Gathering the Flock

by KT

AU - Lost Lambs

Chapter 1
Wichita 1932
Chris Larabee stood impassively just inside the entrance to the cemetery, he could see his best friend about fifty yards away kneeling in front of the fresh grave his head bowed, he'd been there for over an hour now. Chris had watched, paced, read all the graves in the immediate vicinity, he was about to go over to his grief-stricken friend when he saw him sit up some and cross himself. He hadn't seen Buck do that since the trenches in France. The big man rose to his feet and headed back in Chris' direction. His eyes had tell-tale signs of recent tears but other than that he didn't look too bad.

"You okay pard?" he asked gently.

Buck nodded as he fell in step by Chris. "It's not like we were close anymore, we hadn't spoken or written for nearly five years, only Christmas cards," he said sadly.

"Buck she was your mom, just 'cause you were separated for a while don't mean you loved her less."

Chris remembered the telegram arriving at the ranch. Buck had opened it on the porch, still half dressed after a long night on duty in the sheriff's office. Chris had been curious and was watching from the kitchen when he saw his partner and friend sit down suddenly on the step, the young man who had delivered it standing by his horse looking embarrassed. Chris had run out instantly, gently taking the paper from his friend’s trembling hand he read.


+ + + + + + +

He'd met Francine only once after the two of them had been discharged from the army. Buck had insisted they go together to tell her he was moving to Washington. Chris had been very apprehensive, he'd never been inside a cathouse before, not even in France, he hadn't needed to. There were always plenty of nice willing girls around if you were with Buck. Buck didn't exactly speak French but he could speak the Cajun dialect French of his mother's people, understand French, and make himself understood. Occasionally the French would claim not to understand him and he would immediately fly into a dramatic loud rage full of colourful Cajun expletives until they admitted they did understand, it was quite a performance and Chris loved to watch it. Since he was an officer the CO hadn't liked that he spent so much time with an enlisted man. But Chris hadn't cared, he had decided the military was not for him. He was young, he was miserable, homesick, lonely and scared most of the time, not to mention wet, cold and covered in mud. The trenches in France were a depressing place for a young man and if being with the big, gregarious, loud argent Sergeant made him forget for a little; well he wasn't going to give that up.

He had assumed they were the same age until he met Francine and found out Sergeant Wilmington was actually his junior by three years. It seemed he had used his high, physical maturity and precocious confidence to con the army he was eighteen when he was just fifteen. Once she had finished being mad at her son for running off and joining the army, she had been wonderful, and it was clear to Chris how devoted to each other the two of them were. It made him wish he could remember his own mother better. Now his friend had lost all that. He gave the telegram boy the reply; they would come as soon as possible.

They knew they had missed the funeral, but Buck wanted to go to the grave before they went anywhere else. Now they walked quietly toward the anonymous-looking town house that hid a secret world, a world Buck had grown up in. At the intersection Buck turned down the side street, along the alley, and entered the house through the kitchen. He was met by Ruby, the large Negro cook who commiserated with him and called for Miss Louise who was now running the house. Louise took them to her office, which until a week ago had been Francine's. She explained about the pneumonia that had claimed her in less than a week. Louise handed over an envelope Francine had left in the safe. She looked at him with such sympathy as she spoke.

"We have kept JD in his room until you're ready," she explained.

"Who is JD?" Buck asked in all innocence.

Louise looked shocked. "What do you mean ‘who's JD’?" she said angrily.

"I'm serious ma'am, I don't know what you are talking about," he admitted.

"Oh. Well that is difficult, I just assumed you knew, I mean why would I not, well, let me see," she groped with the words. "JD is your brother."

Buck looked at her with no expression for a while, then he said slowly. "My brother? Mom had another child, and she never said?" he asked quietly. "How old is he?"

"JD was five last month," she explained.

"JD? What's that for?"

"John Daniel Dunne."

"Does he know about me?"

"Oh yes honey, seen your picture, prayed for you every night," she smiled to herself, "he says 'God bless Mommy, God bless Buck and his friend Chris and all the horses."

Buck looked up at Chris bewildered as what to do, and then back at Louise. "Well I think I should go see him," he said eventually.

"I'll wait here," Chris said.

"No you don't, you're in the prayer, you come too."

Louise opened the door on what had once been Buck's room, there sitting on the bed was a small boy with dark hair, and hazel eyes, clutching a carved wooden horse. He looked at the tall man who had stepped into the room, there was a spark of recognition as he gazed up, Buck stepped a little closer, and the little boy leaned back slightly. Chris put a hand on his friend's shoulder and pushed down, understanding what was needed Buck knelt down. The little boy moved closer to the edge of the bed.

"Are you my brother Buck?" he asked with some trepidation.

"Yes son, I guess I am." Buck watched as he slowly clambered off the bed and walked to the big man kneeling on the rug, he looked him over and then took a deep breath.

"Mom went away," he said solemnly.

"I know she did," Buck replied trying to keep the emotion out of his voice.

"I want her to come back."

"Well she isn't going to come back, it's just you and me now." JD took a step closer to him.

"I know, Father Clark said she went to God, but I still want her."

On instinct Buck held his arms out and after only a second, little JD stepped into his embrace. Buck scooped him up and sat down on the bed as he held the now sobbing child, his own tears stinging his cheeks. Chris and Louise quietly withdrew.

Chris went down to the kitchen where he had some supper and a drink, when two hours later Buck had not come down and the house gearing up for the night, he went back upstairs to look for him. He found the brothers asleep on the bed; little JD sprawled across Buck as he slept flat out on his back snoring gently. Chris was happy to see it; Buck had barely slept since the telegram had come nearly three days ago. Reluctantly Chris bedded down in the adjoining room, Buck's mom's room. "I'm 33, I'm single and I'm spending the night in the middle of a thriving brothel, and what am I doing? I'm sitting up fully dressed reading a book." He thought to himself with some amusement. It was gone midnight when

Buck walked blearily into the main room.

Chris got off the bed self-consciously and a little too quickly.

"It's all right Chris relax," his friend reassured.

"He still asleep?"

"Yeah, don't think the little guy's slept since it happened." Chris thought that he wasn't the only one.

Buck sat down in the armchair. "I just don't know why she didn't tell me," he said with sorrow.

"I do," Chris said.

"You do?"

"I asked when JD's birthday was exactly, it's April 6th."

That meant JD was born just two days before Chris' wife and son had been killed in a fire.

"You wrote your mom about Adam and Sarah didn't you?" Buck nodded. "Louise told me JD was born too soon, he was very small and very sickly for a long time, he nearly died three or four times."

Buck looked over at the closed door. "Poor little guy, guess she didn't want to tell me in case he didn't make it. By the time he was doing better we'd kinder lost contact." This had been Chris’ summation as well. "What am I gonna do Chris?"

"What kind'a question is that? Your gonna take your kid brother to his new home at the Circle T Ranch, that’s what your gonna do."

"You sure? I mean he could sleep in my room." Buck said tentatively, but Chris dismissed him.

"He'll sleep in the little room, it's okay Buck, I'm alright with this, Adam never slept in there, it was never his room. You’re the closest thing I ever had to a brother, so that makes you family, so the little guy is family too and family stick together."

The next day they sorted all Francine's things, the envelope from the safe contained more than $3000, and a letter saying the money was for JD to go to college. In her trunk in the bedroom they found some more money, birth certificates for Buck and JD and a small collection of jewellery. JD had some clothes, toys, books and a framed photo of his mom.

Come the evening they were all standing in the station waiting for the night train. JD had said a tearful farewell to all his friends at 89 Dunne St. Now he stood clutching Buck's hand in a vice-like grip with one hand and his horse in the other. As far as Buck could tell he hadn't let go of the wooden toy since they'd first met. It was just the outline of a horse really, about half an inch thick and painted to resemble a bay, with a brown body, black mane and tail. He had a few other toys, but he only cared about the horse, which he called Pony.

+ + + + + + +

It took two days to get home. As their train pulled in Chris saw Father Sanchez waiting beside his car at the station. He had been looking after the horses for them while they were away. Chris had wired him with their expected arrival time knowing he would be happy to help. The little party made its way over to him, there hadn't been room on the telegram to explain about JD, so the priest was more than mystified by the presence of the little boy walking beside Buck and clutching his hand so tightly.

"Hello boys, good to see you." He looked at Buck with a professional eye. "How are you Buck?"

"I'm fine Josiah, like you to meet someone," he looked down at JD.

"Josiah this is my brother, er, half brother, John Dunne, know as JD."

Josiah knelt down in front of him and extended his hand, "How do you do JD, I'm a friend of your brother, so I hope you will be my friend too," he said gently.

"How do you do Father." JD extended a little hand once he had put Pony into the same hand he held Buck in. The two of them shook hands formally. Then he put Pony back in his other hand and looked up at Buck for reassurance and was rewarded with a grin. Josiah stood giving Buck a look that made the big man feel uncomfortable. Chris had been sworn on pain of death, never to tell the good father that Buck had been raised as a Catholic. Josiah was wearing a clerical collar, but he could have been from any denomination. So the only reason a five year old would automatically assume he was a Catholic priest was if he were a Catholic, and if Buck's mother had raised her youngest son Catholic why not her eldest?

"Polite young man," he commented, "well educated too," he said giving Buck a knowing smile.

They set out, JD watching the scenery passing by with undisguised wonder, but it was late and dark when they pulled up in front of the house. As Chris thanked Sanchez for the lift and waved him off, Buck carried the slumbering boy into the house. He was so tired that he never stirred when Buck undressed him and pulled on his nightshirt. Tonight JD would sleep with his brother.

Like many a five-year-old JD woke early, already full of energy. For a while he was disorientated, then he realised he was not alone in the strange bed, there beside him was the slumbering form of his new brother, if Buck was here everything was all right. He tried to work out where they were, running the events of yesterday in his head; the ranch he decided, he must be at the ranch. Excitement took over, with Pony gripped tightly in his hand, he slipped off the bed and went out into the passage. Following the light he found his way to the porch, looking around and spotting the mares in the paddock he set out barefoot across the meadow toward them.

Something woke Buck, he wasn't sure what and for while he wasn't worried because everything seemed peaceful, weak dawn sunlight filtered in through the curtains. Suddenly he sat up and looked around wildly, JD. Where was JD? Running into the passage he searched to house, waking Chris as he did.

"What's the matter?"

"Kid's missing!"

As Buck pulled on his boots, Chris shouted, "I'll try the outhouse!" And headed for the kitchen.

Buck, still dressed in his night clothes ran outside via the front door. He pulled up short scanning the view until his keen eye spotted a small form with dark hair standing at the paddock fence. He covered the ground faster than he would have thought possible, pulling up just in time to stop himself barrelling into the child. Panting he dropped to his knees beside his brother. The boy was standing up against the fence, gazing at the gleaming horses. He turned to Buck, who was still panting too hard to talk.

"Oh Buck, they're so beautiful, they're magic." He turned back to gaze. "Magic," he breathed again.

Buck just stared at him, still trying to understand that they shared the same blood and trying to work out how the kid had captured his heart so totally and so fast. He had just got his breath back when he detected Chris walking up to them.

"Buck?" JD asked.

"Yeah Littl'n," he replied still a little breathless

"Are all the horses yours and Chris'?"

"Yes all ours,"

"Can I touch one?"

"Well how about we get dressed and eat some breakfast first?" Chris suggested.

JD clearly thought that was the boring option, but before he could say so Buck picked him up and headed to the house, with his head on Buck's shoulder JD gazed at the horses all the way back, Pony still clutched in his hand. They walked into the house via the back door, stopping to let JD uses the outhouse on the way in. Finally Buck led the five-year-old into the big kitchen, but just after they passed the threshold he felt a small tug on his hand, looking down the he saw the little boy was hanging back looking scared.

"What is it Littl'n?" he asked kneeling down in front of the boy.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he stammered. "I didn't know I won't ever do it again, I promise, please I'm sorry." Hot tears began to stream, fear etched on his face.

Chris was mystified, what could he have done in so short a time? Buck just held the boy, as he looked him in the face trying to talk to him.

"What did you do son? Whatever it is we can fix it, I promise, come on JD tell me." But JD just cried repeating that he didn't know and he was sorry. Buck tried to guess.

"Did you wet the bed?" he asked. The boy shook his head.

"Did you wet the floor in the outhouse?" Chris asked, again the boy shook his head.

"JD did ya touch the horses or feed them?" Buck asked.

"No Buck I never, I'm sorry," he wailed again, clutching on to Buck, his eyes locked on the front door he could just see through the kitchen door. Buck looked over his shoulder to see what the boy was looking at, suddenly it dawned on him what was wrong and he groaned inwardly.

"Oh JD, you went out through the front didn't you." The little boy nodded slowly, then he started to cry uncontrollably. Buck understood all too well, it was drilled into you as soon as you could walk at Dunne Street, in fact every house Buck and his mom had ever lived in, the children never, ever, used the front door. It was an unshakeable rule, he remembered only a few days ago he'd automatically used the kitchen door, even after all these years. He pulled the boy into a close hug.

"JD, you can use any door you like, you can come and go as much as you want, no one is gonna punish you for it," he reassured, feeling the little frame in his arms shuddering.

It took some time for the boy to regain his composure, finally he pulled away from his brother, wiping the residual tears from his eyes.


"Really," Buck confirmed.

"Are you mad at me?"

"No kid."

JD looked up at Chris with pleading puppy dog eyes. The tall man also bent down, and reaching out he ruffled the boy's hair.

"I'm not mad at you either JD, I promise, what do you say you go with Buck and get dressed, I'll make us all some breakfast and then we can all go and feed the horses, and you can stroke them?"

The little face brightened, "I can?" He looked back to Buck for support, who just grinned at him and nodded, "I can touch the horses?"

+ + + + + + +

The Stockwell Boys Farm was located in an isolated area near the boarder with Canada, it sounded like a wonderful idea. A farm where boys who were in trouble with the law could be educated, get lots of fresh air and learn the value of honest labour. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and Stockwell's good intentions had not lasted. Bulling was endemic, the labour hard and unrewarding and the education almost non-existent. The buildings were run down and vermin infested, cold in winter and stifling in summer.

The skinny short boy with unruly dark blond hair had tried not to attract the attention of the bullies, either boys or staff, but try as he might he couldn't stand by and watch others get hurt. Just after Christmas, a day that had past with almost no change in routine other than getting a meagre portion of turkey for lunch and there being no staff around all afternoon, he had been forced to act. A boy, a little older than him was being beaten by three older boys because he wouldn't steal for them. The boy was on the floor trying to protect himself.

"Stop it, he's had enough!" the boy shouted.

"Tanner ain't I told you to keep out of other people’s business," the biggest of the other boys growled.

Vin Tanner felt the knot of fear in his stomach tighten. "You’re gonna kill him," he stated.

"Well if'n you wan'a help him why don't ya volunteer to take his place, we need a littl'n?" Sid Andrews was stocky boy of about fifteen, his face was marred by rampant acne and his teeth were already rotting. He was the leader of the dominant gang inside Stockwell.

Vin Tanner was only ten, he'd been there six months, arriving when he was nine, the youngest you could be and be sent to Stockwell. He'd never actually committed a crime, but he had runaway from every institution the state had placed him in since his mother had died. And the state in their wisdom had deemed he was a fully-fledged delinquent. They never even asked him why he kept running, they never looked at the institutions he ran from, they turned a blind eye to hints of abuse, chose not to see the bruises and the prominent ribs, the hunted eyes, the feral nervousness of a trapped animal. Now he was incarcerated and treated like a criminal.

Vin looked down at the boy on the floor; his name was Sam, he was taller than Vin but just as thin, he was crying as he huddled against the wall where he had been trapped. Vin took a deep breath.

"What you want me t' do?" he said with as much courage as he could muster.

Andrews signalled his goons to let Sam up and release him, then he took a handful of Vin's hair and as he propelled him down a dark corridor, he said with menace.

"Just you let me worry about that."

Chapter 2

The original vision for Stockwell was that the boys would grow most of their own food, but greed had taken over; now the food that was produced was mostly sold and the boys only ever go windfalls from the orchard. The money the state sent for food had not gone up, it was still set at a level that assumed they were eating the food the farm produced. All the money the sale of produce created when into the chief warden's pocket, after all the other warders had been given a suitable cut. As a result all the boys were hungry all the time, even the gang leaders who got special privileges from the wardens were hungry most of the time. The youngest boys, like Vin, were painfully thin.

Andrews showed him the outside wall of the main pantry where all kinds of goodies reserved for the staff were kept, cookies, apples, oranges, pies, honey, preserves, cake. The door to the pantry was steel and locked, if that weren't difficult enough it was inside the kitchen, which was itself always locked. Outside, an airbrick set into the wall ventilated the pantry; the crumbling state of the pointing meant the brick could now be slid out. The trouble was the hole was too small for any of Sid's gang. Andrews showed him the brick and explained he would fetch him that night and he would crawl in and get them the food they wanted. Vin didn't want to do it, if he was caught he'd be a thief, punished cruelly, but if he didn't Sid's gang would beat him up, some other poor kid would have to do it and he'd still be hungry. Andrews tugged painful at his hair to get his attention. Vin nodded his acquiescence.

Even for Vin it was a tight fit, they'd made him strip to his under shorts and he'd shivered in the freezing night air as he was lifted up so he could crawl into the hole, the ragged brickwork scraped and bruised his bony elbows, hips and ribs. Once inside he was passed a pillowcase to use as a sack, a candle and matches. On strict orders not to take anything that would be immediately noticeable he looked around in the flickering light. He sliced off a wedge from a meat pie that was already half eaten, he then took four of the fresh baked cookies still on the cooling rack, he ate two himself as he worked, he also took a jar of strawberry jam from a top shelf, and some oranges from the crate on the floor.

Cold and bloody he quickly pulled on his clothes as the brick was pushed back and Sid studied his haul. Satisfied he gave Vin an orange and sent him back to his dorm. Vin had stood in the washroom trying to clean up the cuts and grazes for nearly an hour before he painfully tiptoed into bed. At breakfast he had waited for someone to accuse him of stealing from the pantry but nothing happened, no one seemed to have noticed. Between then and Easter he entered the pantry six more times it never got any less scary or painful, but at least he was safe from the other bullies while he was working for Andrews and none of the other boys were being forced to do it. It was his seventh trip, he had just lit the candle when the door swung open and the light came on. Standing in the door was Warden MacFarland and the cook.

"I told you stuff was going Mac, I never would have thought someone could get through that hole though," the cook said.

"Looks like he nearly didn't." Mac was looking at Vin, as he stood rooted to the spot with fear, wearing only his under shorts the scrapes and grazes all too evident. "Come here you thieving little rat," he commanded.

Vin was dragged to the cellar, there MacFarland opened the door to a damp unused room, full of mouldering packing crates, rotting firewood, coal dust and rats. He pushed the shivering boy in.

"The boss 'll see you tomorrow," he said ominously.

+ + + + + + +

With that he shut the door and the room was engulfed in darkness. Too scared to explore the musty darkness, he stretched out his hand and walked forward until he touched to cold metal of the door, then he turned around and slid down to the floor, sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, his arms wrapped around his knees, and his forehead resting on his arms. Hot tears dropped down onto his legs.

"Remember you’re a Tanner," he said to himself, remembering his mother’s final words to him, a long five years ago.

He could hear the rats scurrying back and forth but they didn't seem interested in him. He didn't know how long he was down there, he never slept, he was too cold, too sore and too scared. Eventually he heard heavy footsteps coming across the floor behind the door. As quickly as he could he got to his feet, so he was standing meekly in front of the warden, squinting in the sudden light, when the door was opened. Still only wearing his under shorts he was marched to the chief warden's office. It was evening, which meant he had been in the cellar for nearly twenty hours, but he was too scared to notice, how thirsty and hungry he was.

+ + + + + + +

The chief warden was a man called Rance, he was a thin angular man, with a hard jaw line and pale grey dead eyes. Vin had met him once when he first arrived, he and all the other new boys had stood in a row in his office and listened as he told them the rules. He told them if they were good, worked hard and studied hard they would be happy at Stockwell. It was the same speech Vin had heard at every other institution had he had been placed in, it was never true. Now half dressed, covered in dirt and dried blood and shivering Vin stood before him.

"Tanner isn't it?" Vin did not reply.

"Speak when I speak to you boy."

"Yes sir," he replied.

He looked down at some papers, which Vin assumed were about him.

"You’re a bit of trouble maker Tanner, says here you’re disruptive, always running off, and now you’re a thief as well, there is nothing worse in this world than someone who steals food from the mouths of children."

Vin knew full well, no child was ever going to get the food in that pantry. The warden stood and walking out from behind his desk and looked down at Vin.

"Thieves need to be punished, don't they?"

"Y…y…yes sir," Vin stammered.

He made Vin stand up against the door facing it; he had to hold on to the coat hooks, which he could only reach on tiptoe. The warden took a switch from the umbrella stand by the door.

"If you let go before I tell you to, I'll tie you there and it'll go on much longer."

This was one of the warden's favourite games, the poor kid could never hold on till the end and then he was tied to the hooks and the punishment started all over again. Vin gripped the brass hooks as tightly as he could, determined to hold on until the end. To start with the switch only bruised and stung but after a while the red welts began to trickle with blood, Rance continued until it was flowing freely. To start with the boy had been silent, then he gasped and moaned and in the end he cried pitifully, but he never let go of the hooks. Rance was forced to stop for fear he was killing the boy.

+ + + + + + +

When he did stop and gave the boy permission to let go he had dropped to the floor in a heap. Rance grabbed hold of the boy's thin arm and pulled him to his feet, opening the door he handed him over to the warden outside. He was taken to the infirmary, where he was given a cold bath, iodine was put on his back and other cuts, it stung cruelly, then with some bread and a mug of water inside him, he was put to bed.

For once he was allowed to sleep until he woke. The infirmary beds were softer then the dorm ones, the sheets cleaner and the room lighter. He was so sore he daren't move so he just lay waiting until someone came. He reckoned he woke up around midday but it was getting dark before someone came.

The man had on a slightly yellowed white coat, Vin didn't recognise him but he might have been the man who had taken care of him the night before. He had only foggy half memories about that night.

"How are you son?" the man asked.

"I'm all right sort'a," Vin confessed. If he said he was all right, then he might have to go back to the dorm and back to work. But if he said he was sick they might think he was trouble, and punish him again. The man came over to him and placed a hand on his brow.

"Well you don't have a fever, bet you’re sore though." He looked down at Vin, who nodded.

"Here boy." The man pointed to a tray he had brought with him.

The food was cold but there was more than he usually got. Three thick full-size sandwiches, full of ham and cheese, two cold chicken drumsticks, at least three cookies and an orange, plus a tall glass of milk. His eyes widened in anticipation. He was about to get off the bed and head for the food when the man stopped him.

"Not yet kid, I ain't got all night. I gotta clean your back again, turn around."

Vin's heart sank; one thing he did remember about the night before was that cleaning his back hurt, a lot. He wanted to say 'no it'll hurt', he wanted to say 'I'm alright don't bother', he wanted to say 'please don't hurt me'. But he didn't he just turned around, gritted his teeth and waited for the man to set his back on fire. It was worse than the night before, he was properly awake this time. But he didn't make a sound and he didn't try to flee, he just knelt on the bed screwing the sheet up in his fists. Even when the man was finished it still hurt.

"They said you were a tough one, all done now." Vin turned around he still didn't know who the man was; he was short, a little podgy, with receding ginger hair and freckles. He considered asking the man's name, but he seemed to be in a hurry and he might get mad at Vin if he did anything to hold him up.

"You remember that the bathroom is through there don't you?" He pointed at a door across the room. "I'll be back on the morning, try not to move about too much or you'll start bleeding again."

With that, he placed the tray on the bed and was gone, Vin heard the keys in the lock and he was alone again. Not that he minded, he was just happy to have the food, despite the man's warning he took a sandwich and wondered around the infirmary, before the last of the light was gone, there seemed to be no switch for the lights, he guessed it was outside in the corridor. He found an office at the end of the room separated by a glass and wood partition. The door was locked but he found by casually kicking the partition one of the panels in the corner was loose. He was too tired and too sore to do anything about it though. He finished the food except the orange which he hid, just in case, he really didn't know what for yet, just a feeling. The next morning the man woke him from a deep sleep, for a moment he was scared that the man would be mad at him, but he didn't seem to be mad or happy or anything. He made Vin turn around and he checked his back but he didn't put on any more iodine. He left a tray of food, oatmeal with milk and sugar, bread and jam, milk.

"Now kid," he explained. "There are sandwiches and such in the bag for your lunch and some lemonade. You like lemonade?" he asked.

"Yes sir," Vin answered.

"Can't stand the stuff myself." Vin took this as an opening, and he risked asking a question.

"Sir, how long will I be here?"

The man turned to him, "Until the boss says so, until yer back's healed, I don't know, two, maybe three more days. Truth is I don't know." The man looked down at the boy kneeling on the bed; he was still wearing the same shorts he'd had on two nights ago.

"Stay there kid," he commanded. Vin then watched as he walked to the end of the room and let himself into the office, after a while he came back with something wrapped in a towel. He opened out the towel on the bed to reveal a clean pair of pyjama bottoms, a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste.

"There's soap in the bathroom, clean yourself up a bit, don't get your back wet though, and sleep in another bed." With that he was gone again.

As soon as he had finished the breakfast Vin went to explore the office. The loose panel gave way to a couple of kicks and despite the pain he crawled in to the office. There was a big window and a door on the opposite wall, Vin looked out to see a fire escape snaking down the building. Looking harder he realised he was on the top floor of the staff and administration block, there was only gap of about three feet between the fire escape and the top of the perimeter wall. If he could get out onto the fire escape he could jump on to the wall and let himself over the wall he'd be free, he'd be out. When he got out of his last place it had taken four weeks for them to catch him, he'd learnt since then and he was a year older, they wouldn't get him this time. He explored the office, finding a small supply of clean clothes and some scissors, but little else of interest.

The lunch bag contained a big cheese and ham sandwich, another orange, a bottle of lemonade and a cookie. He ate the ham out of the sandwich and then re-wrapped it. He saved the oranges and the lemonade, drinking from the tap in the bathroom. He did the same that evening and the next day, saving the portable food.

+ + + + + + +

On the following evening he waited until the man was gone to get ready before the light went, then he lay awake until he was sure there was quiet. He was dressed in the clothes he had found, all were too big for him, the only shoes were a pair of dilapidated boots five or six sizes too big for him, he would have to carry them to climb down. He had stuffed all the food into his pockets. Then picking up the length of knotted sheet and set out to gain his freedom. The fire escape door was locked but the frame was rotten, and it hadn't taken long using the scissors to dig out the wood from around the lock and open the door. It was pitch black outside; he had to edge down the open metal tread that hurt his bare feet. He was about half way down when his foot hit not tread but thin air.


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