Vin peeked from around Chris Larabee's back as the gelding they were riding came to an easy stop. He could see a small cabin and some corrals with horses in them. Further away, there were more buildings clumped together. He guessed the largest of them was a barn.
The cabin didn't look too welcoming to the tired child. There was a plain front porch, not much more than a wide strip that ran the length of the house. There wasn't any smoke coming out of the chimney to promise the cozy glow of a friendly fire. Vin shivered a bit as the cooling air of late afternoon cut through his thin, blue calico shirt.
The dark-clad man he was holding on to reached around to take Vin by the arm and swing him to the ground. Vin choked back a little moan as he landed awkwardly. His back sure was hurting awfully bad, but he wasn't gonna complain. People didn't like children that complained -- he'd learned that lesson fast enough at the orphanage.
"Can we go see the horses? Please?" JD's feet hadn't even touched the ground yet and he was already thinking of finally getting to see those horses that he and Mr. Buck had talked about non-stop the whole ride from town.
Buck gracefully dismounted and lifted the young boy from the saddle, swinging JD to the ground beside him.
JD stared around him wide-eyed, taking in everything. He saw a few horses in the closest pen to the house and immediately trotted off in that direction.
"Not now, JD. Let's get you boys settled first." There was a smile in Chris' voice as his gentle order stopped JD dead in his tiny tracks. The tall rancher smoothly swung down from his black horse and tied the reins to the hitching post. Vin wasn't sure who looked more disappointed, JD...or the big, friendly man with the mustache who had followed after JD.
Vin tried not to limp as he slowly climbed the steps to the porch. The elation at the last-minute rescue from the threat of separation from JD had faded to extreme fatigue and an anxious knot in his stomach that just wouldn't go away. He followed JD and the two men into the house.
"It's awfully small, ain't it, Vin?"
"Ssh, JD." Vin knew JD didn't mean no harm with his honest appraisal, but he was afraid the two men would take offense. Besides...it was an awfully small house. They were standing in a darkened room that doubled as living room and kitchen. A rough table with a few crude wooden chairs separated the two areas. Everything was homemade with the exception of a polished rocking chair that reminded one of gentler times.
"Yep, JD, you're right. Just small enough to keep two ranchers comfortable without having lots of cleaning to do." Chris and Buck exchanged grins at Buck's comment. They kept the place neat, but knew if any of the womenfolk in town got a gander at the place...well, let's just say, their asses would be grass and their fingers worn to the bone from scrubbing.
"You boys will sleep in here." Chris pushed aside a thin muslin curtain that acted as a door to a small cubbyhole of a room. There was little furniture, just a tiny bed with an old floral quilt over it, a trunk to hold clothes and an empty shelf on the wall perfect for holding a boy's treasures. The bed, with its rough handmade frame, was wedged across from the door, barely inches between it and the two walls. A beam of waning sunlight shown through the dirt-stained window brightening the faded yellow print of the quilt, adding the only touch of a welcome.
"It's real nice, Mr. Chris." Vin couldn't think of anything else to say and fell silent, studying the rag rug under his dusty shoes.
JD bounced straight over to the side of the bed and hopped up on it, feet swinging back and forth. "It's really nice, look Vin, we even got a window to look out of, and we can put our stuff on the shelf...and the bed is really soft." He bounced again and grinned up at the others, satisfied completely with his new room. "Now, can we go see the horses? Please?"
"Sorry, son, startin' to git dark and I know two boys who've had a long day and are probably right hungry." Buck scooped JD up in his arms, one hand securely supporting JD's bottom and carried him from the little bedroom. "Chris, how 'bout I help the boys git washed up and you see what you can find to warm for supper?"
Chris nodded and, placing his hand on Vin's shoulder, they followed along behind.
A busy half hour later found two scrubbed small faces and two sets of clean little hands, leftover stew warming on the stove, and a pleasant fire crackling in the fireplace. The stew, brimming with rabbit and root vegetables, was just beginning to send its earthy fragrance over the small room.
"Rider coming." Buck pushed aside the simple curtain to peer outside. "It's Nathan."
"Good. Like to get these boys checked over." Chris grinned at JD who was helping him set the table with tin bowls and spoons. "After that wild adventure today, reckon we best make sure we got no permanent injuries."
JD looked puzzled. "Don't got no 'jury...but my finger hurts." He held it up for Chris to inspect. "See."
Buck opened the front door before Nathan had a chance to knock. "Come on in, Nathan. Glad you could come."
The tall black man entered as Buck stepped away from the door. Nathan Jackson was probably the kindest man Buck had ever known. You couldn't ask for a more caring doctor and the town was damn lucky to have him, though there were still some fools living in the past that weren't about to admit it.
"Ezra said you all might need my help. Said you had two young'ns stayin' with you, needed lookin' over." The doctor handed a bag to Buck. "Asked me to bring this out. Ya'll forgot it."
Chris shepherded the two boys over to meet Mr. Jackson. "Boys, this is Nathan Jackson, the best doctor in these parts."
The boys politely shook hands with the tall man.
"Are you here to fix our 'juries'?" JD stared up at Nathan. "I got's a sore arm and a sore finger...wanna see?" JD held up his left hand. "An Vin got's a sore back, he don't complain none, but I know it's hurtin' him lots".
Vin stared at the floor, tight-lipped. No, JD. Why you'd tell 'em that? Now Mr Chris is gonna think I'm not strong enuff to be able to help out and he ain't gonna wanna keep me.
JD continued, totally oblivious to his cousin's distress. "Vin fell out of a tree when he was my age and his back hurts some now. He showed me the tree and told me never to climb it and I never did 'cause it was too tall. But I was gonna climb it when I got bigger, 'cause I wouldn't be afraid to." JD didn't want nobody thinking he was scared of no tree...even if it was taller than a house.
The three adults exchanged glances of pity as they looked at Vin's bent head.
Nathan reached down to pick up JD. "Don't you worry none, son, we'll have both you boys good as new. Now show me that finger." He sat JD down on the edge of the table and began to look him over carefully, making sure to pay appropriate attention to the tiny scratch on the boy's finger that JD was so proud of.
Finishing his examination, Nathan lifted JD down. "Well, this little feller is just as fine as rain. That wrist ain't nothin' serious, jes a little bruised...from a stone probably."
Chris glanced down at the still silent older boy. Might be easier on Vin if JD wasn't around for this next bit of time. The boy seemed awfully upset that JD had told about his back. He looked over at Buck. "Why don't you take JD here out to meet Fire. Reckon you two could make sure he's settled in for the night?"
"Can we, Mr. Buck? Can we? Please?" JD danced around the grinning cowboy and followed him over to the vegetable bin where Buck pulled out a carrot.
"JD, unless you want to be the one to eat this here carrot, I reckon we better go feed it to that horse." He scooped JD up in his arms and left the house.
"Your turn, Vin." Chris carefully lifted the boy and placed him on the table. "You wanna tell Nathan where your back hurts?"
Vin just stared down at the toes of his shoes, chin tucked tight to his chest. He ached all over, but it wasn't nothin' compared to the ache in his heart. The hateful words, "too much trouble", rang over and over again in his head and he wanted to do nothing more than find a safe spot to hide, so he could cry out his misery.
"It's all right, son, Nathan ain't gonna hurt ya. He's doctored me and Buck up more than a few times...," The attempt to comfort the boy trailed off as Chris could see it wasn't working. He stepped back to let Nathan go ahead with the examination.
"JD said your back was hurting? Jes let me take a look here." Nathan lifted up Vin's faded shirt and ran gentle hands along the boy's skinny backbone. "You let me know when it hurts."
Vin gasped as Nathan touched a spot along his spine, then immediately fell silent.
"That hurt, son?" Nathan continued to gently press up and down Vin's spine while he waited for the boy to answer his question. "Vin?"
Chris stepped in when it looked like the boy wasn't gonna speak. "You need to answer Mr. Nathan, Vin. He can't help you if he don't know where it hurts."
Vin glanced up at Chris, eyes dark with pain, then whispered, "It don't hurt none."
Chris reached over to ruffle Vin's curls. "It's all right to hurt, Vin. You ain't gonna git in trouble. Ain't your fault." He continued to stroke Vin's hair, just as if he were soothing a frightened colt.
Nathan finished and let the back of Vin's shirt down. "Well, Chris, I think it's jes soreness from too much effort. The boy's spine is a mite crooked. I've heard 'bout that, don't know much that can be done 'bout it, not even back east. Some children jes born that way."
Nathan saw the question in Chris' eyes, one that he knew Chris didn't want to vocalize in front of the child. "Reckon the boy will grow out of it. Some rest right now will help ease the soreness."
Nathan reached over to pat Vin on the shoulder. "See, told you it weren't gonna be bad, Vin. And you a right better patient than Chris here...you shoulda heard the hollerin' went on when I had to pull a splinter out his finger."
That...and the dirty look that the rancher gave Nathan, earned the doctor a tiny hint of a grin from the boy, all the reward he'd ever need for coming out that evening.
"Nathan, you're welcome to stay and have supper with us."
"Thanks, Chris, but I got to be gettin' back to town. Mrs. Thompson gettin' mighty close to havin' that baby and I need to stay handy. Babies don't pick the most convenient times."
Chris shook Nathan's hand and walked him to the door. "Thanks again, Nathan. Sure appreciate it."
Vin awkwardly scrambled to the floor and followed the two men. Reaching Nathan, he stuck out his hand politely. "Thank you, Mr. Nathan."
Nathan returned the handshake, the boy's tiny hand swallowed up in the big man's much larger one. "You're welcome, Vin." He headed on out the door to his horse, mounted with a last wave, and trotted off.
Chris laid his hand on Vin's shoulder. "What say you and me finished up gettin' supper ready and then I'll call those two in. Reckon they've put that horse to bed by now. What you think?"
"Reckon so. But you might have trouble gettin' JD in, he likes horses an awful lot."
"So does Buck. You think they might rather eat with the horses, huh?" Chris grinned at Vin, then laughed when Vin nodded his head in eager agreeement.
"I like your hat, Mr. Buck, you think I could have one like that someday?" JD leaned closer to Buck's body and put his arm around the man's neck. It felt good to be held so securely after such an exciting day. And besides, it was a bit chilly out and JD was cold. But he wasn't about to complain. Not when he was gonna get to see Fire. Mr. Buck said he was the grandest horse in all of Four Corners and JD wasn't about to miss seeing him...not one bit.
Buck tickled JD's side with his free hand. "Sure, a man needs a hat in this country."
Noticing the chill of the tiny hand clasped around his neck, he pulled the boy closer to his side. "You cold, JD...reckon we should go back in?"
JD shook his head emphatically. "Nope."
The hurried reply made Buck laugh. "Okay, little britches, let's go see that horse."
They entered the barn, dark and warm with the heat from the horses stabled there. The smells of hay and fresh manure making his nose wrinkle, Buck sat the child down and with a hand on JD's shoulder led the way to the large box stall where his pride and joy resided.
The stallion greeted his visitors with a questioning nicker as he stuck his gleaming chestnut head over the stall door. Firestorm knew he was king around this ranch and it showed in every arrogant movement, even to the twitch of his ears.
"Wow. He's a beauty, ain't he, Mr. Buck? Can I ride em?" JD held his breath as the thoroughbred stuck his delicate muzzle towards them.
"No, son, he's too much horse for a little bit like you. But here, hold out your hand and see if he'll take this carrot from you."
Buck broke off a piece of carrot and tucked it in JD's hand. He straightened out the boy's cold fingers as he instructed JD how to feed a horse safely. "Now see, hold your hand flat and he'll just take it right from ya."
JD giggled as Fire daintily lipped the treat from the boy's hand. He looked up at Buck, excited. "He likes me. Did you see him?"
"Fire's a smart horse. He knows who his admirers are." Buck reached out to stroke the narrow blaze that decorated the stallion's elegant head. "Yep, one smart horse. And he's gonna pass that on down to those babies of his that'll be runnin' 'round this ranch come spring."
"You gonna have some baby horses?" JD wriggled with delight, the thought of more horses just too much to be able to stay still. "Can I see them? Please?"
Buck couldn't hardly tell the child that was looking up at him so trustingly that, in all likelihood, JD would be long gone by the time the first of Fire's colts were born. He'd rather take a punch to the stomach then have to do that. "Sure, I'll let you see them." He cringed inwardly, hoping that it wasn't a lie, and somehow, he'd be able to keep his promise.
Bored, Firestorm, turned away, his golden-red coat shining like a flame even in the dull light. He headed for his grain bucket, hinting to his owner that he'd really appreciate being fed something more substantial than that tiny carrot.
Buck chuckled. "Well, JD, reckon Fire's trying to tell us it's time to eat. How 'bout you and me get him some oats, then head back to the house to see if our supper's ready. You hungry?"
"Sure am, Mr. Buck. We gonna have oats like Fire?" JD grinned at Buck, teasing his new friend.
Buck's eyes twinkled with humor as he set JD down and went to get a bucket of grain for his hungry horse. "Well, we just may have oats for breakfast...only I like milk and sweetenin' on mine, how 'bout you?"
"Me too." JD tagged along behind Buck just as if he'd always belonged there and always would.
Chris carried the old carpetbag into the boys' room and laid it on the bed. He could hear the sounds of Buck and his young helpers finishing up the dinner dishes. It was a pleasant sound and he paused just a minute to listen. It had been a long time since he'd heard the old place sound so alive.
The worn bag had pitiful few contents. He unpacked an extra pair of pants, drawers and shirts for each boy, all pieces lovingly mended with seemingly expert hands. Chris reckoned there was a story behind each bit of mending that aunt and mother had remembered all their short lives.
There was a photo of two laughing young ladies wrapped in a dingy cotton handerchief and a small bible with a hand embroidered cover, bits of the blue and yellow threads starting to unravel. Not much, except for memories, for these boys to have left of their families. Not much at all.
Chris carefully placed the clothes in the wooden chest, then laid the bible on the wall shelf and stood the photo up beside it. He wanted to promise those mothers that he would take care of their sons, but couldn't...after all, this was only temporary. He felt guilty as hell as he left the small room.
Vin lay awake, staring at the ceiling, wishing the pain in his tummy would go away. It had been a couple of hours since he and JD were sent to bed. Sleep wasn't eager to take the place of a growling stomach and the ever-present ache in his back. He looked over at JD, or what he could see of his cousin, snuggled under the pile of quilts and blankets. JD hadn't had any trouble going to sleep...or any trouble eating the tasty stew and biscuits they'd been served at dinner. Vin had only nibbled at the food on his plate--it was awful enough that Mr. Chris knew now that he had a bad back, he wasn't gonna make things worse by eating a lot. He wanted to stay here, wanted it more than he could express, even to himself. So he'd picked at his food and let JD have his share. JD was just little and it was too hard to make him understand that people didn't want kids like them.
Vin pushed aside the mountain of covers and crawled out of bed. He was wearing an old shirt of Mr. Chris' to sleep in and the tail of it dragged the floor. His bare toes curled as they touched the cold floor and he almost jumped back in bed. Instead he tiptoed into the living room trying his best to be quiet.
Chris heard a noise and got up to check on things, his years of ranching and protecting the town keeping his senses alert to all noises. He found Vin, standing in front of the stove, staring at the iron skillet of left-over biscuits. Chris had noticed the boy hadn't eaten much supper and had put it down to a combination of not feeling good and too stressful a day. But no seven-year old child should ever wear the weight of the world like this one did. You could see it in his eyes, even on the rare occasions when Vin smiled. This child was hurting inside his heart...hurting bad.
"You hungry, Vin?" Chris spoke softly, not wanting to startle the boy. "I'm a bit hungry myself...how 'bout we share a biscuit?"
Hunger won for the moment and Vin nodded.
Chris joined the child at the stove, picking up a biscuit and breaking it in half, then smothering it in creamy butter and wild honey. He could see the tip of Vin's tongue brush across the boy's upper lip as Vin stared at the snack Chris was preparing.
"Let's go over here by the fire, son, it'll be more comfortable." Chris sat down in the old rocking chair. It had been a part of Sarah's family, that old chair, and was one of the few possessions that had escaped burning when he lost his family. Chris loved its creaking sound and the gleam of its polished maple wood. Sitting in it always brought him peace and he hoped it would work the same magic for Vin.
Chris patted his leg, encouraging Vin to sit with him. He could tell the boy was unsure, but then Vin seemed to come to some decision and climbed up to sit in his lap. Chris felt as good as if he'd won some sort of victory. He handed Vin the larger of the biscuit's halves, and slowly munched on his own.
Vin shivered, the white cotton shirt didn't provide much protection. It wasn't winter yet, but the nights were cold. He tucked the toes of his bare feet up under him, trying to warm them. Chris reached behind him and grabbed an old, often-used crocheted throw that Sarah had made when she was pregnant with Adam. He tucked it around Vin making sure to cover the boy's cold feet. "That better?"
Vin nodded and relaxed a bit more, leaning into the large man's body. The long johns were scratchy against his cheek, but it felt kinda good anyway. Now that his tummy had made its aquaintance with the biscuit, its grumbling had faded away.
Vin was starting to feel sleepy. His blue eyes closed, then opened again as he fought it. Didn't seem proper to take a man's food, then just fall asleep on him without saying thank you. So he whispered, "Thanks, Mr. Chris. The biscuit was awfully good."
"You're welcome, Vin." Chris could feel the small body shift around in his lap as if Vin couldn't get comfortable. "Is your back botherin' you?" He really didn't expect an answer as reticent as the boy had been about his sore back earlier, and was thoroughly surprised when he heard a tiny "yes". Another victory. And Chris was even more surprised at just how good it felt.
"Here, son, let's see if this will help." Chris turned Vin slightly so the boy was leaning into him and began to rub the child's back. Not much meat on these bones. He could hear Vin sigh with relief as the ache eased. He kept up the soothing strokes, moving his hand gently in small circles.
Chris didn't stop til the soft snores told him Vin had finally fallen asleep. He stood, carefully holding his precious burden still bundled in the warm throw, then carried Vin back to bed. The child never stirred as Chris tucked him underneath the bedclothes.
Chris shook his head, wondering in amazement how such a little fellow could get under a man's skin so fast. And wondered even more...what he was gonna do about it? He expected no answers tonight, so he leaned over to place a kiss on top of Vin's sandy-brown curls, such a contrast to the few strands of JD's dark hair poking up through the rumpled blanket the little boy had pulled snuggly over his head. The rancher smiled as he tugged a bit of blanket over JD's dirt-smudged toes peeking out from under the covers. Reckon it's gonna be bath time tomorrow. Boys can sure collect the dirt.
Chris sighed deeply as he took one last look at the sleeping children. Hell, here I am thinking about baths and such...like I'm gonna keep these two around. He was dismayed at just how easy that idea seemed to come to him. I can't do this again. They need a real home, real parents. He had almost convinced himself it was for the best, but his heart and thoughts were equally heavy as he returned to his own bed.