Gathering the Flock

by KT

AU - Lost Lambs

Chapter 3
Clutching the handrail for support and gasping, Vin peered into the blackness. What if there was no more fire escape, what if he had to go back? He'd never be able to explain all the damage he'd caused. He'd be beaten again, maybe worse. His heart was pounding. "Remember you’re a Tanner." He said silently to himself, as he felt with his foot for the next tread. But his foot found nothing, he just wasn't tall enough to bridge the gap. He was past the point of no return, so despite his fear, the oversized encumbering clothes, and the need to carry the coil of knotted shirts, he clambered onto the handrail and began to edge along it. Every now and again he put a foot back to see if there was anything there yet, after four attempts he found the solid security of the metal tread. He continued now testing with his foot for each new tread until he was at the same level as the top of the wall.

The gap was bigger than he had thought but there was no going back now. Unwinding the knotted sheets he tied one end to the railing and tossed the other over the wall. He climbed over the rail and using the sheet for support he stretched out one leg to the top of the wall. Summoning all his courage he pushed off from the safety of the fire escape to find himself teetering on the wall. Immediately he dropped to his knees and peered over at the other side, he could just make out the sheet snaking down the wall and the orchard beyond. Shinning down the sheet he set out through the orchard to freedom.

+ + + + + + +

JD had been at the ranch for two weeks, he appeared to be coping with the loss of his mother and the sudden upheaval in his life very well, the only worry Buck had was that he hadn't yet let go of his wooden horse. He would pass it from hand to hand, but he never let go of it, eating, sleeping even bathing, he never let go. Even more worrying was that he didn't play with it, he just held it even when he played with his other toys, which included a matching horse painted white; he never included Pony in the game. Chris pointed out it was early days, it had taken them four days to persuade JD to walk through the front door without Buck holding his hand, and it had taken nearly a week to get him to sleep through the night in his own room. When he felt safe he would let go Chris reasoned, but it didn’t stop Buck worrying.

Chris had known the moment they had found out about JD that Buck would keep him, and that would mean him coming back to the ranch. He told himself he didn't mind, it didn't bother him. The room JD slept in was perfect for a five-year-old boy, but then it was built for a five-year-old boy. Chris and Buck had built the whole house with a little help from Father Sanchez. It was to replace the old and cramped cabin that had been on the ranch when Chris inherited it from is maternal grandfather. When they first arrived at the ranch, most of the buildings were derelict and there was no stock, but it was good land. Chris had always wanted to raise horses, when he found out his army friend also dreamt of raising horses they resolved that if they made it through the war, they would work the ranch together. His decision not to follow his father and continue his military career caused a rift between stubborn father and equally stubborn son.

On JD's second day Chris had aired the little room, and retrieved from the trunk in his room the drapes and bright patchwork quilt that had always been intended to go in the room. It was a small room between his and Buck's, no wider than a bed is long. The big double bed was set across the room under the window, opposite was a chest of drawers and a wash stand, beside the bed at one end a plain wooden chair, at the other a wooden chest and above two shelves. This left a big expanse of floor in the middle where a boy could spread out his toys and play. Adam Larabee had never lived in the room, he had never even seen it. It was to be a surprise, but he and his mother had not lived to move into the house. It had been ninety per cent finished when lightning struck a tree close to the old cabin. Split to the roots, half the flaming tree had crashed down on to the cabin, crushing the main bedroom were little Adam had taken refuge from the storm with his mother, and setting the cabin ablaze. Chris and Buck had been on duty in the town, they had returned at dawn the next day, delayed by the torrential rain that followed the storm. As they turned the bend in the drive they saw the blackened shell of the smouldering cabin, the storm having quenched it's own inferno, but it was too late.

Despite the handicap of only ever having one hand free, little JD was eager to help and do chores, he could set the table, sweep the hearth and dust. Outside he fed the chickens and collected eggs. When it came to the horses, he helped to feed them, groom them, and sweep the barn. JD worshipped the horses, he would have slept with them if he could, so long as Buck had stayed with him. The ranch's greatest asset was it's prize stallion Tsar, he was a magnificent beast, with a shining liver chestnut coat and while blaze. Tsar knew he was the king of the ranch, but he was not a mean horse and it seemed to both men he was particularly gentle with the little boy, always taking the carrots he offered gently and nuzzling him in greeting.

JD was helping Buck to brush Misty, she was heavily pregnant and due to foal in about a fortnight. Ever since Chris had mentioned that foals some times come early JD had raced out to the barn every morning to see if she had had her baby.

"Buck?" he asked.

"Yes," replied his brother with caution, JD's innocent questions had a nasty habit of sneaking up on you and then you found you had agreed to something without even knowing it.

"Was I born early?"

"That’s what they told me Littl'n, why?"

"Is that why I'm little, if the foal comes early will it be little too?"

"Your little 'cause your only five, all foals are small, but they grow, just like you'll grow."

"How do they grow?"

"Well they eat lots, just like you."

"I'm grown now, look." JD was standing on an old chair with no back so he could brush Misty's neck.

"Well so you are," Buck straightened up from brushing Misty's legs, looking across the mare's back he grinned at the boy, "how about that, well if you're all grown now you won't need any more food," Buck reasoned.

"Yes I do! You and Chris are all grown and you eat lots more than me," JD pointed out, his hazel eyes bright with indignation.

"Really, you still need food, well how about we go get some lunch?"

Now JD was confused they had only had breakfast a little while ago. But never one to turn down the offer of more food he agreed. They put away the brushes and turned out the horse before walking up to the house. JD frowned when he saw both Buck and Chris' saddle horses outside the houses and tacked up. The ranch although it provided a living it didn't pay that well and Chris and Buck worked to earn extra money as the town's two deputies. Four Corners didn't have its own sheriff, he was based in Eagle Bend at the bottom of the valley. Sheriff Masterson tended to leave Chris and his friend to do their job their way and not interfere. As a result it was rare for both men to be at the ranch together on a weekday. It was a quiet time and Chris reckoned the town could manage for a day. He had put a note on the sheriff's office door telling anyone who needed a deputy in an emergency to contact Fr. Sanchez. Josiah had been a missionary all over the world and could handle himself, Chris had deputised him on more than one occasion, and he was a very effective even without a gun, which he refused to carry. Josiah said the bishop probably wouldn't approve of him moonlighting as a lawman, but then there were a lot of things he did the bishop wouldn't approve of, if he did but know about them.

JD's curiosity rose as Chris came out onto the porch with fishing poles and saddlebags.

"Are you two ready yet?" he asked.

"Sure are," Buck called back, the he turned to the bewildered JD. "Well little brother you about ready for a picnic and some fishing?"

JD's heart leapt. "Really, you really mean it?" He began dancing around Buck as he walked, questions falling out of him in a cascade. "Can I fish? Where are we going? Does it take long? Can we go fast?"

The last question was reference to JD's favourite pursuit, riding with Buck and going as fast a Max could take them. JD got his wish, the lake they were going to fish at was about a two hour ride from the ranch, they could have fished at the lake on the ranch, a three minute walk from the house, but then it wouldn't be an adventure for JD and the fish were better at the other lake. On the way they crossed an open meadow and both men spurred their horses to a gallop. JD, holding the saddle horn with one hand and with Buck's strong arm wrapped around him, squealed in delight as they flew across the ground. After they had demolished the picnic both men set their poles in the lake and Buck helped JD to cast his hook and set it in the ground. The concept of waiting, just sitting back and watching was just not in JD and he began to wander about exploring.

"Hey Littl'n where you going?" his brother called.

"'Sploring," the little boy replied.

"Oh, exploring, well just you stay where I can see you. You remember them plants I showed you, the ones not touch don't you?"

"I think."

"If we're not sure we…"

"Don't touch," he finished the rule both Buck and Chris kept drilling in to him.

He had been poking about in the bushes with a long stick he had found for about half an hour when he found something, a bundle of rags half under a log and covered by an overhanging bush. He poked it and the bundle of rags groaned. Startled, JD dropped the stick and bolted for Buck. Buck had never really let him out of his sight, and was already up and on his feet coming to meet the frightened boy, Chris hot on his tail. He gabbled something about a monster under the log as he clung to his brother. Chris motioned Buck to keep JD back while he investigated. Under the log he too saw the bundle of rags. Pushing the bush to one side he saw that the bundle of rags had a hand.

Chapter 4

On closer inspection the rags proved to be a small boy. Chris squatted beside him, the boy was alive, but he was thin, filthy and unconscious. Chris gently slipped an arm under the boy's shoulders and the other under his legs and scooped him up, he weighed almost nothing. Buck looked on in horror as Chris emerged with his burden, seeing instantly what it was he was carrying. Putting his hand on the back of JD's neck so he couldn't turn and see what Chris had found his eyes asked the question.

"He's alive," said Chris quietly.

They quickly packed their things and set off back home, the unconscious boy cradled in Chris' arms as he rode. They had decided that Buck would push on and get things ready at the house, Chris couldn't go very fast with his burden. Little JD felt none of his customary joy as they galloped much of the way home. Buck had explained that he had found little boy, but the boy was sick and they had to get home quickly to get help. JD's mom had been sick and then she had go to be with God, he didn't want anyone else, even a boy he'd never met to go to God, he didn't like it. The ranch was one of the few to have a telephone, the county had paid for it because of the need to contact the town’s only lawmen in an emergency. Buck called Fr. Sanchez at the church.

"Josiah, it's Buck." He waited for the priest to acknowledge him before continuing to explain what they had found.

"Didn't I hear that the logging company have got themselves a doctor this season, up at Fire Rock?" Buck asked.

+ + + + + + +

The logging company that operated in the area set up a new camp each spring, in a new location. The only time Four Corners was effected by it was when the men were bussed in to town on a shopping trip, or the company came to buy supplies. Josiah confirmed the presence of the doctor, and offered to fetch him out to the ranch. The town had had no doctor of its own for ten years, no one was interested in such an out of the way, small community, so the citizens of Four Corners had normally to drive the five hours to Eagle Bend, or worse still get the train. There were lots of trains taking lumber down the valley from the mill and uncut logs up to the mill, but there were only four passenger trains a day and none on Sunday.

Chris looked down at the boy, it was hard to tell through all to dirt, but he seemed to have fair hair, he had made a few incoherent sounds as Chris had pushed Shadow on as fast as he dared. The big intelligent gelding seemed to know what was expected of him, speeding up on the flat and picking his way carefully over the steeper parts. Once they were with in sight of the ranch, Chris risked pushing Shadow into a gentle canter. As he approached the house he saw JD sitting on the step, on seeing Chris the little boy got up and darted inside, a moment later Buck came out his shirt sleeves rolled up. He met Chris as he pulled up and took the boy from him, carrying him inside. Once he'd tied up his horse and washed up he joined Buck in JD's room. Buck had just removed the boy’s boots, they were much too big for the boy, the toes stuffed with moss in an attempt to make them fit, nevertheless his little feet were a mass of sores and open bloody blisters. Chris saw what Buck had just revealed, as they undressed the boy they found scrapes, cuts and bruises mostly on his knees and hands, but as Buck lifted the boy into a sitting position so Chris could remove his coat and shirt, Chris got a look at the boy’s back and swore out loud.

"What?" asked Buck, peering over the boys shoulder. He then saw the numerous half-healed welts criss-crossing the bony back. "God, Chris, who could do such a thing?" he breathed.

"I don't know but I want to get my hands on him." Chris replied darkly.

By the time JD called from the hallway that he could see Josiah's car coming the men has stripped off the boy's clothes and had begun to wash some of the wounds. Both men were struck by how thin the boy was. JD stood up as the car came to a stop, Buck had been very firm, until he came to get him he was to stay on the porch or in the living room. Getting out of the car as well as the priest was a very tell black man, as tall as Buck, he was carrying a black bag, and wearing the kind of clothes JD had seen the loggers in town wear.

"JD, this is Doctor Jackson," Josiah made the introductions, "Doctor Jackson, this is JD."

"How do you do, JD." The big man reached down to shake the little boy’s hand, but JD wasn't so sure, the Doctor that came to help his mom had taken her away and she had never come back. Without extending his hand, he turned and pointed into the house, explaining that the sick boy was in his room. Then sat down again on the step.

If Buck or Chris were surprised to find the doctor was a black man they didn't show it as they stepped back to let the doctor see his patient. Buck decided there were now too many people in the room and slipped out to go and check on his own little boy. He kept JD occupied taking care of the horses, then reading to him on the sofa, just as he knew it would the story lulled JD to sleep. He had just lain the boy down on the sofa when Chris called to him from the bedroom door.

The four men stood just outside the bedroom in the passage, to listen to the doctor's report.

"That boy has been whipped," he started. "I know you know that but I wanted it said out loud, now it didn't happen that long ago, so I'm speculating that he ran away because of it, most of his other injuries are younger, there are a few mostly grazes that are older. He is malnourished and this didn't just happen, this has been going on for some time, years I'd say. Right now he needs rest and lots of it and he needs feeding up."

"How do we do it?" Chris asked.

"Start with little and often, nothing too rich. Then if he's doing alright with that, move to normal food but build up gently." Chris understood, it was much like hand-raising an orphan foal.

"Do we know who he is yet?" Buck asked.

"Sadly no," Josiah explained, "the lad has not yet woken up."

"He'll most likely sleep for hours yet," the doctor explained. "I'll come back day after tomorrow and check on him if that’s alright?"

When JD woke up the house was quiet and getting dark, there was light spilling out from the kitchen. He clambered off the sofa and walked to the hall, in the kitchen he could see his brother cooking supper, satisfied he knew where Buck was, he set out to see just who was in his bed. In his room he found Chris sitting on the chair by the bed reading a book. As he approached he found lying in the bed, on his stomach, a thin fair-haired boy. It was a little while before Chris noticed him.

"Is he going to go to God?" JD asked when Chris looked at him.

"What do you mean JD?"

"Mama was sick and then she went to see God."

This was the first time JD had spoken about his mother's death since they had left Wichita.

"No JD, he's not that sick, he's just very tired and he hasn't been getting enough to eat," Chris explained.

"What's his name?" JD asked.

"We don't know, we'll have to ask him when he wakes up."

"Chris," JD's voice had taken on the tone that said he was about to ask for something he knew he wasn't meant to have.

Before Chris had to deal with this, Buck appeared at the door and asked JD to set the table. JD turned reluctantly, and headed of to do his chore, Pony clasped as ever in his fist. Buck brought JD's night things to the bathroom and changed him in there after his bath, then read him a story in the living room. He was going to settle the boy in his bed tonight, but before he could stop him JD had run in to his own room and would have clambered up and over the other boy, had Chris not stopped him.

"Hey little brother, come here," Buck knelt down by the bed. "We're gonna have to let the sick boy sleep in your bed tonight, you can sleep with me."

JD frowned, he liked to sleep with Buck, he felt safe and loved and warm beside his big brother, but he was worried about the other boy.

"But Buck, what if he wakes up all on his own, won't he be scared?" he asked.

"Well he might be, but Chris is gonna sit with him tonight," Buck explained.

"But Chris might be asleep, if I sleep with him and he wakes up and its all dark and Chris is asleep he'll know I'm in the bed with him and he won't he alone and he won't be afraid 'cause I'm a little boy and if I'm here he'll know this is a nice place for little boys," he paused to take a breath, and Buck took the opportunity to stop him.

"Hold it there kid, just take a breath." He looked up at Chris. "He's got a point."

Chris looked down at the little raven haired boy, his determined little expression, wooden horse in his hand, standing beside his kneeling brother, his free arm draped around Buck's shoulders, his little hand stroking Buck's neck.

"You will have to stay on your side of the bed and be very quiet, have you been to the out house?" Chris said solemnly.

"I'll go now, I'll be good I'll look after him I promise." With that he flew out of the room.

"That’s some kid you've got there partner," Chris said quietly.

"I know," was all Buck could manage to say, his voice choked with emotion. "I'll go check on him."

Once he was alone again, but for the slumbering boy, Chris offered up a silent prayer of thanks to a dead prostitute who had raised the two kindest and most generous sons anyone ever had.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke up as weak dawn sunlight began to filter in through the window above the bed. He had no idea where he was, the last thing he remembered was trudging through the forest, and coming to a lake. He had a vague memory of being in someone's arms and a swaying motion, and voices talking over him. He was in a warm bed, the sheets were clean and the mattress soft. He tried to work out who was beside him, who ever it was they were very small. As the light improved he worked out it was a small boy, with dark hair, he was sleeping peacefully, a toy horse in his hand. Vin lay still, watching the little boy sleep, for a long time, he didn't wish to disturb the dream, for it had to be a dream, it couldn't be true. He was drifting off to sleep again when he heard and saw the little boy yawn and turn to look at him.

"Hello," whispered JD.

Vin did not reply, he was still trying to work out if it was a dream, and if it was he didn't want to do anything to spoil it.

"My name is JD, what's yours?" JD continued to whisper


Chris woke at the sound of the unfamiliar voice, cursing himself for falling asleep. Just in time he worked out what was going on and played possum. While watching the two boys as they lay face to face in the big bed.

"Are you better know?" JD continued, his whisper getting louder.

Vin just continued to watch JD. Unfazed by the lack of reply JD continued. "Don't be afraid you're safe here, my brother Buck and Chris won't let anything hurt you." Suddenly JD's voice got quieter. "I have to go to the outhouse, do you need to go?" Vin shook his head slightly.

JD crawled out from under the covers and carefully made his way around Vin's slender form. Vin's eyes followed him as he went and suddenly he saw Chris on the chair beside the bed, watching him. Immediately he recoiled, fear in his eyes. JD had made it to the floor, and walked up to Vin oblivious to his fear.

"Vin this is Chris." Vin heard the easy confidence in the little boy's voice. He reasoned that if this small boy was so relaxed maybe this place was all right. He felt so weak, he didn't think he could get out of bed much less run, maybe he could stay here for a bit, just until he got stronger.

JD could wait no longer and he bolted for the outhouse, his little feet pounding on the floorboards woke Buck, who hauled himself out of the bed and wandered into the next room. His big form almost filled the doorframe. Vin looked at him, fear returned to his eyes.

"It's alright Vin," Chris said quietly, "that’s Buck, JD's brother."

Just then JD came racing back.

"Buck, Buck the boy woke up and he's name is Vin come and say hello!" he gushed excitedly grabbing his brother’s hand and attempted to pull him into the room.

But Buck scooped him up and with JD safely on his hip walked quietly forward to the bed.

"Good to meet you Vin, now I'll take this one and make us some breakfast. Do you like oatmeal Vin?"

Vin hadn't been asked if he liked something since his mother died, all he could do was nod.

"Good lad, now do you want it with sugar or honey, this one," he jiggled JD on his hip, making him giggle, "likes honey, don't you? But me I like sugar."

Vin was beginning to feel safer and summoned up the courage to express a preference.

"Sugar please sir," he said.

Buck was about to say he was to call him Buck not sir, but he didn't want to say anything negative to the boy.

"Sugar it will be." With that he turned and left swinging JD around as he went.

Vin listened to the laughter, he hadn't heard a child and an adult laughing together for so long.

Vin was confined to bed all day, after breakfast Buck and JD set out for town, where Buck was on duty in the sheriff's office. Chris told Vin he had to go and take care of the horses, but he would wait until he was asleep again. To help relax him Chris read him a story, Tom Sawyer. Vin didn't want to do or say anything that might make the man angry, and hurt him or turn him out of the nice warm bed, so he lay still and listened to the story, falling asleep long before the end. When he woke up again Chris was still sitting beside him reading a book, although not out loud.

"Ready for some soup?" Chris asked Vin.

"Yes thank you sir," he replied meekly.

That’s how the day went, Vin slept on and off all day and Chris fed him every time he woke, it was getting on for evening and Chris was expecting Buck back soon, he'd rung to say he was bringing supper with him. He went to his room and fetched one of the pale blue shirts he never wore anymore, then he took the kitchen scissors and cut the arms of about halfway down. Returning to the bedroom, he found Vin had finished the glass of milk and slice of bread and jam.

"Well done Vin, now how about we put this on you, 'cause I'm betting you need to go to the outhouse by know, right?"

Vin did indeed need the outhouse and had been wondering how to deal with the fact that he had no clothes on. Somehow this man knew what he was thinking. He found he was a little unsteady on his feet but he could walk. Chris went to put a hand under the fragile boy's arm to steady him, but at the merest touch he flinched and Chris withdrew the hand immediately, wishing he could get his hands on the people responsible for hurting the boy. On the way back Vin stumbled and Chris had to grab him to stop him falling, without even thinking about it he lifted the thin boy into his arms. For a moment Vin was too shocked to register what had happened, then he froze in terror. Chris noticed the change come over the boy.

"Listen to me Vin, I am not going to hurt you, no one here will hurt you. I think you've heard people say that before, but here it's true, all we want is for you to get well and be happy, but you have to trust us, me, Buck, little JD, Fr Sanchez and Dr. Jackson, I know you don't remember them but they've met you and they want to help you too." All the time he had been speaking he had been walking, now they were back at the bedroom and Vin had relaxed.

"Would you like to hear more about Tom Sawyer?" Vin said very quietly that he would like it very much.

Some time later he was sleeping again when the approach of vehicles woke him. Looking around he found he was alone, there was a moment of panic, then he knelt up to look out of the window. Two vehicles pulled up and instantly JD barrelled out of the first one. He heard him tear into the house, shouting to Chris.

"Chris! Chris 'Siah took me fishing and we caught lots of fish and Buck says we can have them for supper and we cleaned them and it was yukky!"

Vin listened to JD's gushing description of his day, and watched as Buck and a huge man with grey hair, mount the steps. He listened to the warm greetings, the gentle way the adults spoke to JD and tolerated his loud questions and exited stories, and he felt a little safer. Chris came into the room with the big stranger, although he was huge, he had kind pale blue eyes and the biggest smile Vin thought he had ever seen.

"Vin this is Fr. Sanchez, he met you last night when you got here."

"How do you do Vin, it's very nice to meet you." Josiah held out a huge hand and was rewarded when Vin proffered his thin hand in greeting.

"He's gonna stay for supper and we were thinking that you would like to sit up at table for the meal, if you think you're up to it?" Chris asked.

Vin's face brightened and for the first time Chris noticed how bright his blue eyes were.

"Yes please sir," he said with genuine enthusiasm.

"Well it will take Buck 'n me a while to get it ready how 'bout the Fr. reads you and JD some more about Tom Sawyer?"

Vin's response was a wide smile, and Chris went to find JD who loved stories.

JD was curious as to why Vin was sitting at table in the old shirt he had been wearing in bed, he was never allowed to sit at table for supper in his nightshirt. He didn't say anything because he was supposed to be quiet at table when they had guests. He watched Vin eat, he ate carefully, only putting small amounts of food on his fork, but he steadily consumed the filleted trout, the mashed potatoes and even the green beans JD was attempting to ignore. Chris offered Vin seconds but he declined. For dessert they had peaches and cream that Josiah had purchased as a treat. Vin had never had this delight, he was apprehensive, but he didn't dare say no, in case they got angry. The sweet fruit melted in his mouth, the smooth cream tasted like the best milk he had ever had, at that moment young Vin Tanner would have willingly lived on peaches and cream for the rest of his life. Buck watched the expression on his face and managed to signal to the other adults, who both enjoyed the sight, happy to have given this waif a moment of pure joy. Vin scraped his bowl clean.

"Did you like the peaches young Vin?" Sanchez asked.

Vin looked around the table, everyone was smiling at him, as he blushed self-consciously.

"Yes sir, very much, thank you."

"No need for thank you’s, it was my pleasure, I think someone else liked them," he chuckled looking at JD who had a ring of cream around his mouth.

"They was very nice 'Siah thank you," JD said politely.

"Well Vin has improved your manners some littl'n," Buck commented, "but right now I think it is time for your bath young man."

"You too Vin," Chris said gently, "It'll make you feel much better, I promise."

Chris needn't have worried about Vin taking a bath, after five years in institutions he had no qualms about sharing a bath, he just assumed he and JD would share the bath, and obediently followed JD to the bathroom. Buck came in to find both boys waiting for him to run the water.

"Vin you can have your own bath, you don't have to share with JD," he explained.

"But I want him to, please Buck," JD asked desperately, the idea of sharing a bath was exiting.

"Please sir I don't mind, I'm used to it," Vin said meekly.

"It's not what you’re used to, it's what you want Vin, that I'm interested in, do you want to share with this little terror?" Buck explained patiently, while tickling JD.

Vin still wasn't comfortable with expressing a preference, he couldn't tell what answer the big man wanted, what if he said the wrong thing, would he get mad? He always shared a bath, except in the infirmary he couldn't remember ever bathing alone, and since they had been cold baths they weren't happy memories.

"I would like to share with JD please," he finally said.

It was not like the shared baths Vin was used to, the water was pleasantly hot, there was no hurry, no one shouting at him. JD had a toy boat, which Buck had whittled one evening. While JD played with the boat, Buck washed him with a soft face cloth and a bar of green soap. JD pushed the boat to Vin. This fazed Vin as to what to do, he'd never seen a bath toy before, hadn't owned a toy since he was five.

"Push it back, push it back," JD squealed excitedly. Vin obeyed, the boat went back and forth as Buck, kneeling on the floor washed JD's hair and scrubbed his nails.

Buck turned to Vin, he held out the cloth and soap. "Do you want some help, or can you do it?" he asked.

Vin had been washing himself for a long time, but he was very tired, and watching Buck carefully and methodically wash his little brother without ever interrupting the game, or shouting at him, or getting soap in his eye, had awakened a long forgotten memory, a memory that felt safe and loving.

Finally he said, "I would like some help sir." Buck couldn't stand the ‘sir’ thing any longer.

"Well ok, but on one condition." Vin's heart sank, he'd done something wrong. "I know you have been brought up to be polite and respectful to grown ups but I want you to call me Buck, not sir, is that alright?" Buck asked with a big grin on his face.

Buck didn't sound cross, and he had told Vin he was polite and respectful, Vin wasn't used to adults complementing him, he couldn't help smiling as he replied. "Yes si….Buck."

Buck washed Vin's pathetically thin frame with infinite care, he was careful not to rub any of the welts on his back or the half-healed grazes on his knees. He washed his hair, trying to tease out some of the many tangles and knots. Finally Vin held out his hands to have his nails scrubbed, he couldn't remember anyone ever scrubbing his nails for him. When it was all over two boys so clean they positively sparkled were standing on the bath mat wrapped in towels and the bath had a black tide mark an inch thick around it. While Buck towelled JD's hair Vin picked up the scrubbing brush from under the bath and began to scrub the black mark.

"Hey Vin," Buck reached over and put a big hand on the brush, "I'll do it, don't want you getting all dirty again, but thanks for the help."

+ + + + + + +

Eventually, both boys were sitting by the fire in their night things listening to Chris read Tom Sawyer. Buck had brushed JD's hair. Josiah noticed how tangled Vin's hair still was and he offered to brush it, now the brush was free. He explained it might hurt a bit but it was worth it in the end. Vin agreed. It took a long time and even JD could tell that sometimes it hurt. When JD was hurting he held Pony very tightly, and that made it easier. JD stood up and whispered in Buck's ear. Buck whispered back, JD looked very upset and suddenly rushed from the room, Buck smiled back at Chris when he gave him a quizzical look. JD came back quite quickly. He was carrying the other horse, the one like Pony but white. He walked up to Vin who was kneeling with his back to Josiah, tears in his eyes as Josiah tugged at another knot. He held out the toy.

"Here, his name is Snow and if you hold him tight it won't hurt so much, you can keep him forever if you want?" he said.

Chris had stopped reading and the room was quiet. Vin looked at JD and the toy and the similar toy in his hand.

"For me?" he asked with wonder in his voice.

JD nodded solemnly


Again the little boy nodded. Tentatively Vin reached out and took the toy, he held it like it was wafer thin glass, then swallowed hard.

"Thank you," he stammered, he couldn't remember ever being given a present, much less someone giving up one of their own toys.

"You have to hold him tight if something hurts," JD explained holding out Pony to show him how it was done.

Vin's fist closed around the toy, then he sat up so he was closer to JD, and giving in to an impulse he had never felt before he suddenly hugged the little boy. JD was used to being hugged and instantly responded in kind. The adults were fighting to keep their emotions I check, and Buck was losing. One hour later two boys both very clean and well groomed, each with a wooden horse clasped in his hand slept peacefully together in a big soft bed.

The three adults sat together on the top step of the porch, drinking from highly illegal bottle of Canadian whisky.

"We have to find out who he is, where he's from, who did those things to him, starved him." Chris said, anger creeping into his voice.

"We know who he is." Buck said sadly.

The other two men looked at him, as he pulled out a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket. He began to read. "'Vincent James Tanner, aged 10 years, ward of the state, absconded from Stockwell Farm for Boys on the 8th of this month.' It came in the mail this morning, we're supposed to look out for him and hold him if we find him."


Comments and feedback greatly