"Vin, you gonna sleep all day? Hurry up, you'll miss breakfast."
The shouted words brought Vin straight up in his bed. Disoriented the boy looked around the room. It had to be late JD was already up. He could hear the other boy laughing downstairs.
That sounded like Chris' voice. Scrambling out of bed Vin stumbled as his nightgown wrapped around his legs. Catching himself, he looked around the room. His clothes were on the chair under the window where he'd left them last night. Another bellow sent him scrambling to pull on the brown trousers and blue shirt. He fumbled a bit with the buttons on his pants but persevered, pulling on boots before hurrying out of his room.
"Vin, answer me, are you up?" Chris turned away from the stairs shaking his head.
"Maybe he's sick?" Buck said from his place in front of the fireplace. "Hold still, JD." With practiced movements Buck slid a shirt over the small boys head. Tucking it in he pulled up the small suspenders and stepped back, "Okay you're good."
"Thanks, Da!" JD jumped from the large stone hearth in front of the fireplace and ran towards the table calling. "Unca Josiah, Unca Josiah."
Josiah came out of the kitchen carrying a coffee pot and a platter of steaks. "Good morning, JD. Ready for breakfast?"
"Yes, please. Can I have choking jelly on my biscuit?" JD asked as he climbed into his chair. "I's real hungry today."
"May you have some chokecherry jelly," Josiah corrected him good-naturedly.
"May I," JD replied brightly.
Vin paused at the top of the stairs to study his family. Buck was dressed in tan pants and a brightly patterned shirt with sort of puffy sleeves, around his neck was a large bandana. JD was dressed much the same as Vin except he and Buck were both wearing suspenders. Chris had a gray and white striped shirt, black pants and boots. Vin watched as an apron wearing Josiah came back out of the kitchen. The older man sat a plate of biscuits in front of JD's plate before looking up at Vin. "Good morning, Vin."
Chris turned in his chair, "Hey, there sleepy head. I was beginning to worry about you." He held out a hand toward Vin.
Vin approached hesitantly until he was close enough to grasp Chris' hand. Chris used the grip to pull Vin close wrapping his other arm around the boy for a hug. He also pressed a kiss on Vin's forehead then sat back. "Well no fever, guess you must have just been extra tired. Do you still want to go help me mend fence today?"
Vin nodded looking forward to a whole day with Chris, he glanced over to check on JD. The other boy gave him a bright red jelly smile back. "Me and Da is going to town," he informed Vin.
"That we are, I figure to drag Ezra back no matter what," Buck said.
Chris frowned, "How do you plan to do that?"
"I've got a secret weapon," Buck informed him, pointing a finger at JD who was too busy eating to pay much attention to the conversation. "Hey, Little Bit, what are we gonna say to Uncle Ezra when we find him?"
JD looked up at Chris deliberately widening his eyes. "Unca Ezra, you has to come home wif me. I misses you and so does Vin. If you don't come home I'll cry" JD let his eyes go back to normal, "Da says then I haf to think of something sad and cry." He returned to devouring scrambled eggs.
"Remind me never to get on your bad side," Josiah said as Chris coughed into his napkin.
Vin had watched the entire exchange with confused and worried eyes. Once Chris stopped coughing he asked, "Is Uncle Ezra in trouble?"
"In trouble?" Chris snorted, "No more than usual. He's the same ole Ezra, too damn stubborn for his own good." Seeing Vin was still unsure Chris ruffled his hair, "Don't you worry about your Uncle, he's gonna be okay. Buck and I will see to that. Now finish your breakfast, we've got work to do."
It was all pretty confusing. While he ate Vin tried to figure out what was going on. After breakfast he followed Chris outside waiting at the door while Chris buckled on a black gunbelt. Something about the action bothered the boy but he couldn't decide what it was. Buck noticed Vin's frown, commenting on it as he buckled on his own gun. "Something wrong, Vin?"
"You're wearing a gun," Vin blurted out before clapping a hand over his mouth.
"Well sure, I wear a gun everyday," Buck knelt down in front of him. "This is pretty dangerous country still Vin. I've got to be able to protect my family. What's wrong, you've never minded before."
"Nothing," Vin said softly. It was true Buck an Chris always wore guns. Shaking off the last of the strange feeling he'd had since waking up Vin smiled at Buck.
"Vin you coming?" Chris yelled from outside.
"Yeah!" Vin shouted running out. "I'm ready Dad."
Laughing at his son's sudden good humor Chris scooped Vin up twirling around a bit to set him down on Peso. "Well, look who finally woke up."
The day was everything Vin could have wished for. There were only a few fence breaks to fix so by late afternoon Chris said they'd done enough and deserved a break. The rest of the afternoon was spent fishing at a nearby creek. Vin was in heaven having all of Chris' attention. The two returned to the ranch at dusk with a fine string of fish. Chris had promised to ask Josiah to cook them for dinner. Vin was looking forward to it and hoping that Uncle Ezra and Uncle Nathan would be there like Chris had promised.
Buck met them in front of the house upon their return. "You get the fence fixed?"
Chris smiled, "We finished the far north pasture bout noon then decided it was better fishing weather." He held up his string of trout. "Did pretty good, didn't we," Chris looked back at Vin who nodded vigorously holding up his own string.
"Well since me and the boys also benefit from that decision, I guess I can live with it," Buck laughed. "Here, I'll put the horses up while you take those in to Josiah."
"Can you handle both?" Chris asked Vin holding out his fish. "I should help Buck with the horses."
"Yes, sir," Vin nodded pleased to be given the responsibility.
"All right, run those in to Josiah then go wash up."
Buck and Chris watched Vin walk slowly across the courtyard, carefully holding the fish above the ground. As he disappeared into the kitchen door, Chris asked, "So'd Ezra come back with you?"
"Yeah, he's inside, Nathan's patching him up," Buck's easy manner had vanished, replaced with a grim expression. "Meeker and his boys beat him up last night."
Chris swore under his breath, "Somebody needs to stop that man."
"Well none of those sheep in town are going to." Buck snorted as he pulled the saddle off Peso.
The two men worked on unsaddling and bedding down the horses in silence. Buck knew Chris was thinking the situation in town over so wasn't bothered by the quiet. He and Chris had come here before there was a town to build their ranch. By choice they had as little to do with its people as possible. The ranch was pretty self-sufficient. They had Josiah to cook and take care of the house. Nathan kept men and animals healthy and Ezra maintained the books. The addition of the two orphan boys had made their lives complete. Still Chris had a strong streak of justice in him. Buck knew the killings and general mayhem in the nearby town of Virginia City bothered his oldest friend. It bothered Buck too, but he was waiting for Chris to have enough. One look at Ezra's face might be the final push needed.
Vin pushed open the kitchen door slipping in quietly. He could see Josiah and Nathan standing in front to the kitchen table. Vin smiled, he liked Nathan, who took care of all the animals and people on the ranch when they were sick. Eager to be rid of the fish, which were starting to get heavy, he yelled, "Hi Uncle Nathan, Uncle Josiah!" The reaction of the adults was instantaneous as both men turned swiftly. Josiah even started to reach for the special rifle he preferred over a pistol. The quick reaction startled Vin who backed against the kitchen door with a gasp. Josiah immediately began to reassure him.
"Vin, it's okay, you just startled us," Josiah smiled kindly setting the rifle back. "What have you got there?"
"Fish," Vin sort of pushed the word out. He held up the two strings, "Dad told me to bring them to you."
"They look good," Josiah moved over to pull down a dishpan. "Bring them over here please."
Vin started over then stopped with another gasp. "Uncle Ezra are you all right?" Vin started toward the table only to have Josiah, in a swift move, scoop him up.
"Ezra is fine Vin, he just had a little accident," Josiah reassured. "Come on, let's get those fish in some water." Still holding Vin the older man walked back over to the sink. "Can you work the pump for me?"
Vin nodded yes, taking hold of the pump handle when Josiah stood him next to it. Having water in the house was a luxury Buck had insisted on. Grasping the handle with both hands Vin started to pump. After a second cold well water started to gush out, filling the dishpan of fish. As he pumped he studied Ezra with worried eyes. The gambler had a black eye and a cut lip. He was slumped in a chair at the kitchen table allowing Nathan to wrap a bandage around his left hand. Vin was old enough to recognize the signs of a beating. It worried him that someone would hurt one of his family.
With a silent sigh Josiah reached out a hand to stop Vin from pumping any more. The boy was so focused on Ezra he was close to allowing the water to overflow. "Vin." Josiah waited patiently for two blue eyes to focus on him. "Vin, could you go in the other room and play with JD? I don't want him to come in here again. He's pretty worked up from seeing Ezra. Do you think you can settle him down?"
Though he nodded a silent yes, Vin's face made it clear he wasn't all that certain about things himself. Ezra having watched the entire tableau now added his own reassurances to Josiah's. "Vin, I have never lied to you correct?"
Another quick nod.
"Then rest assured, I am not now, nor is Josiah. My injuries look much worse than they are. JD saw me before Nathan's diligent kindness was applied, he is quite upset."
"I'll take care of him," Vin promised solemnly.
No one spoke or moved until Vin had left the room. As soon as the door into the main part of the house closed, Ezra slumped against the table a bit, groaning.
Nathan immediately began fussing, "Maybe now you'll stay home, not go gallivanting off to town all the time. Concentrate on your account books.
Josiah said nothing just took out his anger on the hapless potatoes for dinner, cleaving them in half with one stroke of his knife. Coming in Chris and Buck had to duck as a half of potato flew at them.
"Dang, Ezra, you look rougher than a muley cow with mange," Buck said.
"Buck says Meeker did this." Chris growled, pulling out the other chair and sitting down. "What happened?"
"He and his associates objected to my winning away some of their ill-gotten gains," Ezra drawled with a slight lisp.
"You win them fairly?" Chris asked.
"I object to that line of questioning," Ezra sputtered. His indignation was spoiled a bit by the lisp.
Chris held up a hand, "Not saying you'd do that with most players, but I know you've been playing Robin Hood."
Ezra tried to bluff, "I have no idea."
Chris cut him off, "Save it, Ezra, I know more than one widow in town has found a few extra dollars tucked in her flower pots. I also know you might cut corners if you thought the guy deserved it."
"One is not required to cheat when playing with such inept opponents." Ezra tried for huffy but the effect was again spoiled by his lisp.
"Been meaning to ask since town Ezra, why you sounding like JD." Buck leaned a hip on the table ignoring Josiah's glare. The man was much too picky about his kitchen.
Ezra ducked his head mumbling something.
"What?" Chris leaned forward.
"Meeker took his gold tooth," Nathan said as he stepped back. "I guess that's as good as I can do. I want you to eat something then go to bed."
"How bad?" Chris asked studying the pale gambler.
"A couple of cracked ribs, black eye, split lip. They stomped on his hand," Nathan rattled off the injures grimly, "and a missing tooth. He's lucky it wasn't worse. He'll live and he'll deal cards again, but it's gonna be a while."
"Mr. Meeker got tired," Ezra said sarcastically.
Buck felt a chill as he studied the deadly look on Chris' face. Up till now Meeker had steered a path around Chris, the Bar Seven and folks he cared about. This attack on Ezra was a direct signal that was changing. Buck knew Meeker took Chris' reluctance to get drawn into the problems of the town as a form of showing throat. The fool couldn't have been more wrong. Chris just plain didn't want to be bothered with something that didn't concern him. If Meeker thought he was going to make a try at the Bar Seven and succeed, he was in for the biggest surprise of his miserable life. Chris didn't know the meaning of back up, down or sideways. He'd roll over Meeker without a thought.
"Uncle Ezra said he's okay," Vin tried to reassure JD yet again. The younger boy nodded, but his face was still marked by grief. Vin hadn't seen what JD had when he and Buck found Ezra. Though Buck had tried to shield JD from seeing the worst he hadn't really been successful. The sight of Uncle Ezra's face as Buck helped him out of Yosemite's livery into the back of the wagon was burned into JD's innocent eyes. It brought back some of the bad memories from before.
Vin recognized the look in his adopted little brother's eyes. JD was remembering the wagon train burning and the men yelling excitedly as they killed everyone. He'd tried to protect JD from seeing, but it had been almost impossible. The best Vin could do was keep JD from watching the drunken outlaws drag Vin's Mom and JD's into some nearby bushes. After that had been the bad time of hunger and fear until Chris and Buck found them. Scooting over next to JD, Vin wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "I promise, JD, I won't let anyone hurt you."
JD's reaction was unexpected, instead of relying on his big brother's promise he pulled away, jumping to his feet. Facing Vin, JD yelled, "You can't promise that. You can't. I saw them. I saw the monsters. They's in town."
Vin scrambled upright, fear clutching at him, "You saw the monsters?"
"Hey what's going on in here?" Buck led the rush into the room. Picking up JD he crooned, "Hey, Little Bit, what's wrong?'
"The monsters is gonna get me!" JD wailed, clutching Buck's neck.
"JD, son, it's okay," Buck soothed, rubbing the little boy's back. "There's no way I'll let the monsters hurt you."
"But they hurted Unca Ezra!" was delivered in a heartbroken cry.
The men shared startled looks. Seeing that JD was too hysterical to provide any real information Chris sat down in his chair motioning for Vin. The look on Vin's face was also heartbreaking, but he seemed to have better control of his emotions than JD. Pulling Vin into his lap, Chris hugged him gently as he asked, "Do you know what JD is talking about?" Vin nodded but didn't speak, refusing to meet Chris' eyes. "Can you tell me?" Chris prompted softly.
Vin played with a button on Chris' shirt for a moment before laying his head against it. In a low voice he said, "JD saw the bad men from the train in town."
Chris kept the tension out of his body by pure force of will as he clarified, "JD saw the men who attacked and burned your wagons?" Vin nodded without lifting his head. Chris could feel him trembling. "It's going to be all right, Vin, I..."
Buck looked down at the boy in his arms. JD's wails had softened to quiet sobs. Rubbing the little boy's back Buck looked at the others, "I think I'm gonna take this little guy upstairs to lie down for a while."
Chris looked down at Vin. He knew his boy was too upset to sleep so sending him to his room would only give him more time to worry. "Vin, would you mind taking care of Uncle Ezra while Josiah, Nathan and I go do some things?"
Ezra opened his mouth to protest, only to stop when he saw the tension leave Vin's face a bit. When Vin looked at him shyly, seeking reassurance Ezra truly wanted his help, Ezra found himself nodding. "Indeed, if it wouldn't be too much trouble I would appreciate the assistance. I find movement a bit difficult right now." Ezra then looked over to Chris a bit lost, since he couldn't think of anything Vin actually could do for him.
Chris grinned evilly back saying, "Why don't you take Uncle Ezra upstairs and help him lie down, Vin. I don't think he's tired, but maybe the two of you can read a book."
Josiah waited until the two figures had disappeared upstairs before chuckling. "Nicely done, Chris."
"Very nice," Nathan chimed in, "I couldn't get the stubborn fool to rest no matter what."
Chris nodded, his mind already planning. "Josiah, I want you to ride over to the Shilo Ranch and talk to the Judge. See if he'll loan us some of his men for a day or so."
"He'll want to know why. Judge Travis is about as friendly as you are," Josiah said.
"Tell him I'm calling his bluff. He's always going on about how Virginia City needs cleaning up. Well it's time to put his money where is mouth is." Chris growled. "This time Meeker's gone too far. Nathan, I want you to ride over to Doc Adam's and let him know what we're planning."
"Sure thing," Nathan was nodding.
"Just don't spend so much time making eyes at his nurse you aren't home by dinner," Chris teased.
"Miss Rain is a beautiful woman," Nathan smiled.
"I think I'll stop at the Well's ranch on my way back," Josiah grinned, "Miz Nettie's boys, Nick and Heath might come in handy. What about Martinez? We could sure use him and his vaqueros."
"I'll take Martinez," Chris said, the light of battle in his eyes.
"What are you going to do with Martinez?" Buck asked as he came down the stairs.
"I'm going to invite him on a little ride tomorrow," Chris said. "Thought I'd go into town, pay my respects to Meeker."
"It's about time," Buck's face was grim. "I got a few more details out of JD before he fell asleep. Meeker was part of the group that killed his ma."
"How come the boys never said anything before?" Nathan asked.
"We've only taken them into town a few times," Chris explained. "Usually early in the morning. It's not like we took them into the saloon."
"If JD got close enough to see Meeker today, then Meeker probably got a good look at JD too," Nathan pointed out.
"He might try a run at the ranch," Josiah put voice to the thought running through everyone's mind. "Sure would make things easier. Wouldn't have to worry about involving the town folk."
Chris had a calculating gleam in his eye, "No, I don't think that's a good idea. Those people in town need to see that the local ranchers want law."
"I've seen that look before," Buck commented.
"I do believe Meeker is about to reap what he's sowed," Josiah agreed.
"I'd better go check my medical supplies," Nathan sighed.
Vin edged back from the top of the stairs. Once out of sight of the living room he stood up to dash back to Uncle Ezra's room.
"Did you find the book?" Ezra asked.
Vin nodded moving over to climb up on the bed. He'd helped Uncle Ezra get his boots and jacket off before they discovered there were no suitable books in the room. Vin had volunteered to go get the new one he'd received for Christmas. Chris and he had already read it once but Vin loved the story about Huck Finn. Chris said it was by someone called Mark Twain. He'd ordered it brand new directly from the publisher.
Nestling down next to Ezra Vin let the words flow over him while he pondered all he'd heard downstairs. If Meeker was responsible for the death of his mother and JD's then Vin had to think of something. He couldn't take a chance of Chris getting hurt. He just couldn't be alone again.
Ezra stopped reading to look down at Vin. It had taken longer than he'd expected for the boy to fall asleep. Moving slowly he slipped off the bed, throwing a light cover over Vin before heading downstairs.
Vin woke up disoriented by the darkness. It took him a minute to remember where he was. Wandering out of the room he was drawn downstairs by the sounds of voices and the glow of lamplight.
"Hey there," Chris met him at the bottom of the stairs, "I was just about to come get you. Dinner's ready."
Vin stuck close as he followed Chris to the table, made shy by the large group gathered in the room. He recognized the Judge and Miz Nettie, giving the old woman a shy smile. JD waved in a subdued fashion from his position on Buck's lap. He was clinging to his Da with a single-minded desperation. Vin couldn't help staring at the other man. There was something about the exotic Senor Martinez that made Vin nervous. Dressed in a black suit with silver filigree, he stood next to the fireplace holding a glass of brandy. Vin knew Chris respected the other man, but Martinez had scared JD the first and only time they'd met so Vin was wary of him.
Talk during dinner was kept general due to the presence of Vin and JD. Once dinner was over the boys were sent upstairs to play. The adults then gathered around the living room to decide on tomorrow's plan of action. Since Miz Nettie's ranch was the closest to town it was picked as the meeting place. She also agreed to watch Vin and JD while Meeker was dealt with. Chris and the Judge then started talking more directly to each other finalizing plans.
"Vin, I'm boreded, let's go play," JD whined. He didn't understand why they were hiding in the upper hallway.
"Shhh," Vin placed a finger to his lip. "JD, go on to your room, I'll be there soon."
"But Da said you was to play with me. I want to play!" JD yelled. Vin clapped a hand over JD's mouth, but the damage was done.
"Vin?" Chris stood at the top of the stairs.
Vin let go of JD turning slowly to face his father trying for an innocent look. "Yes."
Chris gave him a look that said he wasn't fooled, "Aren't you supposed to be in JD's room playing?"
Now that he was free, JD got up to run downstairs, launching himself at Buck as he started to complain. "Vin wouldn't play with me and he made me sit in the hallway and then he put his hand over my mouth and he..."
"Easy, Little Bit," Buck rocked the upset boy. "Vin didn't mean any harm." Buck looked over to where a subdued Vin was coming down the stairs with Chris. "What were you boys doing in the hall?"
"Listening to us," Chris replied. "At least Vin was."
"Hey pard, thought you were gonna keep JD entertained," Buck said to Vin. "I was counting on you."
"Vin, I think you owe everyone an apology," Chris said. "It's not polite to listen in on other conversations."
Instead of apologizing Vin started yelling, "But I had ta listen. I had ta." He then burst into tears and weaving through the startled adults ran out of the house.
Muttering, "Excuse me," Chris ran after him.
It wasn't hard to find Vin. He'd only run as far as the barn. Chris found him there leaning against a patient Peso, sobbing.
"Hey, pard, you want to tell me what's wrong?" Chris knelt down. Vin surprised both of them by turning to throw himself in Chris' arms. Standing Chris moved over to sit on a hay bale. For a time he just held Vin, letting him cry. It took a while but gradually the sobs slowed and Chris felt it was time to get some answers. "Ready to talk?" Vin's reply was muffled against Chris' shirt but the nod was clear. "So what's wrong?" Chris asked.
Sitting up a bit Vin wiped his eyes and sniffed, then in a rush he said, "I don't want you to die. JD don't need me. He's got Buck and I'd be all alone."
Chris was a bit shocked but he pulled Vin close again wrapping himself around his son. "Vin, we can't control everything in life. I know you had to take charge when you and JD were lost in the wilderness, but that's not true anymore."
They rocked again for a bit then Vin felt Chris stiffen. "What?" he started to ask.
Chris cut the rest off by putting a finger over Vin's mouth. Leaning close he whispered, "I need you to be real quiet pard, I heard something."
Vin watched from the hay bale as Chris went further back in the barn to peek out of the back window. After a quick look he came back to scoop Vin up. "Okay, Vin, I need you to be real quiet. We're gonna go back to the house. You just keep your head down and if anything happens to me I want you to promise you'll run and hide." Seeing the mutiny in Vin's eyes, Chris said harshly, "Promise me."
"Okay then, here we go." Chris opened the barn door and started across the courtyard as if nothing was wrong. About halfway there he heard the tell tale click of a gun hammer.
"That's far enough, Larabee."
Vin felt Chris stiffen and he raised his head to look gasping as he recognized the men standing in a half circle behind them. Meeker laughed at the stricken expression on Vin's face. "Looks like your boy recognizes me. Turn around Larabee, real slow."
Chris set Vin down before turning, keeping one hand on his shoulder. Vin peeked around Chris' leg at the men.
"Where's your partner and the other brat?" Meeker wanted to know. "And Standish, me and him have unfinished business."
"Leave them out of this," Chris growled.
"Can't do that," Meeker laughed. "See I got a real nice thing going in town. Those two brats start talking and it's a rope. I can't have that and now that you know the truth, gonna have to get rid of you and Wilmington, too."
"It'll be a lot harder to get away with killing us than a few travelers."
"True, but I figure no one will question a fire too much. Such a tragedy really." Meeker had a gloating look on his face. "Might have to use it to rid me of a few more ranchers. I've been thinking of expanding."
"Dead men don't need more than six feet," Chris' voice promised that death.
"I'm not the one without a gun," Meeker shrugged.
"He might not have a gun, but we do." Buck stepped around the end of the house at the same time Josiah and Martinez stood up from the bushes. The barn door opened to reveal Nathan and the Judge while Ezra simply opened the front door and walked out. Finding themselves surrounded Meeker's three men dropped their guns.
Gun still pointed at Chris Meeker snarled, "I'll kill you if everybody don't back off."
"NO!" Vin shouted letting go of Chris' leg to dart toward Meeker. Startled Meeker started to point his pistol at Vin at the same time Chris made a desperate dive for the boy. The gun went off, followed by three more shots as Buck, Martinez and Josiah shot Meeker.
"Dad?" Vin was confused by the suddenly heavy weight on his chest. "DAD!" There were voices but Vin couldn't understand them, he screamed again, "DAD!"