Gathering the Flock

by KT

AU - Lost Lambs

Chapter 5
"Lord" Josiah breathed.

"That means those whip marks, he got them at this Stockwell place," Chris reasoned out loud.

"I made some enquiries, he's been in state care since his mom died when he was 5, he kept running away, so they put him in a secure institution, poor kid's never done anything except run and they put him away with delinquents of 14 and 15." Buck explained bitterly.

"Well he's not going back there," Chris said vehemently. "He can stay here until he's stronger, in the meantime I'll talk to the judge."

"You must tell him what is happening, what you know, what you are going to do," the priest counselled, "or he will run again the moment he feels threatened, and who knows who will find him this time."

Chris knew he was right, but he didn't know how he was going to do it, how he would make the boy feel safe enough to put his trust in men he had just met. He was worried his anger at what had happened to Vin would be evident and the lad would misunderstand it. He and Buck had always interpreted the law freely, justice meant more to both of them than the letter of the law and the people of the town seemed to appreciate their approach. As he said good night to the priest he knew he wouldn't get much sleep.

Buck also didn't sleep well, he got up in the small hours and padded in to the boys’ room, drawing the curtain to admit a shaft of moonlight he sat by the bed looking at the two heads, one blond like Chris, one dark like his own, the similarities struck home. He reached out and gently stroked JD's hair.

"So, if you hold Pony tight things hurt less, no wonder you won't let go, you’re still hurting so bad little one, but even so you know how to help someone else's hurt, where did you learn that so young?" Just then JD rolled over and reached his little hand toward Buck.

"Mama" he muttered. Buck froze then he put his hand next to JD's. The little hand closed over his first two fingers. Buck peered over to see Pony held in the other hand and on the far side Snow held equally firmly in Vin's hand. "Yeah, you learnt it from her," he said softly.

Chris had heard some one moving in the boy's room and worried Vin was having a bad dream or worse getting set to run, so he went to investigate. Half way there he froze as he heard his friend's voice, he didn't like to eavesdrop but he was frightened Buck would hear him and it would break the spell, so he just stood there. Finally after it had gone quiet he tiptoed back to bed. In the morning he rose with the dawn and went to check on the boys. He found Buck sleeping on his back where JD had been, JD sprawled on his chest, he smiled as he approached, then he looked closer. On the far side of Buck was Vin curled on his side, Snow gripped in one hand, his other arm wrapped around Buck's, head snuggled up against Buck's shoulder. Pulling the quilt up to cover JD better he slipped outside to sit on the porch and think.

+ + + + + + +

After watching the sunrise, Chris went back inside dressed and went to see to the horses, Misty still had not had her foal, Tsar was as ever happy to have someone paying him attention, Max and Shadow nuzzled and nibbled him as he groomed them. He was so deep in thought as he groomed another of the pregnant mares, he didn't hear the whirlwind that was JD came racing in to see if the foal had come. Once he found it hadn't, he said hello to Chris, patted Max and Shadow and reached up to tap on Tsar's stable door, as usual the stallion came to the door and lowered his head to receive a pat on the nose and the proffered carrot. Then the little five-year-old set off to collect the eggs.

When Chris came back inside he found the boys sitting up at table drinking milk.

"Finally," Buck chided, "we can have breakfast, wash up and sit down, partner."

Once he was sat at table, Chris found he was being served bacon and eggs. Vin's eyes widened at the sight of the plate full of food and the sumptuous smell. He still held Snow in his left hand, but he would need both hands to cut up the bacon so he carefully put down Snow, standing him up on the table in front of him. JD watched this, he liked Vin, he wanted to be his friend, Vin was a big boy, much older than he was and JD wanted to be like him. So very slowly he raised his arm and rested Pony on the table, Vin was already cutting up his bacon and savouring its salty taste. JD moved Pony so he was standing in front of him, but he still hadn't let go. Both Buck and Chris were watching, while trying to eat and not let either boy know they we're being watched. Buck had his mouth open, a piece of bacon half in, he was frozen like that as he watched JD slowly unwound his fingers and cautiously let go of Pony and picked up his knife. Buck allowed his mouth to close on his own bacon and exchanged a wink with Chris.

Buck set out for work leaving both boys with Chris, Vin was still weak and he tired easily but somehow JD understood and the games they played in the bedroom were quiet and not taxing. Since Vin still had no clothes except Chris' old shirt and the filthy oversized ragged ones he arrived in and no foot wear at all, they played inside while Chris waited for Josiah to bring the doctor. He didn't have to wait long before Fr. Sanchez drove up. Chris knocked on the open door to get the two boys’ attention. Two little faces looked up from the book they were studying on the bed.

"JD would you come here please," Chris asked.

JD slid of the bed and ran up to Chris. "JD I want you to go and show Josiah the horses," he instructed.

"But Chris 'Siah has seen the horses lots, can't I show Vin the horses?" JD asked.

Vin, watching from the bed sat up, he wanted to get close to the horses more than anything else. Chris swallowed.

"Not just yet, run along to Josiah now, there's a good boy." Even in the short time he had known Chris JD had learnt that there were times when you just did what he said and you didn't argue, this was one of those times. He turned and waved at Vin and then trooped out to meet the priest, looking up apprehensively at the tall doctor standing next to him, JD still didn't trust doctors and he didn't like it that the doctor had come to see his new friend. What if he took him away? Back in the bedroom Vin's heart sank and began to pound, he was going to be punished that was why JD had been sent away. As he sat there looking apprehensive, a huge black man joined Chris.

"Vin," he said quietly as he approached. "This is Doctor Jackson, he's come to see you, to see how you're doing."

Vin, looking positively terrified, backed up against the wall on the far side of the bed.

"It's alright, he came to see you when you first got here, he's not going to hurt you, I'll be here all he time," Chris reassured.

Nathan Jackson moved quietly and sat down on the edge of the bed, Chris had settled on the chair. Nathan set down his medical bag and something else Vin didn't quite see on the floor, then he put a brown parcel he had been holding down on the bed.

"Vin," he began, in a deep soft voice, "I have something for you here, do you want to open it?" He pushed the parcel toward the frightened boy.

Vin moved toward the package and then looked at Chris for reassurance. Chris nodded. Slowly he undid the string and pulled back the paper. In side were neatly folded clothes, a pair of faded but sound dungarees, a pale blue shirt, also second-hand but clean and pressed, under it a white shirt and a corduroy jacket. In a second parcel inside the big one were three pairs of under shorts and three pairs of socks, all brand new. Nathan smiled at the boy's look of joy.

"Guess you'll need these too, just hope they fit." He picked up a pair of boots, they weren't new but unlike the ones he'd arrived in they were in good repair and they looked to be the right size.

Vin managed a small smile. "Thank you very much sir," he said shyly.

"No need to thank me I'm just the delivery boy, Fr. Sanchez sent you the clothes and the boots, Buck bought you the under things," he explained. "Now I'd bet you wan'er put these on and go out and see them horses, right?" Vin nodded clutching the boots.

"You know what? I want you to go out there as well, but first we need to know that those feet are all healed up and you’re strong enough and that’s my job." The man smiled at Vin, who noticed that he had kind eyes.

Vin couldn't get away so he acquiesced, experience had taught him if you can't get away don't struggle just let it happen. He needn't have worried because Dr. Jackson was infinitely careful and gentle, but sadly said he didn't want him putting on shoes until the next day. Chris called to JD and Josiah to come in and while Josiah read to them behind a closed door, Chris spoke to Nathan.

"Did Josiah tell you what we found out about Vin?" Nathan said he had. "I'm going to go to the judge could you write a report on his injuries?" Chris continued

"Gladly, when do you need it?" the doctor agreed.

"Well the judge is coming for supper tonight so if you could do it now I'd appreciate it."

Nathan agreed and sitting at Chris' desk he wrote the report, emphasising the seriousness of the injuries to the boy's back, when it must have happened and the degree of malnutrition. After that he left with the priest. They took JD with them, ostensibly so he could spend some time with Buck, but really to give Chris some time alone with Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Chris helped Vin to get dressed and then after lunch offered to take him out to the horses. Vin didn't like the idea of being carried even piggyback, but he was desperate to see the horses, so he agreed. He petted the saddle horses and Misty, he ran his hand over her swollen belly and fed Tsar a carrot. Chris then sat him down on a saddle that was resting on a stand.

"Vin I have to talk to you and I want you to listen to me and let me finish, then you can ask anything you like. Is that alright?" Chris said in quiet measured tones.

Vin looked apprehensive, but nodded. Chris noted he had pulled Snow out of the pocket in the front of his new dungarees and now gripped him tightly. Chris sat on a bale in front of him

"Vin you know that Misty is going to have a baby don't you?" Vin nodded. "Usually animals are very skittish when they are going to have babies but Misty let you touch her, even stroke her belly, she is much stronger than us so if she wanted she could stop us, but she doesn’t because she trusts us. We all have to trust people, there is no magic or easy way to tell who we can trust, we just have to look at the things they do and judge them on that." Vin was looking at him very solemnly with a degree of fear. "We trust you Vin, me, Buck and JD. Buck would never let you play or sleep with his brother if he didn't trust you would he?" Vin shook his head. "Do you know that JD's mom died only two and a half weeks ago?" Again the boy shook his head looking sad. "Before that he had never even met Buck, so all this is new for him and since then he has never ever let go of his horse, until this morning, you gave him the courage to let go, because he trusts you." Vin looked down at the wooden horse gripped in his own hand. "And I trust you Vin, I trust you to be brave and do the right thing and to trust me, do you think you can trust me?"

Vin felt very proud, that Chris would trust him and that he had helped JD, he could just about remember his mom dying when he was five and he remembered how scared he had been and how much it hurt. He looked back at Chris, trying to be brave like Chris had asked.

"Yes sir," he said quietly.

"Hey," Chris said indignantly, "how come it's 'Buck' but I'm still sir? My name is Chris and that’s what I want you to call me, alright?"

Vin smiled, "Ok Chris."

"Vin you know that Buck 'n me work in town as well as here on the ranch?"

"Yes Chris."

"What you don't know is what we do and I don't want you to be afraid," he pursed and draw a breath. "We are deputy sheriffs Vin, lawmen." He could see the instant fear and see his hand tighten on the toy in his hand. "And we know your name is Tanner and we know you ran away from Stockwell." Vin looked like he was ready to bolt. "We also know that it was at that place that someone whipped you." Vin looked up, tears spilling over and running down his cheeks. "No one, no one has the right to do that to you, no matter what you might have done!" Vin was crying freely and chewing on his bottom lip, his eyes riveted on Chris. "Buck n' me and Fr. Sanchez and Dr. Jackson we won't let them take you back there, we will fight to keep you safe, but you have to trust us and not run. I know you've run before, from bad things, but I want you to trust us and let us help you."

Chris slipped off the bale and onto his knee in front of Vin so he was lower than the boy was. "Vin, if you run someone else will find you and they might send you back, do you understand?" His eyes were riveted on Vin holding eye contact with the sobbing terrified child. "I need you to tell me everything that happened at that place, about the whipping and the other injuries, the scrapes and grazes. About how you got away, what happened after that, how you came to be lost in the woods. Then I will talk to a friend of mine who can help. Do you think that you can do that for me, will you trust us; trust me to help you?"

Vin had been apprehensive as soon as Chris started to talk about trust. Lots of adults had told him to trust them, and they had all let him down, even his mother, he trusted her to look after him and then she died, but no adult had said they trusted him, no adult had ever told him that you had to work out for your self who to trust. He liked it at the ranch, they had been kind to him, fed him, clothed him and he had a nice place to sleep. He liked JD, he was littler than he was, but already he treated Vin like a friend or maybe even a brother, he felt the comforting presence of Snow in his hand. Buck was big and loud, but he was also gentle and kind and he loved JD so much Vin just knew he would never hurt him or any child, and then there was Chris. Chris was strong, he felt safe whenever he was near him, he felt more safe and secure around Chris than he could ever remember feeling. He hitched his breath and attempted to stem the flow of tears by ineffectively rubbing his fist in his eyes. Then he looked at Chris kneeling below him.

"Well Vin, will you trust us?" Chris asked again. Vin nodded.

Chris stood and gently lifted the boy off the saddle and into his arms, instantly he felt Vin wrap his skinny legs around his waist, felt his arms around his neck, felt his hot tears soak his back. By the time he got back to the house and into the bed room Vin was asleep, he laid him down, pulled up the covers, then, only stopping to pick up the book he was reading and some coffee, he settled down in the chair beside the bed to wait. He didn't read much, he looked at the tear-stained boy in the bed, he was the same age Adam would have been now if he had lived, he had had fair hair too. Chris offered a silent prayer of thanks that at least in his short life his son had never had to go through what this boy had endured, that he had always been loved and cared for and until that last night; safe.

Vin slept for nearly two hours, when he awoke he found Chris' reassuring presence beside him. The two of them went into the kitchen and Chris taught him to make pancakes. As they cooked Chris got Vin to tell him what had happened, he explained that after leaving the grounds he had walked down the drive to the road and then on down to the main highway, it had taken two nights and a day. The next morning he had snuck into the back of a truck and had fallen asleep. When he woke, it was dusk and the truck was parked in the woods, as he got out a man had shouted at him so he had run into the woods and become lost. He wasn't sure how long he was in the woods but it was at least four days. Chris was able to tell him it was five. As he beat the batter he explained that there wasn't much to eat in the woods and he had got very hungry. He said it so matter of factly that Chris had to stop himself and remember that the boy had nearly starved. Then they concentrated on making pancakes and Vin experienced the delight of eating something he had made, Chris didn't think it looked very appetising, but considering the amount of syrup covering it he doubted he would be able to taste it.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD arrived earlier then usual, they had been shopping, as JD explained at full volume and without benefit of breathing.

"Vin! Vin we went shopping and we got steaks and onions and a pie from the diner and we got candy but we can't eat it yet and we got more soap but that's boring and some cream to have with the pie and 'siah lent us a new book for when we finish Tom Sawyer and we got you a tooth brush and more carrots 'cause I keep giving them to Tsar and…" At this point Buck clamped his hand over JD's mouth, and apologised for the noise.

"Did you get any of that?" he asked the two shell-shocked looking individuals in the kitchen.

"Some," Chris admitted.

"Did you two have a good day?" Buck knew what Chris was aiming to achieve today before the judge came.

"We had a very good day, a very productive day didn't we Vin?"

"Yes Chris," Vin replied, then he looked at JD, still held between Buck's legs one large hand over his mouth. "Chris 'n me made pancakes we saved you some wan'a have one?"

Since he couldn't talk JD nodded trying to pull Buck's hand off his mouth. Chris noticed Pony was still firmly in his grasp. Finally Buck let him win and allowed his hand to be pulled away.

"Yes please I love pancakes do we get syrup too did you make them all by you own Buck can I…?" he was speeding up again.

"No Littl'n you can't make pancakes but you can have one of Vin's if you’re quiet," Buck said firmly.

Vin's distinctly chewy pancakes drenched in maple syrup did keep him quiet for a while, but only for a while. But it was long enough for Chris to fill Buck in on what he had found out, the description of how Vin had been made to hold the coat hook while he was beaten with a switch made Buck's blood boil.

The boys were scrubbed and combed and dusted off before the judge arrived. The conversations were neutral, both boys were on orders to mind their manners, but the judge was keen to know how they were liking living at the ranch. Vin simply said it was very nice and he liked it. JD had put Pony down to eat, and using both hands to full effect, launched into a long, fast and loud explanation about his room, the horses, the chickens, riding, fishing and finally how much he liked having Vin around to play with. He would have continued all night had Buck not stopped him. When the meal was done Buck escorted the boys to the bathroom and began to run the water.

Chris guided the judge to the bathroom door, there both men stood silently as Buck ensured that Vin's back was to the door as he undressed. The judge saw for himself the healing but still evident marks on the boy's back, he also took in the prominent backbone, ribs and hipbones.

Some time later Buck went to find Chris, who was out on the porch with the Judge enjoying a cigar.

"There are two small people in there very keen to find out how Tom and Huck are gonna go to their own funerals," he explained.

Chris stubbed out his cigar and pulled himself to his feet.

"If you'll excuse me judge, duty calls," he said with a grin.

Buck dropped down into the spot on the step Chris had been occupying and accepted the cigar the judge proffered. Orin Travis took a sideways look at the big deputy, noting the soaked condition of his rolled shirtsleeves and knees.

"So Buck how's parenthood?" he asked.

"Well I'll tell you it's the hardest, scariest, most exhausting job I've ever done."

"But would you give it up?"

"Not if my life depended upon it." The turned to Travis, "Are you gonna be able to help Vin?"

"As I've told Chris, first thing Monday I'll go into the city and sigh him into Chris' custody as a witness in need of protection, I'll do a temporary paper before I leave tonight. Then I will investigate this Stockwell place and possibly the other places he was sent to, he is already a ward of the state so he must have a social worker some place as well and they will definitely be hearing from me!"

Judge Orin Travis was one of largest landowners in the valley, he lived some twenty miles west of Four Corners. His family owned the lumber mill at the head of the valley, the town's largest employer. Orin, a younger son, had gone into law and had become one of the state’s youngest judges. It was Travis, who had persuaded the newly appointed Masterson to sack the existing deputies at Four Corners, who he knew but couldn't prove, where deeply involved in the illegal smuggling of alcohol from Canada, and were very unpopular with the people. The arrival in 1919 of two young war veterans, trying to make a go of the long rundown Circle T Ranch and in need of an extra income, was fortuitous. It had been a perfect solution. Chris and Buck's flexible approached to law enforcement was welcomed by people who had already been living under prohibition for three years. They turned a blind eye to alcohol smuggled in from Canada or produced at home so long as it was for personal use and consumed at home. But organised and commercial smuggling or production or selling of alcohol was not tolerated. Many a captured bootlegger had tried to bribe their way past Deputies Larabee and Wilmington and failed miserably. As the effects of the depression became ever more evident, and desperation and poverty drove good and decent people to desperate acts, this flexible approach to the law, and a belief in natural justice, was even more valued by the tight little community.

Chris returned to the porch after about half an hour.

"Hope you've said your goodnights pal 'cause them two is dead to the world," he explained with some amusement.

"Oh yes me an' them is all squared away, knew they wouldn't last long." Buck was becoming an expert at judging just when JD's energy would give out, which when it happened was very sudden.

"Want a drink judge?" Chris asked.

"Don't you know the possession of alcohol is illegal Deputy Sheriff Larabee?" the judge admonished.

"What is illegal," Buck explained, "is letting a fine bottle of whisky evaporate away unmolested."

"Well that is truly a crime," Travis admitted. "As a judge it is my duty to prevent this crime."

Chris handed out the glasses as he uncorked the bottle.

The three men enjoyed a drink and a smoke and for a while talked about horses and scotch, and cars and sport and women. Finally it was time for the judge to go home, he looked uneasy, like he wanted to ask something but didn't know how, which wasn't like him. Chris frowned at him.

"Something wrong judge?" he asked.

"Do you think I could just look in?"

"Got to ya didn't they?" Buck grinned.

All three men removed their boots and padded into the small moonlight room and took a peek at two angelic forms. JD flat on his back. Just like Buck, Chris thought. And Vin curled on his side facing JD, both boys clutching a crude wooden horse in one hand.

+ + + + + + +

A week after the judge had given Chris custody of Vin, the four of them were in town on a Saturday afternoon. It was the first really hot day of the year. Chris was catching up the paper work in the office, as always Buck had offered to help, but the combined effect of his limited typing skills and abysmal spelling and grammar, meant it was quicker for Chris to do it himself. It wasn't that Buck was unintelligent just lacking in education.

It was Vin's first trip to town, the first thing they had done was go to the church in order to find some more clothes for Vin. Fr. Sanchez ran a thrift shop every Saturday from the presbytery, people could swap things or pay a small price for things. In cases of real need the price would be waived. Lack of demand had forced the mill to lay off men in the winter, only recently had they been rehiring and the shop had been a vital resource. They found a pair of blue jeans and one more shirt. Then they had gone to the mercantile to get Vin his own night-clothes and a belt, plus some general supplies. Buck chatted with Mrs Potter as the boys looked around the store.

Vin walked very slowly and carefully his eyes as wide as saucers as he looked at so many new things. He found the toy display and studied it carefully. His only toy, the one JD had given him was safely back at the ranch, he still slept with it in his hand but no longer took it everywhere. JD, who was studying the candy, still carried Pony in his hand, but only because they were in town, in the house and the barn he was happy to just have the wooden horse in his pocket. Vin reckoned before long he too would be happy to leave him under the pillow just like Vin did and he was proud that he had been instrumental in giving JD the confidence to let go of the toy. Buck looked across at Vin and realised that while JD didn't have many toys, Vin only had one and as important as it had become to him, it wasn't new.

"Boys come here," he called.

Both boys obediently trooped up. Buck squatted down to their level.

"Now boys I think we won't have candy today," he explained.

JD's heart dropped, coming to the store on Saturday always meant candy, always, it wasn't fair he hadn't been naughty.

"Why Buck? Why? Have I been bad, I'm sorry, I want candy please," he protested.

Vin said nothing he was used to disappointments.

Buck finally got JD to stop whining and pleading long enough to explain that they weren't going to have candy because they were going to have ice cream instead. Now JD had had that before and he loved it, but this was yet another thing Vin had either never had or had had so long ago he didn't remember it. Buck asked Vin to walk down the street to the sheriff's office and tell Chris to meet them at the diner. Once he was gone Buck explained to JD what he wanted to do and why, JD immediately agreed. Outside they met Vin coming back from his errand, then the three of them headed off to the diner. Perched on high stools at the counter two little boys awaited their treats. Since Vin had never had ice cream he had let JD order for him. Two banana splits duly arrived, JD tucked in immediately while Vin studied his suspiciously. Buck had ordered a plain vanilla ice for himself, he was partial to vanilla ice cream. He was savouring this rare treat as he watched Vin, first he ate some of the fruit; banana he had had before and liked it. Finally he tried a tiny amount of ice cream, first a small smile crept over his face then a bigger smile, he tried some more and the smile became a huge grin.

Chris walked in and strolled over to them.

"Sheriff, you want some ice cream?" Inez, the manageress of the diner called.

Most people called Chris ‘sheriff’ even though it wasn't true. To begin with he had tried to stop them, now he just went with the flow.

"No I'll just have a …" he wanted to say cold beer, God it had been so long since he'd had a beer, but instead he said, "lemonade."

Just as he approached the counter he saw Vin put a huge spoonful of ice cream in his mouth and seconds later drop his spoon and clutch his forehead.

"Ow, ow, ow!" he wailed. Before Buck could react Chris raced forward and clamped his hand on the boy's forehead, putting the heel of his hand on the bridge of the boy's nose.

"Easy, easy it'll pass, it'll pass just ride it out," Chris counselled, as Buck and JD looked on.

The neuralgia passed and Chris felt Vin relax as the pain left him, he pulled his hand away, and looked up at Chris, seeking reassurance and an explanation for the unpleasant experience.

"It’s the ice cream, you have to eat it slowly, little spoonfuls until it melts a bit," Chris explained.

"Look Vin like this." JD held up a spoon with a modest amount of ice cream on it.

"I'm sorry Vin I should have explained," Buck apologised sadly.

"We've all done it, now finish your ice cream," Chris said gently, placing both hands on Vin's, shoulders.

Vin shook his head, he didn't trust the dish any more.

"Did you like the ice cream before?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded.

"Well you will again, come on Vin you’re a Tanner your not afraid of a little ice cream."

Vin picked up the spoon and put a tiny bit of ice cream on it. Little by little he put more on the spoon and enjoyed the rest of his banana split, watching JD to gage how much ice cream was safe. Buck managed to get Chris' attention and pull his to one side.

"Did Mrs Potter catch you?" Chris said she had. "What do you think?" Buck enquired anxiously.

"I think I should have thought of it, thanks, I got something in my pocket for tomorrow, what about your half?" Chris asked.

"All sorted," the big man said with undisguised glee.

While Chris returned to his paper work, Buck took the boys up to the church, Josiah was out visiting, but they weren't there to see him. Behind the church was an open area adjoining the graveyard where the boys could run off some energy. They played tag, they played hide and seek and they played catch with a ball Buck had purchased from the store the week before. As they played they were being watched.

Chapter 6

The watcher was a boy of about thirteen, he was sitting against the graveyard wall, deep in shadow and partially hidden by the long grass. His reddish brown hair was cropped short, his clothes though somewhat grubby were well made and fitted him perfectly. He assumed the dark haired man was the father of the equally dark little boy, it was possible he was related to the thin fair boy but he doubted it, he had none of the other two’s exuberant energy, he was watcher, like himself. As he watched, the boy occupied his lively mind by trying to find out about the three of them based on his observations. They were not wealthy, but not poor either, some of their clothes had been patched and the fair-haired boy’s dungarees were too big for him, but all had on strong boots in good repair. He strained to hear what was said, catching only when they shouted. The little boy called the man 'Buck' so he revised his summation and concluded the man was his uncle. The older boy sat down on a tree stump and the other two became immediately concerned. The watching boy concluded that the boy had been or was ill, this would explain why he was so thin, while the others were well fed. The game of tag ended and while still sitting on the tree stump the fair boy threw a ball to the little one. He was really too young to catch effectively, but once the man had persuaded him to put his toy horse in his pocket, the adult and the other boy played the game with him, celebrating extravagantly when he did catch the ball.

The watching boy felt a pang of jealousy, he envied them their closeness, found himself wanting to join in, it would be good to play a little catch on a warm spring day. But he couldn't, if for no other reason than what ever else he was, the tall dark man was a deputy, his badge and gun all to visible. Not that he had done anything wrong at least he didn't think he had.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish was thirteen, he and his mother had been trailing all over the north-west for two months. He hated it; he had been pulled out of the small, exclusive boarding school in Maryland, that his latest stepfather had put him in, against his will. He hadn't liked Findlay MacGrath, who had made his money in tinned fish, and the feeling was mutual, but there was also mutual respect. The school he chose to dump his unwanted stepson in was a good one, small and friendly, discipline was firm but fair. Young Ezra enjoyed the structured days, the teaching that stretched his quick mind, the sailing, riding, and shooting that were an alternative to the more sweaty pursuits he detested, not that he wasn't partial to a game of tennis in the summer or even a game of catch. Most of all he liked the company, and he missed the friends he had left behind in the east. It wasn't the first time he had been on the road with his mother, but after two years away from it and leaving behind a place where for the first time he had been really happy he realised how much he didn't want to do it any more.

As he watched the game came to an end, the little boy reluctantly trudged up to the stump where the other boy was waiting then the three of them walked back toward the town. He finally got to his feet and since it was now evening headed for the diner to purchase some supper. Buck was worried he had let Vin do too much, he was looking very tired, JD must have noticed because he was quieter and less animated then usual as they walked into the sheriffs office. It being Saturday night one of them would need to be in town, so Buck had ridden in to town on Max while Chris drove the truck. JD had, as always ridden with him and Vin had looked on with a heavy heart. He wanted to ride more than anything else, he was now able to put his boots on and go out side and help tend the horses, but Chris wouldn't let him ride even with him. Much as he wanted to deny it he did still get tired long before JD, and he hated it. He wanted to be well and strong again, the doctor told him it he would get strong again, he just had to be patient, but patience is a virtue in short supply with most ten year olds, and Vin was no exception. What the doctor had not told Vin, but had told the adults, was that he was aiming to get Vin as fit and strong as a normal ten-year-old, not the half fed, undersized waif he had been even before he was abused.

The four of them set out to have a meal, before the boys had to go home. While they were there Chris spotted the boy eating alone in the corner. He asked Inez who the lad was, all she could say was that he had come in every morning and evening for a meal for the last few days, always alone, and he always ate the cheapest meal. He turned back to look at the boy only to find he had gone, vanished. Chris decided this was something he wanted to check up on, concerned the boy was alone, although he had money and was well dressed, so he saw no urgency. Returning to the table, he mentioned the incident to Buck.

"Was he a boy with a smart jacket and short hair? A big boy?" Vin asked.

"Yes that sounds right how did you know?" Chris wanted to know.

"He was watching us playing by the church this afternoon," Vin explained as if he assumed Buck and JD must have seen him to.

"You see him?" Chris asked Buck.

"Nope, what about you Littl'n, you see a boy watching us this afternoon?" Buck looked down at JD who was in the process of sucking every last morsel off his fried chicken drumstick. JD just shook his head and continued to attack the next bit of chicken.

"Where was he exactly?" Chris quizzed Vin, who was himself trying to do justice to a pile of fried chicken.

"He was sitting on the ground by the wall," he said between mouthfuls of chicken.

"What was he doing?"

"Not'ing jist watching."

Buck and Chris exchanged glances, definitely something to look into.

The truck was loaded up with the supplies, and Chris was all set to leave for the ranch with the two boys. It was the first time JD and Buck would not sleep under the same roof, since they had met. If it was upsetting Buck, which it was, he didn't show it, but JD couldn't be so strong. They had talked about it, explained just what would happen, JD had promised to be good for Chris, and assured Buck he understood and he would be alright. But when it came to it, when he had to get into the truck and go home without Buck he couldn't do it. He wanted his brother near him, he needed him, he couldn't sleep if Buck wasn't there, he pleaded. Buck held him close.

"Come on now little brother, we talked about this didn't we, I have to do my job and so do you, what is your job?" he asked, holding JD back little so he could look him in the eye.

"To be good for Chris, and not keep Vin awake," the little boy replied.

"Well then, we both have a job to do, I'm gonna miss you too, so we will both have to be brave won't we." Buck reasoned.

"I'm too little to be brave," JD complained, pulling himself back to Buck.

"I'll stay if you want Buck," Chris offered.

"No he'll be alright he's got to do this," Buck hated to do this, but he knew if he gave in this time it would only be worse the next time. He peeled the boy off himself and physically put him in the truck, between Chris and Vin. Instantly JD tried to crawl over Vin and back to him, but his brother had already stood up closed the door and gone back to the sidewalk to wave them off.

Ezra had seen the scene outside the sheriff's office. He wondered what it must be like to care for one's family so much you couldn't bear to be separated for even one night. He could be separated from his mother for the rest of his life as a far as he was concerned. Maude was not the kind of parent you wanted to cling to, and since she would never let him get physically close enough to be clung to, it wasn't an issue. He turned to walk back to the boarding house. As he got back to his room, the smallest and cheapest one Mrs. Jenkins had on offer, he found a telegram under the door and he was surprised to find his heart leap. He assumed it was from his ever-loving mother, she was sending for him, at last. Eagerly he tore open the envelope.


He read it again, she had abandoned him, again. How was he going to go to St Louis, he had no money left? The rent was paid in advance and he knew he would never get a refund. He had been eating the cheapest food he could find, and reckoned he had enough for about two days. There was no way he had enough for a ticket for St Louis. He sat on the bed clutching the paper in his hand surprised to fine tears in his eyes, which he quickly swept away. No he would waste no more tears on the woman. She had sent him to this Godforsaken little dead end town to send a telegram, she sent him a one-word wire, and he sent a man he had never heard of a message he didn't understand. He assumed it was part of some con, he didn't want to know what. That had happened two days ago, she had said she would come and collect him with in a couple of days once he sent the wire. He scrunched up the paper and threw it across the room and lay down on the bed to stare at the ceiling. I bet 'Buck' will never send 'JD' a telegram like that, he thought bitterly. More than anything he wanted to be back at school. In his whole life it was the only time he had not felt lonely, the only time had friends. He didn't feel loved at school but he was cared for, he had never felt loved.

"Well Ezra P. Standish," he said out loud, "you're stuck here, you better make the best of it." Then for the first time since he was six years old and another stepfather had put him in military school, he cried himself to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

JD had calmed down as soon as he could no longer see Buck, though he held on to Pony all evening. He was good for Chris, it helped that Chris didn't make the boys bath but only scrubbed their faces, and that JD was so close to 'drop point' as Buck called it he was asleep before Chris had even opened the book. They had finished Tom Sawyer and were now on to the Prince and the Pauper. Vin didn't last much longer and Chris knew he would have to reread the whole chapter again the next night. As soon as he was out of the room Chris called Buck at the office to reassure him JD was fine and asleep. The next morning however JD was up before dawn, he pulled on his boots, checked on Misty who was fine but no foal. Then he sat down on the fence where he had the best view of the track, up which he expected Buck and watched. Buck had set out as soon as it was light enough to see his hand in front of his face. It was a good two hours ride from the town to the ranch. Chris woke up and as he passed the boys room he found the door open and the bed empty, frowning he headed for the outhouse. Meeting Vin coming in the opposite direction.

"Where's JD?" he asked.

Vin looked up still a little fuzzy and grinned a lopsided grin, taking Chris by the hand he led him to the front of the house. Then he pointed to the tall rail fence beside the track. Chris screwed up his eyes to make out a small form, in a white nightshirt, with dark hair sitting on the top rail clutching the upright and gazing down the track.

"Oh Jesus!" he swore. He was about to set out and get him when he felt a tug on his leg. Looking down he saw Vin looking serious.

"He's alright, he needs to be there," he said quietly.

Chris looked back he wasn't sure about leaving JD so far from the house.

"I'll watch him from here if ya like," Vin offered.

Chris gave in, making Vin promise to call if anything happened, he went back inside to dress and make the breakfast. Buck was enjoying the early morning ride, the sun was cutting through the morning mist, and the scent from the wild flowers was heavy. Once he had known JD was fine he had relaxed and enjoyed the evening, which was a quiet one, and young Mrs Scott, widowed six months ago in a mill accident had been looking for some company. So now on the way home only one thing could make the whole thing perfect, and that thing was sitting on the fence waving to him as he came around the bend. Vin called to Chris that Buck was coming, he came out just time to see Buck cantering up with an overjoyed JD in front of him.

"There had better be some breakfast around here some place, or I am going in search of a new family," Buck joked, as he swung JD down.

Breakfast was a tense time, and Vin couldn't work out why. The other three seemed to in on some secret that he wasn't privy to. The old insecurities began to creep back, but before he could begin to really panic Chris and Buck told both boys to sit tight while they swiftly cleared the table. Then Buck disappeared into his room while Chris sat down in front of Vin, now looking very worried, if JD hadn't been looking so excited, he would have been terrified.

"Vin, we looked up your birthday," Chris started. "Do you know when it is?"

"In the spring I think, I 'm ten now." He looked down ashamed, even JD knew when his birthday was.

"That’s right," Chris said brightly. He reached out and patted Vin's arm to reassure him. "Your birthday is March the 20th, which means it's nine months away and we don't think you should have to wait, so we decided that today is you special late birthday," Chris finished, looking at Vin trying to gage his reaction.

Vin looked a little puzzled, he looked at JD and then back at Chris. "My birthday?"

"Yes sir!" Buck's voice boomed from behind him, then he leaned over and placed three parcels on the table in front of him.

Buck and Chris were happy just to watch Vin's face, his look of wonder as he surveyed his presents, but JD couldn't wait.

"Open mine, open mine." He bounced on his seat, pointing at a small parcel.

With trembling hands he reached out and undid the string and then lifted the lid on he small cardboard box inside the paper. Inside were marbles, all colours, a shooter and ten others.

"Oh JD, they're wonderful, now we can play proper games, thank you," he grinned at JD, then he looked up at Buck and said a second silent 'thank you' to the real provider of the marbles.

The next parcel was from Buck, it was big and squishy. Once open it proved to be a baseball mitt, he slipped his hand in, savouring the smell of the new leather and listening to it creak as he flexed his hand. For Buck, the look on his face was worth not being able to buy new boots this year, he'd just have to have the old one resoled one more time. Vin stood up on his chair so he could reach Buck and give him a hug.

"Thank you," he whispered in his ear.

Reluctantly he took off the mitt and laid it gently and reverently on the table, then turned to the last parcel. Inside the plain paper was a brightly coloured box, it took him a few minutes to ease the tight fitting lid off, he didn't want to damage it in any way. Finally he got the lid off, revealing a bright shiny harmonica. If Chris could have he would have bottled the expression on Vin's face forever, priceless didn't even come close. It was pure magic. He looked at the gleaming object like it was a holy relic, then he gently stroked it for a second before he finally picked it up.

Chris had been sure he would like it, somehow as he had studied the display of toys it had just called to him. Vin ran his hand over it letting his fingers trip along the holes down both sides.

"Are ya gonna try it?" JD asked excitedly.

Vin shook his head clutching it reverently, holding Chris' gaze.

Chris understood, it was to be tried in private, alone, but he knew he had been right to get it. Vin got down from the table and walked around to Chris and without saying a word climbed on to his lap and wrapped his arms, harmonica in one hand, around Chris' neck. Buck quickly scooped JD into his arms and took him out to take care of he horses, before his chatter broke the spell.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra woke late, it had taken him a long time to get to sleep, and he had woken more then once. He washed and tried to make his clothes look presentable. Then he went to the diner and ordered toast and coffee for breakfast. As he ate he surveyed the town through the windows. The diner didn't have very big windows as it had originally been a saloon, but he could see enough. The job prospects did not look promising for a young man with no manual skills or experience. What he needed was a high stakes poker game and a stake to go with it. But as he watched the good people of Four Corners made their way to church he saw little prospect of it. St. Luke's was the only church in the town although only about half the town was catholic, but since Fr. Sanchez welcomed all to his church, and was happy to marry, baptise and bury anyone, respecting their beliefs, one church seemed to be enough. The bishop had heard rumours about Sanchez's rather personal interpretation of catholic doctrine and church rules, but he was the only priest who had not asked for a transfer after only one year. And he had raised the congregation by a third, of course half of them were non-Catholics but first things first get them through the door then worry about their denomination!

As he watched a truck drew up at the side of the church, it was caked in fresh mud, from the back of the covered truck came seven or eight men. Ezra surveyed the men, and concluded they were working men, working men who lived in some kind of work camp, and if they were working man they had money, if they lived in a camp they had little to do and there would either be a card game or they needed one. His interest piqued he left the money for his small meal and headed off in the direction of the church.

Strolling in he got a seat behind the men, the little church was more than half full. It reminded Ezra of Sundays at school, when the whole school trooped down to the local church. He had never liked church except for the hymns, he liked singing although he was would never admit that to anyone. He had hoped the men would get bored during the sermon and whisper to each other, but they were all listening, in the end even Ezra was listening to Fr. Sanchez, as he explained the Indian concept of animal spirit guides, Ezra wasn't entirely sure what it had to do with the gospels but it was fascinating.

After the service he mingled with the congregation outside when he caught a familiar accent. Playing the 'good ole boy' routine Ezra started a conversation about all the things from home they missed, grits, warm weather, watermelon and fresh peaches. Slowly he moved the conversation on to his new 'friends' current home, earning power and entertainment opportunities. He hit the jackpot, a drinking den with a running poker game every Saturday night.

"And, er, how would a gentleman of means gain entry to this game?" he asked.

"If you got the means you’re in, but' y'all need t' get up t' it."

"How much may I ask is required and how would one find transportation to this outpost of civilisation?"

It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but then right now one extra dollar was hard to find.

"Who y'all asking for boy?" the man asked clearly getting suspicious.

"It is of no consequence, an acquaintance, so how would one find the necessary transportation?"

"Well there's a supply truck comes up on Friday, or you can drive if'n your 'friend' has his own car, but it's a mighty rough track, other than that ya' can ride in cross-country."

Ezra was unable to find more useful information, so extricating himself from the conversation he left the church area and walked around the graveyard to the spot he had used the other day to think. So his options were to find a job, probably menial, sweaty, back breaking and underpaid or get hold of the stake money, a horse, not to mention a map, get into the poker game, and thus get out of this hell hole. It wasn't a difficult choice, the difficulty was going to be coming up the required stake by the end of the week and a horse, and enough money to live on until then. Manual, sweaty labour might be unavoidable, at least in the short term. He rose and looked back toward the church, people were still standing around and chatting, there being no time like the present he went in search of work. The local priest or preacher usually knew all the local news.

"Excuse me Father, might I ask you some thing?" he asked politely.

"Son, you can ask anything, it’s the answers that can be elusive." Josiah replied with his customary grin.

"I find myself in fiscal difficulties, and in need of gainful employment." Ezra explained. "And I wonder if you might have knowledge of any viable employment opportunities in the local vicinity, for about a week?"

Josiah stood back to regard the young southern boy before him. His first thought was to enquire why the young man would not be in school the next day, but judging by the lad's use of language he had no need of further education.

"What about your parents?" the priest asked.

"Well you know things are difficult, mother has not been able to find honest work for some time," he said with all seriousness. As in all her life, he thought.

Josiah knew this might be true, times were very difficult for most people, but something did not ring true, he just couldn't put his finger on it. Before he could question the boy further Sam Kelly came up to say good-bye.

"Father, excellent homily this week, guardian angels, ah. Look Father do you know of anyone looking for a week’s work, don't pay much but I'll supply breakfast and lunch, eight till six all next week."

Before he could react Ezra had stepped between the two men.

"Sir look no further, the solution to your employment predicament is before you."

Kelly looked down at him, distinctly puzzled.


"I am in need of a job," Ezra explained.

Kelly looked at the boy, he talked funny but he had been in the service, and was well dressed, so he was no bum. And he wouldn't have to pay a boy as much as an adult.

"I need someone to work in the orchard, thinning out the crop, you living in town?" Kelly asked

"Yes sir," Ezra confirmed.

Kelly went on to give him directions, assuring him it would take about an hour to walk there from town. With his rent paid until Thursday and getting two free meals, the money he was offering would be almost all profit. It would be just enough to get him into the game.

"What's your name boy?" Kelly asked.

"Oh er," Ezra realised he was being spoken to.

"Your name son?"

"Ethan, Ethan Salter," he replied, who knew what trouble mother might have got herself or him into, no need to advertise his relationship to her.

"Well Ethan I'll see you at eight tomorrow, don't be late."

"I won't be sir, count on me."

+ + + + + + +

Vin's special late birthday had included a birthday cake, there hadn't been time to order one so Chris had decided to make one. He had borrowed a recipe book from Mrs Potter at the store and was following the instructions to the letter. It didn't rise quite as high as he remembered Sarah's did but it was defiantly edible, and every last bit of it was eaten. The four of them had played baseball after a fashion, then JD and Vin had played marbles. Chris had wanted to give Vin a ride with him on Shadow as birthday treat, but he changed his mind when he found the boy fast asleep on a bale in the barn. While outside JD played in the dust, making patterns with the marbles. He sat a while watching them, one a bundle of energy, the other worn out by even the slightest extra exertion. He silently pledged, not for the first time, to exact revenge on the ones responsible for Vin's suffering when he caught up with them, and the way he was feeling it had better be soon! It was getting late and much as he wanted to let Vin sleep he would have to wake him to go back to the house. He stood up and looked into the loose box behind Vin and smiled at Misty.

At around midnight Buck let himself into the boy's room, and reached across the bed and gently shook Vin calling his name. Momentarily Vin was back in Stockwell and Sid was dragging him out to rob the pantry, then the kind voice slowly penetrated his subconscious, Buck and Buck would never hurt him. He opened his eyes to find the big man standing over the bed, and the light was on.


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