Of all the stupid, idiotic, moronic... Rob
Neeley ranted as he and Cal Bertram approached the mine where they had met
Cal sat on his horse, wet, miserable and trying hard not to say anything.
The two of them had been on their way to Mexico when the rain started in
earnest. Knowing it would be almost pointless to continue, the two tried
to find the nearest shelter. While they were trying to decide which way to
go looking, there had been a lightning strike nearby which spooked Robs
horse causing him to bolt. Cal had taken off after the frightened animal
and its rider.
By the time Rob had his horse under control, the nearest shelter was the
mine they had used to meet with Stanton. Cal knew Rob wasnt happy with
that, but there really wasnt anything else for them to do.
Reaching the cave entrance, the two men dismounted and walked their mounts
Fortunately they had left some wood in the mine from their previous usage
of it. Starting a small fire near the entrance they huddled around the warmth
and waited for the rain to let up.
Instead of lessening, however, the storm seemed to be getting worse. The
thunder was rolling almost continuously and lightning flashes were close
Perhaps that is why they remained unaware of the new arrivals until two sodden
forms appeared in the entrance to the mine.
Cal glanced out as the lightning flashed as it had so frequently. When the
lightning flashed again, he gasped and dropped his coffee, his hands shaking.
In the few seconds between lightening flashes, two dark, looming figures
projecting nothing but feelings of menace and hate appeared and stepped in
Rob first noticed Cals reaction and then turned to see what had spooked
his partner so badly. Catching sight of the two men in the mine entrance,
he leaped to his feet, hand immediately reaching for his gun.
Do it, a low, deadly voice growled as both forms reached for
their own guns. Cmon, the voice encouraged, causing a chill
to glide over Neeleys soul. Reach for the gun. Give me a
Neeley drew his hand away from his gun, though not so far away he couldnt
easily reach it. Glancing sideways at Cal, he could see his friend was still
shaking, but his hand was resting on his gun. A cold smile curled his lips
as he assured himself he would get the upper hand. Now, friend,
he soothed, his voice calm and insincere, why dont you just come
on in and share our fire with us. Theres no cause to be mean.
The two shadows stepped more deeply into the cave. The flickering light of
the fire revealed their faces. Rob bit back a curse and reached for his gun
as he recognized one of the faces as a friend of Stantons.
Buck saw Neeley move toward his gun and fired to wound the mans shoulder.
He would have been successful in his attempt to disable the man if Rob Neeley
had not chosen that moment to move to the right in order to get a better
Cals hand jerked at the sound of gunfire and he had his gun out of
its holster and aimed at the two new arrivals before the words the two men
were shouting penetrated. By then it was too late. He had tried to fire at
one of the men. His shot went wide, but the one that came in return hit his
heart, killing him.
NO! Buck screamed in protest as he watched the other man fall
as well. This couldnt be happening! One of these men, or maybe both
were their best chance of finding Ezra and Vin. Now, they were dead and there
was no clue as to where the others might be. This couldnt be happening!
Josiah knelt down to check first one body and then the other for a pulse.
The first body had none, but the second not only had a pulse, but the man
was breathing. This ones still alive, Buck, Josiah advised
Buck turned quickly. He had wandered away while he tried to deal with this
tragic turn of events. Josiahs words caused his eyes to widen and hope
to flare where before there had only been despair. Kneeling down beside Josiah,
Buck reached out and tugged the still living man up by his shirtfront. Slapping
him sharply on the cheek, Buck ordered, Wake up!
Neeley groaned and struggled to breathe. He could hear a bubbling sound and
wondered why it appeared to be coming from within him. Slowly he opened his
eyes, but was unable to make out anything other than the general shape of
a human above him. A voice was demanding something from him, but he
couldnt tell what. Another slap had his attention and one word penetrated
the approaching darkness, boy.
A cruel sneer twisted his lips as the dying man let out a bubbling chuckle
that led quickly to coughs. He realized he was dying, but Rob Neeley also
decided he wouldnt be the only one; let Stanton and the brat rot. Wanting
to crow his triumph, he struggled to form the words that would announce his
Buck listened carefully to the mans dying words, doing everything in
his power not to scream out his frustration.
Nev... fi... dead...cell.. er....
At the last syllable, all light left the mans eyes and Buck was left
holding the dead body. Screaming out curses at the man, he allowed the body
to drop as the started pacing and ranting. Their only hope to find Vin and
Ezra and is was gone. These men were dead by his hand.
Josiah watched as demons chased after Buck. He could feel his own pain, but
easily saw the hounds of hell nipping at Bucks soul. They were the
same hounds he had seen eating at Chris soul before Vin and JD arrived.
A shiver ran down his spine at the thought of what this would do to Chris.
Closing his eyes, Josiah started praying for guidance, deliverance and a
miracle. As he prayed, the dead mans words echoed in his mind. The
man had intended them as a taunt, to say they would never find the two alive,
but he had left one final clue in his words. Eyes opening, Josiah rose to
his feet and clapped a hand on his distraught friends shoulder.
Buck, he said sharply, trying to gain the mans attentions.
Tortured blue eyes turned to meet his. Taking a breath, Josiah continued,
He said cellar.
Buck looked at Josiah as if he were mad. They had no way of knowing where
Vin and Ezra were and Josiah was talking about cellars.
Reading the confusion in his friends eyes, Josiah took a deep breath
and collected his thoughts. Where do you find a cellar, Buck?
Buck impatiently shook off Josiahs hand. He didnt have time for
games. He didnt have time for riddles and Sanchez should know that.
What are you talking about? he demanded, turning to resume his
Houses, Buck. You find cellars in houses. Josiah watched as Buck
paused and rested his hands on his hips. When the puzzled face turned toward
him, he explained, He thinks we wont find Ezra and Vin until
theyre dead, which means theyre alive now. He also mentioned
a cellar, though I dont think he knew he did it. Do you know if there
are any old houses around here that might have a cellar?
Buck stood absolutely still, not moving, not breathing, afraid to even hope.
Y-yeah. Two, he replied. Seeing Josiah nod at him, he shifted
his weight, took a deep breath and continued, There are two that are
nearby, but far enough away that you wouldnt think to look there. I
think one of them is along the path Chris and Vin sometimes ride.
Josiah beamed at the other man. Then thats where well start
Right, Buck said, turning and heading for the mouth of the mine,
stopping only when a large hand descended on his shoulder and physically
Getting ourselves killed in this storm isnt going to do either
of them any good, he admonished. Well wait for it to slow
before we set out.
But Vin... Buck protested, wanting nothing more than to reclaim
the boy who had become a second son to him.
Vin has Ezra, Josiah assured. Theyll last for another
few hours. Seeing acceptance in Bucks eyes, he added, Besides,
we need to figure out what to do with these two.
Nathan cursed the weather and his own stupidity. He knew
better than to set out in weather like this. He had traveled a lot of miles
and tended a lot of fools who thought they could handle the weather. Still,
there was no way he could wait out the storm, not with a member of his family
missing. He had lost too many people during his life to let something as
small as a storm to come between him and the safe return of Vin Tanner.
He had to slow his pace again as the rain began pouring down harder, making
it nearly impossible to see. The footing was beginning to get even more dangerous
and he knew he had no option but to stop and seek shelter until the rain
Focusing on guiding his horse and keeping the animal under control, he was
almost upon the obstruction before he saw it. With a tug on the reins, he
managed to pull his horse up short of stepping on the object.
Squinting down at it through the rain and gloom, he gasped when he realized
it was a human. His breath caught and his heart stopped when he realized
it was Vin.
Leaping from his horse, Nathan ran over to the bedraggled form, calling out
the boys name. Vin! Vin Tanner! he called, but didnt
receive a response. Vin! he called again, having reached the
Kneeling down in the mud, he paused for a moment as terror gripped him. Shaking
off the unwanted emotion, he ran his hands over the boy checking for breaks.
He didnt feel anything and Vin was too muddy to do a more detailed
check. Turning the boy over so Vins head rested in his arm, Nathan
caressed a hand down the slack face, thanking God that Vin was found. Pausing
by the boys throat, Nathan found the pulse. It was a little weaker
than he would like and a little too fast, but he didnt know what Vin
had been through and knew the boy hadnt eaten since the day before.
At least he doubted that the man had fed Vin.
Looking around the area, Nathan realized he was near the Larabee-Wilmington
ranch. Lifting the light child in his arms, he remounted his horse and headed
toward the small house that had become Vins home. He could shelter
there during the worst of the storm and tend to Vins needs, then when
the storm let up, they would head back to town.
Chris sat on the sheltered porch outside Nathans
room, JD securely held on his lap. He had done his best to remain in bed
and rest as instructed. JD had done his five-year-old best to try and convince
Chris to follow instructions, but it was easy for the blond to see that the
boys heart wasnt in it.
Hobbling out to the landing, Chris had settled into a chair. JD had followed
along behind, dragging a blanket. Chris thanked him for the blanket and
couldnt help the small smile that curved his mouth when JD started
dragging over a crate, explaining why Chris had to keep his foot up. If he
hadnt known better, Larabee would have believed that Nathan was telling
the boy what to say.
Now they sat watching the storm rage and worrying over their missing family
members. Chris was doing his best to keep his demons at bay and silence the
dark voices that were taunting him. It was difficult, though and every now
and then he could feel the pain-filled screams building within himself. The
same screams that had escaped him when he had found Sarah and Adam.
A bolt of lightning flashed at the same time a crash of thunder sounded.
Windows rattled and shook in their casings.
Tightening his grip around his small charge, Chris did his best to comfort
JD. Its okay, Little Bit, he whispered. Vin is with
Ezra and Buck is with Josiah. Theyll all be fine, he assured,
praying with everything he had that he wasnt lying to the boy.
JD snuggled closer, believing Chris, but still worrying over his family.
Slipping his thumb into his mouth, JD wound his fingers tightly into Chris
shirt and rested his head on the strong shoulder.
Ezra sat and watched as the water moved along the floor
growing ever closer to his seat. He wondered idly if he should blow out the
lamp, but decided to let it burn. There was only one thing to believe and
that was Vin being back in town already and help coming as soon as this blasted
Yes, that was surely what happened. Vin had made it safely back to town before
the rain worsened and now everyone was just waiting for it to let up before
Nathan opened the door to the small cabin the family
shared. He quickly settled Vin on the table. He knew the bed would be more
comfortable, but right now he wanted to get Vin out of his wet clothes and
Somewhere on the ride to the cabin, Vin had begun shivering despite the close
contact with Nathan. The last thing Nathan needed was to have Vin come down
with a cold, or worse pneumonia in addition to whatever else was wrong.
Quickly stripping the boy out of his clothes, he left them in a pile on the
Moving over to the stove, he began starting a fire. He would need some hot
water if he was going to clean Vin up and tend him.
That brought to mind his need for water. Looking around, he found a bucket
of fresh water and the washtub. Thinking that it would minimize the mess,
he moved the wash tub to the middle of the room. That goal accomplished,
he shucked off his oilskin and went to the boys bedroom to retrieve
Returning to the main room, he draped it over the shivering boy and went
to check on his fire. Seeing it ready, he put some water on to heat.
As he returned to Vin, he dipped a cloth in the portion of water hed
poured into a bowl and began wiping at Vins face. With each pass of
the rag, more and more mud came off only to reveal ugly bruises on the small
A curse rose readily to Nathans lips as righteous anger burned within
his heart at the sight of the abused boy. The evidence of the slap he had
seen and a punch he hadnt worked together to create within the healer
a need to harm the one who had inflicted such pain.
Setting aside his anger for now, Jackson continued to clean the mud off of
Vin. As Vins face and neck came clean, he began working backward, cleaning
the ears. He knew he would have to wash the boys hair to get the mud
out completely, but for now he would simply clean as much as he could.
With a hand behind Vins shoulders, he lifted the boy off the table
and began cleaning the back of his neck. As he reached up to make sure there
were no other injuries, his fingers encountered a large bump. As he examined
the bump, Vin groaned and shifted. Pulling his hand away from the injured
area, Nathan began evaluating what the injury meant.
Head wounds and injuries could be tricky, especially with children. Settling
Vin back, he began chafing Vins hands as he called out softly, Vin.
Cmon Vin. Its time to wake up and let me know whats wrong
with you. He was rewarded with another soft groan and a small movement.
Thats it, Vin. Fight your way out here to me. I have some questions
I need to ask.
Vin groaned. He was cold and wet and miserable and his head hurt and he
didnt want to leave the safe place where nothing hurt and there were
no worries. A familiar voice sounded in his ears. Drawing his brows down
in concentration, Vin tried to place the voice. It was someone who was important
to him, someone he loved. Un...ca Na...th...an?
Nathan heard the soft whisper of his name and said a brief prayer of thanks.
Reaching up, he cupped Vins face in his hand. Yes, Vin. Its
me, he assured. I need you to open your eyes and tell me where
Vin turned his head from side to side a little. His head hurt, but there
was something he was supposed to do, something important. Tell... He was
supposed to tell someone... Blue eyes flew open, Unca Ezra! Hes
in the cellar! Vin gasped out, trying to sit up. The bad man
hit him and threw him down. I couldnt wake him up and then he told
me to go get help! he practically shouted.
Nathan placed a hand on either of Vins shoulders to keep him from sitting
up. Whoa there, Vin, he said, almost wincing at the need and
fear in the blue eyes staring up at him. Nathan was not unaware of the pain
they reflected either. Did Ezra find you?
Yeah, Vin agreed. But the bad man came up behind him and
hit him on the head. Then they threw him down into the cellar with me.
How did you get out? Nathan asked.
Unca Ezra lifted me to a hole in the wall and I squeezed out. He told
me I had to go get help for him to get him out cause the hole was too
small, Vin explained, suddenly struggling to sit up. We have
to get help! he insisted.
We will, Nathan assured. But first I need to get you cleaned
up and make sure youre all right.
No buts, Nathan instructed firmly. Its raining so
hard its not safe to travel right now and theres lightening and
thunder out there too. When the storm lets up, well go to town and
get the others to help us, okay?
Vin absorbed everything Nathan had told him. Staring into the brown eyes,
he knew that his Uncle was doing what was best. Looking around the room,
Vin realized he was at home instead of the clinic. Im home?
He asked puzzled.
I found you in the road. You were unconscious and this was closer than
town, Nathan explained.
Vin frowned and tried to remember something. He was frustrated that some
things seemed so clear and others were all fuzzy. He remembered Uncle Ezra
being in the basement and being boosted up through the hole. Uncle Ezra had
told him to get help. He had said a few other things as well, but Vin
wasnt entirely sure what they were.
We need to finish cleaning you up now that youre awake,
Vin sighed and made a face. Thinking about things too much only made his
head hurt more than it already did. I just had a bath... he began
complaining before Nathan put a hand over his mouth to stop his complaint.
No complaints, he ordered, looking into the blue eyes. I
need you clean so I can fix your hurts.
A longsuffering sigh escaped the tired, aching boy as he rolled his eyes
heavenward. Fine, he agreed, obviously not pleased with this
turn of events. Where do you want me?
After what seemed an eternity, to the two impatient men,
the rain finally let up. Josiah and Buck had not been idle during their enforced
stay in the mine, however. Buck remembered seeing papers on one of the men.
Deciding they would bring the men to town to make sure, they looked around
for something in which to wrap the bodies. They soon found the mens
horses and gear. Taking the two bedrolls which were no longer needed by their
owners, Josiah and Buck set about wrapping the two men tightly.
Looking at the horizon, Josiah noticed that the sky was growing lighter,
a sign the clouds were thinning. It was still raining, but much more lightly
than it had been. The ground was wet and muddy from all the precipitation.
That would surely make their travels messy and potentially dangerous, but
Josiah had to admit to himself that he needed to find Ezra and Vin every
bit as much as Buck did.
Rains letting up, he announced to his impatiently waiting
Bout time, Buck grumbled, rising from his position near
the small fire and kicking sand over it until it was out. Walking to the
mouth of the cave, he stood by Josiah and looked around. Nodding his approval
of the circumstances, he advised, Need to bring the horses around and
get everything set. Its going to take a little longer than usual to
get out to the first shack, but we should make it there well before dark.
Josiah nodded and set about preparing to leave.
In a short amount of time, Josiah and Buck were in the saddle, each leading
a horse. They worked through the mud on the trail, Buck leading and trying
to pick out the driest places for travel. A small voice within was urging
the ladies man to hurry along, but he knew it would be foolish to rush
things at this point.
Though it seemed to take forever, the two men were making headway and before
too long they were able to see a speck in the distance. As they continued
their steady pace, that speck became a small shack. With a few more steps
they were able to identify something moving around in front of the house.
A horse, Josiah said aloud once he was able to see the shape
Buck nodded, his face grim. Something wasnt right with this. Sitting
straighter in the saddle, he scanned the area around the house. It was a
pretty clear approach without anywhere to hide. As they drew closer, he was
able to tell it was Ezras horse. That fact set off alarm bells.
Looking at his friend, Josiah could feel his own disquiet mirrored in
Bucks eyes. That Ezras horse was tethered in front of the shack
unsettled both of them. Kneeing his horse so he could draw even with Buck,
Josiah straightened as well and prepared himself for whatever might be waiting.
Looks like just Ezras horse, Sanchez observed.
Yep, Buck agreed, scanning the area once more.
Think we should play the weary travelers just in case?
Bucks lips pursed under his mustache. A little hard to do toting
two dead bodies, he observed.
Josiah nodded thoughtfully. Maybe we just happened across them and
are doing the decent thing, he suggested.
Works for me, Buck agreed.
Once they were within shouting distance, Josiah called out, Hello the
house! He was met with resounding silence. Slanting a look at Buck,
the two men continued on a little further before calling again. And again
they were met with silence.
Unsettled by the continued lack of response, the two men eventually drew
up next to the familiar horse. Dismounting, both men tied off their horses
reins and those of the horses they had been leading. When that was done,
Josiah moved to check out Ezras horse while Buck scanned the area.
Looks like hes been out during all this rain, Josiah said,
Dont see anyone around, Buck observed. I dont
like that we havent heard from him or Vin yet.
Josiah nodded his agreement. Reckon wed better take a look inside
then, he suggested, stepping onto the small porch and drawing his gun.
Right behind you, Buck agreed, making sure his weapon was ready,
just in case.
Cautiously the two men pushed open the door and scanned the area. They
didnt see anyone in the room, but didnt want to take any chances.
Moving into the room slowly, it took them only a few moments to scan the
entire area. The only thing that seemed unusual was the large dresser in
the middle of the room.
As they began looking around for clues, a muffled thump sounded.
Both men froze in place as they tried to identify the sound. As they stilled,
they were able to hear what might be a muffled voice, but they couldnt
be sure. When a second thump sounded, Buck and Josiah both looked downward
to the dresser.
Think we should check it out? Josiah asked.
Buck nodded, holstered his gun and leaned down to help move the heavy piece.
On three, he advised. One, two, three!
The two men easily moved the dresser and found themselves looking down at
what could only be a trap door. Nodding to Josiah to have his gun ready,
Buck leaned down and lifted the door up.
Ezra! Josiah shouted in surprise only a moment later.
Ezra squinted up at the figure above him. It was only as he stared up at
Josiah that he realized how badly his head as hurting. Mr. Sanchez,
he greeted, his voice tight with pain. I take it young Master Tanner
made it back to town and retrieved you? he asked.
Buck and Josiah exchanged alarmed looks. Vin didnt come to us,
Josiah said softly. Isnt he here with you?
Ezra paled even more. Wh - what do you mean he didnt reach town?
I sent him out hours ago. He was supposed to ride...
Doesnt matter, Buck snapped, worry straining his voice
and making it sharper than he intended. If Vin isnt here, that
means hes out there somewhere in the rain and mud. We need to find
I concur, Ezra said. Turning he struggled up the ladder, trying
hard to hide the dizziness and nausea that was assaulting him. Now was not
the time to be weak. As he reached the top stair, he stepped onto the floor
of the cabin. Squinting against the pain of his head, Ezra felt the world
tip and slumped toward the ground.
Seeing his friends distress, Josiah caught Ezra under the arm and lifted
him. Whoa there, Ezra. Lets take it easy, he soothed as
he led the Southerner to a cot sitting along one wall.
Buck watched, his worry growing as Ezra nearly slumped to the floor. Josiah
reached Standish before Buck could move, but something Ezra said was bothering
him. What do you mean you sent him to town?
Ezra had his eyes closed and his head between his knees as he waited for
the vertigo to pass. Gulping down several deep breaths, he focused on the
question and related what he could. When I came out to deliver the
money, that poor excuse for a man informed me Vin wasnt at the mine
and we would have to travel to find him. I could see no other choice so I
followed him here. When we arrived, I assisted him in moving the dresser
that was over that hatch and opened the door. He slowly eased up and
raised his eyes to meet those of his friend. The next thing I remember
is waking up in the pitch black with Vin curled beside me asleep. Silence
hung in the air for several seconds. In order to keep us both occupied,
I suggested we explore our prison. We did so and Vin found an oil lamp and
matches. After lighting it, we were able to more fully explore. We found
a hole up near the base of the house that was too small for me to fit through,
but just big enough for Vin.
So you let him go out there into that storm on his own? demanded
Buck, looming over Ezra and looking every bit as intimidating as Chris Larabee
on his worst day.
Ezra returned a steady gaze. I had little choice, he informed,
offering up one of his many masks. He could see the outrage and judgement
in Bucks eyes, but knew whatever Buck thought, it could be no harsher
than what he already thought of himself. Gathering himself, he continued
with his explanation. We were trapped in a cellar with a can of peaches
for our food. No one knew where we were and I knew the rain would wash away
any traces of a trail. We had to get help and when we discovered the hole
that only Vin could fit through, it seemed prudent to take advantage of the
opportunity and send him on his way. He told me he knew the way to town and
I told him he should use my horse if it was still around.
The horse is still here, Buck rasped, his voice low and harsh
from a mixture of fear and worry.
Ezras face hardened even more even as all color seemed to leave. I
did what I felt needed to be done.
No ones questioning that, Josiah soothed, stepping in before
things were said that shouldnt be. He too was upset, but knew Ezra
wasnt the source of his anger. If he had been in a similar circumstance,
wouldnt he have taken the same chance?
Ezra slid his eyes over toward Josiah and nodded. What he hadnt told
them was that Vin had been injured. We need to go find him now,
Ezra stated as he started to rise. Before he could reach full vertical, the
world grew suddenly dark and he collapsed to the floor.
Curses flew from both Josiah and Buck as they struggled to get the man on
the cot. We dont need this now, Buck hissed.
Josiah placed a hand on the tense shoulder. I know, brother,
he assured, but this is what we have to do before we can find Vin.
He waited until he saw Buck reluctantly agree. Good. We need to see
if we can wake Ezra and then get him back to town. Hopefully Nathan will
be there to tend him. It would probably be best if we changed horses once
we were there, we can also drop off the bodies.
Another curse slipped from Buck. He had forgotten the bodies, the now wet
bodies. The last thing they needed to do was find Vin hauling two dead bodies
around with them. Fine, Buck agreed. But we have to do
Agreed, Josiah replied simply.
Ezra began coming around on his own and let out a groan as he lifted a hand
to his sore head. His thoughts came back to him slowly. Vin!
he cried out suddenly, eyes flying open. He quickly identified Buck and Josiah.
We need to go after Vin, he insisted, struggling against the
hands holding him down.
We will, brother, Josiah reassured. First, we need to get
you back to town to Nathan and then Buck and I will go after Vin.
What about Chris? Ezra asked realizing that the gunman wasnt
in the cabin.
Chris was hurt on our ride back, Buck informed. Hes
at the clinic right now with JD.
Which is exactly where youre heading as well, Josiah said,
helping his friend to a sitting position. You are in no condition to
go looking for small boys. Once we get you to town, Buck and I will change
horses and head out again.
But... Ezra began to protest.
No buts, Buck said, slipping an arm under Ezras shoulder.
The sooner you get to the clinic, the sooner Josiah and I can be on
Ezra sighed but nodded. This whole thing was his fault. He would never forgive
himself for allowing his past to bring harm to his present family, but what
was more, he would never be able to face any of the men again if Vin was
even more seriously injured than he had been when he left.
Slowly the men walked out of the cabin toward the horses.
Chris and JD sat on the porch looking out at the rain.
There was less of it now which was good, but there was still no sign of Vin,
Ezra, Buck, Josiah or Nathan.
Logically Chris knew that Buck, Josiah and Nathan wouldnt have been
traveling in the worst of the downpour and he hoped that Vin and Ezra were
someplace dry and safe, but all the logic in the world wouldnt quell
the yearning that burned within Chris to be out looking for his son.
The small boy shifting on his lap, drew his attention back to his current
circumstance. Chris didnt normally hold the boys like this, but right
now, the solid body in his arms eased his aching worry. You doing okay,
JD? he asked.
The small brunette nodded. He was worried and knew Chris was too. He wished
Buck was here and that Vin was here too, but knew there was nothing he could
do until Buck got back. Right now he had to watch Chris and take care of
him. Tell me another story, he asked quietly. He had discovered
that when Chris told him stories, the bad thoughts and feelings didnt
seem as close to them.
Chris smiled slightly at the little boys request even as his heart
ached to hear the question come from Vin. Alright, he agreed
softly, his eyes never straying from the road into town. This one is
about a little fox.
Nathan looked outside and tried to evaluate the weather.
I think its let up, Vin advised before turning serious
blue eyes up to his uncle. We should set out for town now.
Looking down at his small patient, Nathan once again felt an odd mixture
of emotion. Anger was still there over the treatment Vin had received at
the hands of that man. That was coupled with compassion and love for this
little boy who had become part of his family. Another part of Nathan could
only stand back and wonder at the seriousness of the child, so adult in so
many ways and far too soon.
Looking out again, Nathan noticed the lightening of the sky and sighed. He
knew he should keep Vin here and have the boy rest, but he needed to get
back to town to let the others know where Vin had left Ezra. From what Vin
had said, he wasnt the only one the men had knocked unconscious. It
was a good sign, though that Ezra had been coherent when Vin had left.
The fact that Vin would still occasionally fade away from Nathan didnt
sit well with him either. If he got the boy back to his clinic, he could
apply the salve he had to help with the bruises and maybe have Mary sit with
Vin while he headed out to find Josiah and Ezra.
Not pleased with his options, Nathan nevertheless agreed. Okay,
he said, seeing the relief relax Vins face. But we do it my
way. Seeing Vin open his mouth to protest, he held up a finger, stopping
the boy mid-protest. We do it my way or you go back to bed here until
I say otherwise.
Closing his mouth and nodding, Vin frowned to show his displeasure at this
turn of events.
You will ride with me on my horse and under the oilskin I have. I
dont want you getting wet again. The last thing you need right now
is a cold or worse, understand? When Vin nodded, Nathan replied,
Good. Now lets get everything together and get going before the rain
picks up again.
Aint going to pick up again, Vin muttered. S
Nathan heard the words and nodded his agreement. Vin, like Chris, was usually
right about these things. Good, he said. That should get
us to town that much faster.
Chris stopped his story mid-sentence as he saw the riders
coming into town.
JD, having been enthralled by the tale, jerked his head up at the sudden
cessation of word-inspired images. He held his breath, recognizing the figures
but somehow sensing that his normal chatter wasnt welcome just then.
His eyes trained on the dots, Chris struggled against his need to leap up
and go to meet the incoming men. He knew his knee couldnt take it,
knew he wouldnt get more than a few steps, but he had to know.
Doing his best to analyze what he saw, Chris felt his heart drop and his
throat clench shut. He saw five horses, three with upright riders, two with
riders draped across their backs. Studying the forms as the soul-destroying
fear of losing another son tried to consume him, Larabee managed to shove
aside the irrational and seize on the fact that he blanket-wrapped forms
were too large to be Vin.
Looking closely at the three approaching riders, he saw no sign of the boy
riding with any of them. His breath increasing in frequency he wanted to
call out and demand Vins whereabouts, but he couldnt say anything,
knowing that the first sound he uttered would set loose all the demons hiding
within him; voicing even the simplest sound would open him to the despair
no longer having Vin.
Eyes never straying off his father, JD slowly slipped from Chriss lap.
The riders were closer now and he could see more clearly what they were doing.
There were two big bundles over the back of the horses being led. One of
the horses looked sort of familiar. It took the boy only minutes to realize
it was the bad mans horse.
He saw his Uncle Josiah riding near Uncle Ezra. As they drew closer, his
large uncle reached over and seemed to steady Uncle Ezra. That made JD frown.
Then there was the other figure, his dad. He had never lost sight of the
mustached man who had become his safety and shelter. Buck wasnt happy,
but he wasnt sad. He seemed like Chris did when the blond made up his
mind about something. Uncle Nathan had a word for it, a big word, de... determ...
something. Whatever it was, that was the look on the face that had only ever
looked at him with love.
The group of riders stopped in front of the undertakers. A man came
out from inside and took over the reins of the two horses. The trio then
started toward the livery.
After disappearing for a little while, the three men emerged and ascended
the stairs to their landing, Josiah helping Ezra and Buck following behind.
Chris watched as the three men appeared on the landing, his fear still looming
large in his thoughts, he could only glare at the men as his fear turned
to anger. Wheres Vin? he demanded.
Three sets of eyes met his, but all were quiet as they headed into the clinic.
Buck paused at the door and held his arms out for JD, not realizing the spike
he was driving through his old friends heart. Buck could hold JD, but
Chris couldnt hold Vin.
Watching the other four disappear into the confines of the clinic, Chris
struggled to his feet and walked inside. I said, wheres Vin?
he demanded again more forcefully.
Green eyes rose to meet his and Chris could easily read the guilt living
in them. He opened his mouth to say something else, but his anger and fear
choked off any possibility of that.
Were going to look for him as soon as we have Ezra settled,
Josiah intoned, continuing with his ministrations rather than looking at
An evil sneer crossed Chris face and he could feel the vileness rising
up within him. He was hurting and he would make sure Ezra hurt as much as
he did. As he was about to lash out at the man, Josiah turned Ezras
head and Chris saw the large lump and deep bruise. He knew from experience
that Ezra had been knocked out. Normally he would have lashed out anyway,
but JDs large, brown, tear-filled eyes met his and he allowed his rational
mind to win out. The small voice hed been ignoring since he first saw
the men riding into town whispered at him that Ezra would protect Vin with
his life and let no harm come to the boy. Chris knew that if it were possible
for this to have been prevented, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah would have prevented
it. That same voice whispered to him that it could have just as easily have
been someone from his own past.
As that voice of reason overcame the black depths of emotion, Chriss
stance eased and pain and worry were the only tones evident in his voice
as he stated, Its not your fault, Ezra.
He watched the man swallow and a brief flicker in the green eyes. He could
see Ezra wanted to believe him, but refused.
Thats all I can do, Josiah said, stepping back. I
need you to sit back and rest, he instructed, stepping away from Standish.
Ezra rose and moved to the small cot that had become a permanent part of
the room. Josiah sighed but said nothing.
Get in the bed, Chris, JD advised. You got to rest your
knee some more.
Chris met the concerned brown eyes of the boy before raising his own eyes
to meet those of the amused father.
You heard the boy, Buck said. Best do what he says or
hes likely to tell Nathan youve been bad.
Chris shook his head in defeat and limped over to the bed where he settled
in, figuring it would be easier to just do it rather than fight Buck and
Josiah on it. The sooner they were set here, the sooner they could get Vin
Seeing that the man was settled, Buck set JD down on the chair between the
bed and the cot and began relating the new facts to Chris. The trio of
peacekeepers had decided on the ride over that it would be Buck who would
relay the information. Vin was kept in a cellar at that old shack you
pass by on your rides. Seeing Chris nod his understanding of the location,
Buck continued. Ez met the men in question and was brought out to the
shack in order to get Vin. When he got there, the guys partner hit him on
the head and threw him into the cellar. Eventually they found a hole big
enough for Vin to get through, but not Ezra. Ezra sent Vin to get help. He
had asked Vin to get on his horse and come to town. For some reason it seems
Vin set out on foot and we didnt see him on the way to town.
Chris frowned, his brow drawing down. That was really out of character for
Vin. He would have understood the importance of getting help and was a good
enough rider that he shouldnt have had any problems.
Josiah read the question forming in Chris mind. Vin had been
hurt by the men who had taken him. Not too bad, we dont think, but
he might have hit his head and could have been confused.
Chris clenched his jaw together, new fears springing up in combination with
anger. So he could be anywhere, he hissed.
Perhaps not, Ezra said slowly, his face reflecting his thoughts.
He didnt notice the eyes upon him or the silence in the room as he
tried to tug at the thread of a thought. Turning to look at Chris, he asked,
You said you rode past it together, correct? Seeing the blond
nod, he continued, Then, if Master Tanner was confused, mightnt
he have returned to his place of security? His home?
Chris blinked at him. Josiah nodded and Bucks mouth fell open slightly.
Buck, you and Josiah get fresh horses and split up. Josiah you ride
back to the shack and see if you can see anything you might have missed.
Buck, you head out toward our ranch and see if you can find anything along
the way between home and the shack. Were running out of daylight...
Chris voice stopped just then and his eyes closed. A shudder ran through
him as unwanted thoughts taunted him.
Well find him, Buck assured, iron in his voice. He waited
for Chris hazel eyes to meet his own and nodded once.
Turning toward the door, the two uninjured men were just about to exit when
the door opened and Nathan entered.
Surprise and shock stopped everyone as the dripping healer stood in the doorway
covered by a borrowed oilskin.
Josiah was the first to shake off his surprise and notice that the oilskin
poncho seemed to be somewhat misshapen. What do you have there, Brother
Nate? he asked, breaking the trance that had befallen his friends.
Nathan looked at the faces and smiled widely. Walking over to the double
bed upon which Chris was resting, he leaned over and settled something on
the bed. As he stood, he carefully removed the cloth to reveal a sleeping
Thank God, Ezra whispered.
Amen, Buck agreed.
JD looked over from his chair. Vin! he squealed, jumping up to
move toward his cousin. Buck quickly intercepted and quieted him.
Josiah had tears in his eyes as he gazed at the small form.
Chris stared down at his son, wonder and relief rendering him silent. He
had feared never seeing the boy again. Reaching out with one hand, he carefully
brushed a stray hair off Vins forehead, which drew a soft sigh from
the sleeping boy as he shifted and turned his head toward his father. Chris
could feel his hand trembling as he drank in the sight. Taking several moments
to relish the precious life that had been returned to him, he finally looked
up at Nathan. Thank you, he offered in a choked whisper.
Nathan shook his head. Dont thank me. I didnt get him out,
I just found him. It looked like he was headed out to the ranch. He
wasnt sure Chris heard him as the man continued to stare at Vin. Knowing
the others had to be told of Vins condition, but not wanting to upset
them, he sighed and removed his damp covering. I took him back to the
ranch cause it was closest when the rain got real bad. I got him cleaned
up and took a look. Hes got some bruises on his face from where that
A-hem, Buck interrupted nodding to a very awake and attentive
From where that bad man slapped him, Nathan finished. It
also looks like he punched him at some point and Vins got a fair sized
lump on his head from hitting it. I think he might have a mild concussion.
He needs a bit of feeding. I got some food in him at the ranch, but he was
more worried than hungry. Hes got a number of bruises that I want to
put some salve on, including one on his stomach from where he was flung across
a horse and carried.
How long? Chris demanded.
Not entirely sure, Nathan admitted. Its mostly bruises.
Id like to keep him here at least overnight because of his head.
Then, taking a close look at Chris for the first time, he frowned. Think
I might need to keep you here too Chris. Seems like you have a bit of a story
Chris frowned. His injuries werent important. In fact, they didnt
even hurt anymore, not with Vin back.
Best check on Ezra too, Josiah said quietly. He smiled as the
Southerner gasped and sent him a look of betrayal.
What happened to him? Nathan asked, worried at having a third
Hit on the head and thrown into a cellar, Buck informed shortly.
Nathan turned a piercing gaze at Josiah and Buck. Anything you two
need to tell me? he demanded.
Nope, Buck denied.
No, sir, Josiah informed.
Brown eyes narrowed at the two men as he noted they were wet. Hmph,
he said. I reckon I have some tea yall can drink. It should help
stave off any colds. His pronouncement was met with groans.
What about me? JD piped up, having been quiet for far too long.
Nathan looked JD over. You look healthy enough. I guess you get to
be my helper. He was rewarded with a beaming smile.
Good natured grumbling and teasing started in earnest at that pronouncement.
Chris was worried the noise would wake Vin, though a part of him wished the
boy would awaken. He chuckled softly at Buck and Nathans word-play
when he noted a movement out of the corner of his eye. Glancing down at the
boy he was holding, Chris saw blue eyes blink sleepily up at him. A small
smile graced the face. The eyes then traced around the room taking in
everyones position before Vin snuggled against Chris and slid back
into sleep, uttering a single word, Home.
It had been two weeks since two men from Ezras past had come seeking
retribution. Their plan had failed miserably though not before it proved
nearly disastrous to Vin and Ezra.
Vin had made a full recovery as had Ezra. Chris was still limping slightly
after over-using his bruised knee, but Nathan had allowed him to stop using
a cane just that morning.
Right now Vin and JD were running around in front of the jail playing a game
with several of the other children in town.
Chris was resting in a chair outside the jail sipping a cup of coffee. Ezra
was sitting beside him, shuffling a deck of cards.
Glancing at the gambler, Chris sighed. He had assured Ezra numerous times
that no one held Standish responsible for what had happened, that it could
have been men from any of their pasts, but the Southerner just didnt
seem to want to believe it.
Ezra had been keeping his distance ever since Nathan had released him from
the clinic. The money that he had taken back from Rob Neeley had been returned
to the appropriate owners, but Ezra had not returned to their family. It
was beginning to tell on the boys who were afraid they had done something
to anger their uncle.
Heard back from Clear Creek today, Chris said in reference to
the town that had put out the wanted posters on Rob Neeley and Cal Bertram.
Theyre sending the money here even though we told them they
didnt have to.
Ezra merely nodded. You should set up investments for the boys with
it, he offered, never once looking away from the two orphans who had
made him an uncle.
Chris almost winced at the longing he read in the green eyes of his friend.
He wished he could find a way to draw Ezra into their family again, but
didnt know how. With a sigh, he got up and walked inside. He needed
another cup of coffee. With Ezra watching the boys, he didnt have anything
to worry about.
Vin looked up from where he was playing when he saw movement on the porch
of the jail. Uncle Ezra sat next to Chris. The two seemed to talk for a bit
and then Chris limped into the jail with his coffee cup. Taking this as his
only chance, Vin left the game and cautiously approached his uncle. He knew
that Ezra had been disappointed in him, that Vin had headed toward the ranch
rather than town and hadnt gotten the help he needed and understood
why Ezra wouldnt want to be around him, but Vin hadnt been expecting
his uncle to refuse to have anything to do with JD either.
Walking up, Vin kept his eyes downcast and stopped just outside of arms reach.
Unca... Mister Ezra, he said, his voice tentative and full of
Ezra felt tears prickle his eyes at the change from uncle to mister. He knew
he didnt deserve to be this boys uncle, but hadnt thought
it would hurt so much to hear it from the boy himself. What is it,
Vin? he asked, his voice gentle.
Im real sorry about not taking the horse and heading to town.
I just got confused and... well, Im sorry. I know you dont like
me no more and dont want to be my uncle, but JD didnt do anything
wrong and you can still love him...
After Vins first words, Ezra felt like hed been pole-axed. All
this time hed been thinking himself unworthy of this boy and Vin had
been thinking the same about himself. When the boy got to the part about
not liking him, but still loving JD, Ezra had to interrupt. Stop,
he said softly, tears choking his voice. Startled blue eyes came up to meet
his and Ezra swallowed in an effort to regain control. You have done
nothing wrong. I asked you to get help and you headed toward home, a place
where you always had someone to rely on. If anyone should be sorry it should
Vins eyebrows drew down and a frown appeared on his face.
Why? he asked, puzzled by the mans statement.
Ezra sighed and looked into Vins eyes. Because none of that would
have happened if I hadnt done a bad thing to those men many years
Vin looked even more puzzled. But it was them that did it. You cant
be responsible for them, he advised knowingly, after all Chris had
told him exactly the same thing.
Blinking at the childs simple truth, Ezra tried to argue against it,
but knew that he was the only one holding himself responsible. No one blamed
him for the actions of Neeley and Bertram, maybe it was time to stop blaming
himself. Then Vins words came back to him once more. His face grew
stern and he straightened in his chair. All right then, he said.
If neither you nor I did anything wrong, then theres nothing
to forgive. he saw Vin nod his agreement. There is, however,
one thing I need to make very clear. He watched the blue eyes regard
him with something short of trepidation. I do not just like
you, Vin Tanner. I love you very, very much. And I love JD very, very
much too. Nothing you ever do will make me stop loving you or keep me from
wanting to be your Unca Ezra. Do you understand?
Vins eyes grew wide and filled with wonder. He knew that Chris loved
him like that and Buck did too, but he hadnt realized that his uncle
loved him that much. Nodding his head, Vin continued to gaze at his uncle
as if the man had revealed the secrets of the universe to him.
Ezra smiled, knowing exactly how Vin felt. He had spent too much of his life
searching for the type of love he had found in this odd little family. He
vowed then and there that no matter what happened, no matter what demons
from the past came calling, he would never let his nephew doubt his love
again, not even for a moment. He nodded at Vin and received a nod in return
before the boy turned and ran off to rejoin the game he had been playing.
Do you believe me now that it wasnt your fault? Chris asked,
limping out and settling in his chair.
A sheepish expression crossed Ezras face as he ducked his head. I
do beg your forgiveness for ever doubting you, he offered.
Chris chuckled softly.
Hey there, Stud! Buck greeted walking up to stop next to Chris.
Josiah and Nathan are getting us a table at the restaurant. You two
ready to get some grub?
Chris grinned up at his friend. It was good to be home and have things getting
back to normal. Sounds good, he replied. Setting his coffee aside,
he stood and called, Boys! Two small forms detached from the
group calling out goodbyes before heading over to join the three men.
Lets go wash up and then get some lunch.
Cheers echoed as the boys raced inside to quickly wash their faces and hands.
Upon returning, Vin slipped one hand into Chris and another into
Ezras while JD trotted along beside Buck. Nathan and Josiah stood on
the boardwalk in front of the restaurant, smiling and waiting for their family
to join them.