Gathering the Flock

by KT

AU - Lost Lambs

Chapter 11
Chris finished a walking patrol of the town and headed back to the sheriff's office. It felt wrong to be in town when he knew an illegal drinking den probably selling potently lethal alcohol was just a drive or even a ride away. But on his own with no back up Chris would not go looking for men who had already tried to kill. He was no coward, but he had responsibilities now, and even if he found it all he could do on his own was watch. As he let himself back in the phone rang.

"Four Corners Sheriffs off…oh hi Buck."

"Listen Chris I remembered something, I was checking this truck, smaller than the logger’s ones, green, loaded with food. There was something leaking from it, tasted like very cheap whisky. That’s when the lights went out. Don't know if it's gonna be of any help but reckoned I'd better tell you any case."

"That’s great, how you feeling?"

"I'm doing alright, boys have been great, Nate just left, stayed for supper after he did m' dressings…what? Oh all right."

"Hi Chris it's me Vin, are you coming home tomorrow?"

"Yup sure am, you looking after Buck for me?"

"Yes sir, me and JD are being very good and real quiet I promise."

"Good boy, put Buck back on…Sounds like yer in good hands, I'll see ya tomorrow."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra pulled the big horse up and took a breather, angling the scrap of paper with the map on it toward the moon he calculated his position. He could find the camp but would have to rely on his observation skills to fine the poker game he was looking for. In the end it was dumb luck, he was working his way up the mountainside when he had to cross the main road. He saw the truck lights coming before the vehicle rounded the bend. Just in time he pulled of the road and into the tree line. Once the truck was past Ezra turned Shadow and galloped up the mountain in a straight line, tucking low on the black’s neck to avoid the low branches as the trail snaked its way up the track. As he hoped he arrived on the roadway ahead of the truck. He did that again at the next bend but the truck didn't appear. This was what he had been waiting for. Coming back on to the road he headed back downhill. He had gone about half way from where he had last seen the truck when he found a sidetrack. It looked almost unpassable, yet there were fresh tyre tracks and horse tracks. He took a deep breath and headed up the track.

+ + + + + + +

It was just on midnight when Chris went out to check on Shadow. On finding an empty stall he stood still and just stared for sometime, then he searched the barn, which was daft because apart from the other stalls which were empty there was nowhere else a horse could be. He went outside and rechecked the door, he was sure it had been bolted when he came in. Finding no evidence that the horse had pushed his way out he had to confront the truth; some foolish, suicidal, misguided bastard had stolen his horse!

Going inside he called the ranch. If the idiot who did this wasn't a damn fine rider chances were Shadow would just go home, with or without the rider. Then he located the largest flashlight he had and searched for tracks. It didn't take long to locate Shadow's tracks heading out of town up the mountain. What Chris found interesting was that his horse appeared to be led by someone with unusually small feet.

"Sorry Josiah," Chris apologised as a very confused sleepy Sanchez opened his door.

"What's up? Is Buck all right? Is it one of the boys?"

"No, no everyone is fine, some bas…some idiot stole m' horse, I need to borrow Cardinal," Larabee explained.

"Someone stole YOUR horse! Looks like you may be needing my professional services, this miscreant is clearly suicidal!" Sanchez commented, unable to hide his amusement.

"It ain't funny!"

"Oh yes it is, take m' horse, just don't lose him!"

Chris, now mounted on Sanchez’ big bay headed up the trail, still following his horse's tacks. He found the place where Ezra had turned off but did not follow; instead he galloped on and around the next hairpin bend to locate the point where Ezra had emerged again onto the main trail. This was repeated at the next bend. Finally he found evidence of Shadow doubling back on himself and disappearing up a very narrow track, more than one set of tyre tracks also disappeared up this trail.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had made it, he stood outside a large canvas tent, which glowed with inner light and hummed with the sound of stupid liquored-up men with money to lose. Ezra felt right at home as he opened the flap.

"What you doing here boy?" A huge hand was placed on his chest.

"I believe there is a game of chance within, I wish to participate in said game," he explained.


"I want to play poker," Ezra explained again more prosaically.

"Get out'a here kid, this ain't no kid’s game!" The large man started to push the boy backwards.

"Well I appreciate that sir, but I am no kid and I have the required stake money." Ezra backed off and pulled some of his money from his pocket.

A tall thin man came to the tent flap. He eyed Ezra and his money.

"Hank, lay off a sec will ya," he instructed. "How did you fine this place, kid?"

"I used my wits and my eyes," Standish replied enigmatically. "And a horse."

"Let him in," the man instructed the 'door man' with a chuckle in his voice. "We will send him home to his momma when we have his money."

+ + + + + + +

Chris was about two hundred yards up the track when a pair of huge lights that suddenly came on directly in front of him dazzled him. Calming the normally bomb-proof Cardinal who was understandably startled, and squinting against the blinding light, Chris rested a hand on his gun as he called out.

"Hello, who's there?"

"Federal agents, put your hands up!" Came the shouted response.

Chris lifted his hand away from his gun and without letting go of the reins he lifted both hands.

"I'm Deputy Sheriff Larabee from Four Corners." Chris supplied as two men in dark suits emerged from the shadows.

"We know who you are Larabee, dismount." The speaker was one of the men now standing in front of him. He was carrying a shotgun.

Chris dismounted slowly unsure why fellow law officers were treating him this way. The more he thought about it the more he wanted to know why they were here without his knowledge. He knew Masterson would never have kept him in the dark if he knew.

"Look, who's in charge?" Chris demanded as his gun was taken.

"I am." A third man came out into the light. "Special agent Downs, Bureau of Industrial Alcohol, and I am well aware who you are sir."

"What the hell does that mean!" Chris demanded.

"It means Deputy that there has been an illegal drinking den in this area for months, and yet the local law - you - have done nothing about it. Now why is that do you suppose?"

Chris bristled at the implied slur. "Look you, I police this district my way. And since the first time we found a decent lead my partner was attacked with an axe! I reckon we were getting close."

"But not as close as us it would seem," Downs replied with oily smugness. "Go home Deputy, this is our case."

"The man who tried to kill my partner…my best friend, may be up there." Chris gestured up the track. "I demand to go with you!" he fumed.

"You will return to the town or we will arrest you, it is your choice, make it!"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was winning. He didn't win every hand, which might alienate the other players. But he won all the really big pots and was well ahead financially. Never forgetting his mother’s training he was also observing the room. He had spotted one man in particular. He stayed on the periphery of the room. He had drunk very little and kept taking a wristwatch from his pocket and checking it. Now he was edging toward the exit. As he watched the bar the staff began to move bottles out though the back of the tent.

"Um gentlemen, I find I must excuse myself from the next hand in order to make myself more comfortable." Ezra announced to his playing partners.

"What?" asked one of the players.

"He needs the john," supplied another.

"Just don't be too long," the first man warned darkly.

"I would like nothing better than to return to our game gentlemen, believe me." But I don't think that will be possible, he thought.

As Ezra gathered Shadow’s reins he heard the first shouts of the federal agents. Just minutes before he had seen a truck pull away from the back of the tent.

"Just in the nick of time Ezra," he said to himself.

"Or maybe not!" Came a voice as a large hand landed on his shoulder!

Chapter 12

Chris Larabee was not a man you could take a gun from and say 'run', he just wasn't built that way. Once he had remounted and retreated out of sight of the feds and their truck, he cut up into the tree line, just as Ezra had done, and followed them. He could hear the temporary speakeasy just head as the truck stopped in the shadows, effectively blocking the track. Chris assumed there must be another way in and out of the camp. After all he and Buck had never found it, so whoever was running things was no idiot. And besides, every abandoned site they had found in the past had had two access points. Circling around the clearing keeping well back in the shadows, he eventually came upon what he was expecting to find. A second track leading away from behind the tent. It was if anything even narrower than the one the federal agents’ truck had just negotiated. Parked behind the tent was a truck, it was smaller then the ones the truckers and the feds were using. Buck's words came back to him, maybe this was the truck Buck had found, and that discovery had nearly cost him his life.

Chris dismounted and tethered his borrowed horse so he could creep nearer. Just as he did men began to emerge from the rear of the tent and stared to load crates, which from their sound were full of bottles on to the truck. They were clearly practised at this and the vehicle was quickly loaded. Chris was about to circle back and tell the feds what was going on when he heard a familiar sound. Investigating further he found Shadow tethered among the trees well out of sight of anyone in the clearing. Although Chris could hear nothing Shadow's flicking ears told him someone was coming. The thief, for who else could it be, was a boy of no more than twelve in Chris’ eyes. As he watched the boy looked back down as the truck pulled away from the back of the tent and the feds made their move. Just as he was congratulating himself on escaping Chris clapped a hand on his slender shoulder.

"That!" Chris growled at the startled boy. "Is my horse!"

Ezra stared the man in the eye.

"Then sir, I suggest you don't leave him unattended in the woods at night, I was concerned some miscreant would harm such a valuable creature and came to check on his welfare." The boy gave Chris a confident smile with no hint of the lie he had just told.

"You stole my horse, no one else."

"Sir, I resent that accusation! Where is your proof?" Ezra demanded.

Chris grip on the slight shoulder tightened, so much so that Ezra gasped. "You…stole…my…horse."

"Borrowed." Ezra had decided to not try to con the deputy, he was just not going to fall for it and he clearly didn't believe in legal niceties. "I would have returned him before dawn, I swear."

"If I didn't believe that we wouldn't even be having a conversation, you understand?" Chris eyed the young man; even in moonlight with the dark shadows of the forest playing across his face, a seriously mad Chris Larabee was a terrifying sight.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra rode back to town on Shadow. There was no need to tie or handcuff him, with Chris so close the loyal black would go nowhere Cardinal didn't go with his master. They returned by a circuitous route, making sure none of the federal agents saw them. Once at the sheriff's office Chris stood and watched as Ezra bedded Shadow down for the night and then walked Cardinal over to the presbytery and did the same. Finally Chris locked the teenage con artist in the cell for the night.

"I suggest you sleep boy, in the morning you and I are gonna have a conversation. Do I make myself clear?" he asked.

"As crystal, sir, I assure you," Ezra admitted meekly.


With that he shut the door, leaving Ezra with just a feeble light from an under-powered bulb over the door that led to the cell area. Ezra sat on the bed with his knees pulled up to his chin. Oh you did it this time! He told himself. You failed so miserably and so comprehensively they are going to actually lock you up this time. What would mother say about such amateurish carelessness I wonder? He didn't bother to give himself an answer, he didn't even bother to cry, what was the point, crying was to make other people feel sorry for you, there was no one to see him cry and even if they did, they wouldn't care, no one ever did. Except Mrs Kelly. He remembered the warm kitchen, that odd smell, that he eventually discovered had something to do with diapers, the food, the bar of soap slipped into his pocket. Why was he trying so hard to get away from here? Why was he trying to get to St Louis, to people he had never even heard of let alone met? Because Mother told him to? She had demonstrated all too often how little she cared about him, so why in heaven’s name was he still trying to please her? The questions spun around his young head finding no answers only more questions. As he rolled on to his side on the coarse wool blanket, he didn't even notice the tears falling down his cheeks as he waited for the oblivion of sleep.

Chris debated whether to call the ranch or not, Buck needed his sleep, but then again he would most likely sleep only fitfully until he knew what was happening. What he hadn't expected when he did call was for the receiver to be picked up so fast and not by Buck!

"Hello?" came the young hesitant voice.

"Vin is that you?"

"Yes sir," Unsure if he was in trouble or not Vin was hedging his bets as he spoke to Chris.

"What are you doing up at this hour?"

"Well, Buck was worried about Shadow but he's awful tired, he looks kinda sick, so when he fell asleep I sat by the phone so if you rang he wouldn't have to wake up." Vin explained.

"How long have you been sitting there?" Chris wondered out loud.

"Um, well, I heard you ring Buck and I got up, and Buck looked worried and he went out to look in the barn and then he came back and JD was awake. I think JD is worried 'cause doctor Nathan came and he don't like doctors, so JD slept on Buck's bed and Buck fell asleep too. He's got his clothes on, 'sept his boots, an' he's on top of the covers but he fell asleep quite quick. So I waited up, it's okay I'm not afraid of the dark, it's not near as scary as the cellar or even the infirmary, honest."

Stunned by the boy's confident courage and insight Chris was unsure how to go on for a moment. "Well that was a very kind and brave thing to do Vin," he said eventually. "I've found Shadow so don't you worry. Tell Buck in the morning, don't wake him up especially, I'll be there as soon as I can tomorrow, I promise."

"Okay Chris," Vin replied very much relieved he had done the right thing.

"Go to bed now, alright? Get some sleep; tell Buck not to even try any chores I'll be back to do them. I'm relying on you to stop him."

"You can trust me Chris, I won't even let him cook breakfast, I'll do it…"

"Vin I don't thin…"

"Bye Chris."

The line went dead before he could stop Vin's plans to cook. Oh well, he thought, I guess he can't do anything that can't be repaired, replaced or cleaned!

+ + + + + + +

In the morning Chris walked into the cell area to find Ezra curled up still fully-dressed on top of the bed. Now, in daylight, as he watched the sleeping boy he took in just how young he was. He didn't look much older than Vin, his anger of the night before, partially fuelled by his encounter with the federal agents, not only the theft of his horse, had dissipated some, especially with the youth before him. He was fairly sure this was the boy who had been eating in the diner and who had watched Buck and the boys play. Well he couldn't leave him here alone, nor could he not go home.

"Hey boy! Time to wake up!" he called as he opened the door.

Ezra blinked as he pulled his head up, for a second he forgot where he was; looking around wildly his eyes came to rest on the imposing figure dressed in black standing in the doorway of the cell. As he pulled himself up his recollection of the night before returned. Standing, he tried to straighten his jacket, smooth out his hair and shine his shoes on the back of his trousers.

"What's your name son?" Chris asked in an even tone.

"Ethan Salter." Ezra replied.

"You're coming with me for breakfast, I don't want to put you in handcuffs but I will if I need to. Do I need to?" Chris asked sternly.

"No sir." Ezra shook his head. He genuinely didn't intend to run, after all the sheriff had all his money, even his watch, where could he go?

Chris led the boy to the bathroom and then out to the stable. "You'll have to ride behind me," he explained as he led Shadow out already tacked up.

Ezra rode behind the black clad lawman in uncharacteristic silence. As they arrived he surveyed the small neat farmstead. The new looking house, the strong post and rail fences enclosing the paddocks containing gleaming horses and the old but well-kept barn. Shadow stopped outside the house, and Chris reached around and took hold of Ezra's forearm.

"Time to get down boy," Chris instructed, swinging the slight boy to the ground.

Ezra stood in silence beside the horse until Chris was ready. "Inside," came the curt instruction. As Chris opened the screen door and pushed open the heavy main door Ezra fell in step behind him.

"Hello anyone up?" Chris called not too loudly.

"Chris!" Vin's shrill voice answered him from the kitchen, followed by an equally loud JD 'shushing' him.

Vin ran out of the kitchen with JD hot on his heels. As he approached Chris could see flour in his hair, on his face, his clothes and the hands that grabbed him around the waist leaving, he had no doubt, huge flour hand-prints on his black pants and jacket. If Vin's flour dusting was bad it was as nothing to what came next. A small dark object flew at him and clamped itself around his leg, a small dark object covered in maple syrup and butter!

"Hi Chris," JD greeted with an innocent smile.

"Hi boys. Let me guess - you made pancakes?"

"Uh-huh. Vin makes real good pancakes, you want one?" JD explained as he let go. "But we gotta be quiet coz Buck's still sleeping."

"Who's he?" Vin asked.

Chris had almost forgotten Ezra standing in the doorway behind him.

"Boys this is Ethan, he's going to have breakfast with us," Chris explained.

"He's the boy who watched us behind the church," Vin stated eyeing Ezra suspiciously.

Chris turned to Ezra who was looking sullen and uncomfortable. "That so?" he asked. Ezra just nodded. "Why were you watching them?" To this Ezra just shrugged.

"Boys, take Ethan into the kitchen, I'm going to check on Buck. Ethan." Chris turned his full glare on Ezra.

"Yes sir?"

"Be in the kitchen."

"Yes sir."

Buck was, as JD had said asleep, after Vin had said he looked sick Chris had been worried. But he looked okay to Chris. He was sprawled across the bed on his stomach. Chris crept forward and lay his hand across his friend's brow, which was mercifully cool. Buck mumbled something and tried to swat Chris' hand as if it was a fly.

"Sleep well old friend, I'll take care of things," he whispered. "'Bout time you were on the receiving end of some care for once."

"Why is you here?" JD asked Ezra.

"Why are you here?" Vin corrected. Then he turned his gaze on Ezra.

Ezra didn't say anything, any number of flippant lies came to him, excesses, justifications, but he couldn't bring himself to say anything.

"Well?" Vin asked.

"I…er…stole your father's horse," he stated looking at Vin.

Vin and JD stared at him for a while. Vin's heart soared at the idea of Chris as his father, and he didn't say anything to correct the misunderstanding, and if JD had heard it, he said nothing.

"You stoleded Shadow?" JD asked no believing him.

Ezra nodded and looked down at the floor. Vin picked up the plate with a rather large misshapen pancake on it and removed it from the table in front of Ezra.

"Ethan doesn’t get breakfast?" Chris asked as he came into the kitchen.

"He stoleded Shadow," JD stated frowning at Ezra. "He said so!" Vin was scowling at Ezra as well.

"Well no, he didn't steal Shadow, he borrowed Shadow, but he didn't ask me first. Do you know the difference between stealing and borrowing JD?"

"If you borrowed something you give it back after," JD stated.

"That's right. And no matter what Ethan did, he deserves some breakfast. Vin put the plate back," Chris instructed.

Vin looked at Chris for a long time, and then he put the plate down very hard and walked to the far side of the big table. JD picked up the bottle of syrup and took it with him to Vin's side of the table. He knew Chris was watching him.

"When he borroweded Shadow Buck was worried and he didn't sleep and he's sick still and he's s'ppose to sleep lots, Doctor Nathan said so." JD stated firmly still frowning at the boy opposite him.

"You didn't think of that did you?" Chris said to Ezra. "That someone might be hurt because of what you did, that a little boy might be frightened because you made his brother get up off his sick bed to look for my missing horse in the middle of the night."

Ezra shook his head.

"Everything we do has consequences, not just for ourselves, you would do well to remember that, boy."

They feasted on pancakes, Vin's were a little on the thick and undercooked side, but there was nothing wrong with his batter and once Chris took over cooking the pancakes were fine. Chris made all three boys help with the horse chores. Ezra clearly didn't have much experience but he didn't complain. JD did his best in between running back to the house to check that Buck was still sleeping.

It was getting on for lunchtime when Vin suddenly asked where JD was. Chris looked up realising it had been some time since JD had last trotted off to the house. Just as he was going to investigate he saw JD walk out onto the porch followed by Buck, his white sling clearly visible. The two brothers gave the workers a wave as Buck sat down on the old chair. As they watched JD dragged an old wood box up to Buck for the big man prop his feet on.

"Well, I think that it's time for lunch," Chris announced.

Vin was still cold-shouldering Ezra and as the three of them approached the house JD stood up and placed himself between Buck and Ezra, his dark eyes burning with indignation that the horse 'borrower' should come close to his Buck.

"JD," Buck called softly, causing the five-year-old to look around at his brother. "Come here Little'n."

JD turned and stepped into the arm Buck held out to him. Buck wrapped his good arm around JD's small waist.

"I take it this is Ethan?" he enquired of the stranger.

"Yes, he's the one that borrowed Shadow." JD was still scowling at Ezra.

"Well I don't think he's gonna hurt no one do you?" JD didn't respond. "JD?"

"No…I…s'pose not," JD admitted.

Buck looked up at Ezra. Ezra had taken in the still-pale complexion and the sling, and was feeling guilty.

"Sir, I am truly sorry that my thoughtless and selfish action disturbed you. And I hope you can forgive me and that you are feeling better soon."

"That’s an interesting accent you have there son, how long since you left Louisiana?" Buck pronounced Louisiana the southern way, 'Loos-ee-anna'

Ezra shrugged "A while."

"The big easy?" Buck asked in Cajun French.

Ezra nodded, the smallest of smiles on his tense face. Buck just winked at him.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra spent all day at the ranch until after the evening meal. Then Chris took him back to the sheriff's office for the night. While it was true that he had made no attempt to run Chris had not forgotten how easily and confidently he had lied when Chris caught him, nor how much he appeared to have won from the loggers at poker. 'Ethan' was no innocent and he didn't trust him not to run in the night. And while there was a secure room he could sleep in Chris wanted to make a point, by putting him back in the cells. Telling Vin he was going to be away another night proved harder than he thought.

"But why?" Vin asked trying not to whine.

"Because I have to, it's my job," Chris knelt down in front of Vin. "You’re one of us now, right?"

"Yes," Vin confirmed.

"And we're family, the four of us, yes?"


"Well that’s what we do, we work as a team, my job is to be in town tonight, Buck's job is to stay here, get better and watch over you two. Your job is to make sure he doesn’t over do it and not let JD wear him out."

Vin studied him very seriously. "Does JD have job?" he asked, thinking it was unfair if JD didn't.

"Of course, JD's job is to make Buck happy, play with you, spoil Tsar and make us all laugh."

Vin grinned back at Chris. "He's very good at all those jobs," he confirmed.

"And you're good at your jobs too. So are we okay about this?" Chris asked quietly.

"I s'pose."

"Tomorrow morning Buck is gonna drive both of you into town, just as soon as the chores are done. Alright?"

A real smile finally split Vin's face. "Yeah, I can do my chores real quick can't I?"

Chris remembered the whirlwind of Friday morning. "That you can," he confirmed.

+ + + + + + +

Come Monday all five of them were back in town. Vin and JD were playing with the Potter children. Ezra was in the cell. Out in the office Buck was going through the post, but was mostly just drinking his coffee and wishing he hadn't convinced Chris he was fit enough to come into town. His head wasn't hurting so much and his shoulder only hurt if he moved it suddenly, but he was bored, tired and achy. Chris was out in town trying to find out more about Ezra before he questioned him. He had spoken to Inez who confirmed he had been eating regularly for more than a week, he always ate the cheapest meal, was quiet and unobtrusive. She noted that he didn't come for a few days. Josiah pointed him in the direction of the Kelly's, who told him of 'Ethan's' hard work, Mrs. Kelly took Chris aside just before he left.

"Sheriff, he was, well neglected, I washed his clothes, had to give him some soap so he could wash in the creek, and he was always hungry." Chris noted the genuine concern in the young mother's voice.

"I suspected as much, thank you for looking after the boy, I'll see he's looked after don't worry," Chris assured.

Finally he tracked down the room at Mrs Jenkins boarding house where Ezra had been staying. He gathered up the small collection of possessions, noting that the boy had never unpacked even though he had been there over a week. He was on the point of leaving when he spotted the screwed-up bit of paper in the corner of the room. Unfolding it he read the telegram Maude had sent.

On his return to the office Chris looked in on the boy in the cells. Green eyes met green, then Ezra looked away. He felt uncomfortable around Chris. Not because he had 'borrowed' his horse, or been caught gambling, but because he knew none of his tricks, lies, and word games would work on the tall blonde man dress in black. Despite witnessing how kind and tender Chris was with both Vin and JD, Ezra sensed there was genuine menace within Chris. He couldn't be sure that menace wouldn't one day be unleashed at him. He had been on the receiving end of male aggression more than once, in a long line of stepfathers, uncles (both real and passing), not to mention various family friends and distant relatives he had stayed with. More than one had taken out his anger and frustrations on Ezra. Ezra had always been the scapegoat, he was convenient, no one asked questions as to how he acquired the various bruises he often carried. And since he had been taught never to let anyone know when he was hurt, never to let anyone see his weakness, so he never complained.

Chris showed Buck the telegram.

"See what you can find out about these people will you, I wan'a check something." With that he began to go through some files.

Some thirty minutes later Buck had got through to the St Louis PD and persuaded them to investigate 45 West Union Street. And Chris had found what he was looking for. He pulled out a new looking file and sat opposite Buck.

"You remember that memo we got about a week back, some big fraud case in Seattle?" he asked.

Buck shrugged, which was a mistake. "Ow…yeah I guess, something about a telegram."

"Right, someone sent a telegram from here that clinched some big land swindle. We were meant to find out who, but then the poisoning came up and you got hit and we didn't. Well the thing is the main suspect, (who is missing with all the money) is a woman called Maude Standish, AKA Maude Smith, Mary Sands and Margaret Salter."


"Yeah, ah. I don't think illegal gambling and horse borrowing are the only things we need to talk to him about."

He got up and crossed to the door that separated the cells from the office. Barely had he got his hand on the door when the street door flew open. Chris abandoned the door, failing to notice that it didn’t latch properly and began to swing open slightly. Striding in to the small office came three men in almost matching dark suits.

"Which one of you is Deputy Sheriff Christopher Larabee?" the lead man demanded.

"I am," Chris said coming forward. "Just who the hell are you?"

By now Buck was also on his feet. The two men stood shoulder to shoulder facing the intruders.

"Here." The man passed Chris a folded sheet of paper. "That is a federal warrant to search this office and to seize any evidence we find."

"This has to be joke?" Buck asked, not really believing it but still hoping it was so.

"This is no joke deputy, now step aside."

"What the hell is all this about?" Chris demanded.

"Oh I think you know, I think you know full well why the raid on Saturday failed, why the gut rot was all gone just before we got there, and you just happen to be riding around in the middle of the night that very same night!"

Chris was so stunned he just stood there for a second saying nothing. They actually thought he was in league with bootleggers?

"One of them bootleggers tried to kill Buck! You think I did that? You're mad. If there's a leak it's yours not ours," Chris fumed. "Buck, get Masterson on the phone, then Travis."

Buck didn't say anything, he just glared at the men as they went through the files, then picked up the receiver and dialled.

"Masterson knows by now, and calling your friend the judge won't help; this is a federal matter."

One of the agents, a tall fair-haired man, walked into the cells, had a look around and came out. "Who is the kid in the cells?" he demanded.

Chris turned to him. "Name of Salter, he stole a horse."

It took a long time for the feds to finish, they took some files but it was more for show than because they found something incriminating. Both men took a deep breath once they were gone. They were due to collect the boys for lunch and they needed to be calm, and not convey their rage to the youngsters. They seemed to have failed however because both boys were very quiet and reserved. They had planned to go home after lunch but Travis had said he was coming into town to speak to them, and Chris still hadn't questioned Ezra. So Buck took them over to the church and told them they could play in the field behind the graveyard, and he or Chris would come get them when it was time to go home.

+ + + + + + +

"Well Mr Salter," Chris addressed Ezra, who now sat on a hard chair on the far side of the desk.

Ezra wasn't sure how this was going to go but he wasn't prepared for what happened next.

"Or is it Standish? I found this." He held up the telegram. "You are the one who sent the telegram in the Rowlins land swindle."

It was clear to Ezra this was a statement not a question.

"I am not worried about the borrowing of my horse, you've done two nights in the cells that covers that. You were gambling, illegally, well so do half the men in the state, you beat them, good for you. Just don’t do it in my county again. But … a land swindle, costing several hundred thousand dollars, that’s different."

Several hundred thousand! Ezra gasped silently. His Mother had run off to Europe with all that money and she didn't even send him train fare! She's gone and I'm going to take the fall! None of this shock showed on his face, he just sat there impassively.

"Let's start with your name." Chris sat back and waited.

Ezra wanted to lie; he wanted not to be Maude Standish's son. But somehow he knew he couldn't lie to Larabee, he looked up at Buck standing against the door. He was looking for support, and although he saw kindness and even sympathy he knew he would get no support, so he looked back at Larabee.

"Ezra, Ezra Standish sir."

"Did you know what the telegram was about?"

"No sir." That at least was the truth, he knew it was something illegal, but he had no idea what, was going on, or how big it was.

Chris regarded him in silence for a long time. Finally he said. "I believe you, but what I believe is of no consequence. I don't think we can keep you out of court Ezra, not on this."

"No sir." Ezra said dejectedly.

"Kid," Buck's voice came from the doorway.

"Sir?" Ezra looked up.

"I have more bad news for you son. That address in St Louis. The family that live there are called Rossenburg, the Phillips haven't lived there for over two years, they left owing six months rent. Sorry."

Well that wasn't totally unexpected, his mother was always sending him to stay with people who weren't expecting him and hadn't heard from Maude in years.

"You don't seem surprised," Chris commented.

Ezra just shrugged looking down at the floor. A car drew up outside. Buck instinctively looked over his shoulder; winced because it pulled his stitches, then looked back.

"It's the Judge," he announced.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat silently in the corner of the sheriff's office as the three men discussed the problem with the federal agents. Then they moved on to what Ezra had seen of the raid. He told them of the man with the watch, and of the staff moving the alcohol out of the back just before the agents arrived. Then they moved on to talk about Vin, almost forgetting Ezra was there. The main problem was that Stockwell was a private institution with some very wealthy and influential patrons. There was no reason for the law to search the place, no basis for a search warrant, unless Vin made a formal statement. This Chris wanted to avoid. It was possible he wouldn't be believed and once out in the open he was again at the mercy of the system, he could even be sent back to Stockwell. No, before Chris or the judge would let Vin make a statement or even testify he needed cast iron proof. But that would required them to go through the courts to prove they had reason and that even is it succeeded would give Rance and his cronies a chance to hide the evidence.

"It seems to me…" Ezra's voice broke into the conversation. "That what you need is an inside agent. Someone with the skills to find the evidence you need on the inside."

The three men turned to look at him.

"You're probably right but where would we find such an agent?" Judge Travis asked.

"Well if a young man who had unwittingly committed a serious crime were looking for a way to redeem himself, and were to help the law in such a way. A modern thinking and fair minded Judge might look kindly upon that young man and consider he had made amends and wipe the young man's slate clean."

Three adults regarded the boy for some time; finally it was the judge who spoke.

"Now that might just work."

"Judge! You can't be serious!" Buck erupted. "You know what happened to Vin, you can't send anyone else in there, ain't safe!"

"There is no such thing as safe." Ezra's simple comment silenced Buck.

"He's right, nothing is one hundred per cent safe but that don't mean you have to go putting yerself in danger! No Ezra, it's just too dangerous," Chris confirmed.

"I am not Vin," Ezra stated. "I am older than him, stronger, fitter and I have certain skills I can use."

"We need proof that boys are mistreated. I don't see how you are going to get that unless you are mistreated and it's not worth that," Chris tone had softened.

"Damn straight!" Buck confirmed.

"It is my experience that men who will do such things rarely confine themselves to just one nefarious activity. You say young Vin was suffering from malnutrition when you found him?"

Chris nodded.

"Yet I assume the state provides sufficient funds to feed the boys?" Ezra continued.

Travis could see where Ezra's think was taking him. "So what is happening to the money?"

"Indeed." Ezra encouraged.

"If you could find evidence of fraud, Vin would never have to testify and I think I can promise no charges will ever be brought regarding a certain telegram."

"You can't be seriously considering this!" Buck fumed; he just couldn't understand how anyone would willingly put a child in that place. "I mean how old is he 11? 12 at most!"

"I'm 13 Mr Wilmington, and believe me I am quite aware of the dangers."

"One week, I'll give you one week, then we come to get you. I can send you to be remanded in custody as a flight risk, for horse stealing, we don't want this Rance character knowing you have any connection to all that money."

"I assure you I have know idea where mother or the money is," Ezra said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"I believe you, but Rance may not."

Buck turned to Chris looking for support. "Chris?"

"I'm going to go with Ezra and the Judge on this pal, I know it ain't perfect, but it is a plan, more than we had before."

Buck just scowled at the three of them and stormed out.

Well Ezra you've got a deal, not ideal, but as mother always says, if you can work it to your advantage any deal is better than none, he told himself.


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