KIDNAPPED by Phyllis Loafman

"Little Britches" Universe

Size: Approx 162K

Chris and Buck rode with the two young boys into the town of Four Corners. It was Saturday and they had promised the boys a day in town if they finished all their chores and helped to mend fences around the house and barn area. Not that JD had been much help. Try as the boy did, he was just too small to help with much. Chris had to bite his tongue more than once to keep from yelling at the child. Buck had watched as Chris' frustration grow and, finally, asked the boy to run errands for tools, nails, water, anything light enough for the five year old to carry by himself. Chris looked over at Vin, JD's seven year old cousin and was not surprised to see a disapproving look. Though there were only two years between the boys, Vin had grown up fast and hard when he lost, first, his mother and, then, the aunt that had taken him in, leaving him to take care of, and responsible for, his cousin. It was a responsibility that he took very seriously. The young man would not hesitate to take on Chris in JD's defense. Luckily for Chris, Buck was there to defuse the tension before Vin could react. Once again, Buck was there to prevent Chris from saying something he would regret.

JD, blissfully unaware of the problem, simply enjoyed the day's activities. He was as innocent and wide-eyed as a child should be. More than once, Chris wished some of that innocence would rub off on Vin. The boy was too serious for a child of seven.

The four had finished the chores and saddled their mounts to head into town. This was to be the first time the boys had been allowed to ride their own mounts and were excited.

Josiah Sanchez called down a greeting to the small group as they rode into Four Corners. As they waved back and continued on, Josiah marveled at the new family. The young orphans had come in on the train to be put into families out west, but they ran away after learning they were to be placed in different homes. Chris and Buck had gone after the boys. Buck had been taken with both boys and wanted take them in. Chris was reluctant to allow the boys into his home, even on a temporary basis. But, though he acted like he didn't care, in truth he did. His resistance to the idea stemmed from the loss of his own family a few years ago. He didn't want put himself in the position of being that vulnerable again. But even Chris Larabee could not resist the pure innocence that radiated from the two cousins. He had finally agreed to the temporary opening of his home to the two boys. Buck had whooped with delight. He had wanted to take the boys in as soon as he heard the reason they had run away. Though he shared a home with Larabee, it was Chris' home in the tall man's eyes. After the fire that took Sarah and Adam Larabee's lives, he had helped Chris to rebuild the house and establish a working horse ranch. They had now been sharing that small home with the two boys for over six months. Buck hoped to approach Chris soon about adding on to make more room for the boys. He wanted to adopt them, but Chris was not quite to that point yet. Buck could wait. He saw no problem with the adoption.

The foursome rode to the front of the jail and dismounted, the two boys mimicking the two men's motions as they stepped off their mounts and adjusted their gun belts. The men, unaware of the boys actions, flipped the reins over the railing, then dusting their pants with their hats, they surveyed the town.

The actions were not unobserved. Ezra was sitting on the boardwalk in front of the jail and could not suppress the laughter as he watched the two boys. The sound drew the attention of all four and the sharply dressed southerner found himself assaulted by two small bodies as Vin and JD threw themselves into his lap.

"Please, young gentlemen, you will rumple my apparel with this assault upon my person." Ezra scowled at the boys climbing in his face, but found neither boy intimidated. He finally gave in and, taking a boy under each arm, stood and whirled around. The boys squealed with delight as the world spun dizzyingly around. The gambler sat the boys down in the chair he had vacated and turned to the two men. "Good afternoon, gentlemen. Are you come to relief me on this lovely day?"

"No. I think Josiah is on watch this afternoon and then Nathan. We just came to get a few supplies and let the boys ride some," Chris informed him. "Anything going on that we need to know about?"

Ezra shook his head. "It has been an exceedingly quiet week. And that is not a complaint, merely an observation."

"Well, that's good, ain't it, Ezra? Not bored or ya?" Buck smiled as he teased the smaller man. They had all seen more than enough trouble to not enjoy a quiet week.

"I am never bored, Mr. Wilmington. I find that I am exceedingly good company to even myself. A sparkling personality, such as I possess, could never tire of the pure enjoyment of life and the wonders that it holds. Besides, I have ample volunteers to sharpen my skills on this week," he stated as he flashed them a gold tinted smile. "A small wagon train has taken up residence behind the livery. They have been on the trail for some time and the men are making good use of what little our fair settlement has to offer."

Chris frowned. "When did they arrive, Ez?

"I would think that it was late on Wednesday evening. Some of the people were ill and Nathan attended them. I do believe that it need not worry you. Nathan had made that very clear to both myself and Mr. Sanchez. But I do know that one child has succumbed to the malady. I am sure Nathan would have informed us of any danger from within that group."

Chris and Buck looked at the two boys seated near by and back to the gambler, nodding. Nathan must be sure that the sickness was not a threat to the community or he would have never allowed the people to enter the town of Four Corners. It never occurred to them that one year ago they would not have been worried about a wagon train of strangers passing through. Now, their thoughts went immediately to the dangers such a group presented to the town.

The men were interrupted as the two young boys ran to join them on the boardwalk. JD took possession of Buck's hand and started pulling. Vin simply stood at Chris' side, waiting for an acknowledgment.

"Buck. BUCK! Come on. You said we could get some candy for being so helpful this week." The small boy dug in his heels and pulled as hard as he could on the big man's hand. Any resulting effect was not perceivable; the tall gunslinger never wavered at the force the tiny body exerted. Buck frowned at the boy, or at least he tried to. He finally gave up and, turning his hand over and gripping the boy's hands tight, he lifted him up to eye level and wrapped the other arm around the little waist.

"Boy, ain't you got no manners? Can't you see we're talking, here?" Out of the corner of his eye, Buck saw Vin step away from Chris, only to be stopped be the blonde's hand. The seven year old looked up and saw the wink Chris gave him. He nodded knowingly.

"No, I ain't. But, I ain't got no candy, either. And you and Chris promised." JD was totally unabashed by Buck's words. Like all five year olds, he heard what he wanted and filtered out the rest.

The men laughed at the small boy who was now hanging like a sack of potatoes from the man's right arm. Vin giggled at his cousin as he ran around behind Chris and began to tickle the smaller boy. JD twitched and jerked as he kicked his legs and slapped at the older boy. Buck allowed the horse play until JD started to hiccup. He rolled the boy up onto his shoulder and Chris stepped up behind Vin and placed his hands on the small chest, pulling the boy against him in a light hug.

"JD's right, Buck. We did promise." Buck nodded. Chris took Vin by the shoulders, pointing him toward the Potter's store. "Ezra, we'll see ya later."

Ezra stepped aside as the foursome headed to the store. "Good day, gentlemen."

The boys entered the store in a rush with Buck close behind. Mrs. Potter looked up as they entered. JD ran up to the counter and stood, looking at the various confections, his eyes wide. Vin joined his cousin. He chewed his lip as he tired to make a choice. Mrs. Potter came up between and placed a hand on each one's shoulder.

"Well, boys, we haven't seen you in a month of Sundays or so it seems."

JD looked up into the woman's eyes. "We get candy for helping," he told her loudly. He turned back to the showcase.

Mrs. Potter smiled at Buck as he joined them. "I got a list of supplies, Miz. Potter. Was wondering if we could leave it with ya and come back on Monday to pick 'em up?"

"Well, of course, Buck. In fact, that will work out very well for me. Is there anything that you need to get today?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, yes ma'am. Boys, ya'll decide what you want. Remember-two pieces each and that's all" He followed the storekeeper to the back counter to pick a couple of things.

Buck hadn't noticed the woman standing to the side watching the boys as they made their decision. She stared at the small forms. Her eyes misted over as she approached them and stretched out her hand. Her fingers brushed the JD's dark hair. He glanced back, but was too engrossed in the task of picking candy to pay attention. Vin was aware, but saw no danger from the young woman.

Sally Foster watched the dark haired boy. 'Robert. It's Robert.' she thought. They told her that he had died. But Jack had lied. The proof stood in front of her. They had both been so ill. She had not been able to care for her son while he was sick. The black healer had tended to them both, but it was Jack who had lied and told her that her son had died. Why would he lie about something like that? It didn't matter, because she found her son and she would not let him out of her sight again.

"I know what I want. What about you, Vin? Do you know what you want yet?" He looked at his cousin, waiting for a response.

"Yep, I got it figured out."

"Let's go tell Buck and Miz Potter." They turned to find the two adults, only to be stopped by the woman that stood behind them."

"Robert, we have to go now." And she reached out to push a strand of hair from JD's eyes. He allowed this because he had no fear of adults. Vin, on the other hand, had a strong sense of suspicion and caution around grownups. He took the younger boy by the hand.

"Come on, JD. We have to find Buck." He started to step around the woman, pulling his cousin with him.

Sally paid no attention to the older boy. She reached down and gently separated the two small hands. "Robert, tell your young friend that you will see him later. We need to get back to the wagon and start supper for Jack." She took the little hand and started for the door. JD didn't understand what was going on. He looked over his shoulder at his cousin.

Vin stood staring for a moment and then ran over and grabbed JD's free hand. "NO!" He yelled loudly. The woman turned and looked at him for the first time.

"Please, boy, you can play with Robert later. We have to go now or Jack will be angry." She slapped the hand that clung to her 'son's'.

Vin released JD, startled by the slap. He quickly recovered as she once again, headed out the door with his cousin in tow. The boy drew a deep breath and screamed, "NO! BUCK! HELP!" He ran out the door in pursuit of the woman and boy. He heard Buck's voice calling them.

"Vin? JD?" Buck had been paying for the supplies when he heard Vin first yell 'no'. He ignored it, thinking the boys were arguing over what to get. The second cry brought his head whipping around to locate the kids. He ran around to the front counter, and not finding them there, he headed for the door.

Stepping on the boardwalk, he quickly located Vin. He grabbed the boy and spun him around. "Where's JD?"

Vin turned tear filled eyes toward the tall man, his chin quivering. "She took him. Some lady took him. She was calling him Robert. I tried to stop her, but she slapped my hand away and left with JD."

Buck could feel the fear grip his heart, but did not want to scare the boy anymore than he was already. "Don't you worry, Vin. They can't have got far. We'll find 'em."

Buck saw Mrs. Potter come to the door. "Vin, stay with Miz. Potter." He shoved the boy gently toward the woman.

"No, I have..." Vin started, but the look on Buck's face froze the words in his throat. "Yes, sir"

Buck tore off down the street, glancing between buildings as he went. He reached the saloon and paused long enough to call to Chris and Ezra. He reached the end of the boardwalk and stood breathless as the other two men reached him.

"Buck?" Chris said to him quietly.

"Someone took JD."

Chris' face darkened. "What? Where's Vin?"

Buck drew a deep breath. "He's okay. He's with Miz. Potter."

Chris fought the urge to run down and grab his young charge to confirm that he was indeed safe. He looked at their companion. Ezra tipped his hat and headed down to the store, saying, "I'll see if I can procure an identity on this person."

"Chris.." Buck looked at Chris with eyes that spoke volumes.

"We'll find him, Buck."

The men saw Nathan coming across the street toward them, Josiah at his side. Nathan reached out to Buck. "We saw JD. I know who he’s with, Buck." Both ranchers attention was riveted on the tall black man.

"We were working on the roof of the church." Josiah explained. "Nathan saw the woman with the boy."

Chris' face reflected his confusion. "Woman?"

Nathan once again explained. "It was Mrs. Foster. She's from the wagon train. She's the one whose boy died. JD is about the same age, size as her boy. He had black hair, also."

"Damn." Buck realized what the woman must be going through. But he needed get his boy back. "Where'd they go?"

"She was headed back to the wagons. Come on." Nathan led the three men to the small group of wagons on the edge of town. Nathan headed to a wagon on the outer edge of the group.

As they approached, they could hear the voice of the boy they were after.

"Ma'am, my name is JD. I ain't Robert. I need to get back, 'cause Buck, he's going to be real mad at me for leaving the store. And, Vin'll be worried. Vin, he's my cousin. He and his mama came to live with me and my mama, but she died. Vin stayed with mama and me. And when mama died, well, Vin and me...., well, we was all the family left. So I got to get back."

The men heard the boy rambling on about whatever came into his head. Buck strode to the back of the wagon and jerked the canvas curtain back. The two people inside turned at the sound. JD leapt into Buck's arms so quickly, the man almost fell as he staggered back. He felt the small body trembling. He heard the woman screaming at him, but he never slowed as he turned and headed back to town with his precious load.

Chris stepped between the departing figure and the hysterical woman, holding his hands up to bar her path. Nathan took her gently in his arms and restrained her. Josiah watched the crowd that gathered around them. Noticing the people gathering around them, Chris hissed to Josiah, "Do we have a problem, Josiah?"

Josiah turned back to Chris as Ezra joined them. "No, Chris. They know about the woman's son. They're only watching, curious, I believe."

Chris listened as Nathan tried to calm the woman without much success. Noticing motion out of the corner of his eye, Larabee turned as a large man with hard features pushed through the crowd. His hand tensed, but did not reach for his gun.

Nathan looked up and sighed with relief. "Mr. Foster, I'm glad you're here."

The man nodded as he moved past Chris and Josiah. Ezra had stepped over to Nathan, but backed up as the man approached. "What's going on here?" Foster took his wife and turned her back to the wagon.

"Your wife took a boy from town, Mr. Foster." Chris stated as he watched the man lift the crying woman into the wagon.

Foster turned and looked at the gunslinger. Chris took a dislike to the man instantly. He was handling his wife roughly, considering her state. His mouth said words that his eyes showed to be lies.

"I am sorry for the commotion that Sally has caused. She is upset and confused. She probably thought the boy was our son., Robert. He died of the fever and Sally, she's been real sick herself."

Chris nodded. "So Nathan told us. The boy wasn't hurt. Didn't even act like he was too scared, but you might want to keep a close eye on her while you're in town. Wouldn't want this to happen again." Chris had kept his voice low, but the threat behind the words was clear.

"No worries, sir. We are planning on leaving in two days and I'll keep a close watch on her. She needs a few days to recover and then she'll be fine. Sorry, gentlemen."

"Just glad everything worked out okay." Chris tipped his head to the man. He turned away as the other three town peace keepers joined him. Then Chris turned back. "Sorry for your loss, Mr. Foster."

The man gazed at the gunslinger and finally nodded an acknowledgment. Chris walked off and joined up with the others. He did not see the glare in Foster eyes as he watched them walk away. He stood outside the wagon for a moment, but the whimpering from inside grated on his nerves and he climbed into the wagon to confront the distraught woman.

"Shut up, you stupid cow. You brought the law down on me." He drew back his hand to slap her, but it only caused her to wail louder. "Damn. Be quiet, woman." He sat for a few minutes working on a plan. He had met the woman after her husband had been killed three weeks out on the trail. He married her and took her and the boy on as a cover to escape the law back east. He had not told her that he was the one that shot and killed her husband. He had needed a ready made family to avoid suspicion as he traveled west. Now she was drawing, not only the attention of the others traveling with them, but also the law. Two more weeks and he would have been clear. He thought of what to do. Finally, he decided.

He squatted down in front of the weeping woman and smiled when she flinched away from him. "Sally. Sally," he said gently. He waited patiently until she looked around at him. "If you will be quiet and do as I say, I'll get the boy for you. I'll go get Robert for you."

The woman's eyes lit up. "Promise?" she whispered.

"Yes, I promise." Jack smiled.

Sally chewed on her lower lip, thinking. They had no right to take her son. Robert belonged to her, with her. He was Abel's son, her son. Yes, she would do anything to have the boy back.

"I'll do whatever you want, Jack. And I won't make any trouble and I'll be quiet. I swear I will, just please bring my son back. They had no right to take him from me."

"That's right. They should not have stolen your son. The child belongs with his mama." Jack could feel his plans falling back into place. In two weeks, they would be out of the territory and he could be rid of the woman, but until he reached the Oregon territory, he needed the cover she provided. He would get the boy back and that would keep her occupied until then.

"Sally, we were going to leave the train in two days when they pulled out, but we'll have to go now, or they'll come take Robert away again. I'll hitch the team and you load the wagon."

Her eyes shone with tears of gratitude. She began to put things away. Jack jumped from the wagon and headed for the horses. He was stopped by Henry Taylor, the man leading the settlers west.

"Everything okay with Sally?"

"Yeah, everything is just fine. Henry, we're going to pull out. I had planned on leaving and heading further north than ya'll are planning. What with the trouble and the boy's death, I think we'll go ahead and leave now. Save some embarrassment for the woman. Maybe putting some miles between her and here will help her mind. She's awful confused right now."

"Kind ‘a late to be leavin' out, ain't it?" Henry questioned.

"Nah. It's barely noon. The sooner we're away from here, the sooner she'll start to heal." Jack thrust out his hand and shook the wagon master's. " Thanks for the concern, Henry, but we'll be fine. I got family up Oregon way. They got land that we can settle and farm, start new."

"Be careful then, Jack. Sure wish you'd wait 'til tomorrow, but if your mind's made up, then best of luck to you both." The men stood for a moment, then Taylor turned and left.

"Nosy son of a bitch. If I had time, I'd show him how I can take care of myself," Jack thought to himself as he untied the animals.

Henry mumbled to himself. "Stupid, know-it-all clod buster. Ain't got the sense God gave a goose."

After hitching the team, Jack and Sally pulled the wagon out of line and headed west. He told the woman that once they got some miles between them and town, he would take his saddle horse and go get her son, while she continued on. He had spotted the canyon early that morning and had planned to camp there the first night. It would be late by the time she arrived. He told her to wait there. He would meet her with the boy and they could head out early the following morning.

+ + + + + + +

Buck wasn't sure who was clutching who as he went back to town with the boy. He made it as far as Josiah's church before his trembling legs would carry them no further. He sat down heavily on the steps, still gripping the small form to him. Taking a calming breath, he pulled JD away and sat him on his knee. The boy wiped his face on his sleeve and looked down. Buck could see that the small mouth was pushed out in a pout, while tears dropped onto the step below. He placed a finger under the quivering chin and lifted.

"JD? You okay?" The head bobbed up and down, but the eyes did not make contact with his. Buck pushed back the long dark hair. "JD, why did you go with the lady? You don't know her."

The boy wiped his nose on his sleeve and finally met Buck's gaze. "She just looked so sad, Mr. Buck. She was calling me Robert and thinking that I was her son. And she didn't scare me or anything. She was real nice, and smelt good." He bit his lower lip and then continued. "I felt bad for her. I know mama would ‘a been real sad like that if I was lost."

Buck looked at the little boy in front of him and felt the warmth of pride that this child, who had lost everything, could still be so concerned about other people. Oh, he could be very selfish at times, mostly with Vin, but that was typical of a five year old. And hopefully, he would learn to share as he got a little older.

"I'm glad that the lady didn't scare you and I'm real sorry that she was so sad, but how do you think that Vin and I felt when we couldn't find you? Next time somebody that you don't know tries to take you away, I want you to holler real loud. Will you do that for me?"

"Yes, Buck, I'll do that. I didn't mean to scare you and Vin. He's not in trouble is he? Cause he tried to stop her, but she slapped his hand away."

"No, Vin's not in trouble. You aren't either. This time, but next time, you know what to do?''

"Yes, sir. I HOLLER REAL LOUD!" JD screamed.

Buck had to laugh, even though he wanted to appear upset so JD would understand how badly the whole incident had affected him. He sat the boy down on the ground and stood up. "JD, you are a brat."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"I am not!"

"You are, too." Buck reached down and scooped the boy up. "Are too. Are, too!" he chanted as he clamped one hand over the small mouth. The boy giggled and thrashed around as he tried as escape the strong hold of the man.

Buck looked up to see Vin and Mrs. Potter running toward them. He sat JD on the ground as they arrived. Vin latched on to JD and hugged him. "JD, I was scared they wouldn't find you. I can't believe that lady just took you. Are you okay, she didn't hurt you, did Mr. Ezra find ya'll, he came and asked me some questions and then he left, did Chris go with you, Buck?, where is he, he's okay isn't he, why ain't he with you, ...."

JD stood with his mouth open. Buck clamped his lips together and put one hand in front of his mouth as his eyes met Mrs. Potter's.

"I tried to console him with a bribe-candy. I might have let him have a little bit too much." She tried to not laugh, but her giggle escaped.

The four walked back to the store with Vin talking the entire way. JD continued to stare. Vin finally stopped to take a breath as they entered the doorway. JD took that pause to say. "Wow, Vin. I ain’t heard you say that much ever. How can you talk so fast?" JD was amazed at the older boy.

Vin looked confused. He looked at the two adults. "What's he talking about? I ain't talking that much, I only wanted to know what happened and where Chris is. Why are ya'll laughin'? Ain't nothing funny 'bout this. JD could ‘a been hurt or lost." The more the boy said, the more the adults laughed. JD picked up on that laughter and giggled also. That was how Chris Larabee found them. Vin was asking questions and the others were laughing.

Vin saw Chris enter and ran up to him, pointing at the others. "Chris, make 'em stop laughing. It ain't funny. JD got stoled and they're laughing. It ain't funny and I want you to make 'em stop." The boy crossed his arms and glared at the blond man.

Chris looked at Buck over the boy's head. He saw the man wipe his eyes and point to the candy display. Chris nodded slightly to show his understanding. Then he threw his best glare in their direction. "Buck, I don't see what you're laughing about. Vin is right, there ain't nothing funny about what happened."

Mrs. Potter wiped her eyes with her apron and nodded. "Of course, there is nothing funny about the child's experience. I would never laugh at something so serious as that. If you will excuse me, I have work to do." The woman ran around the counter and disappeared into the back room.

Buck gathered JD up and started to the front of the store. "Vin, you're right. Ain't nothing funny about it." He walked past his partner and left the building.

Chris looked down at the young boy. "Come on, Vin. Let's go see what we can do about all this energy you got." He placed his hand on the slender shoulder and moved him toward the door. He smiled at the suppressed laughter that floated out of the back room, following them out the door.

"I don't know why everyone is laughing, Chris. I was scared. I was really scared. I can't understand why everybody is laughing. Did I do something funny? Is that why they're all laughing? I ain't got something on me, have I? My pants ain't ripped or something, are they?" Vin continued on as they strolled down the boardwalk to the newspaper office.

+ + + + + + +

Foster drew up on the reins after three hours. He told Sally how to find the canyon, then mounted and headed for Four Corners. He had seen the men approach the wagon that morning and thought they were after him. Then he saw the small boy jump from the wagon into the arms of the tall, mustached man. As soon as he saw the boy, he knew what she had done. She would not take his word that her boy was dead. The black healer tried to explain to her, but she refused to listen and accused them of lying. He had been around town long enough to know the men were the law in Four Corners. The man in black and the big man lived outside of town, so he was not sure how he could remove the boy from the men's care. But if he had to kill them both, he would. He was too close to freedom now.

Foster arrived back in town mid afternoon. It didn't take him long to locate the man and boy. He saw them at the jail, along with the blond peace keeper and two other boys, older than the first. A few carefully worded questions to different people around town gave him the information he needed. He found that this would not be as easy as he first hoped. The men lived on the same ranch along with both younger boys. He figured he could take one or the other of them, but not both. He might have to change his plans and leave the woman and head out alone. He sat down in the saloon to have a drink and consider his options. That was where he heard his luck change.

2+ + + + + + +

After the incident in the store with Vin, Chris had walked him over to the newspaper office and asked Mary if he could borrow Billy to run some of the sugar energy out of the youngster. Billy was eleven, but seemed to enjoy the company of both younger boys. The boys played around the jail in the alley for a while under the watchful eye of Buck Wilmington. They ran and chased each other, but Buck put a stop to a game of hide and seek. He had enough of that game earlier in the day. He sent Billy and Vin back to Mary's and went in search of Chris, with JD in tow. He located the black clad man in the saloon with Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan. He joined them at the table and ordered a beer. JD ran over the bar and smiled at the pretty woman. Inez smiled back. She knew what he wanted. JD got the glass of milk from Inez and carefully walked behind her to the table. He was concentrating on the milk so hard that he failed to notice when she stopped to place the beer on the table in front of Buck. He walked into her legs and spilled the liquid down the back of her skirt.

JD's eyes widen and filled with tears. His lower lip came out and started to quiver as he watched the white fluid absorb into the colorful material. Buck jumped up and, grabbing a bar rag from Inez's waistband, began to wipe the spill from the skirt.

Inez had turned when she felt the small boy run into her legs. Seeing the tears, she squatted down, drawing Buck down with her as he tried to wipe her skirt. She took the tearful child into her arms, cooing, "No, no, Chiquito. Do not cry. It is only milk. I should not have filled the glass so full. Do not cry, bebe. It is all right." She rubbed the small back as he leaned into her. Wrapping her arms around him, she stood up. She looked at Buck as he opened his mouth to apologize. Shaking her head, she hefted the boy onto her hip. "Come with me, Chiquito and we will get some fresh milk. Does that sound good to you?"

JD nodded without lifting his head from her shoulder. Buck sat back down as she went behind the bar with the boy. He looked at Chris.

Larabee shook his head and chuckled. "Don't even bother saying it, Buck. I can tell by that glint where you're going. You only wish it was that easy to get close to her."

Shaking his head, Buck grinned at his best friend. "You know me too well, Chris."

Ezra put on his best poker face. "Bucklin, we do not have to know you well to be able to read you. You, sir, are as transparent as glass in this particular area."

The others enjoyed the banter as Buck struggled to word a comeback. He finally conceded and shrugged his shoulders. Looking at Chris, Buck asked. "How long ya planning to stay in town, pard?"

"Mary told me Orrin's coming in on the afternoon stage. I got something I want to talk to 'em about." At Buck's raised eyebrows, Chris added, "Ain't nothing. Just got a question or two for the judge."

Buck's brow knitted, but if Chris didn't want to talk about it, there was no getting it out of him.

"You in a hurry to get home?" Larabee asked as he brought his glass up.

"Boy's getting pretty tired. He ain't going to be much fun to be around in a short while. Thought I’d head on home with him and put him down for a nap while I tend to the chores. I can take Vin if ya want me to."

Chris thought for a minute. "Nuh, ya'll go ahead. Vin's playing with Billy. He'll be fine. Mary said something about supper, so we'll be home later."

Buck waggled his eyebrows. "Supper, huh? Well, well.."

Chris threw a glare at his partner, a wasted effort, but he did it anyway. "Yeah, Buck, supper. Me and Mary..and Judge Travis and Billy and Vin. So you can just burn something at home for yourself and JD."

"Maybe I ought’ a get the stomach medicine ready for the boy, if Buck's cooking." Nathan tossed at the openmouthed Wilmington.

"I reckon I can cook without burning it or poisoning us. Ain't killed nobody yet."

Josiah threw his two cents in, "'Yet' being the important part of that statement."

Since they had all experienced Buck's cooking on the trail, they had to laugh.

"Dang it, I don't have to sit here and be abused by my friends. I'm headed home, Larabee. You enjoy your supper and JD and I will enjoy ours." The anger in his voice was lost on them as he, too, laughed. They were right-he couldn't cook, but he could probably find something for him and JD to eat that he couldn't burn. Tipping his hat, he bid good afternoon to his friends and went in search of his charge.

+ + + + + + +

Jack Foster frowned as he realized the man in black was Chris Larabee. But he was relieved when the partner decided to go home alone. It would make things a whole lot simpler. He tossed a coin on the bar and quietly left the saloon to wait for Wilmington to head home with the boy.


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