Josiah, Ezra and Nathan were settling their plans when the sound of thundering hooves was drown temporarily by a call for Nathan.

Stepping outside as quickly as possible, the three men saw Amos Frank just pulling his horse to a stop. “Thank God!” the man gasped. “Nathan, we need you as soon as you can come. Caleb’s hurt.”

Nathan felt torn. He needed to be there for Vin and his friends, but he also needed to be there to help heal Caleb.

“Go,” Ezra said, waving his hand in the direction of Nathan’s clinic. “We’ll be fine.” he assured, hoping it wasn’t a lie.

Nathan still felt torn, but only nodded and headed off. The sooner he got to Caleb, the sooner he could be there for Ezra and Vin.

Josiah watched as Nathan ran toward his clinic to gather his supplies. A frown formed on his face as he thought he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. If he didn’t know better, he would swear it was a crow.

“We don’t have time to alter the plan,” Ezra observed, quietly.

Josiah turned and smiled what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Clapping a hand on Ezra’s shoulder he offered, “Well, it looks like you’ve only got an old preacher man for backup on this one. Think that’ll do?”

A portion of Ezra screamed that an entire army wouldn’t be enough for this endeavor, but he was relieved at having Josiah’s steady presence there for him. Smiling, he said simply, “That should be more than enough.”

Chris was in agony. Everything seemed to hurt and it was getting harder and harder to stay on his horse. His body wanted him to stop and rest, but something else, something inside was driving him onward. He had to get home. He had to get to Vin. Though he couldn’t explain it, he knew Vin needed him.

Buck looked worriedly at his friend. They’d been riding faster than he thought they should be, given Chris’ condition. Still, the blond had refused to stop. He hated to think that they would keep riding until Chris fell out of the saddle and thought he should try one more time. “Chris,” the mustached man said softly. He was met with two hazel slits. “I think we need to rest for a bit,” he coached gently.

With a shake of his head, Chris gritted out, “Can’t. Vin needs me.”

Blue eyes narrowed as they scrutinized the blond. When Buck had checked Chris over before, he hadn’t found a head injury, but now he was beginning to wonder if his friend was worse off than he’d first surmised. “Pard...” he began before Chris cut him off with a huff of air.

“I can’t explain it, Buck,” he said, as lost as Buck in trying to figure out how to explain the feeling. “It’s just like a voice or something inside telling me I have to get to Vin, that he’s in trouble...” he attempted to explain, hearing how foolish his argument sounded even to his own ears.

Studying the blond, closely, Buck could see the confusion and the need in his old friend’s eyes. They had spent a lot of time riding together and had learned to trust their own as well as each other’s instincts. If Chris said they had to get to Vin, then that was what they had to do. Unfortunately, Buck wasn’t sure Larabee would make it another mile, let alone all the way back to town. Looking at the trail ahead of them, Buck saw a small stand of trees.

Nodding as he made his decision, he said, “Fine. But when we hit that stand of trees, we rest for at least thirty minutes.” Seeing the protest rising on Chris’ lips, he held up his hand. “No arguments,” he ordered. “I know we need to get to Vin, but you’re not going to do him any good if you fall out of the saddle trying to get there. We rest. We let the horses rest. Then we push on. Got it?”

Chris just nodded, knowing he didn’t have the strength to argue. Spurring Pony into motion, he headed forward, silently pleading, “Hang on, Vin. I’m coming.”

Cal shifted nervously from foot to foot. He didn’t like this plan. He didn’t like it at all. Still, it was better than what Rob had first suggested.

At first, Rob had said they would take the boy to the old house and lock him in the cellar. Then they would take Stanton into the mine and drop him in one of the holes there. Cal had managed to talk Rob into at least putting both the boy and Stanton in the cellar. He had also managed to secret a lantern and some matches down there so they would at least have light. A shudder ran down Bertram’s spine. His mother and father had taken to locking him in their cellar when he misbehaved as a boy. He hated dark places like that and couldn’t think of a worse fate. Still, he could only do so much before incurring Rob’s wrath. Hopefully Stanton and the boy would be able to figure a way out on their own.

Another concern he had was the location. They were pretty out in the open here and if Stanton brought anyone with him, they could be in lots of trouble. Of course, Rob assured him that since they had the boy safely stashed somewhere else; they wouldn’t be in any danger. After all, if anything happened to them, the boy would be lost forever.

Cal shifted again. He and Rob had done a lot of things in their time together and not all of it was nice, but kidnaping and killing kids just didn’t sit right with him.

The sound of hoof beats had him slinking further into the shadows, his gun at the ready. A few moments later, he saw that it was Rob, lowered his gun and stepped out of his hiding place as his partner brought the horse to a stop.

“The kid?” Cal asked.

An evil smile curved Rob’s mouth. “Safe and sound,” he informed. Leading his horse to where Cal had his tied, he observed, “Nothing to do now but wait.”

Mary looked over at the small boy she had agreed to watch. JD had refused to play with Billy, but also hadn’t agreed to anything else. Releasing a sigh, the young mother tried to think of what to do to help the distraught boy. It was obvious JD was still upset and that he didn’t want to be sitting in her house doing nothing. But there was nothing else to be done.

Running a hand over her hair to smooth it, she walked over and placed a hand on JD’s shoulder. The boy didn’t even look at her.

“Why did the bad man take Vin?” the boy asked, his eyes fixed on the horizon as if willing Vin to come home.

“I don’t know for sure, sweetie,” Mary soothed softly. “But I think it was just to make sure your Uncle Ezra showed up.”

Large brown eyes turned toward the woman. “But Uncle Ezra didn’t do nothing either.”

Mary didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t want Vin to get hurt like before. It’s not fair!” JD shouted as tears began to fall.

“Oh, honey,” she said, drawing him to her, cradling him against her shoulder and rubbing his back. “I don’t think they’ll hurt Vin. They probably just took him to make sure Ezra showed up and then will let him go,” she soothed. “He’s probably safe and sound right now.”

JD sniffed, his sobs quieting, though his tears didn’t stop. “Really?” he asked, his voice small and hopeful.

Mary swallowed and prayed she wasn’t lying to the boy. “I think so,” she said finally. “Why don’t we go sit on the couch? Maybe you could rest a while.”

JD turned back to the window. “No thank you,” he replied. “I’ll wait.”

As consciousness returned, Vin first became aware that his head hurt. That sharp pain was joined by slightly less sharp ones that he managed to figure were bruises. He didn’t really want to open his eyes, just yet, not until he figured out what was wrong and how he had gotten hurt.

Thinking back, he remembered a bad man grabbing him and JD. He had gotten JD free, but the bad man had gotten him. He had been slapped and thrown over a horse. That was probably why his stomach hurt like it did. The man had brought him to a house, a shack and then inside where he had seen...

Vin’s eyes flew open and a scream tore from his throat. “No!” he shouted, sitting upright as fear flashed through him. “No!” he denied again as a sob began to build within. He couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black. Reaching beneath him, he could feel the cool ground. Leaning forward he managed to get on all fours and began reaching around him, his fear keeping the pain at bay.

He finally felt the bottom rung of a ladder and the sob escaped. Struggling up, he finally felt the door above him and pushed.

It didn’t move.

Becoming more frantic, Vin continued to push and bang on the door with all his might.

It wouldn’t move.

He was trapped.

“Chris!” he called out with all his might as the sobbing began in earnest. Incoherent words and phrases escaped him. He had been trapped in dark places before as punishment. He didn’t like it then and he didn’t like it now. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t understand what he was doing here.

Eventually the fear began receding leaving despair and pain, both emotional and physical.

Sliding down the ladder, Vin curled on his side as tears continued to stream down his face. “I’ll be good,” he whispered to no one. “I promise I won’t do it again. Whatever I did, I won’t do it again. Please Chris. Please come and get me.”

His voice faded as unconsciousness and exhaustion claimed him once more. His last word, his last thought was of his father.

Ezra and Josiah mounted their horses, saying nothing for nothing needed to be said. They had their plan all laid out, now they just had to execute it.

“Ready?” Josiah asked when he had settled into the saddle.

“Yes,” came Ezra’s uncharacteristically short reply.

“Let’s do it,” Josiah stated turning his horse to head out of town.

Both men stopped dead in their tracks at the sound of a gunshot. The shot was followed by another.

Blue eyes met green. “Go,” Josiah said, unhappy at being left behind. Ezra and Vin both needed him, but the town needed him more just then. “I’ll catch up when I can.”

Ezra held Josiah’s eyes for a second longer before heading out of town to the meet.

“God go with you,” he prayed as he watched his friend leave.

Turning his attention to the matter at hand, he dismounted, threw the reins around a nearby post and headed toward the disruption, his hand on his gun.

Reaching the swinging doors of the saloon, he frowned at what he saw. A cowboy, obviously drunk, had set up a row of mugs on the bar and was shooting at them and being egged on by several of his equally inebriated friends. Two of those men were holding Inez while a third was looking behind the bar for something.

As Josiah stepped into the bar, the third man stood with a whoop of joy and showed the others his bounty. “Found it boys,” he said holding out the apple he had located. “Reckon we can see if we can get this off her head.”

“Reckon you best put that back and let the lady go,” Josiah said, stepping closer to the men, his gun drawn.

Four sets of unsteady eyes turned toward him and tried to focus. “And just why would we do that?” demanded one of the cowboys, emboldened by his drink.

“Well,” Josiah explained, “because if you don’t I’ll have to shoot you which would prove a decidedly unpleasant experience for you especially since our healer is out of town.”

“Huh?” asked one of the men.

With a sigh the former preacher repeated, “You don’t want me to have to shoot you because there’s no one here who can fix you. Now let the lady go and come with me.”

The four men looked confused and then stared at each other.

“Why should we go with you?” demanded one of the men.

Josiah sighed. These men were not the smartest. “Because I have more whiskey at the jail,” he said finally.

“Well why didn’t you say so!” the man who had been shooting at the glasses said. “C’mon boys, we’re going to get us some more drinks.”

Shaking his head, Josiah ushered the men out and toward the jail. A process that took much longer than it should have since none of the men seemed to be able to walk straight.

They had arrived at their destination and Josiah was moving them toward the cells, when one of them seemed to sober enough to realize what was happening. His reaction was immediate and violent.

Josiah managed to avoid the first blow, but the other three, seeing their friend losing a fight immediately jumped into the fray. At a distinct disadvantage, Josiah did what he could to fight them off.

He couldn’t tell how long the fight lasted, but it was stopped when the door opened and Yosemite entered the room.

Between the two men, Josiah and Yosemite were able to restore order fairly quickly and the four men were locked behind bars, groaning slightly before falling asleep.

“Looks like you need some tending,” Yosemite noted.

Josiah nodded. “Thanks for your help. I’ll be okay now,” he offered. Yosemite nodded and headed out of the jail. Josiah took stock of his current state and knew he wouldn’t be able to ride for a while

With nothing else to do, Josiah began praying for his friends.

Ezra rode slowly toward the agreed upon meeting spot, approaching the area cautiously. He wasn’t happy with the meet to start with and the fact that both Nathan and Josiah had been distracted hadn’t helped his disposition any. The five hundred dollars had been surprisingly easy to gather once word got out of what happened. He wondered at the small town and their willingness to contribute the portion he was missing.

He would make sure to get the money back to the appropriate people once this was all over and he and Vin were safely in town. If they got safely to town…

Shaking off the negative thought, he continued on his way. There was nothing he could do right now but go through with the plan those two men had set up and hope that they gave him Vin unharmed.

Reaching his destination, he stopped at the edge of the trees and viewed the open expanse between him and the man who had taken his nephew. Adjusting his cuffs to make sure nothing would block his little derringer, he urged his horse forward at a walk and soon found himself before Rob Neeley.

The fire of anger flared within the Southerner at the other man’s close proximity. No one hurt his family and got away with it. One way or another, if it took until his dying day, Ezra Standish would exact retribution against Rob Neeley for his heinous offense.

“Got the money?” Neeley asked.

“Where’s the boy,” Ezra demanded, refusing to answer the question.

A cold chill ran down Neeley’s spine as green sparks flew from the other man’s eyes. Those sparks of anger, however, covered a much more deadly intent. Swallowing hard, Rob took courage from the fact that Cal was nearby and would take care of Stanton. “Boy’s safe and sound,” Neeley replied with a sneer. “Not here, mind you,” he continued as he saw Ezra’s eyes dart toward the cave. “But you can see him soon. That is, if you give me the money now.”

Ezra felt his stomach turn. Something about the man offended everything within Standish.

All of Ezra’s instincts were telling him not to believe the man, that something else was happening, a danger about which he was yet unaware. “Half now, half when I see the boy,” he bargained.

Neeley smiled evilly at the offer, knowing he held all the cards. “All now and I take you to see the boy. Or I could just shoot you here, take the money and no one will ever see the boy again,” he bargained.

Fear lanced through Ezra. Though it went against his better judgment and everything he had learned over the years, he knew that right now he had no choice in the matter, the other man held all the cards. Reaching into his pocket, he drew out the money and handed it over.

When the other man had a hand on the money, Ezra held firm and stared into his eyes. “If one hair on that boy’s head has been harmed, I will hunt you down and make your life so miserable Hell will seem like a vacation.” Taking a step closer, Ezra lowered his voice, which only served to add weight to his words. “And if I do not return, make no mistake, my friends will hunt you down and do the same. Understood?”

Rob couldn’t tear his eyes away from those burning before him. He swallowed convulsively. Over the years Rob Neeley had done a lot of things and had taken pleasure in causing fear in others. Never in all those years had he ever felt the type of sheer terror that seized him now. Unable to speak, he simply nodded his head.

Releasing the money, Ezra commanded, “Take me to the boy.”

Neeley nodded again and quickly headed toward his horse.

Though hardly the best situation imaginable, a portion of Ezra’s mind was amused by the fact he had obviously learned something from Larabee over their years together. Mostly, though, Ezra was intent on getting to Vin and making sure the boy was safe. What he forgot is that a terrified animal is the most dangerous type and Rob Neeley wasn’t much more than an animal.

From the hill a ways away, Cal Bertram watched as the two men headed for the shack. Mounting up, he followed along behind, eager to be done with this business and on his way.

As the men approached a small shack, Ezra felt the hairs on the back of his neck start to stand on end. Something wasn’t right about this situation; he would have to be careful. Shooting a look at Neeley, Ezra was puzzled by the fact that the man seemed to become less fearful as they approached the shack. In fact, if he was reading the other man right, Ezra thought that Neeley was almost pleased with himself.

A small sound behind them had Ezra beginning to turn around. Neeley seeing this, picked up his speed a little and said, “Let’s get this done.”

Ezra focused his attention once more to the front and nodded. He just wanted Vin back safe and sound.

Reaching their destination, the men dismounted, tethered their horses and headed inside. Neeley led the way, opening the door and entering the room, moving toward the middle where a large dresser sat.

“Where is he?” Ezra demanded impatient and upset. He tried to ignore the voice screaming at him that this was a trap, but with Vin’s freedom and perhaps his life on the line, he had no choice but to continue.

“He’s in the root cellar underneath this,” Rob explained, indicating the dresser. “Help me move it and we’ll get him out. He watched, satisfied as Ezra moved forward. Glancing out the still open door, he could see Cal had just arrived at the house. Now all he had to do was keep Stanton distracted so Cal could knock him out.

Moving to the other side of the dresser, the two men began sliding it aside.

Below, in the dark, Vin’s head came up and he looked above him. There were sounds. First he heard footsteps on the floor, then the low rumble of voices, finally he heard the sound of something heavy moving aside.

Hope blazed as he thought Chris had come to get him. He knew his father wouldn’t let him down and if not Chris than one of his Uncles or Buck had to have come. They would take him from the scary dark place and keep him outside in the light.

Moving to the ladder, he began to climb it, wanting to be ready when the door opened. He did his best to ignore the slight dizziness which assailed him and the aches that were there as well.

Finally the door opened and Vin squinted hard against the sudden light. After so long in the dark, it hurt his already aching head to see, but he almost cried in relief. It took only a few seconds for his eyes to focus on and identify the shadowy form standing at the top of the ladder. “Unca Ezra!” he cried in excitement and relief, beginning to scramble upward.

He saw his uncle reach out toward him and then gasped in horror as he saw another man, this one holding a gun, walk up behind his uncle. “Uncle Ezra!” he cried again, this time in horror and warning.

Ezra heard the change in the cry and began to turn around. He wasn’t quick enough to stop the blow, however, and in the final moment before he lost consciousness, he mentally begged Vin’s forgiveness for failing him.

Vin released an inarticulate cry as he saw the gun come crashing down on his uncle’s head. He watched in horror as the man who had hit his uncle pushed the body so it fell through the door. Ducking his head, Vin felt Ezra fall past him and heard the sound of the unconscious man hitting the dirt floor.

Torn between his need for freedom and his need to be with his uncle, Vin paused only a moment, but it was all the time the other men needed as the door came crashing down and darkness once more engulfed him. Trapped in the darkness, Vin cried out, terrified. His pleas and cried went unnoticed as the sound of a heavy object scraping across the floor above filled his small, dark world.

Realizing he was trapped, Vin felt his eyes well up with tears, but fought against them, remembering that his uncle was hurt and would need him.

Slowly, he climbed down the steps he had ascended a short time ago and reached cautiously for his uncle. Feeling the warm body, Vin held tightly to the coat beneath his fingers for several minutes as he tried to calm his mind and figure out what to do. Uncle Ezra was hurt and Uncle Nathan took care of them when they hurt. What would Uncle Nathan do?

Vin thought hard about that question. Uncle Nathan always checked to make sure they were breathing alright. Figuring out which way led up to Ezra’s head, Vin started that way, before pausing as a cold chill ran down his spine. What if Uncle Ezra wasn’t breathing? That thought was enough to stop Vin and make him lean back. He didn’t want to know if Uncle Ezra wasn’t breathing. As long as he didn’t know, than it didn’t matter. Chris’ voice sounded in his head then, telling him that he had to be there for people, that sometimes what Chris had to do wasn’t fun and he didn’t like it, but it was the right thing to do.

Right now, the right thing for Vin to do was to check and make sure Uncle Ezra was still breathing.

Reaching out with a trembling hand, Vin traced up Ezra’s arm to his shoulder and from there to his face. He paused once his hand reached Ezra’s cheek. “You’re a Tanner,” he whispered to himself as he moved his hand so it rested over Ezra’s mouth and nose. He felt some of the fear and tension leave him as he felt warm breath against his hand. That breath meant Uncle Ezra was alive.

“Unca Ezra?” he called, hoping the man was awake. “Unca Ezra!” he called louder. He received no response. His uncle was alive, but wasn’t awake.

What should he do now? He didn’t know how to make his uncle wake up.

He tried to think of what else Nathan did for them. Uncle Nathan usually ran his hands over them after a fall to make sure nothing was broken. He wasn’t sure how you were supposed to be able to tell if something was broken just by the feel of is, so he figured he’d just make sure Ezra’s arms and legs were straight. He could do that.

Vin knew that the arm he’d followed was straight, so he reached over Ezra’s still form and made sure the other arm was straight too. Then, following his uncle’s side down to the legs, he checked the leg nearest him. It was bent and it felt like the foot was underneath the other leg. Moving so he had a better position, Vin tugged the leg until it was straight.

Then, not knowing what else to do, he moved back up beside his uncle.

He shivered slightly as the cool temperature of the cellar penetrated his clothes. Thinking that his Uncle Ezra might be cold, Vin lay down beside him and rested his head on the man’s shoulder. Within minutes, the boy was sleeping as well.

Josiah paced impatiently across the jail yet again. He was tempted to just turn the men in the cells loose, but he had already sent someone to get their bosses which meant he would have to wait until they came.

Finally tiring of the confines of the jail, he flung open the door and stepped outside. He scanned the streets, but everything seemed normal enough. Turning in the direction Ezra had taken out of town, he stared, hoping to see Ezra returning with the missing boy, but he knew it was too soon still. As long as he’d waited already, it was still too soon for Ezra to be back.

“Unca ‘Siah!” a shrill cry sounded.

Turning in the other direction, Sanchez couldn’t help but smile as JD tore free from Mary’s grasp and came charging down the sidewalk directly at him. Kneeling down, he opened his arms as JD arrived and wrapped the boy in a tight embrace.

“Unca ‘Siah did you bring Vin back?” he asked excitedly, staring into the man’s blue eyes.

Josiah couldn’t hide the sadness and concern on his face as he shook his head. “No, Little Bit,” he said, using JD’s nickname. “I didn’t get to go with Ezra. There were some men who were misbehaving that I had to put in jail. Ezra went to get Vin though. We just need to wait for them to come back.”

“Oh,” JD said, his brown eyes dulling as he looked at his hands before eventually resting his head against Josiah’s shoulder. He hated waiting. He wanted Vin. He wanted Buck. He wanted home. Tears formed in his eyes as his fears came once more to the fore. “The bad man didn’t hurt Vin did he?” JD asked.

Josiah suppressed a sigh. He wanted to assure JD that Vin was fine, but he’d seen the slap Vin received and feared the man had done more to him. “I don’t know JD,” he admitted softly. “But I do know that your Uncle Ezra will get Vin and bring him home to us.” He felt the small head nodded.

Glancing behind him, he saw the chairs and moved back to sit on one, maintaining his hold on JD. Looking over he saw Mary standing and watching him, concern and fear written on her face. Josiah offered a small smile and a nod. Waiting wasn’t easy on any of them.

Nathan was just finishing up with his patient. When he had arrived, the wound itself was easy enough to tend, one that he had seen before. His mind, however would not settle. His thoughts kept returning to the look of terror on Vin and JD’s faces when those men tried to grab them.

As he began gathering his things, he felt guilt begin to eat at him. They had failed the boys. The three of them should have kept a better eye out, should have paid more attention to the strangers floating in and out of town.

A flash of anger ran through him at the thought that this had all come because of Ezra’s past, but that anger quickly faded. Nathan knew that all the men had pasts that could come back and haunt them at any time. None of the peacekeepers had led a safe life prior to arriving in town and they all had dark parts of their past. Still, Chris and Buck had trusted them with the boys and they had failed.

Packing the last of his things, Nathan stood and gave instructions for the tending of the wound. As he turned to leave, Amos stopped him.

“Here, take this,” Amos said, handing Nathan an oilskin poncho. “Looks like it’s going to start raining again and soon.”

Nathan nodded his thanks, put on the oilskin and quickly secured his things. Mounting, he assured, “I’ll be out in a day or two to make sure everything’s fine.” With a final nod, he turned this horse toward town with an urgency he couldn’t explain.

He had gone no more than a quarter mile down the road when the rain started to fall.

Buck cursed their luck. They were less than an hour from town and the rain started again. He was riding beside Chris at the moment in order to keep an eye on the blond.

Chris had been intent and intense, insisting that they travel back to town as quickly as possible.

Now Buck found himself agreeing. He wasn’t sure if he had picked up on Chris’ urgency and belief something was wrong, felt it himself, or just wanted to get back so he could get his rapidly fading friend the help he needed. Whatever the reason, Buck wanted nothing more right now than to ride into town and get things squared away.

He reached out a hand as Chris began to lean too far in his saddle. The blond jerked upright at the contact and turned his worried eyes toward his friend. Nodding his thanks, Chris turned his attention to the road before them.

Buck felt a cold finger trace along his soul at what he had seen in his friend’s eyes. There wasn’t just urgency and worry in them. There was outright fear. He knew it took a lot to make Chris afraid and the terror he had read swirling in the hazel depths had scared him.

Turning his face toward the road before him, Buck figured the horses had rested enough and urged his mount into a canter, hoping Chris was well enough to follow.

Chris saw Buck increase their pace and was both relieved and angry. He was relieved that they were hurrying back to town, back to the boys. The sooner they got there, the sooner he could lay his concerns to rest. But he was angry as well; angry at his own weakness. He could feel himself growing weaker by the minute and that was unacceptable. Through stubbornness and will he had managed to ignore the growing pain in his knee, but that pain was at a point where it was beginning to sap his strength and energy.

Something was wrong with Vin. He knew it. And now he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to do what was necessary to help his son. That fear was like a living thing and that only made him more angry and more afraid. He couldn’t lose another son.

Ignoring the pain in him, he urged his horse forward faster, matching Buck pace for pace and hoping that each step closer to home would decrease the emotions that were consuming him.

It was the dull throbbing pain in Ezra’s head that roused him, that forced him from the comforting dark place in which he’d been dwelling. Slowly the pain receded enough for him to begin to figure out what was happening. The first thing he did was take inventory of himself. Obviously his head hurt. Shifting slightly, it didn’t feel like anything was broken, but he could feel bruises forming, and felt stiff.

He also became aware of a warmth against his side and a weight on his shoulder. Trying to remember what it was, his eyes flew open in panic. Vin!

Vin was here. He had followed that miscreant to the shack and moved the dresser aside. Somehow another man had snuck up behind him. Vin’s cry had caused him to turn just as he was knocked unconscious. Given the darkness of his current accommodations, Ezra could only assume he had joined his nephew in the cellar.

He closed his eyes and tried to think of what he had seen of Vin before losing consciousness. It had only been a few seconds, but if he focused, he should be able to see it again in his mind, provided he could think past the pain, of course. Taking a deep breath he thought on those few moments.

Opening the door, Ezra stared down into the darkness. A small face looked up at him, blues eyes squinting in the dull light.

Ezra felt his heart skip a beat at the sight before him. Vin sat on a step of the ladder trying to see upward. His clothes were dirty and frayed. His hair was a mess and had a small amount of mud in it. His face was dirty, but Ezra could still see the distinct outline of a man’s hand on the cheek and, if he wasn’t mistaken, the start of a horrible bruise along the boy’s jaw.

Ezra swallowed back the anger that grew in him as he recalled the details he’d seen. Vin had been kept in the cellar without light and probably without food or water. Neeley had slapped him in town and apparently punched him here in the shack. Given his own treatment, Ezra couldn’t help but believe that Neeley had thrown Vin down into this miserable hole just as he had done with Ezra.

Sliding his arm slightly, he managed to wrap it around Vin and squeeze the boy more firmly to his side. A deadly anger burned within Ezra at the thought of what Vin had been through. Standish vowed revenge upon the men who did this to his family. And all for something that happened five years ago, before he ever came to this town and met these men and boys.

His thoughts trailed off slightly as guilt reared its ugly head. Something he had done five years before. This was all his fault. JD and Vin’s terror, Vin’s injury, their being trapped in a cellar, all of it. It was all his fault. How could he live with this? How could he forgive himself or ask the others to forgive him for allowing this to happen?

Swallowing hard, Ezra knew what he must do to keep the boys safe. He would leave town. He would leave these men and boys who had come to mean more to him than anything. Never again. He would make sure Vin was safe and then he’d pack and leave. Of course, he would have to leave anyway since he had unfinished business with Rob Neeley and his friend.

A small stirring drew Ezra’s attention to the boy in his arm.

“Unca Ezra?” a small, sleep laden voice asked.

“Right here Vin,” Ezra responded, keeping his eyes closed since, even in the dark that seemed to hurt less.

“Are you okay?” Vin asked, hating the slight tremor in his voice.

“A little sore,” Ezra admitted. Long ago he had promised never to lie to Vin and he wouldn’t lie now. “I’m better now that I know you’re here and awake,” he said.

Vin smiled and snuggled closer for a moment, taking a great deal of comfort from the love he heard in the man’s voice. “I’m glad you’re awake too. It was scary when you fell. You wouldn’t wake up,” he said, his voice hushed and fearful.

Ezra’s heart clenched at the fear he heard in Vin’s voice. Squeezing more tightly, he assured, “I’m awake now.”

The two remained silent for several moments, holding onto each other, drawing comfort from the presence beside them. Both knew they would have to try something soon, that they would need to find a way out, but right now Vin needed to be held and reassured that he wasn’t alone in this nightmare and Ezra needed to reassure Vin that he was safe and loved, even in these circumstances.

“Are you hurt?” Ezra asked eventually.

Vin sighed. “My head hurts on the back. I think I hitted something when he put me down here. My face hurts too,” he admitted quietly. Actually his face hurt a lot and he had some bruises, but he knew there wasn’t anything they could do down here in the dark.

“I’m sorry,” Ezra said quietly.

Vin’s brow furrowed. Uncle Ezra hadn’t hurt him, why was he sorry? “Why?” Vin asked, not being able to figure that out. “You didn’t hit me or nothin’.”

Ezra sighed. “Yes, but those... bad men wouldn’t have hurt you at all if I hadn’t taken some money from them.”

“Oh,” Vin said, a frown on his face. Uncle Ezra took money from them? When had he done that? Besides, Uncle Ezra got money from people all the time when he played cards. None of those people ever hurt him or JD. Something wasn’t right. Tilting his head so he was looking up at where Ezra’s face would be, Vin asked, “Why did they try to take JD and me? You get money from people all the time with your cards and they never hurt us before.”

A small smile curled Ezra’s lips at that. It was true, none of the people he played cards with, even the ones who left upset, ever took it out on the boys. “This is different, Vin. This happened a long time ago before I came here, before I met your dad.” He winced at what he was going to say next, but felt it necessary. “I wasn’t always a nice person before I met Chris,” he admitted quietly.

“Is that where you know them from? From before here?” Vin asked, baffled as to why someone would do this over something that happened so long ago.

“Yes,” Ezra admitted.

“Well, that’s just stupid,” Vin said, disgruntled, disgusted and not afraid to show it. “If it happened a long time ago they should just let it go.”

Ezra smiled at the boy’s statement. He couldn’t help but wish it was so easy. “Yes they should,” he agreed stroking his had over Vin’s hair.

The two rested in silence for several minutes before Ezra asked, “Ready to examine our cell?” He felt Vin nod his head. “Then I suggest we go exploring,” he said, trying to keep his voice light.

“‘K,” Vin agreed.

The two then did their best to sit up, neither managing to accomplish that feat without a few groans in protest. Once sitting, they both paused and waited for the world to settle and stop spinning, which was a rather unique sensation since they couldn’t see anything.

“Okay,” Ezra said, once he was sure things had settled down. “Why don’t we stay on our hands and knees and see what we can find? Stay close,” he admonished. Then, waiting for Vin to come beside him, the two began searching their prison.

Vin wasn’t sure how long they’d been searching when his hand brushed against something cool and smooth. Frowning, he reached out carefully and ran his fingers over what he found. “Unca Ezra,” he said softly. “I think I found something.”

“Show me,” Ezra said, reaching beside him so his hand was on Vin’s.

Moving so he could guide his uncle’s hand, Vin lifted the man’s hand and moved it forward. When he felt it come in contact with the object, he withdrew his own hand and rocked back to sit on his heels.

Ezra took only a few seconds to run his fingers over the object and come to a conclusion. A smile lit his face as he observed, “It’s a lamp.” Moving, he kept one hand on the lamp and prayed his luck would be good just one more time. A small cry of triumph escaped his lips as he found what he’d been looking for - matches. “We have matches as well, Master Tanner,” he said, pleasure at the discovery evident in his voice.

“Can we light the lamp?” Vin asked quickly, a hint of the desperation he’d been holding at bay slipping through.

“Indeed,” Ezra agreed.

Working in the dark, completely blind, was not the easiest way to light a lamp. He also knew that after all the time in the dark; it would be hard for him to see once the match was lit. “Why don’t you turn away from the lamp,” he suggested to Vin. “It will hurt your eyes less.”

He heard Vin shuffling around. Then, having the chimney off, he carefully drew back his hands in line with where the wick was. Closing his eyes, he struck the match. The flare of light, even with his eyes closed sent a bolt of pain through his head. Still, they needed the light if they were to find a way out. Opening his eyes to a slit, he was able to see just well enough to guide the match to the wick and light it.

Extinguishing the match, Ezra reached for the chimney and put it back in place. Adjusting the wick so the flame burned low, he said, “The lamp is lit Vin. I’ve kept it low so it shouldn’t hurt our eyes too much.”

Vin turned around, eyes wide. Ezra saw the relief in them as well as the fear, exhaustion and pain he suspected would be there. He reached out to his nephew, making sure the lamp was safely away.

Without hesitation, Vin climbed into his uncles lap and buried his head in the strong shoulder. He wasn’t a baby, but he was so scared and hurt and hungry, things he hadn’t been since he came to live with Chris and Buck and he didn’t like it. The tears came and try as he might to fight them, he couldn’t.

Ezra felt a tear soak into his shirt and held Vin closer, resting his chin on the boy’s head. “You’ve been so brave,” he whispered. “I’m so proud of you and I know your dad will be too when we get back to town.”

“You think so?” Vin asked, his voice soft and muffled.

“I know so,” Ezra said softly. Feeling the boy settle once more, he said, “Let me look you over and then we’ll see if we can find a way out of here.”

Vin sighed and nodded. “‘K,” he agreed. He did want to go home, but it was safe in Uncle Ezra’s arms. Safe felt good.

Ezra held on a moment longer and then pulled back a little adjusting Vin so he could take a better look.

As he took in Vin’s face. Ezra had to bite back a curse. He had been right. Even under the dirt, he could see the angry hand print on Vin’s face and the swelling jaw. He was sure there was a spectacular bruise there as well. Running his hands around Vin’s head, he felt a good sized bump on the back of it. He didn’t find any broken bones, but several hastily suppressed hisses indicated that there were some other injuries as well.

“Well,” he said. “I’m sure Nathan would like you in bed, but seeing as how we’ve only got a dirt floor, I think we can forgo that at the moment.” He smiled as Vin just blinked at him. “Let’s get up there and try opening that door.”

It became obvious after several attempts that the heavy dresser had been moved back into place and the two of them wouldn’t be able to get out the way they had arrived. Once that was determined, they decided to investigate their accommodations.

As the two explored their surroundings, Ezra came across several canned goods. The cans were a bit dusty, but they weren’t dented. Reading the labels, he realized he had several cans of beans and a can of peaches. Replacing the cans, he continued his search.

Vin was on the opposite wall when he found a small metal bar. It was pointy at one end and he had no idea what it was, but he made a note of it. He was passing by a set of shelves when he shivered. Stopping, he frowned. A moment later, he felt a breeze stir around his ankles. Moving forward, he tried to look behind the shelving unit, but couldn’t see.

“Unca Ezra,” he called softly, turning to look at the man. When he met his uncle’s green eyes, he continued, “I think I found something.”

Moving toward Vin, Ezra picked up the lantern they had left in the middle of the room and moved forward. “What is it?” he asked.

“I felt a breeze,” Vin said, pointing toward the shelves. “But I couldn’t see what was behind here.”

“Why don’t you hold this,” Ezra replied, holding the lamp out to the boy. “And I’ll see if I can move these,” he finished, indicating the shelves.

Vin nodded, took the lamp and stepped back. He watched as Ezra began to push and pull the shelves. Eventually they began to move, but before Ezra could slide them away from the wall they tipped forward. “Look out!” Vin cried as he saw the shelve begin to fall.

Ezra jumped back as Vin cried out. He had felt the shelves shift forward and had no desire to get caught by them, feeling he had more than enough bruises already.

The duo watched the wooden shelves hit the ground and looked at each other before turning their attention to the newly revealed section of wall.

Motioning Vin forward with the light, Ezra scanned the wall. His eye was caught by something up near the top. “Hand me the light,” he requested, holding out his hand.

Vin passed the light to his uncle, looking upward and trying to see what had caught Ezra’s attention. He gasped a moment later as the light from the lamp revealed a hole near the ceiling of their cellar. It wasn’t a big hole, but Vin could see that it wasn’t very long either. He could just see the light from outside on the other end. “It goes out,” he breathed.

Ezra felt excitement as the light revealed the hole. It was a way out. They could escape. But, upon closer examination, he realized it was only large enough for an animal or a very slim boy to get through. Swallowing, he thought about what they should do. He could boost Vin out the hole, the boy should be able to make it, but it was too high for him to pull himself into even if it had been large enough for him, which it wasn’t.

Still, could he ask Vin to return to town for help? Could he ask him to walk... No, wait. Vin wouldn’t have to walk, not if his horse was still outside. Feeling better about this plan knowing Vin could ride back to town, Ezra lowered the lamp and looked into the exhausted but expectant blue eyes.

Setting the lamp down, he kneeled before Vin so they were almost eye to eye. Placing a hand on each of the boy’s shoulder Ezra was serious as he began. “Vin. We need to get out of here. We can’t go up the ladder, as you know and that hole up there goes outside.” Vin nodded at him, agreeing with everything so far. “That hole is probably the only other way out of here.” He could see fear and doubt entering the blue eyes, but Ezra couldn’t think of any other way. “I’m too big to fit through that hole and I wouldn’t be able to pull myself up into it anyway.”

Vin’s eyes widened at his uncles words. He swallowed hard and looked up at the hole and then back at his uncle, afraid of what Ezra might say, afraid of what Vin expected he would have to do. He was tired, he hurt and things were beginning to get fuzzy again. Vin wasn’t sure he could make it.

Ezra sensed the boys fear and gently squeezed the shoulders under his hands. He smiled confidently. “You are a very brave boy, Vin,” he praised. “You are small enough to fit through that hole and big enough to go get help.” He saw the protest forming and assured, “My horse is just outside the house. You can ride him back to town, get help and bring them back. I know you can,” Ezra encouraged, hating having to send Vin on his own. But really it was their only chance.

“By myself?” Vin asked, his voice small and soft.

“Yes Vin, but I know you can do it, for both of us.”

Vin swallowed and looked up at the hole. He hated small spaces like that, but Uncle Ezra was counting on him. He had to do this. Setting his jaw, he nodded his head. “I’ll go and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Ezra felt his heart swell at the confidence and determination he saw in the child before him. He was so proud of Vin, of how he’d handled all of this. “Okay,” he agreed. “There should be some water in a canteen on my saddle and there might be something in my saddle bags.” Vin nodded and Ezra smiled. “Ready?” he asked. Receiving another nod, he gave Vin a boost up to the hole.

The grey light from the hole disappeared shortly before Vin did as well. Ezra listened to the sounds of Vin as he moved through the narrow passage. After what felt like far too long, Ezra heard him call back, “I’m out, Unca Ezra. I’ll be back as fast as I can. I’ll bring help.”

“Travel safely, Vin,” Ezra called back, slowly sinking down onto the floor to wait.

Outside, Vin looked around. It was just beginning to rain and the ground was slick with mud. Standing, he felt the world begin to spin and reached out to steady himself against the side of the house as the bump on the back of his head started to hurt again. Blinking rapidly, he slowly sank to the ground and closed his eyes, waiting until things were right again. As he waited for the world to stop spinning and his stomach to stop churning, he slipped into sleep.

Josiah sat with JD on his lap. It had started raining a little while ago which only made Josiah worry all the more. There was still no sign of Ezra and Vin, nor was there any sign of Nathan.

He had thought about taking JD into the jail, but decided against it. The bosses had finally showed up about half an hour ago to pay the fine and pick up their men, freeing Josiah from that responsibility so he could follow after Ezra, but JD refused to return to Mary and Josiah refused to bring him on the trail after Ezra, so he stayed in town and waited.

Josiah’s eyes had just wandered toward the trail Ezra had taken one more time when JD screamed, “Buck!”

Startled, Josiah wasn’t quick enough to keep the small boy from leaping off his lap and racing down the boardwalk and into the street.

“Buck!” JD cried again. Buck was here now and everything would be fine. He would find Vin and make it all better.

Buck was startled by the loud shout, but soon saw the small form running toward him full out. Brining his horse to a stop, he leaned down and pulled JD up into the saddle with him, hugging the boy close. “Little Bit,” he breathed. He hadn’t expected to be so thankful, so happy, to see JD. He took several minutes to just relish holding his son.

Chris looked around and frowned. He’d seen JD come running and saw Josiah get up and head toward them. But as he scanned the town, he saw no sign of Vin, Ezra or Nathan. Something wasn’t right and the gnawing anxiety that had been driving him onward seemed to increase exponentially.

Turning toward Josiah to demand where Vin was, the words died on Larabee’s lips as he saw the expression on the other man’s face. It was JD’s words, however, that caused his heart to skip a beat.

“Then the bad man tooked Vin and rode away. Unca Ezra went to get him but they aren’t back yet and I’m scared and Unca ‘Siah’s scared and I just want Vin back and I missed you and the bad man hit Vin...”

It was at this last statement that JD’s words finally penetrated Buck’s mind. Head snapping upward from where it had been resting atop JD’s, Buck stared first at Chris and then at Josiah. His dark blue eyes turned hard. Something had happened to his family.

Josiah said softly, “That’s enough JD. Let’s let Chris and Buck get off their horses and then I’ll tell them all about it.”

Buck shook his head. “Chris needs Nathan,” he said.

“Buck,” Chris growled. There was no way he was going to go to the healer only to be told to sit still, not when his son was in danger, not when he could lose... Closing his eyes, Chris shoved those thoughts away. He would not lose Vin, could not lose Vin.

Buck’s lips thinned. Vin was in danger and Chris was in no shape to go after him. There wasn’t time for an argument. Turning to look at his long-time friend, Buck challenged, “If you can dismount your horse, stand and walk to the boardwalk, you can come with me. If not, you stay here with JD.”

Josiah blinked and really looked at Chris. There were a few visible bruises and his knee seemed to be stretching the black pants more than would be normal. He had never questioned that they would go after Vin, but he hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly or for Buck to be the one ordering it.

Gritting his teeth, Chris took a deep breath and swung his leg over the horse. He barely had both feet on the ground before he gasped in pain and crumpled to the ground. Anger turned to rage as he glared up at Buck. It quickly died, however, when he saw the pain, sorrow and compassion in the blue eyes. Chris said nothing.

Josiah walked over and helped Chris up, handing the reins of Chris’ horse to Buck. “I’ll bring you up to Nathan’s. He can look at you when he gets back,” Josiah said softly.

“When he gets back?” Buck asked. “What’s going on?”

Josiah sighed. “Let’s get the horses to the livery, Chris up to Nathan’s and then I’ll tell you what’s been going on,” he suggested.

As quickly as possible, the three men and one boy got the horses settled and headed to Nathan’s.

As he began checking Chris over, Josiah filled them in on everything that had happened since Vin had been taken and their plan. He explained how first Nathan and then he had been prevented from going.

“They should have been back by now rain or not,” Chris stated. He received two nods of agreement. “Okay, Josiah, Buck. You head out to the mine. I’ll stay here with JD and when Nathan gets here, we’ll send him along as well. I want this...” his eyes flicked to JD. “I want this man, Buck. I want him bad,” he restated, his eyes burning into Buck’s.

Buck nodded. “I’ll make sure there’s some left for you,” the ladies’ man promised. He saw Chris nod in agreement.

Josiah stood from where he’d finished doing what he could for Chris. Walking to the stove, he took the cup of tea he’d been brewing and passed it to the man. “For the pain,” he explained. “It won’t make you sleepy.”

Chris nodded.

Buck knelt down in front of JD. “JD, son,” he began. “I need you to stay here and take care of Chris.”

“I want to go with you,” JD whined, reaching out for his father.

“I know Little Bit,” Buck soothed, “but Chris needs you here. He’s missing Vin something awful and is hurtin’. Do you think you can help him feel better? It’s important.”

JD looked long and hard at Buck before nodding.

“Alright then,” Buck said, standing. “You go on over and help Chris. Josiah and I will be back with Vin and Ezra before you know it.”

“‘K,” JD agreed, moving closer to Chris.

The blond watched the two other men leave and grasped the covers with tightly clenched fists. Everything within him was screaming that Vin needed him, but there was nothing he could do. Right now he would be more of a hindrance than a help. A small sound drew his attention to the boy who was now sitting next to him. Seeing the same need in JD as he felt in himself, Chris opened his arms and said, “Come here.”

JD didn’t hesitate, but climbed immediately into Chris’ lap and the comforting arms. As he settled in a crack of thunder sounded and the rain began coming down harder.

Vin stumbled again, nearly falling into the mud. He heard a growl and wasn’t sure if it was his stomach or the thunder.

He had woken up a while ago lying in the mud with the rain coming down. It had taken him a few minutes to remember that he should be heading out to get help for his Uncle Ezra. As he took a few steps, though, he slipped and hit his head again. Everything started to go black as tears of pain sprang to his eyes, but then went back to normal. His head hurt bad and he had tried to remember again where he was and what he was supposed to do.

Looking around, he recognized the area as one he and Chris had gone past several times. Thoughts of Chris brought feelings of warmth, security and purpose. He had to go to Chris and bring him back to help Ezra. Walking around the back of the cabin, he started heading toward the ranch.

That had been a long time ago, though and somehow it didn’t seem entirely right that he was walking toward the ranch. There was something else he should be doing. Something Uncle Ezra had said. A horse? That couldn’t be right, though. Peso was in the livery. He hadn’t ridden Peso out. That mean man had carried him on his horse and made his stomach hurt.

Vin slipped in the mud again and went down on his hands and knees.

He struggled upward and looked around. He had to get help. He had to get to Chris. He was close to the ranch now. He could make it.

Moving forward again, the world began to fade out as Vin focused only on his goal. He didn’t notice when the rain started coming down faster and harder. He didn’t notice the first brilliant flash of lightening or the deafening roll of thunder. By the time the storm growled her presence; Vin has fallen into unconsciousness and lay in the road.

Ezra sat; his eyes closed against the pain in his head and wondered if he’d done the right things. He hadn’t wanted to send Vin out alone, but what other options had he had? The others would come looking eventually, but would they even think to come out here? And certainly they wouldn’t have made it to the shack before dark.

A steady sound eventually drew his thoughts from their inward journey and back to the world around him. Looking upward, he could see a steady stream of dirty water channeling through the hole Vin had used to escape. Small clumps of earth fell with the water, making the hole larger.

Following the small waterfall, Ezra discovered a rather large puddle had started to form. As he rose to his feet, he lifted his lamp higher and gasped in horror at the sight of water seeping into the cellar.

Moving closer to the center of the room, he backed onto the steps leading upward. The area around the stairs seemed to be much dryer than most of the rest of the floor, so he felt that this was the best place for him. At least he would be up higher than the water.

He sent up a silent prayer that his friends would find Vin and come retrieve him soon.

Both men knew this was foolish. Both knew the dangers in going out in such weather, but they really didn’t have much choice. A small boy and their friend needed them.

Mounting his borrowed horse, Buck nodded to Josiah who had mounted his own. “Ready?” he asked.

Josiah nodded.

The two men left the liver and headed into the rain toward the mine where Ezra had gone.