Gathering the Flock

by KT

AU - Lost Lambs

Chapter 16
Vin woke up to find himself in a warm bath; Chris was beside him supporting his shoulders and gently soaping away the grime and aches.

"Welcome back, sleepy-head," he said quietly, as Vin blinked at him. "How are you feeling now?"

Vin continued to stare then he said. "Hungry."

"Well," said Chris laughing, "that we can easily solve just as soon as you're all clean."

A newly washed and dressed in clean clothes Vin emerged into the living room with Chris at his side. He smiled at Sanchez and then flinched at the sight of Travis and a strange woman beside him.

"It's alright Vin, you remember Judge Travis don't you?" Vin nodded in response to Chris' question. "And this is his wife Mrs. Travis." Vin just looked on somewhat overwhelmed.

"Well, we only met the once didn't we Vin?" Orin Travis said sympathetically.

Mrs Travis came forward and knelt in front of Vin. Evie Travis had heard nothing else from her husband for weeks ever since he had visited the first time to see Vin. She felt she knew each of them personally. Certainly JD had been just as described. When they got to the house and found only him and Josiah keeping watch, her motherly instincts took over. As well as caring for JD and his sorry looking nightshirt, she had done some cooking and cleaned the house top to bottom. She had noted to her pleasant surprise that although it wasn't up to her standards it wasn't dirty either.

She held out her hand. "How do you do, Vin, my name is Eve and I'm very pleased to meet you. JD told me all about you and how you looked after him when you were in the woods together, I think you are a very brave and sensible young man."

Praise, especially adult praise, was still a novelty to Vin and despite his reservations he beamed at Evie, and extended his own hand for a formal handshake, he even managed a whispered 'hello'.

Chris looked down at Vin as he explained about Travis. "Vin, Judge Travis is a very important lawman, much more important than me or Buck, if he says people have t' do something then they have t' do it and he is going to tell the law that you can stay here forever."

"Really?" Vin asked desperately hoping it was true.

"Yes son, really." Travis assured.

Before Vin could react or even thank the Judge they were interrupted by a whirlwind.

"VIN! VIN!" JD had heard Vin from the kitchen were he was 'helping' Buck to set the table, though truth was he was so exited at having Vin home safe he couldn't think straight enough to even put the spoons out. He came flying out, spoons still in his hand, Pony in the other. "You're awake, come on we're gonna have supper Miz Travis made stew but it's nice and she says she's gonna teach Buck how to make nice stew and she made apple pie just for you 'cause it's yer favourite and she thought you might be sad but I said you were home now so you'd be very happy an' we are gonna have some cookies as well but not yet Chris said not tonight 'cause we'll be fulled up but I said I'm never fulleded and he…"

Josiah's hand clamped down over the runaway mouth.

"Thanks Josiah," Buck called from the doorway.

"My pleasure brother," replied Sanchez.

Both Travis' just stood and stared, neither one had ever heard one of JD's express speeches. Vin just started to laugh.

"That was…does he do that often?" Travis stammered out, looking at the infuriated JD.

"Yup, and it just goes on and on iff'n ya don't put a stop to it, a hand is fine but food works better," Buck explained from the door.

"What is it Vin?" Chris asked as Vin laughed.

"I'm home," Vin stated smiling at JD as he struggled to free himself from Josiah.

JD finally managed to wiggle free. "'Cause you're home you live here are you coming 'cause I'm hungry now can we get milk to drink Buck please not water I like milk best why do cows have milk…" As JD rambled on at breakneck speed, Vin walked quietly beside Chris toward the kitchen.

"Is it good to be home?" Chris asked.

Vin just took his hand and held it close to his cheek as he fell in step beside the most important person in his life.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra found the darkest corner of the dark garage to hide in. He pulled some boxes closer to him and curled himself up in a ball in a vain attempt to look even smaller. He got no sleep; he just sat and prayed he would somehow find a way out without detection. He couldn't go back, so he would have to run. Run where? In the end there was only one option. He would have to go back to Four Corners; he had to warn them that the man who tried to kill Buck was coming after Vin. He sat there in his corner for the rest of the night. Just after dawn, he heard voices outside.

"He can't be in there, it's locked."

"Weren't locked until late though, he might have hid in there then got locked in."

"Well I don't have a key."

"I'll get Mr Monroe, you check the other buildings again."

Ezra held his breath as the voices left. Me! They were searching for me! Blind panic spread through Ezra, he considered hiding in the truck but they were bound to check it, all he could do was keep still and try not to breath too hard. After about half an hour the voices were back, now joined by a third; it was a voice Ezra was not likely to forget.

"Thank you sir, these boys are like sewer rats; they get in everywhere, it won't take a minute to check." One of the earlier voices assured.

"No problem, I'll help you. I'll check the truck, you fellers take the rest of the place." Monroe's voice sounded soft and menacing to Ezra. He held his breath as the men began to move around the garage’s dim interior. He couldn't see anything but he heard someone get up onto the truck and move about, their boots making a distinctive sound on the metal truck bed. Finally the men stopped and one spoke to Monroe.

"Don't look like he's in here, didn't reckon he would be but we had'a check."

"Indeed, I…" And there he stopped, whatever he was going to say was lost. Ezra could feel him coming closer. "Well, well, well - what do we have here?"

Monroe bent down to examine the dusty concrete floor. There, clearly etched in the dust and dirt, was the trail left by the nearby barrel being dragged across the floor just a few inches or so toward the corner.

"A barrel that has moved itself in the night? I don't think so."

Ezra's heart was pounding so fast he felt sure they could hear it clear to the next county, his bladder protested and it took a supreme effort on his part not to give in to his body’s urgent desire to empty it. As he sat trapped, paralysed with fear, the barrel was pulled back, the smaller boxes Ezra had placed at its side were picked up one by one until he was uncovered.

"Would this be what you're looking for?" Monroe enquired sarcastically.

"Oh yes indeed." One of the guards reached down and grabbed Ezra by the hair and pulled him out.

Monroe smiled at Ezra. "No need for unpleasantness boys, just take him along to Mr Rance, I think I will even come with you." The very softness of his voice was terrifying Ezra.

+ + + + + + +

Gus Monroe had served a short time in the US Army in Europe during the Great War. He had never made it to the front line but had served the whole time in England and later just outside Paris. On returning to the States he had failed to hold down any number of jobs until his brother-in-law had given him a job. He was well aware he was there at his sister’s request and not very good at his job, but he had quickly cottoned onto his brother-in-law’s money-making venture and once he had earned some trust had come up with a way to double even triple profits. Finally he had found something he was good at. With it he had discovered ruthlessness he had never known he possessed.

He instructed the guard to hold the squirming, protesting Ezra outside Rance's private quarters while he entered. Having been woken with the news that another boy had got out, the chief warden was not in a good mood as he breakfasted privately on ham, eggs, pancakes and syrup, toast with the finest plum jelly and fresh coffee. This contrasted starkly with the boys in his care who dined on cold toast, oatmeal made with mostly water and either weak, lukewarm coffee or water.

"What do you want?" he growled as Monroe came in.

"I have your boy outside, the missing one," Monroe explained taking a bit of toast and buttering it generously. "But there is a problem…"

The problem had no easy solution - an obvious solution, but not an easy one.

"He did run away," Monroe commented. "Out all alone in the forest, no food, no shelter…"

"From them clothes I'd say he was a city boy." Rance speculated.

"Poor dear boy unprepared for the rigors of the outdoor life, lost and alone, too scared to come back where he belongs…" Monroe continued.

"He succumbs to starvation, exhaustion, illness?" Rance finished.

"Such a tragedy, so young; ah well, that’s what happens when you break the law." Monroe added as Rance stood, and using the connecting door let himself into his office next door.

Ezra was taken from the guard, who was then dismissed, and dragged into the office. He had tried to argue his way out of whatever beating was surely coming his way, but the guard had remained impassive and unresponsive. Now he stood in front of Rance just as Vin had. He resisted the urge to look at the door behind him and it's ominous scratch marks, marks he had seen only two nights ago.

"You it seems, Salter, need some more secure accommodation, some place that lock pick of yours won't get you out of." Rance said quietly from behind his desk.

"Sir I don't have…" Ezra stared to say.

"Oh, please don't, of course you do, no locks were forced, and they had been re-locked. Give it to me now boy, or I will have every stitch of clothing on your miserable back removed and shredded until I find it; do I make myself clear! Your gather my meaning!"

Ezra was no fool, he understood this was no idle threat.

"Yes sir," he responded meekly, then he fished in his pocket, down through the hole in the bottom and into the lining, he fumbled about a bit until he had retrieved his precious lock pick. For a second his hand closed over the slim cool metal, then he withdrew his hand and held it out. Monroe stepped forward and retrieved it.

"Remarkably simple, and yet so powerful," he mused as he examined the slender bent piece of metal, then he dropped it on the desk in front of Rance. "And so dangerous."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra found himself, although he didn't know it, in the same cellar Vin had spent those long twenty hours. The same dampness pervaded the air, the same offensive musty smell, the same all-encompassing blackness. Like Vin he initially just sat down by the door. He could hear Monroe walking away. Then there was nothing, silence. Eventually his ear became aware of the smallest noises. His own breathing, the occasional drip coming from a far corner, even occasional creaks from above someplace. Time ceased. Eventually Ezra could stay awake no longer. He removed his jacket and rolled it up to use as a pillow. Then despite the fear and discomfort he lay down to sleep. When he woke again in the same blackness it took some time to remember where he was and why it was so dark. He thought he must have been there a few hours at most. Even so he was very hungry and thirsty. Still he didn't move from his spot by the door. Ezra began to talk to himself as he sat huddled in the darkness.

To start with he recited poems and passages he had been made to learn by heart at school. At the time it was a chore only made bearable by dint of the fact that he had a near photographic memory and the learning part was easy. That same memory wouldn't let him forget things either.

"Thank you Mr Thomas," he said out loud to the English teacher who had drilled him in his pieces mercilessly.

Eventually he had to stop reciting out loud because his throat was so dry. But in his head the recitation was still going on. He struggled to remember all of The Jabberwocky but nevertheless he felt he did it justice. As time passed he found it harder and harder to concentrate on what he was trying to remember. He tried to go back to reciting out loud because then he could block out the new sound in the cellar. Rats! He could clearly hear them in the far corner scurrying back and forth. Every now and again one would venture closer only to run away again when he shouted at it in the darkness. But eventually the only sound he could make was a horse squeak. All he wanted was a drink, just one drink. He tried banging on the door but no one came.

+ + + + + + +

After a good night’s sleep Vin was almost his old self physically, but mentally it was a different matter. He stuck close to Chris at all times, never letting the blond man out of his sight. He had told Chris everything that had happened except about the man in the alley. JD was sworn to secrecy and so far the little boy had kept his council. Both boys remained on the ranch with Chris and Buck all the next day. Nathan Jackson stopped by the check on the boys and Buck.

"Well Vin, you're none the worse for wear, " he said with some satisfaction, as Vin pulled his shirt back on.

Next JD and Buck submitted to his ministrations. Buck let JD watch the doctor check his wounds.

"Yer head’s healing nicely, I'll take out them stitches for ya in a moment, the shoulder needs more time, it ain't infected but you still need to take it easy." Before Buck could protest Nathan continued. "I know you had to look for the boys but all that activity didn't do it no good did it, sore as all hell ain't it?"

Buck was about to deny it but then he caught sight of JD watching him, he needed to show JD it was best to be honest with the doctor.

"Yeah, some," he finally admitted.

"Well, there was some serious muscle damage you know? Takes time to heal. Now…" Nathan fixed JD with a firm look. "No lifting anything heavy, not even a brother," he warned. "And no swingin' an axe or such, just let it rest." By now he was again looking at Buck.

"I hear you, Doc."

"Good! But ya can lose the sling."

Buck decided not to mention that he had ditched the sling some time a go, or about carrying JD from the bathroom.

"Ready to get them stitches out?" Nathan asked.

He was more than ready; the damn things itched and he couldn't wash his hair properly. JD watched intensely, making sure the doctor didn't hurt his Buck. For his part Buck did his best to make not the slightest flinch, he smiled at JD and chatted to him and Nathan, as the doctor worked. Finally it was all done, and Buck turned to JD.

"Now JD, you gonna show Dr. Nathan your heel?" Buck looked JD in the eye.

The small boy looked at his brother and then at Nathan and then back to Buck, silently imploring him to say he didn't have to. But Buck's gaze was unwavering. Finally JD nodded his agreement. He sat on Buck's knee, buried his face in Buck's chest and submitted bravely as Jackson checked on the raw skin under the bandage. After applying some salve he rebandaged it, and told JD he was very brave. Then he gave Buck some of the salve for JD to use over the next few days until it was less raw.

+ + + + + + +

The next day Buck and JD went into town. Vin had refused, begging Chris not to go. Chris wanted Vin to get back to normal as soon as possible but he wasn't going to push it yet. Thus the two of them stayed behind while the two brothers headed into town. He hadn't been there more than two hours when Buck got a call from old man Farrow. His neighbour, Willard Quinn, was shooting his chickens again. With two cantankerous old men waving shotguns around, it was no place for a small boy, so he was forced to leave JD with Josiah, while he set out to calm the dispute.

"'Siah, can I go over to Miz Potter's store? I got two pennies I wanna get me an' Vin some candy," JD asked.

The store was only about forty yards away and JD wouldn't need to cross the road, not that there was any traffic.

"Alright, but you come straight back, you hear?" he counselled.

"Thanks 'siah, I'll come back real quick I promise." With that the small dark whirlwind was gone.

He came back much later than the priest had expected; in fact Josiah was about to go out and search for him when he came running back in looking – well, Josiah wasn't sure what he looked like. He had no bag of candy with him and as he watched Josiah saw some inner battle raging within the tiny form.

"Father 'siah?" JD asked cautiously.

"Yes my son," Sanchez had noted the use of his title and dropped into the language of a parish priest.

"Can I con…sess to you?"

JD was really too young to make confession but from the look of him this was important.

"Why JD, why confession, can't you just tell me, whatever it is?"

JD frowned, then shook his head. "If it's con…sesson it's a secret isn't it, you can't tell no one, that's what Mamma told me."

Josiah knelt in front of JD. "Yes, that's right."

Josiah waited for JD to make his mind up. JD didn't know the words to say, he wasn't even aware there were words, all he knew was his Ma had told him she could tell a priest all her problems and he couldn’t tell anyone else, not ever.

Finally he spoke. He told Josiah about the man in the alley, the man who had scared Vin so much. He told him the man was from the bad place that Vin had been in. Then he looked the kindly priest in the eye, fear now evident.

"I saw him again, 'siah, in the town, the bad man," he finally admitted. "I promised Vin I wouldn't tell but if I con…sessed it's not the same is it, 'cause you can't tell no one 'sept God."

Josiah tried desperately to think how to handle the situation, he had no doubt JD was telling the truth, and it was information he had to share, if JD would let him.

"JD where exactly did you see the man?" he asked quietly.

JD looked even more worried. "I'm sorry Father I didn't go straight to Miz Potter, I went to see the spiders under the sidewalk, I'm sorry."

Josiah gently cupped the boy's small cheek in his big hand. "It's alright JD, just tell me what you saw."

"I looked in the window of the diner, I was gonna wave to Miz Inez, and I seed him, the bad man." JD looked very scared indeed as his big hazel eyes held Josiah's pale blue ones.

"What was the bad man doing JD?"

JD just shrugged. "He's just watchin' out the window, I think he's looking at the jail."

Sanchez took a deep breath. "JD what you told me is between you and me and God, but…I think we need to tell Buck and Chris as well, will you let me tell them?"

JD shook his head instantly. "No, I promised I wouldn't tell, I promised Vin."

"I know you did JD, but that man is very bad, and there are other children in the bad place, other little boys he could be mean to," he explained patiently.

JD continued to stare into Sanchez's blue eyes, finally he said. "Like Ezra?"

"Yes, like Ezra."

As the priest watched and continued to stroke the boy's cheek, he could see the inner battle within the boy, as he weighed the need to keep his promise against the welfare of Ezra and the other boys. JD hated other people not to be happy, the idea of other boys, especially Ezra suffering upset him. He might not be one hundred percent sure about Ezra, he still hadn't fully forgiven him for borrowing Shadow and worrying Buck. But the other night in the cabin he had been kind to JD and taught him the card game JD like so much. Finally he nodded his little raven-haired head, never once breaking eye contact.

"I can tell Buck and Chris about the man who frightened Vin, the man from the bad place?" Josiah clarified. JD was young but the sanctity of the confessional was unbreakable, he had to be sure JD was agreeing.

"Yes," came the one word conformation.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was now in a dilemma. There was no knowing how long it would take Buck to sort out the problem at Farrow's place, and since there was no phone out there, no way to find out. He tried to call Chris at the ranch but there was no answer.

"'Siah! 'siah he came out!" JD called from the front room.

Sanchez came running in from the study. "Where is he son?" he asked urgently.

JD pointed through the window at a man crossing the street. As they watched he looked at the empty jail and then walked on past to a black car parked at the far end of the street. Josiah quickly bundled JD into his own car and stopping only to speak to Gloria Potter as he passed, and asking her to tell Buck he had JD with him, he followed the car. Since there was only one road out of town it wasn't difficult to catch up to the man. As they watched the black car turned down the track to the ranch then pulled off the track and parked under a tree. Josiah let his car roll to a silent stop in a deep shadow.

"'Siah, are we being real detectives?" JD asked.

"I reckon so, young John Dunne, I reckon so." Just then he was distracted by the man leaving the car and setting off across the fields in the direction of a small stand of trees. "Now where is he off to?" Sanchez asked himself.

"We gotta follow him." JD was already opening the car door.

"No JD, you have to stay here, sit tight and don't leave the car, you understand?"

"No 'siah, I wanna come with you an' be a detective too," JD whined.

"JD it's not a game, remember this is the bad man who scared Vin. You just do as I say and stay here. Promise me JD."

JD nodded and promised to do as he told.

As Josiah got closer he could hear the sound of splashing and the happy voices of Vin and Chris. Behind the trees was the lake. ‘Lake’ was a bit of an overstatement, it really wasn't much more than a pond with ideas above its station. There was a small wooded platform protruding from one side giving easy access to the water. Chris had decided to take Vin's mind off recent events by teaching him to swim. The weather was warm and the water inviting. Chris did own some swimming trunks but Vin was wearing his undershorts. It had gone well and Vin had managed a few strokes on his own already. Now they were standing in the shallows splashing each other. Josiah circled behind the trees watching the man as he watched the pair play.

Finally he could stand it no longer. Moving with a stealth and silence that belied his size Josiah crept up behind the man. Then grabbing one arm and twisting it around and up behind the man's back he growled.

"There's a name for man like you, you know?

"I…I wasn't…I…I didn't, I'm not like that!" the man stammered indignantly as Josiah frog marched him out into the clearing beside the lake.

Vin and Chris both looked around instantly. Chris heard Vin gasp, as he watched Vin began to visibly shake. He waded across to him deliberately standing to block Vin's view of Josiah and the man he held.

"Is that him?" Chris asked quietly.

Vin merely nodded.

"He can't take you Vin, no one can, trust me."

Vin looked up into Chris' green eyes and almost instantly the trembling was gone, he visibly relaxed as Chris lifted him up onto the platform before hauling himself up to stand beside him. Then he wrapped Vin in a towel before winding one around his own waist, before the two of them walked toward Sanchez, Vin making sure to keep Chris between him and the man.

"What are you doing here?" Chris asked even before he had reached the man. "Haven't you done enough damage, you and that place?"

The man tried to back away from Chris, recognising he was very dangerous at that moment, but Josiah's strong hold stopped him.

"No…no, I wanted to check he was alright, I saw your name on some paper work, I just wanted to check on him. I looked after him."

Chris frowned at this last statement, then he looked down at Vin who was clutching his hand as he peered around Chris' leg watching the man.

"Is that true, he took care of you?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded. "In the infirmary, he was…was…" He couldn't say he was nice but he hadn't been mean. "He brought me lots of food, an' doctored m' back. He didn't shout at me."

This testimony was given very quietly but there was no tremble in the voice. Chris turned back to the man.

"Well I guess we owe you an apology," Chris said more softly.

The man looked at Vin, still cowering behind Chris. "Did you think I would take you back Tanner?" he asked.

Vin didn't even nod he just looked up at Chris.

"No Tanner, you have to stay here with the sheriff," he assured. Then he looked back at Chris. "I can see he is in safe hands, I'm glad, I'll go now."

Josiah, at a signal from Chris, let the man go. "Sir, you clearly know what goes on at this Stockwell place," the priest said looking the man in the eye.

The man nodded.

"Why don't you do something, say something?" Josiah prompted.

"I'd like to, but I need the job, hadn't had a job for near two year before I got this, I can't risk it, I got family of my own to look to, sorry."

Chris and Josiah could understand that, times were hard, jobs too precious to risk losing them.

"At least tell us your name," Chris requested.

"I'd rather not, if you don't mind, I'm just glad the lad has found a safe place."

Just then Buck emerged though the trees. He looked at the stranger then questioningly at Chris.

"I'll tell you later," Chris said to his friend, then he turned back to the man and extended his hand. "Thank you for what you tried to do."

Buck and Josiah escorted the man back to his car. Buck had returned to town not long after Josiah left, read the note Mrs. Potter had pinned on the door and set out again. On finding JD in Josiah's car, he had heard the whole story at express speed. Once he put JD in his truck, with a very stern warning not to leave until he came to get him, he set off to find the mystery man and the priest.

+ + + + + + +

The evening at the Circle T was very relaxed, Vin felt more secure, JD was released from the burden of keeping such a big secret, and Vin had forgiven him instantly for telling. Chris felt happier at having left Ezra in Stockwell now he knew there was at least one sympathetic person watching out for the boys. Buck tried to relax, but he couldn't, and he couldn't work out why, in the end he poured himself a long shot of whisky and went to bed just after the boys. But still he couldn't relax. Something just kept niggling at him, a memory that he couldn't quite retrieve. When he did eventually fall asleep he tossed and turned restlessly in his sleep until he suddenly sat up in bed at around three am, drenched in perspiration.

It took Buck a few minutes to work out where he was and to pull the fragmented images of the dream into focus. But when he did the implications were horrifying. He half walked half stumbled to the bathroom and splashed some cool water on his face, drank two glasses of water in no more than four swallows and then finally straightening up, looked in the mirror. He asked himself was he sure. The answer was yes.

"Chris!" Buck shook the sleeping Larabee once, as ever once was all it took, and Larabee was awake.

"Wha'..what's wrong? Are the boys alright?" he asked groggily.

"Boys are fine. The man who was here, the one Vin said was kind to him, I recognised him." There was a tone in Buck's voice that was worrying Chris, who sat up and turned on the light.

"Recognised? From where?"

"The day I got hit, he was there! He was one of the drivers waiting for the tree to come down."

Chris didn't react instantly.

"Don't you see," Buck continued. "It's too much of a coincidence, he's the one who hit me, he's a bootlegger. Remember Vin said he hid in a truck when he ran away?"

"Yeah," Chris agreed.

"An' as soon as he got out he was chased?"


"'Cause they thought he'd seen something, I bet it was the same truck."

"Oh Jesus!" breathed Chris.

"We have t' get Ezra out of there, poor boy don't know what an' who he's up against!"


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