by Phyllis

My thanks to Cin and Heidi for allowing me to borrow on their Vengeance Legend creation and for correcting my land lover's errors.

Thanks also to Marian for her beta help and friendly ear. And thanks to Katy for the great pic to go with the story.

The schooner cut through the waves at a speed of nine knots, the wind pushing her from the south. Vengeance rode the waves smoothly, her shallow draft leaving a low wake behind as the blue-white sails billowed and snapped in the breeze, carrying the crew further from their homes and the inlet that hid the privateer ship from the prying eyes of local loyalists.

Rake stood at the wheel, his face hidden by the mask that each officer worn above deck. The wind whipped the dark blue sash around his waist and caused the seashell and ring on the leather thong around his neck to dance against his chest as he stood, giving thought to how he could 'suggest' to the captain that it was time to head home. For the past five days, they had been chasing a pirate ship that had plagued the local waters for four months.

The Midas had been commandeered from her Virginia owner at the cost of his life as well as those of his crew when the pirates scuttled their own older and rotting ship, with the colonists on board. Midas was a brigantine, a workhorse of a vessel sporting two masts and capable of carrying ten cannons on it's eighty foot length. Its new crew had been credited with the loss of at least three ships in the past four months.

The Vengeance had been out five times in search of the pirates and had found only the burned out hulks of the looted ships. This pirate crew had no mercy, no compassion. They attacked and showed no quarter to crew or passengers.

Rake's attention was drawn from his thoughts as the ship's Captain approached, joining him at the ship's wheel. He also wore a mask, black, with the ship's figurehead embroidered across the forehead and was dressed in black head to toe, broken only by the red and silver stitching on the mask and sash.

"So, Rake, what is eating at you?"

Dark blue eyes widened as Buck turned to face his old friend.

Chris Larabee chuckled at the reaction. "I've known you for a long time, Buck. The wheels in your head need greasing."

Wilmington smiled as he turned his attention back to the wheel. "We've been out for five days, Chris. We should get back to our homes. People will begin to notice the absence of so many for so long a time."

Captain Vengeance, as he was known on the water, considered the wisdom of returning once again empty handed. As badly as he wanted the pirate crew on Midas, he wanted his crew safe and their identities kept secret. The horse breeder finally nodded in agreement, much to Buck's relief.

"Turn us home, Rake."

The big man nodded and turned the wheel to head the vessel to homeport.

"Sail! Port side and moving away!"

"Colors?" the blond captain yelled out.

Several moments passed before, "No colors, Captain."

Chris cocked his head and looked at his First Lieutenant, smiling under the mask. "Well, maybe we just got lucky."

Hearing the call, Barrel, the Officer of the Marines, came on deck and began to arm his men, even as Tiny loaded and primed his cannons. Morgan approached, ready to assist the Gunnery Master if necessary. Tiny tipped his head, both men knowing the skill of the Prize Master in placing a shot across the bow of any ship.

Second Lieutenant, Raphael, or Caballero, as he was known on ship, stood on the bow of the ship watching the sail moving along the horizon.

"She's big one, Capitan. It must be the Midas, for she is a brigantine. She will be well armed."

Vengeance keeled over as she turned in pursuit of the pirates. Without conscious thought, Larabee braced his feet to maintain his balance as he studied the ship moving away from them.

"Don't let them spy us for as long as possible, Rake. We'll be within their cannon range before they are within ours. Wouldn't want them to get off the first volley."

"Aye, sir. We have the sun before us and that will aid us at this time of day."

Marines and sailors gathered on the deck, each one of them a loyal member of the well-known crew of the privateer vessel. Some of them had lost family to pirates. Some were hired on as seamen because of their skills and experience. All had been selected by one of the officers of the ship. Not all crewmen were privy to the identities of all those officers, but it did not matter as these officers had earned the respect of each man aboard several times over and, sailor and marine alike, would give up their lives before betraying those officers to the loyalists of King George. These were men of honor and they served under honorable men. It was this ideal of protecting their homes and families from both pirates and loyalists of England that bound the crew together, making them strong.

"We've been seen, Captain. They are unfurling more sail."

"Aye." the Captain called out. "But they have waited too long and we will be upon them before they can pick up speed. Tiny?"

"Ready, sir."

"Fire a shot over her bow and let us see how they respond."


Chris looked down on the deck and saw Morgan standing near the cannons and smiled. He knew the Scottish shop owner loved to practice his 'expertise' with the cannon.

With a nod, Ezra put flame to fuse. Seconds later the cannon belched the ten-pound ball out to sail over the larger ship and splash into the sea. The crew waited for the response. It was not a long wait as an answering shot was fired. The pirate's shot was short and fell harmlessly into the water.

Captain Larabee turned with a humorless smile on his lips. "Tiny, open fire."

The Gunnery Master began to call out orders and the first of the cannons boomed in response. Two shots took the Midas just above the water line as the Vengeance cut the distance between the two ships. Midas fired her own cannons with four shots falling ineffectively into the blue water. The fifth shot struck the schooner high in the port bow, tossing Caballero to the deck. The Spaniard climbed to his feet, brushing imagined dust from the black breeches and straightening the white sash at his waist, the silver accents glittering in the sun. Spanish oaths issued from the man's mouth and no interpretation was necessary.

Chris spared a moment to check on his officer before turning his attention back to the aerial barrage. As the ships closed in distance, the cannons were abandoned and pirates and marines drew cutlasses and waited as Rake brought the schooner alongside the brigantine. The schooner was a smaller vessel, but the loaded holds on the brigantine had her riding low, bringing the two ships to an equal elevation over the water.

Captain Vengeance stood with one hand wrapped around the rigging and the other wrapped around the hilt of his cutlass. "Surrender your arms and live."

Captain Sullivan stared at the black-masked man before he sneered. "And how long would we live?"

Receiving no answer, Sullivan hoisted his cutlass and a dagger as he bellowed; "I'll take my chances with my blades."

"That is your choice. Barrel!"

The Officer of the Marines signaled the topmen poised at the top of the masts and muskets fired, first on the Vengeance and then the Midas."

Captain Sullivan wheeled around and took cover as the sound of muskets rang out. Three of the pirates were cut down even as the crew of the Vengeance swung over and engaged the buccaneers. The clanging of metal rang through the air.

Captain battled Captain as the fighting raged around them. Morgan landed on the Midas deck and was immediately engaged in combat. His superior skill soon overcame the pirate and he stepped over the dead body. He spared a glance and located each of his friends before confronting the next pirate.

Caballero laughed as he fought the armed pirate that had tried to skewer him as he swung onto the ship. They moved quickly across the deck until the pirate tripped over the loose lines lying on the deck. The man's eyes widened and his mouth fell open in shock as the cutlass sliced through his stomach. The man died with that expression on his face. The Spaniard crossed himself and kissed the medallion hanging from his neck.

Rake had turned the wheel over to the boatswain and joined the rest of the officers on the Midas. He carried a pike in one hand and pulled his cutlass as he released the rope and touched the wooden deck. One pirate swung at him and he blocked the thrust with the pike and dispatched the villain with the cutlass.

Barrel had come over with his marines and the well-honed company made short work of the ill trained pirates. Most of the buccaneers chose to die rather than hang for their crimes. Several of them jumped ship and attempted to swim away, a suicidal move since the ships were miles out to sea. They would tire and drown long before reaching dry land. Of the crew of seventy or so men on the Midas, the survivors numbered eight. They were the oldest members, mostly sailors that could not find another ship to sign on with. The men left standing from both ships stood back as the two captains moved around each other, looking for a weakness in the other man.

Sullivan thrust and Larabee spun out of reach, bringing his own cutlass around to finally draw first blood as it sliced the back of the pirate's leg. The man howled in pain and frustration. He swung around and lunged once again at the man in black. Chris parried the thrust and wheeled around to face the man again. Sullivan roared in anger and charged the Vengeance's Captain. In his rage, he failed to see the mooring line and tangled his feet in it. His momentum carried him several stumbling steps before losing his battle to remain upright and crashing to the deck. When he failed to rise from the deck, Larabee moved forward and toed the man over to reveal the dagger wedged up to the hilt in his chest. 'So much for taking his chances with his blades,' the masked privateer thought to himself.

The prisoners were moved to a secure hold on the Vengeance as Peacock and Morgan went through the hatch to see what booty they could claim as theirs. It was in the powder room one last of pirate was discovered. The Vengeance officers found the man hiding and armed with a musket. The two officers could smell the powder and knew a spark would ignite the volatile cargo and they dove for the sturdy wall that separated the powder magazine from the holds and hatchway. The sound of the musket was followed in quick succession by the roar of kegs of powder igniting.

Above deck, men were tossed around as the deck disintegrated over the magazine area. Luckily, no one was seriously injured and they quickly gathered themselves together. Larabee barked instructions, ordering the marines off the ship and back onto Vengeance.

"Caballero! See about Morgan and Peacock. They went into the hold."

The man headed for the hatch, but drew up short, as the two men in question appeared, coughing and singed, but alive. The Spanish land owner herded the two staggering officers to the railing where he helped each one get safely across the gulf between the ships and into Raven's waiting arms.

As the three were getting to safety, Larabee and Wilmington headed to the Captain's cabin to retrieve the ship's log and manifest. Chris had hoped to return the ship to the owner's family, but the damage was too severe, the fire moving too fast; she was going down. The two privateers entered the cabin area, heading for the cabin at the back. A banging sound caused the men to pause, listening. Pulling their weapons out, they slowly approached the door and pushed it open. Both men froze at the sight that greeted them.

A young boy was standing in front of the armoire, trying to pry it open.

Larabee rushed forward, grabbing the boy around the waist. He found he was holding a wildcat as the boy fought his grip. Chris put away his cutlass and wrapped both arms around the struggling child.

"Calm down, boy. We aren't going to hurt you."

Buck patted his friend's shoulder. "We need to leave, Captain. There's no time."

Chris nodded and headed for the doorway.

"NO! NO! I promised. Let me go!" the boy yelled. He fought the man's grip as they moved down the passageway toward the deck. "No, I have to get Hook. I swore to him."

The boy thrashed his legs; his bony heel connecting with the man's knees and Chris stumbled as they reached the entrance. He felt the boy start to slip away and tightened his grip, only to feel small teeth sink into his forearm. His clenched his teeth even as he tightened his grip. "Boy, don't fight me. We have to get off this ship. She's going down."

The boy's head dipped down again as he continued to struggle and the man shifted his grip to avoid the sharp teeth. "I have to go back. It's my responsibility. I swore," he pleaded.

Chris looked up to see Buck watching. "Buck, go back, see what's so important. But don't waste too much time. If you can't get it open, get out."

"Aye, Captain." And he ran back down the passageway.

Larabee continued to fight the boy, surprised at the strength the slender form possessed. "Stop fighting me or I'll knock you out and lash you to my back with a lanyard and carry you across."

The boy stopped struggling and looked up. Green eyes met sky blue and both man and boy were shocked at the recognition there. It was as if they knew each other; saw their selves reflected in the other's eyes. The shock lasted only a moment, the spell broken as Barrel called to the Captain.

"Lad, we must abandon this vessel. The Midas isn't long for the surface. She'll be visiting bottom of the ocean soon and we don't want to be aboard when she goes."

"But, Hook…" the boy started.

"Rake will take care of that. You are relieved of that responsibility, lad. Your Captain is dead. You'll take your orders from me, now. You understand?"

"I promised." The boy's voice was small and had lost the boldness it had earlier.

"Aye, and a man is only as good as his word but your charge has been passed and you have been relieved of that duty."

After a moment, the child nodded.

"Good lad. Now climb on to my back and hold on." Chris knelt down and the boy climbed onto the strong back. Standing, he checked the small bare feet, making sure that the child was holding on tight. Satisfied, he grabbed the line Barrel had been patiently holding and swung over at his signal. Stepping back, he asked, "Ready?" and felt the boy nod as he tightened his grip. Larabee leaned back, bunched his muscles and swung across the gap between the two ships.

Barrel was waiting and timed his movement to match the black masked Captain. Watching the arc of man and boy, he intercepted the pair and ensured a safe landing. The ship's officers quickly surrounded the three.

The Captain felt the child slide from his back and drop to the deck. Turning, he watched as the boy looked at each of the masked men gathered around with apprehension.

"Capitan, where did you find the muchacho?"

"Captain's cabin." Chris stated flatly.

"Where is our First Lieutenant?"

"Rake is checking the Captain's cabin for anything of value." Looking across at the listing brigantine, he muttered, "...and he best hurry."

Meanwhile, aboard the sinking ship, Buck had made his way to the Captain's cabin and stood fumbling with the lock that sealed the clothes cabinet. Seeing no key, he thought about simply walking away. They would gain nothing by the search; any booty was going down with the ship and he didn't plan to go down with it. He turned and started toward the passageway when a scraping sound stopped him. Pausing, but hearing nothing, he started again, but this time remembering the determination on the boy's face as he fought Chris. With a shake of his head and a sigh, he turned back, searching for something with which to smash the lock. Spying a heavy tankard, he hefted it and, smiling, he slammed it against the sturdy lock. Once, twice, three times. The lock shattered on the third blow. Tossing the tankard behind, Wilmington pulled the armoire open and looked inside.

Tear-filled hazel eyes, peeking from under lank, black hair, peered out of the corner at him and the man stepped back, startled.

"Sweet Mother of..." the man exclaimed before catching himself. Feeling the deck list even more to starboard, the tavern owner privateer didn't have time to figure out why a child had been locked in the cabinet. He glanced around the interior and saw nothing else that he need concern himself with, so he stepped forward and reached out to the small boy huddled in the corner.

The boy opened his mouth in a scream as his eyes widened and arms and legs began to thrash in his effort to escape. Wilmington belatedly remembered the mask that covered his face. It had not been his intention to terrify the child, but he had done so and now, time was too short to back away and calm him. Buck simply gripped the tiny arms and enveloped the small body with his long arms. He was hard pressed to maintain his grip without injuring the boy.

As he moved to the doorway, the ship suddenly rolled several degrees and the man stumbled into the doorframe. He heard the thud as the boy's skull impacted the wood and panicked as the child went limp in his arms. He ran his large hands over the small head and was relieved to find no blood, but now he wondered how he would get back to Vengeance carrying the unconscious child. Glancing around the cabin, he spotted a cloak and, after laying the boy on the bunk, he wrapped the cloak around one shoulder and under the other arm to create a sling into which he slipped the pliant body. The sound of his name echoed down the passageway and the man made a dash for the safety that waited in the sunlight above.

He reached the hatch at the same time Caballero and Barrel swung across from Vengeance. Wilmington waved them off and the two men immediately turned and swung back to the schooner. Another line was tossed over as Buck made his way across the tilted deck. He grabbed it without breaking stride and abandoned the doomed vessel. He prayed that the cloak would hold and not drop the child into the icy waters below.

Finally, his swing took him over the solid wooden deck and he released the rope to roll across the deck, his hands instinctively cradling and protecting the child. He found himself surrounded by his fellow privateers with Larabee directly in front of him.

"What the devil were you doing, Rake?" Anger, bred by fear for his old friend, had Larabee snapping at the younger man for no reason.

Wilmington's head snapped up as his blue eyes flashed behind the mask, but he bit his tongue knowing that it was fear yelling at him, not true anger. He still lay on the deck and he slowly pushed himself to his knees with one hand, cradling his bundled passenger with the other. He was acutely aware that the boy had not stirred. He opened his mouth to speak, but paused as the first boy pushed through the sea of legs and now stood next to the ship's Captain. Buck smiled, though he doubted the boy could see much through the mask.

"Did you find anything, Buck?" Chris' use of his name drew Wilmington's attention. The blond was truly unnerved by the events of the day. Buck had not failed to notice the hand that rested on the boy's shoulder as he stood at Larabee's side. The loss of his son Adam and wife Sarah was still an open wound to the blond horse breeder. Captaining this ship was his way of striking back at the people responsible. Maybe this boy would provide a way to draw the man back to the living.

"There was a heavy lock on that cabinet, Captain. It was locked with no key and..."

Before the man could finish, the boy bolted for the railing and was scrambling over just as Larabee reached him. Wrapping a strong arm around the small waist, he dragged the struggling form back. In the brief span of time since Rake had landed on the deck and the boy tried to jump overboard, the schooner's boatswain had moved the ship away from the crippled and dying Midas. As the men gathered around, the ship lost her battle to stay afloat and rolled over to reveal the keel to the sun. Water rushed in through the open deck and that weight, along with the loot plundered from the colonist ships, were the majestic vessel's undoing and she plunged to the ocean floor, fathoms below, leaving only a small amount of debris on the surface. The men of Vengeance stood transfixed as they watched the ship's demise.

Sobs brought the officers attention back to the deck around them and they looked down to see the fearless child curled up on the deck, his arms wrapped around his knees, skinny legs held tight to his body. No one moved for a moment. Then the Captain squatted and lifted the slight form into his arms, noticing for the first time the light weight of the child, holding him close to his chest as he moved through the marines and sailors and down to the cabins reserved for the officers.

Once there, Chris sat on the bunk, still holding the shuddering body in his arms. Using one hand, he untied the knot that held his mask in place and slipped it off his head. Moving his arms to better support the sobbing boy, he gently rocked the child and waited for the emotional outburst to end. He looked up as Nathan came through the door with his satchel of medicines. The rest of the officers followed the tall cook in, but they stayed on the far side of the room, allowing the grieving child and his protector a degree of privacy.

Buck alone moved across the room. He approached the bunk, pulling off his mask as he did. He placed a staying hand on Raven's arm and received a questioning look from both Jackson and Larabee.

"I think I can help." Buck sat down next to Chris and released the cloak. As he supported the child, he slipped the material off his head to reveal the boy to the others.

Larabee's eyes widened at the sight. "Hook?"

Grinning, Buck stated, "I certainly hope so, I didn't see anything else in that cabinet worth saving."

The conversation stopped as the older boy sat up and wiped his eyes. The way he was sitting, he had his back to Wilmington. The boy turned slowly, but the instant he saw the boy in Wilmington's lap, the relief was evident on his young face. He hopped down and moved to stand in front of the First Lieutenant. He studied the smaller boy for a moment and then reached out and stroked the cool cheek, "Hook?"

Not getting a response, the boy spoke louder, "Hook?"

The boy's eyes turned cold as he drew them up to stare at the big man in front of him. "What did you do to him? He's just a baby." His voice was quivering with emotion.

Hearing the fear and accusation, the Captain slid off the thin mattress and knelt next to angry child. Reaching around behind the boy, Chris placed a hand lightly on each of the skinny arms.

"Buck would never hurt a child. Never." Chris spoke with conviction and the boy turned his eyes to him. Chris shook his head and repeated, "Never."

Seeing acceptance in the boy's blue eyes, Chris asked, "So, this is Hook?" to which the boy nodded and looked back at the unconscious child.

Wilmington had not moved. He sat holding the boy close, looking down on the dirty face. "The ship listed to one side as I came through the doorway and he hit his head."

The words had Nathan moving closer to check the boy for injuries and the movement gained Buck's attention. "I checked. There was no blood, but..." he informed the cook/surgeon as he indicated the spot, "...he hit here. He's got a bump."

Nathan carefully felt the spot and then did a quick check of the rest of the limp body. "I think he'll be fine. Boy needs some food and a good bath more than anything else." The tall Negro turned to the second child. "How are you, lad?"

The little blond backed away, stating, "Fine." He moved into Chris' arms and without conscious thought, the man responded by wrapping his arms protectively around the child, even knowing the cook meant no harm.

From across the room, Ezra offered, "Perhaps the young gentleman is hungry."

Chris nodded when Nathan glanced at him.

Pushing upright, Jackson informed them, "I have to go check on the others. I'll fix some soup for the boys while I'm gone. The little one should be coming to in a short while and he'll need to eat."

"What injuries did we sustain?"

Josiah replied as Nathan left with Ezra and Raphael. "We have one man with a deep wound to the chest, but Nathan assured me that he would survive as long as there is no infection. There were several cuts, gashes, nothing too dire. We were very lucky."

Chris nodded in agreement. "Thank you, Josiah. Why don't you arrange something special for the crew? It will not make up for the loss of any profit, but maybe it will help to soothe their disappointment."

Josiah smiled a toothy grin, a glint in his eyes. He turned and left the two senior ship's officers alone.

Buck stood, still cradling the small boy. He turned and gently laid the child on the large bunk, tossing the cloak off to the side. Now that the ship he was standing on wasn't about to sink into the ocean, the big man took time to study the tiny boy that looked to be no older than four years of age. He saw the streaks of dirt on every visible inch of skin, the lank, greasy hair. The boy's eyes were ringed with dark shadows and bruises were visible on his legs and arms as well as his face. Buck could only wonder about what the oversized shirt hid.

He slid down to the deck, sitting with his right side against the bunk, as his gaze took in the child that still stood within the protective embrace of Larabee. Wilmington studied the grubby, ragged nails of the boy, the filth that clung to his skin. His hair could be any color, short of black. He had light blue eyes and appeared to be seven or eight, which might explain his desire to protect the younger child. If Buck believed the younger boy was misused, he knew for a fact the older boy had been. Evidence of beatings peeked out from under the short breeches, bruises upon bruises on the boy's legs and arms, as well as the neck and chest areas that were visible above the shirt collar. The dark haired man shuddered as he thought of what damage the filthy shirt hid, if the dark stains he had noticed on the back as the boy fought with Larabee, were an indication of more brutal beatings.

Larabee's voice drew the big man's mind back from his observations. "Are you all right, Buck?"

"I almost walked away," he said softly. His eyes watched for condemnation from his Captain. Seeing none, he continued. "The cabinet was locked and I turned to walk away."

He looked to see the boy's blue eyes watching and he spoke directly to the child. "I went back because of you, your insistence." He turned back to Chris as he confessed, "I wanted to get off that ship. I could feel her listing, trying to pitch over. Then when I finally got the doors open and saw the babe..."

The man stopped as he remembered. He shook his head to displace the vision. "He was huddled in the back, staring out. He was terrified, but I couldn't take time to calm him. I reached in and grabbed him." Buck frowned as he replayed the scene in his mind. "He kicked and threw his arms around, fighting me. He opened his mouth, screamed." Buck looked at the boy in question, his fingers stroking the dirty arm. Turning back, he looked his Captain in the eyes. "He never made a sound, Chris."

Larabee frowned, "But you said he screamed."

"He opened his mouth, he tried, but there was no sound." Buck corrected.

"He don't talk."

The small voice drew the attention of the two men.

Blue eyes peered from under thick lashes as the boy repeated, "He don't talk, no sounds at all."

Further questions were stalled with the arrival of Raphael with two bowls of thick stew. Chris felt and heard the boy's stomach rumble.

"Here you go, muchacho. Raven has prepared this special for you and your friend." The young Spaniard placed the bowls on the table and left.

The older boy did not move and finally Chris stood and took the boy's hand, leading him to the bench and table. He picked the slight youth up and placed him on the bench before taking a seat on the opposite side.

"You eat now. We'll talk later."

The boy nodded and picked up the spoon, trying the stew hesitantly. But he quickly consumed the entire bowl. Chris watched quietly as Buck returned to watching the unconscious child.

The boy pushed the empty bowl away and turned to the man. He opened his mouth to say something only to have a loud belch escape. His eyes grew wide at the sound, watching for the man's reaction. Chris chuckled as he shook his head. He reached across and tipped the bowl up, looking into the empty interior.

"Would you like some more?"

The boy shook his head. "Oh, no sir. I'm full," he lied, not wanting to anger the man. While he could have eaten more, the small bowl had contained more food than he had been allowed in the last week, food that he shared with the younger boy.

"Good. You get hungry? You just ask for more."

"Thank you, sir."

Chris sat back and crossed his arms across his chest. "You feel like answering some questions?"

The boy nodded.

"What name do you go by?"

"Tanner. Vincent Michael Tanner, sir."

"How did you come to be on board the Midas with Sullivan?"

The boy ducked his head as he hesitated. Larabee waited patiently. Finally, the boy, Tanner, raised his head and explained.

"Captain Sullivan took me on board after my mother died. She was my only family and I was taken to a monastery by the man that let us a room after she passed. The monks were... well, I didn't like it there, so I left. The Captain found me taking food...from tables." The boy's head hung lower as he admitted to stealing food. A moment passed and he glanced up at the blond Captain. The hooded green eyes were watching him but showed no signs of condemnation or disgust, so the young boy continued.

"He told me I could serve as a cabin boy on his ship. I didn't know he was a pirate then. I found out a few days after we set sail. Any time we docked, I tried to get away, but he would find me, him or one of the others, and bring me back."

"How long were you with him?" Larabee asked gently.

"Ah...I'm not too sure, sir. Momma died while snow still lay on the ground. It was just starting to get warm when Captain Sullivan took me on."

Figuring that would have early spring, Larabee estimated that the boy had been on board the pirate ship for close to seven months. "And you are how old, lad?"

"Eight, sir."

Tanner turned when Wilmington asked. "And the little one? How did he end up on board?"

"He and his mother were on board a ship Captain Sullivan attacked. I saw from the ship. They had everyone on deck and one of the men, Bart grabbed Hook's mother and started..…" The boy stopped speaking as he remembered the scene. A feeling of warmth on his hand drew his mind back to the present and he looked down to see Larabee's hand lying lightly atop his. He swallowed hard and went on with the accounting. "When Bart grabbed the lady, she screamed and fought him. Suddenly Hook came running out from the cabins, yelling, and attacked Bart. Bart kicked him and he rolled across the deck. The lady had got loose and she saw that Bart was going after the boy, so she jumped on him. That's when he pulled her off and...…and he stabbed her."

The boy stopped as a shudder ran through him. He wiped a tear from his face as he sat staring at the table, not daring to look at either of the men. Dropping his gaze to the floor, he took a deep breath and continued. "The crew of the ship went crazy. They attacked the pirates and began to fight, but they had no weapons and soon...everyone was dead. Except for Hook. Captain Sullivan had the men taking everything they could from the other ship and loading it onto Midas. I had gone over to help. I was coming out of the galley and I saw Hook start to move, to sit up. Captain saw him also and started to draw his dagger. I ran over and grabbed Hook."

Tears welled in the boy's eyes and he angrily swiped at them. "I pushed him behind me and yelled 'No, don't' and the Captain just laughed and then he slapped me and grabbed Hook. I jumped up and tried to pull him back down, but Captain was too big. I remember saying 'please' and he looked down at me. He lowered Hook, but didn't turn him loose. Captain says to me, 'So, you don't want me to kill the little thing, do ya? What are ya willing to give up for 'im? You want to give 'im half your rations? Keep him like a little pet dog?' I told him 'yes', that I would take responsibility for him. And the Captain asked if I would stop running away if he let me have the boy and I agreed. So he told me that I could keep him, take care of him and provide what he needed from my share of the rations. But that if I ran away, Hook would be the one to suffer; if I caused any trouble or didn't do as I was told, he'd be punished, not me. And he tossed him down at me and said, 'Aye, the lad will be the hook that I'll use to reel you back in with. He goes nowhere. He stays on board, so if you decide to run away again, I'll have the hook to take your place.' "

The two men sat silent as the boy told the story and revealed so much about himself without ever realizing it. The silence hung heavy for a minute before Buck roughly cleared his throat and asked, "So, the boy is mute?"

Tanner shook his head, dull dirty hair clinging to his damp cheeks. "No, he could talk. I saw him and his mother on the docks before their ship left port. The Captain, Bart and a couple of others were watching what the ships were loading and finding out when they were sailing. I was along to fetch and carry for them. Hook was sitting on the dock with his ma and they were eating apples." Vin chewed on his upper lip for a moment and then confessed, "It made me think about Momma and when I saw the Captain was going to kill him, it just..…" A sob escaped the boy's lips.

A gentle squeeze of his hand had him looking over at Larabee. "It's okay. We understand."

Wiping his nose on his sleeve, Vin stated, "He hasn't made a sound since then. He cries, he even giggles, but he don't make any noise. Captain started calling 'im Hook cause we didn't know his name and he couldn't tell us."

The two world wise men shared a look and then glanced down at the two boys, each thinking about the horrors the boys had seen and lived through. Larabee's heart ached as he gazed at the little blond, knowing how he had been forced to grow up fast, even taking it upon himself to protect another. The man's throat constricted at the commitment the child displayed.

A soft knock stopped the conversation. Ezra entered quietly, carrying a bundle of clothing in one arm. The Prize Master approached the table and placed the material on top.

"We checked the crew and, while we obviously could na' find clothing to fit, I feel that we can make do with some of the smaller sailors' breeches. I have a shirt that can be secured around the older lad." The young Scottish shop owner picked up a small pair of breeches and held them up, one eyebrow raised as he evaluated the size. "Why don't we have a try with these, young sir?"

"Tanner, Ezra. This is Vincent Tanner."

The man's mouth formed an 'O' and he bowed slightly. "Well, it is a pleasure to meet you, Master Tanner."

The boy sat, unmoving as the man talked, the lilt of his soft Scottish accent intriguing. His eyes moved to the breeches as the Prize Master once again held them up. But the next words caused the boy's eyes to widen and his cheeks to flush under the dirt.

"Now, let us try these on for fit. Slip out of those ruined breeches and try this pair on. I'll see about altering them for you."

Chris chuckled at the horror on the boy's face but took pity on him. "There's a screen over there that you can use."

The boy's head jerked around and located the five-panel screen. Taking the offered breeches and a shirt, he ran over and hid from their view. Ezra turned to his Captain and smiled.

"Our new shipmate seems to be a rather shy individual."

The boy made quick work of changing and he stepped out from behind the screen, holding the oversized breeches up with both hands. Ezra walked over and appraised the fit, judging how to alter the clothes to make them fit the small form.

"Yes, I believe this will do." He handed the boy a nightshirt and instructed him to change again so the clothes could be altered for him. The boy disappeared again, only to reappear moments later. "Thank you, Master Tanner. I shall have these altered and back to you directly."

Ezra turned and moved back over to the table. "I have a small nightshirt for the wee lad when he wakes. It will be rather large but 'tis the best we have to offer."

Chris nodded and the stylish Scot left the cabin. He looked at the boy and laughed softly as he stood with the nightshirt dragging the ground and the sleeves completely covering his hands. Motioning the boy over, Chris pulled out his dagger. To his credit, the small blond hesitated for only a moment and then proceeded to the table. The man located the boy's wrists and pierced the material just above his hands and cut around to reveal the hands. He then cut the shirt off just below the knee. Removing a sash that had been tossed over the end of the table, the Captain finished off the look by tying it around the small waist.

"There you are. All set in proper attire." The man returned the shy smile the boy gave him. "You are now a proper gentleman, Master Tanner.""

"You can call me Vin if you want, sir." The serious tone had Larabee tightening his lips to prevent the smile that pulled on them.

"I would like that, Vin. Now, I think that you should get cleaned up." The protest was evident in the boy's eyes so Chris held up a hand. "Yes, I know. We just got you dressed, but I should have gotten a bath delivered first."

The discussion was cut short as Buck called to Chris. "I think he's waking up."

Chris stood and the two moved to the bunk. Buck had moved to the foot of the bunk and watched as the little boy's eyes fluttered open.

The first thing he saw was the stranger standing at the foot of the bunk and in a panic, he pushed up and away, his eyes wide and fearful. He had learned fast and hard that the big people only wanted to hurt him and those he loved. Relief flooded the little face when Vin climbed onto the bed and crawled up to him. Hook wrapped his arms around the bigger child and Vin returned the hug, patting the little boy on the back as the smaller boy buried his face in the shelter of eight-year old's chest.

The men watched as the older boy whispered softly into the small boy's ear. Hook nodded a lot and they noticed that he shyly glanced their way a couple of times. After a few minutes, the two boys separated. The dark haired boy warily studied the two men as Vin moved off the bunk.

Tanner walked over and stood between the men. Pointing to Chris, he said, "This is the Captain." He redirected his arm. "This is Rake. He's a First Lieutenant."

The small boy hesitated for a moment and then crawled off the bunk and padded, barefoot, up to the two men. He looked up as if he was going to say something, but ended up moving to stand close to the older boy, taking hold of the small hand.

Buck squatted down and smiled. "Are you hungry?"

Looking at Vin for guidance first, the dark head nodded. Buck resisted the urge to pick the child up and, instead, moved to the table where the stew sat. Finding it cold, he picked up the bowl and turned to leave, but stopped at the expression on the boy's face.

"Don't worry. This is cold. I'm going to get some that's hot."

Vin looked at the man and stated, matter-of-factly, "We don't mind if it's cold. We're used to cold food."

Buck smiled, but it was a sad expression, hearing more evidence of the children's ill treatment. "I have no doubt that you would eat it cold and be glad for it, but I would not be a good host if I allowed that. I will return in a moment. You young gentlemen make yourselves comfortable.""

Larabee watched as Vin helped the little boy slide onto the bench and get comfortable. It was only a couple of minutes until Wilmington returned with two steaming bowls of stew. He sat one down in front of both boys. Vin's eyes widened as he looked from man to bowl and back.

"But, I've had a meal, sir," he protested.

"Oh, I must have forgotten. Hmmm, I don't suppose that you could eat again? I hate to waste it.""

Vin looked longingly at the bowl and swallowed. "I think that I could eat more. I wouldn't want to waste it, either. Thank you.""

Buck winked at the boy and grinned. "Good on ya, lad. Careful now, boys, it's hot.""

The boys ate with abandon and soon the bowls were empty. Josiah and Rafe had come in during the meal and were introduced to the boys. They then pulled out a small tub and brought in a few buckets of heated water. Josiah smiled at the expression on the boys' faces. It was obvious that baths were unheard of on the pirate ship.

Ezra had returned with the altered clothes and set about doing the same for the smaller boy. There was no possibility of breeches that small, so he made do with a shirt cut down dramatically and another sash to tie it around the waist. Unlike the older boy, Hook was not embarrassed to walk around naked. He had stood quietly chewing on his lip as Ezra fitted the shirt to his small frame.

Chris sat watching as Ezra worked with the boy. The young Scot had a way with children and the men were soon treated to shy giggles from the small boy as Ezra discovered ticklish spots while fitting the shirt to the small form and then amazed the child by pulling a small coin from behind his ear. Vin had taken a seat next to the blond Captain. Larabee found himself drawn to the child at each shy smile he managed as he watched the antics. When Ezra finished, Chris stood, his feelings once again masked.

"Okay, boys, it's time that we removed a little of that dirt."

Hook had walked over to the small tub and peered in. His hand reached over the edge, but did not quite touch the water. He glanced up as Buck approached and squatted down next to him.

"You want to get in?"

The little boy chewed on his lip as he looked at the water and then the man. Finally, he looked at his friend who nodded. Hook smiled up at the man beside him and nodded. Wilmington reached down and gripped the boy under the arms, lifting him up and into the tub of warm water.

Buck chuckled as the boy sighed as the water closed around him. The man picked up a swatch of material and began to bathe the dirty child. He gently rubbed the tender skin, trying to remove the caked on dirt without irritating the skin underneath. He bit his tongue and fought to maintain the smile on his face even as each new bruise or cut was revealed, fueling the anger that boiled inside him.

Chris escorted a reluctant Vin across the cabin. He reached down and untied the sash, but waited for the boy to remove the shirt himself. The shirt dropped to the deck and Larabee quickly lifted the lean body into the tub.

Vin watched as Buck cleaned the smaller boy and remembered when he was a baby and had someone to care for him like that. The wistful expression lasted only a moment and the boy reached for a second cloth with which to bathe. His hand paused in midair as the blond Captain picked up the material and, after wetting it, rubbed the coarse soap across it. Chris held the cloth up, silently asking permission to proceed. A hesitant nod and the man began to clean the months of filth from the boy's skin.

Like the dark haired man across from him, Larabee was hard pressed to conceal the rage growing within him at the stark bones showing on the children. As the older boy's wounds were revealed, it was the scabbed cuts on Vin's back that drew the most ire and the man wished he had the pirate Captain before him once more. His death had been too fast, too easy.

After washing the boys hair and bathing their bodies, the men removed them from the cooling water, rubbed them dry and then dressed them in their new clothes. Both had been stifling yawns, so they were placed on the bunk. The men once again shared a glance as they noticed the protective position of the oldest boy. Hook and Vin had slept together in a small nook on board ship and they had quickly moved into their normal sleeping position of the smaller boy curled into a ball while the older boy curled around him, their backs to the room. Buck gently drew a blanket over the two small figures before the men quietly left the room.

Hearing the door close, Vin whispered to the small boy. "I don't know what will happen when we reach land, but I promise to take care of you. I swore an oath to that on that first night. I will always be there for you." He felt a nod against his arm and tightened his grip on the small boy, his only friend and family.


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