Gathering the Flock

by KT

AU - Lost Lambs

Chapter 7
"Come on we got a surprise for you," Buck said softly, reaching out his arms to lift Vin over the sprawled and slumbering JD. Vin allowed himself to be lifted up and placed on the floor by the bed. "Pull yer' clothes on over you P.J.'s," Buck instructed.

Vin stood looking at Buck still only half-awake, swaying slightly and blinking. Buck picked up the dungarees and pushed them into his arms.

"Dress, come on, trust me." Buck turned back to JD.

There was no way he would be able to wake JD fast enough to get there in time. He pulled the five-year-old up and pulled a pair of pants on him under his nightshirt and his jacket on the top. Then he turned back to Vin.

"You all dressed?" he asked.

Vin had his dungarees on but was too sleepy still to do up the clips on the shoulder straps. Without waiting to ask Buck finished the job and helped him in to his coat. Then he picked up the still sleeping JD and taking a bemused Vin by the hand led him out of the house only stopping to let Vin push his bare feet into his boots and get him to carry JD's, they headed out into the night. Finally Vin was awake enough to ask what was going on.

"It's a surprise, you just have to come with me, Chris' instructions." With those two words all Vin's fears disappeared.

Buck shook JD now that he was out in the chill night air. "Come on bro’, time to wake up, JD!" JD squirmed in his arms, but after a few more attempts the little boy opened his eyes, they were almost at the barn. "Time to wake up sleepy boy," Buck grinned as he spoke his white teeth shining in the moonlight.

"I'm sweepy Buck, wan'a go t' s'eep," JD whined.

"No you don't." Buck put JD down and pushed his boots on and made him walk, to help him wake up.

The three of them walked into the lit barn, JD was dragging his feet but the light in the barn aroused his curiosity. Chris' voice came from apparently nowhere.

"Hurry guys," he called.

They found him in the box with Misty and it was clear to Buck they were only just in time. He sat JD on the edge of the box and held him secure. Vin stood on the bale he had slept on earlier, giving him a clear view of the mare as her foal started to arrive. Once he realised what was going on JD was fully awake. He began to ask questions but Buck quickly silenced him, warning him sternly that if he weren't quiet he would have to go to back to bed, because he would frighten Misty. Vin said nothing he just watched, enraptured with the miracle of new life. Little by little the foal emerged, his head became visible, and JD could not suppress a squeal of delight, and then he clamped his own hand over his mouth. The foal then slid out quickly and dropped to the thick straw bed. Chris moved forward and pulled the membrane from the foal's nostrils as Misty turned around and began to lick the foal.

"She's a good mother," Buck commented with pride. He had purchased her and this was her first foal.

"Looks like," Chris agreed.

As they spoke the foal began to struggle to its feet, it wobbled for a bit and there were a few false starts but eventually it made it. As they watched it took it's first feed.

"What are we gonna call him?" JD asked.

"We don't know it is a boy," Vin said quietly.

It was the first thing he had said since they had reached the barn.

"Well how about you come and tell us," Chris suggested, he opened the stable door a little, and Vin hopped down from the bail and slipped in to stand with Chris.

"Well Vin is it a boy or a girl horse?" JD asked impatiently.

Vin gulped and edged forward toward the foal, still standing shakily by Misty who was still licking and grooming her new baby. He bent down to look, he wasn't sure he had got it right, so first he whispered his finding to Chris. Chris confirmed he was right.

"Well?" Buck asked.

"It's a boy horse," he announced.

"So what are we gonna call him?" JD asked again impatiently.

"I think because it was Vin's special late birthday we should let him name the foal," he looked at JD. "Is that alright?"

JD wasn't sure why he was being asked, so instantly craned his head back to look at Buck for help. Buck bent down so he could whisper to his brother.

"Is that alright with you tiger, you can name the next one I promise?"

JD still didn't understand why the adults were asking him if he minded; of course Vin should name the horse on his birthday. As far as JD was concerned it was forgone conclusion, you got treats on your birthday and naming a horse was a very big treat.

Vin had been thinking what to call the foal, it was an unremarkable colour, brown, and had no significant markings. He thought about the day that had just past, about his presents, and the cake, and the games they had played. But none of it provided a suitable name. He had not realised he was deep in thought until Chris put a hand on his shoulder.

"Do you want to sleep on it?" he asked gently.

Vin shook his head, tomorrow it would no longer be his special day, this had to be done now. "That was it," he thought, suddenly looking up.

"Special Day," he announced.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra rolled over in the saggy bed, trying to decide if the small increase in his funds was going to be worth the hours of sweat and dirt. He could not, he decided, stay in Four Corners, he didn't want someone to realise he was alone and start asking questions, God forbid some busybody would try and put him in some kind of home. He wasn't sure he wanted to go to St Louis, but he supposed he would have to. Besides, what if someone worked out his connection to Maude and she had done something really bad, they might put him in prison. He looked at his wrist watch, he could always pawn it or even sell it but he didn't think there was anyone in the God-forsaken town who could afford to pay even half what it was worth, besides it was the one thing he had that was truly his and his alone. Looking at the watch he realised he only had five minutes to dress and set out to walk to the farm. He pulled himself out of the relative warmth of the bed into the still chilly bedroom. He pulled on his clothes with no enthusiasm, he went to put on his tie before he realised that was ridiculous, he was going to pick apples.

He trudged, it was the only word for it, he trudged down the road to the farm. He checked his watch, he didn't want to be late, un-punctuality was rude. Whatever else he was, Ezra was never rude. He quickened his pace so as not to be late. The farm was pretty, the house neat and buildings in good repair, but still Ezra noticed the little signs that money was tight. Mrs Kelly spotted him outside the house; she was seven months pregnant, and had two other children under the age of four.

"Are you Ethan?" she called from the porch.

"Yes ma'am," he replied tipping his hat.

"Well come on in, we promised you breakfast."

The kitchen was clean, but there was an unpleasant under smell, which he couldn't place, still the food appearing in front of him looked sumptuous. As he ate the, bacon and eggs, the hot biscuits and pancakes. He realised how hungry he was, that the minimal meals he had been existing on for days had just not been enough. He realised he was being watched by two small children, he winked at one, and was rewarded with a grin from one and a giggle from the other. Finishing the meal with a long glass of apple juice, he asked where Mr. Kelly was.

"Been up two hours since, dear, you'd best get going, just go up the track until you get to the orchard, and call for him," she advised.

It took just one hour for Ezra to determine he did not like manual labour, but that said it was not as bad as he had imagined; it did not tax the mind, which left him free to think about other things. Picking apples was not dangerous so his nimble well-schooled fingers were in no danger. Although it was dusty the work was not that dirty. By lunchtime he had long abandoned his jacket and rolled up his sleeves as he and Mr. Kelly walked back to the house for lunch. It was a cold meal but there was plenty of it and Ezra ate well. He must have been eating a little too well because Mrs. Kelly frowned at him.

"Ethan, have you been eating right son," she asked with some concern.

Ezra looked up from the huge slice of home-cured ham he was devouring. The honest answer would be 'no'. But he would never admit that to anyone. Waiting until he had finished eating and swallowing he looked up, poker face in place.

"Yes ma'am, but to leave one scrap of this delicious repast would be to do it less than justice and an insult to the chef," he stated.

She continued to frown at the well-spoken young man, not convinced. His clothes were expensive but they needed washing, all in all he had a neglected air about him.

"Where are your family?" she asked, looking for an opening.

"Mother is seeking employment at the moment," he replied without looking up.

Lucy Kelly was not going to let this go; they didn't have much, but she couldn't help being a mother to this young man so obviously down on his luck.

"I expect she'll be tired when she gets back, it's going to be a hot day tomorrow," she started. "Why don't you leave your jacket here? I'll clean it for you dear. Your Ma will not want to be worrying about that tonight."

Ezra glanced down at the dusty, crumpled jacket on the back of his chair. He hated that he looked scruffy and felt dirty. But he had no idea how much it would cost and he didn't have the money to waste.

Shaking his head he looked up and smiled. "That is most kind, but I couldn't put you to the trouble."

She looked at him, those green eyes promised to be widows to the soul, but she was wrong, they showed nothing. Now why was he hiding things from her? It was a simple offer to clean his coat. She wondered just how tight money was and how much care the young southerner, clearly a long way from home was getting. She tried again.

"I'm doing the washing tomorrow anyway it's no trouble, bring any other stuff you have that needs washing." With that she picked up the jacket and shook it vigorously.

"No please!" Ezra tried to take the jacket back. "I can't, I mean I don't…" he tried to explain is predicament.

Lucy suddenly realised what the problem was. "Ethan I'm not gonna charge you, I'll just put them in with mine, it's no trouble." She explained patiently, taking the jacket out of his reach.

Ezra wanted to agree, he hated that his clothes were dirty. The landlady at the boarding house had offered to launder his clothes but he couldn't afford it. Maude Standish would not have hesitated at the offer of a free laundry service, but Ezra wasn't his mother, he retained a stubborn moral streak she just could not get rid of. Although not to his face, she blamed his father who had died of influenza before Ezra was born.

Peter Ezra Standish was a district attorney who had prosecuted her for fraud. He had lost the case but won the woman, in total they were together as a courting couple and man and wife for exactly one year. Although she took widowhood at 21 in her stride, and had married twice more since then, whenever she was unmarried she reverted to her first husband’s name. He was the one true love of her life; he had for a brief time made her an honest woman. His early demise and the difficulties of being a single mother forced her back into old ways.

+ + + + + + +

Maude was the daughter of a small time carnival manager who used every trick in the book to increase profits, and he taught his daughter well. She in turn taught her son when he was with her. Life is hard; she taught him, bite it before it bites you. Never ever trust anyone but yourself, never let anyone see that you are weak or scared or vulnerable, appearance is everything, there is nothing more important than money, always assume people want something from you because there is no such thing as a free lunch. These were the life lessons Maude had drilled into her son as soon as he could speak, and just to reinforce the message that he could trust no one but himself she repeatedly left him, dismissed him, ignored him, dumped him on others (usually total strangers to him), let him down, and even lied to him. And yet he could never take advantage of others without being pushed by her and without guilt and regret. He just didn't have her 'killer' instinct, what he did have was his father’s green eyes and honest heart.

"I expect you to bring me your laundry tomorrow, I know how much my husband is paying you, just think of this as a bonus for good work," Lucy soothed.

"Yes ma'am."

"Come on boy, lunch is over," Sam commanded rising from the table.

Ezra finished stuffing the last crumbs of pie into his mouth and turned to follow him, Lucy stopped him slipping something in his trouser pocket.

"Go past the orchard and follow the narrower path, the creek is cool, clear and private," she said in a low whisper that was full of understanding.

He showed no sign that he had heard, but once outside he felt in his pocket and found a scrap of soap. He had been offered a refreshing, cool, free bath at the end of the day, and he appreciated it.

The creek was just where she said, and as promised was secluded and wonderfully clear. After washing both himself and his under things vigorously, careful to save some of the soap he indulged in a leisurely swim, hoping to soothe some of the sore muscles he knew he had collected during the day. Then he dried himself with his shirt knowing the long walk back to the boarding house would be sufficient to dry it on his back. He mused on the day; no, labour was not for him, but the people had been good. Try as he might he could not figure out their angle, what they wanted from him. He had no money, they knew that, he had no skill they could use. So what did they want? Why were they being so nice? It briefly occurred to him that they were just nice people, but he dismissed it, 'no such thing as a free lunch,' he reminded himself.

He eyed the diner as he got back to town, but he needed every penny and he'd already had two big meals today, so ignoring the rumbling sound coming from his stomach he headed for the boarding house. He didn't have to worry about his stomach for long, he was asleep as soon as he lay on the bed, fully dressed but for his boots. He awoke later somewhat stiff, and changed for bed, falling asleep again as soon as he slipped between the sheets.

Every day he walked to work, the walk helped to ease of the stiffness he always woke with. He picked apples, ate wonderful home cooked food, had his clothes washed for him, bathed in a creek and slept better than he ever had. He managed to get Sam to draw him a crude map of the area, including the location of the logging camp and the tail up to it. When Friday came he had to say good-bye. For the first time he regretted a parting, he had been treated well by the Kelly family, nothing was asked of him except his labour. Even as he waved to Mrs. Kelly as he walked down the drive for the last time, the precious money in his hand, he regretted the parting, a small part of him wanted to stay and for Mrs. Kelly to be his mother. But he knew it could not be. That final walk to town gave him time to shed those sentimental thoughts, which he dismissed as pointless whimsy, and to concentrate on the job at hand. He had been forced to book two more nights at the boarding house, if he were to have sufficient funds for the poker game he could not afford more than one more meal at the diner. He decided to make that lunch on Saturday so he would be fortified for the night ahead. His transport problem could be solved, but it was a risky solution at best.

Chapter 8

Judge Travis had set about trying to find out more about Vin the Monday after he first met him. Working in his chamber offices for the summer were three young law students, two young men and one woman. He was well aware that his personal assistant Charles Brown had an ingrained belief that the law was no job for a woman. He had given her only menial filing and typing jobs that any secretary could do. Orin called young Louise Evans into his chambers. He handed over the information he already had, not much more than what Buck had gleaned and Nathan's report, asking her to read them.

Nervously she read, trying to read quickly but accurately, eventually she looked up, unable to hide her feelings.

"I was going to ask you what you think but I can see it in your face," the judge commented.

She blushed. "I have a cousin who is ten, I just can't imagine anyone doing such a thing to him."

"Young lady, people do such things to children, even their own children every day. But that sorry fact does not mean that when it comes to our attention we do nothing. I want this Stockwell place investigated, I want to know why no one noticed that a child in the care of the state was slowly starving. I want to know why he was in that place to begin with."

"So do I," she said quietly.

"Good because I want you to find out everything you can, about Stockwell, about the other places he was in, about his case history and about Vincent James Tanner and his family. I'm the one who put him in protective custody, and I want people to think that is my only interest in him." He looked up at her. "You understand?"

"Yes your honour, you want to be in a position to entrap them if necessary without tipping your hand."

Orin Travis smiled; she was sharp, very sharp, he had chosen well.

Louise tracked down Vin's current social worker, her research uncovered no less than five previous social workers, making six in five years. The current one was one Miss Mabel James. Louise had set up a meeting with her and now entered the crowded and clearly under-funded offices of the family and social services division. Miss James was an elderly woman with short-cropped hair, obviously and poorly dyed a red blond colour. She looked up from her desk, putting her cigarette down in the overflowing ashtray.

"You are Miss Evans?" she asked.

Louise smiled brightly, sitting down in the chair opposite the desk. "Yes ma'am, and thank you for seeing me at such short notice."

Louise withdrew a file from the document wallet she carried.

"As you know Vincent Tanner is currently being held at a safe location as a material witness. His honour Judge Travis needs as much background information on the child to be able to gage just how useful he will be as a witness." She looked up expectantly.

Miss James frowned, desperately she searched her memory, 'as you know' the girl had said, did she know? She didn't recognise the name of the child. It annoyed her the young woman in front of her was no more than a child herself, but she was working for Judge Travis and she did not want him on her case, so she resolved to be as helpful as possible.

"Of course, let me get the file, if I had know that was what you needed I could have had it ready dear," she said trying to sound helpful.

Louise cringed at the 'dear', God she hated that. She watched as the woman fumbled through the bottom draw of a filing cabinet, finally bringing out a thin but dog-eared file. She handed the file over to Louise and returned to her desk, picking up her cigarette and taking another long draw on it. Louise looked in the file, it was clinically brief, recording his various moves from one institution to another, but there was some background information on Vin's family. Louise had listened as the Judge had described to her his meeting with Vin, now she used this information to test James.

"This is most useful, may I borrow this, I'll sign for it of course. " She looked up, plastering on a smile. "I'm told he's a delightful boy, lovely dark hair and so tall for his age," she commented.

Mabel James felt a flash of panic, she had never bothered to visit Vin in Stockwell, had never met the child she was responsible for, she certainly didn't want Travis knowing that, it was a clear dereliction of duty.

"Yes indeed, delightful." She said in a saccharin sweet tone. "Do borrow the file for as long as you need it."

Louise left, trying not to let her anger and contempt for the woman show. The file informed them that Elizabeth Tanner had died of cancer when she was twenty-four. She had been married at eighteen, to James Tanner, a seaman of whom there had been no trace since Vin was two. Elizabeth's maiden name had been MacDonald; originally she was from Texas. On James Tanner's family there was no information. The judge provided Louise with a car so she could visit the other institutions Vin had been sent to.

+ + + + + + +

The week following Vin's special late birthday and the birth of the foal had been eventful for Chris and Buck. They were well aware that the loggers in their camp had a drinking place of some kind, they quite rightly guessed it was housed in a tent and moved regularly, making it very difficult to track down. Chris' policy was to stop the commercial selling of alcohol but everyone knew that the days of prohibition were numbered. He couldn't blame the loggers for wanting a drink, the Lord knew they did a hard and risky job. So he had not put a great deal of effort into tracking down the illegal drinking den. That was until Nathan called him on Monday to say he had treated a number of men with what appeared to be poisoning from some kind of tainted alcohol. This changed things, the two deputies now took it in turns to scout the area on horseback, looking for signs of the temporary hostelry.

Neither boy liked this much, Vin didn't say anything, but he didn't like it when Chris was away so much. He was happy to be with Buck, but he liked to know exactly where Chris was at all times, and with him alone in the forest he didn't and it unnerved him. He worried that Chris would not come back, he might get lost like he had. Despite his silence Buck knew what was wrong, he caught Vin sitting outside the sheriff’s office watching the trail along which Chris had left that morning. He reassured him that Chris knew the forest very well, and Shadow could always find his way home. Vin said he knew this but it didn't ease his worry.

JD could not hide his worry, he cried every time Buck left on a patrol, Chris would have to peel him off an almost equally distressed Wilmington. Once Buck was out of sight he would calm, but cooped up in town for most of the day he would be whiny, irritable, and uncooperative. Once Buck returned he would refuse to be separated from his brother for hours. And of course Pony remained firmly griped in his hand, whenever Buck was away.

What made it worse was that they had found nothing, both men found sites they believed had been used in but were now abandoned. On Thursday Vin was due to see Nathan for a check up, in addition Buck decided it was time he had the young doctor give JD a medical, he had written to Louise Bell to try and track down his brother’s medical notes, eventually he had made contact with a doctor at the Wichita hospital where JD had most often been treated. He didn't understand most of the report the man had sent him but words like 'pneumonia' and 'heart murmur' worried him. Unfortunately Nathan had two patients in his tented clinic that he couldn't leave, so suggested the boys were brought to him. The promise of finally getting to see the lumberjacks at work made the prospect of visiting the doctor far more palatable for Vin, but even this could not placate JD once he worked out he too was expected to see the doctor.

As they approached the clinic having parked the truck JD asked if he could go and explore. Buck explained they would explore together once he had seen the doctor.

"Not me, Vin's gotta see the doctor, I'm not sick," he pointed out, assuming that Buck had made a mistake.

"I know that little'n, but Nathan's gonna check you over as well."

JD stopped walking and it took Buck two or three strides to realise this. He turned back and looked down at the raven-haired boy.

"What's the matter? Doctor Nathan 's a nice guy, he won't hurt you," he explained. "He just want's to help."

"Not sick, don't need to go to a doctor," he stated firmly.

"Come on little brother, it won't be that bad." He reached out his hand for the boy. JD instantly flinched and turning began to run back toward the truck.

Buck sighed and then set out to follow the boy, it only took a few of Buck's long strides to overtake the small boy and scoop him up. Normally JD loved to be in Buck's arms when he was upset, now he squirmed and wriggled, his small but solidly booted feet landing several painful blows on his brother’s hip.

"Ouch!" Wilmington exclaimed. "JD stop that now," he instructed sharply.

"No, put me down, put me down! Not gonna see no doctor, not, not, not!" he shouted.

Chris and Vin watched this display of petulance, for all his energy JD was a good-natured child, compliant and polite, this was the first display of temper they had seen from him. Chris had been wondering if JD had a temper. Buck’s was spectacular when it blew, but that was countered by the fact that unless you endangered one of his family, blood-kin or otherwise it was on a very, very long fuse, and unlike Chris' it would dissipate as fast as it arrived. Buck looked over at Chris and using only his head managed to convey that he wanted them to go ahead. Chris understood, JD would be worse with an audience. Once they had gone Buck took the still squirming and shouting child over to the truck and planted him on his bottom on the hood, his hands around JD's arms clamping them to his side.

"Stop it now!" he commanded.

His tone was so harsh and so loud JD did stop in mid shout, his mouth open. Now as he sat there tears began to fill his huge hazel eyes and then spill over and run silently down his cheeks.

"JD, Nathan is only going to take a look at you so if you do ever get sick he'll be better able to look after you, I'll be there the whole time." Buck explained in a deliberately quiet and slow tone.

"Not gonna get sick," JD stated sullenly.

"Well I hope not, but you might, so I want you to be good now and not make any more fuss, I'm not so keen on doctors either, but it's something a man has to do."

He had used the term 'man' deliberately and it had the desired effect, little JD swallowed hard.

"He's just gonna look?" he asked.

"Just look," Buck confirmed.

"And it won't take long, we can go home after?"

"'Cause we're gonna go home after, oh JD." He picked him up again, this time there were no kicks and no squirming. "Did you think I would leave you here Little'n?" JD nodded fisting the tears out of his eyes. "Never, little brother, never."

With his head now buried in the warmth and security of Buck’s soft shirt and one little hand stroking Buck's neck, JD began to relax. Buck spoke softly into his brother’s ear.

"Did you have to go to the doctor a lot when you were little?" Buck asked gently. He felt rather than saw JD nod. "And some times you had to stay in the hospital?" Another nod. "And they wouldn’t let Mama stay with you?" This time a slight shake.

Finally an uncharacteristically small voice muffled by the shirt admitted. "I was scared."

"I know Ma would have stayed if she could and she only left you there so you would get better," he explained.

"I know but I was still scared."

Buck squeezed him tighter, he remembered what was in the report. It was no wonder the boy had been scared.

"We okay now brother, gonna be good for Nathan?" he asked in a slightly louder voice.

"You won’t leave me will you?" Buck looked down in to his eyes, which were now huge liquid pools as JD gazed up at him pleadingly.

Buck wiped away the residual tears with his thumb, and kissed him lightly on the forehead. "Never," he reiterated. "Never."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan was happy with Vin, his wounds were fading rapidly now and he had actually put on some weight. JD had just about co-operated through his exam, he sat on Buck's knee and allowed Nathan to listen to his heart and lungs, Nathan let him use the stethoscope to listen to his own heart and Buck's. He was less keen on taking of his shirt completely so Nathan could check his spine for curvature, and he flatly refused to have his blood pressure taken or remove his pants. Persuading him to wait outside with Chris and Vin while Nathan spoke to Buck proved near impossible until Nathan said he needed JD to use the stethoscope to check out Chris and Vin's hearts.

Once JD was gone Nathan spoke to a still anxious Buck.

Right first off, he is a very healthy little boy. From what this report says," he indicated the letter from the doctor in Wichita. "He did have a rough start, nearly six weeks premature, bronchitis, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever twice, but he survived. That's one tough kid Buck, most children wouldn't have survived even one of them, let alone repeated bouts like he had."

Buck smiled. "Us de Lesquan's are a tough bunch," he said enigmatically.

Nathan continued. "He probably has some scarring on his lungs but I can't hear anything wrong, and when ever I see and hear him, there is certainly nothing wrong with his lung power!"

Buck had to admit that was true, the boy sure had a pair of lungs on him.

"He does have a very slight heart murmur." This had been Buck's real fear he just didn't like the sound of it, although he didn't know what it was. "It is very minor, so minor it will probably never affect him unless he gets some kind of heart disease later. He might not make A1 if he ever tries to join the army but that’s about it."

"You're sure Nate, he's okay?" Buck asked.

"It just means one of his heart valves is a little rough, so I can hear the blood flowing over it, it's so minor if the report hadn't mentioned it I might have missed it. All of these problems he's had are almost certainly due to him being born prematurely, he is very small and light for his age, was your mother or his father very small?"

"Mom was quite tall, I don't know about his father, don't even know who he was."

"Presumably Mr. Dunne?" Nathan asked innocently.

"JD was born on Dunne Street Nathan," Buck explained.

"Oh." Nathan looked embarrassed.

"And just so you know," Buck continued, "I was born in a certain town in North Carolina."

Nathan nodded, he understood and he would never mention it again.

"I would speculate that JD will always be on the small side, but like I say he is very healthy." Nathan said. "You de Lesquan's certainly are a tough bunch," he added with a smile.

Just then JD burst back into the room with the stethoscope to report that Vin and Chris both had hearts, Nathan said he was relived to hear it, and the visit was over.

+ + + + + + +

The foreman Claude Blanco showed them over the camp, mainly for the benefit of the boys, but is gave the two deputies the chance to look around. Blanco told them he had arranged to let then go up to where the men were working so the boys could see a big tree come down. Vin and JD sat on the laps of Buck and Chris as they rode beside the truck driver on the way up to the work area. Both of them were watching the scenery and the work around them with fascination and excitement. At the work site the men, many of whom were family men a long way from their own kids, took to the boys instantly, letting them have a go at sawing and chopping, they rode on the back of the big work horses who dragged the logs out of the more inaccessible areas. All the time Chris and Buck were looking for any clue as to the whereabouts of the drinking den. Finally there was a big tree ready to come down, everyone moved to a safe distance, the sight foreman, a genial man named Bob, said the boys could shout timber for them. Buck and Chris stood behind them as they got ready to fell the tree. With everyone's attention on the tree Buck's attention was taken with an old green truck, it was too light to be one of the logging company’s. It was parked up with the others waiting for the all-clear, the tree about to be felled would likely fall across the roadway. Why he wondered was it here, there was nothing further up except more logging? Buck got Chris’ attention.

"You got these two while I have a look around?" he asked quietly.

Chris nodded. Buck walked around the truck, the driver wasn't anywhere to be seen, he presumed he was one of the men talking and smoking in a huddle ready to watch the tree fall. It appeared to be full of food, fruit and vegetables. Maybe the company had a further camp with cookhouse further up, he speculated. He took one more look and was about to give up and he spotted something dripping out from the side of the truck. He let some drip on to his fingers, he rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger and smelt it, the aroma was very familiar, and finally he tasted it. Whisky, very cheap whisky, that’s what it was. Suddenly two high-pitched voices yelled.

"TIMBER!" JD's voice easily the loudest.

"Some lungs on the boy," he thought ruefully.

It was his last thought before something stuck him from behind, his vision exploded in red, then bright lights and finally darkness before he pitched forward and fell to the ground.

+ + + + + + +

The driver of the green truck drove past the felled tree as soon as the road was clear, he could see the massive carcass of the tree and two small boys clambering on it to stand triumphantly atop the stump. They were some way off but he thought he recognised one of the boys, his face darkened when the boys were joined on the stump by what appeared to be a lawman of some kind. The driver continued on his way to make the delivery. It was meant to be there at dawn, but a flat tyre, a truck shedding its load of planks all over the road and the tree felling had put him a long way behind schedule.

JD was having a good time, the doctor’s visit was over, and as promised no one left him behind at the doctor’s. Now he had watched the biggest tree he thought he'd ever seen come down, not to mention all the other great things they'd done. As he stood atop the stump like king of the castle there was only one thing missing, his big brother.

"Where's Buck?" he asked.

"Exploring," Chris explained.

JD frowned, Buck had said they could explore together. "I want to 'splore too, I want to 'splore with Buck."

He began to climb off the stump before Chris could stop him. With remarkable agility for a small boy with a toy horse grasped in one hand and no little speed, he was down and running back toward the track. He didn't take the same route they had on the way up, but with an unerring sense of direction headed directly for the track thought the forest. His size made it easy for JD to the move though the undergrowth and fallen branches faster than the bigger Chris or even Vin. Somewhere ahead Chris heard JD calling Buck's name. He slowed - if JD had found Buck he was safe.

As he slowed it was easier to listen to the boy ahead, there was something not right, Chris decided, something in JD's tone.

Bob, the foreman, who had two children of his own not much older than Vin and JD also recognised something in the calls of the younger boy. He instinctively went to investigate. Following the sound of the increasingly desperate child’s voice he came upon the big deputy and his small brother. Buck was lying in the undergrowth, on his back, his head on one side. Clearly unconscious if not dead, certainly he was very pale. JD was kneeling on his right shaking him and calling his name repeatedly. Bob approached slowly not wishing to startle the child, but knowing he needed to get to the fallen man.

"Son, let me look at him for you," he said quietly as he knelt on the other side of the unconscious deputy.

"Wake up Buck, please," JD continued to plead.

Bob found blood soaking into the forest litter under the man’s head, lots of blood. He felt for a pulse finding it eventually, he was no doctor but he knew it should not be that fast. Looking up he tried not to look too worried as he spoke to the distressed boy.

"I think we need to take him to the doctor, son," he said reassuringly.

But it wasn't reassuring at all, it had just the opposite effect.

"NO!" wailed JD flinging his little body over Buck's. "You can't have him, you can't have my Buck, no, go away, go away," he sobbed. "Wake up Buck, please wake up."

Chris was approaching from the same side as the foreman, he could now make out what was said and it was scaring him.

"Come on lad, he needs help, let us take Buck to Doc. Jackson." Bob said, deliberately trying to stay calm, as he moved towered Buck again.

"No!" JD fumbled with something at Buck's side.

Suddenly as Chris watched, the foreman shot backwards away from Buck and JD, as he did Chris got his first clear view of JD, he was kneeling up and holding Buck’s big revolver in both hands!


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