Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series
Inmate 78 was written by Robert Franke
Chris Larabee looked up, peering through the metal bars above him. He'd been locked in "the hole" since just a few hours after he'd arrived in Jericho. He'd stopped the corrupt sheriff and his deputy from illegally arresting a traveling salesman. For his trouble he'd been knocked unconscious and, a short time later, he ended up in a little prison work camp outside town. Just minutes after his arrival he'd tried to escape, been beaten by the guards, got on the wrong side of the so-called warden, and been thrown into a pit covered with a metal grate.
He'd been sitting there ever since, lucky to get a small bowl of watered down mush and dirty water once a day to eat. At times he wasn't certain what was real and what was fantasy. He dreamed of his dead wife and son; dreamed of the child of his heart. He worried about Vin. The sheriff, acting as judge, sentenced him to five years in prison. What happened if his friends weren't able to find him? He knew that Buck's big heart would encompass the child just as he'd wrapped JD in his love. But would Vin be able to transfer his feelings to the big man? Or would he shy away from them all, thinking that the gunman had deserted him?
Sighing, Larabee watched one of the guards unlock his little cell, pulling up the grate. Stiffly, he managed to get to his feet.
"An' then this dog, he walked into the saloon, an' he had a bandage on his foot? An' he walked up to the bart-ender and he said to the bart-ender "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw!" Ain't that funny?"
JD giggled so hard that he nearly slipped out of the saddle. Only the fact that Buck was holding onto him kept him on the back of the horse. Around him, the others looked at one another, pained expressions on their faces.
Undaunted, the five-year-old continued. "I gots lots of 'em. Mr. 'Semite told me a bunch of 'em. He's got lots of really good jokes."
"Too bad that wasn't one of them," Ezra Standish muttered under his breath.
Riding between Standish and Wilmington, Vin looked up at the gambler with a smile and a knowing expression. JD had spent an entire afternoon in the livery, hiding from Casey Wells. Since then, the younger boy had been telling really awful jokes.
The four men and two boys were on the trail, going to meet the man who had become their leader just a few weeks ago. Chris Larabee had gone away for a few days, telling them only that he would be taking care of some business. The two children had become very upset about his leaving and only the promise of going to meet the gunman in Gantry had helped them calm down.
It was a two day ride to Gantry, two more to Jericho and another four to Landon. The gunman had let them know he'd be going as far as Landon and then head back home. The little troupe would leave about the time Chris left Landon for the return trip. They all knew his leaving an itinerary was for the sake of Vin and JD.
It had been a series of very long days for Buck, acting as sole caregiver for the boys. He had been more than ready to travel, deciding that keeping the boys busy on the trail would be less strenuous than pacifying them in town.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth. JD was either rattling off his version of a joke every five minutes, or he was asking if they were there yet. Or he was hungry, had to go answer a call of nature, or was tired. Or he fell asleep, his little body seeming to double or triple in weight as it slumped in his adopted father's arms. And Vin, while much quieter than JD, was a worry all to himself. He seemed distracted most of the time, his mind somewhere else. Buck suspected it was up the road, with Chris. He didn't ask how much longer often, but when he did, the answer always seemed to make him just a little more anxious. Sometimes Buck wished the boy was as noisy as his foster son.
Ezra stepped out of the small hotel in Gantry, meeting the others coming from the livery. He had gone ahead to get rooms and let Chris know they had arrived.
Buck met the gambler first, a concerned look on his face that matched the one on the Southerner's. "Chris' horse isn't in the livery."
Shaking his head, Standish said, "He hasn't checked in at the hotel, either."
Running his hand over his face, the tall brunet set a hand on each hip and looked from one end of town to the other. In a low voice he mused, "Where you at, Stud?"
"Would he perchance know someone nearby that he'd stop to visit?" Ezra asked.
Shaking his head, Buck said, "Not likely."
"Perhaps we should telegraph the sheriff in Landon, to see if our compatriot has gotten himself into trouble, then."
Nodding, the ladies man said, "Be just like him, to go gettin' himself into a bind."
Wilmington looked down to see a pair of big, worried blue eyes starring up at him. With a smile, he said, "Hey there, little pard."
"How come Mister Chris' horse ain't in the liv'ry?"
Hearing the fear and anguish in the child's voice, the big man knelt down, placing a comforting hand on each little shoulder. "Well son, that's what we aim to find out. We're gonna telegraph Landon and see if maybe he had some trouble."
Vin took a quivering breath. "Do ya think... maybe... maybe he's... maybe he's hurt or... somethin'?"
Buck signed, uncertain of what to say. How was he going to comfort the child without lying to him? Then he found that the gambler had his back.
"I'm certain he'll be fine, young master Tanner." Ezra said. He had his poker face firmly in place. "Now, would you like to accompany me to the telegraph office so that we might inquire as to Mr. Larabee's whereabouts?"
Uncertain of most of the words, Vin focused on 'telegraph' and 'Mr. Larabee'. Chewing on his lower lip, he finally nodded. "'Kay."
"Wonderful!" Standish smiled broadly. Reaching out his hand, he closed it around the small one that reached out to him.
The news continued to be disturbing. They received an answer to their telegram, which said simply that no one had seen Chris.
"Perhaps he simply didn't get in touch with the local constabulary," the southerner offered.
Buck considered that for a moment, then shook his head. "Maybe. Chris usually checks in with the local law when ht hits a town, though. Says that way he's got a better chance at avoidin' trouble, and he can get the lay of the land."
Releasing a long breath, Ezra said, "Well, as a precaution I telegraphed Mrs. Travis, back in town. He hasn't returned, nor has he sent word regarding his whereabouts."
Wilmington was becoming more and more concerned. Chris had spent the last couple of years thinking of no one but himself. That had changed in the last few weeks, since meeting Vin and JD. Larabee was returning more and more to the way he had been... before. This Chris Larabee would no more just ride away then he'd forget his wife and son.
Something was definitely wrong.
"Papa?" JD was standing beside him now, tugging on his pant leg.
"Hey, li'l bit," Buck reached down and scooped his new son into his arms. Noting the frown on the child's face, he asked, "What's on your mind?"
One little hand reached out and fiddled with the big man's shirt collar. "Um... Papa... is Mister Chris gonna be finded soon?"
"Just as soon as we can," Buck hedged.
"Good," the dark head bobbed up and down a few times. "'Cause Vin's awful sad. He's cryin'. I think it would be good if we finded his pa- his Chris soon."
Wilmington sighed. If they didn't find Chris soon... didn't find him alive and well... he had no doubt that, that little boy would just slip off, returning to whatever life had been for him before.
Josiah Sanchez was the one that found the little boy, huddled in a corner of the livery's hayloft. The child sat with his knees drawn up under his chin, thin little arms wrapped around thin little legs. and he was crying, tears silently sliding down his tiny, elfin face.
Settling on a hay bale, the big man simply sat, quietly waiting for the child to speak. More than half an hour passed, the two of them sitting there, close but not touching. Josiah knew that the little boy needed to make the first move, and set the pace and tone of the conversation to come.
"Mister 'Siah?" The child's voice was little more than a whisper.
"Would you like to tell me what it is that you're scared of?"
"That... that Mister Chris w-won't come back."
"What makes you think that will happen?"
Little Tanner shrugged. He couldn't explain the feeling, or how he knew... knew... that something had happened to the gunman.
Slowly reaching out a hand, the preacher ran his fingers through the unruly blond hair. "You've gotten very close to him these past few weeks, haven't you?"
The child nodded his head.
"It can be very scary to love someone. Especially when you've lost people you've been close to, isn't it?"
The child looked up, shock and amazement on his face. Slowly he nodded again, tears glittering in those two-old eyes.
Josiah smiled compassionately at the boy. "It's very difficult to open our hearts up, to love someone. There's nothing as beautiful, or as painful, as love." He chuckled at the look of confusion on Vin's face. "Well, I guess that's just a very fancy way of saying, love is the most important thing in the world. When we lose someone we love, it makes us sad. Giving someone else our love is scary after that."
Vin, still wearing a look of confusion, heaved a heavy sigh. He liked hearing Mister Josiah talk. His voice was big and rumbly, sort of like the sound of a cat's purr, only much bigger.
But, sometimes, he used words even bigger than Mister Ezra.
Realizing that the child was still confused, Sanchez just cocked his head and held out a hand. When the boy hesitantly slid closer to him, he wrapped an arm around the slight body. Sometimes, showing was much more comforting that telling.
Chris sighed, tugging at the handcuff that held him fast to the metal cot. He'd managed to get himself into a fight with three of the other prisoners. The guards had quickly intervened, but he'd still managed to get a deep cut in his side by one of the other's homemade knife.
He'd been taken to the hospital tent to be patched up. There, he'd met what passed for the medical staff there. An old, drunken, half crazed man who referred to himself as "Doc Simmons". The man reeked of bad whiskey and sweat, his breath foul enough to peel paint off a wall.
The old man had explained just what was going on; what he had already suspected. The Warden and the sheriff were running an illegal operation and many men - just like him - had been wrongly imprisoned. Then they were either ransomed to freedom by friend and family, or brought in income for the corrupt men by performing slave labor.
But Chris hadn't been given the chance to contact anyone. It had been offered, but his temper had gotten the better of him, and the offer was withdrawn by the Sheriff who, acting as Judge, had sentenced him to prison.
Now he'd spent several days sitting in the hole, with nothing but his thoughts.
Those thoughts had moved more and more toward Vin. He worried about how the child was handling the disappearance of yet another adult that he had come to entrust himself to.
Chris groaned softly and tugged a little harder at the cuff. Rolling to his side, he stared off into space, blinking back tears until he couldn't fight them any more.
Buck grunted as he tried to shift on the bed. It didn't matter how small a move he'd attempted during the long night. Every twitch caused an answering movement; a tiny hand would clutch at him, a little whimper would wake him yet another time. He lay in the middle of the lumpy, hotel bed, a little boy on either side of him. Vin had been more and more inconsolable as the hours passed. By bedtime, Buck was afraid to have the child sleep alone, for fear he'd sneak away. So he had both boys sleep with him.
While JD wasn't as badly affected as his friend and self-proclaimed "brother", he was still upset. And, the more agitated Vin became, the more upset he became. It took about five seconds to convince the five-year-old to bunk with him. Truth to tell, it took less time than he expected to get Vin to join them as well.
Looking toward the window, Wilmington saw that the sun was coming up. He sighed. On one hand, he was more than ready to get back on the trail to look for his old friend. On the other...
On the other hand... what if they didn't find the gunman alive?
"Mister Buck?" The voice was soft, nearly inaudible. Buck turned his head to find those big, blue eyes staring at him.
"Hey, little pard. Good morning."
"Mornin'," Vin said softly. "Mister Buck... is it time ta go lookin for my... for... Mister Chris?
"Just as quick as we can get everyone up and ready."
They entered the little town of Jericho around midday, riding down the street as a group. They looked around at the squalor with expressions of distain and dismay.
Buck noted the jailhouse and saw a man slouched in a chair on the boardwalk. He turned his horse in that direction, the others moving with him. They reined in at the boardwalk, the man staring at them with vague interest.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" The man asked, taking the matchstick out of his mouth.
Ezra said evenly, "We're looking for a friend."
With a smug expression and sarcastic tone, the man said, "Well, he must be a very valuable friend if a whole posse has to look for him."
"Name's Chris Larabee. You seen or heard of him?" Josiah asked.
"Chris... Chris Larabee. He wouldn't be that egg-sucking, horse-thieving gutter trash from up Fort Laramie way, now, would he?"
Nathan caught Wilmington's change of expression and reached out to place a restraining hand on his arm. "Easy, Buck." Turning toward the smirking man, he said evenly, "No, sir. Wrong man."
The men and boys moved away from the man before something drastic happened. Not only was Buck seething, but Vin looked ready to take the man on himself.
As they rode down what passed as the main street, Sanchez observed, "Jericho, huh? Don't look like no promised land to me."
With a sigh, Ezra offered, "Probably another dead end."
"Maybe not," Buck returned.
"What, in heaven's name, would induce anyone to stay here?"
"You don't know Chris."
A short time later, the men had taken the horses to the livery, and were entering the town's only hotel, which carried the strangely endearing name "The Lullaby Inn". Buck and Nathan guided the boys to a corner table, while Ezra and Josiah went to the bar. Behind it, they were greeted by an older woman who smiled at them, although the expression didn't quite reach her eyes. The men made small talk for a few minutes, asking her about her establishment.
In response to one of the questions, the innkeeper informed Sanchez, "I'm open seven days a week, sir."
"Even the Lord rested on the seventh day, ma'am." Josiah tried on his most engaging smile.
With a chuckle, the woman replied, "Well, the Lord wasn't running a boarding house."
"I always figured that's what heaven was."
Laughing heartily now the white haired lady asked, "You a preacher, by any chance?"
His smile dimming, Sanchez said, "Used to be. Used to be. Now, I'm just a man on a mission. In fact if you're here every day like you say maybe you can help us, Missus..."
"Oh, call me Jessie."
"Josiah," He replied, then added, "This here's Ezra Standish. And, uh... we're looking for a wandering friend."
"Yes, he answers to the name Chris Larabee." Ezra drawled, laying on the honey coated accent.
"I'm sorry. I don't recollect anybody by that name staying here."
"May have come through Sunday before last. Light hair, dressed in black." Sanchez described.
Considering the description, Jessie replied, "Doesn't sound familiar. But then, the Lord blessed me with many things. A good memory wasn't one of them." Then she glanced over at the table where the two men and two boys were sitting. "Oh, looks like your friends are going dry over there. Excuse me."
At the table, JD was once again trying out his favorite joke, large, hazel eyes glittering with mirth as he spoke directly to Nathan. "Okay, so the three-legged dog walks right into the saloon. He walks right up to the bart-ender... he says... "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw."
Nathan managed a smile, barely hiding the pained expression on his face. Before he could say anything, the innkeeper came over and filled their glasses, two with whiskey and two with milk, asking them if they wanted something else.
Four men and two boys looked up when two men came sauntering in. One was the man they had met earlier, which they now realized was the deputy. The other man wore a sheriff's badge. It was the sheriff who spoke.
"You know, I'm not sure I like all these new guns rolling through my town without so much as an introduction."
"Well, no time like the present, Sheriff." Josiah observed.
"I'd like to know your business here if you don't mind," the sheriff said in a tone that barely masked his nervousness.
Before any of the men spoke, the innkeeper entered the conversation. "Well, this is Mr. Josiah Sanchez, Sheriff. He and his friends are looking for a man named Chris Larabee. They think he may have passed through here."
"I don't recall any Chris Larabee but I'll be sure to keep my eye out for him. Now, you fellas plan on staying in Jericho I'm afraid I'm going to have to collect those guns."
Before he thought, Buck snickered. That drew the man's attention to not only him, but the boys. He laid an arm protectively across the back of each child's chair and stared openly at the man.
"Something funny there partner?" The sheriff glared at the mustached man.
Trying to divert the lawman's attention, Josiah tipped his hat and said, "Thank you, ma'am." He started out the door, the other men following him, the children safe between them.
"Ma'am." Jackson tipped his hat as he moved past.
"We'll be moving on soon as we get some supplies, Sheriff." Ezra touched the brim of his hat as he moved outside with the others.
Behind them, the innkeeper moved to stand beside the sheriff. Her expression cold now, she said, "They could be trouble, Quince."
His own expression matching the woman's, Quince replied, "Nah. Don't worry, Ma. I can handle them."
As the little group gathered on the boardwalk, the sound of a single horse coming up the road drew their attention. Turning they saw a familiar figure heading in their direction.
"Mister Francis!" JD called out, waving at the former Confederate soldier.
Francis Cochrane waved back at the little brunet, smiling as he reached the group. "I heard you were looking for Chris. Mrs. Travis told me when I got into town the other day. Thought I'd come see if you might need some help."
Buck smiled back. "You're a sight for sore eyes, ya ol' dawg."
Dismounting, Cochrane noted that they were still missing a member. One look at Vin's little face spoke volume. Glancing over at Buck, he received a shake of the head, letting him know for certain that Chris hadn't been found.
Breaking the silence that fell over the little group, Josiah said, "Perhaps we should have a look around. Something about that Jessie and the sheriff makes me uncomfortable."
"I concur," Standish replied.
"All right then. Uh... Josiah, think you, Francis and the boys could take care of the horses?"
"Think we'll be here overnight?" Sanchez asked.
"Maybe." Turing to the others, Wilmington added, "I say we follow Josiah's feeling and have a look around. I agree; somethin' about them two don't sit right with me, either."
"Papa, I wanna go with you!" JD protested stubbornly.
Squatting down to look into the little face, Wilmington replied, "I need you to make certain that the horses get taken care of, okay?"
Heaving a sigh, the little boy nodded, not certain what he could do for the horses that the others couldn't. Nonetheless, he would do what was asked of him.
Vin guided his pony into the livery. JD was in the saddle behind him, holding the reins to Mister Buck's horse. Mister Josiah and Mister Francis were ahead of them, handling the other animals.
They moved into the shabby building that served as the town's livery. They'd all seen cleaner places, but it would do for short term. Seeing no one around, the men set about stripping the animals of saddle and tack.
Still out of sorts, Vin wandered around the building, looking at the horses in the other stalls. He reached out to rub the snuffling noses that checked him over. The big animals responded with whickers and a shake of their heads. He managed the barest hint of a smile as the animals nuzzled his little hand. But even that couldn't keep the fear for Chris at bay.
Then he reached the farthest stall and looked up as the horse offered him a greeting.
The older man came running. "What is it Vin?"
Pointing upward, the child said in a hushed tone. "It's... it's Mister Chris' horse!"
At the same time the others were caring for the horses, Ezra, Buck and Nathan had gone from business to business, asking for any information on their missing friend. They entered the little general store, deciding to pick up supplies as well as look for information. Their unease after meeting Jessie and Sheriff Quince led them to be cautious in their questioning.
They entered the store, finding that they were the only ones there, besides the storekeeper. Buck strolled over to the man, and began ordering supplies. While he was doing that, Ezra and Nathan spread out, looking around the store with feigned curiosity.
Wilmington was naming off what supplies they were going to need. "Some salt, sugar..."
Jackson interrupted the ordering, a stethoscope in his ears as he listened to his own heartbeat. "This is one hell of a store, mister." In awe, he said admiringly, "A complete medical kit."
Just as impressed, though showing it far less, Ezra added, "And some very fine haberdashery, I might add."
Nathan was peering through the top of a glass case. He frowned as something caught his eye. "Say, Buck..."
Turning from where he was still ordering supplies, Wilmington asked, "Yeah?"
"That look familiar?" He pointed a finger at the object in the case that had caught his attention.
Buck came over and stared down into the case. What he saw brought an expression of anger to his handsome face. Turning, he barked to the storekeep, "Come over here. I said come over here!"
Looking concerned as he watched the man's expression turn dangerous, the aproned man gulped and then answered, "Yes, sir."
When the man didn't move fast enough, Wilmington bellowed, "Show me that gun. Show me the gun now!"
Stammering as he tried to stall while he thought, the storekeeper said, "Let's... where is that key?"
Impatiently, the tall brunet yelled through clenched teeth. "I got the keys, right here." He used his elbow to break the glass. Taking the object from the case, he looked it over. With a worried look he said, "That's Chris'."
The shopkeeper, taking advantage of the distraction, started nervously for the door. He had no clue as to Ezra's keen senses, honed by years at the gaming table. The grifter intercepted the man, one hand landing soundly in the middle of his chest. The man looked at Standish with an expression of pure shock.
"Just a moment of your time, sir." The Southerner's honey-rich tones disappeared, replaced by a flint edge. He shoved the man backward, toward his counter.
Buck took over, slamming the shopkeeper prone over the counter. The genial ladies man and, now, doting father, disappeared, replaced by a man filled with cold anger. Growling at the shopkeeper, he ordered, "Tell me how you came by that gun!" When his response was nothing but an intelligible mumble, Wilmington grabbed him by the shirt collar and spit out, "Answer me!"
Vin was livid; his glare every bit as intense as Chris Larabee's had ever been. He stood rigidly on the edge of the boardwalk, blue eyes focused across the street. He watched as Mister Buck and the others walked up to the white haired lady they had talked to earlier at that Lullaby Inn place.
And they made him stay across the street. Made him stay back. Again.
So, while they talked to the white haired lady, he was over here, with Mister Francis and JD. He'd been the one to find Mister Chris' horse, but did that mean anything to the men? Of course not. So here he stood. JD was sitting on a chair next to Mister Francis, telling him more of those dumb jokes. Vin sighed. He was really beginning to be annoyed by the younger boy's constant chatter.
"Sheesh, JD! Can ya stop talkin' for a minute?!"
The little brunet's mouth snapped shut and his eyes opened wide. Then his bottom lip trembled a little; a sure sign he was going to start crying.
Francis laid a gentle hand on the little boy's shoulder, while he looked over at the other child. "Vin, he didn't mean anything by it. He just likes tellin' jokes."
Little Tanner rolled his eyes and blew out a breath that ruffled his long bangs. Not saying a thing, he simply turned his attention back to the activity across the street. As he watched, Mister Buck started waving his arms about and sort of dancing around. He was hollering so loud that Vin could hear some of the words as far away as he was, and he sounded mad. Then he heard a sound behind him. Turning his head, he saw that JD was watching Mister Buck, too. And it looked like it scared him.
The men must have finished talking to the lady, because they were walking away from her, Mister Buck stopping long enough to pick up his hat from the street. Vin watched them, starting after them.
"Hold up there, little pard," Francis called out, turning to find JD climbing down off the chair. He reached out his hand and smiled as the child took it willingly. They hurried to catch up with the quickly moving seven-year-old.
The trio caught up with the group of men. JD held back as they met the men, his eyes wide as he stared up at Buck. Then the big brunet looked down and smiled at him.
Buck saw the boy's expression and guessed at what put it there. Gently, he said, "Hey, Little Britches. Did you see ol' Bucklin pretendin' with that lady?"
"You was 'tendin'?" JD asked.
Kneeling down, Wilmington said, "Yep. We were playin' a game... seeing if we could get that lady to tell us if she knew anything about where Chris might be."
His expression growing more serious now, Buck asked, "Did I scare you, son?"
Heaving a sigh, JD said, "Yeah."
"I'm sorry. I should have told you ahead of time, but I didn't think about it, because I'm real worried about Chris."
"I know, Papa."
Smiling again, Buck said, "Am I forgiven?" He reached out and tweaked the little, pug nose.
Giggling now, JD nodded. "Yeah."
"Good." Buck reached out and drew the little boy into a hug. Holding onto him, he stood up and started down the street.
"Vin?" Josiah looked down at the older child. When those too-serious, too-old eyes looked at him, he understood just how worried the boy was.
"Did... did that lady know anything... 'bout Mister Chris?"
Leaning down, hands on knees so he could look into those eyes, he said, "I believe that she does know something, but she's keeping it a secret." When the child's eyes filled with tears, he said softly, "I'm sorry, Vin. But we aren't giving up. We'll keep looking until we find him."
Fighting the tears back, his lower lip trembling, the child whispered, "O... kay, Mister Josiah."
They continued looking around the town, going in and out of each building. Buck exited one of the buildings, JD on his hip. "Nobody in there."
"Deputy's down at the saloon." Josiah mentioned.
Francis added, "Well, let's go pay him a visit then."
Just then, Ezra joined the group and drawled, "Y'all are worse than General Sherman on a Georgia plantation."
"What?" Buck asked.
"If I may, allow me to interview the deputy."
Now Buck wanted to know, "Why you?"
"Don't take this the wrong way, but you gentlemen occasionally lack the essential skills of tact and diplomacy."
"What are you saying?"
"I think he's saying we're rude." Josiah explained.
"Rude? No. Rude would be a definite improvement. I'm saying you scare people. And perhaps terrorizing them won't buy you any answers this time."
Francis wanted to know, "What have you got in mind?"
"I believe a little subtlety is in order." The Southerner explained.
The other men ushered Standish ahead of them, then followed him down the street, the two boys right along with them. As they neared the saloon, they stayed behind and watched as the gambler moved through the batwing doors.
A short time later, Ezra Standish was sitting across the table from the deputy, plying him with whiskey. He would pour them both shots, then dump his into a spittoon while the deputy was throwing his back. The gambler watched as the man became drunker by the minute.
"So, the gang's breaking up, huh? Well, that's... terrible." The deputy belched and stammered, his words beginning to slur.
"Not really. They're an uncivilized bunch, anyway. Unlike yourself." Ezra managed to say with a straight face as he watched the man pick his nose.
"Well, I guess this Larabee fella wasn't such a special friend after all, was he?"
"Well... truth be told... we were looking to collect a bounty. Seems Mr. Larabee is wanted for several stagecoach robberies."
"Dang! I knew there was something fishy about that guy."
"Another drink, my friend?" Ezra poured both shot glasses full. Some of the deputy's spilled, and he watched as the man dabbed at the little puddles with his fingers, licking them off and then wiping his fingers behind his ears. A false smile planted firmly on his face, he held up the bottle. "More?"
The others, with the exception of Josiah, came to join them a short time later. JD told his jokes to the drunken man from the safety of Buck's lap. The men could tell how drunk the deputy was getting by how hard he laughed at the jokes. When he laughed loud and long, repeating, "Shot my paw!" they knew he was ready to answer their questions. Just as he finished - in great detail - telling them about the business being run by the Sheriff and the Warden, he passed out, falling backwards out of his chair.
Just as he collapsed, Josiah entered the saloon, having been watching from the boardwalk outside. With a soft word, he lifted JD from Buck's lap, took a reluctant Vin by the hand, and moved to the relative safety of the corner table.
Sheriff Quince entered the saloon, several townsmen behind him. He looked down at the unconscious man, grumbling "What the hell?" The he looked up at the men.
Buck looked the man in the eye, his eyes cold. "The deputy here was telling us a very interesting story... about the racket you and your ma have goin'."
"Well, he's a stone-cold liar. I don't want any trouble from you men."
"Well, mister, you've got it." Buck growled.
Pulling his gun, Quince threatened, "Make one move and I'll gun you down."
"On the count of three." Buck taunted. He drew his gun, and heard the others standing, the sounds of their guns clearing leather loud in the growing stillness. "One..."
One of the men behind the sheriff said in a trembling voice, "This ain't for me!"
"No!" Quince protested as he heard half the deputized lawmen hurry from the room.
"Two." Ezra said coolly. Hammers were drawn back, their "click" sounding out.
More protests rang out. "I ain't here for this Quince."
"Deal me out."
"Wait just... everybody wait a minute. This doesn't have to end in violence."
"Three." Francis added.
Sheriff Quince stood, suddenly feeling very much alone, before the group of men. With a chagrined look, he held his gun up, showing that he was no threat. Carefully he laid it on a nearby table.
"Where's Mister Chris!" Vin was suddenly there, a tiny whirlwind punching and kicking the shocked sheriff. He continued to flail at the man until, finally, Nathan got hold of him. The big man held him firmly but gently, lifting him into his arms.
It was just too much; he couldn't take any more. The little blond twisted around, burying his face in a broad shoulder as he sobbed. Nathan wrapped his arms around the little boy, feeling the thin frame tremble as fear and grief overcame him.
"Take it easy, Vin, we're gonna find him. We're gonna find Chris. Shh, it's gonna be all right, little sharpshooter. We're gonna find him." The former slave continued to speak softly to the child, making promises that he prayed they could keep.
Chris once more looked up, staring through the metal grate above his head. He hurt from head to toe, inside and out. He'd sustained several beatings at the hands of the man he knew only as Warden. He knew the man was trying to break him; to bend him to his own will. He knew something the man didn't know, though.
Chris Larabee didn't break.
It was night, the air cold enough that he could see his breath. He was huddled in a corner of the hole, arms wrapped around himself in an effort to find some measure of warmth. When he had fought the Warden earlier; keeping him from beating another man to death, he had been sentenced to another eight days in the hole. To his surprise, the guard known as Mister Phillips had defied the Warden, refusing to carry out his orders.
Unfortunately one of the other guards hadn't shown that same strength, and he'd been dragged across the yard and dropped into the hole. Phillips had said he wouldn't survive another eight days down here, and he knew the man was right. He'd be dead before his punishment was ended.
"Oh... Vin," he whispered, the words riding little white wisps of breath. "Vin, I'm so sorry, little pard." In his mind's eye, he saw the little boy who had won his father's heart so many weeks ago.
Just then, a sound drew Larabee from his thoughts. Looking up, he saw the Warden standing above him, a burlap sack in his hand. With a growl he launched himself upward, one hand wrapping around the grate, the other reaching for the man's leg. He watched as the man stepped back, a shocked expression on his face. With a half-mad grin, he let go and dropped back to the ground. Arms wrapped around himself once more, he stared up at the Warden, grin still in place.
The Warden recovered, and stared down at Larabee with a smug expression on his face. "I guess you still got some spunk left."
"You better pray I don't get out." Chris glared up at him now.
"Oh, I'll do more than pray." He held up the sack.
Back in town, the group of men and boys were leaving the saloon. Buck had the sheriff by the collar of his coat, forcing the man before him. He took great pleasure in the fact that they had handcuffed him with his own cuffs. With a grin, he said, "Let's have a look at this little prison of yours."
As they all made it to the boardwalk, they found themselves confronted by the woman they'd met earlier. Jessie was no longer the jovial innkeeper. Instead, she was hard and cold; aiming a shotgun at them as she spoke.
"Hold it right there. You let go of my boy right now or I will scatter your bones from here to the border."
"We just want Mister Chris back." Vin protested from the middle of the group. He stared at the woman from behind Mister Nathan.
With a perverse pleasure, the woman looked squarely at the seven-year-old. "You might as well leave. He's already dead."
Jackson glared at her. "Is that so?" He reached down and placed a reassuring hand on the little boy.
"You let go of Quince." Jessie ordered.
"You don't want to pull that trigger, ma'am." Josiah's voice was soft and low as he spoke to the woman.
Jessie was unaffected by the deep, melodic voice. "I will if I have to." Lifting the barrel just a little, she watched Sanchez move toward her. "You stay back."
Moving slowly forward, Josiah continued. "Now, you've done a lot of wrong to a lot of people... but it ain't too late to mend your ways."
"Don't come any closer." Jessie ordered, lifting her shotgun a little higher.
Josiah continued forward, until he was standing right before her. "We ain't gonna hurt your boy... and we ain't gonna cut him lose. The only thing you're accomplishing is getting him killed. Put the gun down. I have faith that you will do the right thing. You'll do what's best for your son."
The world was silent for several seconds, as Jessie and Josiah faced one another. The woman's cold eyes stared into Josiah's, never wavering. Then her finger began to squeeze the trigger. "Go to hell, preacher man."
To the woman's surprise, her gun didn't fire. Instead, the man grabbed the gun, the edge of his hand keeping the hammer from connecting. She looked up at him, for the first time, with fear in her eyes.
"Oh, ma..." Quince groaned.
Looking down at the woman, Sanchez said softly, "My faith only goes so far, sister."
They discovered that the little prison camp was just beyond the town. The boys were with them, the men deciding that it wasn't safe to leave them in town. They had also brought along Larabee's black gelding, the animal saddled and ready to ride, following close behind Buck's horse.
To Vin's dismay, they stopped a short way from the camp; the towers barely visible in the moonlight.
Buck lifted JD up, handing him over the Francis Cochrane. The former Confederate Ghost had agreed to keep the boys safe, far enough from the camp that they wouldn't be in danger.
A sleepy JD protested for a moment, then snuggled down against the familiar man. He watched as his Papa and the other men rode slowly toward the camp.
Beside Francis and JD, Vin was fuming. Once again, he was left behind, his skill with a gun ignored just because he was little. He thought about just riding away from Mister Francis, but decided he couldn't risk it. He wouldn't do anything that might get Mister Chris hurt, or...
Vin's thoughts trailed off. He couldn't bring himself to think about the worst that could happen. Mister Chris would be okay. The others would ride into that place and rescue him. Then they would all be together again, and things would be all right.
Francis dismounted, JD in one arm. "Vin," he whispered, "why don't you get down? Maybe we can get a little closer on foot." Cochrane had read the older boy's body language, and knew he was on the verge of riding off. He figured that, if he kept the boy busy, he could keep him safe.
"Okay, Mister Francis." Little Tanner slid off his pony, handing the reins over to the man.
Leaving the two animals tied to a tree, the former soldier carried JD and led Vin forward. They stayed to the trees, moving as quietly as they could. Francis watched the road and the camp beyond. So far they hadn't seen anyone, but he knew that could change at any moment.
In the hole, Larabee could hear the faint sound of a rattle, and his eyes widened. He watched, unable to disguise his fear, as the Warden dumped a large, angry, rattlesnake into the hole.
The Warden stood over the hole, grinning down at Inmate 78. He watched as the man did his best to stay away from the snake; knowing that the show wouldn't last forever. "Ever see a man bit by a rattler? His face gets all twisted... muscles lock up. Pretty gruesome sight."
Chris didn't answer the man. He was too busy dodging the angry reptile. Soft grunts, angry cries, and a soft rattle were the only things heard from the hole.
Gloating, the Warden leaned down as he taunted, "I'll bet that hurts real bad, don't it?"
With the speed that had earned him his reputation as a gunman, Larabee grasped the snake right behind its head, leapt upward, and thrust the creature toward the Warden. He felt it lunge and knew it had made contact. With a grin he dropped back down as he said, "You tell me!"
Above the pit, man and beast dropped to the ground. As the snake slithered off, the Warden dropped to the ground, holding his throat. Unable to speak, he could only utter strangled sounds of pain.
The man and two boys found a place where they could just see the main gate, while they, themselves, were hidden. They watched as the others rode up to the gate. The sheriff was in the lead, but they knew that he was unarmed, and the others had their own guns trained on him. They had removed his handcuffs, knowing that he could show the guards that he was a prisoner before they could even react.
Beside the Sheriff, Buck drew back the hammer on his Colt, letting the man know he had better stick to the plan.
Clearing his throat, Quince called out, "Open the gate. It's Sheriff Quince. Me and the posse Got us an outlaw here." Ezra rode, hat pulled down, acting as their quarry.
As the gate was opened, the men moved slowly inside. Just as they did, Quince kicked out, striking Buck's horse in the belly. The usually calm animal reacted, whinnying and dancing away from the source of pain.
Taking advantage of the distraction, the Sheriff kicked his horse into action, riding into the camp. As he did, he called out, "It's the Larabee gang!"
One of the guards called out loudly, "Jail break! Jail break!"
Getting his mount under control, Buck yelled out, "Take cover, boys! Take cover!"
At the same time, Nathan called out, "Take cover! Sheriff's gettin' away."
Outside the camp, Francis comforted JD, whose face was buried tight against his chest. Each time a shot rang out, the child tensed. "It's okay, little britches, your papa's gonna be fine. They all will." He reached out to rest a hand on the older boy's shoulder, only to find empty air. Startled, he looked around, finding no sign of the seven-year-old. "Vin?! Vin where are you?"
Vin couldn't take any more. He slipped through the shadows, heading for the fence. He wanted inside, but the guards had already closed the gate. Undaunted, he moved along the fence, staying low to the ground. There was only a single thought on his mind. He had to find Chris.
The little Texan scarcely registered the shouts and gunfire inside the prison. They were all but drowned out by the sound of his rapidly beating heart. He had never been so scared in his life as he was this very moment. He had to find Chris; had to make sure he was safe.
He did hear Mister Buck calling out for Mister Ezra to go find Chris; heard Mister Ezra shouting to Mister Nathan to go with him. He watched as the two men raced toward one of the buildings. Was Mister Chris there?
He ran with renewed purpose now. He had to find a way to get into the prison camp. Had to find his pa... no, no, he couldn't think that. Shouldn't think that. Mister Chris... it was Mister Chris. Mister Chris already had a son, and he couldn't take Adam's place in a million years.
Even if Mister Chris was more father than he had ever known before.
He scurried along the fence, almost sideways, as he tried to find some glimpse of where Mister Chris was. Little hands reached out from time to time, testing the fence. There had to be a way inside... there just had to be!
Larabee had managed to retrieve the keys to his little prison from the dying Warden. Struggling for a few minutes, he managed to get the key into the lock and, a minute later, he was standing above the Warden. Dropping the keyring to the ground next to the man, he shuffled off, weary to his bones. Just as he slipped into the shadows beside a wagon, he heard someone approaching. The gunman slipped his coveted, homemade knife, from his sleeve just as Sheriff Quince appeared around the corner of the nearest building.
The sheriff saw the Warden, lying on the ground, gasping for breath. Ignoring his business associate, he moved to the hole. Aiming the gun he'd managed to get hold of, into the darkness, he began firing as he called out, "All right... die! You miserable bastard! You die now! You..." the gun clicked, empty of bullets.
Larabee stepped out of the darkness. "Looking for me?"
Sheriff Quince turned, his face registering shock as he witnessed the blond moving toward him. Before he could react any farther, the man reached him, standing nose to nose with him. With a grunt, he registered a dull pain that spread from the center of his body. "You... you... god..." he gasped as all the strength left his body and he dropped, dying, to the ground.
Chris moved away from the man, stepping up to and then over the Warden. The man was wheezing, each breath a struggle. There was no color to his face, and his eyes were glazing over. With what turned out to be his last breath, he gasped out, "Who... are you?"
He would not give the dying man the satisfaction of hearing his name. In a low, cold voice, he said simply, "Inmate 78." He shuffled away from the two bodies, moving toward the dwindling sounds of gunfire. Something told him that his friends had come to rescue him. Then, above everything else, he heard a single, shrill voice, calling out, "PA! PA!"
A tired smile gracing his features, Chris changed directions, heading toward the fence. He saw the shadowy form that he knew was the child of his heart. Vin was pressed against the wire, little hands pulling at the fence, as if he could tear it down all alone.
Dropping down on the other side of the fence, Chris smiled as a satisfied, "Pa!" gushed from the child on a wave of relief. He dropped the gore-covered blade, wrapping his hands around the little ones of his son.
It seemed so right. And Vin must feel the same way; he had called him Pa! Larabee looked into the big, tear washed blue eyes, and smiled. "It's all right now, son. It's all right."
Chris laid, bone weary, on the Warden's bed. He had pulled off the hated prison clothes, preferring to rest in just his long johns for the time being. Outside, the others were taking care of things. He was content to lay here, in the relative quiet, with Vin on the bed with him. JD had managed, despite the noise, to drop off to sleep, and Buck had taken the smaller boy to bed him down elsewhere in the Warden's house.
Vin sat beside the battered blond, snuggled against the broad chest; quiet and content. One little hand stole over the mottled flesh, coming to rest when he felt the strong heart beating. Then he sighed and leaned tiredly against the big man.
Old Doc Simmons had come to check on him, giving him the news that Nathan had been shot, but that the wound wasn't serious. The Prison doctor had checked his stitched side, soaking it again in alcohol. This time, he used the Warden's imported whiskey, slapping it against the man's side, although not with the force he'd used earlier. Then he poured Chris a glass of the same whiskey, deeming it medicinal.
Now, all he had to do was to rest up until the morning. Chris stroked his fingers through the tangles of dark blond hair taking, as well as giving, comfort. He heard another sigh, echoing the contentment he himself felt. "I..." he trailed off, suddenly uncertain just what he wanted to say. "Back there, you... uh... you called me Pa."
Vin tensed. He just knew he was going to get into trouble. "Ye-yes, sir."
Chris smiled, hugging the child a little closer. "It sounded... good. Natural. Would you... would you like to... well... would you like to call me Pa?"
Joy welled up in the little boy. Suddenly anything but tired, he pushed up onto his knees, facing the man. "You... you mean it?"
Reaching out and cupping the quivering chin in his hand, the gunman said solemnly, "I never say anything I don't mean, Son."
With an excited giggle, the little blond collapsed against the man, gasping as Chris grunted. "Sorry!"
Larabee didn't care, the slight weight of the child taking away any pain he felt. "It's okay, son. It's okay."
"I... I love you, Pa."
Laughing now, himself, Chris replied, "I love you, too, Son."
The next morning found the peacekeepers preparing to leave. Mister Josiah was reading from a book, calling out names and waiting for replies. "Davis?"
"Yes, sir." One of the inmates stepped forward.
"Right here, sir." Another man stepped up.
"Here." A man hopped up on crutches, one of his legs missing.
"Here." Yet another man stepped forward.
"Simmons." In response to this call, the camp doctor stepped forward, a big smile on his craggy face. Josiah smiled and shook the man's hand before continuing. "Because you were falsely accused you're free to go." He turned toward the others. "That's all of them."
"None of us knew about the ransoms." Mister Phillips said, anger and disgust in his voice.
"Well, you're in charge now. It's up to you to change things." Chris smiled as he shook the man's hand.
Nodding and smiling in response, Phillips said, "You can be sure of it."
Larabee took his horse's reins and climbed into the saddle. He looked to find Vin beside him on his pony. He smiled and reached out to ruffle the child's hair. In response, the boy he now thought of as his son, giggled. Looking around at his friends, his smile growing wider by the second, he said, "Boys... let's get the he - heck out of here!"
Next: The New Law