'MEMB'RING by Angie

Based on the universe created in the story Arrivals by KT.

For Millie.

Buck squealed and raced away from the bank of the river where he and Chris were trying to catch frogs. Chris followed, holding out the salamander he had plucked from under a rock. Although Buck loved frogs, he was terrified of lizards and the like. His little feet slipped on the muddy ground and he landed on his hands and knees, shrieking in horror.

JD looked over from the log where he sat fishing and grinned. Chris had dropped the little lizard as soon as Buck turned to run. He waited to see if his young charge needed his help. The older boy showed his plainly empty hands and helped his friend to his feet. Immediately, both boys raced back to the river to try to find a frog.

The boys had come to Four Corners almost a year ago. They were running away from an orphan’s home. Something about the scrappy older boy and the loveable younger boy had instantly captured the hearts of the five peacekeepers. JD saw in Buck a well of unconditional love and the need to make everyone around him happy. Chris touched something in Vin Tanner. The older boy had been through two years at the orphanage and it had aged his spirit. Now freed of the sole burden of responsibility for the younger boy, he was relearning what it was to be a child again.

“Boys, I think it’s time to head back,” JD called as he pulled in his line and pulled the worm off of the hook. He’d caught enough fish to make a meal and the boys had burned off their excess energy. Chris took the rod and Buck took the small tackle box while JD carried the stringer for the walk back to town.

“Alas, the hunters return!” Ezra called as he saw JD and the boys. His green eyes lit with fondness as he watched the younger boy. The southerner was developing an attachment to the dark haired child. Once they realized that the child had grown up in a brothel, he and Ezra had bonded. The little boy was completely at ease with the ‘working girls’ and they loved and doted on him. Any time he slipped away from JD, he was usually found with the girls.

“Ezra! See all the fish! JD’s gonna show us how to clean ‘em and we’re gonna eat ‘em for supper! With corn bread and everything!” Buck danced enthusiastically, taking great care not to touch the gambler’s clean clothes.

“First, I think a trip to the bathhouse might be in order. It would be a shame to get all that dirt in our supper. Don’t you agree, Master Christopher?”

“But we just had a bath the other night!” the older child protested.

Ezra rolled his eyes in exasperation. Chris took his lead from Vin and the tracker had spent time living with the Indians. His idea of a soothing bath was a dip in the river, winter or summer.

“Why don’t you just get Buck a change of clothes and let him wash up out back?” JD suggested. The jail had a small out building attached where they occasionally took a prisoner who needed to be washed up. It didn’t have the hot water available at the bathhouse but they could wash the boys in privacy. While Chris nodded and dashed into the attached living quarters, Buck’s lip protruded in a pout.

“Now, now, let’s have none of that. What do you say we head for the saloon and see if maybe Miss Blossom would be willing to help you get cleaned up?” Ezra suggested.

“Can I?” Buck asked, all sadness forgotten.

“Ezra, I really wish you wouldn’t encourage him,” JD said. There was just a hint of jealousy between the young sheriff and the gambler with regard to Buck. JD didn’t want the boy around the working girls.

“It’s no harm and it makes him happy,” Ezra defended. He had seen for himself how easily the child smiled when the ladies paid special attention to him.

A half hour later, they were back, Buck all smiles and dressed in clean clothes. Ezra wrinkled his nose distastefully at the fishy smell that permeated the living area. Vin, JD and Chris had finished cleaning the fish and were rolling the pieces in corn meal. Josiah was carefully cooking the breaded fish while tending to the other pots on the stove.

When the food was ready, the five peacekeepers gathered around the table with the boys to enjoy the fish. During the meal, Chris kept picking at his food, pushing it around on his plate. Vin noticed and spoke up.

“Somethin’ wrong with your food?”

“No sir,” Chris snapped quickly as he speared a bite of fish and stuffed it into his mouth. All conversation around the table came to a halt as they watched the boy chew the food. Buck leaned over in his chair and whispered to JD.

“He’s gonna be sick!” Just then, Chris bolted from the table and out the door. Vin pushed his chair back and hurried after the child, concern clearly shining in his face. He reached out to cup the nape of Chris’s neck as the boy emptied his stomach in the dirt at the edge of the boardwalk. When the last of the dry heaves ended, Vin handed his hanky to Chris to wipe his mouth.

“Ya didn’t have to eat if ya didn’t want it,” the tracker drawled softly. Chris leaned into the arm that wrapped around him and sniffed softly. Before he could stop it, he was crying. Vin slipped his other arm around the boy, sheltering him from view. A hand clenched in the shoulder of his shirt and he drew the boy astraddle of his lap and rocked him gently. A large hand touched Vin’s shoulder and he looked up to see Josiah looking on with concern. The tracker nodded that he had the situation under control and the older man returned to the table.

“Is Chris okay?” Buck asked from his perch in JD’s lap.

“He’ll be fine. Vin’s got him. You should finish your supper,” Josiah urged. In spite of their curiosity, the other men picked up their forks and continued to eat.

“Ya wanna talk about it?” Vin asked when Chris stopped crying. He felt the boy shudder and ran his hands up and down the small frame. “It might make ya feel better.”

Sniffling, Chris pulled back and looked at his guardian. “My mom used to make fish like that,” he whispered as his eyes welled with tears again.

“And it made you remember her?”

“Uh-huh. Papa and I used to catch ‘em and she’d cook ‘em up for us.”

“That sounds like a good memory,” Vin said gently. “Ya want to try to finish supper or just have some pie with us? I think Miss Blossom sent a pie with Ezra and Buck.”

“I could go for some pie,” the little blond said.

Nothing was said of the abrupt departure from the table when Chris and Vin returned. Buck leaned across to make sure that his friend was all right. The plate with the fish was quietly removed without comment. Chris took his glass of tea and drank a good portion of it down to remove the bitter taste from his mouth. He ate the pie Nathan set in front of him, keeping his eyes down.

Later, when Ezra took the boys up to put them to bed, JD cornered Vin about what had made Chris sick. Hearing that it was the meal that he had been so keen to have made the young sheriff feel badly.

“I never thought of that. Maybe I should have asked him beforehand.”

“Pro’bly wouldn’ta done any good, he didn’t know it would upset him until he started eatin’ it.”

The issue was quickly forgotten. There were just too many things in the town to dwell on one boy’s reaction to a meal. Summer was in full bloom and the town was bustling with new faces. Several wagon trains passed through. This, too, seemed to bring on memories for young Chris. The first time a wagon train stopped in Four Corners, the boy woke everyone with his cries. Vin padded from his room and gathered the blond up to take back to bed with him. JD crawled into bed with Buck rather than move the boy from his bed.

In the moonlit bedroom, Vin lay on his side, watching Chris as he tossed and turned in his sleep. He had seen the haunted look in the hazel eyes as the long line of wagons rolled down the main street. The children from the wagons had raced up and down the boardwalk and the little blond avoided them. He had joined Josiah in the church, helping to sand the pews for refinishing. Buck had been in his element, several of the families had children right around his age and one of them had an Irish Setter puppy. Kids and puppy wreaked havoc in the saloon when Buck took them to introduce them to his ‘friends.’ A pinched-faced woman had thrown open the batwing doors and imperiously called the children from the saloon.

“Momma,” Chris murmured in his sleep as he kicked off the light sheet.

“Shh, s’alright,” Vin soothed.

The wagons brought more than just new settlers. One wagon was bearing a bevy of young women looking for work. Ezra was conscientious about the girls he employed and immediately turned down several of the women who were obviously in poor health. Two girls in particular stood out in his mind. One was a lovely blond woman with a very proper English accent and the other was a dark haired beauty. Both girls were young and in excellent health. He offered them the opportunity to stay in the saloon for as long as their wagon train was in the area until he decided if they would be asked to stay.

Ezra was sitting at his usual table, playing cards with some of the men from the wagon train when young Buck ducked under the batwing doors. In his arms, he held a squirming ball of brown and white fur. His eternal optimism shone brightly from his eyes as he approached the gambler. He waited quietly until the hand was finished, bouncing the fuzzy animal in his arms.

“Mr. Ezra? Do you think I could get some scraps to feed the puppy?” Buck asked as he turned the animal around for the southerner to see.

“Well, let me see, what have you got there?” Ezra said as he turned from the table.

“It’s a puppy! One of the wagon kids said I could have it. I can’t wait to show Chris!”

“Oh, well, don’t you think you should ask Vin and JD before you accept responsibility for a pet?”

“I’m bein’ ‘sponsible! I’m gettin’ food for him and I’m gonna give him a bath!” Buck answered enthusiastically.

Someone passed behind Ezra and refilled the drinks on the table. The southerner noticed the slack-jawed look on Buck’s face and turned to see the new, raven haired woman taking the empty glasses from the table. Something hit the floor and a loud yipping drew attention to the fact that Buck had dropped the puppy.

“Ma!” Buck whispered as he stared at the woman. Ezra’s skin prickled as he looked at the stricken look in the boy’s eyes.

“Buck … she’s not … that’s Miss Lucy. That’s not your Ma,” he said gently. Buck’s eyes tracked the woman as she returned to the bar. Ezra reached out and turned the child’s face back to meet his eyes. “Do you understand, Buck? Her name is Lucy and she’s new in town.”

“She looks like my Ma,” Buck protested softly.

“Let’s gather your puppy and go in search of Mr. Dunne,” Ezra suggested as he nodded an apology to the men at the table. He leaned down and picked up the whimpering puppy and slid an arm around Buck to pick him up.

“Nooo! I wanna see my Ma! I wanna see her! Please Mister Ezra!” Buck cried as he stared over the southerner’s shoulder at the woman near the bar.

JD was sitting out in front of the jail as Ezra stepped onto the boardwalk with the sobbing boy on his shoulder. He sprang to his feet and hurried to intercept them.

“What happened?” JD asked as he tried to pry Buck from the southerner’s arms.

“A small problem with my newest acquisition. Nothing to trouble yourself over. Here,” Ezra said as he handed off the puppy.

“What’s this?” JD asked as he was forced to juggle the squirming puppy and the crying child.

“I want my Ma! Take me with you!” Buck yelled at the retreating gambler.

In the church, Vin looked up from his sanding, fear lighting his features. He cast a brief look at Josiah before dropping the sanding block and running for the open door. The former priest was right at his heels as they raced to the jail. JD was struggling to get Buck through the door and the boy had hold of the door facing and was screaming in protest.

“What did you do to him?” Chris yelled as they got into the living room and JD sat on the couch. The sheriff gently dropped the puppy on the floor before turning his full attention on the struggling child.

“Buck, Buck talk to me! What happened in the saloon?” JD said as he gripped the boy’s chin.

“I saw her! I saw my Ma in the saloon! I have to hurry and go back there before she goes back to see God again! I have to hurry!” Buck shouted as he resumed his struggle. JD looked up at Josiah and then to Chris before looking back to Buck’s tear filled eyes.

“I thought we had this all straightened out, Buck. Your Ma won’t ever come back from visiting God. The woman at the saloon is not your Ma,” JD said firmly.

In the saloon, Ezra approached Lucy. He removed his hat and rolled the brim in his hands. He was a little nervous about telling the young woman she had to leave. Lucy was popular with the customers and was more than paying her way.

“Is there something wrong, Mr. Standish?” she asked.

“Lucy, I’m sorry, this arrangement isn’t going to work out. I’ll pay your way to another town but you can’t remain in Four Corners,” Ezra said hesitantly.

“Why? Is it something I’ve done? Please, give me another chance, Mr. Standish!”

“I’m sorry, my dear. Your presence here is troubling to a certain young man I am fond of and I do not wish to add to his sadness. Please gather your things and be ready to leave on the morrow’s stage,” Ezra said.

Josiah reasoned through Buck’s heartfelt plea and turned to leave. He hurried down the boardwalk and into the saloon. He arrived just in time to hear the girl pleading for another chance. He heard Ezra dismiss the girl and watched her flee the saloon in tears.

“Are you certain that’s wise?” The former priest asked as he leaned on the bar.

“Her swift departure will facilitate the lessening of Buck’s distress. I do not wish for the child to be traumatized further by her presence.”

“Have you given any thought to what her disappearance will do to him?”

Josiah had taken upon himself the burden of explaining to Buck that his mother was not coming back. The child had been denied an opportunity to see his mother’s body or to attend the funeral and did not understand the permanent nature of death. They thought he had understood.

“What are you suggesting?” Ezra asked.

“He would know she isn’t his Ma if he had a chance to meet her and talk to her. You can’t keep all dark haired women out of town, you know,” Josiah answered.

“I was only thinking of his well being. I guess I didn’t think things through. I will go and ask Lucy if she would be willing to meet with Buck to straighten out this unfortunate misunderstanding.”

Josiah went back down to the living quarters adjoining the jail to explain the situation to JD. He and Chris were trying to comfort Buck by playing with him. Chris had brought down all the toys they owned and was offering them to him.

“Come on, Buck, how about this one. You want to play horsey with me? I’ll let you have Pony this time. You can build the corral,” Chris coaxed as he offered the hand-carved pieces to his friend. JD edged away from the pair to see what Josiah had found out. After a quickly whispered exchange, he nodded in agreement.

In the saloon, Ezra knocked on the door to Lucy’s room. He could hear the woman sobbing. Lifting his hand, he knocked again. He heard the soft click of the door being unlocked and he hesitantly opened it.

“Miss O’Rourke, may I have a word with you?” Seeing her nod, Ezra sat on the window sill. “I’m sorry for my hasty decision. You saw the little boy in the saloon earlier? He lost his mother and is under the delusion that you are her. If you would be willing to accompany me to the boy’s residence, perhaps we can dissuade him of the illusion and you can stay.”

Buck was still sitting in JD’s lap with his thumb tucked firmly in his mouth as he continued to sniffle occasionally. Chris was playing with the puppy, trying to draw his friend to the floor. Vin came in from his patrol round and stood silently questioning JD. When Chris looked up and saw him, he left the puppy and leaned against the tracker. Vin knelt and stared into the hazel eyes, questioning.

“Buck saw a lady in the saloon and he thought she was his Ma. He’s all upset now ‘cause JD won’t let him go back to see her,” Chris confided. Vin nodded and pulled the older boy close for a hug. When he stood and crossed the floor, the puppy shot out from under the chair and barked at him excitedly. A smile lifted the sides of his mouth as he knelt down and let the puppy jump up on his lap.

“Ya wanna talk about it, Buck?”

“It’s my Ma. I know it is! Ya hafta let me go before she goes back to visit with God.”

Josiah knocked before he came in. Buck’s little eyes lit up for an instant and then went back to sad as he squirmed angrily in JD’s arms. Vin picked up the puppy and scratched behind its ears before it started trying to chew on the sleeve of his hide coat.

“Ezra’s going to bring Miss Lucy down here so you can talk to her, Buck.”

The little boy struggled to sit up and looked expectantly toward the door. A few moments later, Ezra knocked and slowly opened the door. He peered into the room to see if it was okay to come in.

“Did ya bring her? Did ya, Mister Ezra? Did ya bring my My with ya?” Buck asked as he wiggled off of JD’s lap. Chris gathered up the toys and slipped over to sit on Vin’s knee. Ezra sighed before stepping out of the doorway to permit the young woman to step in behind him. Buck bolted across the floor, quickly closing the distance between him and the woman.

“It is her! It is my … Ma,” his happy voice tapered off as he realized the woman’s eyes were emerald green. His breath hitched and his little eyes filled with tears. “You’re not my …” Buck turned and ran for the stairs and slammed the door to the room he shared with Chris. The slamming door caused all of the adults to blink in surprise. JD came to his feet and started for the stairs.

“I’ll go …” He said. Before he rounded the end of the couch, Ezra also spoke.

“No, let me. I’m responsible for …” The southerner was stopped by a light hand on his arm.

“No, let me,” Lucy said as she hurried up the stairs. She zeroed in on the sobs and entered the small room. “Buck? Can I talk to you?” She sat on the foot of the brass bed.

“I want my Ma!” Buck cried as he burrowed into his pillow.

“I’m sorry that I’m not her. I always wanted a little boy of my own.”

“You don’t have a little boy?”

“No, not yet. But I hope to one day. I’m awfully sorry if I disappointed you.”

“Can I ask you something?” Buck asked as he sat up on the bed.

“Sure, anything.”

“Can I hug you?”

With tears brimming in her eyes, Lucy opened her arms to the little boy. Buck crawled down the mattress and cuddled up on her lap with his thumb tucked into his mouth. She rocked him and hummed softly as she carded her fingers through his dark, slightly curly hair. After several minutes, she gathered him up and placed him tenderly on his pillow, brushing his hair back and kissing his little cheek.

In the living room, JD was pacing as Ezra sat, brushing the pile of his jacket. Josiah started a pot of coffee and Vin was sitting on the floor, playing with the puppy with Chris cuddled to his side. All of them looked up when they heard Lucy coming down the stairs.

“He cried himself out and then he fell asleep,” she explained. JD and Ezra raced up the stairs to look in on him. “I’m so sorry I upset him. He’s a really great kid.” Josiah followed her out and walked her back to the saloon.

After his nap, Buck was in a good mood again. He excitedly raced down the stairs calling for JD. The sheriff was in the jail and had left the adjoining door open so he could hear if the child needed him. He got up from the desk and started across the room.

“Where’s my puppy? Where is he?” Buck asked, looking around the room and bending almost double to look under the furniture.

“I think Chris took him outside. How do you feel?”

“I’m okay. Miss Lucy’s nice, even if she’s not my Ma. She said she wants to have a little boy like me one day,” Buck said as he held up his arms to be picked up.

“So you’re okay with her being her in town?”

“Sure, can I go and see her sometimes?”

“As long as you clear it with Ezra first. Okay?” JD asked.

“Okay. Can I go look for Chris and my puppy now?”

“Your puppy?”

“Yeah, one of the wagon kids gave it to me. He said his dad didn’t want it. I’m gonna call it Patches, ‘cause it’s got brown patches on white. It can sleep in our room on the rug on the floor. I’ll teach it to be a watch dog! It can watch the bad guys in the jail, too!”

“Umm, Buck, I don’t know about keeping a puppy. I mean, a dog is a lot of work and a lot of responsibility,” JD hedged.

“I’m ‘sponsible. I’ll take care of it, I promise.” Just then, the door burst open and Chris ran in, followed by Vin and the puppy, barking and leaping for the tracker’s coat tail.

JD threw up his hands and gave up. He could see that he was seriously out numbered. He grabbed Buck and began to tickle him, rolling on the floor while the puppy barked and nipped at them. Maybe the puppy would be good for the boys, he thought, to help them build some new memories.

The next couple of weeks were hectic for the family living next door to the jail. Patches developed a passion for leather and chewed on one of Chris’s beloved out-grown boots. Vin feared that the blond would want to get rid of the dog immediately but he was completely wrong. Both boys sat down and very sternly explained to the puppy that he must not chew on their shoes. When they caught the puppy trying to drag Vin’s hide coat off of the straight back chair it was draped over, they firmly scolded him again. Finally, the last of the annoying little puppy teeth were gone and Patches, in his eagerness to please the boys, stopped chewing.

Ezra was, once again, sitting at his table playing cards when Buck ducked under the batwing doors. In his hands was a clump of wildflowers, pulled roots and all from the ground. The dark haired boy waited for a nod from the southerner before he ventured further into the saloon and padded silently up behind Lucy. The woman, noticing her table companions looking over her shoulder, turned and smiled warmly.

“I got these for you, Miss Lucy,” Buck said, holding out the wildflowers. Lucy took the flowers and sniffed them before leaning over to place a kiss on Buck’s little cheek.

“Thank you, Buck. They’re beautiful. Would you like to sit up here with me and help me finish off my dessert?” When he nodded, she pulled him into her lap and nuzzled her cheek against the top of his head. Ezra watched closely for a moment before returning to his cards. Lucy was comforting the boy and there were no customers in the saloon.

Several weeks later, the last wagon train passed through Four Corners. Vin sat on the boardwalk, playing checkers with Chris. He watched the hazel eyes as they glossed over the wagons before returning to the game. After the wagons passed out of sight, he looked up at Vin.

“Do ya think we could go fishin’ and have ‘em for supper?”

The End