The six men gathered in the galley. Jackson was pouring coffee as Morgan discussed the expenditures of this latest voyage.
"We have incurred some losses as a result of having no booty nor ship to procure profit from.""
"We weren't going to sell the ship. That belonged to Christian's family. I'll have to have Orin contact them about the loss." Chris corrected.
"Yes, well, be that as it may, the men that sail with us depend on us for income when they abandon their homes and families for a week at a time.""
Chris scowled at the Prize Master. Ezra stood unabashed by the Captain's foul humor. All the officers understood that the profits that were obtained from plundered goods sustained the volunteers and their families during the hard times. All the stores retrieved from the pirate ships were inventoried and divided into two categories-colonists and loyalists. The colonist's goods were returned to the owners, while the rest was used to restock the Vengeance's stores or sold and the profits divided amongst the crew. It would not make any of them rich, but it kept the families from starving during these uncertain times.
Larabee sat back, his fingers interlaced across his ribs and his mouth pursed in concentration as his men waited. Finally, he rolled his neck from shoulder to shoulder and stated, "I'll ask Travis about reimbursement. We have some goods from previous raids that can be sold off and use that to disburse among the crew.""
Raphael cleared his throat and drew the others attention. "What about the muchachos?""
Buck's head came around at the question, but he remained silent, waiting for his old friend to answer.
"When we get back to port, we'll turn them over the Travis. He may know some families that will be able to take them.""
"You plan to separate them?" Wilmington asked. He knew from Vin's story that the boys were not brothers, but he could tell the older boy was not going to let the younger one go without a fight.
The blond looked at the big man, a groan cut off before it escaped. He knew the man too well, knew how easily he became attached, became protective, of women, children. Larabee's own emotions were volatile right now, but he was not going to allow them to keep him from doing what he thought was best. Chris shook his head as he answered. "I do not plan to do anything. I'll leave it up to the Magistrate. We are only transporting the boys, Buck. We are not taking responsibility.""
"But, Chris..." the man began.
"No, Buck." The blond pushed to his feet and, pulling his mask out, angrily left the galley, heading down the passageway toward the open deck.
Wilmington slumped against the bulkhead, knowing he had handled the confrontation wrong. The loss of his family had left Chris Larabee unwilling to take anyone into his heart; left him pushing the people he knew, and cared about, away. Buck took a deep breath and released it slowly. Over the past few months, he had hoped that his friend was beginning to heal, but maybe he still needed time. He finally pushed up and went back to the cabin, leaving the others in a self-conscious silence.
For the next three days, Larabee avoided the cabin, choosing to sleep on deck. He saw the boy, Tanner, several times above deck. But when the boy attempted to speak to him, he always found a reason to move away.
Buck, on the other hand, could be found in the cabin anytime he was not piloting the vessel. He tried to draw the small boy out, but if Vin was not present, the dark haired boy simply sat at the large window and stared at the ocean. But on the third day, Buck had brought in a couple of apples and sat slicing them in the cabin, as he thought about their impending return to shore.
Movement brought his mind back to the present and he looked down to see Hook standing on the other side of the table, his eyes locked on the apple. Smiling, the man cut a slice off and offered it to the child. Big hazel eyes turned up and seemed to study the tall mustached privateer before a hand tentatively took the fruit. The boy quickly consumed the apple and smiled when he was offered another. This time he moved to the bench and sat next to the man as he accepted the offering and ate it more slowly. Buck reached out and stroked the thick, yet soft, black hair. A feeling coursed through the man's body and he realized that more than anything, he wanted to take this child and protect him, take both of them. He smiled at the thought.
As the ship journeyed home, Josiah, Ezra, Rafe, all of the men had come in to entertain the boys. They told them stories, played games, but never once had the small boy known as 'Hook' made a sound since that first day. Buck would love to hear those giggles again. Nathan had examined the boys again after they were clean and proclaimed them to be malnourished, battered and bruised, but surprisingly healthy.
During the evening meal the last night at sea, Jackson had discussed the injuries the boys had suffered through. Each man, at one time or another expressed his feelings about that abuse. Chris Larabee was the only man to remain silent, never expressing any emotion.
A noise had them turning to find the boys standing in the door. Buck held out his arms and they moved into the big man's embrace. He pulled the slender forms onto his knees from where Vin eyed the blond Captain, remembering the connection he had felt the first time they had met. He felt the simmering anger in the Captain and shivered a bit to think that something he had done may have been the cause of that anger. Sadly, he knew that the Captain was closing himself off from Hook and himself and it saddened the boy.
"So, would you two like something to eat?"
Vin directed his attention back to the smiling First Lieutenant.
"We ate earlier, sir, but thank you."
The younger boy squirmed on the man's lap. Buck relaxed his hold and the child slipped off his leg and moved around to stand next to Larabee. Buck held his breath even as he felt the older child stiffen, neither one sure of the man's reaction.
Chris looked down at the little boy, at the little hands resting on his leg. Finally, he leaned down and lifted him onto his lap. Swallowing the lump that had formed in his throat as he glanced into those two wide eyes, he asked politely, "I hear that you have a new name. Rascal?" The little head bobbed as he nodded.
Buck had decided that 'Hook' conjured too many bad memories and he and Vin had set about looking for a new name for the lad since he could not tell them his given name. Some of the officers would get together in the evenings to play cards in the Captain's cabin and on one evening, the dark haired boy had spirited away three of the cards with no one taking notice. Ezra finally became suspicious and went through the deck. Buck noticed the little boy hiding his face behind his hands, only his bright eyes peeping through, and walked over to the bed to see what was going on. He found that the hands were hiding a grin and soon discovered the cards under the little boy. Taking the cards, he ruffled the dark hair and said, "Well, you little rascal. How did you get these?" And the new name stuck.
Larabee looked down at the boy on his knee. A tentative smile pulled at the boy's lips. Then, he clambered to his feet to stand on the man's lap and wrapped his arms around the startled man's neck. He then quickly climbed down and moved back to Buck's side. Vin slipped off and the two boys left the room, leaving the men sitting in silence.
Wilmington pulled his eyes away from the disappearing children to look at the Captain. Chris sat unmoving, his eyes staring after the retreating forms, his face pale. Buck opened his mouth to say something, but clamped it closed when the blond jumped to his feet and left. The mustached tavern owner shook his head knowing the turmoil the other man was experiencing. Before the deaths of his wife, Sarah, and son, Adam, the man had been a loving father and husband. Chris loved to play with Adam and his friends. He was open and easy-going then. Since their deaths, though, he had turned in on himself, enjoying only the time spent with his horses or on ship, pursuing the pirates that terrorized merchant ships on the high seas, pirates that English loyalist's supported; like those that took his family from him. Fingering the token around his neck, Buck thought of how so many of their lives had changed.
Buck turned his attention back to the men seated with him. Josiah leaned forward, asking, "Is there anything we can do to help the Captain with his dilemma?""
The First Lieutenant shook his head. "No. He's not ready to turn loose of his pain, yet. He will eventually, but not yet.""
None of the men noticed as Vin slipped past and headed to the upper deck.
Captain Vengeance stood at the wheel, having relieved the crewman on duty. He stared out across the water and mentally fought against the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. He had found himself drawn to the boys, especially the older one. He didn't want to turn them over to Travis. He wanted.. he didn't know what he wanted. Adam was his son and Adam was gone. His son was dead. How could he even consider taking another child to replace the one he lost? Movement drew his attention and his breath caught as Vin Tanner approached.
"Captain, may I speak to you?" the soft voice was hard to hear even in the quiet night air.
The blond waved him over and the boy moved to stand next to the man. They stood silently for a few minutes, enjoying the salty breeze and cool night. Finally, the boy looked up.
"Sir, I know that Ho... I mean Rascal upset you. I want to apologize to you. He..." "
The Captain reached out and laid a hand on the slender shoulder. "There is no need to apologize. Rascal wanted to convey his thanks. I am glad that I...that we, could help.""
The boy nodded and they grew quiet. The boy once again broke the silence. "Captain, you have provided food and clothing and I have not been given any duties. I thought I could assist you..." "
The man's head starting shaking as soon as he realized where the boy was going. "Vin, you are a guest on board my ship. I do not except you to work for your passage.""
The boy frowned, but did not want to possibly offend the man. The silence descended again and lasted a few minutes. The man broke the quiet.
"You did a good job, protecting Rascal. We might not have found him if not for you." Blue eyes turned up to look at the man. "You should be proud.""
Thanks came in the form of a smile and they turned their eyes back to the sea.
"Do you think they will let Rascal stay with me?" The small voice held a hint of fear that caused Larabee's heart to ache.
"I have no way of knowing. But Magistrate Travis is a fair man. We can talk to him, ask him to try.""
The boy nodded. A few minutes later, he stepped away and turned to face the tall Captain. "I want to thank you for helping us. I don't think Hook.. I mean Rascal, would have lived much longer."
Chris turned to the solemn child. "It was truly my pleasure, Master Tanner."
Vin bowed slightly and then left to return below deck, leaving the blond Captain even more confused, emotionally.
It was three hours before dawn when the boys were awakened. The ship had reached the inlet and the crewmen and marines were returning to their homes. The officers left a small skeleton crew to guard the Vengeance while they, along with the two boys, returned to shore.
It didn't seem to matter when they returned to homeport- Travis was always there to greet them. Tonight was no different. The magistrate stood, a lone sentinel, on the shore. He watched the men row to shore before he moved down to the water's edge, greeting each man by name as they came off the two boats.
"Sam. Rafe. Good to see you boys." He turned to the next men. "Josiah. Raphael. Did you have any luck, gentlemen?"
"We found the pirates, Senor Travis. They will no longer plague our coastline."
"I take it, they did not surrender?" If Travis knew they were returning that night, he probably also knew that the brigantine had not been recovered. The man's intelligence network was vast and efficient.
Josiah held the cross that hung around his neck and said, "They chose to be judged by God rather than by man."
"Si. They were men with no honor, but they did choose to die as they had lived-by the sword."
Nathan climbed out of the boat and approached the older man. The question in the plantation owner's eyes was easy to read and he relieved the man's mind. "Jonathan took a bad cut to the chest, but he should be fine as long as infection don't set in. Some cuts, bruises; nothing too serious."
Travis smiled at the news. He knew most of the men that served on the Vengeance, knew their families. He suffered with them and he didn't want to lose a single man. The colonists needed every man for the fight that was coming.
Ezra came up behind Nathan. He nodded to the magistrate as he moved past. "Good morning, Master Travis. You are up early, sir."
"Always loved the early morning air. I find it invigorating."
"Must be the secret to your excellent health."
"Thank you, sir. Eloquently spoken as always, Master Standish."
The last two men off the boat were Wilmington and Larabee. Travis watched as the two moved up the shore. It was only as they drew closer that he noticed they were both carrying something. Only when they stopped in front of him did he realize that they were carrying children. Shock was evident on his face as he stared at the two men.
"What in the world is going on?""
Both boys were asleep and hung draped over the men's shoulders. Chris rubbed the back of the boy in his arms as he responded to the man's question.
"They were on the ship. Sullivan was holding them captive.""
Buck turned at the word 'captive', but Chris was correct. Both boys were being held against their will, even though Vin had been willing at first. That information was not something they needed to share with anyone.
Travis nodded as he listened. When Chris stopped speaking, Travis asked, "What do you plan to do with them?"
Buck looked at Chris as the man stood silent. Finally, he cleared his throat. "Orin, perhaps we could talk about that after we put the boys to bed."
The older man's face looked surprised, but he quickly recovered. "Of course. I was not thinking. I have my carriage; we'll go in that." Looking over his shoulder, he saw Nathan standing with Ezra. "Nathan, could I impose?"
"Buck and Chris will ride in the carriage with the boys. Could I ask you to bring their horses to the stables and have Matthew take care of them?"
"Be my pleasure, sir."
"Gentlemen, let us return to the house. We'll talk after the boys are taken care of."
Thirty minutes later, the three men were seated in the kitchen of the Travis home, eating fresh baked bread and drinking a strong brew of coffee.
"So, what are you planning to do, Chris?"
The blond looked at his old friend before answering. "I was thinking perhaps you could find someone that could take them in." The sound of Wilmington's cup slamming onto the table was loud and abrupt. Chris paused as the man pushed to his feet and walked out of the room.
Travis watched in silence, waiting patiently. Chris sighed as he stared into the cooling brew.
Without looking up, the man nodded. "He's become attached, especially to the little one. He wants to keep them."
"Is there no family to take them in?"
"No. Both boys' mothers are dead."
"They aren't brothers?"
Chris shook his head. "No. Vincent Tanner is the older boy. He was serving as the cabin boy. He couldn't get away, though he tried. The little one, we call him Rascal, his mother was killed on one of the ships attacked. They held him to control Vin."
Travis listened intently before questioning the younger man, trying to understand the situation entirely. "You don't know the smaller child's name?"
Chris glanced up and then looked away, out the window at the rising sun. "Rascal doesn't talk. Hasn't since his mother was murdered."
"Not at all?"
Larabee shook his head. "We have no idea what his name is or where they were going. He has attached himself to Vin and, now, somewhat to Buck. It will not go well when they have to be separated."
Travis smiled sadly. "Are you talking about the boy or Buck?"
Chris frowned, his voice a whisper, "Both."
Travis eyed Larabee closely. He had known the man a long time and while someone less familiar with the man would not see the turmoil, it was obvious to the magistrate. Not once had Chris expressed his own feelings about the boys' treatment or the fact that it would be hard to find a family to take on one child, much less two. The man feigned disinterest in the boys future, but his eyes revealed the deep feelings within.
"And what is the problem with keeping the boys?" Travis asked softly.
Larabee pushed the cup away and looked at the Magistrate unbelievingly. "Orin, how can you ask that? Buck runs a tavern. We go away for days at a time, in search of murderers. There's a chance that we might not come back. It would an injustice to the boys to take them in."
The older man studied the horse breeder. "Are we still talking about Buck?"
Chris hesitated before answering. "Ah.. yes. Of course."
Travis' head nodded as he listened, hearing not only the words, but also the longing in the man's voice.
Over the next two weeks, the boys stayed on at the Travis plantation, with the two men visiting each day. Buck wanted to stay but his business obligations required that he leave each afternoon. Each separation was a difficult one, for both man and boys. The child, Rascal, had formed a closer attachment to the big man, while Vin, though close to the tavern owner, found himself drawn to the sullen blond horse breeder, even though the man kept his distance on most visits. Each day the men visited and each day there were tearful goodbyes.
The magistrate's wife, Evangeline Travis spoiled them terribly. When she learned their story the morning after they arrived, she made it her mission to fatten both little boys and make their lives as carefree as possible while they were in her care. She ordered clothes and leather shoes made for both boys. She had even discussed keeping the boys with her husband, but Evie, as family called her, had not been well since the death of their only child, Stephen and Orin firmly told her that he would not risk her health. They would find someone to take the boys and give them good homes.
True to his word, Orin found a man that was willing to take on the older boy, Vin Tanner. He had pulled the two privateers aside and informed them of the offer the next day.
Buck glanced to the small form that shadowed Tanner. His heart ached as he asked, "What about Rascal?"
Orin shook his head. "William has five children. He is not willing to take on a child so young and unable to work."
"Work?" Chris inquired angrily.
"Chris, I know this man. The boy will be treated equally with the other children. He will work the fields in return for food and clothing and a good Christian home."
Larabee's face darkened. He was well aware that children were often used in the fields. It was necessary and the reason farmers had so many offspring. But knowing the way the child had been treated since his mother's death, it seemed that there would be no justice or reprieve for the young boy and he shook his head at the harsh realities of life.
The two boys came running up at that moment and Buck stepped away and squatted down, wrapping an arm around each of them.
Chris looked at Orin as he asked, "When?"
The sound of a wagon was Larabee's answer and he turned to see William Graves pulling into the yard. Larabee turned back to the plantation owner, a glare on his face. "Now?"
"Yes, unless you have another solution." Travis stated, hoping for a response from the young landowner.
"Best get it over with then," the magistrate finished gruffly when the man turned away from him, giving no answer.
Buck glanced up as Evie came up and held out her hand to the youngest boy.
"Rascal, we have some fresh bread baked and Cook would like your opinion about it's flavor."
Buck stood as the small boy grinned and trotted over to the woman and they moved away. Vin had stood quietly as the men talked and as Rascal skipped away. He didn't know exactly what was happening, but he knew something was going on. A hint of suspicion and small bit of fear returned to the light blue eyes.
The wagon pulled up and stopped in front of the men and the driver called out a greeting. Larabee walked over to the boy and placed a hand on a slender shoulder, saddened at the faint shiver that ran through the still too slight figure. When Vin looked up, Chris inclined his head and they stepped away from the others. Squatting down in front of the boy, he looked into the clear blue eyes and hesitated. Finally, he smiled slightly.
"Vin, Orin has found you a home."
The boy started to nod, but as Larabee's eyes flicked behind him, he glanced back to see the man from the wagon talking to Wilmington and Travis. The boy slowly turned back to the blond, tears in his eyes. 'Now?' they seemed to ask.
"That is Mr. William Graves. He owns a farm, has a family. You'll have a mother to look after you, brothers to play with." Chris regretted it as soon as he said it.
"Rascal? He's going, isn't he?" Chris didn't answer right away, but the boy saw the answer in the man's eyes. His voice sounded fragile when he said, "But I promised him, I swore to him." One tear flowed down the child's face.
Larabee dropped his gaze as his hands moved up and down the skinny arms. "Vin, Rascal is too small to work. Mr. Graves is willing to take you into his home and feed you, clothe you. He'll expect you to work the fields with his own children. It will be a good life for you." Seeing the doubt in the boy's eyes, the man continued. "It will not be light with Captain Sullivan.""
The man saw the resignation settle in the old eyes within the young face, eyes that glanced toward the house where his young friend had disappeared. "Don't worry about Rascal. We'll take good care of him."
"But I swore an oath to him."
"I know, son. I understand. We're doing the best for you both. I know you're a brave lad. I need you to be brave now."
The boy nodded as he blinked back tears and sniffed.
They rejoined the others, Vin in front of Chris, the man's hands on his shoulders. Travis turned to the boy, holding out his hand. Vin paused for a moment, a slight squeeze from Larabee reassuring him.
"William, I would like to introduce you to Vincent Tanner." The man looked up and down the youth like he was judging a prize bull. Chris Larabee bristled at the assessment, but bit his tongue and said nothing.
The boy stood quietly as the man examined him. He wanted to run, to grab his little friend and leave, but even if he could have escaped, there was nowhere for them to go. He remembered how hard it had been when he had been on his own, knowing it would be even more difficult with Rascal along to provide for and protect. So he decided that he would go along for now. He would give this a try, but he would not remain if he found the man's home to be a place he did not want to be. He had been on his own before and he could do it again. And he would not abandon Rascal if he ran. Vin promised himself he would locate his friend and take him along. He would find a way.
Graves stood and turned to Travis. "He'll do. A bit skinny, but Anne will fatten him up" The man extended his hand and Travis shook it, the deed done. "Let's go, boy." Graves turned and headed back to his wagon.
Vin shivered slightly before turning to Larabee. He held out his hand. "Thank you, sir."
Chris accepted the hand and firmly gripped it. "It was my pleasure to help. Don't worry about Rascal. We'll take care of him. I'll see you again, Vin."
The boy nodded. They maintained eye contact for a few moments. Vin looked away first, turning to Wilmington. He extended his hand, but wrapped his arms around the man's neck when he squatted and squeezed the boy, instead. Vin's chin quivered slightly as he turned away and joined Travis at the wagon.
"Thank you, sir. I appreciate you putting us up and taking care of us. Thank Mrs. Travis for me."
"You are most welcome, Vincent. I have arranged for your things to be delivered to the Graves farm."
"Thank you, sir"
That said, the boy climbed onto the wagon and turned away from the three men. Graves snapped the reins and they moved off leaving the three men standing in silence, each caught up in their thoughts as they watched the wagon drive out of sight.
They stood and watched for a few minutes and then, one by one, they turned back to the house. Chris was the last. He didn't move until the wagon was totally out of sight. Not once did the boy look back. With a heavy heart, the blond turned and followed the others, joining them on the veranda. Travis studied the man's face and could see the pain in his eyes. Orin had watched his old friend with the boys and had hoped the man would relent and take them into his home. But the loss of his own son was too fresh and the man was obviously not prepared to take anyone into his home and heart. Not yet.
The three entered the house and moved to the kitchen where they would have to confront the younger boy.
Rascal sat at the large table, eating bread smeared with fresh churned butter and drinking milk as he watched the cook and Evie prepared the evening meal. The boy had butter on his nose and chin and both cheeks; he was grinning as the two women gossiped about the people from town. The boy's eyes cut over to the men as they entered and he waved a greasy hand at them.
Buck smiled as he shook his head. The tall man picked up a cloth and took a seat next to the boy. Waiting until the boy was finished eating, he took the cloth and wiped the butter off the boy's face and hands. Rascal offered each buttery sweet section of skin with a smile.
"Good bread and butter?" the man asked.
Black hair flew at the energetic nod. Rascal looked around briefly, but he looked back as Wilmington patted his hand. "Good. I need to talk to ya, son."
The man picked up the boy and sat him in his lap.
"Rascal, you know that Magistrate Travis has been looking for some place for you and Vin to live, right?"
Again, the little boy nodded.
"Some place that you can stay forever."
Buck froze as the little boy leaned toward him and laid his head on the broad chest. Raising a shaky hand, the man stroked the dark head as he struggled to remain calm. His eyes met Larabee's and the green eyes softened.
Buck rubbed the boy's back and, taking a deep breath, continued. "Well, the magistrate found someone. He's a farmer with a wife and five boys."
Hazel eyes full of trust looked up at the man and he smiled.
"Mr. Graves was here a little while ago. And..." The man's hand moved to the boy's cheek. "..Vin left with him."
Instantly the little body tensed and the boy's eyes roved around the room looking for his friend. Buck felt the boy begin to tremble even as the tears welled up in the hazel eyes.
"It will be fine, Rascal. We.. " The man did not get to finish as the child suddenly pushed against him and wiggled out of his grasp and onto the floor. Before the adults could react, the boy had run out the open door and headed off the porch. Evie issued a strangled cry as Wilmington and Larabee jumped to their feet and ran after him. Travis stood and moved to comfort his distraught wife.
"It'll be fine, Evie. They'll bring the boy back and we will explain the situation to him."
The woman dabbed at her eyes, shaking her head. "Orin, you aren't dealing with an adult. You men will never understand." She turned to look at her husband's face. "Do you have any idea what you have done to that child?"
"We'll find him a place, also. Don't fret, my dear."
She pushed him away, gently. "Are you that dull-witted, Orin? Honestly." she moaned at his uncomprehending expression. "You have torn apart the tiny bit of security that child had."
"Evie, the boy knows that we will take care of him."
"Oh, Orin. That child's entire strength is drawn from the older boy. Vincent Tanner protected Rascal and took care of him for going on four months. He's known us for all of two weeks. Vincent is his world, his father as far as that boy is concerned. You have ripped his family away from him. Do you not see that?"
Orin Travis' eyes narrowed as he contemplated his wife's words. He was used to dealing with adults, people who mostly understood the way of things, but it had been a long time since he had dealt with a child and he now saw his arrogance at thinking he knew what was best for the children. He realized that the situation would have to be corrected.
Outside, the two men were discovering that the small boy was quick. He had run around the side of the large house and disappeared before they exited the door. Both men drew up short. They looked around, puzzled by the disappearance.
"RASCAL!" Wilmington called. "PLEASE! COME BACK!"
"How did he disappear so fast?" Chris asked.
Buck stood with his hands on his hips. "I don't know, but we have to find him."
Chris nodded in agreement. "I know, Buck. I'll go this way and circle the house. You go around the that direction."
Wilmington nodded and the two men set off.
Several minutes later, they were still searching. They had met at the front of the house and found nothing. They headed for the barn, questioning everyone they saw. Nathan Jackson was sitting with his frail father on the porch of the small house they shared. Hearing what had happened, he joined them in their search after making sure his father was settled inside the small shack.
Two hours passed and no one had seen the little boy. Buck Wilmington had begun to panic after thirty minutes. By two hours time, Chris was almost in the same state, blaming himself. He knew that the tavern owner had wanted to keep the boys. He knew that he could have worked something out, but chose to ignore the issue in hopes that someone else would resolve his dilemma and take the boys. All he wanted was to keep from feeling that pain of loss again, a pain like the one that gnawed at his belly even now.
Everyone was now looking for the small boy. The blond joined Buck back near the house and saw the strain the man was under. The man's face was haunted as his eyes searched for places the boy could have hidden. Chris wanted to reassure his old friend, but he was beginning to wonder if they would find the child before night fell.
"Buck, let's go around the house again." The tall man nodded and they set off. Moving around the perimeter of the house, they checked under shrubs and behind the tall flowers that populated the beds surrounding the plantation home. "Are we sure that he didn't get under the house? Did someone check?"
"Cook's boy crawled under there and looked. He wasn't there." Buck's voice was raspy from calling the boy for two hours.
They had circled the house once again and still no sign. Nathan and two others had mounted their horses and searched further out. They could be seen returning in the distance and the two men moved to meet them. As they started toward the barn, Buck glanced over and, seemingly for the first time noticed the tall pecan trees and stopped. Chris took two steps past Buck when he noticed the other man had stopped. He turned and looked in the same direction.
Wilmington's voice was soft as he asked, "You suppose that boy could climb a tree?"
Chris cocked his head to one side as he replied, "Adam did when he wasn't much bigger."
The two set off to the orchard and started looking, checking each tree. The others quickly joined them. A few minutes later, a shout from Orin had everyone moving toward him. Buck and Chris were among the last to arrive and they pushed their way through the small crowd to join Travis. Chris stayed by the older man as Buck slowly stepped forward. Nathan was kneeling on the ground and Buck joined him just as he was turning the unconscious boy over.
The mustached man squeezed his eyes shut at the sight of the blood covering the little face. Forcing his eyes open, he watched as the Vengeance's surgeon's hands moved over the tiny form. Buck could not help but think how small and fragile the child looked. His breath caught as Nathan sat back.
"Well, he must 'a took a pretty good fall, but he ain't hurt too bad."
Buck blinked at the words. The boy was covered in blood and unaware. How could he not be hurt bad? He hadn't realized he had spoken the words aloud, until the dark-skinned man smiled at him.
"I know it looks bad. He's got a knot on his head and a small cut," Nathan pointed to the spot on the boy's forehead. "Always seems like a lot of blood with a head wound, but it's a small cut. Children can take a good fall and not get hurt real bad like a full-grown man would. Boy's got a swollen ankle, so I figure he landed on his feet, but fell forward and bumped his head on the tree after he landed. We get 'im up to the house and get 'im cleaned up, you won't hardly know he tumbled out of a tree."
Buck nodded and then moved forward and lifted the small boy into his arms, pulling him close to his chest, reveling in the warm of the life cradled in his arms. He stood and headed to the house, unaware of anything going on around him.
Travis thanked everyone for their help and he and Chris watched as the people went back to their labors. Orin turned from watch the departing backs of Wilmington and Jackson as Chris started toward the barn.
"Chris? Are you leaving?"
The blond paused only long enough to state, "Yes, but I'll be back."
Travis watched as the horse breeder went to the barn, collected his mount and then rode off. Shaking his head, the magistrate returned to the house, a smile pulling at his mouth and spring in his step.
Buck sat quietly watching the little boy sleep. After Rascal had been cleaned up and his ankle wrapped, the man sat down sat next to the bed and waited. As Nathan had surmised, the child woke up in just a short while. Buck watched as the boy looked around and seemed to remember what had happened. As the little chin started to quiver, Wilmington moved off the chair and took the child in his arms, sitting on the bed as he comforted the young boy.
"Don't you worry, Rascal. We're going to get this straightened out. You and Vin can come live with me." The man rocked, comforting them both, as he spoke and he felt the child's tremors begin to lessen. "Yeah, we'll work out something. We thought we were doing right by you boys, but we were wrong. You two need to be together. I'm sorry about this whole affair. We never meant to hurt you or Vin. You two can just come live with me. You'd like that, wouldn't you, Rascal? It'll be fun, the three of us."
A sound had the man stop and look at the child. Hazel eyes gazed up at him.
"John, but Momma called me JD, not Rascal" the soft voice announced.
"JD?" Buck whispered. "Your name is John?"
The boy nodded. "John Dunne."
A grin split the man's face. "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, John Dunne. JD."
Before they could talk more, the door opened and Chris was standing there, breathing hard. He frowned at the smiles, confused.
"Chris.. " Buck stopped talking when he saw the shadows behind Larabee move and Vin Tanner stepped into view. Buck felt the body in his lap shift and he gripped the little boy. "Whoa, there, son. You can't be standing on that ankle for the rest of the day. Nathan 'll have my hide if you get up."
Larabee and the boy stepped into the room, but paused as Buck raised his hand. "Boys. I'd like you to meet John Dunne. He likes to be called JD."
The young boy's shoulders rose as he giggled into his hands at the expression on the two faces across the room. Vin recovered first and bolted across the room, leaping onto the bed.
"You started talking! I knew you could talk." And the boys hugged.
Chris moved over to stand next to the bed and when the boys separated, he reached down and picked the youngest up and placed him on his hip. "JD, huh? Seems to me that the four of us need to have a talk."
Larabee sat in the chair Buck had abandoned as Vin moved to sit on the edge of the bed, alongside the tall man. The two men looked at each other and Buck nodded to his friend. Chris took a deep breath and stated, "Boys, I think that we should be a family. What do you think?"
Blood rushed to Vin's face at the proclamation. It was a dream come true for him. He knew he wanted to be with the ship's Captain from the moment they had met and now that was about to happen. He looked at his friend and saw him staring at the man next to him on the bed. Vin knew that JD, as he now knew him, was as drawn to Wilmington, as he, himself was drawn to Larabee.
Buck opened his mouth to explain to the young boy that Larabee had a house to live in and room to play that he did not have at the tavern, but Chris cut him off.
"I have a big place, JD. Big enough for us all." The blond looked up at Wilmington and continued. "Big enough for Vin and JD and Buck."
Seeing his First Lieutenant's reaction, Larabee told him. "I would be lying if I told you this will be easy. I know how you feel about the boys. But you have a business to run. You give it some thought. You don't have.. "
Chris didn't get a chance to finish as Buck stood up.
"I think it's a fine idea. Inez has a room at the tavern; she's always there. I can work out something with her, so I can be with the boys and still be at the tavern when need be."
The man's deep blue eyes twinkled at the prospect of raising the two boys, but the cool green eyes that moved from one boy to the other anxiously, tempered his enthusiasm.
"Chris? Are you sure?"
The blond looked at the two waifs before he shook his head, stating huskily, "No, but I am willing to try."
The man smiled at the two boys and his friend and he felt warmth in his heart that had been missing for a long time.
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