Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM, Trilogy, etc. The
Little Britches AU was created by J. K. Poffenberger and S. Berry.
1)This story is a birthday story for a wonderful lady who gives so much to
us all. Happy Birthday Joy!
2) I would like to extend my thanks to Katy for her help with titling this
piece, Megan for assuring me it all made sense and to LaraMee for the amazing
picture she created to go along with it and for doing some quick beta work
(which means any misspellings, grammar errors and other oddities remaining
are mine alone). Thanks ladies!
Warnings: Ive rated this at PG-13. A child is attacked and suffers
mild injuries in this story, though he makes a quick and full recovery. If
you can not abide any sort of injury happening to a child, please stop reading
The sun was merciless as it beat down upon the two men.
Their trail had been long, dry and hot. Now, with their business concluded,
they were fighting an urge to push on faster to reach their destination.
Both men knew this land. They had not been born here, but they had become
part of it over the years. These men had been privy to the promise of joy
this land could bring and they had experienced the devastation it could wreak
upon a soul. Through high times and low, good times and bad, the men had
stood side by side learning the lessons of a frontier life. They learned
not to take joy for granted, that every day was to be cherished, valued and
lived, that hard work didn't always mean you would succeed and that when
it came right down to it, Mother Nature would always win.
So they rode at a steady pace allowing their mounts to move comfortably and
resting them often despite the growing need in both men to return to the
place that had once more become home and the family that waited there for
Buck smiled as his eyes slid over toward his friend. They had left Rock Ridge
as soon as completing their task for Judge Travis, the man who employed them
and three of their friends as peacekeepers. The two men felt they had been
gone for far too long.
This feeling would not have been the same a few months ago. No, had this
assignment been given to them back then, they would have made the delivery
and spent a few extra days enjoying the new town.
Now, though, they had a reason to get back quickly.
Eight months ago an orphan train had stopped in town. This didn't really
affect either man, or at least it hadn't until two of the orphans had run
off. The men had tracked the two boys down and brought them back. When asked
why they had run off, the boys informed that they were cousins and meant
to stay together; the older one had promised his aunt.
Though he had tried, Josiah had been unable to find a family to take both
boys and had no choice but to separate them. Very reluctantly, Chris had
agreed to allow the boys to stay with them until a suitable family could
be found. Little had either man suspected at the time that the two of them
were the suitable family Josiah had in mind.
Now, though, neither man could, or wanted to, imagine their lives without
the boys in it.
Still, Chris was reluctant to admit that Vin was the reason for his rush
home, so the blond had stated that there was a storm coming and they'd better
hurry along before it started. With any luck they'd make it to town before
the first raindrops fell.
"What?" the blond asked his smiling friend.
"Nothing, Pard," Buck assured, laughter evident in his voice.
"It's not funny, Buck," Chris replied, tired of the teasing.
"But it's true," Buck replied, his grin growing even wider as Chris frowned.
"Any fool who's lived here and paid attention would know that there was a
storm coming," Chris insisted.
Buck shook his head. "It's those old bones of yours, Pard," Buck teased.
Chris ignored the jibe as he thought back to a few months ago.
He had been out by the corral watching to make sure his horse was okay.
The horse had caught a stone, which resulted in a bruised hoof. Chris just
wanted to make sure there were no problems as it healed. After a few minutes
of watching the horse, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He
instinctively knew he was being watched.
Turning quickly, he found himself face to face with JD. "Help you with
something?" he asked the normally rambunctious child, wondering why the boy
was being so quiet.
"No," JD answered quickly, "Just watching."
Chris nodded. "Watching what?" he asked, puzzled.
"Watching you," JD replied as if the answer were obvious.
Chris bit back his impatience, having forgotten what it was like to speak
to a child. "Why are you watching me?" he asked with more patience than he
"I asked Mr. Buck how you always knew the weather was going to change. He
told me that all old people could tell when the weather would change and
you just had to watch them close to see," JD informed.
Chris nodded at the information, trying to keep his face neutral. "Buck told
you that, did he?" Chris asked, unable to stop the gleam in his eye. Buck
had just thrown down a gauntlet that Chris was more than willing to pick
up. But not today. His response would have to wait and be unexpected. And
he would have to make sure Buck knew it was his revenge.
JD was nodding vigorously. "Yep. He said with you around that he never had
to worry about knowing when to get things ready for a storm 'cause your old
bones never failed him yet."
Chris smiled at the boy and ruffled his hair. "You go on and play, JD," he
said. "If my bones tell me we're in for a weather change, I'll let you know,"
"Sure, Chris!" JD exclaimed before running off to find his cousin.
Buck watched as the corner of Chris' mouth tugged up
into a smile. He hated it when that happened. It never meant anything good
- at least for him. His smile dimming slightly he asked, "What're you thinking?"
Chris smiled, a mischievous gleam in his eye. "Well, I think it's a good
thing my old bones are so attuned to the elements. They give you plenty of
time to hide from the thunder. Lord knows we wouldn't want you to have to
grow a beard too," he observed. His smile broadening slightly as the watched
Buck shoot him a dirty look. Turn about was fair play.
Buck frowned and glared at his friend. It wasn't funny. He knew exactly to
what Chris was referring and it just wasn't funny, though he had to admit,
it was a good payback.
Buck and Vin had gone out fishing. Normally JD would have come along
with them, or Chris and Vin would have gone, but Chris was suffering from
a nasty cold and JD just couldn't sit still long enough to catch anything.
Since they needed some fish to eat Chris had assured Buck he was well enough
to handle JD, JD assured Vin he would take care of Chris and Vin had been
out the door preparing the horses before Buck could say anything to him.
There was a stream near their property and a pond a little ways down with
fish in it, but the best fish were at a pond Chris and Vin had found on one
of their rides into the wilderness. This is where the two had headed.
It was still well before noon when they decided they had enough fish. Gathering
their gear together, Buck glanced up at the building clouds.
Seeing the man look up, Vin also looked up just as a raindrop fell on his
"Don't reckon we'll get back before the rain," Buck observed. "Showers this
time of year don't usually last that long." He looked down to see the boy
looking up at him expectantly. He was momentarily shaken by the trust he
read in the blue eyes. When had he, Buck Wilmington, become responsible enough
to earn a child's trust? "I know of an old shack we can stay in until it
passes," he assured the child. "It's just a little ways away and we should
be able to make it before we get too drenched."
Vin nodded and picked up his fishing things quickly as the two headed toward
Buck paused as they loosened the reigns. He trusted Vin on Peso and knew
the boy could ride, but he'd never ridden in the rain. Making a decision,
Buck suggested, "Why don't you ride with me and we'll lead Peso." Vin's blue
eyes came up to meet his and Buck couldn't figure out the look in them, but
didn't complain as the boy simply nodded and handed over Peso's reigns.
Quickly mounting, the duo had taken off and made it to the shack just before
the rain fell in earnest.
Looking around in the gray light, Buck found and lantern and quickly lit
it. There were no chairs in the small shack, so he grabbed the blanket off
the bed and settled it on the floor, giving them a place to sit and eat the
lunch they had brought with them.
A few minutes into their meal a flash of lightning brightened the sky. Before
the thunder sounded, Vin was sitting next to Buck, pressed tightly to his
Buck was about to smile and comfort the boy when he heard the soft words
Vin was saying. Looking down, Buck saw one small hand holding his and felt
the other gently stroking his back.
"It's okay, Buck," the soft drawl assured. "The thunder can't hurt us here."
Puzzled and touched by Vin's ministrations, Buck couldn't help asking, "Thanks,
Junior. But what made you think to comfort me?"
Vin looked up at the blue-eyed man with guileless eyes. "Chris told me how
you don't like thunder. He said you're so scared you bit clean through your
lip once, so now you wear that mustache. He also said that his old bones
had kept you from being caught in the storm more than once."
Buck felt his face flush and his mouth drop open slightly before he realized
that Chris' little fib was payback for Buck's telling JD about Chris' old
bones being able to tell him when the weather was changing. Smiling, he patted
the hand resting on his own and simply said, "Thanks."
His mind returning to the present, he glanced over at
his friends dancing eyes and couldn't help the smile that tugged at
his lips. It was good to see the old Chris Larabee resurfacing after so long.
A chuckle soon escaped and Buck shook his head, wondering at the magic the
two boys had wrought in their lives. "They are amazing aren't they?" he asked.
"Sure are," Chris said, his voice filled with pride and wonder. A small pang
sounded in his heart as he thought of his lost son, but then the image of
Vin's blue eyes filled his mind and he felt his smile return. He would always
miss Sarah and Adam, but Vin was his present and future. Encouraging his
horse, he picked up the pace.
The two men had continued on for about another hour when they both noticed
a rise in the humidity. Glancing upward, they could see the storm clouds
in the distance, closing quickly. "We aren't going to make it back to town,"
Chris observed. "There are some old caves up ahead. One of them should be
deep enough for us to shelter in during the storm." With that said he urged
his horse to go faster and led the way.
Vin sat in the pew frowning down at the reader before
him. He couldn't understand why he had to learn his letters, learn to read.
He'd gotten by pretty well during his seven or eight years without knowing
how, but if Chris felt it was important than he would do it.
Ezra watched the boy's brow furrow, knowing that Vin struggled with the letters
and words. He hated to see the small blond struggle with something that came
so easily to his cousin. Ezra could easily understand that frustration, having
suffered through something similar himself. Still, it was important that
Vin learn at least the basics if he were going to survive in their ever-changing
Of course, if someone had told him even a year ago that he would be spending
his afternoons playing school teacher to two small boys; he would have laughed
the person out of the room. Yet, there was nothing else he'd rather be doing
at the moment. Settling next to Vin, he spoke softly. "Master Tanner?" he
called. "What seems to be giving you difficulties?"
Vin sighed and looked up at his Uncle Ezra, defeat and frustration apparent
in his eyes and face. "I can't figure out this word," he said, indicating
the offending conglomeration of letters.
Ezra took a look and suppressed a sigh. Vin knew that word, but obviously
the boy had had enough for the day. Taking the reader from the small hands,
he said, "I think that's something we can work on tomorrow. Why don't you
go find JD and play outside a while?"
Vin shook his head. "Can't play outside, it's going to rain soon," he advised.
Ezra didn't doubt him for a moment. In the months Vin had been with them,
the boy had shown a remarkable ability to read nature with the ease and authority
of someone who had lived in the West much longer than the boy had been alive.
Glancing out the window, Ezra hoped it wouldn't keep Chris and Buck from
reaching their town.
"Think it'll delay them?" Vin asked quietly, echoing Ezra's thoughts.
Thinking over the route the two men would take, he knew of several places
that might slow them in the inclimate weather. "Perhaps," Ezra replied, unwilling
to lie to the boy. "But knowing Chris and Buck, they will try to return as
swiftly as possible."
Vin sighed and leaned against the conman.
Relishing the contact for a few moments, Ezra eventually realized it was
time to rescue his friend from JD's constant questions. Sighing, he suggested,
"Perhaps we should retrieve young JD and proceed to the restaurant for a
glass of lemonade."
Vin straightened and stared up at Ezra in surprise. Lemonade before dinner?
That was quite a treat. Looking at the man, he tried to read Ezra's face
to determine if the man was teasing him or telling him the truth. Seeing
only truth, Vin smiled. "Okay!" he eagerly agreed, hopping up and racing
across the church calling loudly for his cousin.
Ezra smiled and chuckled at the response. When the boys had first appeared
Vin never would have shown such boyish exuberance. It was a testament to
the love and caring the two boys received that such a change had been wrought
in the young life in so short a time.
Standing, Ezra moved at a more leisurely pace silently hoping that the two
men would have a safe journey home.
Stepping outside the church, Ezra found Vin and JD chattering excitedly as
an amused Josiah looked on. Meeting the older man's eyes, Ezra could only
"Lemonade?" Josiah asked softly, moving closer to his friend.
Ezra nodded. "Master Tanner worked quite hard today at his lessons and deserves
a reward. A glass of lemonade before dinner seems appropriate."
Josiah grinned as he looked at Ezra. He never would have guessed the conman
would be such an easy touch, but then, Ezra tended to hide his heart, afraid
to have it broken. "If you don't mind, I think I'll join you," he said.
Ezra smiled, having already assumed that would be the case.
Unsurprisingly, the small group managed to pick up Nathan on their journey
as well. Soon the three men and two boys were settled around a table in the
restaurant. Lemonade was being served all around and somehow a plate of cookies
appeared on the table as well
Glancing at the healer, Ezra was surprised when no protest left his lips.
Normally Nathan was very vocal about the boys eating healthy and cookies,
especially before dinner cookies, didn't fall into the "healthy" category.
Nathan felt Ezra's eyes on him and knew Standish was wondering why there
was no protest forthcoming. Allowing a smile to brighten his face, Nathan
decided to let Ezra wonder. These were his favorite cookies and they were
fresh from the oven. Of course, he would never admit to Ezra or anyone else
how much he enjoyed indulging the boys whenever possible.
JD eyed the cookies hungrily and grabbed one almost before the plate hit
the table. Vin was more circumspect about his desire, waiting for some sort
of signal from one of the adults before taking a cookie. When Uncle Nathan
smiled and then took a cookie, Vin smiled and took a cookie for himself.
Josiah grinned at the sight of the boys happily munching on cookies and drinking
lemonade. His eyes twinkled at the look of happiness on Nathan's face, which
was a match to the ones on Vin and JD's. It was good to have family.
Before long, the cookies were gone and the lemonade drunk. Josiah needed
to head to the jail and make a patrol of town. Ezra would be patrolling that
night while Josiah watched the boys. Nathan had just finished his patrol.
Just as the men were discussing with whom the boys would spend the remainder
of the afternoon, Billy Travis ran up asking if Vin and JD could play. Agreeing,
the three men watched the three boys run off, talking excitedly and already
making plans about what they would play at the Clarion as the first raindrops
fell from the sky.
Buck and Chris found a cave that had enough room for
both them and their horses. As they settled in, Chris observed, "Looks like
it's going to last the night."
Buck picked up on the frustrated tone of his friend's voice and felt an answering
note in his heart. "Reckon we'd best make ourselves comfortable then," he
Chris scowled at the clouds before sighing and resigning himself to yet another
night away from his son.
Josiah sighed and shifted his arms slightly, doing his
best not to startle the two boys. It had seemed like a good idea at the time,
at least a harmless way to pass the evening until it was time to retire.
He certainly hadn't expected boys to be scared by his tales, after all, didn't
all little boys love scary tales? He certainly had. Having the boys around
had brought back nearly forgotten memories of the tales he had heard as a
boy. Still, keeping in mind his audience, Josiah had deliberately chosen
the stories he had because they were some of the less scary ones. He certainly
hadn't expected to wind up with both boys seeking comfort in his bed once
the thunder and lightning started.
Doing his best to find a comfortable position, he closed his eyes and prayed
he'd be able to move in the morning.
Meanwhile, Ezra had finished his patrol and had just
settled down to a game of poker in the saloon. Though he was aware of his
surroundings, he missed the shadowy forms sitting in a back corner. Those
shadows, however, didn't miss him.
"Stanton," one of the men hissed, his hand tightening around his mug of beer.
"You sure?" the other asked.
Brown eyes flew to the other man's face, hatred burning in their depths.
"Him I'll never forget," the first responded.
"What are we going to do about it?" the second man asked.
The first man lifted his beer and took a deep drink, wiping his mouth on
his sleeve. His eyes narrowed slightly, a familiar sign that a plan was forming
in his devious mind. A cold smile sent a chill down the second man's spine
as the first leaned back and said, "First we wait and watch. We'll find out
what we can about him and hit him where it will hurt most." The cold brown
eyes flicked toward the second man's wide hazel ones. "We'll get our revenge,"
It was still dark when the rain stopped. Buck looked
over at his friend and contemplated waking him. Seeing the tension in the
lean frame, and the dark circles that remained under the eyes, he decided
against such a course of action. Trying to stifle his own restlessness and
desire to get moving, he settled his blanket more firmly around his shoulders
and waited for the sky to lighten enough to make traveling safe.
A small smile crept onto his face as he thought about the dawn. There had
been a time when dawn meant little other than a time to slip out of a window
or a back door to him. Now each dawn was another chance to see the world
through JDs eyes.
If they were at home, it would be silent except for the soft sounds of sleep.
In a little bit Vin and then Chris would begin to wake, making restless noises
in their beds. As the first rays of dawn crept through the windows, the blond
would begin moving around the house, followed soon after by the softer sounds
of his son. Buck would give them their time alone and then begin getting
ready to face the day himself, wanting to be up and dressed when JD finally
Breakfast cooking would start either by him or Chris, depending on whose
turn it was and the other man would lead the boys outside to begin their
Thinking about home and the routine his life had taken, Buck was unaware
of the contented smile on his face or the loving twinkle in his eyes. He
was aware of the warm feeling that thoughts of JD and Vin always brought
to him, however. With the sound of the boys running, chattering and laughing
echoing in his memory, suddenly the night didnt seem so dark and the
wait for dawn, not quite so long.
Rob Neeley was not a kind man. Life, family and people
had been cruel to him growing up and he had learned the lessons well. He
had little use for people other than as targets and victims. Somewhere along
the way, he had met Cal Bertram and taken him along. Cal wasnt a strong
man, but he had his uses.
About five years ago he and Cal had had a string of successful stage robberies.
They had quite a pile of loot stored up and were headed toward the border
to live like kings. Then they had encountered a smooth-talking man by the
name of Eric Stanton. Eric, though pretending to be a gentleman on the surface,
had a ruthless edge underneath all the finery.
Eric was the type of man Rob usually avoided - slick, smiling and far too
confident. Still, somehow he had ended up talking to the man and being drawn
into Stantons scheme, or what he thought had been the scheme. It was
only when he and Cal were left in town surrounded by the angry sheriff and
his deputies that he realized theyd been had. When they finally got
out of prison, there was no trace of their loot or of Stanton.
Rob had continued on with the life he had made for himself and Cal. They
had once more accumulated what he felt sufficient wealth and were headed
down to Mexico. They had only stopped in the town because of the weather.
He had never thought to catch up with Stanton.
The bitterness he felt at having been made to look the fool by the man in
question boiled up within him and continued to fuel his black soul. He wanted
Stanton to suffer, to know what it was to be humiliated and have all he valued
tricked away from him. The key was to figure out what Stanton valued.
That was the goal he set for himself as he settled into the shadowed protection
of the alleyway. He had seen his intended victim retire late last night and
was now waiting for him to emerge to face the day. The rain had stopped sometime
during the night, though the clouds remained causing the weak morning light
to coat the world in a uniform grayness.
His patience was eventually rewarded when he spotted the red-coated Stanton
leave the hotel and head toward the church. He watched in interest as two
small boys burst out of the church and ran to the man in question. The joy
evident in the mans face brought an evil grin to Neeleys face.
He had the answer to his problem.
With a little more research throughout the day, he was able to determine
that the two boys were orphans who were being cared for by Stanton and his
friends. Watching the man in question with the boys as much as he could,
Neeley felt sure his first impression at the attachment between the boys
and the red-coated man was correct.
Now it was just a matter of waiting for the right opportunity.
Ezra smiled broadly as two small boys raced toward him.
Rejoicing in the love he felt at their greeting, he thought it was worth
the lack of sleep and rising at the ungodly hour he had. Well, almost. A
few more hours sleep wouldn't have hurt him in the least. Still, he could
always retire to his room for an afternoon nap later. In the meantime, he
would cherish every moment with his two nephews.
"Unca Ezra," JD said as he stepped away from the hug the gambler had given
him, What's you doing up so early? Unca 'siah said you wouldn't be
up 'fore the sun reached the ze.. zen... some word that means right above
"Zenith?" Ezra supplied, smiling down at the brunet chatterbox.
"Yeah!" JD agreed, slipping his hand into his uncle's as they turned to head
toward the restaurant.
"And how are you this morning, Master Tanner?" Ezra asked formally.
Vin smiled shyly up at his uncle. He always felt funny inside when Ezra called
him Master Tanner, but it was a good feeling. It made him feel important,
like he was somebody, "I'm fine Unca Ezra. How're you?"
"Much better now that I'm with you," Ezra assured the boy, earning himself
a blush and a wider smile. "And how about you Mister Sanchez?"
Josiah chuckled softly and stifled a yawn. "Any morning you can awaken to
the wonders of a new day is a good morning," he replied, this time unable
to stifle the yawn.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Trouble sleeping?" Standish inquired.
"Unca 'Siah tolded us scary stories," JD informed, eyes wide and voice slightly
"They's real scary but that's okay 'cause he 'tected us from the bad dreams."
Smiling back at the sheepish looking Josiah, Ezra could only shake his head
and chuckle. "Well, then perhaps we should find something more cheerful to
read for today's lessons," he suggested as the small group headed into the
Chris and Buck had been on the trail since it was light
enough to see. They figured they should be back in town by noon. At least
that's what they had figured until they reached the flooded river. The normal
ford was overflowed and unsafe for travel. The storm the previous day and
night had turned the stream into an impassable river.
"We'll have to detour upriver to cross at the old ferry landing," Chris said,
his voice tight with displeasure. It would add hours to their journey and
change their expected arrival time from noon to late afternoon. With any
luck the old raft that used to be used to cross the river would still be
in one piece and the rope still strung across. Otherwise, they'd have to
go even further out of their way looking for a place to cross. That thought
did nothing to brighten Chris' rapidly darkening mood. He had a boy to get
back to and the delay, any delay could only spell disaster as it had before
"Don't go there, Stud," Buck advised sharply, having seen his friend's darkening
countenance and realizing what it meant. He knew only too well that Chris
was thinking about the last time they were delayed while returning from a
trip, only that time it had been because of Buck and they had returned to
the still smoldering remains of what had once been the Larabee home. "Don't
go borrowing trouble."
Chris looked over at his old friend and read the emotions and determination
in the familiar face. Pushing aside the worry, he nodded and set off at a
canter. The sooner they got to the crossing, the sooner they would be home.
Nathan watched the group enter the restaurant and prepared
to go meet them. He paused on his way, thinking he had seen a motion across
the street in the shadows. Glancing in both directions and seeing no one
coming down the road, he crossed over and made his way toward where he thought
he'd seen something.
Reaching the opening to the alley, he scanned around, hand hovering over
the butt of his gun, but he didn't see anyone. Taking another look, he found
a few sets of deep footprints as if someone had been standing there for a
long time, but there wasn't anyone in sight now. A chill of foreboding ran
down his spine but he shook it off as Josiah called out to him to hurry up.
Turning from the alley, Nathan headed off toward the saloon, his worry falling
away as he was cheerfully greeted by the boys.
Cal Bertram stood and shifted from foot to foot. He was
uncomfortable with what they were doing and worried about it. Still he had
never gone against Rob and now wasn't the time to start.
His horse, picking up on his nervousness began shifting around as well. When
another man appeared out of the shadows, he began backing up several steps
until Cal turned and reached out to calm him.
"Whoa, boy," Cal soothed, reaching out and stroking the soft nose. "It's
The sneering face of Rob Neeley stared at the horse. He ignored the snort
the beast gave him. Rob had very little use for Cal's horse. "You find a
place?" he demanded.
While Rob had been watching Stanton, Cal had been sent out to find two locations
- a place where they could meet up with Stanton to retrieve their money and
another where they could leave him to rot even as they had been left to rot
Cal licked his lips nervously and nodded. "Yep. Reckon I got the places."
Seeing that Rob expected more, he continued, "The meet-up is by an old mine.
There's a good clear ways before the entrance that will let us make sure
he comes alone, but it's out of the way enough no one will see us by accident."
"Good," Neeley replied. "And the other?"
A shiver ran through Cal at the thought of what he'd found. He vowed he would
never get on Rob's bad side, because he sure didn't want to end up like this
Stanton fellow. "About twenty minutes away by horse there's an old ramshackle
house. It's got a root cellar that should be easy enough to close up."
An evil smile twisted Rob's lips. "Very good," he praised, the void where
his heart should be filling with evil fire. "The good news is, Stanton won't
have to be sealed in alone."
Rob Neeley sat by the window of the saloon and waited.
He just needed an opportunity to snatch the boys and then he would have Cal
leave the note. Cal had objected to the plan at first, until Rob assured
him the boys would be unhurt. A cold smile curved Robs lips at the
thought of his trusting friend.
It was approaching mid-morning when his opportunity came. A ruckus at the
other end of town had the attention of the three men and the two boys were
left alone playing by the church.
Carefully exiting the saloon, he freed his horse and began walking down the
road. Grabbing the two boys should prove no problem at all.
As he came even with the two boys, Rob glanced over his shoulder and noticed
the mens attention was still distracted. Turning his attention to the
boys, he saw they were both staring intently at the men, not paying him any
mind. A smile formed on his face as he moved closer.
Vin was watching the three men at the other end of the street. He knew Josiah
and Ezra had told them to stay near the church, but a part of him just
didnt want to wait. He hated not knowing what was going on, especially
with Chris and Buck still not home. What if what was going on had to do with
He was just about to turn to JD and suggest they join their uncles, when
an arm snagged around his waist and he saw the other grab JD. Terror flared
within him as he felt himself being lifted from the ground. No!
he screamed at the top of his lungs, struggling and kicking out with his
feet. One of the flailing limbs connected with the man and he heard an
umph just before the arm around him loosened.
Wiggling out of the hold on him, Vin dropped to the ground and started calling
for his uncles even as he turned to free JD. He tugged on the arm holding
his young cousin as the tiny brunet flailed his own legs, crying out for
Vin, Buck, Chris and anyone else who could help.
Dodging the mans free hand, Vin struggled to release his cousin. His
desperation mounting, Vin did the only thing he could, he opened wide and
bit down on the mans hand as hard as he could.
A howl escaped the man who was trying to take them and JD dropped to the
ground like a stone. Vin grabbed his cousins arm and yanked him to
his feet before forcing the boy ahead of him.
Before he had taken two steps, however, Vin felt a large hand clamp down
on his shirt collar and pull him back. The front of the shirt, pulled back
into his throat and cut off his air for a second, long enough for him to
lose his grip on JD and fall to the ground. Run, he gasped out,
even as he felt himself being pulled upward.
Vin had just enough time to see JD begin to run before he was hauled upward
by one arm. As he dangled above the ground, a hard slap hit him across the
face and his world began to fade.
Rob slapped the boy as hard as he could, barely restraining his anger enough
to keep from throttling the kid. Glancing toward the other boy, he saw the
three men were almost upon him. Turning, he threw the boy across his horse
and mounted up, placing on hand on the boys back to make sure he stayed
in place. With bold encouragement, he headed out of town, his escape route
carefully planned to confuse any pursuers, though that was really unnecessary
since Stanton would soon enough know where he was wanted.
A cold smile crept across Neeley's face as he thought of Stanton's face when
he found out his boy wasn't where they were to meet. Still, if he were right
about things, the boy's disappearance should keep Eric Stanton busy enough
to allow a clean escape. The indignant shouts of the three men followed him
as he reached the edge of town.
JD had done exactly as Vin had said and ran to the only other security he
had, the three men racing toward him. It was his Uncle Nathan that was in
his direct line, so JD held out his arms and wailed.
The three men saw JD coming toward them and could only be thankful that the
small boy was safe, but when they saw the man who had attacked them backhand
Vin and throw him over a horse, all thankfulness left only to be replaced
Nathan saw JD heading straight for him with arms upraised and stopped so
he could catch his young nephew. As JD reached him, Nathan wrapped the small
boy in his strong arms and held him close, battling his need to comfort JD
with his need to take off after the vile creature that would dare hurt a
boy. Still, he now was responsible for the hysterical boy in his arms and
he wouldn't let JD down. Not again. They had already let the boys down by
allowing this to happen. Nathan vowed nothing would happen to JD now and
they would get Vin back.
As Nathan struggled to calm the nearly hysterical JD, Josiah and Ezra headed
toward the livery to get their horses. Tracking was neither mans forte,
but given the rain the previous day and the haste with which the man had
departed; they felt themselves up to the task. Before they reached the livery,
however, Vern Thompson came running up to them. The local boy was always
around town looking for jobs to do and extra work in order to earn a few
dollars to help his family.
Mr. Standish! he called out, gasping for breath.
Ezra heard his name called and turned to see the panting boy coming to a
stop before him. What can I help you with Mr. Thompson? he asked,
impatient to be after Vin.
A man gave me a dollar to give this note to you as soon as I could,
he explained holding the note out to Standish.
Ezra scanned the street, but saw no one out of place. Taking the note he
opened it and read it quickly. As he did so all color drained from his face.
Who gave this to you? Standish demanded, his voice rough with
worry and fear.
Vern took a step back from the man who had only ever been friendly to him,
afraid of the terrible look in the green eyes. A
Josiah saw the fear in the boys eyes and drew Verns attention
to him. Its okay, son, he soothed. Can you describe
the man to us?
Vern looked into the calm blue eyes, swallowed back his fear and nodded.
He was about Mr. Standishs height, but wasnt dressed as
nice. It looked like hed been on the trail for a while. And he called
you Mr. Stanton.
At the mention of the name, Ezras head snapped up from where hed
been studying the note in his hand. His heart seized as all color drained
from his face. Eric Stanton? he asked, his voice harsh.
Verns eyes grew wider at Ezras unusual behavior and he began
to back away.
Josiah also noticed Ezras demeanor and indicated that Vern should go,
but not before slipping the boy a coin. Stepping directly in front of his
friend, Josiah placed a hand on Ezras shoulder. What is it?
he asked, his voice soft.
Ezra turned distraught eyes upon Josiah. This is all my fault,
he choked out as the horror of the situation nearly overwhelmed him.
Perhaps you should explain, Josiah suggested, leading the smaller
man toward the boardwalk and some seats.
Ezra sank down into a chair and dropped his head to his hands. While he tried
to gather his thoughts, he held out the note to Josiah to read.
Taking the note, Josiah quickly skimmed it. It read:
If you want to see your boys alive, come to The Broken Boot mine by noon
and bring the $500 you took from us. Otherwise, well sell the boys
to make up the difference.
Josiah felt ill as he read the threat on the paper. Setting
aside his own revulsion, he tried to think logically, tried to develop a
workable plan. A small sound drew his attention and he found himself looking
up at Nathan who was still holding JD. Seeing the question in Nathans
eyes, Josiah stood and handed the letter to him before taking the silently
crying boy from his friend.
Nathan wasnt sure he wanted to read the note that Josiah handed him,
not given the effect it seemed to have on his two friends. Relinquishing
his small charge, Nathan looked down and read the note. He felt anger flare
and had to fight the urge to rip into the Southerner. Pushing aside his own
emotions, he said, The land around there is too open for us to give
This statement of fact seemed to shake Ezra from his self-condemnation and
abuse. Looking up, he could see anger in Nathans countenance, but,
at the moment, it didnt seem to be directed at him. Ill
have to go alone, Ezra said plainly.
No, Josiah protested, shifting the small weight in his arms.
I have to, Ezra insisted, standing to confront his friends. We
cant take chances with Vins life.
V-Vins l l life? JDs shaky voice asked
as fresh tears welled in his eyes.
Ezra winced as Josiah and Nathan both shot glares at him. No, son,
Ezra soothed, reaching out to rub the small back. I was just being
overly dramatic, Standish lied.
Why dont we go see if you can stay with Billy and Mrs. Travis
for a while, Josiah soothed. When he felt JD about to protest, he
continued, I think getting Vin back may require all of us. Before
the boy could protest, Josiah turned to find Mary Travis just a few steps
away. Mrs. Travis, the former preacher greeted. Would you
mind looking after JD while we see what needs to be done?
Of course, Mr. Sanchez, Mary agreed softly taking the small boy
JD protested, but the emotional toll of the last few minutes was beginning
to take effect. He twisted once or twice, but Mary's hold was too strong
and before long, JD found himself headed toward The Clarion office with Billy
following along behind.
As the trio watched them go, Nathan looked at the other two men. "We need
to plan this," he stated. He received two nods of agreement. The men headed
off for somewhere quite to work out what needed to be done.
Chris pushed the pace a bit more than he normally would
have. A nebulous something had started taking hold of him urging him homeward.
He wasnt sure exactly what it was or what was causing it, but had learned
over the years to trust his instincts.
Arriving at the old ferry crossing the two men brought their horses to a
stop and dismounted. They were making better time than they thought they
would, but Chris was still frustrated by the slow progress. Walking over,
he looked over the expanse they would need to cross. The water was fast and
there was a certain amount of debris in it. That would make it a hard crossing,
but with both he and Buck pulling, it should go faster.
Reaching out he tugged the rope. Seeing that it still held firm, he placed
both hands on it and leaned backward. When the rope didnt give, he
turned and nodded to Buck.
Buck straightened from where hed been checking the raft. Seems
to be okay, he said, a small frown of doubt on his face. The
ropes and wood are old, but she should get us across.
Chris nodded. Okay, then. Lets get the horses on and get
With that said, the two men went back for their mounts and quickly had the
nervous horses calmed. Once the animals were stilled, they began pulling
themselves across the river. As they crossed, the raft would occasionally
jerk or bump as debris hit it, but the men made steady progress and were
soon at the other side.
Buck, having been at the front of the raft, jumped off, and took the reins
Chris handed him. With his own horse off, he waited as Chris headed toward
shore. Just as he and Pony were approaching the side of the raft near land,
a large branch hit the raft, jarring it and startling the horse. While Chris
worked to soothe the animal, several items fell off of the saddle. With Pony
calmed, he led the horse off the raft and handed the reigns to Buck.
Be right back, Chris said, turning and getting back on the raft.
Having collected his canteen and bedroll, Larabee had just turned toward
land when a solid impact shook the raft, causing him to loose his balance.
As he struggled to regain his footing, he stepped on a slick spot on the
wood and fell backward off the raft and into the river.
Chris! Buck cried out as he watched his old friend disappear
under the water. He waited a few second, which seemed more like hours, waiting
for a blond head to break the surface. It was a coughing sound that first
caught his attention. Chris was already down river and floating more quickly.
Buck jumped onto his horses back, still keeping Ponys reins,
and headed downstream toward his friend.
As he raced downstream, trying to beat the current, he saw Chris reappear
several times. Eventually, Buck saw Chris reach out and grab a branch hanging
out over the water. Hang on! the mustached man called out, drawing
even with his friend.
Scanning the area in and around Chris, Buck knew his best chance would be
to get a line out to his friend. Taking the rope he carried, he called his
intention to Chris. Im going to throw you this rope. Get it around
you and Ill pull you in, he shouted.
Chris heard Bucks voice, but it sounded distant and he couldnt
quite make out all the words. He was tired and growing weaker. He wasnt
sure how much longer he could hold onto the branch. As he had been knocked
into the river, the strong current had buffeted him against rocks even while
lighter debris slammed into him, causing some serious bruising. Combined
with the fight to keep his head above water, his lack of sleep and the hard
riding theyd done earlier, and Chris was fading fast.
Before he could wonder what Buck was talking about, a rope hit him on the
shoulder. Somewhere in the depths of his mind he fired out that he was supposed
to hold onto the rope. He managed to shift one hand to the rope, but was
afraid to release the other hand, afraid of once more being forced down the
When Chris reached over and took the rope with one hand, Buck got his first
look at his friend. There were a few red spots on his face that would most
likely come out as bruises. He winced at the thought of the battering his
friend had suffered. He was about to call out to Chris to put his other hand
on the rope when he caught the hazel eyes with his own. Wilmington read the
exhaustion and fear there and just nodded. Wrapping one end of the rope around
a fairly sturdy tree, he walked to the edge of the river and began pulling
Larabee to shore.
Chris felt the rope begin to pull him forward and moved his hand along the
branch. As he got closer to shore, he was able to feel the ground beneath
his feet and tried to help. When the water slowed sufficiently, he let go
of the branch and put both hands on the rope, allowing Buck to do most of
Buck sighed in relief when Chris began helping him. It wasnt that Chris
was that heavy, but the current out where the blond had been was strong.
With Chris walking, Buck had an easier time drawing him toward shore. Before
too long, his friend was within arms reach.
Dropping the rope, Buck reached out and clasped his hand around Chris
wrist, pulling him onto shore. Chris collapsed onto the ground with Buck
sitting next to him for a few minutes. Reaching out, Wilmington put a hand
on Chris shoulder and asked, You okay, Stud?
Chris nodded his head without lifting it, enjoying the stillness and surety
of the earth beneath him. He was tired, but could already feel his energy
reserves rebuilding now that the constant fight against the water was done.
As he caught his breath, he could feel the bruising beginning on his body,
arms and legs. He knew he was going to be stiff and sore, especially during
the ride home.
Buck heard Chris breathing begin to even out and went to the horses,
grabbing his bedroll from his and Chris saddlebags from the black.
Returning to his friend, he dropped his bounty and squatted down, resting
a hand on Chriss shoulder. Think you can get up and dry off?
Chris nodded and took a deep breath. Resting his hands flat against the ground,
he pushed up onto his hands and knees. He was unable to stifle a cry as his
weight came to bear on his right knee.
Hearing the cry, Buck quickly slipped his arms under Chris and rolled
him into a sitting position. When Chris opened his eyes, Buck asked,
Chris heard the question and could only nod. He wasnt sure when he
had hurt it or what had happened, but his knee hurt a lot.
Buck frowned, he knew hed have to take a look and if it was too bad,
they would have to stay out here. With only one bedroll, wet wood, clouds
threatening again and their limited supplied it wouldnt be a fun night.
Lets have a look at you, he said, wrapping his friend in
the bedroll before moving to pull off the sodden boots.
I can undress myself, Chris grumbled in protest, though he made
no attempt to stop Buck.
Buck looked up with a twinkle in his eye. Now Chris, he admonished.
We all have our talents. True this isnt exactly a skirt or dress
youre in, but I think I can manage.
Chris chuckled at Bucks statement, ignoring the twinge of pain as his
right boot was removed. Seeing that Buck was serious in his intent to strip
him down, Chris quickly batted away Bucks hands and insisted he could
do it himself.
Buck was relieved to see the fight come to Larabee. Smiling and nodding,
he headed back toward his own horse to see what he had that might be of use.
Once Buck was gone, Chris struggled to release himself from his damp clothes.
Eventually he was free of them and wrapped tightly in the bedroll, which
wasnt quite staving off the chills that ran through him.
Okay, he told Buck.
Hearing his friends okay, he turned back around and headed
over to take a look. A low hiss escaped him as he saw Chris knee already
beginning to swell. Kneeling down, he quickly and efficiently reviewed
Larabees injuries, relieved when he found nothing broken. Sitting back
on his heels, Buck advised, Looks like a lot of bruises, some of them
pretty deep. The worst of it is your knee.
Chris nodded; relieved his self-assessment had been accurate. We need
to get back to town, he said.
Buck frowned. He would be more comfortable with Chris in Nathans hands,
but he wasnt sure Chris was up to riding. Tell you what. You
get dressed and when you stop shivering, well see if we can get you
up on a horse. If so, well head back.
Chris nodded his agreement. The nebulous something that had been urging him
on this morning was back and stronger than before. He resolved that whether
his knee was ready or not, they would make it back to town as quickly as
Less than an hour later, the two men were mounted and heading back toward
Vin suppressed a small groan. He had been disoriented
by the slap he received, but hadnt lost consciousness. When the man
had thrown him onto the horse, Vin had landed near the horses neck
and lay across it on his stomach, just before the pommel. The quick retreat
hadnt done much to make him feel better. His stomach hurt and he felt
sick. The only thing that seemed to keep him in place was the hand on his
He tried to pay attention to where he was going so he could find his way
back, but it was hard when all he could see was the ground beneath him and
that was bouncing up and down. Closing his eyes, he took several breaths
trying to calm his stomach. Deep breaths would be better, but it wasnt
possible to breathe deeply in his current position.
With his eyes closed, he had little to focus on and his mind wandered. He
thought first of JD and wondered if he was safe. Of course, his cousin
wasnt here which meant that he was probably safer than Vin was at the
moment. His mind naturally turned to Chris second. A small whimper sounded
in his throat at the thought of the comfort and love his father represented.
I need you Chris. Please come get me, he pleaded silently.
As he focused on Chris, Vin began to calm. His dad had taught him so much,
helped him so much. Chris had taken him in, loved him and shown him what
it was to be family. Vin knew if he could just see Chris, feel him, he would
Opening his eyes as he saw only the fur of the horse and the moving ground.
Allowing his eyes to close and his head to drop down, he sighed. Chris would
come from him, but would he be in time? His heart didnt want to believe
that Chris would fail him, but his mind wouldnt listen. Instead of
hearing his heart, thoughts of his mothers and aunts deaths came
back to him. They were people who loved him as Chris did and yet had left
him when he needed them.
He needed to keep aware of what was going on around him. Vin knew he would
have to take whatever chance he could fine to get away and go somewhere safe,
somewhere Chris would know, somewhere Chris would look for him.
Having resolved his course of action, Vin did his best to pay attention to
the world around him, using all of his senses. It wasnt long before
Rob brought the horse to a stop and got off, dragging Vin behind him.
Move it! Neeley ordered, shoving Vin before him and causing the
boy to fall to his knees.
Vin gasped as he fell to the ground, but took the opportunity to look around
him. He vaguely recalled where he was. He and Chris had ridden by here once
or twice on their journeys. Taking a breath, Vin launched himself to his
feet and started running. He was quick and he knew how to dodge adults.
Unfortunately, the mud betrayed him.
Having gained a small distance on the man, Vin tried to cut to the right.
It was a move that had served him well in the past. Instead of making the
turn, however, he lost his footing and slid in the mud.
The delay was all the time his captor needed to recapture him.
Grabbing the boy by the arm, Rob allowed his anger and frustration to communicate
though his grip. He heard the soft hiss of pain escape the boy and smiled.
Jerking Vin upward, he continued to lift until Vins toes barely touched
the ground almost his full weight was being supported by the awkward hold
Neeley had on the arm.
Vin hissed in pain as the hand clamped down on his arm. He could feel it
press hard against his bone. When the man hauled him upright, it took everything
within Vin not to gasp, but he had learned early that if you showed your
pain, a lot of times it only encouraged them to inflict more.
Dont you ever run on me again, boy, the man hissed in
Vin tried not to wince as the fetid breath assaulted his senses. He could
do little in his current position other than nod meekly.
A cruel smile appeared on Robs face when the boy nodded his agreement.
Heading back toward the cabin, he dragged his prisoner behind him, little
caring if the boy was in pain or stumbling just so long as he kept up.
Throwing open the door with his free hand, Neeley walked to the middle of
the room and threw aside a rug. With that impediment gone, he reached down
and lifted the trap door that had been underneath.
Vin struggled not to fall as the man dragged him along. When they entered
the cabin, Vin knew he was in trouble. He wasnt sure how much until
he saw the door in the floor and the man open it.
As he stared at the gaping black maw the door had revealed, Vin felt everything
inside him go cold. Panic froze him for a second, long enough for the man
to draw him to the edge of the darkness. Then as if a flash of lighting struck,
Vin was struggling and fighting his way free. He was oblivious to the hands
battling him, unaware of the shouts and curses of the man. Only one thought,
one need filled the boy, the need to run.
That was it, Neeley decided as Vins foot once again connected with
his shin. Taking one of his hands off the struggling form, Neeley drew back
his fist and then let it fly. The writhing, wriggling form dropped like a
stone and finally lay still at his feet.
Now why didnt I think of that sooner? he asked himself
quietly as he pushed the boy into the opening, little concerned for his well
being. Letting the door drop back in place, he covered it with the rug and
then slid a heavy dresser away from the wall until it rested atop the door.
No way youre getting out of there, he chuckled, pleased
with his innovation.
Confident that he had secured the boy, Neeley dusted off his hands and headed
out the door of the cabin. He had an appointment to keep.