Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series
The episode Sins of the Past was written by Steve Hattman
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: Betaed by a good friend.
Ezra strolled across the street with Nathan and Josiah. JD, whom they were meant to be watching, bounced around all three men.
"You hear that, gentlemen? That is the sound of opportunity knocking. Don't be slow to answer the door." Ezra waved some papers in front of him.
Nathan shook his head. "I still can't believe you did it, slapping all the money down on the saloon."
"Well, I've been living parsimoniously," Ezra explained.
"Parsi what? " JD asked.
Ezra pocketed the papers and bent down to swing the little brunet into his arms. "I've been saving," he explained.
"Oh, what have you been saving? Sometimes I save one of my cookies to eat later."
"Well that is showing a fine degree of self control and forward thinking. But I have been saving money and I have made a down payment on the saloon yonder."
JD looked over his shoulder. "You bought a whole saloon?" he asked in awe.
"Well I have begun the process." Ezra looked over at his other two companions. "All that's needed are a few prudent investors to infuse a little working capital. Mr. Jackson?"
Nathan shook his head. "Oh, I don't know, Ezra. I mean, what do you know about running a saloon?
"I spent my whole life in saloons. You may trust I have ample experience. What about you, Josiah?"
"Money... is like manure. Not good except it be spread. "
JD was consumed by a fit of giggles.
"And what, Mr. Dunne, is so funny?"
"Mr. Josiah said manure."
"I think you need to be five to appreciate the humour in the situation," Ezra commented to a puzzled looking Josiah.
"May I take your comment about the aforementioned animal waste matter as an affirmative?"
"What's affirmative mean?" JD asked.
"It means yes," Josiah explained.
"Yes?" Ezra asked hopefully.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, envision the future. Glistening wood, sparkling mirrors, a new piano, lush, green-felt tables." Ezra gushed. "All it needs is someone to invest in this future."
"WOW Mr. Ezra, I got some money, can I 'vest in the saloon?"
"How much do you have?"
"A penny, Papa gived it to me for candy."
"I'll tell you what, why don't you go and buy some candy and you can give me some, and then you will be an investor and you know what else? As an investor you know the answer to the question."
JD frowned. "I do? What's the question?"
"The question is, what does everyone in this town want to do? What does every visitor here want to do?
"Leave?" Nathan suggested.
Ezra shook his head with exasperation. "They want to drink, my friends. They want to hear music and gamble, and where's the only place they can do that? I give you the Standish Tavern. I can hear the jingle of the cash box now. Come along, gentlemen. Let's inspect our private gold mine."
The newly named Standish Tavern was thriving. Through the throng of people, JD spotted Buck sitting at a table drinking a beer. Wiggling to be let down, once his feet were on the floor, he made a beeline for his guardian.
"Well hello there Little Bit, what are you doing in here?"
"I'm with Mr. Ezra," JD explained.
Buck glared up at Ezra, then turned his attention back to JD.
"Well you run along and play with Vin. You can spend that penny I gave you, alright?"
JD looked around the saloon. It wasn't as exciting as Mr. Ezra had made it sound, and it was very smelly.
"Okay," he agreed. "I need to buy candy anyway, so I can 'vest it."
Buck watched the little whirlwind as he ran back out into the light. How had he let his heart be so totally captured, he wondered?
JD found Vin in the jail; he was drawing on the back of some old wanted posters. JD, in his usual break neck delivery, explained that he had permission to buy candy and asked Vin to come with him.
"Can I go?" Vin asked Chris.
"Of course, here." He tossed a penny to Vin, who caught it easily.
"Thank you!" he shouted over his shoulder as he followed JD out into the sunshine.
The choosing of candy was a serious business, requiring a great deal of thought. Eventually, after several false starts, JD had a bag of lemon drops and Vin had a bag of butterscotch drops. Once outside the store, they sat down and painstakingly divided the candy in half so that when it was done, each boy had equal portions of each candy in his bag.
"You wanna play hide and go seek?" Vin asked.
The man took his horse and pack mule to the livery and handed them over the Yosemite. He was a tall man, dressed in a dark suit with a satin waistcoat, complete with gold watch chain. On his head he had replaced the Stetson he had been wearing, for a top hat. Eustace Yates was a man who knew the importance of first impressions. He viewed the little town with disdain. The unmistakable sound of a child's laughter caught his attention. A slight boy with shaggy dark blond hair ran across the main street.
"I'm coming JD, bet I find yeah!" the boy called.
Yates smiled contentedly. A friend of his had passed through this town a few weeks back and mentioned seeing a slight boy called Vin working in the store. Vin wasn't a common name, and how many seven-year-olds called Vin were there making their own way in the west? He wasn't that bothered what had happened to the little brat since he ran away - until a week ago. Now he needed Vin back.
Vin was diligently searching behind the barrels in the alley when a hand landed on his shoulder. Long bony fingers dug into the tender flesh.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't Vincent Michael Tanner? Long time no see boy - remember me?"
Vin looked up; he gulped as he nodded nervously.
"We've all missed you, boy, back in Tascosa. Come on!" With that, he all but dragged Vin back toward Main Street.
"Hey!" Chris shouted, his gun already in his hand.
"Hold it!" Yates' grip on Vin tightened instinctively. "No need for gunplay here," his voice wavered slightly with nerves.
"I wouldn't be so sure. Let go of my boy," Chris demanded.
"Your boy? This boy is an orphan and a ward of the sovereign state of Texas. I don't know what lies he's told you, but that's the truth of the matter"
"And who the hell are you?" Chris demanded.
Yates smiled, his manner distinctly obsequious. "The name's Yates. I'm the governor of the St. Saviour's missionary school and orphanage for wayward boys. Vincent Tanner here, is a ward of court and I'm here to take him back where he belongs. Let's go!" He made to move away, and all but ran into Mary.
"I couldn't help but overhear, Mr. Yates. Please, Vin has a home here now, with Mr. Larabee. Surely a real home is better than any orphanage?" she explained.
"I couldn't agree more, ma'am, but I've got papers here say he's my responsibility and I'd be failing in that responsibility if I let him go with just anyone, now wouldn't I? If Mr. Larabee wants to adopt young Vincent, he may come to Tascosa, Texas and apply for custody. Of course, Mrs. Larabee needs to come too.
"Who? Sorry why?" Mary asked.
"Ma'am, we have to be sure any child who leaves our care goes to a good Christian home. There is a Mrs. Larabee, I assume - or are you?"
"Oh no, no I'm not."
"Look mister, you're a long way from Texas, ever heard of jurisdiction?" Chris cut in. He was getting more and more frustrated, and if Vin hadn't been there, he'd have knocked the guy's lights out by now.
"The law regarding children is quite specific, sir. An orphan remains in the care of the state where they were orphaned until that state discharges its duty.
Chris looked over at Mary. "Is that true?"
She shrugged. "I have no idea," she admitted.
Yates smiled smugly. "I assure you it is, and we at St. Saviour's take our responsibility very seriously."
"Oh I'm sure you do," Chris muttered darkly.
"I'll wire the judge." Mary was already moving away.
"The Judge?" Yates asked.
"Judge Orin Travis," Mary supplied.
"I've heard of him. You can wire him if you like, but a territorial judge don't have jurisdiction over this," Yates warned her.
Vin was as scared as he could be. He didn't remember Mr. Yates that well, but he did remember him. He remembered being beaten with his belt, he remembered shaking as he sat at the dining table, hoping the tall man with the scary hat wouldn't pick on him. The man had haunted his dreams for months after he left the orphanage. Only Chris, standing there, so strong, gave him courage. He knew, just knew his Pa wouldn't let him be taken away.
JD had been hiding for ages. To begin with, he could hear Vin calling to him, but then he stopped and it went quiet. He'd waited and waited, but now he was bored, so he went looking for Vin.
"Vin! Vin were yeah been? I been hiding fer ages!" he called as he ran around the corner. When he saw the scary looking man, he pulled up short. "Hello," he said almost automatically.
Chris turned to the little boy. "JD, where's Buck?"
JD smiled. "In Mr. Ezra's saloon."
"Go get him, quick as you can."
"'K." With that JD turned tail and ran.
Vin's courage was beginning to fail him, the man's hand was digging into his shoulder, and it hurt, tears were beginning to form.
In an instant, Chris was kneeling in front of him, using his thumb to brush back the first tear to escape. "Hey, hey, easy there cowboy, we'll get it all sorted out," he assured.
He stood up again as Buck came running up, Ezra, with JD in tow, behind him. "What's going on?" he demanded.
"Buck, this is Mr. Yates, he's from Texas, says he's got papers saying Vin belongs there and he's come to get him." Even as he spoke, Yates was pulling out the papers.
"What? Give me them papers," Buck demanded, snatching them from Yates.
Buck scrutinised the papers for a bit. "Hell, I can't make head nor tail of these. But Vin's not an orphan no more, he's got a home right here with us."
"Apparently that means nothing, I have to go to Texas and apply formally for custody... with my wife," Chris explained.
"Wife?" Buck asked.
"Yeah, I need to show the authorities in Texas I can offer Vin a proper home."
"He's got a proper home already," Buck protested, as Yates demanded his papers back.
It was dawning on Vin he was going to have to leave with Yates after all. "Do I gotta go?" he asked desperately.
Chris dropped down again so he was face to face with Vin. "Looks that way, just for a short time, I'll come for you," he promised.
With those words, all of Vin's security imploded.
"NO! No I wanna stay here with you and JD," he begged, trying to pull free of Yates' vice like grip. "Please! Please don't let him take me, please!" he begged.
JD was confused and getting worried. "Where's Vin going?"
Buck tuned around and picked up his little boy. "JD, I want you to go back to the saloon and wait for me."
JD began to struggle "No! I wanna stay with Vin!"
Buck looked desperately for help. "Ez, can you take him?" he asked.
Ezra reached for the squirming bundle in Buck's arms. "Assuredly. Come young Master Dunne, let us leave this to the grownups."
Even as Ezra carried JD away, they could all hear the boy sobbing.
Vin was crying now. "I don't wanna go, please pleeeeeease Pa don't make me," he wailed.
Chris' heart was breaking; he had to fight to keep his voice calm for Vin's sake. "Hush now, it'll be okay, I'll come for you." He pulled the shuddering sobbing boy into his arms, so he could whisper in his ear. "By midnight tonight, play along, be good, don't make him mad." Vin suddenly stopped shaking. "I swear to you, I'll come for you tonight, be brave." With that, Chris pulled back and looked into Vin's eyes, which were now wide as saucers.
Vin forced his tears back. "Look after Peso for me."
"You know I will," Chris promised.
It took Ezra quite some time to settle JD down. In truth it was only an illusion. The boy stopped crying only because he was too tired to cry anymore.
"I want Vin," he stated once again.
"Now, now, no need to fret. Mr. Larabee will bring him home to us. Look, here comes Buck"
JD's head shot around and he reached out his little arms to be lifted from Ezra's lap, up into Buck's arms.
"What's the news?" Nathan asked.
"Mary's gonna wire the Judge, Chris is keeping his eye on that Yates feller...and Vin."
There was nothing they could do that Chris and Mary weren't already doing, so, joined by Josiah, the four men and one boy ate a quiet lunch. JD had finally climbed down and was eating an apple while he wandered aimlessly around the table where the men ate. Buck had permitted himself a post lunch beer; he said it steadied his nerves.
JD was standing next to Mr. Ezra when a pretty lady with yellow hair came in.
"Oh, morning, Luce," his papa greeted her
"Buck. Gentlemen. How have you been, Buck? I've missed you," the lady greeted Buck.
"All due respect, doesn't look like you've been missing meals there, Lucy."
JD had to agree, the lady did have a big tummy.
"Well, that happens when you're going to have a baby," she explained.
"Oh! Well, congratulations! Boys, can you raise your glasses here? Our sweet Lucy's gonna have a baby." Buck lifted his mug of beer to his lips.
"Congratulations," Mr. Josiah added.
"Same as you."
JD frowned, now what did she mean by that? Suddenly he was covered in drops of beer as Buck spluttered, spraying it all over Ezra and those around him. JD watched with mounting confusion as Buck and the lady talked. Buck was looking scared and that wasn't right, Buck was his protector, he wasn't afraid of anything. The lady with the big tummy was looking upset, she was saying something about her Pa, and Mr. Josiah and Mr. Ezra were looking happy. Now Buck was talking about babies and the lady was crying and running out of the saloon.
Buck downed the drink he'd been given and took a deep breath. Only then did he notice the small boy by the table, looking very worried and uncertain.
"Oh Lord," he breathed.
"Papa?" the voice very soft and tremulous.
Putting his drink down, Buck lifted JD up and sat him on the bar. "Don't worry Little Bit, I'll sort things out, don't fret none."
"Why was the lady crying? Is it 'cause her tummy's big?"
Buck looked imploring over at Josiah for help. Josiah took pity on the big rogue. He got up and crossed to the bar.
"JD, you saw that the lady had a big tummy didn't you?"
"Well, that's because inside her tummy is a little baby, waiting to be born."
JD thought this sounded very odd; his Ma told him God gave babies to ladies as a special gift.
"You see that's how God makes babies."
Well that made more sense to JD.
"Except for one very special baby a long time ago, God can't put a baby in a lady's tummy all on His own. He gives a little seed to a man, and the man puts that seed into the lady and it grows into a baby."
JD thought long and hard about his. His little brow furrowed. "Is that how God gave me to my Ma?"
"Yes it is."
JD thought some more.
"If a man put a God seed in a lady is he the baby's Pa?"
Damn! He's a smart kid. Buck silently commented.
Josiah smiled benevolently. "Yes, he is. And that lady is going to have a baby that Buck gave her."
"No she is not, because that baby is not mine!" Buck reminded.
JD had begun to look more relaxed, now he tensed again, reacting to Buck's tension and worry.
"Buck!" Josiah warned.
"Well?" Chris demanded.
Mary understood his short temper only too well. She couldn't even imagine how she'd react if someone tried to take Billy from her. "I've wired the Judge, he's on his way, but it'll take a couple of days."
"Are you going to Tascosa? Fight it there?" Mary asked.
That look of deadly determination, so feared by those who crossed Chris Larabee, crossed his face. "No way am I letting him stay with that man any longer than I have to, we'll fight it here, and if I lose, I'll take Vin and head for Canada."
Mary had little doubt he meant it, or that Buck would take JD and follow him.
Vin sat a little way off, watching them intensely. Yates sat a few yards further on, content for now to let Larabee handle the boy.
Chris turned away from Mary and walked toward Yates.
Yates pulled out his pocket watch and checked it. "You ready? 'Cause I need to be on my way," he reminded Chris.
All he got in response was a glare. Then Chris knelt down in front of Vin. "You remember what I told you?"
Vin nodded softly, keeping eye contact with Chris, seeing the truth of his words in his eyes. Chris would come for him, Chris would rescue him.
"Good boy, now let's go over to the boarding house and pack your things." They had to make sure Yates believed Chris would let Vin go.
Vin slid off the chair and took the hand Chris offered him. Together they walked up to the boys room. Since Yates followed them and stood in the doorway, Chris carefully packed Vin's few possessions and clothes into a pair of small canvas saddle bags.
"There you go, all done." He handed the bags to Vin.
On the street once more, the three of them walked to the livery. Vin was hoisted up onto the mule, sitting atop Yates' bedroll. Then Yates led both horse and mule back out into the sunlight, with Chris walking beside Vin.
"Let's go," Yates announced. "Come on boy, time to go back home to good old Texas."
Just then JD and Buck came out of the saloon, the others behind them. JD broke free from Buck's grasp and ran up to Yates, wrapping his arms around one of his legs.
"Please don't take Vin away," he pleaded.
"Let go of me, boy!" he pushed the little boy away.
JD lashed out with his sturdy little boots, impacting painfully with Yates' shin. "I hate you! I hate you!"
Before the man could lash out, Buck grabbed JD and pulled him away. "Come here, hush, it'll be okay," he soothed, hugging JD tightly.
"But I don't want Vin to go!"
"I know, I know, neither do I. We just have to trust Chris. He'll sort it out."
"Bye JD," Vin said sadly.
JD turned a tear stained face away from Buck's shirt and looked up at Vin.
"Bye Vin." Then JD turned his gaze to Yates "I hate you!"
"I'm quaking." With that, Yates swung up onto his horse.
"Excuse the boy," Josiah said sarcastically.
"You need to teach that child some manners. Come on!" With that, he kicked his horse on and tugged on the mule's halter rope.
They all stood and watched Vin until he was out of sight, every one of them feeling his heart clench every time the boy turned back to look at them.
"It's not fair! Please Papa!" JD protested.
"Chris'll fix it," Buck assured, wishing he really believed it, as he turned and walked back toward the boarding house.
Chris had walked several yards up the street, probably without even realising it.
"Chris?" Nathan called softly. Larabee didn't react. "Chris?" This time the blonde looked around. "We'll be ready if you need us."
Chris nodded. "Hey, Chris," Josiah called as Chris headed for the livery.
Yates waited until the town was out of sight, then he stopped his horse and dismounted. Walking back toward the mule, he pulled out a thin strip of leather from his pocket.
"Hold your hands out there, boy!" he commanded. "Just in case you get any fancy notions."
"I promised Chris I'd be good," Vin protested.
"That's what they all say." He grabbed Vin's thin wrists and began binding them together.
"I don't lie, I promised."
"Yeah, yeah. You know what you are boy? You're a gold mine and I'm not letting that out of my sight. Way back in Boston there are some rich ladies, with soft hearts and more money and time than good sense." He shook his head "And you know what they do, these bored, rich, do gooders? They send me money to keep all you little brats in the lap of luxury."
Vin didn't remember too many luxuries. He remembered two meals - such as they were - a day and sleeping under one scratchy blanket.
"But now they want to send some paper pushing clerk to actually count you little bastards. For all I care you can run wild out here, take up with savages or gunslingers. But he actually wants to see you all, so I need you back.
Buck let JD stay with Ezra while finished his morning chores. The small boy was sitting on the bar 'helping' Ezra by stacking up the coins in the till so Ezra could count them.
Suddenly Buck walked in. He rounded the bar without breaking stride. "You haven't seen me," he instructed firmly.
Only minutes later, Lucy walked in. "I haven't seen him," Ezra told her.
Lucy turned to JD.
"He didn't see Buck either," Ezra informed her.
Before JD could contradict him, Lucy burst into tears and fled.
JD's day had been very stressful, Vin had been taken away, and despite everyone telling him Chris would bring him back, he was worried he'd never see his friend again. Now there was Miss Lucy, chasing Buck all over town saying he was the Pa of the baby in her tummy. By the afternoon he was tired and fractious.
Buck might be new to parenthood but he'd been an uncle to Adam and been raised not only by his sainted mother, but a whole house full of women who wanted to mother him, and he knew what to do.
"Come on Little Bit, let's get you into a nice hot bath before supper." He lifted JD down from Beau, where he'd been sitting contentedly while Buck combed out the big grey's long tail.
"Okay," JD agreed.
Buck collected some clean underthings and a clean shirt from the boarding house and took him over to the bathhouse and paid for one bath. JD, unlike Vin, was shameless and happily stripped off, with some help, and raised his arms to be lifted into the warm water. Much as he liked baths, today his little heart wasn't in it. He pushed the little wooden boat Chris had carved for him, back and forth with little enthusiasm. He didn't even protest when Buck told him it was time to get out.
"Where's that smile?" Buck asked as he pushed little feet back into boots.
JD produced a half-hearted smile.
"It'll be okay, somehow it'll all work out. Now give your Papa a big hug." He sat back on his heels and held his arms out. JD pushed off the low bench and stepped into the offered embrace. "Thanks, I needed that. Now, you got your marbles?"
JD pulled the little canvas bag out from his pant's pocket and held it up.
"Good boy, you run along and sit outside, I'm just gonna take a bath myself, seeing as the water's still hot and paid for."
JD hadn't been outside for more than a few moments, when Miss Lucy came alone and walked into the bathhouse. He could hear her talking to Buck, but not what they were saying. Suddenly Buck came out. He was carrying his clothes and holding a small towel around his waist. JD jumped up and was about to follow Buck wherever he went, when Buck turned back to the bath house door.
"And one other thing. No little girl of mine is gonna be named Eudora!" With that, Buck stormed off down the sidewalk, trying to keep his modesty covered, scattering startled womenfolk in his wake, JD trotting worriedly behind him.
Buck had said 'little girl of mine.' That meant that he really was the pa of Miss Lucy's baby. If Buck was going to be the real pa, did that mean he wouldn't want JD?
Yates kept going all day. He pulled a meat pie and an apple from his saddlebags, and ate lunch without stopping his horse. Vin watched him hungrily, but knew better than to ask for anything. It was a large pie and with more than a quarter of it left Yates had had his fill, so he simply tossed the rest away. Vin watched it fall to the ground, the mule trod on it. He wasn't even offered some water until they stopped for the night.
They'd stopped beside a small creek, under a stand of trees. A blackened circle of stones showed that someone had used this as a campsite before, possibly Yates himself.
"Come here," he commanded. "I'm gonna untie you, hold up them hands." Vin obeyed. "Right, now go and get some firewood, but I'm gonna be watching.Don't you even think about running. You make sure I can see you all the time."
Vin blushed and looked at the ground. "I gotta go," he admitted.
Vin shrugged. "I gotta make..."
"Oh, go, well go on, I ain't stopping you, just stay downwind and where I can see you."
"But..." Vin protested.
"Boy you go behind some tree and I'm gonna tie you up so you can't move anyway, you got me?"
Yates used the wood Vin gathered to cook himself some bacon, cook up a batch of biscuits and make coffee. He gave Vin two biscuits and some water. Then he rolled out his bedroll by the fire and tossed the blanket from under his horse's saddle at the base of the closest tree to the fire.
"I ain't go anther bedroll; you can have this."
Vin carefully cleared the ground of rocks and twigs, then rolled out the sweat damp, hair covered blanket.
"Well, look at you. Larabee teach you that?" Yates snarled.
Vin shook his head.
"You learned that all on your own?"
"Well, aren't you the little pioneer. Give me your hands."
Vin held out his hands, which Yates re-tied with a long rope. Then he tied the end of the rope to a branch that was out of Vin's reach.
"And just in case you do manage to get out of that, I'm gonna have these." With that, he pulled off Vin's boots.
Ezra placed three beers on the bar. "There we go, gentlemen, here you go."
He collected their money and was placing it in the till when the obnoxious looking man at the end of the bar began shouting.
"Hey! I need me another drink over here."
"I was not made for honest labour," Ezra sighed.
"Then let me do it."
Ezra turned to see a sultry beauty enter the saloon.
"Do what?" he asked.
"Tend your bar. I clean and make repairs... till you and I really get the place going. By then, you'll make me your partner." She strode up to him, hips swaying.
"Uh, listen, Senorita, uh, I'm not lookin' for a partner, and you... certainly cannot tend bar here."
"And you can?"
"You see that gentleman at the end of the bar?" Ezra pointed to man at the end of the bar.
"He'd eat you like half a sandwich."
"Would you care to bet? One dollar. I serve him. Any trouble, you win."
Never one to turn down a sure fired winner, Ezra accepted.
Inez moved behind the bar and went up to the man. "What will it be?" she asked.
"Well, now, ain't you just a pretty little frijole? I need me a rye whisky. Comprende?"
"Now, I need me a kiss," the man leered.
"Yeah. No kiss... no money."
"Get ready for some heaven."
"There's your kiss." With that, Inez leaned in and decked the man with a single blow.
Ezra had to admit he was impressed, very impressed. As she approached, he tossed her a dollar.
"What's your name?"
"Well, Senorita Recillos... welcome to your new job."
Chris watched with mounting rage at the way Yates treated Vin as he made camp. Only his concern for Vin's safety and ongoing security stopped him from storming into the camp and giving Yates a taste of his own medicine. The only thing that made any of what he was seeing bearable was the knowledge that what he was seeing would count against Yates with the judge.
He waited and waited and waited. The campfire died down until it was little more than a glow. No one in camp moved, the head of the horse and mule, hung low as they dozed. By his estimation, it was almost midnight as he crept into camp. He could see the horse lift its head as he approached but it made no sound.
Carefully, he reached out and placed his hand over Vin's mouth. Instantly, the boy was awake.
"Hush, it's me," Chris reassured in hushed tones.
Vin stilled in an instant. Chris could just see his big eyes blinking up at him with total trust. Much as he wanted to hug Vin, and reassure himself he had him back, they had to get out of there, as fast as possible.
"Come on," he whispered, cutting the rope between his wrists. Vin took his hand and squeezed it. Having seen Yates take his boots and with no way to find them in the dark, Chris picked Vin up and swung him onto his back, piggy backing him out of camp and back to Pony, all but invisible in the inky black shadows back behind the trees.
Vin sighed as he settled behind Chris on Pony. He wrapped his arms around his pa's waist and lay his cheek against the broad back and inhaled the smell that had come to represent security to him. Chris' smell; horse (specifically Pony), leather, dust, tobacco, whiskey, soap, gun oil and some indefinable smell that was just Chris. Sometime in the night he must have dozed off, because when he woke he was in Chris' arms, enveloped in the big black duster.
"Morning," Chris greeted.
"H'llo." Vin looked around, he didn't recognise any of the scenery. "Where are we?"
"About a mile north of Four Corners."
Vin frowned. "Do we have leave forever?" He had hoped he could go home to JD and Buck and all the others but so long as he was with Chris, he'd be okay.
"No, we don't have to leave, but I'm hoping to leave Yates a false trail, make him think we've headed to Canada."
"Oh." Vin snuggled closer to Chris; Chris was the smartest guy in the world.
"We'll stop soon, give ol' Pony a break. You hungry?" Vin's tummy rumbled at the very thought of food. "Well, that answers that."
Buck slept restlessly, plagued by dreams of a pretty little girl. She gave him flowers and sat on his lap as they sat on a swing while he sang to her.
"Papa, wake up." JD gave Buck's arm a gentle push. He hadn't been able to sleep without Vin, so Buck had let him share his bed. "It's day."
"Mmm, not yet Eudora honey, daddy's tired," Buck mumbled and rolled away from JD.
JD knelt on the bed, looking at Buck's broad back, a look of total devastation on his face. Buck really didn't want him anymore. Without saying another word, he climbed down from the big bed and went back to his own room. There, he dressed himself and then went downstairs. Outside, the sun was shining as JD walked up to the church.
Josiah was sanding the door. "Well good morning. You're up early."
"Mr. Josiah, can I live in God's house?" JD asked.
Perplexed by the question, Josiah carefully put his tools down and walked out onto the stoop.
"Why do you want to live in God's house?" he asked.
JD frowned. "I don't got nowhere else to live and you said it was always open."
Josiah sat down on the top step. "Well, that's true. Why don't you come over here and tell me all about it?"
JD shuffled over to the big ex-preacher. "Buck doesn't want me no more," he confessed sadly, huge hazel eyes fixing Josiah seriously.
"What makes you think that?"
"Because he's the pa of Miss Lucy's baby and if he's got a baby of his very own, he don't want me no more 'cause he ain't my papa, not really." JD sighed, his little shoulders slumped. "So can I come and live here with God?"
Before Josiah could even try to tell him he was wrong, they heard and saw Buck. Barely dressed, he was shouting and running down the street.
"JD! JD! Where are you?"
As they watched, Buck slowed as a woman spoke to him; she gestured toward the church and Buck took off at run.
"Oh, thank God," he gasped as he slid to a halt and dropped to his knees. "I woke up and you were gone. I looked all over. Why did you leave?"
"Buck," Josiah began softy, clearly hearing the fear in Buck's voice and needing him to calm down. "JD has some concerns he has shared with me."
Buck pulled his eyes from JD to Josiah. "Concerns?"
"JD, is it alright if I tell Buck what you just told me?" Sanchez asked the five-year-old.
"'K," JD agreed.
As Josiah explained what JD had told him, he had to feel sorry for Buck. The big man looked totally devastated. When Josiah was done, Buck was close to tears.
"Oh JD, son, no." He reached out and plucked JD up and hugged him. "I'd never give you up. You're my little boy now, now and forever. I've got a big heart, I know that 'cause my Ma told me I did and she wouldn't lie to me would she?"
JD shook his head. Ma's didn't lie.
"It's so big that if that baby of Lucy's is mine, then there is room for both of you, but I would never give you up or love you less."
"You still want me?" JD asked.
"Yes, oh yes I still want you."
JD's frown of worry disappeared and was replaced with a beaming smile, as he flung his arms around Buck's neck.
Inez watched Buck, Josiah and JD walk past the saloon, headed for the restaurant, which was - as always - full. Behind her, Ezra walked, tired and bleary eyed, from the kitchen with a mug of the coffee Inez had brewed.
"This is very fine coffee, my dear."
Ezra viewed the state of his saloon. "We need a cleaner," he commented to no one in particular.
"I have an idea," Inez announced as he came to stand beside her.
"About food. Look at the restaurant, it is always busy. See?" She pointed. "Senor Wilmington and his son have to wait outside, Senor Sanchez, too. Why should they have all the business? I think we should offer something to eat as well." She led him back to the bar and held out a plate of food for him to try. "Try it."
"Fajitas for breakfast?"
"Just try it."
"Very well." Ezra took a bite. "Mmm, muy bueno. You made this?"
"Muchas gracias, Senorita, you may have something here. Can you cook bacon and eggs?"
"I can cook anything."
"Well, we've checked our back trail twice and there's no sign of him, I think it's time we headed home."
Vin looked around his shoulder and smiled. They made it back, just after dark. Chris took Pony into the back of the livery, left him there and then took Vin to the boarding house, also by the back way.
"Remember what we talked about? You need to stay here, right here in this room, until the judge gets here. We know Yates didn't follow us. If we're lucky, he's on his way to Canada or he's given up and headed back to Texas, but..."
"He might have come back here," Vin finished.
"I know it won't be easy, cooped up here, but the judge should be here soon, okay?"
Chris ruffled his hair. "I need to go and see to Pony and then find the others and tell them you're here."
JD was very excited that Vin was back, but before he could be allowed to see him, they had to sit the little five-year-old down and drill into him that Vin was hiding. He wasn't to tell anyone Vin was in their room; it was a very big, very important, secret.
"Like hide and go seek?" JD asked.
"Yeah, but this is a grown up game, it's very, very serious," Buck explained.
"Is the bad man looking for Vin?" JD asked.
"He might be," Chris explained.
"We just have to wait 'till the judge comes JD. He'll tell the man I can stay with Chris," Vin stated confidently.
JD mouthed an awed 'oh'.
"So what do you say if anyone asks you if you've seen Vin?" Buck asked.
"I say no." JD grinned as the adults smiled their approval.
In the morning, Buck went to Josiah. He was in a quandary about Lucy. He was fairly sure her baby wasn't his. For one thing, if his math was right, she'd be about ready to have it by now and she didn't look that far gone. In addition, he hadn't been raised in a brothel and spent more than twenty years enjoying the company of ladies without knowing how to avoid Lucy's kind of problem. Then again, math never was his best subject and even his technique wasn't 100% fail proof. Maybe that baby was his?
"Have you ever thought about marriage?"
"Well... animals mate, plants grow, flowers bloom. Seems to be the natural order of things."
"Maybe that's it. It oughta be natural, right? It's not something that's forced on you."
"Exactly. Then again... could be the fates sendin' you a blessin'."
"Fine wife, delights of a child. Most men would live and die for that."
"I already got me a child and I couldn't love any kid anymore than I do JD. But if that baby is mine, I should do right by Lucy. Trouble is, I hardly know her."
"Seems to me that'd be a good starting point if you want it."
"Well, what do you mean?"
"Get to know the girl."
Told that he wasn't allowed to stay in and play with Vin, JD had taken to following Lucy. Buck still wanted him so if Miss Lucy's baby was Buck's, it was going to be his sister. Buck called it Eudora and 'darling', so JD knew the baby was going to be a girl. He didn't know how the baby would get out of Lucy's tummy and he didn't want to miss it when it happened.
He watched Lucy go into Mrs. Potter's store then come out again with a basket of food. He followed her to a small cabin on the edge of town. After she went inside, JD walked up to the window. The sill was too high for him to see in, so he looked around for something to stand on. Pulling a log from the woodpile, he stood it on end under the window. The small log gave him just enough height to peep inside.
He didn't see the baby come out of Lucy's tummy. Disappointed and with his tummy rumbling, he jumped down and headed back to town, where he met Buck.
"JD, what are you doing all the way out here?" Buck asked worriedly.
"I was trying to see if the baby was coming. I never saw a baby come out. But it didn't come out."
Then a thought struck JD. "Is the man going to take the baby out?"
"The man with Miss Lucy, he was kissing her." JD made a face that showed what he thought of kissing girls.
"She was kissing a man?" Buck asked.
JD nodded emphatically.
Buck fished in his pocket and pulled out a penny. "Here, go to Mrs. Potter and get yourself some candy. I've got some business with Miss Lucy."
JD ran all the way to Potter's store and then contemplated his chose of candy for a full five minuets.
Eventually, he purchased a penny's worth of Mrs. Potter's homemade butter toffee. Bag of toffee in hand, he ran straight to the boarding house to share his bounty with Vin.
"I think you'll find this room is our best. It has a view down Main Street, just as you requested." Mr. Heidegger showed the tall stranger into his best room.
"Oh, this is gonna do just fine," Yates agreed.
"Well, enjoy your stay, sir."
"I intend to."
He dropped his saddlebags onto the bed and walked to the window. From the rooms two windows, he could see most of the centre of town. He'd seen Larabee already; the brat had to be somewhere close by. It was risky coming back after one kid, but Eustace Yates was a man who didn't like to lose to anyone.
"Well, well, well, where there is one rat, there might well be a whole nest of rats." Yates said to himself as he watched JD sprinting down the street and into the boarding house.
Buck whistled happily as he strolled back from Lucy's cabin.
"Hi there Buck, you sound happy!" Nathan called down from the veranda outside his clinic.
"That I am Nathan, that I am."
"Why's that then?"
"I just met me a Luther?"
"A Luther? What's a Luther?
"A man about to be a husband and a father!"
"Oh, well congratulations!"
Buck strolled on his happy way to the store looking for JD. Gloria told him JD had been and gone. Knowing how the boys always shared their candy, he headed over to the boarding house.
It didn't take Yates long to track down the sound of small boys in a mostly empty boarding house. He opened the unlocked door.
Vin dropped the bag of candy, his eyes darted toward the window and the door, trying to decide which was the quickest way out. The window was too high, so he darted for the door. He didn't make it, Yates was fast enough, and tall enough, to catch his wrist as he tried to dart past him.
"Run JD!" Vin shouted.
JD had been rooted to the spot in fear. Now he moved, trying to dart past Yates. He, too, was caught. A large hand took a great handful of his hair.
"Got ya, ya little whelp."
"You let him go, let him go!" Vin struggled to get free. He could see tears forming in JD's eyes as Yates pulled on his hair. He squirmed and kicked desperately, but to no effect. Finally, unable to get to the hand holding his wrist above his head, Vin sank his teeth into the hand wrapped around a clump of JD's thick hair.
"OUCH!" Yates let go of JD, but Vin didn't relinquish his grip, biting down harder. "Why you little...ouch!" Finally, Yates backhanded the boy across the ear. Only then did Vin stop.
JD had run as soon as he was free, his little legs pounded down the stairs, shouting for Buck and help all the time. Buck was already on his way to the boarding house and appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
"PapaPapathebadman'sgotVin!" JD shouted as he all but launched himself at Buck from the second to last step.
"Ok," Buck set JD on the ground behind him. "Run on over to the jail, tell Chris," he instructed.
JD didn't hesitate; he took off at a run, shouting all the time. Buck knew well that would bring the citizenry out onto the street and summon the other lawmen. He turned back to the stairs ahead of him and began running up them, gun in hand. As he crested the second floor landing, Yates appeared, dragging Vin by the arm. If Vin hadn't been there, if he hadn't turned desperate, despairing blue eyes on Buck and silently pleaded for help, Buck might have had time to react. As it was, Yates shot out his free hand and connected with Buck's chest. The tall man stumbled and fell down the narrow stairs, rolling head over heels backward, to land in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs.
"NO!" Vin screamed, redoubling his efforts to get free. This time he was able to bite the hand that held him and it was effective. Yates yelped and let go.
With his enemy still standing at the top of the stairs, Vin fled for the only available escape route, the narrow stairs that led to the roof.
Buck, shaken and dazed, was still trying to stand when Chris came in. "Up there!" He pointed to the stairs.
Chris barely broke stride as he shot past Buck and took the stairs two at a time. It took him no time at all to establish Vin wasn't anywhere to be found.
"Roof!" Josiah's distinctive baritone boomed up to him.
Chris spun around, located the stairs and was on his way.
JD's panicked shouting had brought the all the others running. Nathan had found Buck, now up on his feet, but still groggy. Ezra had intercepted JD; he'd just managed to hand him off to Gloria Potter, when the storekeeper gasped. Ezra looked over his shoulder to see Vin on the roof of the boarding house. Josiah, running up behind Nathan, saw where it was that Ezra was looking and shouted to Chris.
The people on the street watched in horror as Vin's slight frame, silhouetted on the rooftop looked desperately for a way down as Yates advanced on him.
"You little brat! What are you running for? I'm the one who wants you. I'll put a roof over your head."
"No!" Vin spat back defiantly. "I live here now, I live with Chris and the Judge is gonna come and say you can't have me 'cause I'm his boy now!"
Vin was now backed into a corner, his tormentor closing in on him.
"Chris Larabee? Why the hell would a hard living, hard drinking, murdering gunman like Larabee want a skinny little brat like you?"
"He does too want me, he told me, he's my new Pa, he said he'd come for me and he did, so there!"
Vin was now pressed up against the flat front of the building, where it protruded a good foot past the pitched roof. There was nowhere for him to go, and Yates knew it. With a satisfied smile, he bent down and took hold of Vin's wrist once more.
"You bite me again brat and I'll rip your fingers out of their sockets one by one."
"The hell you will!" Chris bellowed as he charged up behind them.
Startled, Yates spun around, unbalancing himself, the foot-high fronting caught him in the back of the calf and he began to sway, his one free arm windmilling madly. But it was to no avail, he overbalanced backwards. His legs were hooked behind the fronting, but his centre of gravity was well past the edge of the roof. Only his hold on a terrified Vin was stopping him falling. He held onto him as if he was a rope.
Vin's arm was stretched so hard he thought it would come off, he could feel himself being pulled up and over the fronting. Just as he was sure he was going to be pulled over, strong hands closed over the one holding him and pried the fingers loose.
It took no more than a fraction of a second for Chris to pull Vin back to safety, but for Yates, it was too late, unable to support his weight against the pull of gravity, he toppled back and plummeted head first to the hard ground below.
Gloria just had time to turn so that JD didn't see the man land. Looking over his dark head, and keeping her hand on the back of his neck so he couldn't look around, she watched Nathan run to the fallen man. It wasn't long before he stepped away, shaking his head. As she watched, Josiah collected a horse blanket and covered the body.
"Want Papa," JD said softly, resting his cheek on Gloria's shoulder.
"I know, sweetie, he'll be here soon."
"The bad man's trying to hurt Vin."
"Hush, it's alright, the bad man didn't get him. Buck will be here soon."
Buck, still trying to rub the pain from his shoulder and stop the ringing in his ears, made his somewhat slow, limping way, across the street.
"Hey there, Little Bit," he greeted softly.
JD un-peeled his arms from Gloria and reached for Buck.
"Buck? Are you sure you want to take him?" Gloria asked, remembering his stiff limping walk.
"I'm fine, let me have him."
Chris peered over the edge of the boarding house. He wasn't happy to see the man was dead, but it was going to make life a lot simpler. When he turned back, he found Vin sitting just where he'd left him. He was shaking and he couldn't seem to stop. Dropping to his knees, he reached out a hand and laid it gently on the boy's trembling shoulder.
"It's okay, it's over, I'm here."
His soft words must have penetrated the boy's fear, because he flinched. Huge fear-filled eyes looked up into Chris' and then he launched himself at Chris, wrapping his thin frame around Chris, holding on for dear life.
"He...he....he...he said you didn't want me, but you came, you...you... came."
Chris tightened his grip on the boy. "I'll always come, always."
They remained on the roof, Vin held close in Chris' arms until Vin stopped trembling. Josiah came up, saw they were okay, and left silently. It was full hour before they came down. Yates' body had been removed while Vin's possessions and boots were retrieved from Yates' horse. Chris and Vin found JD sitting on Buck's lap in the saloon, where the others had gathered. Inez had produced some milk and hot buttered biscuits.
"H'llo, Vin," JD greeted. "Want some milk?"
"We got biscuits, they's still warm."
And so, the two small boys began the healing process, sharing buttered biscuits and milk, sitting on the knees of their protectors.
Two days later Judge Travis arrived in town. He quickly ruled that Yates' death was an accident and then turned his attention to the boys.
"So," he addressed them both. "Are you happy here?"
"Yes, sir," JD whispered.
"And you want to stay with Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington?"
Both boys nodded.
"Very well. The minor Vincent Tanner and the minor John Dunne are here by made wards of this court and are placed in the custody of Mr. Chris Larabee and Mr. Buck Wilmington, both duly appointed officers of this court." With that, he banged his gavel down.
Vin flinched at the sudden loud sound and looked up at Chris questioningly.
"It means you can stay with me and no one can take you away again," he explained.
Vin made an 'oh' shape with his mouth and then grinned.
JD tugged on Buck's trouser leg. Buck, rapidly becoming an experienced parent, knelt down.
"What it is, Little Bit?"
"What did the judge mean?"
"Just what Chris told Vin, you can stay with me and no one can come and take you away."
"But he said I was a miner and I'm not; I'm a little boy," JD pointed out earnestly.
"Oh, I see, well he called you a minor not a miner," Buck explained emphasising the last syllable. "It means you're not a grown up yet."
"Oh, okay." JD was suddenly grinning. "I like being a little boy."
"You know what?"
"I like you being a little boy, too."
"Are we a real family now?"
Buck grinned at him. "Reckon so." He looked over at Chris, who was sitting on the desk, Vin sitting contentedly beside him. A mischievous smile spread across his face. "You know, ol' Chris there is the closest thing I've got to a brother, so that would make him your uncle."
JD looked around Buck at Chris, eyes wide as saucers. "Really?"
"Sure." Buck looked back at Chris. "What do you think? Ready to stop being Mr. Chris to this little one?"
"And be Uncle Chris?"
Chris looked down at Vin, who was grinning from ear to ear. "Okay. Of course that makes you Uncle Buck to Vin here."
"Nothing I'd like better. Never did cotton to being called Mr. anyway."
JD ran over to Chris and lifted his arms. Chris didn't hesitate to pull him up and hug him. "Hello, nephew."
"Hello, Uncle Chris."
Vin slipped off the desk and walked over to Buck, who was still kneeling on the ground. He hesitated.
"Mind if I give my new nephew a hug?" Buck asked.
Vin shook his head, which Buck took for permission to go ahead and envelop the small boy in a bear hug.
"You're squishing me," Vin finally protested, though he really didn't mind.
Buck didn't let go.
"Uncle Buck, I'm getting squished."
With that Buck released him.
JD extracted himself from Chris and ran over to Vin. "Wow, Vin, now we've got pas and uncles. We're the luckiest boys in the whole wide world - don't ya reckon?"
Vin grinned and nodded emphatically.
"You know what else, boys?" Chris asked.
"What?" JD asked.
"Well, if me and Buck are brothers, that makes you two not just brothers like you've been, but cousins as well."
"Really?" Vin asked, amazement in his eyes.
"Sure it does," Buck agreed.
"Yahoo!" JD shrieked, jumping up and down. "I got a cousin! I got a cousin!"
Vin, cringing slightly at JD's exuberance and volume crossed back over to Chris. "Pa?"
Next: Love and Honor