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: I’ve 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 now.

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 them.

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 felt.

"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," Chris encouraged.

"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 face.

"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 the horses.

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 side.

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 friend’s 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 world.

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 smile.

"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 replied,

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," he vowed.

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 JD’s 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 stirred.

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 morning chores.

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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 Stanton’s 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 they’d 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 man’s face brought an evil grin to Neeley’s 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 us."

"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 hushed.

"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 restaurant.

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 with...

"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 just Rob."

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 in jail.

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 Rob’s 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 men’s 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 didn’t 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 them?

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 man’s 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 man’s 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 cousin’s 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 boy’s 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 by rage.

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 man’s 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… a man,” Vern stammered.

Josiah saw the fear in the boy’s eyes and drew Vern’s attention to him. “It’s 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. Standish’s height, but wasn’t dressed as nice. It looked like he’d been on the trail for a while. And he called you Mr. Stanton.”

At the mention of the name, Ezra’s head snapped up from where he’d been studying the note in his hand. His heart seized as all color drained from his face. “Eric Stanton?” he asked, his voice harsh.

Vern’s eyes grew wider at Ezra’s unusual behavior and he began to back away.

Josiah also noticed Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s 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, we’ll 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 Nathan’s eyes, Josiah stood and handed the letter to him before taking the silently crying boy from his friend.

Nathan wasn’t 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 close backup.”

This statement of fact seemed to shake Ezra from his self-condemnation and abuse. Looking up, he could see anger in Nathan’s countenance, but, at the moment, it didn’t seem to be directed at him. “I’ll 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 can’t take chances with Vin’s life.”

“V-Vin’s l – l – life?” JD’s 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 don’t 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 from Josiah.

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 wasn’t 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 didn’t give, he turned and nodded to Buck.

Buck straightened from where he’d 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. Let’s get the horses on and get going.”

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 horse’s back, still keeping Pony’s 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. “I’m going to throw you this rope. Get it around you and I’ll pull you in,” he shouted.

Chris heard Buck’s voice, but it sounded distant and he couldn’t quite make out all the words. He was tired and growing weaker. He wasn’t 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 they’d 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 river.

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 the work.

Buck sighed in relief when Chris began helping him. It wasn’t 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 arm’s 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 Chris’s shoulder. “Think you can get up and dry off?” he asked.

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, “Knee?”

Chris heard the question and could only nod. He wasn’t sure when he had hurt it or what had happened, but his knee hurt a lot.

Buck frowned, he knew he’d 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 wouldn’t be a fun night. “Let’s 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 isn’t exactly a skirt or dress you’re in, but I think I can manage.”

Chris chuckled at Buck’s 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 Buck’s 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 wasn’t quite staving off the chills that ran through him. “Okay,” he told Buck.

Hearing his friend’s “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 Larabee’s 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 Nathan’s hands, but he wasn’t sure Chris was up to riding. “Tell you what. You get dressed and when you stop shivering, we’ll see if we can get you up on a horse. If so, we’ll 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 possible.

Less than an hour later, the two men were mounted and heading back toward town.

Vin suppressed a small groan. He had been disoriented by the slap he received, but hadn’t lost consciousness. When the man had thrown him onto the horse, Vin had landed near the horse’s neck and lay across it on his stomach, just before the pommel. The quick retreat hadn’t 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 back.

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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 be fine.

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 didn’t want to believe that Chris would fail him, but his mind wouldn’t listen. Instead of hearing his heart, thoughts of his mother’s and aunt’s 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 wasn’t 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 Vin’s 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.

“Don’t you ever run on me again, boy,” the man hissed in Vin’s face.

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 Rob’s 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 wasn’t 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 Vin’s 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 didn’t 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 you’re 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.