The Lost Boys IV:
Seven Men Alone

by Angie

Fourth story in The Lost Boys series.

After the harvest season, there was another month of school. It was during that time that Orin and Evie began to try to prepare the boys for what they had planned for one of them. Orin had been in contact with a doctor in Denver who said that the best place to have Vin's back treated was in St. Louis. He had contacted that doctor and made arrangements to take him there as soon as school ended for the winter break. It was expected that he would be able to come home before Christmas, depending on his recovery. Whenever they approached the topic, it was always with a wait and see attitude. As the weeks became months, they could see that the boy was having more and more trouble. The doctor in Denver said that it would be much worse when he hit his growth spurt in a few years.

The other boys were, thankfully, as healthy as they could possibly be. They were still learning about them and the more they learned, the more questions they had. It was planned for Orin to be the one to accompany Vin to St. Louis. When they sat down with the boys to tell them that it was going to happen sooner rather than later, there were problems.

"Boys, you all know that Vin has trouble with his back from when he was injured on the island," Orin began as they were all gathered around the supper table. "I have spoken to a doctor in Denver and he feels that we should not wait to have it corrected." He paused, scanning the faces of the boys for some sign of understanding or distress. "So, in a few days, I will be taking him to a hospital in St. Louis to see a doctor who can make him better."

JD was the first to respond, "But Miss Nettie's dog's puppies will be old enough to leave in a few days! If I don't get there first, I won't get the one I want!"

Orin could see from the looks on the faces of the other boys that they had understood. Taking a deep breath, he waded into uncharted territory. "JD, you won't be going with Vin to St. Louis." Shock contorted the small boy's face as his jaw dropped.

"Not going? Who's I gonna stay with while you're gone?" JD asked.

"You're going to stay here with the others. Vin and I will take the train to St. Louis." Seeing Nathan and Josiah gearing up to speak, he nipped their bud, too. "I'm sorry boys, but that's final. I can't afford to take anyone else with us."

As expected, Vin's fork dropped from his hand and he bolted from the table. Chris and Buck were the next to rise, followed by Josiah and Ezra. As the four boys raced after Vin, JD burst into tears, moving around the table to climb into Evie's lap. Nathan remained frozen in his chair, too stunned to even speak.

"I'm sorry, Nathan. I know that you want to be there for him but the surgery is very expensive and I will have to stay in a hotel near the hospital. It's just too much for me to be able to take you along," Orin explained.

In their bedroom, Vin clung to the others in stark terror. Not only was he going to have to have an operation, he was going to have to go through it all alone, without any of his 'brothers' there to help him. He clung to Josiah, shaking, while the others pressed to his side and tried to be of comfort. Chris offered the only solution he could come up with, "If we run away, he can't make you have this operation."

"I have a few pennies put away," Ezra offered. Each of them who'd had a birthday since they got to the ranch had gotten a whole nickel as a gift.

"I don't wanna go, Josiah," Vin cried, "Don't let him take me away!"

That was their greatest fear, the one they tormented themselves with when they were low. They were terrified that Mr. Travis would give them away, like Miss Nettie's puppies. It didn't matter that Mr. Travis had been talking about doing something about the pain Vin suffered, all they could see was that he was going to take Vin away. They remembered St. Louis as being a long, long way away from Denver and it scared them. The door to their room opened and Evie slipped inside, not going to the boys but just standing quietly. When she felt five pairs of eyes on her, she spoke.

"You know that we would never do anything to hurt you. We want to help Vin. We want him to grow up to be strong and whole. The doctor says that if he doesn't have this operation, that he will always suffer from pain and it could eventually cripple him."

"Like Mr. Jenkins?" Ezra asked. The old man had been thrown from his horse and couldn't walk anymore. He got around in a rolling chair that his wife ordered from the Montgomery Ward catalogue. To make matters worse, the old man was stricken with arthritis and his hands were thoroughly gnarled. At the comparison, Vin shuddered and buried his face in Josiah's shoulder.

Evie crossed the room and put her hand gently on Vin's shoulder. "Vin, you trust that I would never hurt you, don't you?" She waited until he nodded. "Orin and I want you to have every chance to be healthy and strong. This operation will fix what is broken inside so that it will be right when you grow up." To her surprise, Vin reached out and wrapped an arm around her neck and transferred to her hip, burying his face in her neck and nuzzling there.

Mrs. Travis's smell had replaced that of his mother in the boy's memory and he relaxed in her embrace. As his body settled against hers, Evie backed away from Josiah and sat on the end of the bed. Some time after the first few weeks in their new home, the boys had put the bedsteads back together, rearranging the furniture to accommodate the third bed from the other room. As she sat, she rocked Vin and stroked his long, light brown hair. The other boys moved to sit on the side of the bed facing her, knowing that she wanted to talk to them.

"It would be better and easier for Vin if you were supportive of this. He needs this operation to make him well. Orin will take good care of him, I promise you that," she said. To her surprise, Vin began to nuzzle against her again.

"Want you to go with me," he mumbled sleepily.

Orin paced along the side of his bed while his wife smiled serenely. She had told him that she had agreed to go with Vin to St. Louis. He was trying to come up with an argument, any argument, which would work to dissuade her from going. So far, everything he had come up sounded lame, even to him. The truth was that he was afraid to stay there alone with the boys. He was content to allow his wife to supervise their homework and take care of the household chores while he worked in town and on his circuit. She was the one who tended to their little injuries and listened to the news of the day when they arrived home from school. She was the one who saw them off to school. The truth was that he was afraid, plain and simple.

When his first wife died, leaving him all alone with a barely weaned baby, Orin had been a mess. He knew no more than most men did about the day-to-day care of a small child. When Steven cried for hours and hours, it was a visiting neighbor woman who showed him how to burp the boy after feeding him. She was the one who explained about the different kinds of cries. When his sister Alma offered to take the boy for a while to give him a chance to adjust, he'd leapt at the chance to have the help. Each time she tried to return the boy to him, he made some excuse. Finally, both he and his sister had resolved themselves to his role as father to the boy in title only. Alma's husband Reuben was more of a father to Steven that he was.

Finally, Orin sighed, "Alright, you go with him. I guess we can manage things here for a while without you." Evie only smiled bigger and turned as if to snuggle up to him. Warm desire charged him and he slid in between the cool, crisp sheets to her embrace.

Six young men tried very hard to keep a stiff upper lip as they watched Vin and Evie board the train. JD looked up curiously at Buck and Chris, who were holding his hands. He could feel them shaking. Vin had tears running down his face as he looked out of the window and waved to the others. Orin had given his wife a chaste kiss and a hug as he handed her bag to the conductor. Those who would remain behind stood and watched the train until it vanished from sight. They then trudged back to the wagon for the long ride back to the ranch.

Anticipating that Vin would be lonely and bored on the train, Evie had brought along some books and some small toys for him to play with. She had also carried on a pair of fluffy down pillows and a blanket to attempt to make him more comfortable. Vin spent a portion of the first day staring out of the window at the passing landscape. Every so often, he would perk up and Evie would see a herd of horses streaking across the distant fields. They ate from the picnic basket the woman had packed that morning. She had slipped a small portion of the analgesic the doctor had given them for the trip into his lemonade. Scarcely a half hour passed before Vin was struggling to keep his eyes open. He pulled the pillows from under the seat and used them to pad the hard wooden surface, ending with his head in Evie's lap. She lightly rubbed his back and felt him go limp under her hand.

The house was surprisingly quiet that first afternoon. The boys played with JD only because he begged. It was almost a relief to stop for supper. Nathan cooked the beans that had been soaking all day. He sliced pieces off of the ham and warmed them as he checked the cornbread in the oven. Josiah was directing the setting of the table. The boys plodded in and took their seats, leaving Vin's chair conspicuously empty. Orin blessed the table and they ate. JD picked at his food until Buck nudged him in the ribs. Chris struck up a conversation with Josiah about the plans they had for the next day, hoping to draw the others in. Nathan joined in, saying that he was looking forward to trying to make the bread like Evie had shown him. JD finally perked up when Buck reminded him that they were going to look at the new puppies at the Wells' place. For the rest of the meal, JD talked about 'his' dog.

Orin looked in on them before he went to bed. He was a little dismayed to see that they had pushed the beds together and were all sleeping together again. JD and Ezra were being tightly held and the shadows on their pillowslips indicated that they had cried before going to sleep. But it was Chris who called out in the night for his missing brother.

Vin awoke confused and scared. Evie was quick to soothe him so that he didn't wake the other passengers. They used the chamber pot in the next car before eating breakfast from the basket. Vin was in good spirits, but she could tell that he was lonely. She got him to sit next to her while she read to him for a while. They stopped for water around midday and Evie and Vin got out to stretch their legs. A couple got on with a little boy and within minutes, he and Vin were best friends. They were down on the floor, playing cowboys and Indians, using an assortment of their shared toys. Evie struck up a conversation with the other boy's parents and found that they were going to visit her family in Kansas City. They finished the contents of their basket of food that evening and Vin had another dose of the pain medicine in his drink. As before, he curled up in Evie's lap and dropped off to sleep. The other child resisted a while longer before he, too, fell asleep.

Their days went on like that for the rest of their trip. Whenever they could, Evie got off and found a restaurant to buy food for the next couple of days. Occasionally, they splurged and got a meal in the dining car. Vin delighted in staring out of the window while he ate and he loved being able to choose what he wanted to eat.

At the ranch, things went pretty smoothly ... for a few days. It all started going to hell on the fourth or fifth day. JD was innocently running through the kitchen when he knocked the flour sack from the counter. He picked it up, carefully keeping most of the contents inside of the bag. After he scooped up what had spilled out of the bag, he realized that Nathan might be upset with him for running through the house and making a mess. If he got into trouble, he might not get to go get his new puppy. He grabbed a dishtowel from the drawer and wet it. On his hands and knees, he began trying to wipe up the flour. Instead of picking up the flour, it turned it into a sticky mess. Buck came in the back door and headed for the pump to get a drink. His boot hit the wet, sticky puddle and he screamed as he landed flat of his behind on the floor. JD shrank back, his eyes wide as saucers.

"I'm sorry, Buck! I'm sorry! Are you all right? I'm sorry Buck! Talk to me, Buck." JD begged as he grabbed at the older boy's clothing, getting the pasty substance all over his shirt.

"Cut it out! JD! What are you doing?" Buck yelled as he pushed the younger boy away. "Look at what you did to my shirt! JD!"

Tears rolled down the boy's face as he scooted away from Buck. JD wrapped his arms around his legs and tucked his head down as he cried. Buck struggled to his knees and crawled over to try to comfort his young friend. Josiah came looking for Buck. Hearing JD crying, he raced into the kitchen, slipping in the water on the floor and only barely remaining on his feet.

"What in the hell?" Josiah said as he held on to the counter.

By the time they got the mess cleaned up, Nathan had discovered it and was spluttering from the doorway where he watched. Buck had taken JD to change both of their clothes while Josiah cleaned up the floor. Chris came running in, breathing hard.

"Nathan, you gotta come, Ezra fell and he's crying, hard."

The two boys ran down to the corral where the younger boy lay on the ground sobbing and holding his lower leg. Nathan took hold of him, stopping his movement as he pried Ezra's hands from his leg. Chris dropped behind Ezra, supporting his back as he looked on. When Nathan touched his ankle, Ezra screamed, lashing out with his other foot and hitting Nathan in the nose.

Blood poured from his face as he tried to keep it from getting on his and Ezra's clothing. Ezra curled into Chris's lap, sobbing and holding his tender ankle. Nathan got up and stumbled toward the house, mumbling at the boys to go inside.

When Orin got home, he was confronted by a triage center in his kitchen. A stack of bloody cloths was in the trashcan. Nathan's nose was so swollen that his eyes were nearly swollen shut. Ezra was sitting on a chair with his leg on a stack of pillows on another chair. Buck's arm was in a sling. Chris was trying to keep JD entertained while he set the table and Josiah was cooking, or rather burning supper. As soon as the youngest boy laid eyes on him, JD began to cry. Ezra reached across to try to comfort him, wincing at the pain in his ankle.

"Would someone like to tell me what went on here today?" Orin asked in a light voice.

They reached St. Louis and Evie hired a surrey to take them to the hotel near the hospital. Vin was plastered to her side, overwhelmed by all of the buildings and people. Now that they were there, his apprehension increased about the surgery. He was trying so hard to be brave for Mrs. Travis. They had supper that evening in a nice restaurant down the block from the hotel. Evie allowed Vin to order anything he wanted. When she got him ready for bed, he was quieter than normal, even for Vin.

"You know that you can tell me anything," she urged gently. Incredibly large blue eyes locked on hers and he nodded. Vin stretched out his hand and brushed his fingertips reverently over the face of the antique cameo pinned to her collar.

"My momma had one of those," he told her.

"I'll bet you miss her."

He shook his head and sniffed back tears, "I don't even remember her anymore. I can't remember her face or how she sounded."

Evie gathered the boy into her arms and held him as he sobbed. She rocked him gently until his little hands slipped from her clothes as he fell asleep. Tucking him under the blankets, she curled up in the easy chair and took out her stationary and pen. She wrote to Orin and the boys, letting them know that they had arrived safe. She wrote about their supper at the restaurant and the nice room they had at the hotel. She told them that she missed them and that she trusted that they were doing well. By the time she filled the page, she was ready to go to sleep.

After straightening out the situation between the boys and making sure that none of the injuries required more care, Orin tried to soothe JD. The child had been crying non-stop since he walked through the door. He gathered JD up in his arms and took him to the rocking chair in the living room. It took a while, but he finally got the whole story. It took them a day to get things back to some semblance of order. Ezra's ankle was badly sprained, as was Buck's wrist. Nathan's eyes had dark circles around them and he sounded funny when he spoke. Josiah willingly took over the outside chores, with Chris's help. The injured trio was relegated to taking care of the house and meals.

Things got better after a few days. Ezra was able to get around on his sore ankle and Buck was back to using both hands. Nathan threw himself into baking, turning out bread and even some fair oatmeal cookies. Orin was relieved that things were running so smoothly.

The next morning, Evie and Vin went to the hospital to see the doctor. Vin was terrified as he clung to his guardian's hand. They went into the examining room and waited. Just a minute later, a very tall man came in with some papers in his hand.

"Mrs. Travis? I'm Dr. Adams and this must be Vin Tanner," he offered his hand to the woman and then to the boy. He immediately noticed the wide eyes and tense stance. "Why don't you go behind the screen and strip down to your underwear for me while I have a word with Mrs. Travis." He saw the child shrink back against the woman.

"It's alright, Vin. I'll be right here," Evie soothed. Finally, he went behind the screen and she could hear him beginning to undress.

"I have reviewed the paperwork from the doctor in Denver. I just want to do a thorough exam before we discuss the surgery," he said. After a couple of minutes, Vin still hadn't come out from behind the screen. Evie thought she might know why. She knew that Vin was a very private person, always keeping his body covered around the adults.

Slipping her hand around the edge of the screen so he would know it was her, Evie spoke without looking around at the child. "Vin, would you prefer me to wait in the hall while Dr. Adams examines you?" Suddenly, a trembling hand latched on to her wrist.

"Please don't leave me," Vin begged. Evie unwrapped the fingers from her wrist and stepped around the screen to draw Vin to her stomach. She stroked over his long, slightly curling hair.

"I won't leave you, Vin. I will always be close by. Now come out here so the doctor can check on you." She drew him out from behind the screen and turned him to face the doctor, who had taken a seat on a stool to be less imposing on the frightened child.

"Vin, I want you to bend over slowly until you touch your fingers to the floor." He watched as the boy moved, noting the fact that there wasn't an ounce of spare flesh on the child anywhere. As Vin reached for the floor, the doctor put his hand on the boy's back. He felt Vin flinch and immediately apologized. "I'm sorry, Vin, I should have told you that I was going to touch you." He knew by the slight grunt that it was becoming painful and he hadn't reached the floor yet. "That's fine, Vin, you can stop now."

Evie smiled in support as Vin's eyes sought her. The doctor made some notes on his papers before he patted the examination table.

"Can you sit right up here for me?" Dr. Adams gestured to the small step and Vin got up on the table, clenching his knees together and wrapping his arms around his ribs. "Can you lie on your back?" He saw the apprehension in Vin's eyes as he moved to lie back on the wooden table. Dr. Adams noticed the white-knuckled grip the child had on the woman's hand. The doctor who examined Vin in Denver had sent along a note detailing the child's history, the nature of his injury and how he came to be in the care of the couple. He completed his exam by carefully feeling of Vin's hip and moving his leg to observe where it caused him pain. "I think I'm finished with you for now. Why don't you hop down and get dressed?" He steadied Vin as he slipped off of the table and hurried to get out of sight.

"Mrs. Travis, why don't you and I step across the hall to my office so we can talk?" Dr. Adams asked as he gathered his notes.

Vin stepped out from behind the screen. His pants and shirt were on but the shirt unbuttoned. He had his socks and boots in his hand as he looked around, panicked.

"I'm right here, Vin. I'll not leave until you're finished dressing," Evie said, giving the doctor a firm look. He nodded and stepped out, leaving the door ajar. When Vin was dressed, they stepped across the hall.

Using a black and white sketch, Dr. Adams explained that Vin had broken a bone in his hip and that it had healed incorrectly. Privately, he was amazed that the boy could walk at all, it had to be painful. He outlined what he planned to do, to rebreak the bone and position it correctly so it could heal. He told Mrs. Travis that he wanted to keep Vin overnight so that they could operate first thing in the morning.

Terror clenched like a fist around his heart and Vin wanted to cry. He scooted closer to Mrs. Travis on the small settee. She tucked her arm around him and pressed a kiss on the top of his head. They talked about the plan for the evening, that Vin would be given only a light meal and that they would give him something to help him sleep. Evie insisted that she would stay the night so she could tend to him if he needed anything. The doctor insisted that the nurses were more than capable of taking care of him.

"I promised him that I wouldn't be away from him and I won't," she told the doctor.

It was a long day for Vin. He was scared to death of all of the strangers and uncomfortable in the pajamas they insisted that he wear. The nurses also insisted that he stay in bed, something he never did unless he was really, really sick. Mrs. Travis kept her word, never leaving his side. She read to him and played with him, using the little things the nurses brought. When supper came, it was only clear broth and apple juice. There was a time, not all that long ago, that he would have been thrilled to have that meal. But now he saw it as a punishment. With a trembling lip, he thanked the nurse and stared at the tray.

"It's just so you won't be sick during the surgery," Evie assured him.

Vin was hardly looking forward to going to sleep that evening. He knew that as soon as he awoke, they would be coming for him to take him to surgery. When the nurse brought the sedative in, he shook his head.

"I don't want it," he told her as politely as he could.

"I'm sorry, dear, but you must take it. It'll make the night go by faster."

After he took the pill, Vin curled up on the bed and let go a few tears. He flinched when Mrs. Travis began to gently rub his back. When she eased up onto the bed at his side and wrapped an arm around him, he began to sob.

"I'll be here for you, Vin. This is going to be a good thing, you'll see," she soothed.

First thing in the morning, the nurse came to prepare Vin for surgery. Evie had already helped him to use the toilet. The nurse brought in a wrap to cover his hair. He seemed to be doing well until the doctor came in to give him a shot.

"No, please," Vin begged as he tried to get away. The nurse moved forward to try to hold him and he began to yell, "No! No! Please don't! Please?"

It was like ripping her heart out but Evie reached out and took hold of Vin, turning his face so she could look into his eyes. She gave him a firm look as she held him still. The doctor gave him the shot and he flinched but didn't cry out. The doctor rubbed the injection site for a few moments before he got ready to leave for the operating room.

"When you wake up, it will all be over, Vin," Evie told him as she cupped his face. She let her thumb brush along his cheekbone as he struggled to stay awake. "Just close your eyes, sweetheart," she whispered as she leaned in to kiss his forehead.

Orin stood on the porch looking as the boys played with the puppies. Casey Wells was right in the thick of them, laughing and rolling and tumbling. He had told JD that he could have a puppy as soon as they were old enough. Nettie put a tall glass of tea on the table and sat down across from where he stood.

"How are you boys getting on all alone together?" she asked.

"The boys are doing very well. They take care of themselves."

"They seem like really great kids."

"They are. You know, the longer I'm around them, the more I learn. They've already lived through more than I can imagine," he said as he smiled. One of the puppies had pinned JD and was licking his face as the boy laughed helplessly.

"How is your boy taking this?"

"Steven? He's alright with it."

"Alright with sharing his birthright with seven strangers?" Nettie asked, giving Orin a sideways glance.

"Sharing his birthright? You mean the ranch? Steven doesn't care about the ranch. He just wants to write his stories and make his mark on the world," Orin said.

"Are you sure?"

"Mrs. Wells, if you have something to say, I wish you would spit it out."

"Your boy is jealous. The reason he hates those kids is because he's afraid that you'll change your will and leave everything to them. It doesn't matter that you didn't raise him, he still expects to inherit from you. It doesn't matter that you don't think he cares about the ranch, he might not, but he still sees it as his and he's afraid that you're replacing him in your will and in your heart."

When they brought Vin back into the room, Evie's heart clenched. Vin was encased in a plaster cast from the middle of his ribs to his knees. He was so very pale that he almost blended in with the sheets. The nurses got him settled back in his bed and explained that he would begin waking up shortly and that she need only call out if she needed help with him. Tenderly, Evie took up the still hand and wrapped the unresponsive fingers around her own. She brushed her fingertips across his forehead. When his eyes began to move behind the closed lids, she knew he was waking up.

"Vin, it's alright, sweetheart," she assured him as he whimpered.

Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked up at his guardian. Almost immediately, his stomach began to churn. He struggled to turn over, only to discover that the motion made him feel sicker, was intensely painful, and that he couldn't move. Panic took over and he began to thrash wildly.

"Calm down, Vin! Please calm down!" Evie said as she tried to contain his flailing arms. A nurse rushed to their side to help. Together, they managed to roll him to his side and hold him as he vomited. As soon as the stomach spasms eased, they tried to get him settled comfortably on the bed again.

"I'll have the doctor come right away," the nurse said as she hurried off. Evie wet a cloth and wiped Vin's flushed face, sympathetic to his tears.

The doctor strode in, long coat flapping behind him as he stopped at the bedside. He checked Vin's pulse and pressed his hand to the slightly damp forehead. "I hear you had a bout of throwing up. Are you having a lot of pain?"

Vin shrank away from the doctor and whimpered softly. When Evie repeated the question, he gave a tiny nod. The doctor looked at the nurse and she scurried away, returning a few minutes later with a syringe. Vin began shaking his head and whimpering, "No, no, no!"

"This will help with the pain, Vin. Just try to relax," the doctor urged as he started to draw back the blankets. He had to pry Vin's fingers loose to uncover the child.

"No, no, no. Please don't," Vin pleaded, "It doesn't hurt that bad."

"You sure? It's just a little stick, like a bee sting."

"I'm fine," Vin insisted.

The next few hours were tense. The nurse assured Mrs. Travis that it was a reaction to the anesthesia that was causing the boy to be so violently ill and that it would pass. They kept having to turn him to his side, even though he had nothing left in his stomach to expel. Finally, the nausea passed and Vin dropped off to sleep. Evie was finally persuaded to leave his side for a short time to grab a meal. She spent the rest of the night at his side, soothing him when he awoke, scared and in pain.

At the ranch, things settled into a new routine. JD was thrilled with the new puppy, he lavished love on the little mutt. Josiah and Nathan showed him how to teach the animal not to make puddles in the house. But it was Ezra who taught the little furball to do tricks. Chris caught him one afternoon, in the barn teaching it to beg. He watched for several minutes, as the little dog was rewarded for doing it exactly right.

Orin arrived home to the delicious smell of pot roast. He hung up his coat and followed his nose into the kitchen. Nathan was just putting the food into serving dishes.

"That smells wonderful, Nathan," Orin said as he stepped closer and sniffed appreciatively. "Where are the other boys?"

"Josiah, Buck and Chris are still finishing up in the barn. Ezra's keeping JD busy. They set the table earlier. I'll call the others to begin cleaning up."

"I'll call them in, you've got your hands full," Orin said as he slapped Nathan on the back.

As they gathered around the table, Orin pulled something from his pocket, "I got a letter from Evie today." He waited for them to settle down before he opened it. He read it from top to bottom, twice, before folding it and putting it back in his pocket. The rest of the meal was spent discussing how they hoped that Vin was doing well with his recovery from surgery.

Vin was humiliated. With the cast on his hips and legs, he couldn't even pass his water without help. And he dreaded when his bowels moved. The pain was worse than when the tree fell on his back. But he dared not let anyone know he was hurting or they would come back with the needle. He was trying to keep on a brave face for Mrs. Travis. The nurses were trying to get her to go to her hotel for the night and, as badly as he wanted for her to be there for him, he knew that she needed to rest.

"Are you sure? I don't mind staying with you, sweetheart," Evie was saying.

"I'll be fine, Ma'am," he told her.

They discussed it for a while longer before Evie gave in to her fatigue and yawned. She looked to the nurse, who nodded encouragingly. She slowly gathered up the newspaper and the paperback she had been reading and put them in the bag she had brought Vin's things in. She straightened his blankets again, searching his eyes for any sign that he wanted her to stay. Seeing none, she kissed his forehead and left the room. The nurse smiled at him, knowing that he really hadn't wanted her to go.

"I'll be by to check on you in a little while, Vin," the nurse said as she left the room.

All alone, in the scary hospital room, Vin tried very hard not to cry. He panted as he fisted the blanket. Bitter tears trickled down his cheeks. The pain in his lower back was excruciating and he had to pee. He cast a furtive glance toward the door, hoping that the nurse was coming back soon.

Helen carried fresh linens into the room and saw the boy squirming and heard the soft whimpers. She rushed to his side and touched his arm. "Vin? What is it? Is something wrong?"

Startled blue eyes, awash in tears, turned to her. "I – I – I gotta ... gotta-"

Reading between the stammered words, she grabbed the urinal and slipped it under the blanket. All of the nurses knew how painfully shy the little boy was and they tried to avoid embarrassing him any more than necessary. She controlled the urge to smile at his sigh of relief. When he finished, she took the vessel away to empty it. Pressing her palm gently to his forehead, she noticed the sheen of sweat and the tenseness of his muscles. "Are you in pain, Vin?"

He looked up at her, frightened. He knew that if he admitted to the pain that she would return with a needle. Gathering up his courage, he shook his head.

"It doesn't have to be a shot. I have a pill you can swallow or I can dissolve it in a little bit of juice. Would that be better?" He considered her words and then nodded. "I'll be right back."

After the pill, Vin felt pleasantly drowsy. The pain receded to a point where he could stand it and he drifted off to sleep. Helen looked in on him later when she heard him whimpering. As she ran her hand over the top of his head, he murmured softly.

"Momma," Vin called. In his mind's eye, he saw his mother walking away. When he called out to her, she turned and it was Mrs. Travis. "Momma, don't go!" he cried out.

Helen placed her hand lightly on his chest and felt that his heart was racing. Leaning in close, she began to hum softly in his ear. Gradually, his tense little body began to relax. His breathing slowed until he drifted back into a deeper sleep. She straightened his blankets and tucked them in close around him.

Vin's pain gradually receded day by day until it reached a manageable level. Because he couldn't sit up, the nurses raised the head of his bed and placed a table across it in front of him so that he could play with the small toys Evie brought for him. He also had a deck of cards that one of the nurses had given him. When he grew tired of playing solitaire, he built card houses with them. He also took the time to painstakingly print out a note for his 'brothers' at home, telling them that he'd had the surgery and was now going to get better.

In Denver, the weather was turning colder. The boys were indoors more and more of the time. On the island, it hadn't stayed cold for long periods of time and they were becoming stir crazy. Orin brought out a chessboard and started teaching the boys to play. After a few days, he could see real improvement in their skills. JD was upset that he couldn't play, so Orin brought out checkers.

Ezra surveyed the board before reaching out and moving one of his checkers. JD's hand shot out almost before he had let go of the checker. He jumped two of Ezra's pieces and picked them up, grinning from ear to ear and showing off the tooth he'd pulled out the day before. The older boy sighed and shook his head in exasperation. JD couldn't master the game of chess but he always beat Ezra at checkers.

They got another letter from Evie, letting them know that Vin's surgery had been done and that they were waiting now for him to heal so they could remove the cast. They also got a note from Vin. That note was safely tucked away in Josiah's Bible. They all wrote a letter back to him, telling him about all the things he was missing.

In town one afternoon, a nun approached Orin and asked for a moment of his time. He took her into the restaurant and invited her to sit down.

"Mr. Travis, I received a letter indicating that you might know the relative of a young woman who came into our care recently. The Bible she had with her indicated that her name is Hannah Sanchez and that she has a brother named Josiah."

Orin felt as if all of the air was suddenly sucked out of his lungs. "This young woman, does she have living family members?"

"No, she was found with the body of her father, who was dead. Mr. Travis, Hannah is very deeply disturbed and she will require life-long care. If the boy that you took in really is her brother, we just felt that he should know that she is alive. We aren't asking you to take her or support her in any way," the nun insisted. "We will keep her secluded and pray for her tormented soul. I just thought you should know."

"Thank you, Sister. I will tell Josiah, of course. I'm sure he will want to see her."