Alternate Univers - Lost Lambs
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: Betaed by Phyllis. This story makes passing reference to events depicted in Gathering the Flock.
Feedback: Yes please.
"Easy there big guy," Buck warned, as Chris manoeuvred his crutches through the office door.
"I'm okay," Chris protested.
"Sure you are." Buck vacated the office chair for Chris. "What did Nathan say?"
Chris eased himself down and pulled out the bottom drawer of the desk to rest his ankle on it.
"Same as he did on Thursday, it might be broken, it might not, he wants me to go to Eagle Bend for an x-ray."
"And you said no."
"I'll be fine. So I just have to rest it, keep my weight of it, keep it strapped up."
On Thursday afternoon, Chris has been down at the lake with the boys. Ezra was a good swimmer, Vin was improving rapidly, while JD didn't seem to understand that he needed to learn to swim, he just assumed he could, and as a result, he did. True he swam almost vertical in the water, his little hands doing a frantic dog paddle in front of his face, but he was quite fearless.
The weather had been hot and oppressive and the boys desperate to swim, so rather then wait until all the chores were done, Buck and Chris flipped a coin. Buck lost, he had to stay at the ranch and finish the chores while Chris and the boys swam. Unfortunately Chris decided to get out on the bank rather than use the wooden platform, which now had a sturdy ladder. He slipped and lost his balance, turning his ankle over. Nathan couldn't be sure it wasn't broken and wanted it x-rayed as a precaution. Chris refused, he trusted Nathan when he told him even if it was broken his treatment would be the same. Nathan insisted Chris keep all weight off it for at least two weeks, so he stayed home on Friday, Buck and the boys did all the chores in the morning, then Buck left for work. On Saturday, Chris insisted he could spend some time in the office doing paperwork - he generally did all the paperwork in the office. Buck was a painfully slow typist, his spelling, grammar and handwriting, while adequate, left a lot to be desired for official documents. Nathan had offered to come all the way out to the ranch to check on Chris, but it was a lot easier for him to only come as far as the town, especially as he needed supplies anyway.
Chris looked around the jail. "So where are the boys?"
"Out some place, probably playing with the Potter kids. You want coffee?" Buck asked.
Chris just raised an eyebrow.
"Right, coffee it is."
+ + + + + + +
Nettie was pleased to be home, her young sister had problems and she had wanted to help, but it was always good to be home. The church paid for a house keeper, but in truth Fr Sanchez, even if he had a curate, didn't need a her full time. It was Josiah himself that suggested she take on the vacant post of part time schoolteacher. Four Corners, was a small town, with a small one-room schoolhouse for younger children. The older children had to take the train to Eagle Bend were there was a high school. The railroad was principally there to service the sawmill, but added a passenger carriage to the back of most trains, along with a caboose for goods and the mail. Small as it was, the school was full, and in the morning the teacher needed a little extra help with the youngest children. Of course, school was still out for the summer, the whole of August still lay ahead of the children and Nettie.
Vin and JD had been playing tag with the Potter children for much of the morning, while Ezra took the time to catch up on his reading; he was currently immersed in Sherlock Holmes and the case of Silver Blaze. Ezra, as the oldest, felt that he was responsible for the other two, for his brothers, as he now thought of them. The incident with the baseball bat had been a salutary lesson for all of them. So when Vin and JD came running up to him he put his book aside.
"Where are the others?" Ezra asked.
"Miz Potter called them home fer lunch," Vin explained.
"I'm hungry," JD informed Ezra.
"You're always hungry."
"Nar, I'm not hungry when I sleep," JD explained seriously.
"Indeed, well since it would appear to be time for our noon day repast, let us adjourn."
"Huh?" both younger boys asked.
"Let's go find Buck and Chris and have lunch."
"Yay!" Vin was already running toward the jail, with JD in hot pursuit.
Ezra shook his head. "Children! Did I ever have that much energy?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin pulled up short as he neared the jail, causing JD to run into the back of him. Buck was standing in the doorway talking to a lady neither boy knew; though they did recognise her.
"Well ma'am we'll see what we can do, but I can't make any promises," Buck was saying.
"I know Buck, but I thought I should mention it. Good day to you."
Buck touched his hat. "Ma'am."
The lady turned to go and spotted the boys. "Hello, boys," she greeted.
"H'llo," JD replied. Vin just smiled and nodded.
"Mrs Kelly!" Ezra greeted as he came up behind the boys. "Good to see you. How are the children?"
"They're fine, dear. More importantly, how are you? I heard you were ill."
Ezra smiled at the farmer's wife who had been so kind to him when he was first stranded in Four Corners and had taken a job working for her apple farming husband.
"That was sometime ago now, I'm fine."
"Well, I'm very pleased to hear it, and it looks like you have an wonderful new home."
"Yes, ma'am." Ezra assured her, he suddenly realised something was something different about her. "You had the baby?"
"I did, a little boy, he's just bonny."
"Thank you. My, I must be off, it's getting late."
They watched her cross the street and meet her husband, who was already in the driving seat of their battered truck.
"So," Buck turned back to the boys. "I suppose you three are hungry? Sorry, I expect Vin and Ezra are hungry. I know you are, Little'n."
"Can I have spicy meat loaf?" JD asked, bouncing on the spot, Inez's slightly spicy meatloaf was a firm favourite with customers at the diner, especially JD, who loved it.
"If Inez has some, of course." Buck smiled down at his brother.
"She has it," Vin explained. "He already asked, she's saving him some."
"Well we better get going then, hadn't we?" Chris announced as he hopped to the door on his crutches.
+ + + + + + +
"May I ask why Mrs Kelly was in the office?" Ezra asked as he finished his first drumstick of fried chicken.
"Seems someone has dug up some of her flowers. Personally, I think it was probably one of her kids or the dog. But she swears there are spade marks and the children wouldn't do it," Chris explained.
"Well, I can promise you the children wouldn't do it. The older ones know what those flowers mean to their mother, and as to the dog, the flower garden is behind a fence, she is most particular about shutting the gate, besides I never saw the dog digging," Ezra explained. "Were the flowers chewed in anyway?"
Buck shook his head. "That's the odd thing, they were missing."
"Missing? Well I don't think the dog would steal them," Ezra pointed out.
"What about a deer?" Vin asked around the cheeseburger he was eating.
"Deer would only eat the flower heads, the whole plant was gone," Buck informed them.
"Why would someone took a flower?" JD asked.
"That, little brother, is a question I can't answer."
"Do you intend to investigate?" Ezra asked.
Ezra was currently obsessed with detective novels, Sherlock Holmes was his favourite radio show. Only the week before there had been a family outing to Eagle Bend to see 'Tarzan the Ape Man'. Ezra wasn't too impressed; he'd read the book and considered it to be 'implausible'. The B picture however was 'Charlie Chan's Chance', this he enjoyed tremendously. For the past week Vin and JD had been playing 'Tarzan' - though JD always seem to be Cheetah. Ezra was already half way through Chris complete set of Sherlock Holmes books. He was eagerly awaiting the next visit of the traveling library, hoping they had some Charlie Chan books for him to read. But if they were out or he had to order them, Josiah had promised to lend him his 'Father Brown' books as soon as he finished the Conan Doyle series.
"Not today," Buck admitted. "After this we pick up the groceries, and I take you three and Chris home then I'm coming back here."
"Are you staying?" JD asked worriedly.
"Yes, Doctor Nathan says there's whiskey getting into the logging camps again, and them boys are coming into town this evening to catch the train."
JD's bottom lip began to tremble.
"Now, come on, Little'n, it's only one night, you don't want Miz Inez to have no one to protect her, do you?"
JD looked over at Inez, who smiled at him warmly. "I guess not," he admitted, though he clearly wasn't happy with the situation, he never was when Buck was away.
"I'll be out in the morning, don't you worry. Now," Buck turned to the older boys. "Can I trust you boys to bring the horses in tonight and make up the feeds?"
"Sure Buck, we can do it," Vin assured. "Chris can tell us who has what."
"I'm glad someone noticed I'll be there," Chris commented.
"You'll be there, resting and not trying to walk," Buck reminded, then turned to Ezra. "I'm gonna pick up some stuff from Gloria, you'll have all the fixin's for sandwiches tonight."
"Have we got mustard?" Vin asked.
"Of course," Chris assured him.
+ + + + + + +
There were the usual tears from JD when Buck was ready to go, but, as ever, they stopped almost as soon as he was out of sight. He'd promised to be back early enough to help with the morning chores, but in the end, the boys had to do them. Chris wanted to help, but all three boys were adamant he was to rest, they could do it. So he sat on a hay bale and directed operations. By eleven, Buck still hadn't arrived and Chris was getting worried. He was about to call him, when the unmistakable sound of the truck coming down the drive caught JD's attention.
"Buck!" he squealed, and went flying off the porch to intercept his brother.
"JD, no!" Chris called; fearing the little boy would get hurt.
"I'll get him," Ezra shouted sprinting out after JD. "Careful," he warned, pulling the small brunette back by his collar. "You don't want to get run over."
"But Buck's here," JD protested.
"He won't get here any faster because you ran into the truck, just hold still."
Finally, Buck was out of the truck, stretching and arching his back. Ezra waited until he'd finished stretching, then let go of the small boy he was restraining, who flew toward his brother as if he was rocket propelled. Buck, for his part was ready, bending to intercept the boy and sweep him up into his arms.
"Did yeah miss me?" he asked
"Yeah, you're real late."
"I know, Little'n, but I was busy." By now he had reached the house.
"Busy?" Chris asked from his chair.
"I'll tell you about it later. Right now I need a bath and a change of clothes, then we'll head back to town, I don't have the energy to cook, besides, Inez has chicken and dumplings on the menu today."
Buck was pleased to see that made Chris smile and was all but deafened by Vin's whoop of joy.
"Well, that was a popular announcement," Ezra commented.
"You don't have to have the chicken, you know," Buck reminded him. "She's got steak, too."
"Chicken sounds good to me," Ezra admitted.
+ + + + + + +
They all enjoyed their meal. Once it was over and all five had enjoyed some ice cream, Buck and Chris settled down to drink coffee and chat with other men. While Ezra also drank come coffee and read his book, Vin and JD joined with the other children who'd come it to town for Mass and were now all playing in the field behind the church.
Josiah came up to join the other men, settling down with a contented sigh. Inez, ever the perfect hostess was there instantly.
"Coffee, Father?" she asked.
"Muchas gracias, can you put in on my account?"
"Of course, I won't be a moment," she called as she ducked back inside the diner.
"You sound content?" Chris commented.
"Nettie's cooking, I'd forgotten how good it was," he explained. "Roast pork, apple sauce, mashed potatoes." He patted his stomach. "A man could die happy."
"Stop, you're making me hungry all over again," Buck commented.
"So what's been going on?" Chris demanded to know.
"Damn bootleggers have got whiskey into logging camps again. If they'd just stick to beer I wouldn't mind, but whiskey "
"Oh yeah, had to go up there and sort out the mess. Nathan's got two men in the infirmary and we had to take one to Eagle Bend - stabbed."
"Stabbed?" Chris asked
"Yeah, some argument about cards. I was up there this morning getting a statement from one of the witnesses who was too beat up to talk last night. Trouble is, they were all so drunk they hardly remember the night at all, let alone what happened and who did what."
"Any sign of the booze?"
"Saw some bottles, but no labels; no one's talking."
Chris sighed. "If he dies, we'll have the FBI all over us."
"I know it."
With the unwritten blessing of their boss, Sheriff Masterson in Eagle Bend, Buck and Chris had a very lenient approach to the prohibition laws. So long as you did your drinking at home, didn't try to make money from it and didn't cause trouble, they turned a blind eye. There was a bottle of good Canadian whisky under the floorboards in their own house after all. True, someone was selling alcohol to the loggers, but so long as it was only beer and the men didn't cause any trouble, they left them alone. This was the second time this summer that someone had been selling hard liquor, and it always caused trouble.
"I'm happy to hold the fort here, while you investigate," Josiah offered, which is what he'd done on Saturday night.
"'Preciate the offer Josiah, might well be needing you." Chris looked over at Buck. "What now?"
"Nate said that if the guy makes it through surgery, I should be able to interview him tomorrow, so I'll have to go to Eagle Bend, I need to report to the boss anyway. Right now, I'm bushed."
"Well, don't worry about this, but I thought I should mention it," Josiah began.
"Mention what?" Chris asked.
"Last night, someone dug up some of Nettie's pansies, she only put them in yesterday."
"More flowers, that's weird," Buck commented. "But right now, I've got other priorities."
"I know, like I said, don't worry about it."
"I am here you know!" Chris reminded.
"You have to rest your ankle - remember?" Buck reminded.
"I can man the office tomorrow, the boys won't mind."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra had sat, just a few feet from the men, apparently engrossed in his book, but listening to every word. Quietly, he closed his precious book and slipped away to find Vin and JD.
"Do we have to go now?" Vin asked, coming up, still panting from the game of tag he'd been playing.
"No, not yet, we have work to do. Where's JD?"
Indeed, JD was trotting up, his dark hair plastered to his forehead with perspiration, his cheeks glowing red.
"Hi, Ezra!" He greeted.
Quickly, Ezra told them what he'd overheard about the flowers. "I think it is important that someone investigate this crime. Clearly Chris cannot and Buck as more important things to do."
"We's gonna be 'tectives?" JD asked excitedly.
"Indeed we are."
"Yay!" JD exclaimed.
Vin just smiled, but was excited as well.
Nettie hadn't yet met the three boys who had come to live with the town's two deputy sheriffs. So she wasn't sure who the boys standing at the kitchen door were.
"Mrs Wells?" Ezra asked.
"Yes, can I help you boys? I don't think I know you."
"My name is Ezra Standish, this is Vin Tanner and this is "
"JD!" JD announced loudly.
"Well, hello to you all," she greeted with some amusement. "So you are the Sheriff boys?"
The town's people had somehow adopted the term 'Sheriff' as a collective name for the three boys, since they all had different surnames.
"Yes, ma'am. I believe we can be of some assistance to you." Ezra went on to explain why they were there.
+ + + + + + +
So while Nettie looked on with amusement, Ezra and Vin examined the 'crime scene', JD - warned to stay out of the way and not touch anything - followed Ezra like a faithful puppy. Leaving Vin poking about in the garden, Ezra, still with JD in tow, questioned Nettie, who told him only the yellow pansies had been taken.
"It's not a disaster, the others will spread out and cover the gaps but I paid good money for those seeds, brought them on myself, had to coach Father Sanchez to look after them while I was away, now someone has taken some," she explained.
"Hey Ez!" Vin called. "I found something!" Nettie, curious, followed Ezra across the lawn.
"Wow, do you thing the bandit made it?" JD asked, staring down at the footprint Vin had found.
"JD, they stole flowers, I hardly think that makes them bandits." Ezra looked up a Mrs Wells, but JD was not to be put off.
"But they could be a bandit, with a mask, like the Fu Manchu!" JD was now miming some battle only he could see.
"JD, Fu Manchu doesnt have a mask," Vin pointed out.
"You don't know that, he might sometimes, he's real bad," JD countered.
"Don't mind them, ma'am." Ezra advised. "Is this yours?" Ezra drew Nettie's attention back to the footprint.
Nettie tore her eyes from the performance on the lawn. "Oh my no, that's much too small to be mine."
"So how do we find out who's it is?" Vin asked.
"Cinderella!" JD shouted, with out interrupting his imaginary battle. "They took her shoe and tried it on everyone in the town.
"JD, it's a footprint in the dirt, how can we take it to all the people in the town?" Vin asked.
"I d' no, I's just saying that's how they do it in the story."
Ezra was thinking. "Mrs Wells, I don't suppose you have some Plaster of Paris, do you?"
"Strangely enough - no."
"I expect Dr Nathan has some, but he's too far way. I wonder how much it costs? Do you think they have it at the drug store?"
Nettie wasn't sure what the well-spoken southern boy wanted it for, but it he seemed to genuinely want to help.
"Come with me." She beckoned all three boys back into the house.
+ + + + + + +
Having collected the key from Josiah's office, Nettie lead the boys to the old doctor's office. It had been locked and empty since the last doctor died suddenly, leaving no will and no relatives. An already small town, impoverished by the depression, just couldn't provide enough of a living for a doctor anymore. While Judge Travis, Josiah, Buck and Chris had a plan to get Nathan to stay on after the summer, as the town doctor, using the money the town had voted for a third, part time deputy - but never appointed - to pay him a stipend. While that was still a long way off and might never happen, the office sat there empty.
"You two," Nettie looked down at Vin and JD. "Don't touch anything. Is that clear?"
"Yes ma'am, they chorused.
The office was dusty and a little gloomy as the blinds were all down, but other then that it looked much as it had the day the doctor died. Nettie knew that the medical records had been removed, as had the drugs, returned to the drug store or sent to the hospital in Eagle Bend. But everything else was still there, even the magazines in the waiting room. She led the boys to the consulting room come treatment room.
If I remember correctly, he used to keep the stuff for fixing broken bones in this cabinet." Nettie opened the low-level cupboard and began to root about.
"Got it!" She pulled out an enamel bucket containing a measuring jug and a stick as well a paper wrapped packet. "It's been opened but there's plenty in there, it looks fine to me." She lifted the package up and looked at it. "Instructions on the side." She handed it to Ezra.
"This is perfect, thank you so much."
+ + + + + + +
Vin and JD were dispatched to Mrs Potter's store to find some cardboard; there were always boxes at the back of the store. While Nettie was returning the key she had borrowed, she picked up a bulldog clip; Ezra had requested one, though she had no idea what he wanted it for. Then all three of them watched in rapt fascination as Ezra read the instructions and followed them to the letter.
"It's hot!" he suddenly exclaimed.
"Hot?" Vin asked, peering into the bucket.
"Wow, it's magic!" JD exclaimed.
"Oh, it says here it's meant to do that, it means it's ready," Ezra explained as he re-read the instructions.
He picked up the bucket then poured some of the liquid plaster onto the footprint, which was now, surround by a ring of cardboard.
"Now we have to wait for it to set," he explained as he set the bucket down.
"Ezra, where did you learn how to do this?" Nettie asked.
"I read it in a book," he explained simply.
"Look, there's lots left, and it's still warm."
This announcement drew their attention back to the bucket where the JD was elbow deep in the leftover plaster.
"Oh good Lord," Ezra exclaimed.
The plaster over the footprint had ample time to set while Nettie tried to get the rapidly cooling plaster of JD's hands and arms, his pants, his shirt, and out of his hair - which proved to be all but impossible and produced some tears. Finally, less a few clumps of hair, JD was as clean she could get him and the cast was set.
Ezra took a deep breath, then - pushing his fingers under the soil - he levered up the plaster and turned it over to reveal a perfect copy of the footprint in relief.
"That's amazing Ez, you sure are smart," Vin congratulated in awe.
Nettie looked at the footprint critically. "That's a very old fashioned kind of boot, if you ask me."
"Boys!" Buck's voice got everyone's attention.
"Buck!" JD squealed and was already running toward the front of the house.
"Where in tarnation have you three been?" Wilmington asked as he met JD and rounded the corner of the house. "And what happened to you?" He studied his little brother and the flecks of white in his dark hair.
"Sorry, Buck, they were with me. I didn't realise it was so late," Nettie explained.
"Ma'am." Buck tipped his hat. "Hope they weren't too much trouble?"
"Not at all, they were most helpful."
"Do we have to go home now?" Ezra asked; he was keen to continue his investigation.
"If you want to listen to Sherlock Holmes tonight, we do," Buck pointed out.
A look of horror crossed the teen's face; there was no way he was missing his favourite show. Sunday nights now had a set routine. Early baths for the two younger boys, a supper of sandwiches and snacks while they listened to Sherlock Holmes. Buck then read JD a bedtime story, while Ezra had his bath and Vin read to Chris. It had become clear that Vin was virtually illiterate so Ezra and the two men were working to get him to a level where he could function at school. Vin wasn't keen about it and had resisted to begin with, but when Buck brought home some comics, he began to take more of an interest. Once Ezra was ready for bed and Vin had done his reading, it was time for the Jack Benny Show, while they all loved Burns and Allen, Jack Benny was quickly becoming a favourite with the men of the ranch. After Jack Benny, Vin went to bed and the other three listened to the news before Ezra retired as well. Once he was in bed, the men indulged in a whiskey and cigar before they too, turned in. Working two jobs was tiring enough, add on parenthood and they were pretty much bushed by Sundays.
"So what is this stuff in your hair, little brother?"
"Plasparis," JD informed him.
"Plasparis?" Buck asked, looking at the two older boys for a translation.
Ezra shook his head. "Don't ask."
+ + + + + + +
Monday morning meant an early start. In the last few days their riding horses had been somewhat ignored, Shadow in particular was getting too fresh. So they needed exercising. JD complained bitterly, loudly and passionately that it wasn't fair he had to stay behind. Buck explained that he had to ride Shadow and lead Max, so he wouldn't be able to have JD ride with him this time. JD asked if he could ride with Ezra, but Buck vetoed that idea before Ezra could say he didn't mind.
"No, Lady's never had you up there with Ez, I don't know how she'll react. It's no good crying JD, you stay here and keep Chris company."
"But I can ride with Vin," JD pleaded.
Vin's pony was steady and reliable, but there just wasn't room for both of them on the smaller saddle, even if Vin had been big enough to support him safely. "John Dunne, I said no and that is the end of it! Did I make myself clear?"
JD, tears of disappointment and anger still running down his cheeks, hung his head. "Yes, sir," he mumbled.
"All right then. Boys," Buck turned to Ezra and Vin. "Let's ride."
Ezra and Vin had been looking forward to this ride all weekend, but now the joy was gone. It wasn't that Buck didn't impose discipline, he did, but he didn't shout and if JD was upset because he couldn't do or have something, he always took the time to explain things to him. It was clear to both boys something was bothering there normally even tempered and genial co-guardian.
"What do ya reckon's wrong with Buck?" Vin asked, once they'd dropped back far enough to speak privately.
"I'm not sure, but I think the man in the hospital has something to do with it. If he dies that's murder. I wonder if Buck's ever had to investigate a murder?"
"Well, someone tried to murder him once, and you."
"It's not the same, with Chris laid up, it'll be up to Buck to look for evidence."
"Buck 'll do okay, he's smart."
Ezra looked over at Vin, he'd never really thought about it, Buck didn't have much of an education - at least as far as he could tell - but Vin was right, he was intelligent, probably a lot more than he gave himself credit for.
By the time they were back and had the horses turned out, JD and Chris were waiting for them. JD waved enthusiastically as they walked up to the truck, ready for the drive back to the town.
"Seems you are forgiven," Ezra commented softly.
"Does look that way doesnt it."
Buck grinned as JD carefully and proudly carried one of the long crutches down the porch steps, while Chris held on to the rail and hopped down on the other one.
+ + + + + + +
Once Buck was on the train to Eagle Bend and Chris was settled in the office, Ezra and the boys set out again on their own investigation. They were heading toward Nettie's garden again when they met her heading toward them.
"You boys still investigating my theft?" she asked.
"Yes ma'am, of course," Vin assured.
"Well come with me, Gloria Potter was delivering the milk this morning and she said young Miss Recillos was upset because someone has tampered with her flower box."
Inez's apartment was over the diner; there was a narrow staircase inside, and a wider one that ran up the outside of the building to a small veranda that gave access to the living quarters. A multitude of tubs, pots and flower boxes, all lovingly filled with brightly coloured flowers and lovingly cared for by Inez. Once Nettie explained why the boys were there, Inez told them to go around to the stairs and investigate.
"JD, you stay down here," Ezra instructed firmly.
"Because there isn't enough room up there for all of us," Vin pointed out.
"But I'm only little," JD pointed out.
"I appreciate that, but there are a lot of pots up there and we don't one to get knocked over," Ezra explained.
"I won't knock one " JD looked up at the two older boys, knowing he'd lost. "I'll stay down here," he agreed.
So while the two older boys examined the veranda, JD sat on the bottom step getting bored. Try as he might, JD just couldn't sit still and do nothing for long, so he looked around for something to do.
Other than to establish that Inez had also lost yellow pansies and that they too were dug up, not pulled up, Nettie and the boys found no new clues, until they looked down at JD.
"What ya got there, kid?" Vin asked, as JD pulled a scrap of white fabric through his fingers.
JD shrugged. "I found it stuck on the wood beside me, it's soft," he explained.
"May I see it?" Ezra asked.
JD held it up. What JD had found was a scrap of satin ribbon.
"Do you reckon it's Miss Inez's?" Vin asked, as he looked over his shoulder.
"Let's ask her."
+ + + + + + +
Buck carefully took the statement of the man who'd been stabbed. The doctors had told him that the man was unlikely to live. The internal damage had caused an infection that would quickly overwhelm the man's system and there was little they could do to stop it. He was told in no uncertain terms that if he didn't get his statement now, it would be too late. He didn't know if the man knew he was doomed and he wasn't about to say anything, let the doctors tell the poor man he was dying. What he came for was a name, and that's what he got. The victim knew his attacker well, knew his name, could describe him and describe the events leading to the attack clearly. Now it was up to Buck and Chris to make sure the man didn't escape.
"Yeah, you get a name?"
"Hank Graham, apparently he's well known as a bully; five eleven, short cropped sandy hair, dark eyes."
"How's the victim doing?"
"He's dying, there's nothing they can do but make him comfortable."
Chris didn't respond other than to curse.
"Yeah, docs reckon he'll be dead in less than three days, this is a murder."
"If this Graham is still up there, we need to make sure he doesn't leave."
"I'll take Josiah with me and arrest him, Nathan 'll help if we need more muscle."
Buck wasn't so sure that was a good idea, but in small communities, news travelled fast. "You sure you can handle it?"
Chris was about to snap back that he had an injured ankle, he wasn't an imbecile, but he bit back the comment. He knew Buck wasn't questioning his competency, he was just worrying, like he always did. "We'll be fine, the bosses up there have always been supportive."
"True, just be careful, okay? I'll be there as soon as I can."
+ + + + + + +
Unaware of this drama, the junior detectives were on their way to ask Chris for permission to walk out to the Kelly place; they wanted to find out more about the flowers that had been stolen. Chris, who'd only just put the phone down on Buck wasn't really listening to Ezra was he asked, he just agreed.
"Can we get sandwiches and lemonade from the diner?" Ezra asked.
"Sure, whatever you want, tell Inez I'll pay for them when I come in." Chris really didn't want the boys around when he brought the soon to be murderer in, anyway.
Ezra had been concerned that JD would find the walk to the farm too far, but he trotted along quite happily. Of course, he kept being distracted by things he found at the roadside - grasshoppers, worms, beetles, leaves, rocks, broken tail lights - there was no end to what would draw his attention and it did slow them down a bit. When they were about halfway they stopped to eat the cold beef sandwiches, lemonade and fresh baked cookies they had purchased from Inez, finally arriving at the farm at about two. Before they left, Mrs Kelly insisted they have some milk and cake. She brought the baby into the kitchen while they ate and fed him. JD was unfazed; he'd seen ladies feed their babies before, when he lived at Number 89. Vin didn't know where to look, blushing bright red, he averted his eyes. Ezra was entranced, and it didn't go unnoticed.
"Do you want to hold him?" she asked after the feed was over.
Ezra swallowed, he'd never held a baby, but found himself drawn to the little pink bundle in her arms.
"Could I?" he asked nervously.
"Of course, dear." She put the baby over her shoulder and patted his back until he belched.
"Good baby, better out than in," JD congratulated, parroting what he'd heard many times before.
Suppressing a laugh, Lucy handed the baby to Ezra, showing how to support the little head. The baby gazed at Ezra, Ezra gazed down at the baby, both seemed entranced.
+ + + + + + +
Eventually the three boys were walking back to town.
"We are making progress," Ezra announced.
"'Cause we know all the flowers taken were yellow pansies?" Vin asked.
"Correct, in addition we know that the thief is a woman, with small feet, who wears old fashioned boots."
"So who did it?" JD asked as trotted behind the older two.
"Well, if we knew that, we could apprehend them," Ezra explained.
"It means catch," Vin explained. "Right, Ez?"
"Correct." Ezra beamed with the pride of a teacher whose star pupil has just come top of the class.
JD was unimpressed. "Oh, but who is it?"
"We don't know!" Vin and Ezra chorused.
Ezra looked over his shoulder to see a very miserable, chastised looking JD. He stopped and turned back. "Oh, I'm sorry. We don't know who it is, but we are going to find out."
JD looked doubtful. "Me too?"
"Sure, you too," Vin assured. "We're brothers ain't " Ezra glared at him. " arent we?"
JD beamed. "Yeah!"
"Okay then." Ezra held out his had for JD to take, while Vin took the other one. The three of them walked back to town like that, with JD in the middle.
+ + + + + + +
While the boys had been away, Chris and Josiah had arrested Hank Graham, he hadnt come quietly and Nathan and the foreman had had to help. But he was finally safely locked up in the cells. The train from Eagle Bend should have arrived at four, but it was late, by five it still hadnt arrived, then, just after half past five, just as Chris could see three tired looking boys walking toward the jail, the phone rang.
Chris met the boys outside to give them the bad news. There had been a landslide, the line was blocked and Bucks train had had to reverse all the way back to Eagle Bend.
But how will Buck get home? JD asked.
Hell come up in a car with Sheriff Masterson, when he comes to collect the prisoner. Four Corners small jailhouse wasnt equipped to keep anyone for long, and certainly not anyone as potentially dangerous as Graham.
No, Im sorry, JD, theyre gonna come up first thing in the morning.
Graham would be safe overnight in Four Corners, much safer than transporting him at night, on unkept country roads. Chris could already see JDs bottom lip trembling.
Come on now, JD, be brave, because its going to be an adventure.
Yes. Chris took a deep breath and looked at all three boys. The man in the jail. He gestured behind him. Hes a very bad man, so I have to stay and guard him tonight.
But youre hurt, Vin protested.
Well, Im not that hurt, but thanks for thinking of me. Besides Father Sanchez is going to help. Now this means you three are going to have to stay in town tonight. Josiah will drive you out to the ranch to see to the stock and collect the things you need for tonight.
But I can look after them, Ezra protested.
Chris smiled at him. Ezra had come a long way in a very short time since Chris had first caught him borrowing his horse. He didnt doubt the young southerner could manage, and he trusted the other two to behave, but it was just too risky, if something were to happen, hed never forgive himself.
I know you can, but Id still worry too much. He winked at Ezra. Indulge an old man.
Will we be sleeping with you at the jail? Vin asked.
No son, that wouldnt be appropriate. Miz Nettie is going to take care of you alright?
Ezra nodded. Vin cast a worried look over at the house beside the church, then nodded slowly. JD was looking back and forth from the house to the other boys and then Chris.
I dont wanna, he finally announced.
Come on, JD, itll be fun, Vin encouraged, now that hed accepted it. Miz Nettie took real good care of you when you got plaster in your hair, she didnt shout or nothing and she gave us cookies, real warm and squishy from the oven remember?
Yeah, I guess, JD admitted softly. But I want Buck to come with me.
Ezra squatted down in front of him. I bet he wants to be here too, I bet hes very sad at this moment, because hes missing you. But there is nothing that can be done, so well just have be good and help Chris out right?
JD cast a worried look over Ezras shoulder at Chris, standing there, balanced on his crutches. He took a deep breath. Okay.
+ + + + + + +
Nettie did her best to make them welcome and comfortable, there were two single beds in the guestroom, Ezra would sleep in one, Vin and JD would share the other. She gave them supper of fried eggs, fried potato and biscuits, followed by fresh baked apple crumble.
Maam? Ezra asked, as they cleared the table.
When the chores are done, may we play out for a while? Its still light."
Well I dont see why not, but just you two. She pointed at Vin and Ezra. For a short time, but not JD, its too late, Im gonna run him a bath.
I wanna too, JD protested, then yawned.
I think you best stay here, Ezra advised him softly, just this time.
JD frowned, then yawned again, then gave in.
Just stay within hollerin range, Nettie called after the two older boys as they left, then she turned to JD. You want to help an old lady by pickin all them sticky bits out of the pie dish?
JD nodded enthusiastically and reached over to secure his first caramelised apple tidbit.
+ + + + + + +
What are we playing? Vin asked, once they were outside.
Were not playing, we have more detecting to do.
It was clear to Ezra that the thief only took yellow pansies. So they set about searching the town for more yellow pansies, eventually finding some in a little flower patch behind the old doctors office, they had seeded themselves in what had once been the doctors garden.
Well have to do stake out, Ezra announced.
A what? Vin enquired.
I read about them, the police set up a secret hideaway and watch a place they believe the miscreants will frequent.
We hide and watch. Flowers have been taken every night, so it is reasonable to suppose they will be tonight. We sneak out after bed time, hide over there, in the old woodshed and watch these flowers. I checked in Father Sanchezs almanac and its almost a full moon tonight.
Maybe thats why the thief took um this week, cause they can see, with the moon an all? Vin speculated.
Maybe, I hadnt considered that. Very good thinking.
+ + + + + + +
They had no intention of including JD in this plan, he was too young and incapable of keeping still for more than five minutes at a time, other than when he was asleep and when he was asleep, it was impossible wake him up. So they waited until he as asleep, which didn't take long, then they had to wait until Nettie went to bed, which seemed to take forever. Finally the house was silent. Ezra slipped out of bed and pulled back the curtains, flooding the room with silvery moonlight.
Vin moved carefully to exit the bed, without waking JD, then the two of them pulled on their clothes, before - boots in hand - easing open the door and slipping out.
Stopping only to pull on their boots, the two young detectives ran across the street, then down an alley. Keeping to the shadows, they made their way to the back of the old doctors office, and let themselves into the old woodshed.
"Bet this place is full of spiders," Vin commented.
"You afraid of spiders?" Ezra whispered back.
"No - you?"
Just then, something scurried across the floor behind them.
"What was that?" Ezra asked.
"Probably just a mouse."
"Not a rat?"
Vin suddenly remembered that his own time in the cellar at Stockwell, bad as it had been, was no where near as bad as Ezra's.
"No, no rats here, nothing for them to eat in here," he assured.
"Sure, but if you want, we can hide someplace else."
Ezra hesitated, this was his plan. If he wanted to be a detective, he had to do it right, no matter what his own fears were.
"No, no this is the best place."
+ + + + + + +
JD had woken just as Vin left the room behind Ezra, he assumed he was on his way to the outhouse, and with the thought came the need. So he climbed down from the bed, pushed his little bare feet into his boots, and pulled on his wool coat over his nightshirt, pushed his precious toy horse Pony into his pocket and headed out. As he emerged from the back door, he caught sight of Vin and Ezra disappearing around the side of the house. So he followed, as he got to the front porch, the other two were crossing the street. As Vin and Ezra disappeared down the alley beside the boarding house, he began to follow, then stopped when he remembered why he was outside. By the time he'd taken care of business, the others were long gone. JD, however, was not to be denied a part in the adventure, so he set out to find them. He had no idea where they were going, so he just wandered down the alley he'd seen them use.
Passing between the boarding house and Mr Phelps joiners' shop (had he known that the back part of the shop was the towns funeral parlour, he might have been more afraid) he came to the alley and tried to decide where to go. To his left, he could see the school, to his right, the back of the diner. He turned right.
Once he was past the diner, he was at the doctor's. JD stopped and looked at the overgrown yard. In the dark shadows created by the moonlight, it was a scary and foreboding place for a small five-year-old. JD turned and instead of entering the yard, where Ezra and Vin would have seen him, he skirted the perimeter, behind the woodshed, and made his way toward the long wall of the garage and blacksmith's shop. Instead of following the wall up, toward the main street, JD moved down, toward the livery barn. The barn was a favourite place for the boy to play and hide out, so even in the dark, JD knew exactly where to find the small side door, and let himself in.
The interior of the barn was dark, the only light, the faint moonlight slipping in from the open side door. Many a small child would have been scared, but JD had become supremely confident around horses, a barn was a place he always felt safe. The barn wasn't large and only a few horses lived there. JD knew that the first one was Josiah's big chestnut, Cardinal.
"H'llo," he greeted. "This is Pony." He showed his toy to the horse.
Cardinal, woken by the door opening, lowered his head and sniffed the little human's offering, once he knew it wasn't food he let his nose be petted. After only a short time in the warm, dark, safe place, JD began to feel sleepy again, so sleepy he just lay down and fell asleep in the barn.
He woke a few hours later, when breeze got up and made the small open door flap. For a moment, he was disorientated, then Cardinal snuffled his hair.
"Oh, h'llo again." He patted the big nose. "I have t' go back now," he explained as he stood up.
Outside, he headed back toward the old doctors office and it's overrun garden. Then he stopped. Coming away from the yard was a small, elderly lady, dressed in a white lace dress; she was carrying a shallow basket. In the basket were a small trowel and some yellow pansies. JD watched her go past him, seemingly oblivious to his presence. He watched her make her way to the gate that led into the field behind the barn. Once she was through the gate and heading out across the field, he followed.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra and Vin had managed to stay awake, partly because neither of them wanted to risk lying down on the floor with whatever wildlife was living there. They were both privately thinking it was time to go back to bed when a movement in the shadows caught Vins keen eyes.
There! he whispered suddenly.
What? Ezra asked.
There, to the back, by that big bush, see her?
Ezra peered. Well Ill be.
Who is it?
I dont know, I dont believe Ive seen her in town, not even in church. Have you?
Vin shook his head. Dont reckon so.
The two boys watched as the woman carefully extracted some of the pansies, placed them carefully in her basket, and then turned to leave.
What do we do now? Follow her? Vin asked.
Shes very old and shes on foot so wherever she lives, it cant be very far. Come on, lets see where she goes.
The two boys slipped out as silently as they could. The old ladys white dress made it easy for them to keep track of her at a distance. JD, in his dark coat, a little way ahead of them and some way off to the side, they didnt see and since they and JD were trying to be as quiet as possible, they didnt hear him and he didnt see or hear them.
+ + + + + + +
The field ran down hill for a little way and began to narrow somewhat. At the far end, there was a small gate in the sturdy post and rail fence. The woman let herself out through this gate, while JD, some way off to her right, simply crawled under it. Vin and Ezra hung back until she was far enough ahead of them then followed her. This next field continued to slope downhill, at the bottom was a shallow stream, no more than a trickle. The woman crossed on some stepping stones. JD was about to turn and follow her when he heard a bullfrog croak. As he turned to the side, the moonlight caught the frogs eyes, making them shine.
Hello Mr Frog, he whispered. With JD stalled while he investigated the frog, the other two pressed on, following their quarry as she headed into a stand of trees on the far side of the stream. There was a clear path through the trees and on the far side, just ahead of them a small collection of buildings. That wasnt particularly remarkable, the woman had to be headed someplace. What was remarkable was that one of the out buildings was ablaze with light. Keeping back in the trees, Vin and Ezra watched.
The woman ignored the well lit building and headed towards the house, which was to the right of the boys vantage point. It was hard to make out, but she seemed to be planting the flowers to the side of the steps to the back door. Ezra let his gaze drift to the outbuilding. As he watched, a man came out; he was carrying a crate, which he loaded onto the back of a truck. Judging by the way he carried it, the contents were heavy.
What do you think hes doing? Vin asked.
I dont know.
The man, who looked to be about the same age as Father Sanchez returned to the building and moments later, came out with another crate. After he put it in the truck, he reached into it and pulled out a bottle, from which he took a long pull, before returning it.
Ez, I think thats Vin gasped.
Me too, we have to go and tell Chris! Ezra was already turning away. Come on!
+ + + + + + +
Josiah and Chris was playing chess, both had tried to sleep in an empty cell, but the combination of the rock hard, narrow bed and their prisoner's snoring had made that impossible. Chris was finally about to trap Josiah into checkmate, after losing four games in a row, when Ezra and Vin burst into the office.
"ChrisChriswefoundthebootlegerscomeon!" both boys shouted at once.
"What the hell?" Chris would have shot to his feet, if Josiah hadn't pushed him back down.
The boys repeated their joint, garbled message.
"One at a time, boys," Josiah advised, "Ezra, take a breath and then tell us what's going on."
Ezra did as he was told.
"Are you sure about this?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, we saw him drinking some," Vin assured him.
"Doesnt mean its moonshine," Josiah commented.
"Why else would you move bottles at three AM?" Chris countered.
"Good point. We need to wait until Buck is back."
Chris shook his head. "The boys said he was loading up his truck, we need to catch him with the stuff."
"Chris, you're on crutches and I'm not carrying a gun, not for anyone."
Chris sighed. "I know, but my gun and your muscles should be enough. You know who it is, don't you?"
Josiah nodded. "Claude Henry. Man always has been a parasite."
Ezra and Vin stood where they were, watching the conversation go back and fourth. Chris phoned Tiny at the garage; they needed someone to stay at the jail while they were out. Then he took his gun out and started to check it over.
"You won't hurt the old lady will you? She was only collecting flowers," Vin pleaded.
"The old lady? No, no of course not." Chris looked up at Josiah. "Who do you think she is? His mother?"
Josiah shook his head. "Don't know, his mother's dead, I think yes, I'm sure of it."
"Did you do the service?"
"No, no it was before my time, he told me she died in some nursing home in Seattle."
Chris nodded, then turned back to his gun. "Boys?" he called, without looking up.
"Yes, sir," Ezra responded, instantly picking up the seriousness of his guardians tone.
"Go back to the presbytery; we'll talk about you being out later." He suddenly looked up. "Where's JD?"
"He's still in bed, we didn't take him," Vin explained.
"Thank goodness for small mercies, I'm calling Nettie - now, so she knows you're on your way," Josiah explained.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Ezra walked back slowly, as they neared the house they could see Nettie silhouetted in the front door, arms folded.
"Reckon we're in trouble," Vin commented.
"Indeed, and my apologies to you, it was my idea, I shouldn't have dragged you in to it."
"Ain't no kid, you can't make me do something I don't wanna do."
Ezra stopped to look at his young friend. "Thank you, nevertheless I intend to make it clear it was my idea."
"Boys, you two get in here!" Nettie called.
"Yes, ma'am," they responded in unison.
Despite her anger, Nettie gave both boys a mug of coco and a cookie, before escorting them back to the bedroom.
"Vin, don't you wake up the little one now," Nettie warned.
"JD?" Vin whispered.
"Vin, what did I just say?" Nettie reminded.
"But Miz Nettie, he ain't here!"
+ + + + + + +
JD had located the frog and stopped to chat and introduce him to Pony. Squatting down, with his back to the woods, he didnt see the two figures dashing back toward the town. Now that the frog had hopped away, he went on across the stream on the stepping stones. JD had never used stepping stones, so doing it for the first time in moonlight wearing a long night shirt and unlaced boots, took some time, but he made it across, only falling into the water once.
Since the stepping stones lead directly to the path through the woods, he naturally followed it. Dawn was coming up when he found his way to the farm. The old lady was still in the garden; she was wandering among the many different beds of yellow flowers, humming to herself. JD was naturally trusting and he liked the tune the lady was humming, his Ma used to hum. Without realising it, JD was edging closer to the garden.
"There you are, dear."
It took JD a second or two to realise she was speaking to him.
"Well, come, come and help me with the garden." JD trotted forward. "What have you been doing?" she asked, smiling down at him.
"I was s'ploring and I met Mr Frog, but he had to go away," JD explained.
"We have to do the weeding, come on."
+ + + + + + +
As they neared the farm, which was tucked away in a small wooded valley well hidden from the road, which was no more than a track in any case, Chris was cursing his injured ankle. This arrest was going to have to be planned and timed perfectly, yet they had no idea what they were going to find. There had been a time when Chris wouldn't have worried; he would have thrived on the danger, on the adrenaline rush. Not now, now he had a family again; no he had people dependent on him, taking stupid risks had lost all its appeal.
Josiah pulled in so that the truck was blocking the farm's driveway. Hopefully, Claude was still there and if he did get past them, the truck would hold him up.
"I've never actually been to the house," Josiah admitted. "Have you?"
Chris shook his head. "Claude's not exactly the neighbourly type."
"You okay to do this?" Josiah gestured to the crutches.
"Stop worrying about me, lets go, it's gonna be light soon."
It wasn't just that this alcohol was already a major contributor in one killing, it wasn't just that it was illegal, if Henry got it wrong, if he got the temperature wrong, when he made it, it could blind or even kill people. Getting it out of circulation fast was a priority.
+ + + + + + +
"Mother?" Claude Henry had finally finished loading his truck and hiding all evidence of his night's work bottling his latest batch of apple mash moonshine. He knew his mother would be in the garden, her latest obsession was yellow flowers. He wasn't sure where all the yellow flowers came from, but he'd been away, up in the hills tending his still for the last few nights. When he went away, he locked her in her room, but he was beginning to suspect she had some way to get out. She'd been confused in her head for years, in truth it had started not long after his father had died. Even if he could have afforded to put her in a home, he wouldn't have parted with the money. The alternatives were to just take her someplace and abandon her, or keep her at home. Claude was a hard man, he could even be ruthless, but he drew the line at abandoning his own mother.
Constance Henry ignored him, as she continued to hum.
"Mother, who is this?" he pointed to JD, squatting down opposite his mother, digging in the dirt.
"This is my boy Claude, he's a good boy," she explained.
"Claude? No mother, I'm Claude, who's he?"
"I'm JD," JD supplied happily. "We're digging for weeds."
Claude pulled his hand over his face as he tried to work out what to do. The garden was behind the house, if the boy had stayed in the garden he couldn't have seen anything.
"Little boy, how did you get here?"
JD looked up. "I walked."
"So you live near here?" Claude didn't think he'd seen any small children in the area around the farm.
"I live at the ranch but I'm staying with Miz Nettie today."
"Nettie Wells? The priest's housekeeper?"
JD wasn't so sure. "I don't know, but Father Sanchez lives there, too."
Before Claude could ask anything else, his mother stood up. "Come on, Claude, time to feed the chickens." She held out her hand to JD, who seemed unfazed by the new name.
"You got chickens? We got chickens at home, I know how to feed them," he explained happily.
No, Mother. He has to go home now, Claude tried to explain.
Home? But this is my son, he lives here. Constance scrutinised the man in front of her, blocking her way. Who are you, why are you on my land, Im going to get my husband!
Mother, Pa is oh, what is the point? He took hold of her bony wrist. Little boy, my mother is very confused, you run on home now.
Before JD could say anything, Constance began to complain. Let me go, I dont know you, I want my Peter! She tried to pull away, but Claude didnt let go.
Mother, I am your son, Peter is dead, hes been dead for years try to remember.
No! Dont you say that. Peter! she called piteously.
Claude was now attempting to drag his confused mother inside, while she resisted and protested.
You stop that! JD shouted, hurling his little frame at Claude, pounding his fists into his thigh. Dont hurt my old lady!
Why you little brat! Claude Henry might have scruples when it came to his mother, but he had none as far as someone elses child was concerned. He grabbed onto JDs shoulder, pinching it painfully. Go home now, before I decide youre too much trouble. If you dont, Im gonna slit your throat and feed you to the pigs, so your Ma and Pa will never find even one little bit of you! You hear me?
JD was trembling with fear, but there was a spark of defiance in him yet. I dont got no Ma or Pa but I got a brother and hes called Buck and hes a deputy and hes gonna arrest you for being mean to my old lady!
Youre brother is the deputy?
"Yes he is and hes real brave and hes gonna put you in jail for ever and ever and ever!
You think so, do you?
Well. He pinched ever harder, making JD cry out in pain. If your snooping brother comes anywhere near this place, Im gonna kill him and then Im gonna kill the old lady, and then Im coming after you!
I dont think so. Josiahs large hands landed on Claudes shoulders. Let them go, both of them.
I Claude began to protest.
Now! Chris had appeared beside Josiah, there was an ominous click as he cocked his gun and let the hard, cool O of the barrel rest against Claudes exposed neck.
Claude Henry knew he was beaten; he released his mother and JD. While she fled, scared and confused into the house, JD ran to Chris, wrapping his arms around Chris good leg.
Much as he wanted to cuddle JD and comfort him, Chris had to concentrate on the man he held a gun on, at least until Josiah got some handcuffs on the man.
Interesting cargo in your truck back there, Sanchez commented, as he pulled Claudes arms back and secured them in handcuffs.
Its just apple cider.
Sure it is, about one hundred proof apple cider.
JD! All heads shot up and turned to the back of the garden to see Ezra and Vin running up between the flowers.
What are you two doing here? Chris demanded.
Looking for JD, we found his bed empty, Miz Nettie told us to go look for him, Vin explained. We figured he might have followed us, so we came this way.
Chris looked over to make sure Josiah had their prisoner under control, then he holstered his gun and regarded his foster sons.
"Fair enough. JD?" he looked down and smiled. "I want you to go back with Ezra and Vin, I'll be there as soon as I can."
"What about my old lady? He was mean to her." JD pointed angrily at Claude.
"I know he was. Don't worry, Father Sanchez will take care of her."
"She's very nice, she let me plant flowers and pull weeds and she hums, but I don't think she can hear so good, 'cause I told her my name but she kept calling me Claude."
You are such a loving soul arent you? "I know, we'll look after her, I won't let him be mean to anyone, again." Chris patted JD on the head and turned his attention to the other two boys. "Ezra?"
"When you get back, tell Nettie to call Buck, he's at Masterson's house."
"The number's in the book by the telephone," Josiah called.
"She's to tell them to get here as soon as possible," Chris continued.
"I'll tell her," Ezra promised.
Vin had advanced closer to Chris. He held out his hand. "Come on, JD," he encouraged.
Reluctantly, JD edged away from Chris and took Vin's hand.
+ + + + + + +
Nettie hugged JD on his return, too relieved to have him safe to be cross with him. All three boys had been in her care and she had slept as they left the house and found danger. Her relief that they were safe, helped to ease some of the guilt she felt. JD - after wandering around the town and the countryside, falling into the stream and a spot of gardening - was filthy. So Nettie put water on to heat and filled the bath, he was all but asleep as he bathed him. Then, dressed in one of her blouses, he was put to bed, Pony clasped in his hand.
The other two boys were too keyed up to sleep, so they sat with Nettie and waited for someone to return to town.
+ + + + + + +
It took until eleven the next day before the whole family was ready to go home. Hank Graham and Claude Henry were on their way to Eagle Bend. All the evidence at the Graham farm had been logged and tagged, the still had been located and deactivated, it would be photographed and dismantled the next day, ready for collection at a later date. Mrs Henry was on her way, with Josiah, to a convent he could personally vouch for, that took care of the mentally confused, with kindness and sympathy. Even the chickens and pigs at the Graham farm had been found new homes with neighbours.
Once home, the boys, who had ridden in the back of the truck in silence, were told to sit on the big couch in the living room.
"Well," Chris began. "Where to start?" He looked at the two eldest boys. "What were you two thinking? Going off in the middle of the night like that? Who knew who was stealing flowers? You could have run into a mad axe murderer. And what about Nettie? Did you think about how she might feel, she was looking after you and you disappeared, how do you think that made her feel?"
There was a pause while the boys worked out that this wasn't a rhetorical question.
"Um, I guess she felt she'd failed?" Ezra asked.
"I reckon she was worried," Vin added.
"Very worried and feeling like she'd let me and Josiah down, I expect you two to write her a letter of apology."
"We already said sorry," Vin pointed out.
"I should hope so, but I want it in writing, with a promise not to do anything like this again. What punishment do you think this deserves?"
The boys shrugged.
"Well, Buck and I have talked and we have decided that there will be no riding, no swimming, and no radio or comics for two weeks. In these two weeks, you will help Miz Nettie with any chore she may need doing."
Two pairs of eyes shot up, looks of pure horror on their faces, two weeks was a lifetime in August to go without riding or swimming.
"You are the oldest, we rely on you to look after the others, you let us down."
Ezra sighed deeply, he knew it.
"You will hand over your Sherlock Holmes book for the two weeks as well."
Ezra opened his mouth to protest, but then thought better of the idea. "Yes, sir," he mumbled, dejectedly.
"JD?" Buck began.
"Did you know it was wrong to follow them out onto the street at night?"
JD's big eyes gazed at his brother, finally he nodded.
"Thank you for being honest. No swimming and no radio for two weeks."
Tears formed in his eyes, but JD fisted them away, he was being treated the same as the big boys, he'd take his punishment like them as well.
"Do you have anything to say?" Chris asked.
Ezra looked up and swallowed. "Only that we knew the thief wasn't going to be dangerous."
"Oh, and how did you know that?" Chris challenged.
Ezra went on to explain about the footprint, the ribbon. "So you see, we knew it was a woman, quite small, wearing old fashioned boots and wearing white."
"That's my old lady," JD reminded happily.
Chris had to admit their deductive reasoning impressed him, he turned to Buck and after a quick, whispered conversation, the two men faced the boys again.
Chris cleared his throat dramatically. "In light of your fine and professional work to crack, not one but two cases, the Four Corners Police service thats us..." He indicated Buck and himself. " here by remit one week of your sentences."
"Huh?" Vin asked.
"We only have to do one weeks punishment, instead of two," Ezra explained.
"And you three are here by made honorary, unofficial, unpaid, deputy sheriffs," Buck added.
"Yay!" JD cheered.
The week's punishment didn't drag as much as they had feared, mainly because they spent so much time in town, working for Nettie they were always exhausted when they got home and went to bed early.
When the week was over each boy was presented with his sheriff star. These were not tin plate toy stars; they were real ones, made of brass. As they pinned them on proudly there could be no doubt they really were the 'Sheriff Boys.'