and trying to talk to them. She kept asking if they wanted more food; tried to pinch Ezra's cheek. Ezra at one point, started to slide down the padded bench to hide under the table until Vin moved to sit next to him. She cooed and made funny noises at Gatey, sitting there all quiet with his saucer plate and a single fry drowned in ketchup. Ezra insisted on putting the ketchup himself. Gatey had almost gotten a tomato bath.
Vin told her about waiting for their mom at the station. He told her since she lived close by, she thought it better Vin and Ezra came by bus and she would pick them up.
There was a scary moment when the waitress offered to wait with them. Then she looked like she wanted to follow when Vin pointed to a crowd of people hanging around the ticket booths and said he just saw her.
Poor Ezra stood on his seat to see, too, until Vin tugged him away. Vin wanted to pick up Ezra and run, but the toddler wouldn't like that and Vin didn't want a scene. He paid with one of the fives in his jeans' back pocket and held tight to Ezra's hand. He tried to look like he was hurrying.
* * * * *
JD knew no one liked morning patrol as much as he did. He didn't mind. Everyone up at this hour looked hopeful, optimistic, acting like the day was going to be good. It was nice nodding greetings toward those faces. Better than night, when many return from long, underpaid hours. They appear downtrodden, walked on, all used up as they get off the Denver buses. Evening patrol was a bit depressing. He had enough of those faces in Boston. He'd seen enough of that on his mother's prematurely lined face.
Shaking his head—he better grab some breakfast to shake off this cloud hovering over him—JD steered toward the all night shop that rented a corner of the bus station. He waved as Mrs. Potter looked up from pouring coffee for one table. His smile broadened when she went behind the counter and lifted up a paper sack in return.
"It sure pays to know the owner," JD joked as he stepped into the shop. He nodded to a few chiming "Morning" to him. He sniffed the air in appreciation of the brown sugar and butter that hovered around him. He eyed Mrs. Potter hopefully.
The widow chuckled. She smoothed out the apron over her generous figure. Buck had told him once Mrs. Potter stopped laughing when her husband was shot down in a dogfight with a Zero over Iwo Jima a couple of years back. JD hoped the smile and fond headshake she was giving was due to him.
"Just ten minutes ago. All I do is bake, bake, bake these monsters." Mrs. Potter blew a dark strand away from her face. "This isn't gray hair," she told him ruefully, "it's sugar." She nodded at the paper bag JD was now eagerly peering into. "Milk and one roll." She made a face. "With extra icing."
With a broad grin, JD stuck his nose into the sack. "Think I could get another for lunch?"
With a roll of her eyes, Potter made a shooing motion with her hands. A glance at her window, though, she hesitated.
Checking over his shoulder, JD furrowed his brow. "Something wrong?"
"There was…" Mrs. Potter smoothed down her apron as she came to a decision. "A young man and a boy were eating in that booth there." She nodded toward the back. "Both boys really…"
Frown deepening, JD squinted at the window. There. He spotted a scrawny youth with a child at tow. They stood around the locker area, staring at the arrival gate.
"They been causing trouble?"
Mrs. Potter shook her head. She sighed. "No. They were no trouble at all. Polite. The little one's quite sweet. I just…" Her mouth pressed thin as she looked their way as well. "I have this funny feeling, you know?"
The station was starting to fill up with folks heading up to Denver. JD almost lost the pair in a sea of zoot suits and Sunday's best. He noted with approval that the older boy was holding the little one in his arms now.
"Said they were waiting to be picked up."
Still staring at the two, JD nodded. "I'll go check on them." He lifted the paper sack. "Thanks for breakfast."
"Deputy," Mrs. Potter bade as JD exited under the tinkling chime of her bell.
After a few steps, JD could tell he was spotted. The oldest of the pair met his gaze but before JD could offer a friendly wave hello, the boy hastily looked away. JD's curiosity welled up, and he quickened his steps. He made sure there was a grin on his face when he approached.
"Morning," JD greeted. He nodded to the older of the two.
Skinny like there was still growing to do, the youth eyed JD up and down before reluctantly replying with a barely audible yet courteous, "Morning."
"Can I help you boys with anything?" JD went on. He tilted his head toward the huge eyes peering up at him from behind his hiding place of the taller boy. "Hi there."
The eyes disappeared behind a pair of denim.
"Sorry." The other didn't look like he was. "My brother's shy."
JD waggled his fingers at the kid but the other just pressed his face into the back of the other's knees. JD chuckled awkwardly.
The older brother staggered off balance, but he recovered. "Real shy," he offered.
JD shrugged. He quelled down his disappointment. He wasn't that scary looking, was he? He studied the one standing in front of him. He reached JD's shoulders and met his gaze as if he expected JD to crack and cry, "Boo!"
JD kept his hands away from his hip holsters, a smile on his face. "You boys waiting for someone? Kinda early to be out here."
"Our father." The teenager glanced down, but his sibling was still hugging the back of his knees. "He's coming to pick us up."
"What's his name?" JD scanned the crowds. Not that he would know, mind you, but he expected some harried older man to come hurrying toward them. When he saw none, JD turned back. "He live around here?"
Before the boy could answer, JD heard a musical pair of, "Oh, Officer JD," from across the station. He groaned to himself and turned around to listen to the Bolt twins twitter to him about everything and nothing in general. When he was released from their conversation, JD turned back, but the two were gone.
* * * * *
There was a hard thumping that crawled up his throat as he tugged Ezra behind a pillar and then another until they were far away, behind the row of lockers by the time the deputy looked up. Vin watched, mouth dry, as the officer craned his head as if he could look through walls.
With a gulp, Vin crouched down to Ezra's height, his hands on the boy's narrow shoulders, and he tracked the deputy as he took a few steps to the left then to the right.
Don't look this way. Don't look this way, Vin mentally chanted as he peered around the edge of the metal wall. He exhaled when the deputy was called away by someone else— swell, everyone seemed to know him—and he strolled in another direction. The officer, though, kept checking over his shoulder. Vin waited until he could see the deputy leave the station.
"Hey, you're blocking my way." A gruff voice loomed over him. "That's my locker. Go play somewhere else."
"Sorry," Vin mumbled and they shuffled over. He straightened to walk away, but stopped.
Ezra's small hand was curled tight around as many fingers he could grasp. Cold, stiff, the boy's grip squeezed Vin's fingers like he was trying to pull them off.
"What's the matter?" Vin whispered. He crouched down in front of Ezra again. "We gotta go."
Unblinking, Ezra bit his lower lip.
Vin could hear the grouch above them grumbling about "brats" before slamming shut his locker. He checked left and right to make sure they were really alone in the row of lockers before he turned back to Ezra.
Letting go of Vin's hand, Ezra hugged his rucksack to him, head bowed. Inside, Gatey squeaked. Ezra sniffled.
Vin's eyes widened. He was so stupid. He reached for Ezra, but his brother shrank back.
"No." Vin said rapidly. "No, no, he's not coming. Not for real."
Ezra peered over the top of his bag at him.
"Just pretend. Honest." Vin carefully tucked him under his chin. He felt like a heel when Ezra sniffled again and buried his face into Vin's shoulder.
"It was just pretend," Vin soothed as he rubbed his hands up and down the shivers he could feel on Ezra's back. He swallowed hard. He kissed Ezra's cheek and hugged him tighter.
" I didn't mean to scare you," Vin murmured into Ezra's hair. "He's not really coming. It was just pretend. We were only pretending." He loosened his arms when he felt Ezra squirm. He leaned back to study Ezra.
Ezra bonked him on the head with Gatey, who squawked in protest.
Vin grinned. "I'm sorry, Gatey," he told the soft toy before giving it an one arm hug and tucking it carefully back into Ezra's knapsack and the bed Vin made from borrowed towels.
"Good??" Vin asked as he watched Ezra zip his bag closed over Gatey. "I promise. No more pretend without telling you first."
Ezra nodded, paused and then held his arms up. Vin was forgiven.
His chest tons lighter, Vin accepted the shy grip around his neck as he balanced Ezra in his arms and the backpack slung over his shoulders. It felt like everything he could call his own was in his arms.
Vin rubbed his nose against Ezra's temple.
"Let's go see what this Four Corners is like."
* * * * *
Madre de Dios, she should have stayed in Mexico.
Inez Recillos glowered as JD coaxed Stanley to get up and stagger out of her bar before he broke another beer bottle. It was a pity JD hadn't gotten here sooner. Stanley had already broken three before the deputy arrived.
The first one she forgave because Stanley thought he was throwing a grenade at a Nazi; it was why he'd begun drinking even though the sun hasn't started to set yet.
The next bottle barely missed the secondhand jukebox standing in the back. Luckily, the Wurlitzer was sturdy, so Inez merely placed the second bottle on his tab. As drunk as Stanley usually got, he always paid his tab promptly and in crisp bills still edged sharp from the bank. It was the only reason why she still allowed him to set foot in her bar. No matter what people may say about Larabee, he at least paid his hands well and promptly.
But the third bottle?
Inez slapped another towel on the counter now reeking of beer. The foam trailed behind her cloth as she jerked it across the surface in circles that were getting bigger by the moment.
The words she was thinking right now…her poor mother would scold her from heaven.
"Inez…I'm…hic…sorry…" Stanley swung toward her, or at least where he thought he saw her. His flushed face turned brighter red with shame.
"Come on, Stanley. Why don't you just sleep it off in a cell?" JD coaxed. He held Stanley up with a fist to the back of his shirt. A feat as Stanley stood a head taller even swaying on his feet.
"I didn't…mean it. Thought…" Stanley bowed his fair head, and JD shot her a panicked look when Stanley's shoulders started to shake.
"Thought we were being surrounded. Wanted to save Lenny…" A sob choked off. "Lenny, oh God, Lenny…. What am I gonna tell his ma?"
Inez sighed to herself and pushed down her irritation.
"You already did, Stanley," she murmured. She offered him a faint smile, and sighed as Stanley stumbled away.
"That Inez is a …hic…s-swell dame…"
JD barely avoided getting his nose broken when Stanley suddenly staggered back toward the bar.
"Why don't we call Ann to come by and pick you up…"
"Aw, why'd you…you want to c-call my old la'y for?"
JD nodded farewell to Inez. If his arms were not full, he would tip his hat. "…because our jail isn't your own hotel…"
Inez shook her head. She'd half a mind to throw her rag after Stanley; his wife Ann was a saint.
This time, the smile was wider as she turned to the quiet shadow that joined her behind the bar. She rolled her eyes and nodded. When she noticed the mop in his hands, her smile became a laugh.
"You have been working here too long, Vin," Inez teased. "Two weeks and already, you know what to do when Stanley comes in."
Vin peered up at her through a sheen of bangs the color of the sands surrounding her hometown. He returned her grin with a hesitant one of his own. He paused, his head cocked as he looked at her closer.
"You have glass in your hair."
Vin arched an eyebrow at her, oddly echoing her father, who'd always chided her for her unladylike behavior.
She shook her dark head until she heard a tinkle. She squinted at the sparkle on the floor. It was her turn to raise an eyebrow. It was barely the size of her pinky nail. How had Vin seen it?
Before she could ask, Vin was already across the room, toeing the larger pieces together before mopping the foaming mess on the floor.
"Be careful not to cut yourself," Inez cautioned.
Vin gave her a look half twisted with a shy smirk. It chided her for thinking he would ever cut himself and yet acknowledging her concerns, not dismissing them. But that look then melted away to a shy sort of uncertainty, unsure of his place with her and the smile flickered to a crooked one.
It was that smile that had made Inez hire him two weeks ago. This young man—barely—stood on the other side of her bar and asked politely if there was any work for him. There wasn't, not really; her customers were never generous with their money and those who were, spent it up in Denver before coming home to Four Corners.
But that smile…
Inez caught herself looking fondly at the boy as he sat on his heels to squint at the floor and picked out glass between the cracks. She returned to her own task, singing a melody from her childhood under her breath.
"Your parents must be very proud of you," Inez murmured before she could stop herself. When Vin looked up with a strange expression on his face, she cleared her throat. "You, working, to help out your family."
"Isn't that what you're doing?" Vin pointed out. He straightened before he twirled the mop in lazy circles on the floor.
Inez acknowledged it with a sigh. There were times though…. She shook out of her reverie and finished wiping up the counter.
"What do your parents do?"
The slopping of the mop paused. "Do?"
"Your mother. Your father."
"Father does banking stuff. Mother…" Vin stared hard at the floor before he continued his mopping. "She's not here anymore."
"Ah," Inez smiled apologetically. "Lo siento, Vin." At Vin's eyebrow, she translated, "It means 'I am sorry'."
"S'okay." Vin shrugged. "Was a long time ago."
Inez noted Vin's brow knitted in concentration as he cleaned up the same spot over and over again. "So your father. Banking, you say. He works in the city? Denver?"
The jerky bob was her only answer. Inez winced as Vin's mop knocked into the chairs.
"Do you have brothers or sisters?"
Vin paused and the gloomy face cleared. He gave her a faint smile. "One. Younger brother."
"You are lucky," Inez sighed. "I have many older brothers." Many old fools actually, all sure they know better than their hermanita. "They always tell me what to do."
Vin's smile faded. "Big brothers are supposed to take care of their younger ones." His mop slurped noisily as it dipped into the bucket of soapy water. He stopped talking, which made Inez's humming seem all the louder.
"I've never been to the city," Inez said when her own singing grated her ears. "Have you?"
"Once." Vin glanced over to her. "It was noisy. Busy."
"Nothing like Four Corners, si?" Inez joked. "We could fit twenty in Denver."
The corners of Vin's mouth tentatively curled up. "Well…maybe ten."
Chuckling, Inez let them lapse into a comfortable silence as they both cleaned up the bar. No one was coming in, not yet but soon the buses will return from Denver and tired, bitter men would want to eat and drink.
"I made food in the kitchen. Today's special." Inez held up the small chalkboard where she'd finished writing down today's menu. "Arroz con pollo."
"Ah rose con what?" Vin tried again when Inez repeated it, but he gave up after the third try. "What's that?"
"Chicken with rice." Inez giggled at the face Vin made. "We cannot serve meatloaf and hamburgers all the time."
"Why not? People like it."
Inez sniffed. "Only because they never try anything new." She nodded toward the board. "I have made plenty. Why don't you bring some home for your family to try?"
"Eh…" Vin rubbed the back of his neck. "We keep taking food from here."
Inez's shoulders rose briefly. "I throw out the rest at night. Better it gets eaten." Her gaze swept up and down Vin. The young man fidgeted. "You can tell me what you think."
"Arroz con pollo."
Vin chewed his lower lip. "Um….do you also have any fries left?"
Inez smiled gently at Vin. "I think so."
* * * * *
As funny sounding as the food was—why not just call it chicken and rice?—Vin had to admit it smelled tasty in the box Ms. Recillos had packed for him. Extra fries.
Vin could sense people eyeing his box as he trudged up the five wooden steps that led into the boarding house. He took his time climbing the stairs even though he wanted to run. Running made people look, Maude had always said; she also hadn't liked it after Ezra had learned to walk. He ran into everything.
Despite telling himself to take his time, Vin ended up taking the last two steps with a hop. It was a sturdy building, made of wood, and short like everything else in Four Corners. The windows were few and boarded up in preparation for the coming winter.
Vin often heard some of the kids playing in the hallway. Sometimes he wanted to join them as they played, but grownups didn't play with kids; they drank and worked and yelled at their children for spending their money. Vin wasn't too keen about the drinking part, and yelling at Ezra would make him feel an inch tall. Besides, Maude had never yelled at Vin when she first came to stay. She used to scowl, and looked ready to "spit nails" as Momma would say when he yelled at Vin or the tiny, bundled up Ezra she'd brought home from the hospital.
When kids are too poor to go to school or too little to work, they played. Loudly. All day. In the early morning hours, after making Ezra breakfast, Vin would sit by the door, listening to kids being kids. And because grownups forgot they were around when they talked, kids knew a whole lot more than the adults realized.
Through them chattering and playing pretend, he knew the Clark family upstairs argued all the time. Mrs. Clark wanted to work; Mr. Clark thought that it was a man's job. Vin knew Widow Potter who owned the soda fountain in the bus station wanted to reopen her husband's hardware store again, but Mrs. Williams in 2B told Ms. Lily in 2C that "no one is gonna buy tools from a woman." He also learned the boarding house had once been owned by a man who went to fight the Germans and never came back. His mama flipped her wig and hung herself in her oldest son's room, so now everyone believed the boarding house was haunted.
That was fine for Vin: it meant cheap rent, no one wanting to stay here long and no one caring to snoop around anyone who did.
Vin blinked at the raspy voice that crept out of the landlord's door. Mr. Rowe smoothed a hand over his shiny head to spread out the few frizzy brown strands. He always sound like he was gargling and smelled like what he was gargling. He took one look at Vin when they had first come in and told them to scram: he wasn't in the mood to play with brats. Mr. Rowe changed his tune after Vin paid a whole two weeks of rent in advance from his "father."
The short man wore a wrinkled plaid shirt that couldn't quite cover his belly. He squinted at Vin even though he was only a foot away.
"Where's your pa?"
Ice shot up Vin's back. He stared at the brown dotted tie instead of the whiskery round face.
"My pa?" Vin repeated.
Grownups were quick to think anyone younger by tons of years was stupid. Mr. Rowe rolled his eyes and repeated it louder.
Apparently, stupid meant deaf, too.
"Your pa. Where is he? Rent's coming due."
Vin decided to keep playing stupid. He stared back at Mr. Rowe with his eyes as big as he could make them. "Huh? I thought we pay on Friday?"
Mr. Rowe appeared impressed that Vin knew this. He grunted, the sound crackling wet in his throat. "That's right. Tomorrow's Friday. Twenty seven dollars."
Vin stiffened. "But I thought it was twenty three?"
"Things are expensive," Mr. Rowe said, even louder and slower than before. "We need money to buy things. You just tell your pa that. He'll understand. We all got to make a living."
Plus, Vin knew the room above his snuck out last night without paying their rent. He gritted his teeth to stay in a smile.
"Yes, sir. He comes back real late from Denver. I'll tell him to give me more money for the rent."
"I ain't going to bargain," Mr. Rowe warned. "Your pa better not bang on my door tomorrow about the rent."
Like that was going to happen. "Yes, sir. No, sir." Vin wanted to throw Ms. Recillos' Rose Con Polo at him and see if Mr. Rowe found it tasty on his face. Instead, Vin bobbed his head.
Mr. Rowe waved at him, his pudgy hand reminded Vin of the sausages their cook Mrs. Martin used to dry outside the kitchen.
"Go on, beat it. Stop gibbering by my door. Don't forget my rent. Lots of people want to rent here and they'll pay more, too." Mr. Rowe grunted again. "Bet they be quieter, too. No kids running around, screaming all day. Should have said 'No kids.' Good fer nothin' delinquents…"
Vin never heard the rest of it as Mr. Rowe lumbered his way back inside his room and slammed the door. He stood there, staring at the door, wishing he could throw the box at it, but he'd promised to try it, and Ezra was probably hungry.
* * * * *
When Vin neared 4B, he could hear Mrs. Johnson hollering out answers to her favorite quiz show. It was what she did. The first time, Ezra had sat near the door with Gatey the whole time, staring at her pointing and waving her wrinkled hands at the brown box. Vin explained Mrs. Johnson wasn't yelling at him, and nowadays, Ezra watched her with the same kind of wonder as when they'd snuck in to see Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
It took a several knocks before Mrs. Johnson realized it weren't her neighbors fussing on her ceiling but someone at her door. Vin heard the radio lowered (not by much) and small scampering feet coming to the door.
It took Vin a few tries before he could flip his grin into a proper scowl when the door opened a crack and Ezra poked his head out.
"You're supposed to let Mrs. Johnson open the door," Vin scolded.
The door promptly shut.
"Hey!" Vin rapped on the door again, laughing. "I got you fries!"
The door opened. Gatey greeted him this time. Vin said hello by grabbing it by the snout, letting out a big honk. He released Gatey back into Ezra's protection as he entered the room.
"Mrs. Johnson," Vin greeted their neighbor sitting inches from the radio in her rocking chair. She wore the same bathrobe she'd worn on the first day Vin met her; it looked like thousands of fat, furry pink worms were crawling all over her. If it didn't have all those daisies on it, it might have looked all right.
As if just realizing she had a visitor, Mrs. Johnson glanced over his way briefly, her cotton candy like white hair bobbing on top of her head.
"Oh good, you didn't forget about him." Mrs. Johnson cackled, showing Vin her teeth, gaps and all, one tooth capped in gold. "Your boy there kept fussing." She laughed again like it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard. Ezra stared at her and her yellow teeth like she was the funniest thing he'd ever seen.
"Did you have a nice evening?" Vin added politely even though he wanted to sneeze. Her room always smelled like a lot of soap and flowers; she did the bachelors' wash for three quarters.
Mrs. Johnson nodded curtly to Vin before turning her radio back up.
"I hope Ethan wasn't too much trouble," Vin said as he watched Ezra gather up his picture books and drawings. He wondered if Four Corners was big enough to have a library like other places. The books Vin had taken at the time, were just ones he could grab. Ezra's favorites were still tucked under his mattress in his room.
His throat got all swollen up by the time Ezra was done, Vin gave Mrs. Johnson her dollar and they went next door to their room. Vin checked left and right before using the key to get into the single room.
"We're home!" hollered Vin, in case Mrs. Johnson was listening. He let Ezra throw all his things on the mattress they used as their bed and couch. Mr. Rowe charged extra for a room with more furniture. Gatey let out a pretty impressive honk as well. No one answered, of course.
The more Vin looked at the room, the more his stomach did this twisty thing like he ate much too sweets. The room was a kitchen on one wall, the bed by the other, and the third wall across from their door was their bathroom. The whole place was painted a color Vin thought used to be like a cream color, but now appeared more like egg yolk.
One light bulb swung left and right since they slammed the door. He'd have to remember not to do that anymore. It was the only light for the whole place, except for the light bulb above the bathroom mirror. Breaking it meant Mr. Rowe coming up here to fix it, and another dime a week to pay for a new one.
It was fine though. Vin set down the dinner box on the small round dining table that stood between the kitchen and the bed area. Ezra had folded up and stuck their old "Out of Order" sign under a leg, and now Vin didn't have to worry about spilling the milk if he put his elbows on the table. There were two mugs (Ezra took the green striped one, Vin took the chipped white one) big enough Vin could use them for soup if they ever got any. He found a rectangular cracker tin lid left over from the people who'd lived here before. He beat out the dents and cleaned it up real good, and made it Ezra's plate. He'd thrown out the yellow and blue cracked plates and kept the soup bowl as his own.
Vin wiped the table clean before pulling out the boxes of food from the bar. Ms. Recillos gave enough food for three; Vin needed to make it last until dinner tomorrow. He poured some out into the casserole dishes he'd bought off from 1G for four dollars. He tweaked Ezra's nose when he peeked over the table, wrinkling his nose at the food. Ezra retaliated by sicing Gatey on his knees; Vin almost dropped the dinner rolls Ms. Recillos snuck into the box.
"Wash your hands," Vin ordered, but was unable to stop from snickering when Ezra crawled under the table, bumping around his legs like the cat they'd once had. "Go! Before I eat all of your fries."
Another whack behind his knees; Maude must have stuffed Gatey with rocks. Vin smirked as Ezra dragged Gatey across the floor by its tail to the bathroom.
Vin looked around the room and the window half boarded up. The heater under it groaned to life and wheezed out some steam then died. He glanced down at the casserole dishes, his soup bowl and Ezra's cracker plate. His lower lip stuck out.
A squeak and footsteps collided with the back of his legs. Vin pretended to flail as he got a hug from both boy and alligator.
"That's it!" Vin hollered, laughing too hard to wave a finger at Ezra properly. "Gatey's eating mush!" He scrubbed his hand over Ezra's hair.
"Come on, I'm hungry."
* * * * *
Dinner wasn't bad, although Vin thought Ms. Recillos should just stick with selling her meatloaf and hamburgers. Ezra ate all his fries and some spoonfuls of rice. He didn't seem to like the chicken or the funny green stuff on that Rose Con stuff. Ms. Inez called it parsley.
As Vin watched Ezra build Gatey a house made of slices of chicken and fries, he thought about Mr. Rowe. He wasn't asking that much more, but sweeping and mopping at the bar wasn't going to be enough anymore. Vin thought about the locker key stitched to the bottom of Ezra's backpack stuffed with the money roll, their papers and Momma's locket. He mentally shook his head. No, Maude's note said to be careful using it. He looked over to Ezra. Someday, Ezra would need money for school. Maude was the smartest woman Vin knew, besides his momma of course. She would want her baby boy to go to school. Vin was sure of it.
With a pang, Vin dropped his eyes and poked at his remaining food with a fork. He swallowed, the rice stuck in his throat. Hopefully Momma would understand why he up and quit school. He thought about that stupid textbook still in his backpack, his last test folded and tucked inside.
Sniffing loudly, Vin glanced over. Green and blue eyes stared up at him solemnly. He chuckled hoarsely and hooked Ezra by the shoulders and dragged his stool closer. Ezra squirmed.
"You all finished?" Vin calculated if they ate the rolls for breakfast, there was still enough rice left for dinner tomorrow. Maybe for lunch, too. But after that, they'll need to buy food. Ms. Recillos wouldn't be giving them food forever. Adults are nice at first, but they tended to get bored or annoyed with them sooner or later.
At Ezra's head bob, Vin sighed. He supposed it was better than nothing. The first town they'd stopped in, Ezra hadn't eaten anything at all, afraid to let Vin leave his sight to even look at his food.
Vin stroked one finger down Ezra's soft hair. He smelled like Mrs. Johnson's laundry soap and the apple Vin left him to eat. The old lady complained Ezra's crunching drowned out her quiz shows. Vin knew that wasn't true; Ezra never did anything loud.
"Go take a bath, Stinky," Vin told Ezra. "Hurry up if you want to listen to Superman." That usually got his brother moving quickly.
Ezra was a little too quick with his bath though, so when he came out, Vin checked behind his ears, his fingers, his teeth like Momma used to. Satisfied, Vin ruffled Ezra's hair before he left his little brother to play with Gatey on the mattress while he went to wash up.
The water wasn't warm enough even though the pipes snaking up all the walls were hot to the touch. Vin shivered as he dressed. He wiped the mirror clean as best he could and stared hard at his reflection. No, he didn't look any older; he just felt older. He sighed. Where was he going to get that much more money? He combed through his damp hair before grabbing one of the YMCA towels. Vin paused in scrubbing dry his hair.
One time, the kids outside playing talked about Guy Royal, second richest rancher in town. He'd never gone off to war because of his flat feet (although what that had to do with anything, Vin wasn't sure) and got all rich selling his beef to the government. Lots of their daddies worked for Mr. Royal.
Vin squeezed out the last of the toothpaste with both hands; he'll need to get more of that, too. As he brushed, he listened to Ezra outside, wrestling with Gatey by the sounds of the noisy mattress. He lowered his toothbrush.
Maybe Mr. Royal needed an extra hand. Vin was good with animals. Before Momma died, before they moved in with him, Vin was riding double with his grandfather every morning, listening to him talk about the right way to treat an animal.
But Mrs. Johnson would only watch Ezra from one to six for a dollar a day. Vin sighed. She was pretty loud telling them how busy she was in the mornings. Busy, busy... busy gossiping with Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Williams.
His fingers danced, bend, then straightened as he counted out what was left in his backpack. Mrs. Johnson was money he wished he didn't have to pay. A dollar a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year minus holidays…. No, Vin really didn't want to pay her for all that time. Besides, Gatey thought she smelled funny.
Just for two more years though, then Ezra might look old enough to go to school.
But will they take him, a voice whispered.
Vin scowled at the yellowed, cracked reflection on the wall. Of course they'll take him.
"There's nothing wrong with him," Vin declared out loud.
Did he tell you that, the stupid little voice taunted back.
Before Vin could yell at the mirror, a frantic flurry of knocks interrupted. Vin blinked. Must be seven-thirty. He hurriedly spit into the sink, running his tongue across his teeth before opening the door. He caught a glimpse of Ezra as he scurried back to the mattress, Gatey squeaking like crazy, telling him to hurry.
"Gatey, quiet!" Vin shushed him as he climbed up the mattress. Ezra crawled into his lap and together, they pressed their ears against the wall into Mrs. Johnson's room just as the chimes introduced the announcer.
"Boys and girls, your attention please. Presenting a new and exciting radio program. Featuring the thrilling adventures of an amazing and incredible personality. Faster than an airplane."
Vin smiled to himself as he felt Ezra quivering with excitement, squirming to press his ear closer to the wall. As they listened, Vin absently rubbed Ezra's head, his thumb brushing against Gatey's fur silky like a kitten, slung over Ezra's shoulder as a pillow. He could see Ezra's mouth moving, tiny like a mouse, reciting to himself the announcer's words.
"More powerful than a locomotive, impervious to bullets."
"Look! Up in the sky!"
"It's a bird!"
"It's a plane!"
Vin tugged Ezra closer as they listened to Superman whoosh down from the sky to save people in a train wreck. He watched Ezra listening, mouth puckered up into a small "o." His little brother beamed up at him before tucking Gatey under Vin's ear so he could rest on it as they listened.
Vin ruffled Ezra's hair.
Maybe Mrs. Johnson would do it for two dollars.
* * * * *
Stupid Mrs. Johnson wouldn't even do it for three.
Vin stiffened his arm to stop from slamming the door when he came back. He stopped by the foot of the bed Ezra had tried to make, but the thin spongy pillows looked like lumpy potato sacks now.
The moment Vin asked, Mrs. Johnson started talking so fast, she began squawking like Gatey as she explained nice and slow and loud how her schedule doesn't allow it, and Vin should be grateful she would watch that "fussy child" at all. She thought she'd been pretty tolerant, considering she was watching Ezra during her shows. He wasn't sure exactly what she said—something about stopping music or to take it or leave it—but he was pretty sure he knew the whole of it.
Running footsteps skidded short in front of him. Vin smiled tiredly down at Ezra and Gatey, whose head poked out from inside Ezra's army green shirt; the top button had been lost a long time ago.
"Still just one to six," Vin smoothed out the part in Ezra's hair, but without hair grease, it merely flopped back over Ezra's brow, making him look like a short sheepdog.
Ezra brightened, but his smile fell when he saw Vin couldn't bring himself to feel the same. Head canted, Ezra placed his hands on Vin's legs as if he was going to climb his big brother.
Sitting down on the edge of the bed to meet Ezra's puzzled gaze, Vin dropped his hands on Ezra's shoulders.
"Ezra," Vin began. He forced himself to smile because Ezra was looking as scared as when he hollered Maude wasn't ever coming home. A stronger word was used then instead of Maude, but Vin tried not to think about it too much.
"I have to work extra hours." Vin rubbed his thumb over a pale round cheek. "I…I can't find anyone to watch you. I need to leave you here alone in the mornings."
Ezra's eyes were like the morning dew on grass, all wet and shiny, but he didn't sniffle. He gulped visibly.
It made Vin feel like the biggest heel in the whole world. Vin carefully pulled Ezra to him, not caring if Gatey was smooshed uncomfortably against his collarbone. He smoothed a hand down Ezra's back.
"We'll have lunch everyday together before I take you to Mrs. Johnson's, okay?" Vin murmured into the small ear. "And when I finish work, we'll eat dinner and have all kinds of fun and listen to Superman."
It didn't make him feel much better when Ezra nodded against his neck. Vin squeezed Ezra so hard, Gatey's high-pitched squeak was lost between them. Vin leaned back and scrubbed the tear out from under Ezra's eye with a knuckle.
"I'm gonna make lots of money," Vin told him, "Then we can get a nicer room, and our own radio. Hey, maybe buy one of them television sets like we had before. Remember? Howdy Doody? Chief Thunderthud?" At Ezra's wobbly smile, Vin sobered. Ezra had been watching Howdy Doody, waiting for Vin to come home from school. Only, that day, Vin had taken a long time.
There was a lump in his throat again; all big and hurtful and wanting to come out. Vin swallowed as hard as he could. He cupped Ezra's face with both hands.
"It's only for a couple of hours in the morning," Vin promised. "Then Mrs. Johnson watches you and I come back and we'll have lots of fun Saturdays and Sundays." There was a cinema two streets away that sold tickets for fifty cents. If not, it also has an alley behind it and a door with an old lock. "Maybe we could see a matinee Saturday?
Ezra pulled out Gatey and tilted it toward Vin.
"He can come, too," Vin chuckled. "But he's gotta be quiet."
Gatey's snout bent when Ezra grabbed it. They both nodded solemnly at Vin.
"All right, we need to practice what to do in the mornings." Glancing around their room, Vin figured out what he knew would be bad to leave Ezra alone with.
"You don't touch the stove or the drawer with the forks and knives." Pointing to the door. "And don't open that door, don't go outside by yourself or even with Gatey." He paused, remembering Mr. Rowe. "If someone knocks on the door and it's not me, you hide in the closet and wait for me." Vin gripped Ezra tight on the shoulders, but was careful not to shake him. "You wait for me, Ezra. All right?"
Wide-eyed, Ezra nodded.
"Someone knocks on the door," Vin prodded, "but it's not me. What do you do?"
With a little leap, Ezra scampered into the closet with Gatey. Inside though, Vin heard Gatey honked.
Vin poked his head into the closet. "You both have to be quiet."
Twin innocent gazes peered up at him, hands clasped over a snout and mouth.
"Let's try it one more time."
It took them lots more times. Ezra kept peeking out of the closet. It was hard to pretend Vin wasn't knocking on the door when it really was Vin knocking on the door. They ended up playing if Vin could catch Ezra ducking into the closet and later, there were times Ezra hid somewhere else, leaving Gatey in the closet like a decoy.
But when Ezra finally got it, no one felt like cheering.
* * * * *
"Eighteen, huh?" The man towered over Vin, blocking out the morning sun in the window behind him. "You sure about that?"
Vin straightened up as much as he could and met Mr. Royal's narrowed glare without flinching. Adults do that a lot: they think being bigger, louder, meaner would get them the truth.
Always smile. Look right in the eye but don't stop blinking. Be natural. They'll believe anything you tell them if you look like you believe it, too.
Maude sounded clear as a jaybird in his ear while Vin nodded. He shrugged a shoulder.
"My family runs kinda on the short side." Vin gestured ruefully toward himself. "I've been told I take after my mother's side."
Guy Royal rubbed his bristly jaw thoughtfully, a big dirty hand polishing over a big hairy rock. He looked at Vin up and down again with eyes that didn't have much color in them. The doctored up paperwork Maude had left him and Ezra in a dented cigar box under his bed looked flimsy in Royal's hands, like they could tear should Royal glare harshly enough at them. He read over the dates on Vin's birth certificate again, compared the photograph with the one standing in front of him. He grunted.
He didn't look like he believed Vin. He didn't look like he cared, either.
"I might have work for you up in my ranch," Royal admitted. He sat down in his fancy nail-studded leather chair again, still appearing big in his office full of filing drawers, pictures of him shaking hands with famous people, and a row of desks with telephones and typewriters in the main area outside.
"Well, sir." Vin glanced around the office. "I was hoping you might need help around here for a couple hours in the morning."
"You got another job?" Royal said bluntly. He didn't look like a fellow who could speak in any range other than loud and louder.
Vin nodded reluctantly. "In the bar, over on Walker Lane."
Royal grunted. "That senorita still running the place?"
Vin wasn't sure what "see nore eat a" meant but he didn't like how the businessman said it. He set his jaw and just muttered a, "Yes, sir."
"Quit," Royal ordered. "Work for me and you won't need to work there. Be a good hand and I pay five times as much as you could slopping mop buckets." He cocked his head. "You good with guns?"
Vin blinked at the change of subject. "Uh, buck shot, Winchesters. I can hit a target, I guess."
"With those, a blind man can hit his target," Royal grumbled. "Want to learn to be a better shot? My boys went to fight a war, some came back less than half a man. I need steady hands."
Unsure what Royal was trying to say, Vin held up a hand to show Royal.
"Steady," Royal acknowledged. "Good. I can pay you thirty a week. Room and board, too."
Thirty? The floor under Vin's feet rocked left and right.
"Room and board?" Vin hedged. "I already have a room in the boarding house on Third."
"Close it up. You'll save on the rent." Royal squinted across his desk at Vin. "You living with family?"
Vin inhaled carefully. "Little brother."
"Little brother?" Royal snorted. "They get littler than you?"
Vin swallowed back a retort.
"Bring him along." Royal chomped down on his cigar. "Long he don't eat much, he can stay with you, but I don't pay extra."
Vin hesitated when he realized Royal must have assumed Ezra was older.
"You want the job or not?" Royal demanded. Red in the face, he tapped his fingers on his desk. "You tell me now and you can make a lot of money."
Vin raised his eyes toward him.
* * * * *
Sometimes, war made more sense.
Josiah rifled through the documents one more time, but unlike his client's insistence, the contract he held in his hands was ironclad. There was nothing in the language to suggest otherwise.
The small spectacles perched on his nose were beginning to pinch. Too small for his broad face, Josiah hadn't the heart to throw them out. The thin frames were the only things left of a church Josiah had once visited back when all he thought he needed was the Good Book, sturdy shoes, and an even sturdier heart.
But the little clay building along with its monsignors and the dozen or so orphans had vanished under the first bombardment. Josiah had returned, in a uniform instead of the collar he thought he would be wearing, and found only the dented tin buried in the rubble like a coffin. In it were the frames, some coins and a letter to the Archbishop. The letter promised the church would hold fast as a haven in the war. Both writer and intended recipient were no longer on this earth to read the missive.
The glasses felt flimsy and breakable in his hand as Josiah plucked them off his face. He set the contracts down and idly observed his modest office that served as Sanchez, Esquire. Sitting near the end of a hallway full of granary, stock, and union offices, no one would think to find a lawyer's office here in Four Corners. Not when they can find a big-shot attorney in Denver. And his office—as Nathan often pointed out—wouldn't be here much longer if Josiah didn't quit offering his services altruistically.
Across the hallway, two doors down, Josiah could hear talking. Actually, Guy Royal was doing the talking as usual; the big rancher liked to hear the sound of his own voice. But nothing, to Buck's disappointment, that would incriminate him.
Royal seemed louder than usual, but Josiah didn't hear anyone talking back. Then again with Royal owning a third of the cattle business mostly through sheer bullying, there wasn't anyone in town brave or rich enough to talk back. The only one who would have had the means had stopped caring and hadn't set foot in town for years. With Royal squeezing the town dry, unchallenged, the meek stood no chance of ever inheriting the Earth.
Nevertheless, Josiah cracked open his door in time to see a lanky youth exit Royal's office. Dark blond hair long behind the ears but combed neatly, white shirt tucked in, the young man—no, boy, Josiah corrected—clean shoes, clean hands and a troubled face.
It didn't bode well. Josiah felt a stirring in his belly he hadn't felt since the Messerschmitts buzzed over him in the dead of night like a swarm of crows. He had hunkered down with the rest of his unit in the lone surviving barn in the field and wondered if they would bomb it anyway out of spite.
Josiah edged back and spied the young man stopping to turn back around to Royal. To Josiah's surprise, the boy didn't flinch. In fact, he stood taller.
"You can learn a lot working for me."
Josiah scowled at the boastful promise.
"No one ever went hungry working for Guy Royal," Royal went on.
No, just everyone else did. Josiah's mouth pursed at the polite, "Yes, sir."
Royal's door slammed shut as a telephone inside rang for his attention.
Josiah readjusted his grip on his door knob.
He shouldn't interfere. Everyone told him to stop being so damn helpful without charging for it first.
Despite that, Josiah opened the door wider. The boy's head whipped around, surprisingly shrewd blue eyes zeroed in on him in a snap.
"Hello," Josiah greeted pleasantly. "Don't believe I've seen you around before."
"Don't believe I've seen you around before either," the other returned in as pleasant of a tone, but the thinned smile offered told Josiah he was being sassed.
Josiah opened his hands wide and gave a small shrug. Anything more and his intimidating frame were sure to scare the kid off. But the boy stood his ground. Interesting.
"Sorry. Thought I knew everyone in this town. Small town."
"Not that small," was the succinct reply. Then, as if in afterthought—proof the boy learned some manners somewhere in life—he added reluctantly, "We just moved to these parts."
"Me and my brother. Our father." Discomfited, the boy shrugged and smoothed a hand over his shirt front. "Looking for work. You hiring?"
Unbidden, Josiah chuckled. "Son, I can barely feed myself much less help feed another. This job doesn't pay much. Sorry."
Something flickered in those blue eyes at the word 'son' but before Josiah could decipher it, the gaze cleared. "S'okay. Couldn't hurt to ask." A tentative smile. "Maybe you should change jobs if you wanna eat though."
Another chuckle. Josiah nodded even as he shrugged. "I like helping people too much." He paused. "You may want to consider another line of work yourself." He nodded toward Royal's office. "Man's not the kind of employer you want to have."
"Is that what you do all day: standing at your door, telling people not to work for him? No wonder you're starving."
The barb was light but Josiah caught the thread of defiance under the words. Ah, was he ever that young?
"Look, Guy Royal's not a particularly nice businessman."
"I know," the other returned simply. "I said no."
Josiah blinked. "You turned him down?"
The shrug the other offered was oddly adult for his narrow shoulders. "Not my kind of scene. Wasn't hungry enough, I guess."
Josiah smiled, faintly proud for the stranger. "Good for you."
"I guess." The smile twitched wider. "Sure you're not hiring?"
Smirking, Josiah shook his head. He ruefully looked behind his modest office with the furniture he patched up himself. "Sorry. I wish I could help. But maybe…" Josiah paused.
There was no one in the hallway.
Scratching his head, Josiah glanced up and down the corridor. He closed the door, feeling a vague stirring of regret that he hadn't caught the boy's name.
* * * * *
What was he going to do now?
Vin stared glumly at the yellow and white streetcar rumbling by on its tracks. He glanced back at the building behind him. Nuts. That was a waste of time. Vin took a deep breath and turned away.
When Vin left the Grain Exchange building, he had a vague notion to check the other shops that lined Main Street.
At the market, Vin used the two crumpled dollars in his pocket to get milk, three cans of cream of tomato soup, grape jam, and donuts. No toothpaste though. At forty-eight cents, he could either get one tube or the jam and donuts. Ezra liked donuts.
Hugging the paper sack to him, Vin passed each shop, peering into the display windows for "Help Wanted" signs. The streets were wider than he was used to and there were less cars on the road, but the stores and their colorful displays were familiar. He caught himself staring at a mannequin at one point, standing tall in the window, nice blue sash narrow on a crème-colored dress that bloomed out full like a flower at the bottom. Momma never wore anything that fancy; she liked her simple cotton dresses that fell straight down, a sweater that always smelled like the garden she worked in. The first time he met Maude though, she wore a dress kind of close to that, with a matching purse and boxy little hat to boot. No sash though, because Ezra was still in her tummy.
The place selling the dress wasn't hiring.
Vin told himself to hurry up but his feet were dragging as he looked at each shop. Four Corners was bigger than he thought: there were corners and lanes he didn't explore, a toy store he'll want to take Ezra to next time, and a couple of drugstores with soda jerks waving at people through the windows.
They weren't hiring either.
It was better this way, Vin told himself. Ezra was too little to be by himself anyway. Maybe when he's in school, maybe Vin will just go to that bus station locker and…
His feet froze. In front of him, children excitedly pointed and ran after a bright red truck that charged around the corner fast despite its size. Vin stared, unable to react as people stopped, twisting behind them to stare at the dark lines being drawn higher in the sky.
When the smoke hit him, Vin dropped his bag and ran as fast as he could to the boarding house he could see burning on the horizon.
* * * * *
Buck thumbed his hat back and grinned at the giggle that came his way. "Miss Rose. What's a pretty flower like you walking all by your lonesome?" He stuck out a bent elbow, which Rose accepted with a languid drape of her hand.
That was the difference between women from the big city and Four Corners. Women these days don't want no gentlemanly behavior. Shame. Buck liked opening doors and helping pretty angels across the street.
"I heard there was going to be a new store opening next to Hardwick's just like in Denver." Miss Rose chatted. She patted her auburn curls in place, the clip pinning her bangs back sparkled like it was the Queen of England's crown.
As a patent clerk in Denver, Rose Nelson was dressed in her nice full blue dress with the tooled black leather band around her narrow waist, long enough to cover her knees but short enough to show off gams ol' Betty Gable would envy. She looked like a flower on top of a wedding cake. Not that Buck would say that to her, less any misunderstanding. But Buck did appreciate it, grateful Miss Rose didn't go with the slacks and short jackets women these days came back in from the big city. He felt like a knight escorting his princess and told her so as he stuck out a hand to slow down a car.
"My hero," giggled Miss Rose.
Buck stuck out his chest. His mustache wiggled as he smiled at her. "Want to thank me tonight? Maybe dancing over at Bugle? Some dinner?" Pretending to be hurt by her hesitation, Buck pulled his cover down and placed it over his heart. "Miss Rose, I fought Nazis and death so I could come back with my stars and stripes and I take you dancing. You don't want to break a good ol' boy's heart now, would ya?"
"Does that mean I have your heart?" Miss Rose's eyes fluttered at him.
Buck arched his eyebrows at her and grinned. "Ain't that my heart in your purse there?"
Laughing, sweet and clear as a bell, Miss Rose's lips pucker to respond when distant shouting arose from behind him. Buck tensed, his smile dropping. Taken aback, Miss Rose stuttered. Her eyes widened as she looked at something behind him.
Buck already knew what it was before he turned around. He turned anyway as his noses flared at the damning familiar stench of smoke and burning wood.
"Fire!" Miss Rose shrieked just as a large fire truck roared around the corner.
Buck pulled Miss Rose closer to him. The red engine zipped past them in a wail of sirens that sounded too close to a bombing alert.
"I have to go!" Buck jammed his cover back over his head. He slapped a hand over his hip holsters as he bolted toward the growing dark pillar of smoke.
"Pick me up at six?" Miss Rose called after him.
Buck didn't respond, his mouth set in a grim line. He saved all his energy for his run, his long stride eating the distance. Having grown up here and over two years as sheriff, Buck knew every turn and hill Four Corners had to offer, even as it swelled and spread out. Sharp turn around Inez's bar on Walker, two leaps over the stacked barrels on Hardwick's store, and he arrived in front of what used to be Widow Rowe's boarding house. He arrived just in time to hear the firemen shouting at someone on the roof; in time to see a woman leap off that roof, her skirts on fire. The crowds in the street cried out. Glass shattered somewhere.
"Get back!" Buck hollered. He could hear JD and Charlie arriving, mimicking him, herding back the gawkers in case another decided to jump. "You hear me?" Buck gestured at one man, dressed in a wrinkled shirt and undershorts. He must have come from the boarding house. "Step back! Come on now, let's give the firemen some—Whoa! Where do you think you're going?" Buck whipped out an arm and caught the blur that tried to get past him.
"Let me go!"
"Now, son, I know it must be all interesting, but you can watch it behind the—"
"No! No!" The boy squirmed in his hold and wiggled free. Damn! He ducked under Buck's grabbing arms and streaked toward the building.
"JD!" Buck bellowed, pointing to the escapee.
To JD's credit, he didn't question, he just jumped and tackled the kid around the ankles before he could climb up the steps. Buck ran over, huffing to grab the kid by the shoulders before he could fight free.
"Enough!" Buck boomed. "You're not—"
"Hey, aren't you—" JD began. His eyes widened. "Where's your brother?"
A lump dropped into his gut and despite the close heat, Buck's limbs went cold. "What?" He grabbed the boy by his shoulders. "Someone in there?"
It sounded like he'd already been in the fire, his voice raspy and cracked. "My little brother. I have to get him!"
"What floor?" Buck demanded.
A shaky finger pointed to the highest floor, number four, just as a window on three exploded.
* * * * *
Vin wanted to throw up. By the time he got to the boarding house, his legs were throbbing, his chest tight. He stared at the boarding house, smoke coming out of three windows on the second floor. He saw Mrs. Johnson and stumbled over.
"Mrs. Johnson! Mrs. Johnson!"
"Good lord, look at that!" the matron exclaimed to someone next to her. "I thought for sure I be meeting my maker ahead of schedule! I—what is it—oh, it's you. Vincent."
"Ethan. Have you seen my little brother?" Vin grabbed her sleeve.
Mrs. Johnson frowned. "Now you know I don't watch him until one." She turned back to whoever she was talking to. "I watch over his little brother for dollar a—What, what! Stop that!" She slapped Vin's hands off her sleeve.
"Did you see him come out? Did you see anyone carry him out?" Vin pleaded but Mrs. Johnson only stared perplexed at him.
"I'm sure those firemen would have taken him out when he called for help. I'm an old woman. You can't expect—"
"Ezra!" Vin shouted. He ignored Mrs. Johnson's sputtering. He ignored Mr. Rowe's glowers as he elbowed past him to look at every little face peering out from between the adults.
The faces were all wrong. They stared back at him blankly, hands clinging to their parents' hands, some staring at the fire in awe.
His heart pounded, his ears were going thud, thud, thud as every face he searched wasn't the right one. Vin twisted around as people cried out, pointing and he saw a shadow block out the sun then fell to the streets.
Men gasped. Women covered their faces. Children cried.
The crowd parted as he elbowed past people, bolting towards the building the moment he was free from the crowds. His feet throbbed as he pounded across the street. An arm came up around his mid-section and his air came out in a whoosh as he jerked to a stop.
"Whoa! Where do you think you're going?"
"Let me go!" Vin wheezed. His eyes stayed on the door. Every fireman came out empty handed.
"Now, I know it must be all interesting, but you can watch it behind the—"
"No! No!" Vin shoved. Surprised, whoever was holding him staggered and Vin ran. His eyes teared from the smoke, he coughed as his left foot touched the first step.
Before Vin can get to the next step, he was knocked off his feet. He landed hard on his butt. He growled, he thrashed but the arms around his middle wouldn't let go.
"Get off me! Get off!" Vin howled. Why were they stopping him? Why wouldn't they let him up there?
"Enough! You're not—"
"Hey, aren't you— Where's your brother?"
A hard grip on his shoulders spun him around.
"Someone in there?"
Snot dribbled down his nose. His eyes wouldn't stop tearing. His throat barely worked. "My little brother," Vin choked. He told Ezra to hide in the closet. They practiced all morning. Vin hiccupped. "He's still up there! I have to get him!"
"What floor?" The angry growl above him seemed to finally understand why Vin needed to go in, but he didn't release him.
Vin couldn't understand why it was so hard to tell his arm to move, but he did, pointing to the fourth floor, all the way up there.
"I have to go! He's still in there! No one got him out!"
"Easy, son, we'll get him out—"
Vin shook his head. He didn't care he was screaming now. "I told him to only come out to me! I have to get him! I have to—"
Vin froze. He twisted away from the strong grip and stared across the street. He hastily wiped at his eyes with a sleeve and squinted at the crowd.
Something burst inside Vin when a small boy wiggled out from the crowd and stood on the street.
"Hey." Someone behind him sighed in relief. "There he is."
Vin broke into a run. He could feel his chest getting tighter and tighter like a great big giant hand scooped him up and started to squeeze him. He skidded to a stop and dropped to his knees.
Ezra blinked wordlessly back at him. Gatey was hugged to his chest. The rucksack, still stuffed fat with their important things, was barely hanging off Ezra's skinny shoulders.
"You…" Vin found himself stammering. "You didn't hide in the closet."
Ezra cringed. He half-ducked behind Gatey's stitched smile and peered up at him from behind the soft green head.
His little brother, quiet as a shadow, didn't hide in the closet. No one had run past their room, not knowing Ezra was in there. He wasn't hiding in the closet while the building burned, waiting for Vin to come home.
With a yank, Vin pulled Ezra to him. Squashed between them, Gatey squeaked.
There was a faint smell of wet wood when Vin buried his face into the soft strands of Ezra's sunny head. He choked, the stench should have been enough to make him pull away but Vin just grabbed him tighter.
Within Vin's hold, Ezra shivered. Fingers curled into the gap his shirt buttons made.
"It's okay," Vin chanted. He couldn't let go. That stretched feeling in his chest sprung loose and now he felt tired, like he could sleep for a week.
Above him, the sunlight shifted. Vin reluctantly lifted his head and found the sheriff looking down at them both.
"Boys," the sheriff rumbled. He folded his thick arms across his chest. The mustache on his face wiggled downward. "I think we need to talk."
* * * * *
It was like London all over again.
Nathan steeled himself as another stretcher arrived in the clinic. The lobby reeked of smoke and wet wood. Doctor Harper was preparing to go with one victim with more serious injuries to the hospital in Denver. The man had arrived screaming in agony, his burned arms gnarled and mottled against his chest.
"Put him over there," Nathan instructed the newest arrival. He nodded curtly to a familiar face. Fire brought out volunteer medics from all over.
"You can place her in that room. Ruth will see her. Put him—no, hold up. Put him in the van with the other. George and Doc Harper are already taking one to Denver." There wasn't much they could do for Mr. Clark here. Not with that head wound. He felt a twinge. He wished Josiah was here to offer a prayer. Poor Mrs. Clark.
There was a bolt of fear down his back when he heard Buck's hoarse call. He relaxed when he spotted the former sergeant towering over the few wandering in dazed from the fire.
A quick glance around the clinic told him everyone they could help were being taken care of. He met Buck halfway in two long steps. He clasped Buck's extended arm. His fingers glided immediately to his pulse.
"How are you feeling?" Nathan asked even as he steered Buck toward Doc Harper's personal office. It had the only bed left. "How long were you in the fire? Any coughing? You ate a lot of smoke?"
"Nathan, hold up," Buck complained. He halted by the doorway. "Why you always think I got in trouble?"
Nathan pivoted around and folded his arms. "France," he said flatly.
Buck bristled. Even his damn mustache curled up indignantly. "Now, Nate, that's not fair. How was I to know she was—" He paused, held up a finger gesturing to Nathan to wait, and reached out from beyond the doorway.
To Nathan's surprise, a lanky teenager crowned with light hair shuffled into the office with a child balanced in his arms. He glanced questioningly at Buck, who grinned back smugly.
"I'm fine," Buck declared. "But I was wondering if you could check on his friend here?" He reached over and gave the young man a gentle push toward Nathan.
Nathan offered the wary face a smile. "What's your name?"
The face screwed up in thought. Behind him, Buck cleared his throat, and the boy replied grudgingly with a low, "Vin."
"Hi, Vin," Nathan returned. He made a point not to look at Buck and kept his eyes on Vin, who took great care to set his ward down on the examination bed. Nathan's smile broadened when he got a good look at the child when he finally peeled his face away from Vin's shoulder.
Green eyes glanced about the room through a mop of sunny bangs with interest before landing on Nathan. There was a burst of joy across the young face. The child straightened as if to reach for him when those same eyes widened a beat later. The boy shrank back.
A lump settled in Nathan's throat. Hell, he was used to that. He cleared his throat.
"I uh…I uh could get Ruth in here or Dorothy if you want."
Vin was hunched over the clinging child, a hand rubbing his back as he murmured.
"It's not Mister. No, no…" Vin glanced up. His mouth twisted. "He didn't mean that. He thought you looked like a friend of ours." He whispered something more to the boy. A green eye popped up to look at Nathan and a tiny fist uncurled to wiggle its fingers at him.
"Sorry," Vin offered. "He didn't mean anything by it, Doctor…"
Nathan took a deep breath and smiled the best he could. "Just Nathan Jackson. Not a doctor."
"Next best thing to one," Buck chimed in. "Four Corners isn't big enough for a hospital. Doc Harper comes to this clinic every other day, but Nate here was the best army medic in the whole squadron." He thumped Nathan soundly on the back. "We're lucky to have him."
Too bad not everyone here agreed, Nathan thought, but he bit back his response as he shrugged modestly. He adjusted his stethoscope and approached the child who was now looking at him curiously.
"And what's your name?" Nathan invited. He reached out a loose hand.
The boy shyly stretched his out and shook two of Nathan's fingers.
Nathan's brows knitted. "Does your throat hurt? How long was he breathing in smoke?" he asked Buck. He stooped and brushed a finger on a pale throat. The skin felt cool.
"No burns," he murmured. "Any coughing?"
"Ah," Vin spoke up. "Ethan here don't say much."
"Don't say much?" Buck echoed behind him. Nathan could imagine him arching an eyebrow at the pair. "How much is much?"
Ethan tilted his face up toward Vin who shrugged.
"Not really much." Vin dropped an arm around Ethan's shoulders. "He doesn't like to talk to strangers."
"I'm not a stranger," Buck protested "I'm the sheriff."
Nathan rolled his eyes. It coaxed a tiny smile from Ethan.
"Well," Nathan said brightly, "that's okay. You could just nod or shake your head, all right?"
Ethan blinked up at him before wiggling around a little dusty sack he was carrying. He tugged out the brightest green toy Nathan had ever seen. Ethan hugged the plush creature to him and it let out a long, shattering squeak. A tray dropped outside.
"You could talk to Gatey," Vin offered blandly as he pulled the finger out of his left ear.
"Gatey?" Nathan squinted at the toy. He'd never seen anything like it. The green felt was thick like fur with a short round snout like a dog and a soft yellow belly that looked as bright as some of Widow Potter's meringue pies.
"Short for alligator," Vin added.
Buck scratched the back of his head under his cap. "Looks more like a crocodile to me."
Apparently both Gatey and Ethan disagreed.
"All right." Buck held up his hands in surrender. "Nate, I just want to have a talk here with Vin for a moment; we'll be outsid—Whoa! Catch him!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan saw Ethan stiffening, eyes huge and panicked. He squirmed closer to the edge, inches from a three foot drop.
Before Nathan could lunge toward the toddler, a bony elbow glanced off his shoulder as Vin pushed past him and caught Ethan, carefully setting the child on his feet. He met Nathan's gaze with a grimace.
"Sorry. He doesn't like people picking him up without asking first." Vin ruffled Ethan's hair, snickering quietly when Ethan retaliated with a whack of Gatey to his hip.
"I'll be right back," Vin said loudly, keeping his eyes on Buck. "You wait for me here."
"We'll be here," Nathan promised.
Vin ignored him. He straightened up, back straight, shoulders tight, and followed Buck out.
Ethan tottered over and leaned out the doorway to peer down the hallway where Vin had disappeared.
"Well," Nathan said cheerfully. "Guess it's just you and me then."
Bright green eyes turned toward him, then wordlessly went back to stare after Vin. Gatey, nestled in the small embrace, quietly and mournfully squeaked.
Nathan rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. Hoo boy.
* * * * *
"Vincent Simpson, huh?"
Burying down the urge to wince, Vin stood as tall as he could.
The sheriff was squinting at the birth certificate in his hands. Ezra had only taken the rucksack. It was stuffed their papers, the roll of money, the locker key, Gatey and the velvet sachet Vin always kept under his pillow before. Everything else had burned up.
Muttering under his breath, the sheriff tilted it here and there under the light in the empty room at the back of the clinic. Vin swallowed, remembering the rows of beds he'd passed. He'd seen a man all wrapped up in bandages, crying like a baby. Vin couldn't help but stop to stare, his stomach all funny again. A large hand had touched his shoulders and gently steered him into this room.
"Where's your folks?"
"Gone," Vin said as calmly as he could. He dropped his eyes before the sheriff could see the scowl growing on his face.
The sheriff mistook it for grief and sighed. He reached over and patted Vin on the shoulder.
With his head still down, Vin hid the grimace.
"I'm sorry." The sheriff almost sounded like he meant it. "Just you boys now? You got no family anywhere else?"
"Just Ethan," Vin murmured.
"How old is Ethan?"
Vin stared at the back of the birth certificate the officer was studying. "Four," he said cautiously.
Sheriff Wilmington cocked an eyebrow at him. "Four?" he repeated.
Vin nodded. "He's small for his age. We both are."
"And you're…" Dark eyes squinted at the papers. "And you're eighteen?"
Sweat rolled down the back of Vin's neck and into his shirt. "Yes, sir."
A frown was cast his way. "You been leaving your brother alone while you work?"
"I only work in the afternoons," Vin explained. "From one to six. My neighbor watches him then."
"But your neighbor wasn't watching him today?"
Vin swallowed. The corners of his eyes burned and he stared at the sheriff's polished black shoes.
"I was looking for more work this morning," Vin croaked. "It was just today. I thought…just for a few hours. Mr. Royal's office was close by."
"Royal? As in Guy Royal?" the sheriff rumbled.
Vin's brow furrowed when he glanced up, unsure why the sheriff's friendly expression faded.
The sheriff checked the paper in hands and then Vin. "Thought you were already working."
"They raised the rent," Vin explained. "I needed to find a better paying job."
"Son, Guy Royal's ranch is not the place to find it."
Vin scowled openly now. There was no point telling him he'd already turned it down. The know-it-all commanding voice rankled him.
"He offered room and board," Vin challenged.
The sheriff's eyes narrowed. "I just arrested two of his cowhands for rustling."
Vin blinked. "Oh," he managed.
The tall officer scrubbed his jaw and gave out a mighty sigh. He scratched a finger absently across his mustache.
"So you're looking for a job, maybe with room and board?" the sheriff said slowly. He hemmed, nodding to himself.
Vin narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"How you feel about cows?"
* * * * *
While Ezra hugged Gatey, Vin pressed the rucksack to his belly. The locker key now hung off his neck with a bit of box string. The roll of fives and tens that had been slowly shrinking was now split up and hidden in both shoes. Momma's locket was tucked into his jeans' pocket.
A wiggle against his side told him Ezra was leaning over to look out of Vin's window at the trees passing by.
The deputy in the front seat, hadn't stopped talking since they'd left Four Corners. He appeared startled when the sheriff told him Vin and Ethan were alone, even more speechless when told where to take them. Vin wondered if the deputy was talking because they weren't talking, or there really was something to those ghost stories he'd heard kids trade with each other about the Larabee Ranch.
"…And left of there is Nettie Welles' place. No cattle there, but she grows the best fruit this side of the county. Her pies win every year, I hear. Peach is my favorite. What's your favorite pie?" Smacking his lips loudly, the deputy drove with one hand on the steering wheel, the other busy pointing. "And see that fence there? That's the line round the Larabee Ranch. He was my sheriff's former CO—that's commanding officer—and he leases out some patches to farmers. But he—look over there! Horses!"
"Cut it out," Vin grumbled when Ezra climbed over his lap to press his nose on the glass. He kept a hand on Ezra's lower back, the other on a shoulder. He spared a look himself.
The field they drove by was wide and flat and just like the officer exclaimed, there were horses standing around stomping their skinny legs, shaking their heads. The deputy honked his horn and one whinnied.
"He owns all of those?" Vin asked. He poked at Ezra and settled him back down against him.
"Yup. Well, the sheriff and him both do, but some of them horses are already sold. That's what he does—raises good horses everybody wants to buy and some cattle, too!" Vin bit back a yelp when the deputy took his hand off the wheel to spread both arms out. "Huge cows! Big as a house and best beef in the county. Bet you never saw a cow before, huh, Ethan?"
Vin fought the urge to roll his eyes. No, they never saw a single cow. A herd of them, sure, but not one. He smirked over to Ezra. "Only with ketchup and fries, sir."
"You can call me JD! It's short for John Daniel! We'll be seeing a lot of each other. I come by to help out every weekend. We all do!"
We? Vin gulped. "Oh."
"Yup! So just call me JD, Vin—I can call you Vin, right?" The deputy, or JD, as he was insisting, kept right on going. He pointed out some of the dark brown beef cattle and spotted cows. He called them by name, each one more sillier than the next. It made Vin wonder if JD was just making them up.
As the patrol car rolled up the small hill, a building rose against the horizon, climbing higher and higher until it filled the whole windshield. It stood two floors, painted a dark brown that was almost black. One half of the home stood tall with fresh paint, but one side of the home stood stained and worn, giving the ranch a lopsided appearance. Some of the windows on top were even boarded up. There was a burnt tree that stood crooked in front of a porch, leaning against the house like it was too tired. There was a bare patch by the steps where a garden had once thrived. Now, tall, yellowing grass rose and fought to overtake the front steps.
For some reason, JD's voice went a little high pitched. He gave a funny chuckle. "And there you are: Larabee Ranch!"
Ezra slipped his hand into Vin's as he leaned forward to look. Vin, mouth dry, squeezed the small hand in reply.
* * * * *
Boy, the ranch looked taller than the last time.
JD tightened the knot on his tie and brushed a hand down his uniform. He hadn't felt this jittery since asking Mrs. Welles to put down her shotgun so he could ask Casey out to dinner.
Not only was Chris Larabee Buck's former CO, but they were also longtime childhood friends. While JD knew some of Buck's stories were as true as the ones about Charlie drinking so much hooch he began glowing at night, he also knew Captain Chris Larabee was the only one in the entire state who had brought all of his men back alive and killed a whole army of Nazis to boot.
And he wasn't deaf to what the local kids were saying about the reclusive widower. Then again, he didn't believe the ones about Larabee burying ranch hands and tiny critters alive when they piss him off. Buck wouldn't have let that happen, right?
"Are you all right?" Vin Simpson asked, giving him a strange look as he stood by the car.
"Sure, just wanted to fix my uniform. Long drive."
"Uh-huh." The boy eyed the ranch. "I don't think anybody lives here." He pulled his little brother closer to him. Ethan rested his cheek on the older boy's leg.
"Someone lives here," JD assured him. "The house needs fixing, is all."
"I heard the ranch was haunted."
Darn Potter kids were probably running around telling stories again. He'd asked their mother to stop them, but kids can't resist a good tale about the burnt up Larabee house.
"No, it needs fixing, is all," JD assured Vin. He stole a glance toward the house. He thought he saw a shadow flit between the gaps on the boarded up windows upstairs. He gulped.
"Needs a lot of fixing. Sure the sheriff told you the ranch needs a lot of help." JD pointed out the bunkhouse to the house's right. "And there's plenty of room. No one's staying there right now."
Boy, not a question to answer. JD chuckled loudly. "Ranch life is hard. Not everyone suits it."
Vin studied the bunkhouse, the ranch, then JD.
"Look." JD settled a hand on Vin's stiff shoulder. "We go up there, make our greetings, and show him how much he needs to hire you, all right?"
Vin's answer was less than enthusiastic and JD couldn't help but agree.
* * * * *
There was an urge to run.
JD had seen a picture where the mad scientist climbed down the cliff into some caves, looking for Lon Chaney, the Wolf Man. The moment Edelmann set foot in the caves, JD wanted to run as if he was in the caves himself.
As the door edged open after several brisk knocks, JD got that same squirmy feeling again.
Shoot, are you a man or a mouse? JD berated himself. He straightened up.
"Afternoon," JD greeted the figure dressed in black. It was a good thing he'd told Vin and his brother to wait behind, otherwise they'll believe all those darn fool stories.
The shadow said nothing. The door stayed only half open, not wide enough to suggest an invitation. JD caught a glimpse of a pair of eyes cold as a winter sky.
JD began to sweat. Did Buck really mean to leave the boys here?
Checking over his shoulder, JD spotted Vin and his little brother by the barn, peering through the openings at the horses stabled inside. When he turned back, he noticed the silent gaze had noticed them as well. The stare shrank to slits.
"Ah…" JD rubbed the back of his neck. "Sheriff asked me to bring them over. Said to drop them off. I need to g-go back to duty so I'll just let the sheriff know they got here okay. Said he'd call later. I ah…"
The glare narrowed on JD. Gulping, JD could sense the boys approaching the house. He backtracked a step to intercept the pair.
The door slammed shut.
"I don't think he's hiring."
JD grimaced at the skeptical tone. "He is."
Uncommonly old eyes swept over the ranch. "There's work that needs to be done," Vin agreed. He considered the door. "But he didn't look happy to see us."
"He's not happy to see anyone," JD muttered. Sometimes, he didn't get Buck's steadfast loyalty to a man who rather see the back of heads than their faces.
"Nothing." JD took a deep breath. "I can bring you back to town."
Vin dropped a hand over Ethan's head. The toddler tilted his head and rested it on Vin's hip. Ethan snuck an arm around to wrap Vin's leg and yawned.
A smile quirked. "Yeah." JD slipped his hands in his pockets and leaned back on the post that held up the porch. He considered the half mast green eyes blinking at the ant carrying a leaf across the deck. "Suppose it's been a long day. How about I get you boys to another boarding house for the night?"
"Rowe's was the cheapest," murmured Vin. "I checked." He shrugged, appearing old and weary in the oversized flannel shirt Buck had found in Nathan's clinic. He kept pushing up his sleeves before they struck his brother's face.
Watching them, JD blurted, "Listen, I live in an apartment in town. It's small, but it's decent. If you boys want, I mean, for now, we could…"
"No, thank you," Vin said firmly but he offered JD a brief smile. "A job with room and board is fine for us."
"I'm starting to wonder if you'll find it here," JD confessed miserably.
A shrewd gleam came over Vin's eyes. JD paused.
"I'll find it here," Vin vowed. He stroked the top of Ethan's head. "We'll be fine."
JD still hesitated. "I could come back later if you need," he hedged.
The smile never wavered. "We won't. Appreciate it though."
JD stooped, his hands on his knees as he tried to get a good look at Ethan. "It was nice seeing you again, Ethan. Good luck, all right?"
"Say good bye, Ethan."
The child blinked, pulled out his toy and squeezed out an ear-piercing shriek from it.
"Bye," JD managed, the smile on his face lopsided now as he straightened with watery eyes and a stagger.
Vin was polite enough not to laugh in his face. "Afternoon, sir."
There was a short nod to that but nothing else. JD hooked his thumbs into his belt loops and began walking away. They'd be fine. Buck wouldn't have sent them here if he didn't think it was okay. Buck knew what he was doing.
Still, when JD reached his patrol car, he stood there, his elbows resting on top, watching pensively for Vin Simpson to knock on the door.
* * * * *
Chris finally answered the door if only to tell JD to get the hell out. He didn't find JD. He found someone else just as young, just as foolish to be standing there.
If he didn't know better, Chris was pretty sure Buck was somewhere snickering.
"A job?" he repeated. "Buck Wilmington sent you here looking for a job?" He raised an eyebrow at the hopeful employee standing on his porch in textbook parade rest. His black Labrador, Rabbit, merely lifted up its head toward the newcomer, gave him a sniff and went back to sleep. Guard dog, his ass. Yet another thing Buck had suckered him into.
Folding his arms across his chest, Chris suppressed the grimace that wanted to break free because Doc Harper warned him lifting his arms might poke at his cracked ribs. Damn it, they were right, but he didn't lower his arms. He narrowed his eyes.
"Boy, how old are you?"
"Eighteen, sir." The deep, serious tone matched his eyes, but the rest of him still needed to catch up.
"The hell you are," Chris blurted before he could stop himself, before he realized there was a miniature version peering around a knee to look up at him.
It wasn't clear if the teen was reacting to the word "hell" or that Chris had said it in front of someone not old enough to even spell it; the kid frowned, blond eyebrows shadowing eyes with a disapproval that got Chris grumbling out an apology before he realized it.
Chris mentally jerked. He scowled at the boy, who finally had the good sense to look chastened.
"And who's this?" Chris gestured toward the pair of eyes the color of the fields behind the boy. It was a little unnerving to be under such scrutiny from one so young. Doubly unnerving when he found himself staring back at the toddler. Adam had been that age for what felt like only a day before he was suddenly old enough to write his own name, ride his own pony.
He was apparently old enough to be buried beside Sarah, too.
Chris could feel his face contorting before he clenched his jaw, damming all that useless stuff. But whatever managed to show on his face was enough to cause the shadow behind the knee to retreat further until only one eye peeked from between the teen's legs.
The deepening frown on the youth's face was impressive, and vaguely reminded Chris of his drill sergeant.
"Him?" The teen looked down and the frown eased to a crooked smile. "My little brother Ethan." He wiggled his fingers back, but the toddler wouldn't take them. Sighing, the teen faced forward again. He stretched out a hand. "I'm Vin. Vincent...Simpson."
"Uh-huh." Chris took the offered hand and shook it. The grip was surprisingly strong, but the hand was also suspiciously free of calluses. The back of his neck prickled. Chris eyed Vin, then Ethan, and compared him with what was in front of him.
"You two don't look related."
A flicker across Vin's face flattened the polite half-smile. But then he met Chris' eyes and added, "We shared the same stepfather."
Okay, that was impressive. Most would slink back to where they crawled out from by now, cowed by Chris' unmoving expression, but Vin here seemed to have some lead in his spine. And yet when he glanced down at Ethan, who finally emerged from behind him to tentatively grip two of his searching fingers, Vin looked pretty much like he would be just as comfortable playing Cowboys and Indians with the half pint.
"Most people don't bring their little brothers to a job interview."
Vin nodded, conceding to Chris' point. "Sheriff Wilmington said the job would also provide room and board."
"For whomever I hire, if I was hiring." Chris cocked his head toward the round, pale, freckled face studying him. The breeze had ruffled the cornsilk strands on his head. There were enough darker locks though to suggest Ethan's hair wouldn't stay golden forever, not like—
"This isn't a nursery." Pressing down the lump in his throat sharpened his words. Chris cleared his throat. "The sheriff shouldn't have sent you two here." He took a step back to close his door.
"Isn't it about time to feed the horses?"
Chris stopped. He slanted a look at Vin.
Vin shrugged as if it didn't matter to him one way or the other. "Kinda hard to lift a pitchfork with those busted ribs."
Chris pursed his lips. Buck has a big mouth that needed teeth knocked out of it.
"Ethan's no trouble." Vin tugged until the child shuffled forward to pass inspection. "And we both don't eat as much as say one old guy does, so it wouldn't cost you more." He glanced over his shoulder at the stable and barn standing at the end of his fields. "'Sides, horses must be getting hungry." Another lift of the shoulders.
The dull ache in his ribs throbbed its vote. Three times he'd wanted to punch Buck within ten minutes. That had to be some kind of record.
"Sheriff Wilmington," Chris bit out, "talks too much."
"Not as much as his deputy," Vin countered.
Even Chris has to chuckle at that. "No, JD talks enough for the whole da—for the whole town." Chris sighed. He gave Ethan a critical eye. "You gonna fuss if your brother works a while?"
Ethan pressed closer to Vin's leg, his cheek resting on a spot above the teen's knee.
"He don't talk much," Vin offered.
"'Least he'll be quiet," Chris grunted. "Fine, two weeks, but if anything goes wrong—"
"It won't." Vin carefully pushed Ethan toward Chris. "I'll be right back. Promise." He crouched by the boy and gave him instructions quietly in his ear.
Ethan leaned into Vin but was nudged away with a careful hand on his shoulder. Round and green, Ethan's gaze fixed on Vin and whatever he has to say. After a bit, the boy nodded solemnly and hugged a tiny rucksack to him. Chris could have sworn he heard a muffled squeak. But before he could investigate, Vin rose to his feet. He nodded to Chris as he rolled up his sleeves. He stopped a few steps from his porch and looked back over his shoulder.
"I'll even milk your cow tomorrow. Done it before." Apparently feeling braver, Vin's eyebrow arched. "Doubt she'll kick me." He turned back and continued his way.
Chris glowered at Vincent's back. That damn Buck. He caught Ethan staring up at him.
"What?" Chris grumbled. "I had cold hands that day. She didn't like that."
Ethan nodded again, but Chris suspected the toddler was really laughing. Chris cast his eyes toward the heavens as Ethan went inside to explore.
Rabbit, intrigued by their new guests, jumped up and followed.
Chris scowled in Vincent's direction, at his house, then down to his still strapped chest. He didn't know what the hell Buck was thinking. He didn't care. Two weeks was all the help he needed, then they'll be gone and he'll be left alone again just like he wanted.
* * * * *
When it didn't sound like the horses were kicking up a storm or young Vin Simpson was tearing out of the stables, hollering, Chris figured he was fine and his animals weren't going to chew his head off. Chris watched by the porch, his jaw working as a distant figure exited his barn with a bale of hay gripped firmly by its wire with both hands and staggered to the stables. The kid was pulling the bales one at a time which meant it'd take him all day working on his own, but that was his business, not Chris'. Vin Simpson could blame Buck for getting him into this.
The fact that it was quiet behind him raised the hair on the back of his neck. Even Rabbit, who usually found even a mite to bark at, was silent. Chris didn't like silence. Hell, he spent the last forty-four months trying to break the silence with whiskey, bourbon, whatever he could get his hands on that Buck hadn't squirreled away.
Chris did a sharp turn on his heels and strode into his house. He stopped at the entrance to his living room.
Standing by the armrest of his couch, face half hidden was Ethan Simpson. One hand was on the sofa, the other clutching a furry-looking thing, green as the new spring grass on his pastures with with plastic pieces for eyes, shiny like blue gems.
Rabbit, at the other end of the sofa, stared back at the child. It sat hunched forward on its ass, watching the child like a cat stalking a mouse hole. Its tail laid flat on the floor, the wag gone.
"You two gonna be a while?" Chris asked skeptically. He absently curled a hand to his left side, bracing the particularly sore side as he contemplated the pair. "I want to get back to my book."
The boy peered up at Chris with only one visible eye. Then it drifted back down to his mutt.
Chris grunted and carefully dropped down into his wing back chair instead. He rolled up the blanket, wadded it, and tossed it on one end of the sofa. He eased back in his chair, retrieved the book he'd been trying to read since last week, and glared at the dog-eared page.
In front of him, to his left and right, Chris could hear nothing. But he could sense the measuring stares being exchanged at knee level. He didn't put his book down. Sooner or later, they would both leave.
When his telephone jangled minutes later, boy and dog were still across enemy lines, neither stirring as Chris levered off the chair to pick up the phone.
"You get up here so I can kill you," Chris said bluntly into it.
"Guess that means those two got there all right," Buck cheerfully replied. "Thought maybe you'd strung them up or something."
Gnashing his teeth, Chris gripped the receiver tighter. "Damn it, Buck, I'd never said anything about hiring any hand and certainly not a…kid!" He checked over his shoulder. The two were still judging each other from the safe distance of his sofa. "Unless you believe that bull about him being eighteen."
"Now, Chris. I really don't want to talk about it over the phone…"
"Why the hell not? Sure as hell didn't want to talk to me in person."
"You know what Nathan told ya! No heavy lifting for another month, and I sure as hell can't get up there more than once a week—"
"I've been fine so far," Chris cut him off.
"Now that's even worst bull than what that Simpson boy's been telling everybody. Fall's about here, Chris! None of the haying's finished, the calves haven't been weaned yet, and Nettie Welles said old Stewart's been running the horses for you. And I know how you hate his way of letting the horses run the bit."
Chris set his jaw. "I'd been busy with something else."
"You haven't been upstairs, have ya?" Suddenly, Buck's jovial tone dropped. "Damn it, Larabee. You're not old enough to be a crotchety fool yet! You go busting more ribs and—"
"I haven't been upstairs," Chris snarled. The reminder that he hasn't even been able to climb those steps sharpened his tongue. He heard a clatter behind him, but he ignored it as he glared at the phone. "But if I did, it wouldn't be any of your damn business!"
"Chris," Buck said, sobering, "they were living alone in the Rowe house. Everything they have burnt up."
Sucking in his breath, Chris bit out a "So?"
"So?" echoed Buck. "They haven't got a place to stay!"
"There's Wilkes' boarding house. And that new one on Pear you told me about."
"Aw hell, Chris. Wilkes is a wind short from total collapse, and the one on Pear charges twice as much."
"This isn't a home for wayward children."
"Just for a couple of weeks," Buck cajoled. "The rest of the year? Just 'til we figure something out."
"I gave them two weeks."
"Two weeks? Chris, have a hear—"
The phone clattered down over the receiver. He rubbed a hand over the side of his ribs again, chest heaving.
God damn, interfering Buck. He should have just let Chris lay down with Sarah and Adam in peace.
The tiny footfall was nearly lost in the harsh breathing. Chris glanced over and caught two pairs of eyes peering at him from behind the doorway. Apparently, there was a boy and canine ceasefire.
Chris matched their looks with a silent one of his own.
Finally, Rabbit sneezed. Ethan beamed at the dog. Apparently, the boy decided he was the victor. He turned his smile toward Chris but it dropped at Chris' expression. Ethan tilted his head, gaze round and glued to Chris and for a brief moment, Chris was tempted to simply walk away. He folded his arms, kept his glower at the boy, hoping the child would get the hint soon and leave him be.
A loud nasal bellow cut the silence. Chris blinked and Ethan grinned toothily at him, that green whatever it was dangled within his hold.
Before Chris could say anything though, the boy shot off, Rabbit eagerly at his heels. A beat later, Rabbit was skidding across his wood floors with its tail between its legs, trying to escape the frenzied squeaking and honking object Ethan held in his hands.
"You break anything, it's coming out of your brother's pay!" Chris shouted after the pair. Unsurprisingly, he didn't get an answer.
Chris scrubbed his face with a palm and made a face, glowering darkly at the doorway they disappeared through.
"Cheater," he muttered as he tried to return to his book.
* * * * *
He'd forgotten how much work it was.
Vin cautiously tapped a fist on his aching shoulder. He wondered if this was what it was going to be like when he got old; he wasn't looking forward to turning thirty.
The chestnut in the middle pen nickered when Vin walked by it. He paused and hung his arms over its gate.
"Hi," Vin murmured as its head butt against his left hand. "Sorry about the wait. Bet Mr. Larabee usually feeds you earlier."
There was a snort in another stable, a black horse with a white left sock chewing noisily into its feed trough.
"You all be good," Vin said out loud. "I need this job. Two weeks is all I got but it'll be enough to figure out what to do next."
A horse somewhere in the back neighed, another responded. Vin hoped that meant they were answering him.
He rapped on the chestnut's gate and headed back to the house.
Up close, the house wasn't too bad, Vin supposed as his shoes crunched on the grass brittle from the cooling weather. The two story house still looked lopsided with one half of it painted, the other half all dirty and stuff, but the porch that lined the entire front of the house was new, raw wood left unpainted that made the front of the house almost welcoming. There was a rocker chair at the end of the deck, a couple of slat benches nailed in, and rails that stood to Vin's hip bordered the porch. The perfect height to sit there and put your feet up on top of the rail, should Mr. Larabee feel like it. Vin figured if given enough time, the house could look nice.
But nice houses didn't always mean the people inside were nice.
Vin picked up the pace, then almost tripped on a gopher hole in the field. By the time he reached the house, he was panting. He stood there, one hand on the doorway, one hand wiping the sweat off his brow. He listened, but it was quiet in the house. No yelling, nothing breaking, just quiet.
His breathing slowed.
Straightening up, Vin finger combed his hair and tried not to look as tired as he felt. He scrubbed his face dry with a sleeve. He kept one ear out as he smoothed out his shirt and pants. Vin paused, his fist up to knock when he noticed the door was left partially open. He knocked anyway; grownups didn't normally like surprises.
When no one bothered to tell him to come in, Vin figured he'd already done what politeness asked for and stepped into the house.
The main area by the doorway reminded him of the foyer back home, only instead of marble and fancy rugs and ugly paintings, the floor were planks of honey-colored wood that marched left and right into the other rooms.
There was plenty of light; boxy glass shades hung every few feet on the wall made the space feel like candles were all around him. The wallpaper was a light blue with tan stripes, capped with white carved borders on top before the ceiling began, and on the bottom before the floor started. Moldings, Vin recalled Maude telling him once. He never understood that, though; they didn't look like they were rotting or nothing.
Vin scratched his head. From what he'd seen of Chris Larabee, he'd expected the house to be painted all in black just like his clothes, maybe have a coffin around somewhere to sleep like that Count Dracula picture he saw once. Scared the willies out of Ezra. Maude had scolded Vin that night for letting him watch that on the television. Said they needed to watch stuff with culture, whatever that meant.
There was a long, flat bench along the wall by the doorway with a bunch of boots that were cracked at the toes and dusty. Half a log with wooden pegs sticking out was above it. A heavy canvas jacket hung off it, big muddy green work gloves next to it.
An unpainted staircase stood between the crossroads of the rooms on both sides and the front door. It looked new, the wood blonde, the edges sharp as if they just came off the mill. Even the banister that followed the steps along the wall appeared raw. Vin tentatively brushed a hand over it and looked at his fingers. No sawdust.
There was a faint smell of smoke, of wet wood that tickled his nose when he peered up the stairs. There were no lights like this floor had; it led to shadows above him, like there was nothing but a big hole waiting up there. He could hear the wind outside rattling upstairs, maybe through the boarded up windows. Things creaked and groaned up there in that dark nothing.
Goosebumps pricked down his back. Vin gulped and stepped back from the staircase. He glanced uneasily to his left but it looked like a bunch of shelves with books. He stepped right, to find another room filled with a couch, a fireplace and again, more bookshelves.
A big leather couch sat in the center of a large room, facing a window, its back to a red brick fireplace. Vin could see the kitchen beyond that and a narrow door behind the standing fireplace that possibly led to a closet.
In an armchair facing the couch sat Chris Larabee. Reading. Sort of.
Ezra was on one end of the couch to Larabee's right, Gatey held tight to him, both he and the alligator intently watching a sleek black dog on the opposite end.
Ignoring them both, or trying to, Larabee had a book held up, but Vin caught a narrowed blue eye darting between them, ducking behind the book seconds later.
"Horses've been fed," Vin declared. His voice was particularly loud in the room. The dog twitched. Ezra jumped up, clapped his hands once then spotted Vin. Gatey squawked once, the dog took off for some reason, and Ezra looked torn between chasing after the dog or running up to Vin. Vin won and was rewarded with a hug around his knees.
"I also cleaned up the tools hanging in the barn," Vin added as he ran fingers over Ezra's head. He relaxed when he felt nothing, just that old bumpy scar that wouldn't go away. "I saw a ditch running up the fields. Did you want me to finish that?"
Larabee grunted. He finally put down the book on a table that stood as tall and thin as Ezra. He twisted around in his seat and squinted at the window even though there was a fancy grandfather clock ticking between the living room and the entryway.
"Getting dark." Larabee turned to Vin and it took a lot not to squirm. It felt like Larabee was trying to poke him with a knife with that glare. His unsmiling mouth thinned further.
"You can start on it tomorrow. Sun up."
Sun up? Vin bit back a groan. He nodded. "Yes, sir." His urge to scowl at Larabee faded when Ezra poked his leg and held up his rucksack. When Vin peeked inside, he gulped. There were two apples and a tin of sardines inside along with their other stuff now.
"What?" Larabee sounded irritated, like Vin had interrupted him reading the book still face down on the end table.
"Nothing," Vin muttered. It didn't look like that grouch would miss it anyway. He looked up and started when he saw Ezra creep up to the couch to look at the book. Using Gatey's snout, Ezra flipped the book over and it fell shut.
"Ethan!" hissed Vin.
At Vin's cry, Ezra jumped back guiltily, cringing when Larabee twisted around and saw his book shut, his saved place gone. Larabee should have used a bookmark, Vin thought, even as he was finding himself stuttering for the first time.
"Sorry, Ethan was just looking."
The gaze flicked to Ezra. Ezra flipped the book to where he thought the page was and put it back on the table. Suddenly, Larabee's expression wasn't as mean looking anymore.
"S'okay," muttered Larabee. He picked up the book and flipped through it, the pages blurring until Larabee stopped at another point. His eyes were slits as they reviewed the pages before he folded a corner and tossed the book back onto the armchair.
"Ethan." Vin gestured to Ezra. "Get over here!" They needed to get to the bunkhouse before Larabee discovered his pantry was a few apples and sardines short. He gripped Ezra's hand as soon as Ezra hurried over. "Ah, guess I'll see you at—"
"Know where you're sleeping?" Larabee spoke up suddenly.
Vin eyed the long couch. He noticed the pillow and blanket wadded up at one end. He lifted an eyebrow. Did Larabee sleep here? He supposed it was better than upstairs. It looked creepy.
"There's a bunkhouse a short walk from here," Larabee nodded towards a direction that more pointed to the window. "You seen it?" At Vin's nod, he turned to study Ezra. "Don't have a little bed for him. Bunkhouse just has bunks."
Vin's hand curled tighter around Ezra, who shuffled closer to Vin. "That's okay. Ezra sleeps with me."
"We've slept smaller." Vin's mouth snapped shut. Why'd he say a dumb thing like that?
"I'll bet." Larabee rose to his feet carefully, like a tall tree in the dark. His boots chimed as he came closer.
Spurs, Vin realized, like a real cowboy.
"Come on," Larabee muttered, walking around Vin as he headed out the door.
The door creaked shut behind him before Vin glared down at Ezra.
"Ezra!" Vin whispered. He shook the tiny sack.
Ezra stared blankly up at him, at the rucksack. He held up Gatey. Uh-huh.
"Bad alligator," muttered Vin as he tucked Gatey under his arm. He hurried Ezra out the door before Larabee changed his mind.
* * * * *
He'd almost forgotten about the bunkhouse.
It had burned down completely the first time, when the fire had jumped from the house and landed on its roof. The old ranch hands who hadn't gone to war, had been in town for Christmas.
No one had been in the bunkhouse.
The ranch house survived partially, half-gutted with blackened pikes on a hill when half the town and the fire brigade finally arrived.
But it hadn't been empty.
Chris halted in his tracks. Buck had rebuilt the bunkhouse when they'd returned. He drove to town, got the lumber, the nails, and with Nathan and Josiah, dug out the line for the cursed thing farther away from the remains of Chris' life. With a grim, deeply carved face, Buck had built each bed, put up the lights, and installed the pipes with his bare hands.
No one had touched the ranch house. No one dared.
The bunkhouse was made of thick planks of oak, built long and narrow like a train car, and as sturdy as one. Buck had foolishly paid for glass and made plenty of windows all around the structure. He'd painted it deep blue like a storm-swollen night sky.
It still smelled new, like Buck had slapped on the paint only yesterday. Chris couldn't even remember when Buck had brought the glass.
The footsteps crunching behind him told him Vin Simpson and his charge had arrived.
"There's running water," Chris said curtly as he shoved a key into the door. By some miracle, it actually opened. "The kitchen's not lined up for gas yet, but there's a wood burning stove." They were only there for two weeks, no point in bringing in a gas line. "There's firewood behind the main house."
Behind him, Vin said nothing. Chris caught his reflection off a window as Vin bent down, murmuring "Up?" before hoisting Ethan in his arms.
When Chris entered the bunkhouse, he grimaced.
"No light bulb." Chris nodded jerkily at the new kerosene lamps lined up by the door, under a window. He watched Vin set his brother down. The child promptly trotted down the length of the place, all three bunks worth, and poked his head into the bathroom at the end of the room.
"Walls just been plastered." When, Chris wasn't sure. "Beds are new. Wasn't time to get anything else." He scowled to himself. Why the hell was he making excuses?
"It's nice," Vin told him, carefully as if he'd encountered a plate of mushy Brussels sprouts but was too polite not to eat it. "I think—Hey…" The teenager broke into a chuckle when Ethan collided into his legs, both hands up to show him something, beaming like he found gold.
Chris's mouth twitched at the corner. Children that age find treasure in the smallest things.
Vin Simpson stooped down and studied the snowy white brick with a smile that didn't mock Ethan. He even seemed to be just as excited.
"What cha find? Soap, huh?" Vin watched Ethan run back to the bathroom with it. His eyes flicked over to Chris; he cleared his throat.
"Uh…my brother likes to find things. He…" Standing taller, Vin met Chris square in the eye. "There were some apples and sardines in my bag. I think my brother found them too."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "You mean stole them?"
The boy hesitated. Chris caught a brief flare in his eyes, ire that tamped down quickly when he glanced back at his little brother. Fumbling into a rucksack barely bigger than Vin's head, the Simpson boy pulled out a couple of dollars. "I can pay for them. My brother didn't mean to—"
"Forget it." Chris pivoted sharply on his heel and left.
Behind him, he heard Ethan's toy chirping like a deranged canary, Vin trying to hush it but failing because he was laughing too hard at whatever Ethan did.
Chris set his jaw and set his sights on his house. Two apples and sardines, a bunkhouse, and lamps qualify as room and board, he decided as he walked away.
* * * * *
Gatey grew as tall as the bunkhouse.
Well, his shadow did.
Vin snickered as he watched Ezra staring up at the wall, eyes getting bigger and bigger as Gatey's shadow grew the closer Vin pulled the toy to the kerosene lamp. He pretended to make Gatey's shadow peck Ezra, who dove under all the blankets and pillows Vin had pulled from the beds. Ezra poked his head out from his hiding place and Gatey's shadow would dance around the wall until Ezra ducked again.
Not wanting to give Ezra nightmares, Vin cut it out and tossed Gatey onto the bed. It landed on top of Ezra's blanket mountain with a honk and was rescued from falling down to the floor when Ezra caught him.
"Ezra," Vin bade.
Ezra's head popped out and he climbed down from the bed to the other one where Vin sat. He stood there, hands on Vin's knees, face tilted up, questioning.
"Were you okay today?" Vin asked as he brushed a palm over Ezra's hair, all clean and soft from his bath. "Was Mr. Larabee nice?"
Ezra seemed to think about it before he shrugged, looking oddly adult doing it. He clasped his hands over his mouth. His cheeks puffed out and little eyebrows furrowed.
Vin chuckled. "He don't talk much, huh?"
Better than yelling and screaming, he supposed. "Think you'll be okay staying here tomorrow?" At Ezra's pout, Vin sighed. He leaned forward and gathered his brother closer. "Don't know if he's all right with you staying in his house. I won't be far away though. I'll keep checking on you all day."
A finger pointed at the door, then at the space under the bed.
Vin's throat shrank like he'd swallowed something too big.
"No more hiding," Vin said hoarsely. He dropped his chin on top of Ezra's head. "If someone knocks on the door, only open it if it's someone you know, like me or the sheriff we met today. All right?" Vin leaned back to study Ezra. "No more hiding in the closet."
Ezra nodded, relaxing, the anxiousness in his eyes easing. He plucked at Vin's sleeve as he fidgeted closer.
"You did good today," Vin murmured as he rubbed Ezra's back. "I bet the fire was real scary."
There was a sniffle. Vin's eyes burned.
"You got out. You saved all our important papers and Gatey and Momma's locket." Vin choked. "I'm sorry I left you there all by yourself."
There was a quiver up and down Ezra's back. Vin kept a hand on his back, but it wouldn't go away.
"You did real good today," whispered Vin as finally, at last, Ezra's shoulders began to shake. When the thin arms wormed around his neck, Vin slid from the bed to sit on the floor and let Ezra crawl onto his lap. Once Ezra exhausted all his silent tears, Vin lifted him back on the bed, placed Gatey carefully into his arms, and tucked the blankets around him. Vin sat next to him in the bunk, blankets around his shoulders. He watched the last of the kerosene flicker out before he fell asleep as well.
* * * * *
The boy was nothing but hardworking at least.
When Chris woke, he rose from his couch in time to see Vin Simpson through his window, shovel perched on a shoulder, entering the barn to go out back to the watering ditch Chris had been forced to abandon after that damn cow had decided she didn't want Chris' hands on her.
By the time Chris made himself breakfast, Vin was setting down the full milk jugs outside the barn. Damn cow was cooperating today.
Rabbit stood on his hind legs, whining low in its throat as it watched Vin. He didn't even try to steal one of Chris' fried eggs.
As Chris chewed, his eyes wandered to the bunkhouse. He squinted. There was a tiny head peering out the window looking at the barn. When he stepped out onto the porch, a small hand waved. Chris saw Vin wave back.
Rabbit's toenails clicked on the wood as he came out, snaked around the side of the house to water the weeds before returning. The mutt dropped on its haunches and panted quietly next to Chris as it watched Vin, then the boy in the bunkhouse window.
Chris used the last of his egg to clean the yolk off his plate. He opened his mouth, fork inches away when he glanced down at Rabbit's sorrowful brown gaze. He scowled, dropping his fork back onto his plate. He set the plate on the bench but to his surprise, Rabbit didn't go for it. Instead, the dog sniffed at it then looked back at Chris almost chidingly.
"They have food," Chris told it. "Two apples and a can of sardines. That new friend of yours stole it, remember?"
Rabbit chuffed, still staring unblinkingly at Chris.
"Probably stole a lot more. I should check," Chris muttered. "I'm already paying him…" Wait, how much was he paying him? Chris's face darkened. Bet good ol' Buck left that up to him. God damn son of a…Chris raised his glower to who he blamed for this mess of trouble. Vin was nowhere in sight and when he checked the bunkhouse, he jerked.
There was no boy in the window.
The boy's young, still a baby, Chris thought. Boys get bored easily. Hell, Adam easily wanted to be a fireman then a cowboy within minutes.
Chris checked again. No boy. He checked his pocket watch for the time. It was the only thing that had survived the fire, survived sitting in ash until Chris found it clawing the wreckage where the kitchen had once stood. It had stopped working, at 9:15, Christmas day, five days before Sarah would be able to welcome her husband and his men home.
His hand shook as it cradled the battered silver watch. Just look at the time. It's only a watch. It didn't matter it used to be in their master bedroom. It didn't matter that it was found in the kitchen instead, like Sarah must have held it every day while looking out her kitchen window.
The first bunkhouse window was just empty as the rest of them. Chris' brow knitted. There was no gas. Only the refrigerator worked. There was no television or radio, and that strange lumpy toy couldn't always be that interesting.
The bunk beds.
Chris scowled as he thought of the top bed as high as his shoulders. All those ladders. What little boy wouldn't like to climb?
The cover over the pocket watch snapped shut as Chris stepped off the porch.
* * * * *
One of the calves wouldn't leave him alone.
As Vin stomped a foot on top of the spade to force it deeper into the muck, a black spotted calf came over to the fence and bawled in his ear. It took a lot of arm flailing and grownup swearing ('least no one was around to hear him) before he righted himself. He glowered at the dopey-eyed cow but it only bleated back.
"You're not helping," Vin told it as he studied the ditch. He figured it was as good as it was going to get. There were a bunch of shovels on the side, all dried and caked with old mud. He wondered what'd happened to those people.
"You got any bodies buried in your meadow there?" Vin joked weakly. The calf just looked at him stupid. "'Cause it would be nice to know if he's gonna bury me someplace nice."
"Did you have a spot in mind?"
For a moment, Vin thought the calf answered, but it kept on chewing and re-chewing its grass. The shadow that stretched past his own told him the dumb heifer wasn't doing the talking.
Slowly turning, Vin was ready to apologize or something—whatever old people like to hear—but froze when he saw Ezra standing next to Larabee.
"Ez—" Vin stopped himself. "Ethan? Thought I told you to stay inside?"
"I brought him out." Larabee looked and sounded like hovering thunder.
Vin glanced at Ezra. Larabee didn't expect Ezra to help, did he?
"We'll be in the main house."
"Huh?" There was a moment when Vin couldn't match the words coming out of the rancher's mouth. He felt like the calf behind him and just stared.
An eyebrow arched in response. "Your brother and I will be in the ranch house over there." He paused, glancing at Ezra. "Getting breakfast."
"Oh." Vin was still trying to get his words working.
"Come in when you're ready." Larabee grunted. "Job comes with the room and board. Suppose we should talk about that."
The eyebrow went higher. "Too early in the morning for you?"
Finally shaking out the clouds, Vin got his mouth working right. "No, sir. I'll be in real soon."
There was another grunt, which Vin supposed meant "Okay." As Larabee turned toward the house, Ezra waved Gatey goodbye at Vin before running to catch up even though Larabee only took three steps before stopping.
"Since it's only you two. I took down the bunk bed ladders. Stored them in the shed behind the bunkhouse."
Vin frowned as Larabee started walking away again. When he and Ezra disappeared behind the barn, Vin turned to the calf.
"What just happened?"
The animal mooed and lumbered away.
"Thanks a bunch!" Vin shouted at it. He wiped a sleeve across his brow and looked over to the house. He set his jaw, climbed out of the ditch, and hurried to the building.
* * * * *
The boy was hiding on the top bunk.
It looked like Ethan was playing some fool game of hide and seek with his toy. Chris arrived to see the bottom of the boy's shoe trying to find the top rung of the ladder in order to climb down. Before Chris could grab him, the child found his footing and got down easily enough, but the pounding in Chris' chest didn't ease.
It was more practical, Chris thought as he went into the kitchen, to keep the boy where he could see him. He suspected Vin was going to constantly check on his little brother, wasting his paid hours instead of doing the chores that needed doing.
Rabbit materialized from somewhere, snout speckled with egg yolk as it came up to Ezra to give the boy a big, curious sniff. It fled when the toy in Ethan's hands squawked.
"Stop scaring the dog," Chris told Ethan. He pointed to the small dining table. "You can eat breakfast with your brother there."
Bacon and eggs was the easiest things to make, just slice, crack, and fry. Chris saw no point in making flapjacks and oatmeal and toast. He learned from three years of rations that getting to eat was as unpredictable as dying. Both can happen any time; best to be done with it quick.
The sizzle in his skillet brought Rabbit back. Chris pushed the inquisitive snout away as it nudged Chris's thigh, trying to get closer to the gas stove. Grumbling, Chris shook his spatula at it.
"You already had some. Go away," growled Chris. Rabbit whined. Damn mutt was worst than Buck in taking orders. "Rabbit…"
Out of nowhere, a high-pitched whistle rang out. Rabbit yelped, skidded briefly on the floor, and scrammed.
Chris glanced over to Ethan, who held his toy out with both hands.
"He's not going to be scared of that thing forever," Chris warned.
Green eyes blinked back at him.
Chris shook his head. Who was he kidding? Rabbit was still scared of twigs.
The salty smell of eggs and bacon told Chris it was done. He slid everything onto a plate, grabbed another, and turned towards the dining table. He'd gone only a few steps when he heard a thump. He found Ethan standing behind his chair now, trying to hide behind a bunch of sticks even skinnier than him.
The huge pale eyes held him back.
Chris froze, still holding breakfast, wondering why the hell the boy looked at him like he was about to hurl fire and brimstone at him. He took a step closer; the boy flinched.
"Okay," Chris murmured, holding still. "But the food's gonna get cold."
The boy shrank back, desperately trying to hide behind the chair.
The quiet words came from behind, but Chris didn't turn around. He kept his gaze on Ethan, even as Vin took the plates from his hands, set them on the table and approached Ethan, crooning in a soft voice. Chris couldn't hear the words, but he heard Ethan's toy whimper, felt a punch in his gut when the child buried his face into Vin's throat.
"Do you have another plate?"
Chris shook out of his stupor. Vin didn't look at him, remained hunched over his little brother, stroking his back, keeping his voice low.
"Nothing round." Vin brushed two fingers over the top of Ethan's head. "Maybe something square?"
"I have a butter server," Chris followed Vin's lead and kept his voice low. He couldn't tear his eyes away from Ethan, who'd covered his face completely with the plush doll now. "It's small. Rectangle. That good?" At the slight nod, Chris forced himself to take a step to his cabinets and find the faded blue striped butter dish he hadn't been able to bring himself to use until now. He passed it to Vin's outstretched hand. Before Chris could say anything, Rabbit barked, followed by the knocking on his door.
He wordlessly left the kitchen, trying not to think anything of Vin coaxing Ethan to look up at the butter plate.
* * * * *
When Chris opened the door, he looked, he growled, he made a fist.
The rail broke loose when Buck tumbled back into it. He fell through and landed on what remained of Sarah's Victory Garden. The duffel he carried with him dropped to the ground next to him.
Shaking his fist, Chris sighed. He thought punching Buck would make him feel better. It didn't. He could hear Vin Simpson coaxing Ethan to look up and it rankled. He didn't know why. It just did, and he decided it was Buck's fault.
Buck had one leg sprawled on the front steps, the other tangled in the yellow stalks of what used to be Sarah's sunflowers. They only grew into withered stalks now, dead flowers on dead earth. Chris had expanded the porch to sit over them, but still, they found a way to grow along the edges of the porch.
"You know," Buck drawled. He didn't bother to get up, lying on the ground like he was floating in their childhood swimming hole again. "I could arrest you for assaulting an officer." He cupped his chin and rocked it from side to side.
A quick flick at Buck's clothes, and Chris grunted. "You're not in uniform, sheriff."
"Hell, you know I don't wear my uniform on my day off, Chris." Buck squinted up at him. "You do know today's Saturday, right?"
Chris folded his arms in front of him, refusing to let the surprise show on his face.
Gingerly, Buck struggled to his feet, hands waving at Chris. "Now, now, Larabee, before you get yourself worked up—"
"When are you going to quit sticking your nose into my business?"
"You needed hel—don't look like that, it's true. There's only so many weeks left of fall before winter rolls in, you know that. I can't do it all—"
"Never asked you to do any of it," Chris ground out.
Buck stopped. His trim mustache twitched like it was the only thing holding him back. "That Simpson boy looked like he has a good head on those shoulders. Figured he would be some help."
Behind him, Rabbit slinked past toward the kitchen. Chris could hear Vin still talking low, like a honey bee buzzing vaguely near his ear. He wondered if Ethan had looked up yet; he wondered why it bothered him to think about it at all.
Buck was talking all calm like, unintentionally imitating Vin. "…nothing left in that boarding house except the clothing off their backs and they're all alone. I figured—"
"You figured wrong," Chris cut him off flatly. "When's it going to get through that thick skull of yours I want to be left alone?"
Buck's eyes hardened and that temper he prided on being able to rein in flared. "So you'd rather all of your and Sarah's hard work die with them, huh?" It appeared, for the moment, Buck was going to hurl the duffel at Chris like a grenade. "You're gonna waste those four years Sarah ran this ranch by herself so you had a home to come back to?"
His jaw clenched so tight, Chris' right eye twitched from the strain. "I came back to graves, Buck."
And there it was: that brief flash of pain Chris had seen back when Buck had driven him to Denver, stayed with him at the hospital as they waited (prayed) for one of his family to wake up, only to have them both slip away without ever knowing Chris came home.
But this time, instead of backing down, Buck took the two steps with one stride until he stood toe to toe with Chris. "Sarah ran this ranch by the skin of her teeth; refused every offer to buy this place. She had herself, old Stewart, and a handful of ranch hands grayer than herself keeping this place alive for you." Teeth clenched, eyes darkened almost to black. "You telling me you don't give a damn if this all goes, Larabee?" Buck gestured at the ranch. "That why you refuse to let us tear this down? That why you're rebuilding it back exactly how it was with your god damn bare hands?"
Buck straightened completely, brushing down the red flannel jacket he'd thrown over his shirt and an old pair of cargo pants from their Army years he couldn't give up. He slapped his hat over his thigh, beating the dust off before dropping it on his head. He grabbed his old beat up duffel, plump like a green sausage and slung it over his shoulder.
"You gonna let us help you keep this damn ranch or not?" A stubborn set of blue eyes skewered him, briefly reminding Chris of why he made Buck his second-in-command after Brest. Bastard didn't know then when to stay down, crawling under the rubble to drag Chris out after a Fallschirmjäger shot him in the back.
"You crazy son-of-a-bitch, you gonna let me save you or not?"
Chris remembered Nathan skidding to his knees next to him, Buck hollering louder than the artillery shelling, Josiah telling their allies in French they needed to fall back.
Sarah had come to him that day like a vision as he lay dying. She'd cried as she stroked his face, mouthed the words Buck was yelling in his ear.
"Chris?" Buck looked worn now, older as he stood on his porch, one foot in the door, waiting for his orders.
Chris stared hard at the distant barn. He could hear the weather vane on top creaking as it changed directions. Winds were picking up. Soon it'd be too cold for his stock to graze.
"Boy was finishing up that ditch by the pastures," Chris bit out. "Calves need to be weaned."
"Boy has a name, Chris."
His jaw set. "Show him where the pens are."
"Two weeks, Buck." The words tumbled out harsh and Chris could hear Buck's sharp intake. "Two weeks is all the extra help I need. Stewart's nephew is coming in from Chicago, looking for work. He'll help Stewart until winter's over."
"Two weeks? Why can't they just—"
Buck audibly sagged next to him. "Fine. Two weeks. I just don't know what they'll do after. Maybe Mrs. Potter could hire Vin. Maybe Jane at the Gem Hotel on Pear would reconsider the price. Maybe…" He sighed.
It was a lot of maybes, Chris silently agreed with Buck. But it wasn't his concern. He was tired, whipped from worrying about everyone else, defending a people who didn't defend his wife and child. His molars slid against each other as he clamped his mouth shut. He ignored Buck as he stormed back into the house.
* * * * *
Chris Larabee, you're a particular kind of bastard, Buck thought darkly as he tugged on Mae's calf to pull her away. Chris had said nothing when he went into the kitchen. Tight-lipped, even when the two brothers looked up from the dining table. Man didn't even offer the boys proper dinnerware; Ethan was eating off the butter tray, of all things.
Mae's calf bawled, knotty knees wobbled as they fought to stay tucked under Mae and her swollen udders. Mae shifted, rear butting against Buck as he tried to stand between Mae and its babe.
God damn it, Chris. Should have been done weeks ago…
Vin picked up real quick what Buck needed. He fashioned a rope for the caramel-colored babe and pulled while Buck patted its hind quarters until the young cow left the smaller fenced pasture and went into a pen in the barn. Mae mooed, her baby bleated in reply from the distance, but Mae's two other calves were weaned the same way last summer, so her only response to the fuss was low and serene.
"Calves have to learn to eat solid food," Buck told Vin. The boy stared at the calf as it paced the pen, looking for a way out. It ignored the grass and feed mix Buck poured into its bucket. "Can't be feeding on mother's milk forever, eh?"
"I suppose." Doubtful, Vin reached down to pet an ear. The calf let out a high-pitched call, skittered away from Vin's hand, cried again, and danced back to Vin's hand, jumping each time Vin tried to touch him.
Buck resisted sighing. Poor little fella.
"He'll get used to you soon enough," Buck assured when Vin withdrew his hand with a guilty look when the calf stumbled back in fright and banged into the side of its pen. Buck wiped the sweat off his chin with his shoulder. "We teach them to get used to people. Pretty soon, you can't beat them off with a stick."
"I'm only here two weeks," Vin reminded him.
Buck grunted. We'll see about that. "Listen, Vin, don't pay Chris no mind. He just…"
"Don't want us here." Vin's mouth was set as he scattered more hay and feed into the trough. The calf ignored it as it stuck its snout between the pen's planks. "I know. I'm not stupid."
"Didn't say you were." The other pens opened after a few good kicks. Buck grunted as he inspected one of the hinges. Hm, needed oil for sure. 'Least the dairy calves had already been weaned. "Chris…he's just missing his family." At the calf's squeaky baying, Buck nodded toward him. "He doesn't say as much about it, but he's no different than that fella over there."
Vin shrugged, his eyes averted. "I guess."
"Grownups don't always say what they feel." Buck slapped his chest and grinned. "Not me though. You want to know what I think? Just ask ol' Buck Wilmington."
Acute blue eyes, clear as water, sharp as glass peered up at him.
The smirk on Vin's face bordered on insubordinate. "So you're saying you're not a grownup then?"
Buck growled and pitched some straw at him. The boy snickered. It was good to hear some sort of laugh. It felt like no one had laughed on these grounds for a very long time.
* * * * *
Chris sat there slumped on the couch, one hand cupping his left side that hadn't stopped aching since he threw that punch.
Far away, he could see Buck gesturing wildly at Vin, probably sharing some exaggerated war story; better not be the one about the rat, his boot, and a few drunk soldiers. lest he'd have to sock Buck in the jaw again.
Breakfast was strange when he'd returned to the house. Ethan ate his eggs and a glass of milk like nothing had happened, but Chris caught him anxiously tracking his brother's whereabouts. What would have happened when Vin left them alone was never discovered because Buck flipped his bag inside out and emptied everything inside over the toddler's head. Apparently, the church in town had a drive for the displaced folks of the Rowe boarding house, and Buck's lady friends collected anything they thought two boys might need. Right now, sitting under the window in a nest of shirts still too big for the child, Ethan was making little piles that made no sense at all.
In the distance, a calf mournfully cried. Then another.
Chris grimaced. Even with the windows shut, the calves in their pens sound like lost children as they ignored the grass and cried for milk. One particularly long call crawled up his back and settled on his chest. Damn cows sounded far too human for his liking. Never had bothered him before. Nowadays, hammering or the thwack of lumber stacking on top of each other would drown them out, and in the beginning of the season, they did. Unless he was in the barn. Brown's baby bull mooed high and long like a child, startling Chris so abruptly his dairy cow had taken offense and knocked him clear across the barn. Chris laid hurting in the straw, hearing Adam cry for his father, until Buck found him feverish and shivering the next day.
The rest of the calves were left alone after that.
Another bayed faintly, joining the plaintive choir. Chris caught Ethan looking up from a box of broken crayons he'd found. Thin eyebrows furrowed, and Ethan stood tippy-toe to peer over the bottom of the window. Of course, there was nothing to see.
"Calves in the barn," Chris told him although he doubted Ethan understood—he had reservations about Vin's claims Ethan was four. "They're missing their mothers." He paused, studying Ethan's face highlighted by the sunlight through the window. Vin said they shared the same stepfather, but said nothing about their mothers. Chris watched Ethan rest his chin on top of the toy he always carried. Mother could be dead, Chris decided. He couldn't imagine a mother voluntarily leave a child behind.
Combined, the calves wailed, and the sound carried across the field.
Chris grimaced. God damn, he hated that noise. He used to poke fun at Sarah when she would shed a tear in the kitchen after hearing them bawl for hours. Mother's instinct, she'd joked.
But when the cries renewed, Chris absently wondered if it applied to fathers as well.
"They'll stop soon," Chris told the child now squished in the space between the window and his wing back chair. "They're just hungry for milk, but they'll stop sooner or later."
When Ethan wouldn't look at him, almost completely hidden now in that cramped alcove, Chris cautiously made his way over to his armchair with the book he was reading; only there were so many dog-eared pages, he'd forgotten where he was. When Ethan didn't react, Chris sat down. From his seat, he could see the back of Ethan's head, cornsilk hair with streaks of brown, a peek of a small ear.
Chris leaned back into his chair. He stared at the couch in front of him, the tanned hides he'd stretched over the furniture like he done with the first set years ago. He'd kept it wide like before, long enough for a husband and wife to stretch out in front of a fire. Though, he'd turned the couch around this time.
A distant moo, young and high sounded impossibly tearful. Ethan squirmed.
"S'all right," murmured Chris. "They're missing their mothers." He paused. "Guess you're missing your mother, too."
There was a sniffle.
"Nothing wrong with that," Chris went on, eyes upfront, his book heavy on his lap. "Don't matter how old a person gets, you'll miss your mother." He could still taste salt and sand on his tongue, his ears ringing with the dying cries for a mother as he crawled with the rest of his platoon up Omaha Beach, toward the barbed wire and trenches. Bleeding and scared, crying for their mothers, like penned young cattle; both confused and hurting, not understanding why they were there in the first place.
Chris abruptly shot to his feet.
"I'm getting a book." Something told Chris to take care to keep his voice low. "In the other room." He stepped over the piles on the floor—wasn't his mess to clean—and steered for his den. He felt a grim sense of accomplishment when he heard hesitant footsteps following.
* * * * *
By the time Vin was done with corralling all the calves to be weaned and helped the sheriff with the feed for the horses, he was surprised to realize it was only time for lunch. He slouched against the stable wall when he thought Wilmington wasn't looking. He looked down at his hands and made a face at the blister at the heel of his left hand.
It was a big ranch. Not as big as the one back home, but back home there'd been servants and lines of bunkhouses full of mean-eyed cowboys who marched out every morning to get everything done. Sometimes, they'd let Vin come with them; they'd been amused that their boss' stepson would rather be chasing strays than going to some fancy school learning his arithmetic.
There's no arithmetic or geography here. Vin straightened and gulped back a groan. Ranch hands worked all day, all week. He'd just have to cope. No one was going to hire him if he tuckered out now. Two weeks, no, less than that now, and Vin will probably have to go knocking on Guy Royal's door. Maybe Ms. Recillos would hire him again.
"Ready for some chow?" A pair of thick work gloves dropped onto Vin's shoulder. Wilmington pulled his own off and tucked them in his back pocket. Vin lifted the pair off his shoulder. They were too big for him, but still a good well-worn, floppy pair of work gloves.
"Thanks." They were dry inside but surprisingly warm and comfortable, even against the blister on his hand.
Wilmington dismissed his thanks with a wave as he tilted his head down to catch water out of the pump outside the barn. He shook his head like a big dog, spraying Vin. He offered a grin full of teeth. "Keep it. You need a good pair of gloves on a ranch, especially come winter."
Vin furrowed his brow. "It's September."
Fists on his hips, Wilmington surveyed his surroundings. "Yup. Yup, it is that. A pretty September, too."
Vin bit back the urge to roll his eyes. "Winter's two months away."
Licking his thumb, Wilmington stuck it out to catch the growing breeze. "Could be right about that, Vin."
Vin huffed under his breath. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a reddish-coated horse shaking its long head as it stamped its hooves on its stable floor. Vin agreed.
"Come on, Inez heard about the fire. Said she was sorry to hear and made some food for you all." Wilmington paused before adding, "Appears she was a bit confused though. Could've sworn you mentioned a father working in Denver."
Slowing in his tracks, Vin pretended to inspect the gloves. He followed the sheriff toward the house. He made a face when he heard the predictable sigh.
"You know you can trust me."
"Yes, sir," muttered Vin as he curled his hands inside the gloves. They were good gloves. Probably expensive, too. He calculated what was left in Ezra's tiny rucksack to pay the sheriff for them. Nothing was ever free.
"You two in some kind of trouble?"
Now wasn't that just like an adult to assume you're in trouble, Vin thought bitterly. Never mind the sheriff was right in this case; being an officer of the law, trouble must be a natural first thought.
"I only want to help, Vin."
Vin scoffed before he could stop himself. He halted when Wilmington stopped abruptly. Vin barely missed running into him. He stared at the man, keeping his face as plain and boring as possible like Maude suggested. Be like they think you are and they'll never catch you in a lie.
It was easier than he thought to play stupid. Most grownups seem happier to be the smarter one.
The sheriff, however, narrowed his eyes at Vin, like when he'd been picking out pairs in the herd, weighing and sorting in his head who to separate first.
Vin bit the inside of his cheek to keep from making any kind of face, his gaze just above the narrowed deep blue eyes. He thought how his shoulders wanted to be as straight as a ruler, but he kept pushing that back. Don't stare, but don't look away either.
Abruptly, Wilmington's face changed, mouth stretching to a smile, his mustache doubling it.
Vin blinked. Huh?
"Come on." A hearty slap nearly tipped Vin over. "Let's see what Inez cooked up for us."
* * * * *
It was that Rose Pole thing again.
Vin spooned some more chicken chunks onto Ezra's little plate while he watched Larabee glowering at Wilmington; Wilmington took turns pretending not to notice and scowling at Ezra's dish.
People, Vin decided, get stranger the older they get.
Vin found Ezra stacking a bunch of fancy bound books into a tall tower in the den left of the entryway, Larabee reading a book he pulled off the shelf. He seemed to pay no mind to Ezra as Gatey climbed the books to the top of the mountain before Geronimo-ing off it with a tied up shirt Wilmington had shaken out of his duffel.
"So, boys, how do you like the ranch so far?" Wilmington said, loudly to make up for Larabee saying nothing at all. Crowded around a small dining table that was barely large enough for two, much less four, Ms. Recillos' food took up the entire table.
"It's nice," Vin offered as he spooned some rice and nudged it toward Ezra. He refused as usual, and shoved Gatey forward to eat it instead.
"Come on," sighed Vin. He wiped Gatey's white-speckled snout and glared half-heartedly at Ezra. It wasn't like Larabee would make him fries. He prodded the spoon Ezra's way again, and now it went all over Gatey's belly.
"Your brother a fussy eater?" Not looking up, Larabee forked a mound of rice dripping with gravy into his mouth. Hunched over his plate, Larabee raised only his eyes when he spoke. "Shouldn't be so picky." He narrowed his stare at Ezra. "You shouldn't be wasting people's food."
Vin glowered as Ezra leaned into him, tentatively scooping up some food and nibbling on it. The little boy looked up, found Larabee still watching, and swallowed the whole spoonful with a little gulp. Then another.
Larabee grunted and went back to eating.
"Now, now…" Wilmington made a show of sniffing his spoonful of rice. "It does smell a little strange."
"Better not let her hear you say that," Vin warned, smirking. He was startled to see a tiny smile on Larabee in response, but when he blinked, it was gone.
"Oh, Inez knows I love anything her pretty hands make." Wilmington's eyebrows went up and down. He leaned toward Ezra, his voice dropping. "Ms. Recillos is sweet on me."
Larabee surprised everyone with a snort, but didn't look up from his eating.
Wilmington shot him a glare. He cleared his throat, stroked his mustache. "All right, I'll admit there are a few bumps in the road to our great romance…"
"More like the Sierras," Larabee muttered.
Now it was Vin's turn to snort.
The sheriff ignored them both as he cupped his mouth with a hand and loudly whispered to Ezra, "But I'm wearing her down, see? She's got a soft spot for me, seeing she cooked and all."
There was a tiny tug on Vin's sleeve. He looked down at Ezra's perplexed frown. Vin shrugged. "I thought so, too."
"What?" There was rice on Wilmington's mustache.
Even Larabee paused to look up.
Vin studied his plate real careful, pushing down his grin. "Could've sworn Ms. Recillos made it for us."
As the sheriff sputtered, Vin was surprised to hear Larabee grunt out what almost sounded like a laugh.
* * * * *
At the Simpson boy's yawn, Chris looked up from his book. The teen stood at the living room door way looking like Buck had thrown him in a ditch rather than helping him dig one. Vin brushed back his sweaty bangs from his face and gestured Ethan to follow him.
Buck cut in. "Wait. Where you going?"
"Back to the bunkhouse?" Vin stared at Buck blankly. "There's more need to be done?"
Buck did some crazy hand gesturing toward Vin, then, Chris then back to Vin again. Ethan stopped whatever he was doing—unclear what good rolling up shirts were for—to stare at the spectacle Buck was making.
"What about dinner?" Buck nodded at Chris, which gave him an uneasy feeling in his gut. "Chris was about to make burgers."
"He is?" Vin asked.
He was? Chris glared over the top of his book.
"Part of room and board." Buck seemed immune to the daggers Chris was throwing his way. "He makes really good burgers."
It was unclear if Vin's wary look at Chris was because he doubted there was a meal involved or Chris' skill with some chopped beef. Didn't matter. He wasn't doing it. Chris opened his mouth when he caught Ethan trying to stuff a jar of pickles into one of the rolled up shirts. Vin tried to stop him, pulling out the crusty end of the bread loaf he'd left out before from another shirt. He'd thought that damn mutt ate it.
Buck cleared his voice.
Chris unclenched his jaw. "Part of room and board," he muttered. He ignored the stunned look on Simpson's face and levered out of his chair.
* * * * *
The jar of pickles found its way back into his pantry by the time dinner was ready.
Chris pretended he didn't see Vin wagging a finger at his little brother before giving the boy a hug shortly after. He stayed in the kitchen. Let Buck make a fool of himself as he held up each shirt against Ethan, each one bigger than the one before. Only a third of the pile was useful in the end. The only things Ethan seemed to want were the broken up crayons and a couple of picture books missing a few pages.
"Now that's the darnedest thing I ever saw," Buck mused out loud from the living room. Out of the corner of his eye, Chris spied Buck holding up the plush toy against one of the wall sconces. Ethan appeared anxious, his hands on Buck's knee, staring wide-eyed as his toy was held over his head.
Vin rescued it with a swift catch and tossed it to Ethan, who caught it so tight, the toy yelped.
"Ethan's mother gave it to him. Think she had it made."
Chris paused, one burger mid-flip in his frying pan.
"Say, real nice." Buck whistled. "Talented woman."
Vin chuckled awkwardly. "No, she didn't make it. I think Maude had it made."
An eyebrow arched. Chris had caught a glimpse of the toy before. The seams looked small. Machine stitched, the felt was thick and lush like fur from its round canine snout all the way to its short, plump tail. Sitting up like an alert dog, its front paws curled out as if to give the child a hug whenever he wanted one, thick black yarn stitched to give it a permanent, gentle smile.
The thing reeked of money; someone paid a lot to have it made. The pieces of glass used for the eyes even had black dots painted behind to give it pupils. He heard something rattle within the toy, probably the squeaker box.
"Maude? Your mother's name is Maude Simpson, huh?" Buck crooned to Ethan. Interestingly enough, Vin said nothing. "So what she's like?" The couch creaked as he leaned forward. "She pretty?"
Chris frowned at the continued silence. He checked the doorway into the living room and caught a glimpse of a small fist sneaking around to clutch Vin's pants. Chris scowled. Buck just didn't know when to quit sometimes.
"Food's ready." The pan made a loud clang on the counter when he set it down, cutting Buck off. Chris returned Buck's glare with one of his own. Whatever was the boys' business was their own. He pointedly turned away and set the plates. After a brief moment of hesitation, he swapped out one for the butter tray.
* * * * *
"And for you, my sweet baby boy…"
He watched Maude tucked the toy into Ezra's arms, to show him it was meant to be held, not tossed. Ezra was still at the age, Maude once sighed, where things given to him were immediately thrown, not held on tight.
"Look what Mother gave you." He pushed the toy closer to Ezra, who blinked and flung the toy at him.
"F'y! Hee hee!" Ezra clapped and covered his eyes when he picked up the toy and brought it closer to Ezra. "Pee key boo!"
"Ezra." Maude pulled Ezra to her lap. Ezra tugged at the many folds of her silver dress someone had delivered to her yesterday in a box. "Oh, baby boy." She bent her head and kissed his cheek. She dabbed her eyes with a pretty lacey handkerchief.
His stomach was doing a strange tumbling and rolling. "Are you okay?"
"Hm?" Maude smiled like it never happened. She tilted her head. "Vincent. My handsome young man, come here." She pressed a small red velveteen bag in his hands. She watched him loosen the thin gold rope that cinched it shut. His eyes bulged when a spider web thin chain poured out, a small heart shape pendant inside. It sparkled like the North Star Gramps once pointed out.
"Momma…" He cleared his throat. "This was my momma's but…he said he buried her with it."
"He didn't," Maude said bluntly in a hard tone he never heard before. Ezra, on her lap, squirmed and began to cry. Maude hefted him higher, and crooned until the tears dried. She looked back at Vin seriously.
"You keep that safe, Vincent. Don't let him see it." Maude patted Ezra's face dry with her square piece of lace. "Every boy should have something to remember his mother by."
He curled his hand over the locket.
"You're…you're not sick, are you?" he asked, his throat all funny. Momma got sick real fast.
"No, but your stepfather may have a more diabolical fate designed for me."
Maude shook her head. She tsked when she realized Ezra had grabbed a fist of her golden hair out of the pinned up hairdo arranged neat around her face like sunlight.
"Naughty, Ezra," Maude scolded as she pulled him away. She smiled when Vin stepped forward to take Ezra. "Thank you, Vincent." She picked up the toy and brushed it against Ezra's cheek. The baby cooed and pressed his face on its belly.
"Keep this with you, darling boy," Maude crooned. "Keep it close like your mother."
His belly felt all sick like he had too many sweets. He didn't know why Maude was talking like that. Momma talked like that, every night in her sickbed, until she couldn't talk no more and left him to go into Heaven.
He coughed to interrupt. "Is it an alligator or a crocodile?" He felt it brush by him when Ezra shifted it to rub it on his face.
"Alligator, of course!" It was funny how Maude got offended about the strangest things. "They are magnificent creatures down South, not like those vile crocodiles lurking in mud pits in Africa and…"
Even annoyed, Maude's voice still sounded like she was singing as she went on about the difference. He smiled. Maude never yelled even when she was mad. When she got all nice and sweet, then he knew he was in trouble.
"Can you say 'alligator'?" he said to Ezra. It was keen the way Ezra would look at someone like he knew what was being said.
"Gah!" Ezra squealed.
"Alligator," he said slowly. His chest did all sorts of jumping and squirming.
Ezra screwed up his face. "Gate?"
He grinned at Maude. She stared at Ezra, amazed. Her eyes softened and got all misty-eyed again.
"You are going to be a fine brother, Vincent Tanner," she murmured, saying his given name like it was important and stuff. Only Momma and Gramps ever said that, but he couldn't hear them say it up in Heaven.
"Promise me you'll always be Ezra's brother." Maude stroked Ezra's cheek and there she was looking like she was far away again.
Vin blinked. "But I am his brother."
Her laugh always sounds like bells. "Yes you are, sir."
"You're…" He gulped. He fumbled to feel the locket in his fingers."You're really not sick?"
Maude looked at him with a small smile, like it was too hard to try for a bigger one. "No, not sick. I may have just underestimated my mark this time."
He wasn't sure who Mark was, but it didn't sound good. He grabbed onto her earlier words. "So you're not sick? You're not gonna leave?"
"I will endeavor not to." Maude exhaled shakily and her smile popped up big and happy again. "Now, how about we play a new game today?"
He sighed in relief. "No more memorizing words?"
"We'll improve your vocabulary another day."
"Swell." Vin settled Ezra on his lap. He jostled his knee and made horsey sounds.
Ezra squealed."Again!" he demanded, high-pitched.
"Not now," chided Maude. "New game." She held up the funniest coat he'd ever seen. Bells were stitched all over it. The coat jingled as she hung it over one of Mrs. Deacon's sewing mannequins. Then, she plucked Momma's necklace out of his hand and dropped it into the coat's inside pocket.
"Now Vincent, try to get the locket back."
He arched an eyebrow at her. "That's it?"
Maude's smile broadened and her voice became as sweet as one of Lawson's cherry sodas."Without sounding those bells."
The bed was moving. Vin's eyes flew open. He yelped.
Vin wondered if this was one of those earthquakes Maude once told him about they had in San Francisco. He scrambled out of bed, only to find out it was Ezra jumping on it.
Gatey squealed as Ezra wiggled away from Vin's fingers, climbing down the bunk bed in time to scamper for the door when someone knocked.
"Ezra!" Vin barked just as his little brother opened the door.
Ezra froze, the door opened a couple of inches to reveal Chris Larabee's stony face.
"Sorry. He, uh…" Vin staggered to his feet. Did he miss sun up? He glanced at the window. No. The sky's only started to wake up, too.
"My brother's not supposed to open the door by himself. I'll be right there after—"
"Breakfast." Larabee nodded behind him. "We eat before we check the fences." He left, not waiting for Vin's gaping mouth to work again.
Baffled, Vin stared blankly at Larabee's back until it got too small to see. Vin slowly turned his head toward Ezra, who was looking all wide-eyed and "Who me?" back at him.
"What did I say about the door?" Vin held up his fingers like he was the Frankenstein monster. "Come here, you."
By the time Vin caught his little brother, that funny, twisty feeling in his gut from the dream was completely forgotten.
* * * * *
God damn it.
Buck sighed when he hung up the telephone receiver. He could feel Chris' scowl on the side of his face from all the way in the kitchen.
His face felt cracked and numb when he scrubbed a hand over it.
"Couple of Carson's heifers got out of his pasture and into Stuart James'." Buck's upper lip curled up. "Looks like one of his fences were knocked down."
"Carson probably didn't like that," Chris said, some of his dislike for Royal leaked through. "Been any trouble?"
Buck glanced over to the kitchen. He could see Vin and his brother finishing up the buttered rolls and eggs. He nodded brusquely to Chris. He crossed the room in three steps.
"Carson?" Chris asked almost under his breath.
"Nathan said Doc Harper's with him right now." Buck wanted to hit something. "Doesn't think driving him up to a Denver hospital is gonna do anything for him."
Chris' eyes narrowed. "Who shot him?"
Buck checked past Chris' shoulder again before replying. "Stuart's nephew Lucas." He shook his head. "JD and Charlie took him in, but man said Carson was trespassing."
"Probably just went to get his stock," Chris muttered.
Nodding, Buck slapped his hat on his thigh. "Nadine called his wife. She's up in Denver. I gotta go get her from the bus station." He ran his thumb over his mustache. "I can be back here in a few hours to show Vin the fences…"
"Forget it. Stay with Carson's wife. I'll check the fences."
"Now, you know what Nathan said. You shouldn't be—"
"I'll go with Vin and Ethan."
Buck's eyebrows shot up. "Both of them?"
"You expect me to leave the boy alone?" Chris, as usual, didn't wait for Buck's answer and headed back to the kitchen.
Buck stood there, dumbfounded. He looked around uneasily but Chris was right. Carson needed his wife more than Chris needed Buck here to play peacemaker.
"So ah…I'm going," called out Buck. He backtracked gingerly as if Chris' living room was filled with landmines. "Guess I'll be off now. See you later."
Faintly, Ethan's toy squeaked goodbye.
* * * * *
This was almost…nice.
Vin watched Ezra chase Larabee's black Labrador across the knee high grass, Gatey squawking after the hound like a nest of riled canaries.
Farther up ahead, Larabee was walking slowly, one hand rubbing his left side. It didn't look like he realizes he was doing it, the other hand lightly punching the top of the posts, testing their strength.
Walking behind him, Vin was in charge of the map of Larabee's property, marking off checked spots. Larabee drove them by car, a beat-up, dark green half-ton 1940 Ford pickup. The side of the door had a faded symbol Vin thought meant it was in the Army or something. They left it on the side of the dirt road that went down the center of Larabee's land. Ezra enjoyed the bouncy ride to the pastures and let Gatey sit on the dash to watch where they were going. Vin almost made engine noises as they went, but that stuff was just what kids do, not eighteen-year-old ranch hands.
Still, it's been a swell ride.
All morning, Larabee spent most of the time silently pointing to spots, having Vin kick a few posts, and writing down notes to give to his other ranch hands who would come in on weekdays to move the herds. Sometimes, he whistled sharply for his dog when it wandered too far away or too close to the clusters of cattle grazing close by. One tweet and both Ezra and Rabbit would come bounding back to them.
Vin took a deep breath. It smelled different from the city, even from home. The sky was much bigger here. It reminded him of the old ranch he lived with Momma and Gramps. All this space and no one complaining he was standing around. No one pushed him aside because he was in the way. No smelly cigars or smoke or perfume or stuff that weren't flowers but smelled like them. There were no one yelling or crying or screaming, no blood, no ambulance sirens or…
When he thought Larabee wasn't looking, Vin scrubbed a sleeve over his eyes. He kept them open, wide as he could and watched Ezra chase a prairie dog with Rabbit. The two collided and the critter dove for a hole.
This was a nice place. The grass felt good under his feet. The beds weren't lumpy. Breakfast sat warm in his stomach all morning, and even Ezra had two whole pieces of toast and an egg today.
Vin dropped his gaze to the map. He should get back to work. Every dollar counted. Hopefully, Larabee was a man of his word like the sheriff promised and will pay him after two weeks. Wilmington promised him the pay would be good; they should have talked about it before. He'll remember to do that for his next job. Ask about the money first.
Gatey got the prairie dog out of its hole, but it startled Rabbit so much, the dog tumbled back and fell on its rump.
Vin snorted and wiped his sleeve under his runny nose. Yes, he'll know better next time.
* * * * *
The sun was on top of Vin's head when Larabee finally spoke. So long since he had, at first Vin thought he'd imagined it.
"Sorry. What did you say?"
Larabee didn't look angry though, almost amused as he repeated, "You know a bit about ranching."
It sounded like there was a question in there so Vin answered it like one. "Lived on a ranch since I could remember."
There was that question not really a question again. Vin didn't care what the sheriff claimed; grownups never say what they want to say.
Vin shrugged, not really feeling like answering that one. He checked the post he'd been kicking only seconds before.
"Looks new." A pat on the wood and Vin added, "Don't understand how it needs to be replaced so soon." He squinted at the lines slashed across it. "Bears?"
Larabee scowled for some reason. "Not bears," he said tersely. "Time for lunch." He whistled for Rabbit. Ezra and dog (and alligator) popped out of the tall grass of the only hill they'd seen so far.
"Lunch time!" Vin called out through his cupped hands. He pointed to the car behind him on the road. He grinned as Ezra bounded back to him, grass in his hair, dog fur on his clothes, dirt on his nose.
"Look at you," Vin couldn't help teasing as he poked Ezra in his belly.
Ezra squirmed away, Gatey bouncing off Vin's head.
"Aren't you hungry? Huh? No? You ate too many mud pies? Did ya?" He blinked at the handkerchief Larabee handed over. He nodded hesitantly, but then Ezra tried to wiggle away so Vin chased him down. He scrubbed the cloth all over Ezra's face, and even though Ezra didn't giggle, Vin could feel the huffing of some in Ezra's chest as Vin wrapped his arms around him.
"Gotcha!" Vin declared gleefully, laughing as he tried to clean Ezra's ears now. Done, Vin handed back the handkerchief to Larabee, who only grunted. But when Vin took the hand Ezra slipped into his grasp, he thought he caught Larabee smiling.
* * * * *
The heat of his car hood warmed by the sun was comfortable against Chris' lower back. He stood there, leaning against it, the two brothers seated in the back, their legs dangling out of open car doors on either side, the bucket Chris packed lunch in sat by his feet.
When Chris bent down to distribute lunch, his side throbbed. He grimaced.
"Your ribs still hurt?"
Chris glanced over and caught Vin studying him with a furrowed brow. He straightened carefully. He tentatively took a deep breath. After a long exhale, he shook his head. But the boy was still frowning.
There was a strange compulsion to reassure Vin. Chris shrugged one shoulder and shunted aside the wince that sparked from that gesture. "I've have worse."
The lines on Vin's brow smoothed out but didn't go away completely. Chris concentrated on his lunch until the young scrutiny slid to his own food.
The silence that settled was a surprisingly comfortable one. Chris didn't feel compelled to talk, to say he was "fine," to hear sympathy and sorrow. Something settled in his gut that hadn't for a long time. The pastures stretched far beyond his sight. The sun was no longer scorching his back. The breeze that twisted around his legs was a subdued swishing sound across the fall brittle grass.
Chris rested against his truck, chewed his food, and absently thought how the sandwiches could use more mustard.
"Did you and the sheriff fight in the war?"
Chris paused, his roast beef sandwich halfway to his mouth. He completed its journey, took a large bite, and swallowed before grunting out a "Yea." He took a drink from a battered canteen he never got around to throwing away. "Most of us did." Not all of them came back.
Looking over, Chris saw Vin peeling his sandwich back and feeding Rabbit scraps of roast beef. Through the car door window, Chris spied Ethan eating just the beef and trying to put the bread in his pockets.
Chris' mouth soured. He stared at his fence instead.
"Your father fought?" Chris asked casually.
"Platoon corporal," Vin said low, like it was a secret. "Died in '41. Got a medal."
Like that made it any better, Chris thought darkly as he tore off another bite.
"You're not going to say 'Sorry'?" Vin didn't sound angry, only curious.
Chris eyed Vin, who shrugged.
"Most people say they're sorry when they hear that." Vin made a face.
"Most people say it because they're glad it didn't happen to them," Chris replied flatly. "Figured you heard it enough." He had.
Out of the corner of his eye, Chris caught Vin nodding to himself, his eyes shadowed in thought. Chris returned to his lunch.
"My momma married our stepfather after that."
"He didn't fight?"
"Flat feet," Vin drawled.
Chris rolled his eyes because it looked like Vin was trying hard not to.
"He a rancher?"
Chris narrowed his eyes at the slip but said nothing. He took a long draught of lukewarm water from his canteen.
"Your stepfather then married Ethan's mother ?" At Vin's startled look, Chris lifted a shoulder. "You said stepfather for both of you."
Vin didn't appear happy Chris had remembered. His young face lined up in a frown, a man-child's expression with eyes old enough to match as he considered how much he wanted to tell Chris.
"Don't have to tell me if you don't want." Chris tossed an apple to Vin. He noted, approving, how quick his reflexes were catching it.
"I don't want to tell."
Chris shrugged. "Then don't."
"There's nothing to tell."
"So you keep saying, Vincent Simpson." Chris ignored the glare he could feel on the side of his head.
"How much more?" Vin asked mulishly. He polished the apple on his shirt, then quietly called Ethan to come over.
Chris tentatively took another breath, as deep as his ribs would allow. The land was starting to smell like the damp insides of a B-52: gasoline, sheet metal, acrid on his tongue. A storm was coming; bad one from the stench of it.
"Maybe half a mile more. Can't do more than that," Chris said. "Storm coming. Might sit on us for a day, maybe two. We bunk down the cattle. Stewart's coming in tomorrow. He'll take care of the stock with the rest of the guys." Chris studied Vin's slouch. "Won't be needing you until the rain lets up."
Interestingly enough, instead of looking relieved, Vin tensed. "Ranch doesn't stop working when the weather gets bad."
"No," agreed Chris. "No, it doesn't. Work tends to double, in fact, but Stewart and I can handle that without you."
"Thought the sheriff said you're not supposed to work for a month."
Chris's mouth pressed thin. "Buck doesn't figure on the weather. Calves need to be kept warm, cows still need to be milked, cattle need to be moved." He gave Vin a squint. "You know some of what to do in a ranch, but not enough to last in a storm, boy."
Bristling, Vin glared at him from his seat. "I'm not a boy."
"Uh-huh." Chris didn't care what a paper says. "How old are you really?"
Vin kept his eyes on Chris. "Eighteen."
The answer curled up the corner of Chris' mouth. "Try again."
Vin faced front and scowled at nothing in particular. "I can do the work."
Chris finished up his sandwich.
"Two weeks of work," Vin went on. "I can do the two weeks."
"I didn't say you couldn't." The sandwich refused to go down easy. "But it should be work you're fitted to do, not what you claim you can do. I don't pay for fools."
Refusing to give up—Chris long stopped considering that as an admirable trait in the war—Vin kept trying. "If not outside, maybe inside? I could help with upstairs—"
"You do not go upstairs." His response cracked out before Vin could finish. With a pang, he realized both brothers jumped.
"Second floor's off limits," Chris ground out. "You want to continue with your chores tomorrow, fine. But stay out of the upstairs."
Startled, Vin mutely nodded. Chris set his jaw and looked away.
Silence fell between them that Chris knew was partially his fault, but he didn't feel the inclination to fix it. If the boy wanted to continue the pretense, fine. Chris watched Ethan tentatively crawl across the seat to stand next to Vin. Ethan took a small crunchy bite of apple when Vin leaned the apple toward him. He watched Vin filled a tin cup and give it to Ethan.
"You treat him good," Chris observed.
Vin stared at him like he was three kinds of stupid. "He's my brother."
Sarah wanted a big family; Chris had wanted angels who looked just like his Sarah. Adam wouldn't have been alone. In fact, he would have liked Vi—
The pang in his chest wasn't from his ribs this time. He screwed up his face to be something else and went back to his food.
"Thought you only shared a stepfather."
Vin peeled the thick crust off his bread and chewed it slowly like it was cud. "Don't mean he's not family."
The band around his chest constricted. Chris could only nod.
"He's all I got left."
The whisper was almost lost in the breeze that was starting to pick up. Chris cleaned his hands on his shirt. "Family's important," he said, his voice not far from a croak. "Come on, we got one more stretch to go."
Chris walked away from the unspoken echo he heard in Vin's voice.
"He's all I got left." I'm all alone.
* * * * *
Vin peeled the cool towel off his face and glanced down at Ezra. His little brother stood between his knees, hands on his lap, face tilted up at him anxiously. When he checked the window, he knew why; the sun had still been halfway in the dreary sky when he'd told Larabee he was washing up first in the bunkhouse. He'd sat down on the bed while Ezra took his bath, and now the crown just poked above the cloudy horizon.
"Long nap." His yawn stretched his throat and it only made the inside of it itch more. He dropped the towel on Ezra's head. The toddler jumped and unsuccessfully tried to work his way out of the wet thing until Vin took pity and pulled it off.
"Sorry," chuckled Vin as he stood up. He grimaced. It didn't even feel like he took a nap at all. It'd started raining as they were finishing up the last stretch of fence and had kept on raining for three whole days.
Bad weather once meant no school, sitting at home, curled under the radio and listening to Ripley talk about the strange and weird things around them, or what caper Archie Andrews fumbled into next. Rain then meant their cook Mrs. Martin made him warm milk and chewy oatmeal molasses cookies. Later, when Maude and Ezra came to stay, Mrs. Martin learned to make chess pie and peanut butter cookies.
Rainy days after that meant listening to the radio or watching their strange new television set, Ezra gurgling sleepily in the crib nearby while the rain went plop plop plop outside. Sometimes, Mister would come in if he wasn't around to yell at his "stupid, lazy, colored" staff and sat down with Vin and Ezra to watch the gray and white pictures somehow move inside the small box.
Vin rubbed a hand to the back of his warm neck.
The day before yesterday, it meant meeting Stewart to help move dry straw into the pens, milk the cows, feed the calves. It meant climbing into the back of Stewart's dinged pickup to wrangle some of the stock back to closer pastures. And it'd meant the same thing yesterday and the same thing today.
At least it was three more days of pay. The old ranch hand had clapped Vin soundly in front of Larabee and announced Vin may be a pup but no slouch. It was a compliment, Vin guessed, although at the time, he was too drippy wet, his too large socks wet and squishy between his toes to thank him for it.
Vin watched Ezra clamor up in the bunk bed across from him, Gatey bouncing as Ezra wiggled and rolled on the bed. Poor Ezra was bored for three days from stacking Larabee's fancy books and hiding from Rabbit and Gatey. He'd always end up looking out the rain-slicked window, looking forward to Vin coming back for dinner in order to show Vin what he'd drawn and colored over in the used picture books the sheriff had brought.
But right now Vin just wanted to go back to sleep. He didn't even want to pick up Ezra and scurry to the house for dinner. He felt sticky, hot and tired. Real tired.
Gatey cooed long and low, drawing Vin back to Ezra, half hidden in a nest of blankets and the clothing from church that was too big to wear. Green eyes round like soda pop caps blinked back at him.
It took a lot of energy, but Vin smiled.
"Finished your bath?" The mountain of clothing and blankets nodded. "Okay, after I wash up, we'll go over for dinner." A more enthusiastic nod knocked Gatey off the mountain and to the floor with a squeak.
Vin picked up Gatey and straightened. Whoa. He clutched the bedpost until the room stopped spinning. It was like riding the old carousel again. Momma wouldn't let him ride the horses, so they'd sat inside the small seats made to look like golden pumpkins. The carousel whirled and spun and Vin got dizzy so he clung to Momma until it stopped.
A hand poked his hip hesitantly. Vin sat down in a huff and blinked hard until that moving feeling left. He turned to Ezra, who'd wormed out of his hill to curl both hands around Vin's elbow. He didn't have Gatey with him, but his huge eyes were saying a lot.
"I'm okay," Vin told him as he gave Gatey back. Vin ruffled his hair. Ezra made a face because Vin probably smelled like damp grass and sweat, but Vin couldn't bring himself to trudge all the way to the bathroom to wash up. He should though. Larabee told him in not many words what time he was having dinner, and it didn't sound like Larabee was a man who liked to be kept waiting.
But Vin just wanted another nap.
Ezra rested his head on Vin's arm. Vin rested his head back on the bedpost. It felt cool and strong against his back. Ezra felt like a weight keeping his strange-feeling body from floating away. Absently, Vin wondered if maybe he was getting Momma's fever, and his stomach flip flopped at the thought. But she'd had a rash all over and headaches so bad, the nurses wouldn't let her see Vin or open the curtains. He'd heard Mrs. Martin tell Mister that Momma must still be missing Vin's real pa and sick from a broken heart. She'd finally left Vin to go to heaven when he was ten.
His eyes felt like they were all swollen up and it felt like Ezra was sitting on his chest, but there was no rash.
Dropping his head back on the post, Vin exhaled. No, this wasn't what made Momma sick and die. He slipped a hand around Ezra's shoulders and pulled him closer.
No, he wasn't that kind of sick. He was okay.
Behind him, there was a single knock on the door. Once, loud and solid like it was next to his ear. Vin blinked and started when he realized Ezra was gone. He twisted around. He almost fell off the bed when he saw Ezra scamper over and eagerly open the door.
Vin didn't mean to yell and he shouldn't have the moment he saw Larabee was on the other side of the door. But his throat had hurt since yesterday and he needed to wash up and they were late for chow and he'd told Ezra. He'd told him before.
"I told you not to open the door by yourself." It came out so loud, so…so much like him that Vin was stunned stupid hearing the words.
Ezra stared at him from by the door, lower lip quivering, his eyes all wet and shiny.
Now Vin's chest felt like Larabee's dumb cow had come over to sit on him. And Larabee, he just looked at Vin with slitted eyes that reminded him of their old cat.
"No need to yell at your brother," Larabee said flatly, like Vin had yelled at him instead.
Vin couldn't look at Ezra. He couldn't. He rubbed a finger under his nose. "I wasn't," he said between his teeth. "I wasn't yelling." He knew he was though. "I told him again and again not to open the door by himself and he doesn't listen."
"Really?" Larabee dropped a hand on Ezra's white fist still on the doorknob. "Most four-year-olds listen pretty good." He pried Ezra's hand off the knob and guided him to the dining table by the small kitchen. Larabee lifted what he was carrying: a pot wrapped with a towel. He set it down before pulling his hat off. Water sprinkled down around him in a circle.
"Was still raining. Brought your dinner over."
Vin didn't know what made him feel worse: Ezra refusing to look at him or Mr. Larabee bringing their food over in the rain.
"Sorry, I know we're late for dinner." Vin carefully slid off the bed. He stood, leaning on the post so he could stand straight and tall. "Lost track of time."
Larabee just grunted as he pulled down two mugs and poured in the contents of the pot. Steam floated up and Ezra, after a sniffle, leaned over the table to peer into the mugs.
"Stew," Larabee told Ezra as he set a covered bucket on the table. "Biscuits. Milk."
Ezra climbed off his chair and went to get more mugs and spoons in the lower cabinets.
Larabee waited until Ezra got back on his chair before he glanced over to Vin. The gaze was thoughtful, like Larabee was trying to figure something out.
"What?" Again, Vin didn't mean to sound so mean but he caught Ezra's flinch as he swirled a spoon into his mug.
Larabee didn't change his expression. "Thought you were going to wash up,"
"I was. Told you. Lost track of time."
It made Vin so mad how Larabee always sound like he knows better, just because he was older than Vin. Vin folded his arms in front of his chest like he'd seen many do. It made his chest feel better, too. Just a little.
Larabee only looked at him, no reaction as he stuck a spoon into another mug. "Might want to get out of those damp clothes before eating."
It didn't matter Larabee was right; Momma always told him that, too. Vin just didn't want to hear it right now. There was a tickle in his throat that had wanted to come out for days, but Vin feared if it did, it'd be a long time before it stopped. He set his jaw and walked over to the small kitchen instead. He curled a hand around a mug. He took his time sitting down, like he wasn't worried about falling over.
The narrow glare bore on top of his head like a finger digging into his skull. Would explain why his head was doing some nutty thump-thump that made his eyes feel puffy. He tried to catch Ezra's eye, but even though he was just a baby, Ezra held on to a lot of things for a very long time.
"No work tomorrow." Larabee spoke up after being quiet for so long; Vin almost did fall out of his chair.
"Stewart said the rain should be done by tonight." Vin gulped down the warm stew. It was thick and full of velvety soft, cooked beans and the meat was all chopped up. Still, swallowing it hurt. All the way down his throat, Vin thought the stew was clawing up his insides.
"There's no work for you tomorrow."
Vin's chest grew sharp for a second.
"What do you mean no work?" he croaked. The room spun again as he thought back. No, it hadn't been two weeks. In fact, it'd only been five, six days. There was still time. He glanced over to Ezra poking at the meat bits in his stew.
"It means," Larabee said as he set a glass of milk down by Ezra, "tomorrow, you're not working."
Vin stared at his stew, his heart pounding. "Stewart said I was doing a good job."
Larabee pulled the towel off the bucket. Vin could smell the sweet, buttery odor of cornbread.
"Most people be glad for the leave," Larabee muttered as he plopped a large hunk of yellow bread on Ezra's mug. "It's food, not a rattler. Do not poke this."
Ezra stared at it before he tentatively pried a chunk out with his spoon to eat it.
"Take the break," Larabee said when Ezra started to chew. "You won't be much good to me if you get sick." He eyed Vin like he wanted to say something else. Instead, he studied the top of Ezra's head, but when Ezra just poked and broke pieces of cornbread to eat, Larabee's attention returned to Vin.
That tickle in his throat wanted to come out. Vin gulped it down.
"I'm not sick."
Something in his gut flared. "I'm not." Vin glowered at his stew cooling into a thick paste in his mug. "I can work tomorrow."
"I'm not paying for fools." Larabee sounded mad again and it's always like that with grownups: one minute they couldn't care less if you're around, the next they get all mad when you don't listen to them.
"You're not paying a fool," Vin rasped because it was getting harder to swallow. "You're paying a ranch hand." Vin made a point to shovel another spoonful of stew in his mouth and swallowed even though his throat felt burning hot, like there was a whole bunch of paper cuts inside.
"Sun up?" Vin asked. The mug set down with a heavy sound. He ignored the bread.
"No." Larabee tapped Ezra's spoon on his mug.
Ezra broke off more cornbread and mashed it into his mug of stew.
"You're still eating it," warned Larabee like it was any of his business.
Ezra looked up at him startled, then back to his mug. A whole new piece of cornbread had taken his mug's place.
"Ezra, just eat it. I have to go to bed early for work tomorrow," Vin said, not looking up when he felt Larabee glowering at him.
"Thought I said no work tomorrow."
No work, no pay; Vin gave up on the stew and drank his milk. He wished Larabee would leave or at least sit down.
"Stewart is going out to fix the fences; he's bringing a few extra hands. We won't need you."
No, but Vin needed this. One more week and they'd be gone, and every penny was going to have to count because everywhere they went, they needed money. What Vin had wasn't going to last forever. When Momma and Gramps died, his stepfather had told him the ranch was too poor to keep. There'd been no money left, and the fact he'd let Vin stay was only because he was Momma's son.
No, they needed money because watching out for Ezra cost money, and he'd promised Ezra, promised Maude no matter what, he'd take care of his little brother.
A hand dropped on his arm and Vin shrugged it away. He didn't need Larabee's pity, he needed Larabee's pay. When the hand returned to his arm, Vin shoved it away.
At Larabee's bark, Vin lifted his eyes and realized Larabee was still standing where he'd been, but Ezra was next to Vin, hands on his side after Vin had pushed him away.
"Ez—Ethan, I'm so—"
Vin still felt wooden, stuck in the mud, and wasn't able to catch Ezra as he wiggled into the bed, under his mountain of blankets.
Vin screwed up his face when his eyes burned. He stared hard into his mug. He really wanted to throw it.
"Get some rest." Even footsteps stopped by the bunk bed but Ezra didn't come out. Vin sensed Larabee looking at him. Vin just stared at his mug. After a while, Larabee left the bunkhouse.
Scrubbing a sleeve under his nose, Vin checked the bed.
"Ezra." Softly, Vin called to the pile of blankets. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you before, and I didn't mean to push you away."
Gatey was left outside of the hiding place Ezra had made. It appeared sad and abandoned staring at the lump of blankets.
"Come on, Ezra. I said I was sorry."
A hand crept out and snatched Gatey. It yelped as it was pulled inside.
Staring as hard as he could, the lump wouldn't move, and knowing Ezra, he could stay curled in there for a long time. One time, mad over whatever Maude had done—didn't seem to matter Maude was gone—their stepfather had come in drunk, screaming at them and waving his arms. Ezra had curled against Vin in his bed that whole afternoon, all the way through dinner, and wouldn't come out until Mister had come by with breakfast the next day--a heaping plate of Mrs. Martin's fries.
"Ezra," sighed Vin.
Vin's eyes felt gritty, like his throat and his chest had sharp rocks inside that wouldn't go away. He looked at the bed, looked at the food on the table, and looked at the window at Larabee standing under his porch, staring at the dying rain.
A sound hitched in his throat. Vin gulped it back down. He shakily got up and cleaned the table of food, putting some aside for breakfast in case Larabee was too mad at him tomorrow to offer any.
Done, Vin checked the bunkhouse again. He picked up the broken bits of crayon from the floor, straightened up the picture books Ezra had been drawing on. He skimmed through the pictures, chuckling wetly at the scribbles of a giant purple alligator chasing a pink dog along the bottom of the pages about a frog becoming a prince.
By the time Vin finished picking up everything, he needed to sit down. He carefully sat on the edge of Ezra's bed and pulled off the blankets and shirts. Sure enough, Ezra was asleep, Gatey crushed to his cheek.
Vin brushed a thumb under a drying tear track. He chewed his lower lip and almost wished Ezra was awake so Vin could tell him he was sorry again. Instead, he pulled off enough blankets so Ezra wouldn't be too hot before staggering over to wash up. It was still early, but bed sounded really good right now. Besides, Vin needed to get up before sun up. He had work to do.
* * * * *
Chris woke up to Vin knocking on the door, still looking like a ghost.
The morning after Chris specifically told Vin not to work that day, the whelp showed up with Ethan standing sullenly by him. Vin croaked, "Morning." The toddler walked away from Vin after a quick breakfast of oatmeal. Vin watched Ethan stomp into the den, and stood there, looking a little lost.
Chris stayed in the kitchen to wash the dishes—damn kid had eaten the oatmeal with his fingers—and watched as Vin finally went outside to meet Stewart.
As soon as the front door shut, though, Ethan came hurrying out, skidding to a halt at the closed door, and stared at it with dismay. The child went to the window. Judging by the slumped narrow shoulders, Chris guessed Vin had climbed into Stewart's pickup and left without waving goodbye to Ethan.
It went like that the next day, too. Vin Simpson was determined to work, Ethan was determined not to pay his brother any mind, and Chris was determined not to make it his business.
Like before, Chris ignored Ethan after he was dropped off, figuring the child would find something to do like the many times before. Ethan Simpson appeared to enjoy scaring the shit out of Rabbit, making tall buildings with his books, coloring surprisingly good drawings all over the picture books, and watching the window with his furry green friend.
Today, however, Ethan sat under the window, crayons left in the den with the books, Rabbit panting quietly a few feet away. His constant companion—what was the name again, Gator?—was hugged to his chest. Every so often, Ethan would stand up and look out the window. But whatever he was searching for, he didn't find it. Dejected, Ethan would slouch back onto the floor, and Rabbit would scoot closer and closer until the dang mutt was practically sitting on his toes.
It wasn't Chris' business.
If Vin Simpson wanted to run himself into the ground, he was welcome to it. Boy felt responsible to his little brother and it was commendable enough that Chris left him to his own judgment. Hell, he shouldn't have said anything at all in the bunkhouse that day. Let Simpson pretend he was a grown man instead of a boy, walking beside Stewart and his hands.
Stewart—feeling concerned enough to start a conversation with Chris—had mentioned the Simpson boy was checking if Guy Royal was still hiring. Chris heard Stewart's reserved tone, picked up on the disapproval the seasoned cowboy didn't bother hiding under a layer of politeness. Stewart had worked with him before and after the war—sober or blinding drunk—so he didn't mince his words.
"Last thing we need is giving Guy Royal another able hand." Tobacco spit onto the porch.
Chris pulled away from watching Vin Simpson climb down the back of Stewart's pickup, wearing Buck's old work gloves as he hauled more hay.
"He's only here for two weeks." Chris shook his head when Stewart offered him the tin. He'd given up tobacco long ago when Sarah had complained about the spitting. He'd tried to go back to it during the war, but kept hearing Sarah as he chewed and had lost his taste for it.
"Pity," Stewart remarked. He scrubbed his salt and pepper beard, his brown scrutiny hidden under folds of an aging face. "Place could use permanent help." Shrewd eyes stared meaningfully at Chris. "Be nice to have another person up here."
"You been talking to Buck," muttered Chris.
"Shoot, Buck talks to everybody." Stewart scuffed his boot on the deck, adjusting bad knees to accommodate his top heavy condition. He could never say no to his wife's chicken and dumplings.
"Chris, I'm getting old. Not many seasons left for me. Winona wants me to quit soon."
Chris nodded to himself.
"My nephew from Chicago, he's a hard worker, but he ain't going to stay here long. He wants an office job in the big city." Stewart snorted. "An accountant, he says."
"I'll find someone else."
"No, you won't."
Chris shot him a sideways glare.
"Larabee, you've been back four years, drank and punched your way through town. Done scared away half your ranch hands to Royal's ranch, the other half is too old to work anywhere else." A work-worn hand spotted with age, idly thumped the porch railing.
"No one's blaming you for grieving, but you gotta do some living, too." Stewart nodded toward Vin, far away.
"Boy's a hard worker. Hire him, hire a few more, get this ranch working. You could use the extra help."
Everybody around him felt obliged to give him advice. Chris shoved his hands in his pockets and stared hard at the patch of dirt that had once been Sarah's garden. Days of rain had revived it, and the dirt looked rich and brown. It just wasn't fair.
"I don't need anyone's help," Chris bit out.
"Sure," Stewart drawled as he spit out another brown spot of tobacco, "just like that boy don't need a place to stay."
Scowling out the window, Chris watched Vin go back and forth from the barn under Stewart's direction. Every so often, Vin stopped, fist to his mouth, head turning left and right to see who was watching before continuing on his way.
"Idiot," muttered Chris.
Something knocked into the back of his right knee with a honk. Taken aback, Chris lurched forward. He whipped out a hand, braced himself on the chair, and glared downward.
Ethan glowered back, oddly intimidating even in his small form, toy dangling from a fist.
Chris squinted at Ethan. The toddler squeezed his toy around its middle and it shrieked so loud, Chris wondered why the glass didn't rattle.
Then, Ethan stomped off to the den. Chris blinked after him.
Damned if he hadn't just been told off!
* * * * *
"You're out late today."
The chocolate soda plopped down in front of him. The fat, bright red cherry rolled off its frothy white peak. He caught it before it felt to the counter.
He shrugged, knowing the soda jerk didn't really care if he was out late or not. But everyone knew who his stepfather was, so all the grownups tried to be as nice as possible.
The clock over the large mirror wall said four-thirty. Part of him felt queasy because he knew Ezra was waiting at home. Howdy Doody was over; Mister would make him a snack, but Ezra would want to see Vin.
But today was his birthday; no one else was going to make him a cake or give him presents. Vin used his pocket money he'd saved up to buy himself a soda at Lawson's. And he was going to stay out until five, like all his other friends, and he was going to buy himself some comic books to read before Ezra colored them with his dumb crayons.
Happy birthday to me, he thought.
But all his friends could only buy one soda, and stupid Wilbur Jones kept talking about his newest toy so Vin told him it was dumb, and then they were all yelling. Suddenly no one wanted to go for a soda, not even Charlotte.
But he was still staying out until five.
When it was twelve minutes to five, he slid off the red stool, tucked his new comic books in his school bag, and took the shortcut back home. He didn't use the front gate with its stupid bells and scary-faced statues. He crawled in under a hedge, past the gardens, into the service entrance to the kitchen.
Vin froze at the screaming.
It was hot. The sun must be high in the sky and he should go under the shade like Momma told him. In their old ranch, before they moved, he could stay in the shadow of the cliffs for so long. But in Tascosa's sands, there was no shade unless you went inside. Vin hated inside.
His bag and comic books dropped in a puddle of vanilla pudding that had been on the floor. Vanilla pudding was his favorite. Mrs. Martin hated messes.
Something broke upstairs. A plate. Or glass. He could hear someone screaming.
A hand patted his cheek. Vin groaned and tried to turn into it because it felt cool. He kicked off the blankets but then began to shiver.
He could hear his stepfather hollering; drunk again and furious over "what Maude did."
"…drag her out of her grave and kill her again…"
He jerked to a stop in shock. But another plate broke and he realized it was his stepfather screaming loud and angry, louder than the quiet crying he could hear in between the words.
Vin clenched and unclenched his fists. Hitting their stepfather was useless, He was bigger than both of them. Even Mister, who stood a head taller than his master, feared him. But he could hear Ezra crying. Where was Mrs. Martin? Or Mister? Why did Maude go away? She'd promised. Momma'd promised, too.
The door to Maude's bedroom was shut, and no matter how much he tried, it wouldn't open. He banged and banged at the door, not realizing he was crying himself until the door flew open and he fell in the room, landing at Eli Joe's feet. Eli threw the last of Maude's fancy blue and white plates at the wall before he stepped over Vin and stormed out for more bourbon.
When Vin finally looked up, he wished he had gone straight home.
A sound choked and stuck in his throat. Vin thrashed in his bed, sweat stinging his eyes as he coughed. He could still see himself pulling Ezra out from under Mister. And all the blood. He remembered Mrs. Martin coming out of her hiding place in Maude's wardrobe and fainting. Vin remembered cold, so cold; Ezra shaking in his hold. He remembered how loud the ambulance was.
Vin coughed again. Then, he couldn't atop. He coughed and coughed and his chest got heavier and heavier. He reached out for something—what, he didn't know—but his hands grabbed nothing, because he was alone.
* * * * *
He turned over, catching her by the waist just as she rolled to the edge of the bed. She laughed, her hands tangling with his but not quite pulling away as he tugged her closer to breathe in the clean cotton scent of her sleeping shirt.
"I have to make breakfast," she chided, her voice light despite the admonishment.
"Um," he groused as he brushed his lips on her shoulder and buried his face into her hair. "Let me starve…"
There was a laugh. "And you would let your baby boy starve, too?" she teased. "Adam's a growing boy."
"Don't need to grow up that fast," Chris groused, nose still buried in her hair. He breathed in sunshine.
A giggle tickled his bristly jaw. "Thought you and Buck needed to go to the auction for some breeding stock?"
"Buck doesn't need me." He pulled her until her graceful back settled flush to his chest. "Think I'll sleep in."
A dainty finger tapped him on the nose. "And who will milk Brown? And Mae?"
He nipped the searching finger. She laughed.
"Damn cows should know how to milk themselves by now," he griped. "I do it for them every day." He shushed her as she tried to squirm away. "No, no, no, stay here."
"Ah, Chris." Lips brushed across his brow. Her voice softened to a sigh. "You're going to have to let go sometime."
Chris grunted, jerking as he woke, the banging on the door getting louder and louder in his ears until he finally realized the banging was real. He cast about the living room. The room was shrouded in darkness, his book nowhere to be found. He could hear Rabbit snuffing and snorting as it got up on its fours to go sniffing the door.
The pounding continued, but not as hard as before.
"Coming," Chris hollered but the noise didn't cease. Rabbit joined in the foray, scratching the door and whining now.
A muzzy glance at the standing grandfather clock told him it was barely midnight. He grumbled as he staggered to the door, guided by memory.
"Do you know…" Chris began as he flung the door open. He frowned at the empty space but when Rabbit whined again, he looked down.
Ethan Simpson stood there, face tilted back as far as it could to look at Chris.
"What the hell are you doing out here?" Chris didn't curb his language, not at midnight. He scanned behind the child. "And where's your brother?"
Huge green eyes began to fill.
Something lurched in his gut. Chris swallowed and dropped down on one knee so the boy could see him.
"Hey," Chris said gruffly. He settled a hand on a thin arm. Shivers ran through the flesh, so Chris reached behind him, snagged his coat, and dropped it over the child.
Ethan stumbled forward under the weight and he was close enough to grab a fistful of Chris' sleeve.
"What's the matter?" Chris tried to gentle his tone, but sleep and too much whiskey left his voice gravelly.
Ethan flinched, but he had enough courage to tug the sleeve.
"How did you get all the way over here by yourself?" Chris stared hard into the distance at the bunkhouse. "Is it your brother?"
The frantic nod freed a tear.
Chris rose to his feet. "Rabbit," he ordered and for once, the Labrador responded to his command. He trotted in front, tail wagging, waiting.
"You hold onto to Rabbit's collar so the darn fool don't get lost," Chris told Ethan. He shrugged into another jacket. He shivered. Damn, it was cold, almost cold enough for frost.
"Show me," Chris commanded, and followed Ethan with a careful hand on the small back.
* * * * *
As soon as Chris stepped into the bunkhouse, he could hear it: the raspy, loud wheezing that meant lungs were working too hard. He'd heard it too many times in the sick tents. His gut lumped into ice, and he numbly followed Ethan closer to the bottom bunk bed the boys shared.
Chris didn't need to place a hand on Vin to know he was burning up, but he did. The heat was a branding sort of hot that soaked through Vin's shirts. The blanket he had wrapped around him was barely enough, and Vin shivered every so often.
"Ez?" Vin's voice hitched. "Ezra?"
Ethan's toy chirped. Vin turned, swollen red rimmed eyes tracking. His hand flopped toward Ethan and Chris captured it. He felt the beats racing. A hand on Vin's chest told him the boy's breath rattled.
Vin panted, tried to sit up, failed. Tried again.
"We have…have to 'eave," Vin wheezed.
Ethan nodded frantically, his stuffed toy barely visible within his embrace now, a blue eye under Ethan's chin, its squeaker box wheezing to get air, just like Vin.
"Don't worry…" Vin moaned. "Not go'a leave you…"
Ethan nodded again. Chris stopped him from climbing onto the bed.
"W'ere…" moaned Vin. He tried to sit up again. "'here."
When Chris glanced over to Ethan, both child and toy looked at him unblinkingly.
"Your brother's real sick," Chris said, but he wasn't sure who he was telling it to. "We need to take him into town to see Nathan."
Ethan cringed. He snuck a tentative hand out to touch Vin's sweat-matted hair. When Vin coughed, turning into Ethan's hand, the child sniffled and reluctantly nodded.
* * * * *
Nathan tried to say it with as little emotion as possible because Ethan was staring hard at him like he was trying to see the words float out of his mouth. He tried to smile encouragingly, but he couldn't work it past the lump in his throat.
Buck, standing behind Ethan and Chris, his uniform untucked, his cap barely covering his unruly brown hair, didn't bother to hide his expression. And when he muttered a curse under his breath, Chris dropped his hands on the boy.
"But he'll be fine." Nathan stooped down to meet Ethan's eyes. "Doc Harper thinks he'll be fine staying here. No need to go to Denver."
Nathan glanced up at Chris' quiet query. He stole a look to Ethan. Inwardly, Nathan flinched at the hopeful look.
"A week? Maybe ten days?" A lump formed in his throat when that look fell. He supposed that was close to forever for the child. He peered up at Ethan. "He's very sick, your brother. He needs time to rest, but he will get better. I promise. Okay?"
Nathan wished the tiny nod he received made him feel better. He straightened. He braced his lower back with a hand and bit back the groan.
"What say we go see him?"
The answering smile certainly made up for it.
* * * * *
When Danny came to get him, Buck nearly shot his deputy's head off. Fool hollered and banged on Missy's door, and damn if that didn't sound like another time and another place. Buck woke up ready to murder a few Nazis when Danny's words finally trickled in and made sense. He was still buckling his holster when he hopped into the patrol car. No sirens though. At this late hour, folks around town would think the worst if they heard the sirens.
As he stood there, leaning on the doorway, watching Vin's little brother listening to Nathan, Buck wondered if the sirens wouldn't have been justified. The boy had looked all alone in the world when Buck stumbled in, especially when Nate told him Vin couldn't leave yet.
Chris stepped closer then, his hands loosely curled over Ethan's shoulders like a cape.
Buck blinked. His back loosened and he found himself smiling sadly at his old friend.
The darkness that lurked in Chris' eyes quelled, banked as he stooped down to talk to the child. His face was rough with stubble, hair sticking out in all directions, and his eyes were bloodshot because Chris must have drank his dinner again despite Buck's best attempts to find all the liquor.
Despite looking like the scary mountain man folks in town delighted in gossiping about, Chris' hands were careful on Ethan's shoulders. His tone was low and soothing despite the gruffness that had embedded itself in Chris' voice four years ag—Lord, had it really been four years?
Nathan pointed to where Vin would stay. Buck found himself following, even though it felt like he was intruding. There was a swathing of peace and calm from Chris he hadn't felt since the war, radiating his belief that things would be okay.
As Buck passed Nate, he caught him darting Chris a stunned look. Yea, Nate felt it, too. You can't help but follow a man like that to hell and back; you knew you would survive. And they all had. But coming home had broken that spirit. Buck didn't realize how much he'd missed it until now.
"Whoa, you need to leave that alone."
Buck frowned when Ethan reached up and grabbed at the clear covering Nathan had tented over Vin. The chain above it rattled, the transparent shelter swayed.
The green toy dropped from Ethan's embrace as he tugged at the material. Nathan pulled Ethan's hands away. Ethan simply squirmed out from under Chris' restraining hands to do it again.
"No, you shouldn't…" Nathan kept reaching over to pick the boy up, rearing back when Ethan cringed.
Buck was about to step in when Chris spoke.
Of course, everyone stopped. Habit, Buck supposed.
Chris dropped down on one knee and turned Ethan so they could share eye contact.
"You can't take that down," Chris said firmly, his words low but allowed no room for insubordination. "Your brother needs that." He canted his head up toward Nathan, who took his cue to crouch down as well.
"Ethan, your brother is sick and breathing is hard for him right now." Nathan stroked the clear plastic. "This will help him. We have to leave it alone."
Buck shifted uneasily on his feet. He remembered his week under it, coughing and seeing the Army hospital around him with watery eyes and his heart pounding hard enough to hurt. That was the first time he'd met Josiah. The volunteer fighter none-too-gently elbowed the chaplain aside and told him not to perform Buck's last rites because he wasn't at God's door yet. Buck marched out of that place days later to rejoin Chris' platoon, Josiah and Nathan joining them.
"Do you understand?" Chris sternly asked Ethan.
The boy looked at the tent, at Nathan, even at Buck, before he dropped his chin and nodded.
Chris picked up Ethan's alligator toy and pressed it to the boy's chest. Ethan automatically hugged it close.
"Your brother will get better."
And there it was again: the ironclad promise in the mild voice that straightened his spine. Buck almost saluted, caught Nathan doing the same until he tucked a hand in his white coat pocket.
"You can visit him as much as you want," Nathan promised before Buck could stop him.
Buck glanced over at Chris. To his relief, Chris didn't pause. He nodded to Ethan.
"We'll be here first thing in the morning."
* * * * *
The low whine and wet nose on his dangling hand woke him. Chris laid there, chest pounding, ears still ringing from the bombing, before another whine drew him to the present. He blearily turned his head and saw Rabbit's black snout inches from his face.
"What?" he rasped, but then he heard it, too: the tiny sniffle.
Chris sat up and peered through the darkness to the side door that led to the guest room. He'd built it back when Sarah expressed a longing for her mother to come visit, but her poor joints made it hard to go up the stairs. Chris had cleared the utility closet, stole floor space from the living room, and created a nice spare room with a low-lying poster bed, short dresser, and book rack. The happiness on his wife's face was like summer shone all year long.
They never got to use it. Sarah's mother died the following spring. She still wanted the room; insisted that seeing the room reminded her what Chris had been willing to do, how much more that gesture meant than all the diamonds he wished he could give her.
Now, Chris stood rooted to the spot steps from that door. He could still hear Sarah's happy light laughter, as clear and clean as morning dew when she'd first seen the room. It was like she was standing next to him. He could still feel her fingers light on his skin.
Rabbit nudged past his legs, and after a few stubborn pushes with its snout, widened the door enough to dart inside.
The sniffling stopped.
Chris did an about face, set to return to his couch, hopefully to the vision of Sarah but stopped. He scrubbed a hand down the whole of his face and slowly turned back around. Chris padded into the room and considered the blanketed lump huddled by the headboard. He could see a bright green tail peeking out from the nest of blankets. Rabbit sat by the bed, head canted as it considered it.
Slowly, Chris sat down on the bed. He saw the lump fidget before stilling. Gatey made a squeak that was stifled quickly.
Long ago, Adam had once been frightened falling out of their pear tree behind the house. It wasn't a great height, but Sarah's shriek from the kitchen had told Adam it was nearly a bad thing. Buck had caught him and passed him to Chris, where Adam had promptly burst into tears.
That very night, Chris sat by the bed and let his son cling to his arm as he slept, knowing his papa would catch him before he fell. When Chris had come home and finally moved back into the repaired ranch, smoke still haunting the damaged second floor, Chris had wondered if Adam had been clutching Sarah's arm those last few moments.
Blinking rapidly in the dark, Chris almost rose to his feet and left the room. He pinched a spot between his burning eyes and exhaled unsteadily.
Carefully, he dropped a hand on the lump and rubbed small circles on what he could feel was a hunched back. He felt the little shiver, heard the wet sniff of a runny nose.
Chris said nothing. He sat there, feeling like he hadn't quite woken up yet, palm rubbing down the brushed woolen yellow blanket Sarah had traded for to add some color in the guest room.
The lump fidgeted closer, leaning into his hand. Another sniffle.
Chris stayed where he was. He listened as Ethan silently cried. It felt like a part inside of him had jumped out to mourn Sarah and Adam. When the small body relaxed into sleep, Chris squeezed his eyes to dam whatever the hell he could feel wanting to come out. Soon after, sitting up, Chris fell asleep, too.
* * * * *
Morning greeted him with sunlight slipping into the guest room through the partially opened door. Chris raised a hand, grumbling as he considered his surroundings. It took a few head scratches and puzzled grunts before he remembered why he wasn't on the couch.
The damn dog was sleeping over his outstretched legs, drool collecting warm on his ankle. Chris scowled and shook his foot, but Rabbit merely snorted and went right back to sleep.
Chris muzzily looked to his left then right. He started.
The lump on the bed was gone.
"Get off. Get off," Chris ordered Rabbit. The dog whined, but shook its head and jumped down. Chris struggled off the bed, not bothering with his shoes as he headed for the door.
Ethan looked up from his perch by the door.
His knees turned to water, Chris leaned against the doorframe and glared at the child. Ethan's face was washed, and he was dressed and waiting. Even his damn toy looked like it been cleaned and combed.
"When did you get up?" Chris spied the time on the grandfather clock. He groaned. "When I said morning…" He scratched the scruff on his jaw. "Not until after breakfast." At the crestfallen face, Chris hesitated. "I can't drive into town without my coffee first."
Slowly, Ethan stood, Gatey in his hold. He glanced longingly at the door. The lower lip looked like it wanted to stick out, but Ethan only gave Chris a small, barely noticeable nod.
"Come on," Chris said gruffly. "Let's see what there is to eat."
* * * * *
The kitchen's walls were still bright and slick-looking from the coat of paint from months ago. Breakfast was usually coffee, eggs, or whatever fruit was still good in the bowl. So it took a few embarrassing moments before Chris could locate the smaller skillet pan. He gave up trying to find the waffle iron.
The sizzle of a cracked egg solidifying on his iron skillet was a comforting sound. He didn't care to try to think about why; remembering meant digging up ghosts and emotions long buried and rotting. The smell of it, the edges browning, the yellow yolk dulling as it cooked, reminded Chris that just a few years ago, he was longing for a taste while huddled in the trenches.
Out of the corner of his eye, Chris spied Ethan trying to stand on his tippy toes to see, Gatey's blue glass chips staring at the pan.
"You want bacon?" Chris vaguely remembered there was still another small slab of it drying in his pantry. Buck, at the time, was sweet on the butcher's cousin. Beef, chops, and ribs were constantly finding his way up to a ranch that had a herd of a hundred heads of beef. Idiot.
The squeak from the toy told him no. He thought. He wasn't sure how the boy was manipulating the toy to make its various noises. At the time, he didn't care to check.
Chris reached over the drying rack for a plate. Ethan didn't say anything, but Chris swore he could hear the boy cringe. Ignoring him, he turned off the stove and padded to the pantry for the last hunk of bread. He'd need to have Stewart run into town for supplies soon. He could feel Ethan tracking him as he returned with thick slice of bread which he threw into the pan as well.
The yeasty robust scent swelled and filled his nostrils as he flipped them to toast the other side. He piled the egg onto the bread and squashed the whole thing together. After a moment's hesitation, Chris cut it into halves. A glance at the little hands around the toy and he cut the sandwich further into quarters. He set it on a clean plate on the dining table with a tall glass of milk.
Ethan stared blankly at him.
"Go on," Chris prodded. "Eat up." He mentally sighed when the boy didn't move. Had Adam been this hard to feed at that age? He glowered at Ethan. "Aren't you hungry?"
The boy dropped his face into the toy's soft fabric. It whined.
Chris settled a hand on the boy's thin shoulder.
"You gotta eat breakfast first before we go see your brother," Chris murmured. It felt like Sarah was guiding his hand as it drifted up to card through baby fine hair. He gave Ethan a gentle push toward the table. At Ethan's flinch, he stopped.
"No circles," he murmured, remembering what the boy's brother promised in order to coax him to sit at the table. He darted a look to the boy. He could barely see Ethan's head and the toy was being crushed to its owner's chest. Tremors vibrated under his palm.
"Okay…" Chris grabbed a dish towel, set it neatly on the table, and transferred the sandwich to it. He wiped down the plate and returned it to the rack.
When the boy still wouldn't look up, Chris tapped his soft cheek with a finger. Ethan peered over his toy.
"I forgot," Chris said low and careful. It felt strange, but he pulled a smile from somewhere. "No circles. See?" He steered Ethan closer to the table. He rubbed the last of the shivering away. "Okay. Eat up. Finish all that milk and we'll head into town to see your brother."
The tentative smile warmed a spot Chris forgot existed in his chest. He gave Ethan a pat, watched with a careful eye as the boy struggled up into a chair. After a small piece and then smearing egg over Gatey's face offering him a taste, Ethan ate his breakfast in neat little bites.
Chris poured himself a coffee and found he was fine to just watch the boy eat.
* * * * *
Nathan felt a pang when Dorothy came by to regretfully tell Ethan time was up again. Fourth day, fourth visit. Chris brought the boy like clockwork, nine in the morning, after breakfast, when folks filled the streets heading to work.
Everyone conveniently ignored the fact Chris and the child were there for far longer than Doc Harper would have approved—two hours at least, three at the most. When they come in, Ruth suddenly needed to check their supplies, Dorothy needed to help Doc Harper with the books. Doc Harper? Shoot, with both his nurses suddenly having a fit over organization and cleanliness, the seasoned doctor was too busy to even notice the hair he normally parted carefully was stuck out in gray, frazzled spikes.
In the middle of the carefully manipulated chaos, Chris sat there, with a book he'd borrowed from Josiah, seated in the back while Ethan visited. Nathan caught Dorothy and Ruth giving Chris surreptitious looks--Chris Larabee in town. If that didn't beat all. The town was small enough that word spread like wildfire; far too many people with suspiciously random symptoms dropped by the clinic these days. Nathan was tempted to lock the front door against folks sticking their noses where they don't belong.
It was strange not to see Chris in his usual black; his former CO normally wore his grief like a uniform. On the days Nathan came by the ranch, bade by Buck's terse calls, he always found himself patching up broken fingers and scraped knuckles under the glower of a man dressed in black. It gave him the chills: standing in a house that impossibly still reeked of smoke, sometimes of bourbon, with a man who said nothing, his eyes as dark as his clothes.
The past two days though, Chris had been wearing warm flannel shirts, layers of cotton over cotton that were muted in color, but startlingly bright compared to what Nathan was accustomed to seeing. The only black left was the dusty Stetson usually pulled forward to block out the world.
"How's he doing?"
It still shocked him how Chris could come up to someone without a sound, yet his quiet words would make Nathan jump like he was under the Blitz.
Glancing across the rows of empty sick beds to the one Vin Simpson lay, Nathan suppressed the urge to sigh. At least while Ethan was here. Luckily, the fever seemed to have dropped.
Acute eyes read what Nathan couldn't say.
"That bad?" Chris flicked a glance to the oxygen-tented bed, his mouth barely moving as he checked for Ethan. The child, though, was still turning pages of the picture book he'd brought with him.
"Doc brought back medicine from Denver." Nathan shrugged. He smiled faintly when Ethan held up his toy during his soundless narration. "Seems to help some, but it'll be a time before we know." He shook his head. The teenager shouldn't have gotten sick this fast. Heck, or even at all. "Maybe another two days?" Nathan rubbed the back of his neck. "When he leaves the clinic, he'll need to rest up, not head back to work until his lungs are stronger. Maybe a month or so?"
Chris pursed his lips.
"If it's going to be a problem," Nathan hedged, dark eyes flicking toward the toddler, "Buck, Josiah and I been talking about the two. One of us could try and take in Ethan right now if you want."
"A problem?" The small smirk twitching at the corner of Chris' mouth surprised the hell out of Nathan. "No problem." Chris nodded toward the pair. "Eats like a bird, quieter than one."
Honk. Ethan fumbled with the toy, grabbing its snout. He put a finger to his lips, wordlessly shushing it.
"…Most of the time."
Nathan couldn't relax though. "What about his brother?" he asked quietly. "He'll need to rest, Chris. But once he leaves here, you and I both know he'll probably take his brother somewhere and find another job. If he gets sick again…"
"Boy feels responsible for his brother," Chris murmured, his face thoughtful. "Lot more responsible than he should." Chris stared hard at the boys across the room.
"He feels guilty."
Nathan turned sharply to Chris. "Guilty?" He studied the pair as well. Ethan was now still, cheek on Vin's hand, his toy pressed against Vin's side. A lump in his throat squeezed his question out.
"You think he caused Ethan's talking problem?"
Chris shook his head almost immediately. "I suspect he thinks he did."
"He's just a kid." Like Buck and Chris, Nathan doubted Vin's paperwork. "Guilty? I don't know…"
"I know what guilt looks like," Chris said curtly. His mouth snapped shut, not offering anything more.
Nathan bit back the words he knew Buck had tried to tell Chris over and over. It wasn't his fault, he couldn't have gotten here sooner, he didn't fail Sarah and Adam...Chris had heard them all. He tried to drown them out in every bar in town. When that didn't work, he'd barricaded himself in that half-burned ranch.
A knot eased in his gut. Maybe Buck was right; maybe Chris was all right with it. Nathan considered the boy, grimacing when Ethan nearly tripped on his light gray shirt.
"I could get Rain to hem those," Nathan murmured. He felt Chris turn his way.
"Rain?" There was a lengthy pause. "Your lady friend." The chagrin across Chris' expression was an unfamiliar look. "I think Buck's mentioned once or twice you were sweet on her."
Nathan felt the heat creeping up his neck. "Buck talks a lot."
"That seems to be the popular opinion," Chris agreed so easily it left Nathan foolishly grinning. It was like time rolled back and he was back in a bar with Chris' platoon, casually invited to join them after his own unit didn't want a colored man sitting down with them. Nathan's sergeant had shouted to Chris about what he thought about an Army Ranger who would drink with a negro. Chris had remarked that he suspected if he shot the sergeant here and now, his blood would be the same as the colored folk he so objected to. The sergeant promptly shut up after that.
'Course, it could have been because of the Colt pointed lazily his way. Maybe.
"There are some more boxes in the back," Nathan offered. "Might be something in his size." He looked over when pages of Ethan's picture book fluttered to the floor. "Think I saw some toys in there as well. Mostly for older kids, but there could be something he might like."
Chris stared after Ethan and acted like he'd heard Nathan. He pressed his lips together in thought and Nathan wondered if he'd pushed Larabee too far. Watching over a kid was one thing, watching over a kid with stuff was another.
"Actually," Chris said abruptly, "thought we'd get something in town." His eyes, darkly amused, slid over to Nathan's open-mouthed expression.
* * * * *
It was too loud.
"What you're standing around for? Not paying you to standing around jawing on my dime!"
"Hey, what's cooking? Thought—"
"Beat it! You're in the—"
Chris loosely held Ethan's hand as they left the clinic. He ignored the startled faces he passed, not acknowledging them, and kept his eyes facing front, his hat dipped low. He set his jaw when he caught a few baldly staring, automatically glancing down to whose hand he held. Chris thought he could see confusion changing to memory, then either back to confusion over the boy who was not Adam, or pity toward the child because he wasn't Adam.
People knew well enough to stay out of their way, though, educated from the rare times Chris had left his ranch to conduct business in town. But after one too many rounds of "I'm so sorry for your loss," Chris had given Josiah his power of attorney to deal with the money shit, Stewart to buy the supplies, and Buck supplied all the town gossip—whether Chris asked for it or not.
Not slowing down, Chris surveyed the gawkers and the buildings stretched three, four even five stories up and crowded up sky. Chris scowled at all its ruckus and decided staying away from town all these years was a good decision after all.
Four Corners would never reach the status of a big city like Salt Lake or Denver, but it certainly tried with its clustered shops and dusty dirt roads slowly being paved to accommodate the Plymouths, Fords, and Chevrolets that bounced along Main Street, competing for space with the streetcars. Too many shops crowded together. Used to be, if one wanted dinner, there was only the restaurant inside the Virginia Hotel. Simple. If you were hungry, you went to Virginia's.
Now there were diners, bars, and luncheonettes popping up every street. There was even a cinema, decked out in new lettering that Henry's boy hung from his tall ladder. Salty and buttery popcorn wafted out of its gilded doors.
There were street signs now where Chris remembered there had been no need before. There was a hazy recollection of a shop Sarah once took Adam to get his Sunday best and new shoes when the leather was finally too worn to repair. Chris headed in its general direction, the church, and the Grain Exchange building to his right; he wondered when the town had grown big enough to need to worry about stray elbows and ill-placed heels on his toes.
"Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"
At the corner, a newsie decried today's headlines from the Clarion and Colorado Spring Gazette. He bellowed about the United Nations in Lake Success.
Chris darkened and tugged Ethan further away before the newsboy could holler into their ears again.
A car horn blared behind them. Children ran past, playing a game Chris vaguely recognized.
Glancing down at Ethan, Chris noted the toddler, while interested in the noisy on goings they walked by, didn't seem intimidated by it. When Adam was that age, Sarah and he had taken him down Main Street after Sunday church and his son clung to both their hands, startled whenever he heard a loud noise.
With Ethan though, it was mainly curiosity, not the awe of beholding something new that shown on the child's face. He blinked when cars honked, glanced at the windows as shopkeepers struggled to put headless mannequins up in their windows, shuffled obediently out of the way when an elbow or a barrage of feet came toward them. His hand in Chris' grasp was relaxed, curled around his index and middle finger in a casual grip, not one of a frightened child. There was an oddly bereft feeling about the lack of the almost bone-crushing grip of a child.
So, Ethan has been to a big city before. Maybe visited one? No, the boy looked too little to be able to remember any trips. Maybe lived in one? It was clear by Ethan's behavior he'd lived in one long enough to be familiar with the noises even adults here had trouble with.
Or he could merely be distracted by his brother's ailment.
I'm better with horses, Chris thought ruefully. Sarah would have teased, poked fun, and pointed out he wasn't a flatfoot or a Pinkerton; he had trouble finding his father's watch, for Pete's sake.
Said watch sat heavy in his inner coat pocket now, still burnished with soot, still frozen in time; its chain melted into a misshapen lump the size of his thumbnail. It shifted against him as they walked, a weight that rested against his heart like a child being carried.
Chris stopped. His chest grew tight, his eyes blurred. It was suddenly too loud, people around him were too happy, laughing too loudly, smiling too broadly. The sun shone too brightly, almost defiantly, on his back. He didn't want to be here; not alone, his hands empty without Sarah or Adam…
"…beat it, kid. This ain't the Red Cross!"
"…fresh fruit! Apples! Oranges! Just…"
"Aw, you're nuts! Why I oughta—"
Every voice grated. The clothing across his shoulders didn't feel like they belonged to him; they belonged to a husband, a father, not him. This wasn't his uniform anymore.
Below, a low whine hooked onto him. Chris breathed sharply, taking in gritty, dusty air like he'd been drowning. With a heavy head, he turned, looking down.
Ethan, with his eyes as green as his toy's were blue, blinked up. He carefully hugged the plush doll again and it made a quiet whimpering sound that almost sounded inquisitive.
"I'm fine," Chris told him. He'd actually understood that. He blearily cast about for his bearings and realized they'd ducked into one of the newer street additions. The sign on its corner, proudly pronounced it as "Walnut Lane," curved up with its new concrete walkways and tar roads. The stores bright with fresh paint were unfamiliar.
In front of them was a toy shop with its broad windows displaying boxed games and figurines to resemble characters from the radio programs.
One Christmas long ago, Chris had taken Sarah and Adam into the city. Adam had wanted a wooden train set he saw in the Gimbel's display window, hand-painted with thin pieces of metal glued in to look like spokes. Chris and Sarah had balked at the price of the whole set. It would take far too much money to buy it; food on their table would have to be sacrificed. Adam begged and pleaded , but even at five, he understood the importance of a toy versus a meal and gave up quickly. He had asked to see it one more time before they went home. When Adam walked away from it without prompting, Chris had never felt more proud. He'd promised himself to return and buy it once he sold twenty heads of prime beef to Peterson.
But then the letter ordering him to Camp Carson for training arrived.
Chris stared hard at the shop. When he looked down, Ethan was merely stroking his toy like it was a puppy, small fingers scratching its gentle sloping head. He didn't know why it bothered him that Ethan wasn't clamoring to go in like some of the other children tugging at their parents' hands.
"Do you want to go in?" A part of Chris wanted Ethan to say yes, a part of him didn't want to watch other sons plead with their daddies for a toy.
Ethan appeared surprised, as if he hadn't realized the store was even there. The toddler stared hard at the windows before he very deliberately turned away.
The happy chatter inside warned Chris back. Each time the door opened, a delighted squeal escaped and he flinched.
Yet the fact that Ethan was trying very hard to ignore everything propelled Chris forward.
"Come on," he said gruffly. "Doesn't hurt to look."
Gold-ringed green eyes appeared solemn, as if somehow they understood why Chris couldn't bring himself to step forward. At least not alone.
Fingers tightened briefly in Chris' grasp. Strangely fortified, Chris splayed a palm on the door and pushed it open with his heart already hammering hard in his chest.
* * * * *
For heaven's sake, where did they all come from?
Nettie arched an eyebrow as the Wilson twins nearly tripped her to squeeze past. Paul's gaggle of children veered around her legs, chorusing "Morning, Miss Nettie!" before trying to squeeze into the narrow aisle to see the store owner demonstrate the odd bouncing toy clop down steps made from stacked books. She snorted. Was this a sign of what's to come? When she taught most of these children's parents, a new toy meant a book. Now, they were being used as blocks for a flimsy, odd-looking spring that cost—Good heavens, a dollar? An entire dollar, enough for a decent size roasting chicken, for a—what was it again?—a Slinky?
Shaking her silver white head, Nettie sighed. Now she felt old.
Old or not, Nettie considered the toy. The children seemed to enjoy it; maybe her cousin's little boy would enjoy it, too. Hard to tell these days; coming from Chicago, her cousin may have already seen these new and crazy things. And she wasn't keen about buying a box of toy soldiers either. War was never something to pretend at, Nettie determined. She'd seen and grieved through two World Wars, and thought that was enough.
"What's it do?"
"Hey, give us a look…"
"Yea, let us see…"
"Let go, shrimp…"
Nettie frowned. In her experience, a mess of young voices suggested trouble. Sure enough, when she went to the next row filled with boxed games like Candy Land, there was a small crowd of adolescents. Whoever caught their eye was lost in the middle of them.
"Hey, don't be stingy." Gloria Potter's middle son was reaching over and tugging at something. "We just wanna see…"
The boys around chimed the same.
Nettie thought she heard something squeak, and that was about enough. She took a deep breath. "What is this? Something interesting I should look at, too, boys?"
A couple of them yelped and a few of the whippersnappers scrambled away, parting like the Red Sea. Something green dropped with a very mouse-like noise.
Suddenly, no longer in the middle of it all, was a small boy.
"We weren't doing nothing." The freckles on one boy's face paled as she approached. "We just wanted to look. He wouldn't let us see."
"Maybe if you asked nicely, Timmy," Nettie retorted as she bent down and picked up something bright green and incredibly soft. Before she could hand the toy to the child, it was snatched up and pressed over a pale face.
"See? We asked nicely and he wouldn't say nothing," another whined. "Wasn't our fault."
Nettie absently dropped a hand on a thin shoulder, pursing her lips when she felt the stiffness underneath the shirt far too big for him. She straightened with a pat to the light head. The boy wouldn't look up. And the toy—an alligator now that she has a better look-see—stayed protectively over the child's face.
"I'm sure you thought it was nice, but if he said no, then you must respect that."
"He didn't say no," John Parker's boy piped up. "He don't talk."
"I think he's stupid or something," another volunteered, but he clamped his mouth shut at Nettie's glower.
Nettie spied the box of crayons the child had tucked under his arm. "Seems to me, anyone preferring crayons to some of those expensive contraptions is the smart one." She stroked the boy's head, wishing the child would look up at least. "Sweetheart, where are your parents?"
"I don't think he has any," Timmy announced. "He was living with his brother, but now he's dying. My mother's a nurse at the clinic. She said so."
"My uncle said he's a…he's an ore fan."
"Orphan," Nettie automatically corrected Johnny. She glanced uneasily at the child in question, but fortunately, he didn't seem to understand.
"I saw him come in with Chris Larabee!"
"I'm gonna tell your mom you been fibbing again, Jacky!"
"I did!" Jacky tugged at the boy's sleeve. "Tell them."
"He can't talk, dum dum—"
"You're the dum dum!"
"Boys!" Nettie called out before the pushing and shoving could get worse.
"I think Larabee is gonna eat him," Timmy whispered loudly. The other kids' eyes rounded.
"He's a little too scrawny for me," a deep voice drawled.
The boys took off like the hounds of hell were after them, elbowing each other out of the way, screeching as they fled.
Nettie studied the space where the boys had been before she slowly turned around.
"Christopher Larabee." For once, the gossip was true. Chris Larabee, alive and sober in town and hasn't been thrown in jail yet.
"Nettie Welles," Chris acknowledged with a short nod that could be regarded as either polite or disrespectful. One could never tell with Larabee these days.
"Been a while." Nettie gave the boy a nudge toward Chris. "Friend of yours?"
Chris cocked his head to the side, trying to get a good look at his face. "Ethan?"
Nettie noted whereas the other children fled in fright, Ethan pulled the toy from his face and shuffled close to Chris' leg, a cheek resting on his jeans. More interesting, Chris looked shocked at it. Even a little lost, and her heart ached to see it. His hand hesitantly dropped over the child's head in response.
"Ethan, is it?" Nettie stooped in front of the child. Gracious, he had the most startlingly eyes; like looking at a spring field.
"It's nice to meet you, Ethan."
Silently, the boy moved around Chris' legs.
"He doesn't like to talk to anyone," Chris offered apologetically even as he shifted so Ethan was completely behind him. It didn't look like Chris was aware of it though.
"I thought those boys were just being mean-spirited when they said he doesn't talk." Nettie sighed. She eyed the shadow behind Chris. Judging by the child's size, Ethan probably wouldn't say much anyway.
"He talks," Chris muttered distractedly. "I think we don't know how to listen." He cleared his throat. "Told him to pick out something he likes." He gestured over his shoulder with the black hat he held in one hand. "Told him I would wait over there."
Nettie bit back the comment that Chris should have stayed with Ethan rather than hide by the front door. Instead, she nodded. Chris had been a father once. He did know better. Maybe that was the problem.
Chris frowned mildly at what Ethan held. "That's it?" He sounded almost disappointed. "Do you want anything else?" At the head shake, Chris appeared to be at a loss. He inspected the crayons, turning the carton in his hands.
"Perhaps some paper?" Nettie suggested. She wasn't sure if she was sad or amused at how baffled Chris appeared.
"Paper?" echoed Chris. He glanced down at the crayons in his hand. "Better than writing in my books or on my walls," he muttered.
"Maybe a few story books?" Nettie added.
She smiled to herself. "Wilbur here just brought some new ones he might like. Does he read?"
Chris frowned to himself. "No, I don't think so."
"You don't think so?" Nettie folded her arms in front of her. "How old is he?" Her mouth curved when Ethan shyly held up three fingers, hesitated, and added one more. "Thank you, Ethan, that was very helpful."
Appearing to have gotten over his initial reservations about her, Ethan held up his toy and held up four fingers.
"Oh, he's four as well?" chuckled Nettie.
"Thought Gatey looked older," drawled Chris, not cowed when a young scowl was cast his way.
It was tempting to laugh again; how she missed this side of Chris! She had seen him grow up to be a man, seen him walk down the aisle to be a husband, later beaming as a father.
She never thought she would live to see him become a widower.
Nettie took a deep breath and chased away the knot in her belly. She reached for a coloring book she'd considered before. The drawings of Howdy Doody grinned colorlessly back at her.
The toy squeaked. Nettie blinked. Ethan stared at the book in her hands.
"Like Howdy Doody?" Chris murmured, surprised.
Ethan nodded slowly, eyes still on the book. He looked like he wanted to grab it, but someone had taught the child good manners. He merely held onto his toy and stared longingly.
Nettie gave it to him and was graced with a smile; pure sunshine that left her warm and congenial when she turned to Chris.
"Most children these days like that Howdy Doody on the television."
Chris frowned. "I don't have a television." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "A boot fell into it."
"Funny," Nettie commented wryly, "heard your radio had the same fate."
There was something endearing about seeing Chris Larabee flush. He muttered Buck as he crouched to Ethan's level.
"Do you want that?" Chris asked. His mouth curved faintly at the hesitant nod. "Okay." He started when the child leaned against him and crushed his toy to him in an odd embrace.
"Thank you," Chris rasped. He stroked it briefly before it was pulled away. He caught Nettie smiling at them both and now he looked like he'd been standing in the sun for too long.
"He staying long?" Nettie hoped so.
"His brother's in the clinic with Nathan. Pneumonia." Chris appeared to consider it as a personal affront. "He was working in my ranch. Two weeks." Chris studied the top of Ethan's head. He shrugged.
"It'll be winter soon," Nettie reminded him. "Be more practical to have him stay and recuperate at the ranch. You could use a hand come spring."
"Stewart's nephew's been helping out," Chris muttered.
"Stewart's nephew's been talking about taking Rose to Chicago with him once he finds work as an accountant. You won't have him long." Nettie clucked. "Of course Rose said yes."
"Buck will be disappointed to hear that." Chris took a deep breath. "We agreed to two weeks." His gaze slid to the side. "I'm not running a boarding house. There's no room."
Yes there is, Nettie wanted to say. There was a whole second floor that needed to be repaired and baptized. She wondered if Chris was truly referring to his ranch though.
"Maybe just until winter passes?" Nettie prodded.
"You sound like Buck." Chris grimaced tiredly. He watched Ethan as he flipped through all the pages. He shook his head to himself.
"In the meantime," Nettie hastened before Chris made up his mind one way or the other, "maybe some more things are needed for Ethan, no matter how long his stay? Does he have a sleep shirt? Some clean underclothes? Does he need a primer for school?"
Chris looked at her blankly then at Ethan. An emotion Nettie couldn't identify came and fled his face as he considered.
"I'm not sure," admitted Chris.
"Would you like some help?" Nettie asked. She held her breath, waiting for him to snarl back.
"Be much obliged, Nettie," Chris instead murmured back.
It wasn't clear who was more surprised at the answer: Chris or herself.
* * * * *
"And this here, Mrs. Potter's boys outgrew these." Buck dangled them briefly over Rabbit's head but chucked them on top of Ethan.
Chris smiled faintly when the boy wiggled out of the pile, popping his head free and startling Rabbit.
He shook his head when Ethan struggled his way out from under one shirt, only to have another drop over him. It bothered him Ethan didn't make a single sound. Adam used to squeal whenever he helped Sarah with laundry. Chris would hear him, high pitched and so clear, Sarah's laugh pure when he climbed the few steps into his home. He'd always find himself smiling before even seeing them.
It felt like Buck was throwing the shirts over his heart. It numbed and settled painfully on top of his gut.
"Nathan got these from his nurse, Ruth." Another shirt sailed over and landed on Ethan. The couch was slowly disappearing.
Under it all, Ethan's toy gave an indignant shriek and a chuckle escaped before Chris realized it. He ignored Buck, who he could feel staring at him. Chris scratched his jaw and coughed loudly to cover it up. He leaned forward and studied one shirt. He held it up with a scowl.
"Some of these are too big, Buck. The boy's gonna drown in them."
"'Least it'll be warm," Buck pointed out. "Rain said she'd fix anything else that needs fixing." He flipped the shirt over his head and waggled his hands in the air.
Chris rolled his eyes. Buck made as convincing of a ghost as he had earlier as a horse. He'd made a fool of himself, running after Rabbit and making whinny noises.
The boy seemed transfixed though, staring at Buck like he was an egg short of a dozen. Chris rubbed fingers over the carefully washed fabric. Maybe he should have taken up Nettie Welles' offer to help in Lucy Jo's shop. But when he'd taken Ethan there, the place had been crowded with mothers holding up clothing to sons and daughters, and it'd felt like the world shrank around him as he stood there paralyzed. He was almost glad when Ethan slipped out of his grasp to peer at the window of pies in the bakeshop next door. Chris ended up buying a whole angel food cake as well as an apple pie.
"And look what I got here…" It was worrying how gleeful Buck appeared as he pulled out from his duffel what looked like a plastic orange egg. It made a hollow popping sound when Buck cracked it open down the middle. A pink wad of…something fell into Buck's hands.
"Silly Putty!" Buck declared before he slapped it hard on the funnies pages Ethan was fanning his toy with.
Rabbit yelped when it landed with a loud thud. He leapt up to all fours and scrammed, howling, into the den.
"Aw, it ain't—Rabbit, come back here!" Buck shouted after the mutt. He sighed. "Should have called him Scaredy Cat."
Chris grunted from his armchair. If Buck wanted to name him, he shouldn't have insisted Rabbit stay at the ranch. He watched Buck peel the odd material off to reveal the imprint of the funnies on it. Ethan's mouth shaped to a tiny "O," his eyes just as round as he rose on his knees and leaned in to peer over Buck's shoulder. Chris' brow knitted. His throat worked.
The winter before he went to war, Chris had to calf one of Brown's bulls. Adam kept running into the house for more blankets as Brown grunted and moaned through a breech birth on the coldest night that year.
When the null finally stood up on its shaky thin legs, Adam stared and stared, mouth opened in a circle, almost climbing up Chris' shoulder as he watched the baby go from a wet, limp mess of bony limbs to a black-coated calf with a white muzzle hobbling back for mother's milk. It was Adam's first time to witness a birth, and his boy hadn't wanted to leave. Chris held him, let Adam use him like a bed, and watched the baby until he fell asleep.
After Buck showed Ethan how to use the putty a few times, the toddler was trying it himself on the stack of picture books Nettie had convinced Chris to buy. No one could say no to Nettie Welles. Their government should have shipped her to war.
Buck stared at the boy, his mouth twisted in memory.
Chris looked away. He didn't want to know what Buck was remembering. He rubbed his hands over his knees.
Buck held up a short, button-down white shirt.
"Rain does good work. Lucy Jo's been thinking of offering her a job," Buck marveled as he turned it to examine it front and back. "This should fit."
Chris eyed the shirt and agreed. "Ethan, come try this."
The boy never looked up, now busy making a nest for his green companion with the clothing gathered around him on the couch.
"Ethan," Chris called, louder. When the boy still didn't look up, memory nagged him. He set a hand on Buck's arm, stopping him before he could reach over and tap the boy on the shoulder.
Buck frowned. "What is it?"
"Ezra," Chris said very carefully.
The boy perked up.
"Come over here."
After considering Chris, the boy crawled off the couch and stood in front of him with questioning eyes.
Buck looked from Chris to the boy, his brow furrowed. "But, Chris, their papers said—"
Ignoring, Buck, Chris dropped his hands on the boy's shoulders. He made eye contact.
"Is your name Ezra?" Chris asked clearly.
The boy started to nod, flinched, then empathetically shook his head.
Chris narrowed his eyes. "I don't like people lying to me."
"Chris, he's just a little kid," Buck protested.
"Is your name Ethan?" Chris demanded.
The boy dipped his head. Finally, he shook his head slowly.
"Okay," Chris lowered his voice. He pulled the boy closer to him, feeling the trembling of the tiny body. "All right. It's fine. I just wanted to know your name. Sh…it's okay." Over Ezra's shoulder, he gave Buck a look.
Buck, still staring at the child, distractedly nodded and strode to the phone. He spoke rapidly into it before hanging up.
"Asked Charlie to check in Denver. Might take a few days," Buck whispered.
Chris nodded, not quite letting Ezra go. He kept a hand on the boy's back. He could feel Gatey's snout pressing to his chest, like it was bodily trying to put itself between them.
"It's all right," Chris murmured as he continued patting the boy. "It's nice to meet you, Ezra."
* * * * *
"Ezra Simpson?" Josiah repeated. He leaned into the couch, still pleasantly full from the dinner Chris made. When Chris called, Josiah had almost hang up on him, sure it was a prank. But no, sure enough, he drove up and entered a home saturated with the rich, hearty smells of liver and onions. There had even been pie.
Josiah considered the child playing with a deck of mismatched poker cards on the floor. The boy looked up at his name, but when no one said anything more, he went back to playing cards with his toy. Josiah winced at the mess all over the floor. Surprisingly, Chris made no comment. He even added another deck of cards into the mix.
"Buck's heard nothing on that name in Denver or Utah City. He thinks maybe Texas. Vin sounded like he had a bit of an accent. That's all he has to go on though," Chris murmured. He sat there, legs crossed, eyes keen on the child, his beer bottle hanging full in his loose grip. "That's assuming Simpson's their real surname."
"Where do you think they got the paperwork?" Josiah wondered out loud. He chuckled when Ezra tried to fan out at least twenty cards in his hand and they all came fluttering down.
"Don't know." Chris shrugged. His lips were crooked into a smile as he watched the strange activity.
Josiah eyed the golden head with a pang. "Do you think they traveled that far?" He smiled as Ezra pointed to something beyond the plush toy, then plucked two cards off the combined deck.
"Maybe. You gotta wonder what could've been so bad to make them run." A shadow crossed Chris' expression. He shook his head. Louder, Chris said, "No cheating, Ezra."
The boy straightened, blinking innocently at Chris before returning the two cards he pilfered off the deck.
Josiah chuckled. "Who's winning?" Ezra had at least ten cards on his lap, the toy twice as much. It didn't seem to matter the card backing.
"Who the hell knows?" Chris snorted.
At that moment, Ezra pouted. He batted the toy on its head. It honked.
Josiah's eyebrow rose when Chris chuckled. "I guess that damn toy did." To Ezra, Chris called out, "Play nice, boys." He grunted when Ezra pulled Gatey into a fierce and squawking hug. Chris glanced over to Josiah. His brow knitted together.
"It's good to see you again, that's all." Josiah smiled serenely at Chris, even when his friend scowled.
"What are you trying to say?"
"I think I've said enough already." Josiah nodded to himself as he watched Chris keeping an eye on Ezra. "I suppose we all have." He sobered. "I never met her, Chris, but I know she'd never have wanted you to suffer like this."
"Not suffering," Chris muttering. "Surviving." He directed his scowl somewhere past Ezra.
"Not surviving if you're not living."
Chris snapped sharply, "You expect me to kick up my heels and start dancing?"
Squeak? Behind Chris, Ezra pinched his toy and made a sound.
The fire in Chris' eyes dampened. He glanced over his shoulder at the floor.
"Don't leave a mess," warned Chris.
The toy honked. Chris appeared satisfied with that and twisted around again.
"Chris, we're not saying don't mourn for them," Josiah said kindly. "Just…there's nothing wrong with living for them either." He nodded at Ezra.
Something flickered in Chris' gaze. His mouth twisted, as if unsure if he wanted to frown or laugh, because Ezra was trying very hard to gather up all the cards but they kept slipping free of his short arms.
"Need help, son?" Josiah called out.
Ezra vigorously shook his head, which made all the cards tumble out.
Josiah held up his hands at the baleful look. "Sorry."
Chris scoffed, but Josiah caught the smirk before he turned around.
"Thought I told you to clean that up," Chris reminded Ezra.
Josiah snickered when Ezra scampered over and dropped all the cards on Rabbit's head. The dog yelped. Ezra ran away.
"What would you like me to do?" Josiah tracked the boy run back and grab the plush creature he'd left abandoned on the floor. The two left again, Rabbit on Ezra's heels as they went to the den. The warmth that lingered in the room and in his belly had nothing to do with the fire crackling in the hearth.
"I have their papers. Take a look at them. See…" Chris shrugged. "They looked good to Buck. I thought they looked real, but maybe you can see legal like. Find out where those boys are really from."
"I'll see what I can do." Josiah nodded. "But, Chris," he murmured, "if those two were working that hard to get away, poking around might mean whoever or whatever they were running away from could find them." Josiah gave Chris a sideways look. "You sure you want them found?"
Chris set his mouth and said nothing.
* * * * *
Stewart acted like Chris had come up to the door in a purple dress.
Grimacing, Chris shut the door as he reviewed his conversation. All right, so he'd said "Thank you" to Stewart for finishing the weaning and the haying. He was being polite, damn it. That was all. Stewart didn't have to act like that.
In the back of his mind, Chris knew Stewart, like most people in town, were probably all a buzzing about him and Ezra visiting Four Corners two days ago. It was getting harder and harder to ignore them. But leaving the clinic and walking to his truck meant passing through town sometimes—where did they all come from anyway? Shouldn't folks be at work? Or school?
This morning, though, Chris couldn't ignore the crestfallen expression on Ezra's face after his visit with Vin. Out of the corner of his eye, while talking to Nathan and Charlie—who used to avoid him like the plague but now, for some reason, he thought Chris would be interested in talking about baseball of all things—he'd caught Ezra showing page after page of his pictures to his brother. Except Vin wasn't awake to see them, and in a moment of a tantrum, Ezra threw down the sketchbook Chris had bought him and crawled under Vin's bed for a good long pout.
"No, I'll get him," Chris said when he saw Dorothy steering straight for Vin's bed. He nodded brusquely to Nathan and Charlie before crossing the room.
Vin was oblivious to everything, hands folded across his stomach, distorted under the clear plastic. The boy was no longer flushed with fever and he supposed that was good; Doc and Nathan both seem to think so, but the ashen pallor was not much improvement either.
A sniffle floated out from under the bed. Chris studied the floor and thought how much simpler it would be to get in there and haul the sulking child out. But he remembered how rigid the child went when Josiah had tried to pick up Ezra before Chris could warn against it. Thankfully, Josiah caught himself in time, but Ezra had fled into the guest bedroom and wouldn't come out until morning.
Chris picked up the sketchbook and flipped through the pages. The drawings were surprisingly good. No one looked misshapen or disproportionate, and it was clear what was being drawn. Ezra seemed to like red a little too much though. Everyone wore a vibrant red coat and red pants.
"These pictures are good." Chris eased himself to the floor and sat Indian-style. "Shame your brother can't see them right now."
A louder sniff.
The sketchbook was already half-filled. It was time to buy another one.
"You can show him again when he wakes up."
Ezra's toy whined low and long.
"He'll wake up."
The toy mewled quietly.
"He will. Nathan said he was getting better. Vin will wake up soon." Chris eyed the space next to him. Thinking back to Adam, he added, "You know, there could be things under the bed that like to eat alligators."
Chris suddenly found himself with a lapful of child and toy.
Rubbing Ezra's back, Chris tried to identify the wiggling feeling coiled in his chest, unraveling and releasing warmth. When Ezra dropped his head against Chris' shoulder, he gave up and just patted the boy on the head.
They'd ended up seeing a picture. At the time, all they'd had was something with William Powell, but Ezra seemed more fascinated with the warm fluffy popcorn and pelting Gatey with it. Chris didn't see much of the movie either; he was distracted by the hushed, "Is that…" and "I'll be a monkey's uncle, isn't that…" all around him. He wanted to get up; he wanted to march to the back rows and give the bastards a good thrashing. But something on the screen went Bang and a plate shattered, and Ezra scrambled under the seats. Chris had to recruit an usher with his flashlight to find the toddler.
Chris dimly remembered taking Sarah once to see The Thin Man when he was trying to convince her to wear his ring after they'd finished high school. Sarah had wanted to work as a dictation girl in a big office somewhere. She hadn't wanted to spend her whole life in Four Corners.
But Chris had convinced her to stay.
When Chris wanted to leave the theater, Ezra hadn't kicked up a fuss. The moment they returned to the ranch and Chris stepped foot into the house, all he could hear was Sarah's laughter and Adam running up and down the stairs even though Chris had repeatedly warned him against it.
Pain lanced in his gut. Chris found himself needing to sit down and dropped heavily onto the steps that led upstairs. He braced his head with his hands and breathed sharply through his nose. The faint smell of ash and wet wood lingered over his head like a ghost. Upstairs, fire-scarred wood creaked like someone was walking across it. Someone perhaps pacing down the hallway; maybe going into a child's room to make sure nightmares were kept at bay.
The wind howled outside and rattled the boarded up windows. Distantly, it sounded like someone was knocking on a door. Whistling between cracks, it sounded like someone was singing a lullaby.
Chris choked. His fingers curled into his hair, but the pain was barely felt. All he could think of was what remained of his family was above him, lingering, staying behind when the flesh has already succumbed to death.
He blinked furiously, but his eyes were dry.
God, he needed a drink.
Chris stared blearily at the den to his right. His throat worked. He staggered to his feet and aimed for his liquor cabinet.
* * * * *
Chris had two drinks before he remembered Ezra.
Lowering his glass, Chris knuckled an eye and cursed inwardly for his stupidity. He cast about, but Rabbit wasn't around. He couldn't even hear the high-pitched noises of Ezra's friend.
"Ezra?" Chris called out. He set down the decanter—a gift from Sarah's mother—and weaved toward the living room. Nothing. He checked the kitchen. The peanut butter jelly sandwich was still on the table, one bite out of it, light brown nutty smears on the counter.
The pantry proved to be empty, as was the guest bedroom. Chris opened his front door even though he knew he would have seen Ezra if the boy had scampered past. Nothing on the porch, and only the cows bayed in reply when he hollered for Ezra again.
Christ, where did the boy go? Chris' head spun from bourbon, too long since his last drink. He shook his head, checked the den again, even behind the television set he'd never got around to having fixed. He ran a hand through his hair, his chest heaving.
Above him, the ceiling creaked.
His head shot up. Chris placed a foot on the first step when he realized there was a smudge of peanut butter on the wall. He set his jaw and climbed the stairs.
* * * * *
The hallway was dark despite the afternoon sun at its peak over the house. With all the windows boarded up, the wood still black with soot, it was like night had settled into his home and never left.
Chris couldn't speak. His throat wouldn't work. He eyed the honey-colored planks that started with the steps and stopped three feet into the hall.
It was as far as Chris had ever gotten. He would sand, polish the moldings, the eaves, the threshold over and over until they get so worn down, he replaced them. Then he would sand those down until he hit bottom, replace them, and everything started all over again.
Automatically, Chris' feet stilled on the line that marked new wood and dead, burnt wood. He stared down the rest of the corridor, Ezra's name caught in his throat.
There were four doors, two on each side facing each other. The master bedroom faced the children's room; the bathroom faced the spare room. Sarah had hoped it would someday become a nursery.
The doors hung partially destroyed, swinging idly, the paint still cracked and peeled. Chris could see the line of fire, a dark serpent which had slithered down the middle of the corridor, crawled up the walls, and ate the ceiling. Chris could see through some spots, up into an equally destroyed attic, and the bleached wood where the roof was repaired.
"Ezra!" hissed Chris. It didn't feel right to shout. He took another step, but when the wood creaked under his weight, Chris froze.
There was never a doubt the house was sturdy. It had been Chris' home as a boy, when it was only one level. He'd built the new level with the sturdiest lumber, braced the studs with thick, solid planks.
But stepping onto the scarred floor felt like stepping on a grave.
"Ezra!" Chris hissed again, barely loudly than a whisper.
Something dropped down the hall.
It could be nothing. It could be something.
His knee ached as he bent it and lifted. His foot landed loudly past the new wood. Chris lifted his right foot and jerked it forward. His ribs rattled tight around him as he jerkily took another step.His breathing was ragged and loud in his ears. By the time he reached the bathroom door, he was drenched in sweat. He slapped a hand on the wall. He could feel the grit digging into his palm. His fingers curled, and he felt plaster bits glued to wood by fire. The wall shed dust and soot under his touch and skittered to the floor.
Sarah would have hated this mess.
A sob crawled out of his mouth. Chris bowed his head, but still it escaped, grating in the back of his throat. He exhaled, hissing between his teeth. He stared at the floor, at the small piles of ash gathered along the wall like molehills.
Yes, Sarah would have hated this mess. She would have shooed the Larabee men out and scrubbed everything. Then she would scrub again once her men returned, stomping dirt from the outside. God, Sarah could lit up a temper that would have cowed his father, if he had still been alive. Only Adam could get her smiling again. Only their wonderful, innocent son…
Chris rested his face on the wall now. He could hear Sarah laughing in their bedroom, Adam scurrying out of his room to see what all the fuss was about. He was sure the walls absorbed her laughter, soaked up Adam's childhood, everything, even their last moments. The walls were saturated with the life Chris thought would last generations. His Sarah, his Adam—they lived here when he left. They should have still been here when he came back.
Talk to me, Chris thought as he rested his flushed face on the wall. He rubbed it with his palm, his eyes burning, and somehow, that felt appropriate.
Behind him, in Adam's room, something heavy dropped.
Chris slowly lifted his head.
"Adam?" Chris croaked hopefully. He staggered to the door. It was open and his heart squeezed inside his chest, tighter and tighter the closer he got.
The floor creaked.
Chris gripped the loose door and nearly tore it off its hinges.
Ezra blinked at him from the middle of a destroyed room.
"What the hell are you doing up here?" Chris roared. The door toppled behind him.
Ezra could only stare at him, frozen in his tracks. He was a small child in his clean, sky blue button up, gray short pants. His eyes were bright on his pale face. He stood like an angel displaced into Chris' personal hell.
And in the middle of a soot-streaked room that had once been painted pale green, Chris exploded.
"You shouldn't be up here! Get out of his room! Out! Get out!"
Ezra ran, slipped past between Chris and the doorframe, fast enough to avoid Chris should he make a grab for him.
Chris didn't. He stood there, vibrating so violently, he couldn't see clearly. He clung to either side of the door because his legs wouldn't work. He couldn't get his chest to draw in more air. Each breath tasted like ash, like dry powder that wouldn't go away, even when he tried to cough.
And he tried. Chris coughed and coughed until his knees gave up and he sank to the floor, and suddenly the coughing sounded rawer, tasted sour and his face felt wet. He lifted his heavy head; he couldn't move anything else.
Gatey stood in the middle of the floor, abandoned where it had been dropped.
"Shit," Chris rasped. "Ezra." He hastily wiped his face with his sleeve and stumbled to his feet. Chris crashed into the door as he turned. "Ezr—"
Clinging to the bathroom doorframe, Ezra stood, warily watching him.
Chris sagged against the door. He scrubbed his hand down a face that felt tight and flushed.
"Sorry," Chris croaked. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…" He gestured Ezra to come over. The boy wouldn't, but Chris couldn't really blame him. He glanced over his shoulder and staggered into the room. He scooped up the toy and weaved back out. He extended his arm and saw Ezra fidget.
"Here." Chris watched Ezra edge away from his hiding place, biting his lower lip as he approached.
Chris got down on one knee and held Gatey out in a loose grip. He pulled it closer as Ezra drew near. By the time Ezra wrapped his arms around the toy, he was within Chris' reach to drop an arm around his shoulders. The child started.
"I'm sorry," murmured Chris as he gave Ezra's shoulders a squeeze. "I shouldn't have yelled like that."
Ezra hugged Gatey and it whined.
Chris closed his eyes. He sagged and sat on the floor.
"Yeah," he rasped. "You didn't deserve that." When he opened his eyes, Ezra was closer now, a battered tin box in his hands. "What is that?" Chris accepted the warped container. Fire had sagged its corners in and darkened its once colorful lid.
"Where did you find this?"
Ezra wordlessly pointed to the heavy bottomed bed Chris had made Adam once he was too old for the crib. Chris could see a gap, where the bed met the floor, where something could be safely tucked inside.
The box felt heavy, although when Chris shook it, nothing rattled. He stared at it, at a loss of what to do. He felt Ezra wiggling closer to peer over his arm at the box.
"It's…this was my son's." Chris pushed back on the lump in his throat. His eyes watered from the effort.
Ezra poked a finger at the lid, tentatively.
The box seemed to brand into his palms. Chris swallowed.
"Why don't we go downstairs and open it?" But Chris couldn't find the strength to get up. Not yet.
Ezra seemed to understand, or perhaps he was tired, too. He gingerly sat down next to Chris, Gatey on his lap, and waited; like he did every morning before they went to see Vin.
Chris cradled the box in his lap and sat in the dark with Ezra in a room he realized didn't match what was in his memory.
"…And somehow you know, you know even then…"
Perry Como's smooth baritone filled his automobile as Buck drove to Chris' ranch. He didn't know what to think; everyone was now calling him a "crooner." Hell, he still remembered Como leading Weems' band, filling the barracks with his steady voice, with the band spinning a low tune of trumpets and clarinets. Some good ol' American music to drown out the sounds of war.
Scratching his mustache, Buck rested his elbow on the window as he steered his vehicle past Nettie's, past Carson's, around the bend past the swimming hole until he hit Larabee's.
As it had many times before, the mutilated structure rose like a mountain as he drew near. Its blackened face glowered down at him, eerily echoing its owner. Time was, coming here had meant a warm welcome and a friendly wave from their boy could be expected. These days when he stood under it, his gut went as hollow as his canteen in the dead of winter in France. Back then, he'd stood in a field of the dead, half torn with thirst yet ill with the thought of salvaging a full canteen from those who no longer needed it. Nathan had scolded him; he'd nearly died of thirst, his mouth so dry, his lips bled whenever he tried to speak.
Standing under the shadow of what used to be a content home, Buck found his gut gnawing inside and out. It was the thirst that could never be quenched. because sorrow hungered far too deeply to ever be slaked.
Buck snorted. And Josiah said he didn't understand poetry. He'd read some while they squirmed into a haystack for warmth. As Buck had tried to drift off among the itchy and the pokey, Josiah read from his weathered book, low and steady like far away thunder.
When Buck turned off the ignition, his patrol car rolled to a stop between the bunkhouse and the main house. He hefted the basket the Potter widow had pressed to him: her famous lemon icebox pie and a box heaping full of hot fries. Apparently, Ezra had made an impression on her. If only the boys made an impression on Chris.
The carton was suddenly heavy in his hands, and Buck found he needed to sit down on the porch, rest a spell.
Buck absently rubbed at his chest as he stared across to the barn and the stables. By now, the colt Chris had carefully bred would have been trained for his boy. Adam would have been twelve, riding beside Chris and Buck as they inspected the herds.
With a loud sniff, Buck sat back into the porch bench Chris had hammered together with what lumber had remained from the bunkhouse. Buck remembered sitting on the steps, helpfully supervising, Sarah laughing her head off by the door, all pink and healthy as any soon-to-be-mother was blessed with.
The bench creaked when Buck settled all his weight on it, his holster digging into his hip as he scowled balefully at the railing wrapping the entire front of the house.
Not everybody has a ranch to hide at, Larabee, Buck thought bitterly. He scrubbed a hand under his nose and took a deep breath. He hefted the box into the crook of his arm and approached the front door at a determined clip.
Buck didn't bother knocking. Two to one the door was open anyway, and sure enough, he waltzed right in without a key.
"Honey, I'm home!" Buck bellowed.
The retort came surprisingly from the front by the staircase and not his usual perch on the couch. Chris sat on the third step, looking like he'd aged a few decades since Buck had last seen him.
Buck squinted at him. "What you're doing over there?" His insides writhed like a bunch of snakes. "You haven't been…" His voice sharpened. "Hell, Chris, Nate warned you—"
The worn expression thrown his way silenced Buck. It was like all that anger and grief was drained out of Chris. He looked almost starved, as if there was nothing left in him.
Buck's throat tightened. "Chris?" He set Inez's box down on the foyer's bench.
Wordlessly, Chris held up a beat-up looking metallic box the size of both of his hands.
"Huh." Buck accepted it and turned the flat rectangle around in his hands. A spark teased the back of his mind.
"Well, I'll be…I remember this thing! It's that Cameron tobacco I got in New York City!" Buck marveled at the battered red-orange container. He could still make out the golden scripted words "Finest Smoking Tob…" on the lid. He frowned to himself when he felt the edges of the lid were welded into the box itself. Now that was a lousy way to treat a fine box of tobacco.
"Don't even know why you bought that thing," Chris said. For some reason, his eyes were glued to it. "Cost you almost as much as those damn train tickets East."
"Ah, Louisa Perkins," Buck sighed, remembering. "Prettiest doll who ever walked into my life."
"More like walked over," grunted Chris.
Buck ignored Chris; he didn't disagree. He'd followed the ambitious angel back to New York, but she hadn't followed him home. He shrugged.
"At the time, the rich folks there in the city was smoking a pipe." Buck puffed out his chest. "Thought I would try it back home. Louisa said it made me distinguished."
"You looked like an idiot." Chris' lips crooked. "Sarah thought for sure your mustache was going to catch fire from that damn thing."
At the mention of Sarah's name, Buck stole a glance, but Chris was just staring at the floor, hands on his knees.
The surface felt flaky, the paint was chipped, revealing the silver tin, enough to make it look like it could sparkle, if given a good polish.
"Smoked the whole thing with Stewart. Remember?" Buck smiled sadly at Chris' snort. "Winona finally had enough one day and threw us out of the house. Said we smelled like something a tree would vomit if it could." He brushed a palm across it. "I'd wondered what happened to it."
"Found it under Adam's bed."
Buck nearly dropped it. Now he knew why the lid was stuck on the box. He wanted to hug the tin box and weep.
"He…" Chris cleared his throat, but his voice still came out rough like he hadn't spoken in years. Maybe he hadn't. "He liked the smell. Wanted to keep his things in it."
Buck could feel his mustache curving down as he gazed at the box. "It's a good box. Would have been a damn waste to throw it away. Winona threw it at ol' Stew's head and it didn't even dent." He ran a thumb across the box. Yes, it was the kind of box any little boy would want to keep his treasure in.
If Chris heard him, his face didn't show. He stared at the box like he could see right through it.
"Sarah first said no. Didn't think a child should be keeping a tobacco box, but eventually, she gave in." The odd chuckle Chris made burned Buck's eyes. "Said it wasn't fair: me and Adam ganging up on her. Said she could never say no to the two of us."
Buck sighed heavily. He kicked at Chris' boots.
"Move over," Buck croaked. "Be hospitable and offer me a seat."
Chris studied Buck before shuffling over.
Old bones dropped Buck onto the step next to his old friend. His fingers ached like it was the dead of winter as he ran them over the box. He shook it.
"What do you think is inside?"
Chris' throat worked. "Don't know. Can't open it without…" He gestured jerkily at the tin Buck held. He exhaled unsteadily. "Should bury it with him."
The words came out strangled, leapt out of Chris' throat and wrapped around Buck's. He nodded, unable to speak. He shook the box again, thought about a boy with a childhood worth of possessions, shunted away in a tin he would never get to appreciate when he was older.
"I miss them, too, you know," Buck said quietly.
Chris tensed next to him, but when he spoke, none of it was in his voice. "I know."
Buck pressed a thumb to his burning eyes.
"Hell, Chris," Buck rasped, "I knew Sarah and you all my life, and knew that boy of yours most of his. They were as much kin to me as you can be."
"You think these years were easy for me, too? You think I didn't want to lay down and—"
"Buck, I know."
With a loud sniff that filled his chest, Buck screwed up his face.
"Well there you go," muttered Buck. He slanted a look sideways. "You think Josiah and Nate stuck around here for the exciting city life?" Buck rattled the box again. "Chris, you got us through hell and back. Can't you give us a chance to return the favor?"
Silent, Chris set his mouth and stared at nothing in particular.
Buck's shoulders slumped. He turned back to the box. The tin was surprisingly intact, still kept its shape despite the brimstone it'd been in.
"Wait…" Buck held out the box and stared at it. "You were in Adam's room?"
Chris bobbed his head like his neck no longer worked right.
A hand scrubbing his face, Buck gave a grimace. "God, Chris, you haven't gone in there since…Why today?" Buck narrowed his eyes when he caught a whiff of something. Sour. Bitter. His gut dropped to his shoes—or felt like it, at least.
"You son of a bitch," Buck breathed. "You've been drinking again, haven't you?" The tin box was set on a higher step. "You got a little one in here, but you still have to get drunk off your ass? God damn it, Larabee—Where's Ezra?"
Buck shot to his feet and spun around. He found the toddler by the front door, Inez's box open, his small fist full of fries, his face smeared with lemon curd. The toy at his feet had fared no better.
A gruff chuckle escaped Chris.
Buck jerked and stared, because he wasn't sure he'd heard him correctly.
"Told you we were having meatloaf," Chris chided Ezra, ignoring Buck.
"No, you eat that after meatloaf." Snorting, Chris scowled at Ezra, but for once, the ire behind it was missing.
"Did you at least wash up first?" At Ezra's nod, Chris snorted. "Uh-huh. How about Gatey?" He grunted at Ezra's bowed head. "Thought so. Go on, you two, wash up. Don't ruin your dinner."
Buck found himself speechless as Ezra hurried away as fast as his short legs could take him. Buck turned back to Chris, who was slowly getting to his feet.
"Better wash up, too," Chris remarked easily. He picked up the tin, carefully like it was made of glass, and aimed for the kitchen. "Don't forget to bring that box to the kitchen before that damn mutt of yours eats it off the floor." He didn't wait for Buck's answer.
"Chris…" Words failed Buck again.
Chris stopped in the middle of the living room.
"Two drinks," Chris said. He turned around and met Buck's gaze unflinchingly, his mouth for once not set in a grim line, but not really smiling either. "Forgot. Won't forget again."
"What does this mean?" pressed Buck. "Are you saying they can stay?"
Shadows settled back over Chris' expression. "I'm just saying I won't be forgetting."
Staring back at Chris, Buck knew they weren't just talking about the drinking. "No one says you have to, but—"
"Get ready for dinner." Pivoting on his heels, Chris continued on to the kitchen.
Buck blinked, rubbed his eyes, and leaned against the banister for a moment because it felt like his heart was going to burst. It wasn't a yes, but it was definitely not a no either. He craned his head up the staircase and back down to the box of food on the floor. His mustache twitched, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh like a fool or bawl like a baby. It felt like it could go either way.
"Hell," Buck sighed.
Ezra peered out from in the living room. His toy let out another low, disapproving song.
* * * * *
Maude patted her high-piled hair into shape as she looked at herself in the mirror.
"I think it is a fine city," she declared in a tone that meant if she thought it was "fine", the rest of the world should agree. "You and Ezra would prosper there."
He tried to think about where it was on the map, but he'd done poorly on his geography test and had gotten a belt to his behind for it and no dinner. Luckily, Maude had snuck him some pie later.
Try as he might, he still couldn't remember.
"Is that really far?" he asked slowly.
"Far enough for our purposes." Maude was always saying funny things like that. "If the fates are kind, we shall go there. The three of us."
"Three?" He scratched his head. "What about him?"
"The invitation doesn't extend to him," Maude said all flat like she was mad or something. She beamed at him from the mirror. "There are a few interesting sights. The Peacock Hotel there has the most lucrative casino…" She made a puckery face like she was sucking a lemon. She delicately cleared her throat."Ah…zoo, there's a very nice zoo there."
Actually, he wouldn't mind the casino to try some of the card tricks Maude had taught him. "No ranches?"
Maude shuddered. "Goodness, no. The people there obtain their beef in a far less savage way."
He wanted to ask why Maude married Eli Joe if she didn't like ranching, but he supposed a lady with a round baby belly couldn't be picky either.
"Why, we could find an apartment there that looks out onto the Pacific." Maude smiled widely at the mirror. "You would like the ocean, Vincent. It goes as far as the eye can see and looks like it touches the sky. Vast and rich with opportunity waiting for us."
He squirmed on her tall bed. It was a big bed. All the way from France, Maude once said; it came from the vineyards she said her family owned until the war destroyed them.
"Maybe Mrs. Martin and Mister can come with us?" he asked hopefully.
"If you like," Maude murmured. "I am very partial to Mrs. Martin's cooking."
"Mister never saw the ocean before," he told her.
"Then you and Ezra should show him when we get there."
The idea sounded keen. He grinned. "Okay."
Suddenly, Ezra grabbed Vin's pants to pull himself up from the floor. Maude caught him standing all wobbly in the mirror.
"Oh, clever baby boy, look at you! Soon you'll be running!" she cooed but didn't turn away from her reflection. "Not so fast though. Or your brother can't catch up."
"Ezra," he whined when the baby pulled at his trousers to stay up, "these are new."
"Gah!" Ezra demanded. He still didn't have all his teeth yet so everything always came out with baby drool. Yuck.
A little hand flailed for his toy, sitting high on the bed.
"Gah!" Ezra whimpered.
"Oh, all right." He grabbed Gatey and danced it above Ezra for a second, but Ezra gave him a look, his lower lip quivering so he handed it over.
"Gah," sighed Ezra as he pulled it to him.
"You're so goofy," he told Ezra, snickering. "You hug it like it was Mother."
Maude wasn't laughing, though. She turned completely around in her fancy chair with blue silk and looked at them seriously.
"And he should," she told him. "Ezra should hold it close like he would his mother." She sighed. "It'll be a poor substitute, but at least it'll be there to ensure both your futures."
"Huh? He screwed up his face. "What's sub…sub still to?"
"Substitute," Maude repeated. She never minded doing so. Not like his teacher. "It means something to take place of something else."
"Oh." He flicked at Ezra's hair. The baby squealed and he grinned at the noise. "You mean Gatey is supposed to be you?" He frowned. That didn't make sense.
"Not now," Maude murmured. "But possibly someday."
"It's not as pretty as you," he told Maude solemnly. "And Gatey's a boy."
Maude chuckled. "Nevertheless…" She set down her powder case and flower-smelling perfume. "Vincent. Will you hold our Ezra just as close?"
"You mean like a sub stick toot?"
Maude didn't correct him this time. "No, like a brother."
"Sure." He shrugged, not sure why Maude asked. He was Ezra's brother. "Okay."
For some reason, Maude looked like she wanted to cry. "Thank you, Vincent. Thank you."
The frog in his throat was gone.
At least, that's what it felt like.
When he swallowed, it didn't hurt so much, and his chest didn't feel like a rock was sitting on it.
But there was something he needed to remember.
Mumbling, he reached out a hand and someone gasped. A plate dropped and he tensed.
"'zra," he moaned. No, no, he needed to get through the door. He could hear Ezra crying inside. Where was Mister? Where was Maude? He needed to get in there, take Ezra away. Run. Run very far, very fast.
The door was out of reach though. The more he reached for it, the more it pulled away.
"'top," he whimpered. "'eave him a'one."
A warm large hand wrapped around the one still trying to reach the door.
"Easy. You're all right, son."
No. he wasn't anyone's son. He was Ezra's brother. That's all. No one wanted a son. They say they do then they go to heaven or get in a car that never comes back or pay him to feed the cows and fix the fences. He wasn't anyone's son. It doesn't matter. He only wanted to be Ezra's brother.
Whatever caught his hand wouldn't let go. It was a careful grip, around his fingers.
"We'll get him here. Get some sleep."
"Hush now. He'll be here in a few hours. Sleep."
He didn't want to listen. His body fidgeted at the command even though it was only whispered to him. But he was so tired and the bed felt real nice, and before he could open his eyes, he fell asleep again.
* * * * *
"There better be a good reason to call me at this hour," Chris yawned.
Nathan grimaced. He worked his jaw to push back the sympathetic yawn. He checked the time on the desk clock Doc Harper had given him as a welcoming gift when Nathan had joined his clinic despite the protests.
Immediately, Chris sounded alert. "Is it Vin?"
Nathan nodded before he rolled his eyes when he caught himself doing it. "I was working overnight. Wilbur's wife's gone into labor early and JD got me. While I was here, Vin was waking up." Nathan could feel a smile stretched across his tight face. "Fever's broke, Chris. I listened to his lungs. Everything sounds good. Think he's going to be okay."
Even through the scratchy quality of the telephone, Chris' relief was clear. "That's good to hear. I know Ezra will be glad to hear it. We'll—What are you doing up?"
Nathan frowned. "Huh?"
"Not you," Chris spoke into the receiver before turning away again. "You are supposed to be asleep. Little alligators need their rest."
Dimly, Nathan could make out a tiny squeak.
"Yes, it was about your brother. No, no, sh, he's all right. Remember Nathan? He called to say your brother woke up."
Nathan winced at the rapid fire squeaking and honking. Sounded like a flock of ducks stuck in a barrel.
The exasperation in Chris' voice was funny, although Nathan would never tell him.
"No, we are not going no—do you see what time it is? Of course not, because you don't know how to tell time. It's still dark out and—where are you going?"
After a moment and a few more high-pitched sounds, Chris' Labrador barked, joining the fray. A moment after that, Chris came back on the phone, exasperated.
"We'll be there in an hour."
The line hung up with an abrupt click. Nathan stared at the handset for a long time until he heard the tinny, discrete clearing of an operator's throat.
"Uh, operator," Nathan stammered, "you sure you connected me to Chris Larabee?"
* * * * *
Chris decided to spare Nathan's throttling when he was handed a mug of not chicory but real coffee as soon as they staggered through the clinic door.
"Thanks," mumbled Chris. He hooked a finger to the back of Ezra's collar as he drank deeply from the mug. "Now hold on there." He nodded to Nathan. "Okay for him to go in?"
Nathan looked like he was trying to fight the urge to smile as Ezra wiggled and squirmed to get out from under Chris' finger.
"Be nice," warned Chris. "Or we're driving back." He was unmoved by the look cast his way. "I'm serious." He turned as if to head out the door again when two arms hugged his right knee.
Works every time. Chris wasn't sure how he felt that the tactic he used on Adam worked on Ezra as well. He folded his arms.
"You'll be nice now?" At the downcast nod, Chris dropped a hand on top of Ezra's head and gave the light locks a ruffle. "All right."
"Vin went back to sleep again before I called," Nathan explained, still looking like he was about to bust out grinning. "But he could be waking up any minute." He stooped down, hands on his knees. "If you're real quiet, you can wait next to him."
Chris rubbed a thumb to the back of Ezra's head as the toddler nodded so fast, he was going to pitch over if he wasn't careful. He tracked Nathan taking Ezra by hand into the sick room. He shook his head at Nathan's questioning look. He doubted the first thing Vin wanted to see was his face.
The seat outside the sick room was hard, but was still a comfort for his aching ribs. He'd driven a little too fast. His truck wasn't built for comfort. He'd bought it because it could carry things from one place to another.
Maybe one of those new Ford trucks. JD was jawing all the time about how comfortable they are because of some suspended th—
Chris frowned to himself. He didn't need a new truck; not that he couldn't afford one. The season has been lucrative and he didn't normally waste money on frivolous things. Plus with the G.I. Bill, he didn't have to worry about losing his ranch if the beef prices keep falling like they were doing. Stewart was positive the price per head will go back up, and the horses he'd bred were getting a good twenty dollars more than what most were offered. No, money wasn't an issue. He could spare the cash to buy a truck, maybe even a new radio or television set.
It struck Chris he just about convinced himself to buy the damn truck, never mind throwing in a bunch of things he'd never wanted in the first place. His face twisted. No, his truck was fine. He didn't need a new one.
In the back of his mind though, Chris remembered one scary moment when a particularly bumpy part of the road bounced Ezra off the bench seat. Chris had thrown his arm out, pinning the child before he slammed into his door. Ezra had spent the rest of the ride clutching Chris' arm, and Chris had slowed his truck down to thirty.
Chris dropped his face in his hands. What the hell? He breathed out slowly. That nothingness he'd floated on for nearly four years felt like it was beyond his reach now. He couldn't remember how it felt when it crawled into his chest. And he couldn't remember why he'd welcomed it in the first place.
Standing above him, Nathan appeared reluctant to interrupt. It was a look Chris remembered seeing for a long time. Everyone approached him like he was a buried landmine. He sat back with a grimace.
"Your ribs?" Nathan didn't wait for an invitation and sat down next to Chris. "You haven't been working on the ranch, have you? Thought Stewart was bringing in his nephew."
Chris fought the urge to push Nathan away when he felt the medic prod his chest with sure hands. There was a reason why Doc Harper had brought Nathan into the clinic. And someday, Nate was going to finish the schooling that Hitler had interrupted.
"Does it hurt?" Nathan asked as he pressed a hand on the side, under Chris' heart.
Every day, Chris thought hollowly, but he only shook his head. When Nathan eased back, Chris favored him with an arched eyebrow.
"Different from gunshot wounds and shrapnel, I suppose," Chris remarked.
Nathan appeared startled. He chuckled. "A lot tamer, sure," he agreed. "But no less interesting. Yesterday, Stanley got his foot stuck in Mabel's crock pot."
"How the hell did he do that?"
"That's what Ann would like to know."
"Who the hell's Ann?" asked Chris, smirking.
"You know Ann," snickered Nathan, "Stanley married her last ye—oh." Eyes shifted away. Nathan fidgeted restlessly, his hand rubbing the back of his neck.
Chris grimaced. "Guess I'm behind on the town's news."
"You've had a lot on your mind."
Nathan was too forgiving; they all were.
Chris folded his arms and considered the door Ezra entered. "Hell, Nathan. I think I was trying to do the opposite." He shook his head, cutting Nathan off. "No need to make excuses. I'm guessing Buck's been doing that for me for years."
Nathan found the wall across him suddenly fascinating.
It was the answer Chris had expected. He scratched his chin and heaved a sigh.
"Chris, what does this all mean?" Nathan leaned forward. "Are you considering letting them stay with you?"
"Why does it have to be me?" Chris muttered. "Thought you boys were offering to take them in."
"Thought you said it wasn't a problem?"
The disappointment Chris spied on Nathan's face would normally grate him. He averted his gaze.
"Ezra's a good kid." The chair creaked when Nathan slumped into it. "And I'd seen how Vin treated Ezra. Makes him a good kid in my book."
"Mine, too." Chris murmured.
"So what's the problem?" Gesturing helplessly toward the sick room. "Vin needs a place to stay after he leaves here. He can't take care of Ezra, but I'll bet you he'll die trying."
A chill burrowed in Chris' gut. He automatically looked at the sick room again.
Nathan sighed at Chris' silence.
"Just was hoping you wouldn't mind having them around, is all," Nathan said morosely.
Deep down, Chris suspected he wouldn't.
And that was the problem.
* * * * *
A tiny feather stroked his hand up and down. It didn't tickle, but it sure was annoying and he wanted to swat it away. But when he tried, his knuckles struck something.
Vin frowned to himself. He tried again, heard Gatey whine, but when he reached for Ezra, his left hand hit something flat. He lifted up his right and felt the same.
Something sour burbled in his belly. His legs straightened and thought he felt his feet touch another wall. He tried opening his eyes—why were they so heavy?—but the haze was a cloudy white screen over them. Everything looked closed, and when he reached out to that fuzzy point in front of him, he felt that odd surface again.
Gatey honked, almost frantic this time. He thought he heard his little brother crying. He reached for the sounds but his fingers couldn't get past whatever was blocking him; tall as he could reach and wide as he could stretch.
By now, Vin could hear himself breathing loudly. What was around him? Why couldn't he reach Ezra? Was he in another closet? Did Momma lock him in here again?
"'omma…" he moaned. He didn't want to be here. He could hear Momma whispering to stay still inside the closet, but he hated how he couldn't move easily in here, and all the yelling and the strange noises and Momma crying and the slam of the door, and he was still in here, dark, unable to stretch out his arms without touching something, the air tasting funny. He waited for Momma to get him out, but only Mister came, hours later. The dark-skinned butler scooped him up and got him out of the closet, wiped dry his cheeks, and told him Momma didn't get him out because she'd suddenly fell sick and no one knew where Vin was.
This time it wasn't Momma screaming or Eli Joe yelling; it was Gatey making low, long sounds like the wolves he heard at their old ranch in Wyoming. He wished they'd never left. He wished Gramps had never died and left the ranch just to him and Momma. He wished Momma had never married Eli Joe. He wished someone would get him out of the closet.
Vin whimpered, kicking feebly, and he heard Gatey again, more frantic and kind of scared. Again, he tried to reach for Ezra. Again, he couldn't get past whatever was blocking his way. He needed to get out!
* * * * *
Wilbur's wife began hollering and Nathan had to go keep her calm while Ruth went to get the midwife. So Chris was alone when he heard the clatter, the crashing sound of glass. He bolted into the sick room. He stood, momentarily paralyzed at the sight of Vin flailing in the bed, clawing at the oxygen tent, knocking the water glass off the side table, a white-faced Ezra clinging to the foot of the bed.
"Nathan!" Chris stuck his head to the hallway. "Nathan!"
As Nathan and Ruth rushed into the room, Chris reached Ezra. He crouched down by the boy, turning him around gently.
Ezra looked at Chris with huge eyes. Then burst into tears.
Freezing, at first Chris wasn't sure what to do. His questions died in his mouth. He glanced past Ezra to the activity behind. Vin seemed to be calming, but Nathan kept looking over to Chris. Chris nodded. He slipped his hands under the boy's arms, but before he could ask Ezra, thin arms wrapped around his neck and held on tight.
Chris' eyes burned.
"Okay," he croaked to the wet cheek pressed to his throat. "Up, we go. Sh…"
Ezra's only answer was his arms tightening around Chris. Chris rested a hand on the trembling body, smoothing the shakes away with a reassuring hand and wordless shushing.
Chris got up and carefully slipped out of the room and into the small waiting area. He sat down, Ezra still clinging to him, and rocked the child, whispering as calmly as he could.
It was disturbing how the boy could cry without really making a sound. It bothered Chris more than he'd realized. He held Ezra, his upper body rocking him back and forth.
"It's all right, it's fine," Chris murmured, his eyes glued to the sick room. The noise had died down, but that could be good or bad news. And Ezra was shaking like a newborn calf, hiccupping into his throat.
"You're okay. I'm here. You're okay." Chris kept up the litany, pulling up a vague memory of Adam clinging to him the first time he slept in his own room, scared to be alone.
Memory guided him. He watched himself move, responding to the frightened child before he could think. Chris bowed his head as he rubbed circles over the trembling back.
"Sh…You're fine. Don't be scared. I'm right here…"
Exhaustion, his swaying, maybe even his words eventually soothed the violent tears. Ezra's arms slipped off his neck and clutched the front of Chris' shirt.
When a shadow crossed Chris', he looked up. His stomach lurched at the sight of Nathan, his face as grave as when Chris had been approached by some fancy city doctor to tell him even Sarah had succumbed to her burns and left him.
Chris pulled the child closer to him.
Nathan's weary expression bloomed to a tired smile. He nodded before easing down to a chair.
"Ezra," Nathan murmured. He rubbed Ezra's narrow shoulders. "Vin's all right."
With a loud sniff, Ezra tentatively turned his head to peer one eye at Nathan.
"That's why you were upset the first time, huh?" Nathan continued, rubbing Ezra's back. "You wanted to take the tent down because your brother doesn't like small places?" At Ezra's uncertain nod, Nathan smoothed a hand over Ezra's hair. "I'm sorry we didn't listen before."
"Nathan?" Chris tried to piece together what Nathan was trying to say.
"Guess Vin is claustrophobic," Nathan explained. He chuckled when Ezra screwed up his face at the word. "He panicked when he came to, made a mess of his bed trying to get out. He's okay though," Nathan was quick to add. "In fact, he was asking for you, Ezra."
Chris felt Ezra wiggle, wanting to get down.
"Give us a minute to help clean Vin up," Nathan added. He swallowed at the crushed look.
"Just a little bit longer," Chris murmured. He smiled wanly when Ezra nodded. "Good boy."
"I think," Nathan pulled something out from behind him, "this is yours." He brandished Gatey. "You dropped him under the bed after Vin started fussing—" He chuckled when Ezra grabbed it and hugged it to his face.
Gatey gave a long and loud honk.
"Think that was 'thank you'," Chris chuckled.
* * * * *
After the feeling of being wrapped too tight faded away, Vin realized he was in the clinic at Four Corners and Ezra was nowhere to be found. Had he been here before? Vin struggled to sit up. The blankets felt heavy over him. He fell back into the pillows, wanting to sleep again.
"My brother?" Vin croaked. "Where's my brother?" He raised his head. The room did a twirl that made him want to throw up. His head dropped back down and that made it worse. "Where is he?"
"Stay calm." A kind, plump face filled his view, a lined face Vin vaguely remembered as belonging to Ruth, a nurse in the clinic. She'd been nice to them after the fire.
Vin's neck was stiff. It hurt to turn his head, but he tried as he searched for Ezra. He'd heard Gatey before; he knows he did!
"He's right here."
The deep sound of Chris Larabee's voice made his stomach go into cold knots. He remembered Chris yelling, slamming the door on the deputy because he didn't want them in the ranch, then feeling so tired in the bunkhouse, coughing so hard he couldn't get air in.
Vin rubbed his eyes, trying to focus when he heard the timid squeak. He grinned broadly, reached out blindly and coming across a soft, newly brushed snout. He struggled to sit up, starting when he felt Chris' hand on his shoulder, guiding him. He felt the bed give, Gatey squeaking as it was used as leverage, and Vin caught the small body hurtling toward him.
"I don't think…" Nurse Ruth began sternly.
"It's okay," Vin rasped as he buried his face into Ezra's hair. "I don't mind." He tilted up his face at her, beseeching. "Please?"
The nurse's face softened. She sighed. "Ten minutes," she murmured. "You still need your rest." And left them alone.
Vin wrapped his arms real tight around Ezra, coughing out a chuckle when Gatey honked about being caught in the middle.
"You okay?" Vin murmured to Ezra's ear. "Didn't mean to scare you. Was Gatey scared?"
Ezra nodded, shook his head then sniffled, but didn't pull away from Vin's chest.
Vin smoothed a hand over Ezra's back. He tried to speak, but ended up needing to turn his head to cough. "M' okay," he promised when he caught Ezra staring at him.
"You will be."
He'd forgotten they weren't alone. Vin cautiously lifted his head to find an unfamiliar expression on Larabee's face. He blinked.
"Thanks." Vin's eyes slid away. "Guess I have you to thank for bringing me here." He ruffled Ezra's hair. "And for putting up with my little brother." He rasped, laughing at the face Ezra made.
"Ezra was no trouble at all, although Gatey was a handful," Larabee said wryly.
Vin froze. His eyes zipped to Ezra, who peered up at him, puzzled.
"He…told you?" Vin asked. There was a wild hope thumping in his chest.
Chris' frown eased and he smiled faintly, understanding. "No. You did. You were pretty delirious that first day."
Ezra bopped his shoulder with Gatey.
Vin sagged back into the bed. "What else do you know?"
"Not much. Gatey here wasn't talking." The corner of Larabee's mouth quirked.
Vin knuckled an eye. Maybe he was still asleep?
"Buck's been trying. Think he's got better luck with Nazi spies."
It occurred to Vin maybe Larabee just said something funny. He blinked heavy lidded at Larabee, vaguely thinking he should laugh.
"How long was I here?" Vin asked. When Ezra squashed his face hard over his chest, Vin dropped a kiss to his hair.
"That long, huh?" murmured Vin. He rubbed both hands briskly over Ezra's trembling back. "Sh, it's okay now. I'll get better and it'll be just like before. Sh…"
When Vin lifted his head, he thought he caught a strange expression before it flickered away to that blank, "I don't care" look Larabee always wore.
At the doorway, Nurse Ruth cleared her throat. Ezra burrowed closer.
A lump grew in Vin's throat. He kept his arms around Ezra. "Can't he stay a little longer?" he croaked. "I'm not tired. I'm not." Inside, he cringed because he could hear himself whining and grownups don't whine, but Ezra was so scared in his arms and it felt like it's been years since he'd seen his brother.
Larabee studied him like he was a map before turning away. He walked over to Ruth, who in turn, beckoned Nathan over. The three adults bowed their heads together, talking in low voices.
Vin dipped his head and peered at Ezra. He resisted chuckling when he realized Ezra had fallen asleep, one fist on his shirt, cheek pressed over buttons—Vin was sure that going to leave a mark. Gatey, crushed between them under Vin's arm, wheezed.
"Guess it is late," murmured Vin. He brushed aside some of Ezra's bangs. Yup, even drooling. Yuck. He looked up and caught Larabee shaking out a blanket.
"Checked with Nathan. Said it was all right if your brother keeps you company for a while, but you have to rest."
It was like having a bedtime. Vin fought not to scowl. He nodded reluctantly.
"Thank you," Vin whispered, his eyes on Gatey's snout poking out between them.
"You said that before." Larabee sounded like Vin had said something funny.
"I know. It's just…" Vin felt Ezra fidget. He smoothed small circles over Ezra's back and the toddler calmed. "I know I was just hired for two weeks and this was more than…" Vin cautiously lifted the shoulder not under Ezra.
"It was no trouble." Larabee mimicked Vin. He draped the blanket over them both. "I'm going back to the ranch. I'll come back around lunchtime."
Vin furrowed his brow. "You're not supposed to be doing ranch work," he said slowly, studying Larabee.
A corner of his mouth quirked. "I'm not. Stewart's nephew is here."
"Oh." There was a funny feeling in his belly. Vin picked at the new blanket. "Guess you don't need my help then," Vin mumbled.
There was a long pause. When Vin dared to look up again, Larabee appeared deep in thought. Before Vin could say anything, he curtly nodded.
"I'll see you lunchtime." Twisting around, Larabee strode away as if he couldn't wait to leave.
Vin dropped his chin on top of Ezra's head and gulped.
* * * * *
By the time Chris returned to the ranch, the sun was cresting the horizon and highlighting the low-bearing clouds in brushes of pink and yellow. He got out of his truck and stood on his porch, disconcerted because everything felt different. He felt different.
Rabbit sniffed his boots as soon as he neared the house. It whined for been left behind on the porch and loped after him as he headed back inside to the couch. Chris yanked off his boots, set them side by side at one end of the couch, and tossed his jacket on the armchair. With a groan, he dropped backwards into the couch.
After a few minutes, Chris' eyes popped open.
The grandfather clock that had been his father's and his father's father before that, ticked away the seconds. It felt faster than before though, like its gears were wound too tight.
Rabbit's toe nails clicked on the wood floors as he paced restlessly in the guest room. Outside, the wind was still strong enough to rattle the boards upstairs.
So why did the house feel so empty?
Chris scrubbed his face with his hands and took a deep breath. He sat up and looked around the living room. There was a drawing of a green alligator chasing a blue dog on his wall despite Chris warning the juvenile artist to keep his drawings on paper. It marked the threshold between the living room and the foyer like the cave drawings Josiah once told them about; men thousands of years ago, marking their place in time.
Damn thing was going to be hell to wash off.
A snort escaped. Chris shook his head. He tossed aside the blanket and walked to the drawing. He rubbed a thumbnail over it, but it wouldn't go away. He lightly thumped the wall with a fist.
"Where are you?" Chris brushed his knuckles on the wall. Sarah and Adam were still here. It didn't feel like they'd been in the hospital: scarred, bandaged, dying. No, he knew they were here, somewhere still in their house, waiting for him.
The wind banged on the boarded windows and the rattling came down the stairs muted and distant, like someone was walking upstairs.
Chris glanced over his shoulder. Adam's metal box sat on the short table next to the book he was certain he'd never finish. He approached the table, creeping up on it like a mind field lay under his feet. He sat back down on the couch and picked up the tin box.
Fire had sealed the box, welded the lid to the container. The box bowed inwardly, warping the colorful lettering.
There was no way to open it, not without breaking it. But it was the last thing Adam had held, the only piece of his son that had survived was inside the box.
Chris shakily pulled out his pocket knife.
The tin at the bottom was the thinnest part of the container. He cut along the edge, at its weakest point, just enough to create a corner. He grabbed the corner and rolled the tin sheet back like a can of sardines. He paused when he got his first real look at its contents.
The tin box was crammed full of letters.
The letters blurred in front of him as Chris pulled them out, careful not to tear them on the jagged edges. When he turned them around, his fingers twitched in shock and they fell out of his grasp, landing on the floor in a flurry of plops.
The letters were all addressed to him.
Chris covered his mouth with a hand. He breathed out loudly through his nose as he contemplated the small pile of envelopes—first scrawled in crayon, some smoothing out to a penmanship etched in ink. Four years worth of letters; four years when he he'd been in another country, unable to watch his son grow up. When Chris had left him, Adam was approaching five. When Chris had come back, Adam had died never seeing ten.
A sound slipped out before Chris could stop himself. He rammed a fist in his mouth and took a few harsh gulps of air. The tight band around his chest eased somewhat, but didn't completely go away. He ran his fingers along the crooked script on the envelopes. They were all sealed, perfectly folded, all addressed to "Daddy."
With trembling hands, Chris opened the first one and began to read.
* * * * *
"…Ma said you are too far a way to get this. Ma said when you come home, I can read them out lood to you and Uncle Buck…"
There was a stick figure standing on top of a hill with yellow hair sticking out like a porcupine. Below the hill, a dark-haired stick figure with a gun larger than its head was climbing up the hill.
The bottom of the letter was nothing but drawings. Buck smiled sadly as he turned to the next page for pictures of purple blobs eating blue grass next to a brown and orange barn.
Buck had driven to the ranch after finding out Chris had hightailed it out of there, leaving the boys in the clinic. He'd come charging up to the porch as soon as he spotted Chris, but before he could give Chris a piece of his mind, Chris handed him a letter from a stack on his lap.
"You opened Adam's box." Buck refolded it carefully and returned it to Chris. He sat back on the porch bench, suddenly feeling old.
"Probably shouldn't've." Chris was taking his time coaxing each letter back to its original crease. "Had to cut the bottom out."
Buck grimaced. "So why did you?"
Chris didn't answer, folding the letters.
The urge to kick him had lessened somewhat, but Buck still felt a shot of irritation.
"Nate said you left Vin and Ezra at the clinic."
"I was going to get Ezra come lunchtime." Chris didn't bother to look up. "Those boys needed to be together for a spell. Said I would come back later."
"And then what?" pressed Buck.
"Then I'll take Ezra back tomorrow."
"And the day after that? What about next week?"
Chris raised his eyes.
Buck's jaw worked. "After next week, Vin can't stay in the clinic no more."
"Nathan said he was doing better," Chris agreed tonelessly.
"He'd do better if he can stay out." Buck tried to stay calm, but his voice rose anyway. When Chris turned to him, Buck shook his head.
"I know we keep saying it, Chris, but those boys need a place to stay. They need a home."
"And you think this place can be one?"
Buck rubbed his forehead wearily. He nodded toward the letters. "Someone thought so."
Chris sighed. "Used to think so, too."
A cow mooed in the distance. Buck saw Stewart coming up the road in his truck as the horizon slowly turned to a clear blue sky.
"It still can be," Buck murmured. He stared at Chris' profile. "You and Sarah built this place to be a home."
Chris exhaled. "Sarah and Adam made it home." He shook his head. "Feels like a lifetime ago. Don't think I remember how to anymore."
The letters on Chris' lap rustled when Chris ran his thumb over the stack.
"We can help you remember," Buck rasped. "Josiah, Nate—you know there's enough people out there to fill this house who wants to help you remember how."
"It's not a home."
Buck's insides knotted.
Then Chris gave him a wry look out of the corner of his eye. "At least…not yet."
Buck stared at Chris; stared for a long time. Slowly, he began to grin.
* * * * *
For the third day since he'd woken up, Vin needed to say goodbye.
Larabee checked his watch. "Come on, Ezra, it's been ten minutes. Time to go."
Vin could feel Ezra freezing. Ezra shook his head and burrowed up to Vin.
"Ezra…" Vin murmured, dismayed.
Larabee didn't look angry. The older man just went over to lay a hand on Ezra's shoulder.
"Come on," Larabee said in a surprisingly gentle voice. "You can't stay here." He looked over to Vin.
"Ezra," Vin took over. He pulled Ezra up to look at him. "He's right. You can't stay here. This clinic is for sick people." He swallowed hard when Ezra put a small fist to his mouth and huffed out a cough. Vin shook his head.
Ezra turned to Larabee, who did the same.
Lower lip stuck out, Ezra hugged Vin around his middle and smashed his face into Vin's stomach.
Vin squeezed Ezra's cold hand. "It's just for a few more days." He coughed and wished his chest didn't hurt doing so. "We can leave as soon as the doc says I can."
"That's fine for you," Larabee spoke up mildly, "but who's paying the bill?"
With a start, Vin looked over at Larabee. "Bill?" His stomach did a funny flip flop.
Larabee folded his arms in front of him. "I paid the bill for your care. Who's paying me back?"
Shoot. Vin grasped both of Ezra's hands. His brother stilled, realizing something was going on. "I…can pay you back." He thought quickly to the locker in the bus station. He glanced over to Ezra. Where was the key?
"I know you will," Larabee told him. "By working it off on the ranch."
Wait…what? Vin frowned. "I don't…wait, you want me working back at the ranch. Your ranch?"
"Once Nathan says you can."
Vin chewed his lower lip. "Thought you hired me for only two weeks. Thought Stewart's nephew was helping out now."
"Stewart's nephew is still trying to figure out which is the back end of a horse." Larabee shrugged. "You were hardworking, and like you said, you two don't eat as much as one old man."
Staring, Vin was at a loss for words.
Ezra smacked him in the head with Gatey.
"Hey!" Vin glowered at Ezra. He rubbed a spot on his head. "What was that for?"
"I think," Larabee said, eyeing Ezra, "I think Ezra wants you to say yes."
"Gatey, too, apparently." Larabee folded his arms and glared at the toy.
"Wait…" Vin was feeling dizzy. "Why are you—How long are we talking about here?"
Larabee tilted his head. "Considering what we agreed to pay you, minus room and meals, expenses for the alligator…" He shrugged. "Fifteen years."
Vin's mouth dropped open. "Fifteen…fifteen years?"
"Give or take."
"But that'll make me…" Vin snapped his mouth shut before he gave a number.
"Really old," Vin said instead. He grinned, baring his teeth. "Like you."
Larabee's smile dropped. He glowered at Vin, but it faded when Gatey squeaked and Ezra rolled in the bed, silently laughing.
Vin studied Larabee as the rancher scolded Ezra, but it didn't sound like he was really mad and Ezra seemed to know it.
"You really mean it, don't you?" Vin blurted. "You're asking us to stay?"
Larabee became very serious. He matched Vin's stare. "I never say what I don't mean."
Biting his lower lip, Vin turned to Ezra. His little brother stared back with a scrubbed face, gazing hopefully at him.
"We can give it a try first," Larabee said quietly. "At least until winter passes and you're feeling stronger. If…" His eyes slid to look at the empty bed next to him. "If you don't want to stay, I'll take you boys whether you need to go."
Vin absently stroked Ezra's head as he worried his lower lip. Ezra poked his arm and stared up at him.
"All right," Vin said finally.
Larabee looked like a whole other person when he fully smiled.
* * * * *
The last time JD had been here, Chris Larabee had wanted to shoot him.
Rocking on his heels, JD glowered at the back of Buck's head as he rapped at the front door again.
"Don't worry, son," Josiah rumbled by his ear. "He's expecting us."
"If not, we'll blame Buck," Nathan added with a snicker.
"I heard that!" Buck grumbled. He banged on the door again. "Dang it, Chris! Move faster, old man!"
"If he's old, what's that makes you, Josiah?" Nathan sniggered out of the corner of his mouth.
"Irritated," Josiah grumbled.
JD gulped when he heard the heavy tread approaching. They did say they were expected, right?
The door creaked open and Larabee glared through the door crack. He opened it wider to direct his full glower at Buck.
"What the hell is this?"
JD mentally groaned. Buck had done it again! He fidgeted, praying he wouldn't drop the toolbox and draw attention to himself.
"Hey, Chris! Heard you were picking up Vin today so I figured me and the boys will help you fix up the second floor!"
Sweat trickled down his neck. JD spied little Ezra peering out between Chris and the door. Hopefully, Chris would keep in mind there was a child present before he killed them.
Next to him, Nathan and Josiah shifted from foot to foot. Probably finally realizing that showing up with a ladder, some tools, and some paint had not been one of Buck's better ideas.
The door opened all the way. JD blinked.
"Thought you all weren't coming in until Saturday?" Chris arched an eyebrow at JD. "You all right there?"
JD shook himself out of the slack-jawed expression when Nathan elbowed him. He nodded, worried if he spoke, it'd come out all wrong.
"Well?" Buck demanded. "Are you going to let us in or not?"
Chris appeared amused when he stepped aside for everyone to file in.
* * * * *
"Wait," Chris called out the moment Buck set foot on the first step. "Give me a moment."
Buck stared at Chris with dismay. "Maybe you shouldn't go up there."
Instead of anger, Chris felt his gut unravel at everyone's matching concerned frowns. He patted Ezra on the head when he felt the toddler bump against his knee.
"I just need a minute."
"Take your time," Josiah reassured him. He nodded toward the living room. "We'll be over there." He threw an arm over Buck's shoulders, steering him away before Buck could say anything.
"Stay here," Chris told Ezra. He smoothed a palm over the banister, took a steadying breath, and started the climb.
* * * * *
The hallway didn't seem as long as before. Still, Chris found himself vaguely tired by the time he reached Adam's room. The door was still inside, on the floor, where it had fallen. He walked over it and sat down on the crusty mattress.
The wind snaked into the room between cracks and sailed out the hallway. The floor creaked when he set his feet down. The room inhaled, then sighed and its walls moaned. But that was all. Nothing else spoke.
"You're really not here, are you?" Chris whispered, his throat working. He rubbed the mattress he was sitting on. "I waited. Hoped. Thought if I could get you two back in any way, I'd…"
The boards on the window down the hallway rattled.
"I miss you." Chris swallowed. "Every day I miss you more." He squeezed his eyes shut. "But you're not really here. And I…wanted to tell you…should have in the hospital…" Chris's throat felt three times smaller now.
"I'm home," Chris croaked. "I got back safe. I…" His voice broke. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner." He gasped loudly, eyes burning, barely seeing the room around him. "But I came back. Took me four years, a war, but…" Chris gulped. "B-but I finally made it…" He sniffed loudly, his head dropping to his chest. He sat there, listening to the noises around him, floors and walls and nothing else.
"Help me make this a home again," whispered Chris.
* * * * *
Chris nearly tripped over Gatey perched on the first landing.
Grumbling, he held the toy by its tail as he went down the steps. He found everyone waiting, filling up the opening to the living room. Ezra sat at the bottom step, waiting.
"We need to talk about where things belong," Chris gruffly told Ezra as he waved Gatey in front of him. It squealed when Ezra snatched it up.
"Everything all right, Chris?" Buck asked, his raring-to-go attitude gone.
"We could try this later," Josiah suggested gently. "No rush."
"We can come back anytime," Nathan added.
"Just say when," JD chimed in.
Chris eyed Buck, who gulped visibly.
"It doesn't have to be today if you don't want, Chris." Buck averted his gaze. "This was just an idea."
"You…" Chris exhaled. "You'll need to take all the doors down first." He cracked a weary smile. "They need replacing."
"We'll do that," Josiah promised. He clapped Nathan on the shoulder. "Shall we, brothers?"
"It's gonna look real nice," JD eagerly said. "Right, Bu—" He stopped, canted his head and peered up at Buck.
"Wha…are you…Buck, are you crying?"
Chris smirked at Buck's suspiciously gruff, "No!"
"No? I'm pretty sure…" JD yelped when Buck cuffed him like a grumpy bear. "Hey!"
"Boy, you need to get your eyes checked! Seeing things that aren't there! Haven't I taught you anything?"
"Buck, what you taught me I can never use. My mother raised me to be a gentleman."
Chris arched an eyebrow as JD ran as if a whole enemy platoon was behind him, Buck chasing after him like a dog would a bone. Out the front door they went, Rabbit eagerly following them both.
"Am I going to have a ranch when I get back here?" Chris asked archly, before reaching over and hooking Ezra's collar with a finger before the child could run after them, too.
Josiah chuckled. "We'll make sure."
Nathan gave him a jaunty salute.
Chris rolled his eyes but turned to leave with Ezra. He stopped at the front door and twisted around.
"Thanks," Chris said quietly.
"Go," Nathan murmured as he headed up the stairs with Josiah. "We'll be here when you all get back."
Chris nodded. He watched the two until he couldn't see them any longer. The thought of people upstairs there no longer turned him inside out. He glanced down when he felt a small hand slip around his fingers.
When Ezra nodded, Chris crouched down and gathered him in his arms. He smiled at Ezra.
"Let's go get your brother," murmured Chris.
After one more look at the stairs, he took Ezra out to his truck. They were going to town to retrieve Vin; Chris was going to bring them home.
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