Disclaimer: I don't own these characters and I don't make money with this story. The Runaways AU is created by KT, who graciously let me play in it.
This story is written for Lara Frank, who wanted a Runaways story for her birthday. It is set a few months after KT's third establishing story in this AU, Loose Ends. The first stories are Arrival and Closures. Many thanks to KT for helping me get this right!
"JD, JD, I's awake!"
Four year old Buck came flying down the stairs, his arms already stretched out, confident that he would be caught before he might fall. He wasn't disappointed. Just when he went tumbling over the last steps, because he was going so exhilaratingly fast, there JD was, whooping when he caught Buck and prolonging the little boy's flight by whirling him around a couple of times. Buck squealed in delight.
A bit breathless Four Corner's young sheriff put the boy down and Buck immediately dashed back to the stairs.
"Oh no, ya don't." Before he had gone up two steps a strong, tanned hand grabbed him by the back of his shirt and pulled him down.
"Sit, eat, yer late as it is."
Vin grinned and tweaked Buck's nose. "Those puppy dog eyes ain't gonna work on me, you little rascal. JD and me, we got plenty of work to do, what with six drunks in jail and some stuff the judge wired us about. So here ya go." He grabbed Buck, threw him over one shoulder to the utter delight of the little boy and carried him to his chair, where he was dumped in unceremoniously.
Chris was already sitting at the table, looking at Vin and Buck. The solemn eight year old didn't say anything though, just kept eating.
Suddenly very hungry, Buck reached for his plate. His face fell when he saw what was on it. Oatmeal, again. It wasn't that he hated oatmeal, especially not the way this one was made, thick and even a bit tasty, it was just that he liked other things lots better.
Shaking his head, JD put the honey down beside his plate. "Come on, Buck, it's healthy stuff," he told the boy. "Vin, more coffee?"
"Yeah." Vin grabbed the jar and put a huge dollop in Buck's oatmeal. Then he put at least as much on Chris' plate. "You like honey too, don't ya, Chris?"
Chris nodded, looking up at Vin with a hesitant smile. "But I like this oatmeal without it, too. It's good. Not...not watery and salty like in the orphanage."
"Salty? Ehw." JD made a face. "There's only one good way to make oatmeal and that's with milk. And cream, adding cream's good too."
"And raisins," Vin supplied.
"Dried apples," JD added.
"Lots of sugar...."
"Honey's even better."
Buck was looking at his and Chris' two guardians in open mouthed wonder. Did they really like oatmeal that much? So why did they eat bread then instead? Something wasn't right, but he couldn't quite grasp it. With a sigh he helped himself to a spoonful with more honey than oatmeal on it. It didn't take him long to eat all the honey off the thick mush. He had been unable to avoid spooning up some oatmeal as well, but he had been able to avoid most of it. Since he was still hungry, he grabbed for the jar again.
"Buck," Chris hissed, mortified.
"It's all right, Chris. He can have some more." This time it was JD who added another helping to Buck's plate, before spreading a generous amount on a slice of bread for himself.
"You done, Chris? Or you want more?" Vin asked.
"I'm done." Chris was already sitting at the edge of his seat, clearly in a hurry to be on his way. "Can I be excused?"
When Chris pushed his chair back, Vin stood up as well. Before Chris had set two steps he jumped the boy, grabbed him, threw him up and over his shoulder and spun him around. Chris' first squeal was one of almost frightened surprise, but the next one was made of pure joy. He held his arms wide and laughed happily. Vin let him glide off his shoulder until Chris was resting in his arms and grinned at the boy.
Chris smiled back and suddenly he hugged his guardian fiercely. Then Vin put him down and Chris ran out the door. "See you later, Buck," he yelled just before the door banged shut behind him.
Buck sighed. Chris had all the luck, he was allowed to do real chores at the livery and take care of his small horse, Pony. Everyone said Buck was way too small to have a horse of his own, or help out in the livery. It just wasn't fair.
He looked at Vin and JD, who were busy gathering the dishes. JD was laughing. "What got into you, Vin? Suddenly throwing the boys around like that, it's not like you."
"Yeah, well, gotta watch my back, you know that. But when I was jostling Buck, I saw how Chris looked, like he really wanted it too."
"Hid it almost immediately 'stead of sayin' something. That boy is way too serious, JD. He's gotten to trusting us and he'll come for the important things, but at his age having some fun is important too." There was a brief silence and then Vin decided, "I'm gonna teach him checkers."
"We should get them a ball," JD said wistfully. "A real one, you know, from leather."
Vin laughed and slapped the young sheriff on the back. "You want a ball, JD, all you had to do was save some money and go to the store."
"Hey, cut that out! I only want one for the boys."
"Yeah, yeah." Vin walked over to Buck and looked at his plate. "All clean gone. You sure you don't like oatmeal? Maybe we should have it again tomorrow."
"Viiiin," Buck cried out in horror. "Can't we have eggs tomorrow? Please? Please, please, please?"
"Eggs, huh?" Vin tousled Buck's dark hair while he grinned at him. "I'll see what can be arranged. You had enough of this? Then you can help clean the table. Careful now, one plate at a time."
Tongue between his teeth, Buck brought the plates to the basin filled with water. Next he brought the mugs, those he could easily do two at a time. Lastly he brought the jar of honey to the cupboard.
"Can I go outside now?"
"Sure you can. Uh oh, no, wait." JD's hand shot out and grabbed him, stopping him in mid-dash. "Not like that. Let's get breakfast off your face and hands first."
Impatiently Buck tolerated the wet cloth over his mouth, nose and hands and then he ran off, eager to go and find Chris. He was determined to get to the livery fast, so he could still help with the small Indian pony Vin had given to Chris. Maybe he would even be on time to help feed the horses.
His plan was doomed the moment he stepped out of the door. A strange, almost frightening noise coming from the small alley beside the jail stopped him instantly.
He held his breath, anxiously waiting for more of the noise and wondering if it wasn't best to run back inside and get JD. But when he didn't hear it again, he decided to take a quick look first. He was sure that's what Chris would do. And what he saw made him forget all about JD or anything else.
It was grey, much smaller than a horse and with the cutest long ears. Buck mouthed an exited 'Oh' and immediately had to go and pet it. When he reluctantly stopped, because he remembered he was on his way to Chris and the horses, the grey head with the beautiful white nuzzle nudged him impatiently for more. How could he not pet it again after that?
"Hello, Buck. I see you have made a new friend."
Buck smiled happily at the big man ambling toward him and the jail with a tray of food.
"He's beautiful, Uncle Josiah. Where'd he come from? Can we keep him?"
"I'm afraid not. This donkey belongs to two of the drunks in the cell. Gold seekers on their way to California."
"Oh." Buck patted the donkey a bit more, trying to hide his disappointment.
"What's wrong? You suddenly look like someone stole your last candy."
That made Buck giggle. "Oh, Uncle Josiah, no one steals candy! Bandits steel gold and money from the bank, not candy." He sighed, remembering again why he was disappointed. "I just thought, everyone says I'm too small to ride Pony and he's the smallestest horse there is, but this d... donkey?" After Josiah's nod, he continued, "This donkey is so much smallerder than Pony, I could ride him." He looked up at Josiah hopefully. "Can we ask the men in jail if I can? Just once? Please?"
"Sorry, son, I'm afraid that's not possible. The donkey was carrying those men's belongings and I don't think he's used to someone riding him. He wouldn't know what to do if you told him to go left or right."
"You will just have to grow a bit older, Buck. Don't worry, you'll get there. Now, I had better bring this to our prisoners. They may be sinners, but they still need to be fed."
Dejected Buck left the donkey, kicking at a clump of earth. He was never sad for very long though, and within a few seconds the idea of telling Chris about the donkey made him smile and run off to the livery.
He almost immediately had to slow down again, because Peter and Molly, Gloria Potter's children, were putting down all sorts of fascinating things on the porch before the store. Buck watched with interest, his mission forgotten.
The big baskets Mrs. Potter always had standing before her store were already outside. When Buck skipped to a halt, eight year old Molly was placing some really long brooms against the wall beside the door, while Peter hung a few pans on the pegs jutting out of the wood.
"Hi, Buck," Molly sang before disappearing inside. Peter grinned at him when he followed his sister and Buck waved hesitantly. Peter was big, eleven years old big! He was even too big to play with Chris.
The two children came outside again, now with a small, open cupboard, the shelves still empty. Their mother followed with yet another basket, this one filled with jars, which she set beside the cupboard.
"Mind you stack them neatly," she warned her children. Then she saw Buck and smiled at him.
"Hello, Buck. Are you alone? Isn't Chris with you?"
"No, Ma'am, he's at the livery."
"Ah, yes, I should have known. So you were on your way there?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Buck had forgotten it was rude not to look at the people you were speaking with; his eyes were riveted on what Peter and Molly were putting into the small cupboard. This was new. He hadn't seen it before in Mrs. Potter's store and he came there every day.
"Mrs. Potter, is that... jam?" He knew jam, his mother had bought it when they had enough money and he had loved it.
She smiled at him. "Why, yes, Buck, it is. Plum jam and jelly, made from the first plums of the season. I've received these yesterday. Do you like plums?"
His eyes still on the jars with the delicious contents he nodded slowly. Mrs. Potter went inside, coming back with a plum in each hand.
"Here, one for you and one for Chris. Careful now, it wouldn't do for you to squash them."
"Oh, thank you, Mrs. Potter, thank you so very much!" He cupped his hands around the delicate treasure and smiled happily at the store owner. "I go bring them to Chris right now."
"You do that, boy."
Not running anymore, but still hurrying along, Buck really meant to do just that, go straight to Chris and share his wealth with his friend. Only, when he reached the livery Tiny was outside the adjacent smithy with a glowing piece of iron held in a pair of tongs. It was too much to pass up on, so Buck stayed and watched the big smith and livery owner hammer the glowing piece of iron on the anvil standing just outside the huge, double doors of the livery.
It was impressive and even a little frightening what Tiny did and Buck was sure being a blacksmith was the best job in the whole wide world, after being a sheriff that is. He sighed. Actually, he wasn't sure if being a sheriff was better. What Tiny did was so awesome, with fire and heat and all that glowing metal, while all he really saw JD do was take care of some prisoners.
And he had seen him shoot in a gunfight, once, but Buck didn't want to think about that. Then he remembered the two plums in his hands and the donkey he wanted to tell Chris about, and the frightening memories were immediately chased away by those happy thoughts of the here and now.
"Hullo, Tiny," he yelled before running into the stables.
"Wow, not so fast." He hadn't gone far when someone grabbed him and stopped his wild dash inside.
"Vin," he yelled. "Oh, you made me almost drop these." Holding out his hands that had become sticky where the delicate skin of the plums had been crushed a bit, he showed Chris' guardian his treasure. "Mrs. Potter givet them for me 'n Chris, real plums."
Then something occurred to him. "But... but she only givet me two."
"That's all right, you and Chris enjoy them. Now, what'd Tiny and me tell ya? No running in the livery, remember? That's real important, 'cause you c'n panic the horses that way and since they're locked up in a stable and can't get out, they could hurt themselves if they panicked."
"I... I's sorry...." And he was. Only, it was so hard to remember things like that when he was excited about something.
"Just so's you don't forget again. Look, here comes Chris."
"Chris!" Buck immediately yelled, Vin's words already forgotten. "Look what I got!"
+ + + + + + +
Vin smiled when Buck stuck his hands out to show Chris his treasure as soon as he spotted his friend. The young boy was more than willing to share his treat.
"Hi Buck," Chris said when he reached them. "I thought you wasn't gonna come no more, I got everything finished already. What you got there?"
"Plums. Here, one's for you."
Chris' mouth formed a round 'oh' when he saw the treat.
"You do know plums, don't you, Chris?" Buck asked, holding out the biggest to his friend. "They's sooo good."
"I... I think I might, but it's so long ago I don't really remember." Chris accepted the soft fruit and took a tentative bite. A huge grin lit up his usually too serious face. "'S great," he acknowledged, while he took another small bite, making sure he didn't eat more than half of the small fruit. The rest he held out to Vin.
Vin ruffled Chris' blond hair, touched by the small gesture. These two boys had had so little for far too long, especially Chris who had been in Saint John's Boys Home longer than Buck before they ran away, but they were always willing to share with friends. "You go and eat it, I've had plums before. As a matter of fact, I'm gonna buy me some right this mornin', so we c'n have them for lunch. What you say 'bout that?"
Vin didn't know if the plums would be expensive, but after he saw the delight on Chris' face he didn't care. Buck's whoop of joy only strengthened his resolve. It always felt good to do small things like this for the boys, to try and give them as much happiness as possible to make up for all the hardship they had been through.
"Let's go, boys. I came to fetch you, Chris, 'cause Josiah wanted to do your lessons now, when the heat ain't at its worst yet. It's gonna be a very hot day, even hotter then yesterday."
Chris sighed and pulled a face that said exactly what he thought about going to his reading lessons.
"But, Vin," Buck protested. "Then Chris can't see the donkey. There's this donkey beside the jail and it's soooo cute and I wanted to show it to Chris."
"All right, he can see the donkey first," Vin promised as he ushered the two outside. "If you hurry along. Hi, Tiny."
Tiny stopped his hammering and smiled at them.
"Hello, Vin, boys. You finished, Chris? Good. You're doing a good job. I never had this clean a stable 'til you came working for me."
Vin smiled at Chris, who had ducked his head at the praise, trying to hide his embarrassment. He had been coming to the livery every morning to sweep and to feed and water the horses for a while now. In exchange for his work Pony's food and stable were for free.
"And what are you up to, little Buck?" the smith asked. At the same time he lifted the horseshoe he had been hammering into shape and trust it in a big bucket full of water. The water hissed and a cloud of steam rose up. Buck clapped his hands.
"Do it again, Tiny, do it again!"
Tiny laughed his deep belly laugh. "I'll have to make another one first." He lifted the cooled iron and looked at it critically, then gave a nod, his face showing his satisfaction.
"We's going to see the donkey," Buck told him when it was clear no more steam would be coming.
"A donkey, huh?" Tiny said. "Would that be the animal those two prospectors had with them? The ones now in jail for their behavior in the Saloon last night? You two can take some carrots for him if you want. Chris, you know where they are."
With a heartfelt 'thank you' the two boys got the carrots before hurrying off to the donkey, running ahead of Vin. When he reached the jail, he saw a dark and a blond head bowed deep over the small animal. It was munching happily on the last of the carrots and seemed to thoroughly enjoy all the attention.
"He looks like a good little fella," he told the boys when he reached them. Two happy faces looked up.
"Yeah, he's real nice," Chris said, never stopping his scratching and petting.
"And he's small too," Buck added enthusiastically. "See, Vin? I bet I could ride him." There was a wistful expression on his face.
Vin sighed. Buck wanted to ride so badly and he wanted to do it right now, not wait until he was older. "He may be small, Buck, but I don't think he'd know what to do with a boy on his back. He's used to carryin' stuff, not to be ridden. 'Sides, he ain't ours."
"That's what Josiah said," Buck admitted sadly.
"Josiah! Chris...." Vin turned to the eight year old. "He's waitin' for you. You can pet the donkey some more once you're done."
Chris' face fell. "But he's probably gone by then."
"Nope, he won't be. Those two will spend the rest of the day and another night in jail to keep 'em out of trouble with any more trail hands, so he'll stay around a while longer."
"Oh, then someone should take care of him! We can do that, Vin, please?"
Vin made a show of thinking about it, with two expectant faces turned to him, almost breathlessly awaiting his decision.
"He's got them carrots, but I reckon you can feed him a bit more later today," he finally told them and immediately had two boys hanging around his waste. Gently he pried their arms loose and gave Chris a shove. "Off you go."
Vin couldn't help the grin when he saw the boy walk toward the church. It was a lot less enthusiastic and a lot slower then when he had gone to the livery that morning, or to see the donkey.
Another month or so, then Chris' lessons with Josiah would stop and he would attend the small school in Four Corners. Vin hoped the quiet boy would fit in and even more, that he would enjoy going there. Maybe make some friends his own age, friends he didn't feel he had to protect all the time. He thought it might do Chris a world of good.
+ + + + + + +
Work be damned. It wasn't even noon yet and already it was far too hot to move. Vin and JD were sitting in the shade of the jail, on the bench right next to the door, feet up on the porch rail, hats deep over their eyes, idly watching the street. In the oppressive heat the hammering coming from the church sounded muffled.
"I can't believe Josiah's up to working in this awful weather," JD said with disgust. "Man, it's too hot to do anything."
"Aw, it ain't that bad, JD."
"Yes, it is. The only thing I ever regretted about moving here is this horrible heat."
Vin's attention was somewhere else though. He pushed his hat back to take a better look. "Is that Buck?" he asked.
A small figure came walking over the porch. No running, no skipping, no sudden bursts of speed, or jumps from one board to another. Just a slow, demure walk that wasn't like the usually exuberant four years old at all.
"Can't be Buck," JD said, also watching the boy approach. "More like an old man who took over his body."
"Ow, JD, that's a lame joke."
"Yeah. It's too hot to make up a good one."
Buck had finally reached them and plopped down beside JD with a deep, deep sigh.
"You okay, Buck?" JD asked. Vin understood the worry he heard in JD's voice; the had never seen Buck this quiet, unless something was going on.
Dull eyes stared up at them. "'S hot," the boy declared from where he was leaning dejectedly against the back of the bench, his small feet hanging down without swinging.
"I know," JD agreed. "It's very hot."
"'S too hot."
"Where's Chris?" Vin asked, pulling his hat back over his eyes. "I thought you were gonna fetch him from Josiah?"
Buck sighed. "In the livery. He and Tiny givet the horses extra water."
"And you didn't stay?" JD asked. Usually Buck would have jumped at the chance to help with the horses: he loved them every bit as much as Chris did.
"S too hot," Buck repeated.
Vin looked at JD and they shook their heads. Then JD stood up and held out his hand to Buck. "Come on, let's get inside. I'll give you some of the lemonade Inez made for us. And I don't think Vin would mind if you ate one of the plums now."
The small face lit up for a second, but as soon as the boy stood up from the bench, he seemed to wilt again. Vin looked at JD again. "Too hot," they said in unison, grinning. Buck didn't even react; he was already dragging his feet to the door, so JD hastily followed.
When they had left, Vin resumed his vigilant watch over Four Corner's main street. After a while he saw another small figure coming his way. He was less surprised to see Chris walk quietly, especially when he saw the boy was carrying something. When Chris had reached him, he raised an eyebrow and nodded at what the boy held in his arms.
"Hay? You think 'bout feedin' us that for lunch?"
Chris giggled, a giggle Vin always loved to hear. "Viiin! It's for the donkey."
"Ah, all right then. Don't think I'd like hay. Could try though." Chris giggled again when Vin pulled out a blade and put it between his teeth to chew on.
"Hey, it ain't so bad."
Chris shook his head, with a put upon expression on his face. Vin had to fight not to laugh at that, glad the boy was looking around and not at him.
"Where's Buck? He said he was going home."
Home, Chris said it so easily these days. It warmed Vin's heart and this time he didn't suppress his smile. Chris smiled back.
"He did," Vin told him. "JD took him inside for somethin' to drink. He's got trouble with the heat."
Chris nodded. "Yeah, it sure is hot." He sighed. "I hope he'll come soon, I'm getting tired of carrying this hay."
Vin didn't move, just hollered, "JD, get outta here!"
"What?" JD's head stuck through the door, looking the street up and down. "Geez, Vin. Where's the fire?"
"It's here," Vin told him, nodding toward Chris, who was shifting restlessly with the hay still in his arms. "You better ask Buck if'n he wants to help give that donkey some hay now, or he'll miss out on it."
"And you had to shout as if Four Corners was invaded by an army of thieves to let me know that? Why didn't you come in and get him?"
"Too hot," Vin grinned. "Oh, and since you're already up, why don't you go over to the saloon and get us some beer?"
JD glared at him. "Go fetch it yourself. All you'll get from me is some lemonade. You want lemonade, Chris?"
Green eyes lit up. "Oh, yes!" The enthusiastic outburst was almost automatically followed by a neat "Please?"
"It's yours, son, I'll get it for you. Buck? You coming to help feed the donkey?" A smaller dark haired head peeked around the door as well.
"Oh, you got hay. That's great." Heat momentarily forgotten, Buck hurried outside.
Chris held out his arms to his younger friend. "You take some too and we'll give it to him together."
"Yeah," Buck happily agreed, already on his way to the donkey.
Vin shook his head. Kids and animals... you couldn't help but love them together.
+ + + + + + +
Chris let Buck reach the donkey first. He didn't mind if Buck did the feeding; he had Pony and he had just helped Tiny with feeding and watering the horses in the livery anyway.
Watering.... He frowned, remembering how Tiny had said it was dangerous when you didn't drink enough in this heat and that the same was true for animals. Where the donkey stood in the small alley it had shade, which was good, but no water. His eyes traveled to the water trough in front of the jail.
"Buck, he needs water too. Let's put him over there."
Buck didn't react; he was staring happily at the donkey that ate the hay right out of his arms. For a brief second Chris felt a little stab of jealousy. It was such a nice donkey.... But not as nice as Pony, he reminded himself. No animal was as great as Pony, ever, not even Peso.
Right now the donkey needed water. Decision made, he hurried to the trough and dropped the rest of the hay right beside it. Then he went back and grabbed for the rope with which the donkey was tied.
"Come on, Buck. Let's get him to the water."
Buck looked up and frowned at him. Then comprehension dawned and he nodded.
"Oh, yeah, he'll be thirsty." He looked at the trough. "Can I lead him, Chris? Please? JD, can I?"
JD was leaning against the side of the jail, watching them with a glass in his hand. He nodded. "I think it's docile enough. You can give Buck the rope, Chris, long as you hold on to its halter."
With a squeal of delight that made the donkey step back in surprise, Buck grabbed for the rope. Chris gave it to him solemnly.
"Don't scream, it'll scare him."
"I won't. I'll be real quiet. You'll see, I can do it."
"Sure you can."
Proudly Buck went to the water trough with the little donkey, never seeing how Chris tugged at the halter now and then to keep it walking. Once he reached the water trough he looked behind him, beaming with pride when he saw the donkey was coming. Chris had let go, because it was obvious the animal wanted to reach the water and wasn't going to run off.
The animal hurried closer and before anyone knew what happened its head impacted with Buck's chest when it dunked its nose toward the water.
Buck gave a sharp yell and fell backwards in the trough. The donkey tilted its head once, brayed and shoved its muzzle right back in, not caring in the least that its water source was suddenly filled with little boy.
"Buck!" Chris was already at the side of the trough, reaching for his friend. "You all right?"
His friend sputtered and sat up, water dripping down his face. He looked like he was going to cry.
"Buck?" JD was there as well, and Vin, and more people were coming, some of them laughing. Chris ignored them.
"You look silly," he grinned at his dripping friend.
Buck scowled at him. "I do not."
"You do too."
"Not true!" The little boy glared at him, then at JD who was laughing, then back at him and before Chris understood what Buck had planned he was suddenly doused by a huge splash coming from the trough.
"Buck!" he yelled indignantly. The grin on Buck's face when he scooped more water at Chris was too much. Besides, the water felt so good in the heat. Chris jumped forward to try and splash Buck and a moment later even the donkey decided he had better step away from the ensuing water battle.
"I say, what kind of behavior is this?" an angry, tremulous voice asked.
Chris stopped playing when he heard it. He looked up in apprehension, ready for danger. Mister Conklin was standing at a safe distance from the water trough, his eyes behind his small, round glasses narrowed in obvious disapproval.
Immediately Vin was beside him and Chris sidled up to his guardian, glaring at the man he knew had never liked him or Buck.
"Jist some boys havin' fun," Vin said evenly.
"I know the judge allowed you two to keep those boys, although why they weren't sent back to the orphanage where they belong I'll never understand, but I had hoped you would at least keep a leash on them. After all, they are runaways."
"You got a problem with that?" Vin asked. Chris quickly looked up at him when he heard the anger in his guardian's voice. Vin's whole face was stony and he was glaring at Conklin.
"We don't want their kind in this town," the dour looking man said. "They bring nothing but trouble." With those parting words he turned around and walked away, muttering to himself.
Chris leaned into Vin, his happiness gone. He looked at Buck, who stood a bit forlornly in the water trough, no longer laughing. Then JD stepped forward and picked the little boy up, not minding how wet he was.
"Stupid old goat," the young sheriff said. "Don't you two mind him. He's just a very unpleasant man and no one listens to him."
Chris felt Vin's arm around him. Then his guardian leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Don't you worry 'bout him, Chris. He can't do nothin'."
"He's like the priests at Saint John's," Chris whispered back. He wormed his way out of Vin's arm. "I better get the donkey," he said and hurried after the little animal.
Chris looked up, but Vin knelt down and put his hands on his shoulders. "He can't do nothin'," his guardian repeated. Then his arms, the arms that made Chris feel all safe and warm, were around him and he was leaning against Vin's chest, feeling instantly better.
An angry voice made them both look up. Nathan was descending upon them, a deep frown on his face.
"John Dunne," he yelled. "What are you doing putting Buck in that filthy water trough?"
"I didn't put him...."
Nathan wasn't interested. "Of all the irresponsible things to do!"
Buck's lower lip started to tremble. "I... I fell, Uncle Nathan, honest."
"Yeah, the boys did nothing wrong," JD said. "'Sides, it's too damn hot to do anything else but play with water."
Nathan's face only became sterner. "If you think so, JD, then why don't you take them to the river, where the water is clean? That," he pointed at the water in the trough, "is deadly. Those boys get some of that water inside, after it's been standing here in this heat and having had all them horse muzzles in it, they'll get sick and not just a little bit sick either. I'm talking 'bout real sick here."
"Aw, Nate, surely it ain't that bad? It's just water."
"I've seen children die from consuming that kind of water, JD. It's got diseases in it."
"Sorry, Nathan, we didn't realize," Vin butted in. "But hey, I think you came up with the best idea so far. JD, let's make lunch a picnic and go to the river. It's too damn hot for anything else."
He gave Chris, who was listening hopefully, a soft push and nodded to the donkey. Chris grabbed its rope and led it back to the water through, where he tied it to the hitching post. This time the donkey ignored the water, but lowered its head to the ground instead, where Chris had deposited the rest of the hay.
To his dismay he heard JD, still with Buck in his arms, say, "We got those damn prisoners to look after. I thought we'd agreed to keep the two gold seekers in jail until those other fools were far enough away from town to avoid more fighting between them?"
"I think those boys need a nice trip to the river right now," Nathan said. "Why don't you two go, while Josiah and I mind things here? Get a little wet yourselves as well." Then he went to Buck and put his hand on the shoulder of the little boy, who tried to bury himself in JD's chest. "I wasn't mad at you, Buck, just scared you might get sick from that filthy water." He gestured at it. "See? Don't look like water you could drink, does it?"
Buck looked down and shook his head, making Chris look really close at the water as well. No, it sure didn't look too good, it even looked a little bit green. Anxiously he stared up at Buck. Was it true? Would his friend get sick now?
"Did you swallow some of it?" Nathan asked Buck.
"No, Uncle Nathan. Honest not."
"Good. Then you'll be fine. You take this silly young man to the river and make sure he plays some nice games with you, all right?"
Chris and Buck giggled, while JD scowled at the healer. Then they saw the donkey duck his head into the water trough again.
"Oh no, the donkey," Buck shrieked. "He drank lots of it!"
After Nathan's ominous words, Chris was also afraid the water might not be good for the animal and he immediately tried to pull the grey head out of the trough. Vin put a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't worry, he won't get sick, animals can drink this just fine."
"That's right," Nathan assured them. "You see, it's dangerous for little boys like you exactly because all those horses and a donkey drink from it, but they are just fine with it themselves. That's why it's their water and not people's water. We people need good clean water, and that means streaming water, or from a well. You boys best remember that."
Two heads bobbed up and down in understanding. JD hefted Buck to one hip. "Thanks for the warning, Nathan. And thanks for taking over our duties. It'll do the boys a world of good to go to the river, especially Buck here. He's been having a little trouble with the heat."
"But I ain't too hot now," the wet boy laughed happily, throwing his arms wide and making JD almost drop him. "I's fine now, JD."
"I can see that, imp. Come on, let's get you something clean to wear."
Immediately Buck's little arms went back around JD, to make sure JD would keep carrying him.
"JD? What's an imp?" Chris heard him ask. He was about to follow the two, when Vin's hand landed on his shoulder.
"Come on, Chris. Let's go and fetch lunch. You can help decide what'll be nice to eat by the river."
Everything else forgotten, he happily walked beside Vin toward the Saloon, trying to explain to his guardian that there was nothing wrong with having chicken again, even if they had it yesterday and the day before as well.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Vin were very secretive about what they had put in the huge basket Vin was carrying, sharing smiles whenever JD and Buck tried to find out. The plums and lemonade came along as well and JD decided to take his fishing pole. Buck forgot about the basket for a moment when they reached the river, staring at the silvery water, but once it was put down on the grass right beside the water's edge, he could hardly wait to see what was in it, jumping up and down in excitement. Vin and Chris finally let the other two see what they had brought and it was the best. Lots of chicken wings, fresh bread, four of Inez' tortilla's filled with beans, spicy meat and vegetables, but it was soon clear that in Buck's eyes the best of all was a jar of plum jam.
Secretly JD agreed with him.
The rest of the day was spent swimming and fishing. JD only smiled at Vin's ribbing when he took out his fishing pole and teased the others in return with their devices made by Vin from some twine and a small hook he had carved from wood. They didn't catch anything though, because they spent more time in the river than on the banks. Buck was thrilled when JD taught him the first rudiments of swimming and he wasn't even jealous of Chris, who knew how to swim and was allowed to go to the deeper part of the river with Vin.
All in all it was already starting to get dark when they walked back. Halfway to town Buck suddenly gave a squeal of delight and ran off. He had spotted Ezra walking through the dry, yellow grass toward them.
"Uncle Ezra! Uncle Ezra! The water was great. And when I was wet, I wasn't too hot no more. Will you come too, next time? Please?"
Laughing, Ezra scooped him up and waited for the others to arrive.
"Somethin' wrong in town, Ezra?" Vin asked.
"Oh no, our fine municipality is safe and sound. Even if any miscreants decided to stop by, they surely found it too hot to try and do something foolish. God forbid it might have lead up to some running. I was merely wondering where you all were, since it is way past diner time."
"We were swimming 'til late. It's too hot for anything else, eh, Buck?" JD grinned.
"Oh yes, Uncle Ezra! Swimming is the greatest thing in the world and I can do it now too. I can, can't I, JD? JD showed me how. And we fished too, but not much 'cause it was much nicer in the water and that's why we didn't catch anything, not even JD and he has the bestest fishing pole, see? And JD and me, we threw pebbles and Vin made a little boat for Chris from a branch and we watched it sail with the river and now it's gone, but Vin said that some other boy might find it and be real glad with it and he will make another one tomorrow and then maybe I can swim in the deeper water too, can't I, JD? And you just have to come too!"
"Calm down, calm down," Ezra laughed. "Well, after such a tale of fine adventures I think I could be persuaded to come and join in the fun as well."
"He means he'll come to the river tomorrow with us, Buck," JD explained.
"Oh, great! And then Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan should come to."
"We'll ask them," JD promised him.
Ezra cleared his throat. "Eh... I did not mean I would come with you tomorrow, I'm sorry if I gave that impression. I meant the next time we all can go, but I'm afraid there was a telegram from the judge and we have some labor coming our way first."
Buck's face fell. "But... but... JD promised we would go again tomorrow."
"Is it something we really have to do tomorrow, Ezra?" JD wanted to know, not wanting to disappoint the little boy. He looked behind him and saw that Chris was holding tight onto Vin's hand, an expression of dread on his face. The older boy knew better than Buck that Vin and JD's job could be dangerous.
Ezra sighed. "I am afraid so and it also is something that will probably involve leaving town for at few days. But maybe we should wait until later to discuss the particulars? I am sure both boys are hungry by now."
"Yeah," Buck nodded, immediately distracted.
Chris wasn't though. The whole walk back into town he held on tight to Vin's hand, even when they were within the town borders. For a boy who was very careful not to show his affections or any other feelings too openly that meant a lot.
"It'll be fine, Chris, you'll see," JD told him softly, not wanting to alert Buck to the conversation, who was content to let his uncle Ezra carry him.
"But Ezra don't wanna tell you 'bout it where me and Buck can hear."
"That's just Ezra's way," Vin said. "You know I'll be straight with you, don't ya?"
Chris nodded, but didn't relinquish his grip. That night, at diner, he made sure his chair was as close to Vin as possible and he hardly ate anything.
Finally Vin asked Ezra if they would be gone long.
Ezra shook his head, his eyes on the bowed blond head beside Vin. "I do not think so. Chris, the Judge merely wants us to check something, there really is no need to worry about it."
"But you don't want to tell us what it is."
"Ah, well, that is because it's the Judge's business. You don't talk about the business of judges, now, do you, Buck?"
"Nope," the little boy said around a mouthful of potatoes.
"See? Even Buck knows that. Trust me?"
Green eyes met green eyes and Chris nodded reluctantly. He still hardly ate though and was even quieter than usual when he and Buck were brought to bed. Vin did it this time, promising the boys a bedtime story about nature and especially what lived in the river.
JD came up when he thought Vin would be almost done, catching the end of the story. He watched Vin kiss Buck's dark hair, the little boy already half asleep and then press a kiss on Chris' cheek as well, not caring that Chris thought he was too big for good night kisses. JD softly entered to kiss Buck and mush up Chris' hair.
"Things 'll be fine," he told the boy. "Nathan'll stay here to take care of you and Buck, together with Tiny, Mrs. Travis and Mrs. Potter and all the girls in the Saloon."
"You'll see, we'll be back before you know it," Vin added.
"All right," Chris said softly.
"See you tomorrow then. G'night, Chris."
"Night Vin. Night JD."
But the green eyes were still wide open when JD looked back one last time at the door.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was bored, very bored. He couldn't help it. It was too hot to do anything, except be in the water and nobody wanted to go to the river with him.
When JD had gone away that morning with the others, real early, Buck hadn't been able to stop talking about going to the river to swim again later that day, when JD and Vin were back. But then JD had knelt down before him and had told him the awful news that he, Vin, Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah would probably be gone for at least two days. That had made him almost cry, but he had been real good about it and had even managed a smile.
"Nathan will be here and you can also go to Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Travis, or Tiny," JD had told him earnestly. "Nathan 'll sleep in my room tonight, so you and Chris won't be alone."
Ezra had assured him he could go to the Saloon and see Blossom and the other girls as often as he wanted, when they were up and didn't have a customer. Nathan had put an arm around his shoulder, promising him a trip to the river that afternoon, when it was at its hottest, but not sooner, he had work to do first.
Buck had been real disappointed at that, he had wanted to go immediately, even if it wouldn't be as much fun without JD and he had looked longingly in the direction of the river. Then JD had lifted him up and had told him very sternly that he and Chris weren't allowed to go to the river without an adult.
"It's too dangerous, Buck, really it is."
"But I can swim now, you showeded me!"
"Not good enough, you can't. I'm serious here, no going to the river without an adult. Chris? Did you hear me as well?"
Chris had nodded and Buck had forgotten all about the river when his two guardians and two of his uncles had mounted their horses to ride away. He had tried to stay brave, really he had, but as soon as JD and the others disappeared down the street, the tears had come anyway.
Chris had stomped off to go and take care of Pony, not looking at him or anyone else, which had upset Buck even more. Luckily things were always interesting in the clinic, with all the plants and potions and so many books; every time Buck was there he had to stare at them.
But now he was sitting on the porch before Mrs. Potter's store, feeling bored, alone and very abandoned. Mister McNeal had come for Nathan when Buck had been helping to crush some herbs. That had been fun. He had liked how the sap had come out of the leaves and how fresh and green and nice it had smelled. It had even made him forget about the heat. Then Mister McNeal came and told Nathan that someone had fallen out of a tree and had been hurt bad, so Nathan had brought him to Mrs. Potter and had gone away to help.
It wouldn't have been so bad if Chris had been here. Only Chris was still gone, riding Pony.
Buck sniffled a little about that. It wasn't fair of Chris to leave him like this, it wasn't! He looked at the Saloon longingly. He loved going there, but he knew Mrs. Potter wouldn't want him to. Besides, in the Saloon it would also be hot.
His eyes fell on the water trough before the Saloon. It had felt really good to fall into the one by the jail yesterday, but he didn't want to get sick. He had been sick before and although his Mama had been with him all the time and had cuddled him lots, it hadn't been fun at all.
It wasn't fair, it just wasn't. Everyone was gone and he was left all alone. Ignoring Mrs. Potter, who was calling for him from the store, he stood up and walked away. He didn't care he wasn't supposed to go to the river alone. Everyone else had gone, so he could go away too.
Mind made up, he pulled his hat deep over his eyes against the glare of the sun and ran off. It made him even hotter, but it would also take him to the river that must faster.
+ + + + + + +
When Chris came back to the livery after a long ride on Pony, he felt a little better. He had enjoyed being out on his own, with only his horse. Out there no one could see him and he didn't have to clamp down so much on the deep gutting fear inside. Pony didn't mind if he cried.
He knew Vin and JD had a dangerous job, involving shootings sometimes. And he knew all about shootings. His parents had been killed by a bullet about two years ago when a gang had ridden into the small town they visited, landing their son in the hell that was St. John's Boys Home for orphans. If there was one thing the eight year old knew, it was how dangerous gangs were.
Now Vin and the others were after one and it scared him, a lot.
He wasn't supposed to know. And he hadn't meant to eavesdrop when he went downstairs late last evening because he couldn't sleep, but when he heard Vin, JD and the others talk about what they were going to do, he had frozen up on the stairs.
A gang had been burning homesteads in the vicinity and the judge wanted the Four Corner regulators to go after them. Of course they would go, it was their job, so they had been talking about how big the gang supposedly was and how to go about this dangerous assignment. None of them noticed him standing on the stairs, very scared.
When Chris had woken out of his daze, he had crept back upstairs, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping. He knew eavesdropping was supposed to be bad and he didn't want this last evening with Vin to be spoiled. Instead he had crawled into Vin's bed and there the exhaustion from a day at the water had finally overtaken him and he had fallen asleep.
After he dismounted Chris put his arms around Pony's sturdy neck, trying to get some comfort from the horse. The clearing of a throat behind him almost made him jump and he hastily turned around. It was Tiny, smiling down at him.
"Glad you're back, Chris. Better take Pony inside. From the looks of it we'll get bad weather."
Chris frowned and looked up at the deep blue sky. Bad weather? It was just another, stifling hot day as far as he could see.
"It's true, boy. There's a tenseness in the air. It makes my hackles rise. It's the perfect weather for one of them big August storms, so you better get Pony inside as soon as possible. You still gotta cool him down as well."
Chris nodded, again looking up at the sky. Tenseness in the air? He wished he knew what Tiny meant; he had to ask Vin.
Vin... if only Vin and the others were all right....
Pony nudged him and Chris hurriedly turned to the task of taking care of the animal. Looking up at the sky and seeing where the sun was had made him realize he had been gone longer than usual. Buck might be worried about him and maybe Nathan too. That didn't stop him from taking good care of his beautiful saddle after Pony was settled, the one he had won in a horse race a few months ago.
When he came to the clinic, no one was there. Not daunted by this in the least, Chris hurried off to the Saloon, sure that's where he would find his friend and his uncle.
He didn't and nobody had seen them. Now he did get a little worried. He hurried to the only other place he could think off, the jail. Maybe they had another prisoner and Nathan had to keep an eye on him? Or maybe Buck had wanted to go home?
The jail was empty. So was the house. A bit desperate now Chris ran back outside and looked around, wondering where he should go next.
Just when he was about to return to the livery, Mrs. Potter came out of her store.
"Chris! Thank goodness I found you. Nathan was called away on an emergency, so he asked me to keep an eye on you two until he's back. He'll be gone the rest of the afternoon, but don't you worry, he'll be back before suppertime. And if he isn't, you and Buck are very welcome to eat at my table for a change. I can assure you I'm a very good cook. At least my children think so." She smiled at him briefly and then a frown appeared on her friendly face. "It's just that I can't find Buck anywhere, so I had hoped you could go and look for him. Peter and Molly have been searching already, but they can't find him either. Maybe you know where he would go? I figured you would know all of his hiding places. If you don't, I'll close the store and go look around myself as well."
Nathan was gone? The whole afternoon?
"Buck didn't go with Nathan?"
"No, the McNeal place is too far away and Nathan will have his hands full with their eldest son. The poor kid fell out of a tree. He thought it might upset Buck to see the wounded boy and he didn't want you to come back and find both of them gone. He knows I don't mind looking after you two. Still, I am beginning to get a little worried about Buck. It has been a while now since I last saw him. He was sitting on the porch, feeling a bit sorry for himself I think, because now Nathan couldn't take you boys to the river."
The river! Chris suddenly had the feeling he knew exactly where Buck might have gone to.
"Do you have an idea where he could be, Chris?"
"Y... yes, Mrs. Potter. I'll go and find him."
"Do you need me to come along? If he is moping somewhere he might not come out and listen to you."
"No, no, that's all right, Mrs. Potter, he'll come." Hastily Chris ran away, not wanting the woman to know it if Buck really had gone to the river. Buck had disobeyed a direct order if he went there and although Chris liked Mrs. Potter, he didn't know her well enough to trust her about a thing like that. He would just run to the river and get Buck back fast. They didn't need to tell anyone where his friend had been.
When he took the path to the river, he didn't notice Tiny watching with interest. He also didn't notice the sudden darkening of the sky in the west.
+ + + + + + +
Buck wasn't hot anymore. He had fallen head over heels in the river as soon as he had arrived, with his clothes still on and had gotten all wet. He had been delighted at first, but afterwards, while sitting in the shallow water close to the riverbank, he had felt a bit sad. It wasn't much fun to fall into the river when there was no one else to laugh about it with you. Besides, his boots had still been on and he didn't like it that his beautiful new boots had gotten soaking wet.
Now they were standing in the grass, in the sun, to dry, while Buck was looking between the stones in the water, to see if he could find some small fish or other river creatures. He even had some fun doing it. He might be all alone here, but at least he wasn't hot anymore and he did love the river, so it was better than being all by himself in the town.
He was still mad though, mad and sad both. It felt strange to be both, but he was. Mad a Chris to leave him alone for so long and sad that JD was gone. And not only JD; Vin, Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah too. He didn't like it, he didn't like it at all. He wanted them back. It scared him that they weren't somewhere close, at a place where he could go to them.
He kicked a rock and it rolled away beneath the water, strangely slow. He kicked it again, just because it made him feel better. Then he picked up some smaller ones and threw them further into the river, trying to make as much splashes as possible.
"What are you doing?" a high, angry voice shouted from above him. He looked up and there Chris was, standing right beside his shoes and hat, looking really mad. It immediately squelched the surge of joy he had felt when he saw his best friend. Deliberately he turned his back on Chris, telling himself that he didn't care Chris was mad, 'cause he was mad too. He threw another rock as far as he could. That was when he noticed it was suddenly getting darker. Puzzled he looked up at the sky. How could it get darker when it wasn't even midday yet?
"Buck, get out of there now!"
"No!" he yelled back, still angry. "I like it here! And you can't make me come out."
"You gotta come! We ain't s'posed to be here without grown ups."
"They all left!" Buck screamed. He walked away from Chris, deeper into the water. "They all left, even Nathan and he was s'posed to... to protect us. But now he ain't here!"
"He had to help someone. We can stay with Mrs. Potter."
Buck knew, but he didn't want to listen. He walked a few more steps into the water and suddenly a stone dislodged beneath one of his feet, making him fall backwards. He yelled and when he sat up, the water was as high as his chest. The sun was gone now and a hard wind had picked up, making him shiver. He was really cold and miserable and he wanted to go home, he wanted JD to be there and hold him.
He started to cry.
"Buck!" Chris was there, grabbing his arm. "Come on, we gotta get back, there's a really big storm coming, Tiny said so."
"I... I's cold, Chris."
"Better get out of the water then." Chris sounded a lot nicer now and then his friend was helping him to his feet, holding him up.
The wind roared and an enormous thunderclap exploded right above their heads. Buck shrieked, clutching at Chris. Then the rain pelted down with such force, it brought both boys on their knees. When Buck looked up at Chris, he saw his friend was scared. It made him scared as well.
"I... I's sorry," he hiccupped.
"Just... just let's get out, all right?"
It was hard to get to their feet against the enormous force of the wind and rain. The water of the river was churning wildly around them, trying to throw them back down. Desperately Buck clutched at his friend. He felt Chris' arms go all around him, as always trying to keep him safe, helping him to get to the riverbank. By now the water was as high as his chest while he was standing and suddenly he was swept up and couldn't feel the bottom of the river anymore.
"Chris!" he shouted, desperately clutching his friend's shirt with both hands, feeling Chris' arms go even tighter around him.
"Stop... stop kicking, Buck. Stop!"
He couldn't help the kicking. He was so scared he practically tried to climb into Chris. The blond head disappeared in the water, making him go all quiet in fear and then Chris' head was back, while Chris was coughing hard and spewed out a mouthful of water. By then they were twirling round and round like mad. Buck tried to climb into Chris again, the only solid thing in a world suddenly gone crazy and wild.
"Stop," Chris yelled right into his ear. "Stop moving Buck, or I can't hold you! Just... just grab me tight, real...." They both disappeared under the raging torrent now, but Buck didn't let go, he was too scared to let go. Especially when he felt one of Chris' arms leave him and felt Chris move. Chris was kicking with his legs and moving his arm. Then Buck needed to breathe and got a lot of water into his mouth, choking him. A moment later they broke free of the water. Buck was coughing now and spitting out water just like Chris had been doing earlier, while Chris was gasping. Both of Chris' arms were around Buck again and the elder boy leaned backwards, pulling Buck tight against him.
Chris looked really scared now, as scared as Buck himself and suddenly the four year old knew there were things worse even than pigs. This was worse, especially when his friend's head went beneath the water again. It came up before Buck's head followed, Chris' legs kicking hard again, one arm flaying through the water.
By then Buck had become too terrified to move.
"G... good," Chris gasped. "Like this, Buck. Just k... keep still."
Buck couldn't move anymore even if he had wanted to. Fear and the chilling cold of both the river water and the rain had frozen him. All he could do was put every bit of strength he still had in keeping his hold on Chris, while his tears mingled with the pelting rain.
Then the rain was gone as sudden as it had come, but the river kept dragging them along at a frightening speed. And Buck was still very, very afraid.
+ + + + + + +
"Wow, that was some storm," JD said, leading his horse out of the lonely barn they had sheltered in. He was squinting up at the sky, watching the last of the dark clouds disappear that had so suddenly come upon them not far from Eagle Bend. Luckily Vin had steered them toward shelter in time, because it wouldn't have been fun to have been caught outside in this one. Not at all, he thought, abandoning his sky gazing for a fast sweep of the smashed wheat all around them.
"It was here so fast and now it's gone just as fast. Luckily it wasn't a tornado."
"Or brought hailstones," Josiah said, exiting the barn behind him. "The hailstones coming with storms like this one can be as big as eggs."
JD looked at him and frowned, but Vin, following Josiah, told him, "Believe it, JD, they do get that big. Stones big enough to kill cows."
"It's the truth. Ya should know by now this ain't the East." Vin shook his head. "Seems the rain was just as bad for this farmer as hail, look at that poor wheat."
"Mister Tanner, I am indebted to you for your timely noticing of the oncoming storm." Ezra was picking out the straw still clinging to his jacket. "Otherwise this wheat would not be the only thing in poor condition." Finally satisfied, he straightened his sleeves and looked around him with a frown.
"The condition in which we find the scenery does make me wonder if you will be able to locate the tracks of these miscreants again."
"They were headin' toward the Black Hills. Seems to me that's our best option."
"Oh, joy! To wander into those fair hills. A more dusty place can hardly be imagined, not to mention those prickly and thorny bushes positively thriving out there."
"Somehow I don't think it's dusty there right now, Ezra," Josiah grinned.
"Indeed, indeed. Muddy is more likely at the moment." Ezra raised one brow. "Are you trying to suggest that to be an improvement, my friend?"
"Getting there'll take us at least the rest of the day," JD said to Vin, dismayed. "Then we'll have to search them. We'll be gone for days from Four Corners."
They would be gone for days from the boys. It didn't feel right to him, leaving them alone for so long, even if Nathan was there with them. Ever since eight year old Chris and four year old Buck had arrived in Four Corners he and Vin had been there for them. If one had to go on an errand, the other was still there. But now they had both left and after all the boys had been through, he was afraid about how they would take this.
"I know," Vin said. "Don't like it either to leave them boys that long. But the Judge gave us the chance to keep them with us and we can't repay him by no longer doin' our job."
"I didn't mean that, honestly." JD shuddered. "I've seen the homestead those bastards burned down with the family still in it and I say we get them all. It's just that...."
Josiah walked up to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry, JD. They have Nathan and they trust you two now, that much is plain to see. Those boys think the world of you and Vin. Sure, they'll miss you, but they know you'll be back and they'll be there eagerly to welcome you two home. It will be all right, you'll see."
Vin hastily turned to Peso and started adjusting the cinch he had tightened a few seconds before. JD stared at him suspiciously.
"Vin?" he asked.
"Is there something you're not telling us?"
"Oh, really? Is that why you're adjusting your cinch again? I think if you pull at it one more time Peso's gonna bite you, his ears are already flat."
"Ain't nothin' that won't be fixed as soon as we're back." Vin mounted up and looked at the three men watching him. "Come on, get ready. The quicker we get these bastards, the faster we can go home."
"That's not fair. We're both looking after those boys and so do Ezra, Josiah and Nathan. If you know something about them you should share it. What is it? You think Chris and Buck don't trust us?"
Vin sighed. "Ain't a matter of trust, JD. Just that... Chris knows we're after a gang, he heard us talkin' last night. And he knows folks die by bullets, no matter what they promise."
"That's a deep fear to carry," Josiah said softly.
"Yeah, it is. So all of you, mount up and let's hurry. The sooner we're back safe and sound, the better." He spurred Peso on and left in a gallop, leaving the others to follow.
+ + + + + + +
Chris gagged, hardly able to draw a breath. He gagged again, feeling very miserable. With a groan he rolled from his back to his stomach. He coughed and a flood of water ran out of his mouth and even his nose. When it stopped he managed to take a deep, shuddering breath.
That was when he remembered Buck. Anxiously he lifted his head and looked around. He didn't really know how he came to be on the riverbank, his last conscious memory was of a huge boulder coming up and since he wasn't able to stop them from plunging toward it, he had done the only thing he could. He had twisted himself around, so he would be between Buck and the hard rock. By that time Buck had been frighteningly quiet and had barely hung on to him. And then, when he crashed against the boulder, he had lost his own hold on Buck.
It was the last clear memory he had, of that frightening moment when he felt Buck being torn from his suddenly nerveless arms. The rest was a haze of scraping along rocks and being hurled somewhere. Then nothing until he woke up here, in the mud and grass under some small trees.
Scared now that he might have lost Buck for real, leaving him all alone in this unfamiliar place, his hand sought the ring that had been his mother's and that was hanging around his neck ever since Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah got it back for him from the orphanage. It was still there, making him feel a little less alone. Clinging to it, he kept frantically looking around until he saw a small, dark shape. Buck? Hastily he pushed himself up, only to cry out in pain.
His back hurt terribly and for a second he couldn't move, biting his lips to keep from crying like a small child. Angry at himself he swept away the tears that came anyway. He had no time for that, he had to go to that shape and see if it was Buck. Walking was a slow process, every move shooting pain up his back and into his head, but he tried to hurry anyway. Soon he saw it was indeed Buck. It made him grind his teeth together and get into a small trot.
He had never before in his life been so grateful to get down on the ground as he was when he dropped beside Buck. His relief of not having to walk anymore and of being with his friend was short lived when he saw how quiet Buck was lying on his side, not moving anything, his eyes closed. He couldn't remember ever having seen Buck this quiet and it made him scared all over again.
He put his hand on Buck's shoulder and gently shook him.
Scared now, he shook the smaller boy harder and harder, needing very much to see him wake up, see that he was all right.
"Buck? Buck, open your eyes!"
If it was the shaking, Chris would never know, but suddenly Buck coughed and a huge amount of water poured out of his mouth and nose. Chris was sure it was a lot more water than had come out of his own mouth.
Buck's eyes fluttered open. They seemed glazed and unable to focus. Then the little boy started to shiver.
"C... Chris? C-c-cold...."
"I know." Chris scooted even closer to Buck. He lay down beside him and took the other boy in his arms. "Me too, I'm cold too." He wrapped himself completely around the smaller boy, hoping they could make each other a bit warmer. His eyes closed, pain and exhaustion and the emotional experience of seeing Buck so lifeless becoming too much.
He never noticed how beside him Buck's eyes closed as well as the little boy gave himself over to oblivion again.
+ + + + + + +
JD sighed and stood up in the stirrups to stretch himself. He had to admit, he was tired, very tired. The stretching didn't really help, nor did rolling his shoulders or trying to loosen up his neck. He looked at his friends, to see how they were doing.
Ezra leaned heavily on his saddle horn, his attention on Vin, who was staring at the ground. A little behind them Josiah was staring up at the sky. "Night is quickly approaching," he commented. Then he too turned to Vin. "Do you see something?"
Vin straightened and shook his head. "Nope, no tracks left after the storm to see where they
entered the hills. Gonna be a difficult search." He nodded to the left. "There's a creek there. Water's comin' from not too far, from a well in them hills, so it's nice and cool. Good place to spend the night." A thoughtful look came over his face. "Ya know, that well is in a nice, little, hidden valley in the Black Hills. Perfect hidin' place if'n y'ask me."
"Tomorrow, Vin, tomorrow!" Josiah moved his horse in the direction Vin had indicated. "Tomorrow I'll follow you to the gates of Hell if necessary, but right now my posterior needs some rest, badly."
Ezra immediately followed Josiah. "I am of Mister Sanchez's opinion in this matter," he declared, fatigue clear in his voice and in the fact that he didn't say anything else.
JD grinned at Vin. "Seems to me they made the choice for us." He stopped smiling when he saw Vin's serious face. "What's the matter, Vin? Is something wrong? We really can't go in there looking for a gang in the dark."
"Aw hell, I'm aware of that."
JD rode up until he was close to Vin. "You know I want to get back to Buck and Chris as bad as you do, but you were right this afternoon. We can't stop doing our job and I don't think we want to. I know I don't. But I am very determined to do it as fast as possible and get back alive."
Somber eyes turned to him. "Yer right, JD. It's jist that I got this really bad feelin'. Makes me wanna turn and head back right now." He sighed. "Let's at least make sure we got an early start tomorrow."
JD nodded and turned his horse to follow their two fellow peace keepers. Tomorrow promised to be a long day.
+ + + + + + +
Buck woke up confused and hurting. He hurt worse than after a beating by the brothers in Saint John's. Luckily he hadn't had much of those, but he would always remember the few he had had. Not the slaps the brothers were always fast to give, but the real beatings with a belt or paddle.
This didn't feel the same. Besides, he was cold too and wet, like when he had been put out with the pigs at night.
With a gasp he looked around him in the darkness to see if there were pigs. He didn't see any, but then, he couldn't see very much in the silver moonlight. All he knew was that he was outside, on the cold ground, miserable and wet, with someone warm snuggled up to him and holding him.
He blinked, trying to focus. The boy in front of him had hair that looked pale in the moonlight above his shadowed face. Chris? Must be Chris... somehow the smell was right too - and then he realized there was no smell of pigs and never would be again, not with JD protecting him.
But why then were he and Chris outside? How had they come here? Where was JD?
He turned, dislodging the arms around him. He stopped when Chris groaned, waiting breathlessly for him to open his eyes. When the older boy didn't wake up, he reached out a tentative hand and shook Chris' shoulder.
"Chris? Chris, wake up, please wake up, I's scared. I don't know where we are."
Chris groaned again and jerked away. The movement was followed by a moan and then Chris' eyes were open, because Buck could see them glitter in the little light there was.
"B... Buck? Buck! You're awake!"
"Uh, huh...." Buck frowned. Why was Chris so glad about that? "Why's we outside? Is it 'cause the grown ups are m... mad? And I's cold, real cold." With a loud sniffle he added, "I want JD."
"Well, he ain't here," Chris said. "Vin neither. It's just us. Don't you remember what happened?"
"N... no..." Chris' voice scared Buck even more. His friend sounded bad, like he was sick or something and like he was maybe almost crying. But that couldn't be true. Chris never cried, he got mad.
"Don't you remember we was in the river when the storm came? I was trying to get you out."
"And then the rain came and the wind and we fell and then the water got higher and took us away."
Buck's mouth fell open. Now that Chris told him, he did remember. He remembered going under water again and again and Chris holding him tight. Only it didn't help, because he would go under anyway.
"There was rocks and branches too, lots and lots," he said.
"Uh huh.... You remember now?"
"Y... yeah. But only the water. Not this place."
"That's okay, Buck. I don't really know how we got here either. Only that I woke up here and you were here too and you... you wouldn't wake up."
"But I's awake now," Buck said reasonably, snuggling closer to Chris. "And I'm really, really cold."
"Yeah." Chris' arms came all around him and they huddled close together. Buck could feel how Chris was shivering too.
"Do you think they'll be mad?" he asked after a while. "I bet Nathan's mad, he's the one I didn't listen to, he and JD. What do you think they'll do? Do... do you think they'll beat us?"
"Vin will never beat us," Chris said with conviction.
"JD neither," Buck immediately said, completely loyal to his protector. "But what you think they'll do? Will they be home tomorrow, Chris? I sure hope they'll be home tomorrow, even if they's mad. I don't think I'll mind them mad as long as JD's home." He yawned, a really good, huge yawn and squirmed a bit, to get more comfortable. It hurt lying on the ground, everything hurt, but the cold was the worst.
Chris moaned when he moved and that stopped him. "You okay, Chris?"
"Just... could you not move so much?"
"But I hurt!"
Chris' arms held him a bit tighter. That hurt too. He wasn't going to say anything about it though, because it also felt good to have Chris so close. It made him less scared. Putting his forehead against Chris, he decided to close his eyes for a while. Then maybe he wouldn't feel so tired.