“Of all the stupid, idiotic, moronic...” Rob Neeley ranted as he and Cal Bertram approached the mine where they had met with Stanton.

Cal sat on his horse, wet, miserable and trying hard not to say anything.

The two of them had been on their way to Mexico when the rain started in earnest. Knowing it would be almost pointless to continue, the two tried to find the nearest shelter. While they were trying to decide which way to go looking, there had been a lightning strike nearby which spooked Rob’s horse causing him to bolt. Cal had taken off after the frightened animal and its rider.

By the time Rob had his horse under control, the nearest shelter was the mine they had used to meet with Stanton. Cal knew Rob wasn’t happy with that, but there really wasn’t anything else for them to do.

Reaching the cave entrance, the two men dismounted and walked their mounts inside.

Fortunately they had left some wood in the mine from their previous usage of it. Starting a small fire near the entrance they huddled around the warmth and waited for the rain to let up.

Instead of lessening, however, the storm seemed to be getting worse. The thunder was rolling almost continuously and lightning flashes were close and brilliant.

Perhaps that is why they remained unaware of the new arrivals until two sodden forms appeared in the entrance to the mine.

Cal glanced out as the lightning flashed as it had so frequently. When the lightning flashed again, he gasped and dropped his coffee, his hands shaking. In the few seconds between lightening flashes, two dark, looming figures projecting nothing but feelings of menace and hate appeared and stepped in toward them.

Rob first noticed Cal’s reaction and then turned to see what had spooked his partner so badly. Catching sight of the two men in the mine entrance, he leaped to his feet, hand immediately reaching for his gun.

“Do it,” a low, deadly voice growled as both forms reached for their own guns. “C’mon,” the voice encouraged, causing a chill to glide over Neeley’s soul. “Reach for the gun. Give me a reason.”

Neeley drew his hand away from his gun, though not so far away he couldn’t easily reach it. Glancing sideways at Cal, he could see his friend was still shaking, but his hand was resting on his gun. A cold smile curled his lips as he assured himself he would get the upper hand. “Now, friend,” he soothed, his voice calm and insincere, “why don’t you just come on in and share our fire with us. There’s no cause to be mean.”

The two shadows stepped more deeply into the cave. The flickering light of the fire revealed their faces. Rob bit back a curse and reached for his gun as he recognized one of the faces as a friend of Stanton’s.

Buck saw Neeley move toward his gun and fired to wound the man’s shoulder. He would have been successful in his attempt to disable the man if Rob Neeley had not chosen that moment to move to the right in order to get a better line.

Cal’s hand jerked at the sound of gunfire and he had his gun out of its holster and aimed at the two new arrivals before the words the two men were shouting penetrated. By then it was too late. He had tried to fire at one of the men. His shot went wide, but the one that came in return hit his heart, killing him.

“NO!” Buck screamed in protest as he watched the other man fall as well. This couldn’t be happening! One of these men, or maybe both were their best chance of finding Ezra and Vin. Now, they were dead and there was no clue as to where the others might be. This couldn’t be happening!

Josiah knelt down to check first one body and then the other for a pulse. The first body had none, but the second not only had a pulse, but the man was breathing. “This one’s still alive, Buck,” Josiah advised quietly.

Buck turned quickly. He had wandered away while he tried to deal with this tragic turn of events. Josiah’s words caused his eyes to widen and hope to flare where before there had only been despair. Kneeling down beside Josiah, Buck reached out and tugged the still living man up by his shirtfront. Slapping him sharply on the cheek, Buck ordered, “Wake up!”

Neeley groaned and struggled to breathe. He could hear a bubbling sound and wondered why it appeared to be coming from within him. Slowly he opened his eyes, but was unable to make out anything other than the general shape of a human above him. A voice was demanding something from him, but he couldn’t tell what. Another slap had his attention and one word penetrated the approaching darkness, ‘boy’.

A cruel sneer twisted his lips as the dying man let out a bubbling chuckle that led quickly to coughs. He realized he was dying, but Rob Neeley also decided he wouldn’t be the only one; let Stanton and the brat rot. Wanting to crow his triumph, he struggled to form the words that would announce his victory.

Buck listened carefully to the man’s dying words, doing everything in his power not to scream out his frustration.

“Nev... fi... dead...cell.. er....”

At the last syllable, all light left the man’s eyes and Buck was left holding the dead body. Screaming out curses at the man, he allowed the body to drop as the started pacing and ranting. Their only hope to find Vin and Ezra and is was gone. These men were dead by his hand.

Josiah watched as demons chased after Buck. He could feel his own pain, but easily saw the hounds of hell nipping at Buck’s soul. They were the same hounds he had seen eating at Chris’ soul before Vin and JD arrived. A shiver ran down his spine at the thought of what this would do to Chris.

Closing his eyes, Josiah started praying for guidance, deliverance and a miracle. As he prayed, the dead man’s words echoed in his mind. The man had intended them as a taunt, to say they would never find the two alive, but he had left one final clue in his words. Eyes opening, Josiah rose to his feet and clapped a hand on his distraught friend’s shoulder. “Buck,” he said sharply, trying to gain the man’s attentions. Tortured blue eyes turned to meet his. Taking a breath, Josiah continued, “He said cellar.”

Buck looked at Josiah as if he were mad. They had no way of knowing where Vin and Ezra were and Josiah was talking about cellars.

Reading the confusion in his friend’s eyes, Josiah took a deep breath and collected his thoughts. “Where do you find a cellar, Buck?” he asked.

Buck impatiently shook off Josiah’s hand. He didn’t have time for games. He didn’t have time for riddles and Sanchez should know that. “What are you talking about?” he demanded, turning to resume his pacing.

“Houses, Buck. You find cellars in houses.” Josiah watched as Buck paused and rested his hands on his hips. When the puzzled face turned toward him, he explained, “He thinks we won’t find Ezra and Vin until they’re dead, which means they’re alive now. He also mentioned a cellar, though I don’t think he knew he did it. Do you know if there are any old houses around here that might have a cellar?”

Buck stood absolutely still, not moving, not breathing, afraid to even hope. “Y-yeah. Two,” he replied. Seeing Josiah nod at him, he shifted his weight, took a deep breath and continued, “There are two that are nearby, but far enough away that you wouldn’t think to look there. I think one of them is along the path Chris and Vin sometimes ride.”

Josiah beamed at the other man. “Then that’s where we’ll start looking.”

“Right,” Buck said, turning and heading for the mouth of the mine, stopping only when a large hand descended on his shoulder and physically stopped him.

“Getting ourselves killed in this storm isn’t going to do either of them any good,” he admonished. “We’ll wait for it to slow before we set out.”

“But Vin...” Buck protested, wanting nothing more than to reclaim the boy who had become a second son to him.

“Vin has Ezra,” Josiah assured. “They’ll last for another few hours.” Seeing acceptance in Buck’s eyes, he added, “Besides, we need to figure out what to do with these two.”

Nathan cursed the weather and his own stupidity. He knew better than to set out in weather like this. He had traveled a lot of miles and tended a lot of fools who thought they could handle the weather. Still, there was no way he could wait out the storm, not with a member of his family missing. He had lost too many people during his life to let something as small as a storm to come between him and the safe return of Vin Tanner.

He had to slow his pace again as the rain began pouring down harder, making it nearly impossible to see. The footing was beginning to get even more dangerous and he knew he had no option but to stop and seek shelter until the rain let up.

Focusing on guiding his horse and keeping the animal under control, he was almost upon the obstruction before he saw it. With a tug on the reins, he managed to pull his horse up short of stepping on the object.

Squinting down at it through the rain and gloom, he gasped when he realized it was a human. His breath caught and his heart stopped when he realized it was Vin.

Leaping from his horse, Nathan ran over to the bedraggled form, calling out the boy’s name. “Vin! Vin Tanner!” he called, but didn’t receive a response. “Vin!” he called again, having reached the boy’s side.

Kneeling down in the mud, he paused for a moment as terror gripped him. Shaking off the unwanted emotion, he ran his hands over the boy checking for breaks. He didn’t feel anything and Vin was too muddy to do a more detailed check. Turning the boy over so Vin’s head rested in his arm, Nathan caressed a hand down the slack face, thanking God that Vin was found. Pausing by the boy’s throat, Nathan found the pulse. It was a little weaker than he would like and a little too fast, but he didn’t know what Vin had been through and knew the boy hadn’t eaten since the day before. At least he doubted that the man had fed Vin.

Looking around the area, Nathan realized he was near the Larabee-Wilmington ranch. Lifting the light child in his arms, he remounted his horse and headed toward the small house that had become Vin’s home. He could shelter there during the worst of the storm and tend to Vin’s needs, then when the storm let up, they would head back to town.

Chris sat on the sheltered porch outside Nathan’s room, JD securely held on his lap. He had done his best to remain in bed and rest as instructed. JD had done his five-year-old best to try and convince Chris to follow instructions, but it was easy for the blond to see that the boy’s heart wasn’t in it.

Hobbling out to the landing, Chris had settled into a chair. JD had followed along behind, dragging a blanket. Chris thanked him for the blanket and couldn’t help the small smile that curved his mouth when JD started dragging over a crate, explaining why Chris had to keep his foot up. If he hadn’t known better, Larabee would have believed that Nathan was telling the boy what to say.

Now they sat watching the storm rage and worrying over their missing family members. Chris was doing his best to keep his demons at bay and silence the dark voices that were taunting him. It was difficult, though and every now and then he could feel the pain-filled screams building within himself. The same screams that had escaped him when he had found Sarah and Adam.

A bolt of lightning flashed at the same time a crash of thunder sounded. Windows rattled and shook in their casings.

Tightening his grip around his small charge, Chris did his best to comfort JD. “It’s okay, Little Bit,” he whispered. “Vin is with Ezra and Buck is with Josiah. They’ll all be fine,” he assured, praying with everything he had that he wasn’t lying to the boy.

JD snuggled closer, believing Chris, but still worrying over his family. Slipping his thumb into his mouth, JD wound his fingers tightly into Chris’ shirt and rested his head on the strong shoulder.

Ezra sat and watched as the water moved along the floor growing ever closer to his seat. He wondered idly if he should blow out the lamp, but decided to let it burn. There was only one thing to believe and that was Vin being back in town already and help coming as soon as this blasted rain stopped.

Yes, that was surely what happened. Vin had made it safely back to town before the rain worsened and now everyone was just waiting for it to let up before coming out.

Nathan opened the door to the small cabin the family shared. He quickly settled Vin on the table. He knew the bed would be more comfortable, but right now he wanted to get Vin out of his wet clothes and dried off.

Somewhere on the ride to the cabin, Vin had begun shivering despite the close contact with Nathan. The last thing Nathan needed was to have Vin come down with a cold, or worse pneumonia in addition to whatever else was wrong.

Quickly stripping the boy out of his clothes, he left them in a pile on the floor.

Moving over to the stove, he began starting a fire. He would need some hot water if he was going to clean Vin up and tend him.

That brought to mind his need for water. Looking around, he found a bucket of fresh water and the washtub. Thinking that it would minimize the mess, he moved the wash tub to the middle of the room. That goal accomplished, he shucked off his oilskin and went to the boy’s bedroom to retrieve a quilt.

Returning to the main room, he draped it over the shivering boy and went to check on his fire. Seeing it ready, he put some water on to heat.

As he returned to Vin, he dipped a cloth in the portion of water he’d poured into a bowl and began wiping at Vin’s face. With each pass of the rag, more and more mud came off only to reveal ugly bruises on the small face.

A curse rose readily to Nathan’s lips as righteous anger burned within his heart at the sight of the abused boy. The evidence of the slap he had seen and a punch he hadn’t worked together to create within the healer a need to harm the one who had inflicted such pain.

Setting aside his anger for now, Jackson continued to clean the mud off of Vin. As Vin’s face and neck came clean, he began working backward, cleaning the ears. He knew he would have to wash the boy’s hair to get the mud out completely, but for now he would simply clean as much as he could.

With a hand behind Vin’s shoulders, he lifted the boy off the table and began cleaning the back of his neck. As he reached up to make sure there were no other injuries, his fingers encountered a large bump. As he examined the bump, Vin groaned and shifted. Pulling his hand away from the injured area, Nathan began evaluating what the injury meant.

Head wounds and injuries could be tricky, especially with children. Settling Vin back, he began chafing Vin’s hands as he called out softly, “Vin. C’mon Vin. It’s time to wake up and let me know what’s wrong with you.” He was rewarded with another soft groan and a small movement. “That’s it, Vin. Fight your way out here to me. I have some questions I need to ask.”

Vin groaned. He was cold and wet and miserable and his head hurt and he didn’t want to leave the safe place where nothing hurt and there were no worries. A familiar voice sounded in his ears. Drawing his brows down in concentration, Vin tried to place the voice. It was someone who was important to him, someone he loved. “Un...ca Na...th...an?”

Nathan heard the soft whisper of his name and said a brief prayer of thanks. Reaching up, he cupped Vin’s face in his hand. “Yes, Vin. It’s me,” he assured. “I need you to open your eyes and tell me where you hurt.”

Vin turned his head from side to side a little. His head hurt, but there was something he was supposed to do, something important. Tell... He was supposed to tell someone... Blue eyes flew open, “Unca Ezra! He’s in the cellar!” Vin gasped out, trying to sit up. “The bad man hit him and threw him down. I couldn’t wake him up and then he told me to go get help!” he practically shouted.

Nathan placed a hand on either of Vin’s shoulders to keep him from sitting up. “Whoa there, Vin,” he said, almost wincing at the need and fear in the blue eyes staring up at him. Nathan was not unaware of the pain they reflected either. “Did Ezra find you?”

“Yeah,” Vin agreed. “But the bad man came up behind him and hit him on the head. Then they threw him down into the cellar with me.”

“How did you get out?” Nathan asked.

“Unca Ezra lifted me to a hole in the wall and I squeezed out. He told me I had to go get help for him to get him out ‘cause the hole was too small,” Vin explained, suddenly struggling to sit up. “We have to get help!” he insisted.

“We will,” Nathan assured. “But first I need to get you cleaned up and make sure you’re all right.”


“No buts,” Nathan instructed firmly. “It’s raining so hard it’s not safe to travel right now and there’s lightening and thunder out there too. When the storm lets up, we’ll go to town and get the others to help us, okay?”

Vin absorbed everything Nathan had told him. Staring into the brown eyes, he knew that his Uncle was doing what was best. Looking around the room, Vin realized he was at home instead of the clinic. “I”m home?” He asked puzzled.

“I found you in the road. You were unconscious and this was closer than town,” Nathan explained.

Vin frowned and tried to remember something. He was frustrated that some things seemed so clear and others were all fuzzy. He remembered Uncle Ezra being in the basement and being boosted up through the hole. Uncle Ezra had told him to get help. He had said a few other things as well, but Vin wasn’t entirely sure what they were.

“We need to finish cleaning you up now that you’re awake,” Nathan informed.

Vin sighed and made a face. Thinking about things too much only made his head hurt more than it already did. “I just had a bath...” he began complaining before Nathan put a hand over his mouth to stop his complaint.

“No complaints,” he ordered, looking into the blue eyes. “I need you clean so I can fix your hurts.”

A longsuffering sigh escaped the tired, aching boy as he rolled his eyes heavenward. “Fine,” he agreed, obviously not pleased with this turn of events. “Where do you want me?”

After what seemed an eternity, to the two impatient men, the rain finally let up. Josiah and Buck had not been idle during their enforced stay in the mine, however. Buck remembered seeing papers on one of the men. Deciding they would bring the men to town to make sure, they looked around for something in which to wrap the bodies. They soon found the men’s horses and gear. Taking the two bedrolls which were no longer needed by their owners, Josiah and Buck set about wrapping the two men tightly.

Looking at the horizon, Josiah noticed that the sky was growing lighter, a sign the clouds were thinning. It was still raining, but much more lightly than it had been. The ground was wet and muddy from all the precipitation. That would surely make their travels messy and potentially dangerous, but Josiah had to admit to himself that he needed to find Ezra and Vin every bit as much as Buck did.

“Rain’s letting up,” he announced to his impatiently waiting friend.

“‘Bout time,” Buck grumbled, rising from his position near the small fire and kicking sand over it until it was out. Walking to the mouth of the cave, he stood by Josiah and looked around. Nodding his approval of the circumstances, he advised, “Need to bring the horses around and get everything set. It’s going to take a little longer than usual to get out to the first shack, but we should make it there well before dark.”

Josiah nodded and set about preparing to leave.

In a short amount of time, Josiah and Buck were in the saddle, each leading a horse. They worked through the mud on the trail, Buck leading and trying to pick out the driest places for travel. A small voice within was urging the ladies’ man to hurry along, but he knew it would be foolish to rush things at this point.

Though it seemed to take forever, the two men were making headway and before too long they were able to see a speck in the distance. As they continued their steady pace, that speck became a small shack. With a few more steps they were able to identify something moving around in front of the house.

“A horse,” Josiah said aloud once he was able to see the shape clearly.

Buck nodded, his face grim. Something wasn’t right with this. Sitting straighter in the saddle, he scanned the area around the house. It was a pretty clear approach without anywhere to hide. As they drew closer, he was able to tell it was Ezra’s horse. That fact set off alarm bells.

Looking at his friend, Josiah could feel his own disquiet mirrored in Buck’s eyes. That Ezra’s horse was tethered in front of the shack unsettled both of them. Kneeing his horse so he could draw even with Buck, Josiah straightened as well and prepared himself for whatever might be waiting.

“Looks like just Ezra’s horse,” Sanchez observed.

“Yep,” Buck agreed, scanning the area once more.

“Think we should play the weary travelers just in case?”

Buck’s lips pursed under his mustache. “A little hard to do toting two dead bodies,” he observed.

Josiah nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe we just happened across them and are doing the decent thing,” he suggested.

“Works for me,” Buck agreed.

Once they were within shouting distance, Josiah called out, “Hello the house!” He was met with resounding silence. Slanting a look at Buck, the two men continued on a little further before calling again. And again they were met with silence.

Unsettled by the continued lack of response, the two men eventually drew up next to the familiar horse. Dismounting, both men tied off their horses’ reins and those of the horses they had been leading. When that was done, Josiah moved to check out Ezra’s horse while Buck scanned the area.

“Looks like he’s been out during all this rain,” Josiah said, frowning.

“Don’t see anyone around,” Buck observed. “I don’t like that we haven’t heard from him or Vin yet.”

Josiah nodded his agreement. “Reckon we’d better take a look inside then,” he suggested, stepping onto the small porch and drawing his gun.

“Right behind you,” Buck agreed, making sure his weapon was ready, just in case.

Cautiously the two men pushed open the door and scanned the area. They didn’t see anyone in the room, but didn’t want to take any chances. Moving into the room slowly, it took them only a few moments to scan the entire area. The only thing that seemed unusual was the large dresser in the middle of the room.

As they began looking around for clues, a muffled thump sounded.

Both men froze in place as they tried to identify the sound. As they stilled, they were able to hear what might be a muffled voice, but they couldn’t be sure. When a second thump sounded, Buck and Josiah both looked downward to the dresser.

“Think we should check it out?” Josiah asked.

Buck nodded, holstered his gun and leaned down to help move the heavy piece. “On three,” he advised. “One, two, three!”

The two men easily moved the dresser and found themselves looking down at what could only be a trap door. Nodding to Josiah to have his gun ready, Buck leaned down and lifted the door up.

“Ezra!” Josiah shouted in surprise only a moment later.

Ezra squinted up at the figure above him. It was only as he stared up at Josiah that he realized how badly his head as hurting. “Mr. Sanchez,” he greeted, his voice tight with pain. “I take it young Master Tanner made it back to town and retrieved you?” he asked.

Buck and Josiah exchanged alarmed looks. “Vin didn’t come to us,” Josiah said softly. “Isn’t he here with you?”

Ezra paled even more. “Wh - what do you mean he didn’t reach town? I sent him out hours ago. He was supposed to ride...”

“Doesn’t matter,” Buck snapped, worry straining his voice and making it sharper than he intended. “If Vin isn’t here, that means he’s out there somewhere in the rain and mud. We need to find him.”

“I concur,” Ezra said. Turning he struggled up the ladder, trying hard to hide the dizziness and nausea that was assaulting him. Now was not the time to be weak. As he reached the top stair, he stepped onto the floor of the cabin. Squinting against the pain of his head, Ezra felt the world tip and slumped toward the ground.

Seeing his friend’s distress, Josiah caught Ezra under the arm and lifted him. “Whoa there, Ezra. Let’s take it easy,” he soothed as he led the Southerner to a cot sitting along one wall.

Buck watched, his worry growing as Ezra nearly slumped to the floor. Josiah reached Standish before Buck could move, but something Ezra said was bothering him. “What do you mean you sent him to town?”

Ezra had his eyes closed and his head between his knees as he waited for the vertigo to pass. Gulping down several deep breaths, he focused on the question and related what he could. “When I came out to deliver the money, that poor excuse for a man informed me Vin wasn’t at the mine and we would have to travel to find him. I could see no other choice so I followed him here. When we arrived, I assisted him in moving the dresser that was over that hatch and opened the door.” He slowly eased up and raised his eyes to meet those of his friend. “The next thing I remember is waking up in the pitch black with Vin curled beside me asleep.” Silence hung in the air for several seconds. “In order to keep us both occupied, I suggested we explore our prison. We did so and Vin found an oil lamp and matches. After lighting it, we were able to more fully explore. We found a hole up near the base of the house that was too small for me to fit through, but just big enough for Vin.”

“So you let him go out there into that storm on his own?” demanded Buck, looming over Ezra and looking every bit as intimidating as Chris Larabee on his worst day.

Ezra returned a steady gaze. “I had little choice,” he informed, offering up one of his many masks. He could see the outrage and judgement in Buck’s eyes, but knew whatever Buck thought, it could be no harsher than what he already thought of himself. Gathering himself, he continued with his explanation. “We were trapped in a cellar with a can of peaches for our food. No one knew where we were and I knew the rain would wash away any traces of a trail. We had to get help and when we discovered the hole that only Vin could fit through, it seemed prudent to take advantage of the opportunity and send him on his way. He told me he knew the way to town and I told him he should use my horse if it was still around.”

“The horse is still here,” Buck rasped, his voice low and harsh from a mixture of fear and worry.

Ezra’s face hardened even more even as all color seemed to leave. “I did what I felt needed to be done.”

“No one’s questioning that,” Josiah soothed, stepping in before things were said that shouldn’t be. He too was upset, but knew Ezra wasn’t the source of his anger. If he had been in a similar circumstance, wouldn’t he have taken the same chance?

Ezra slid his eyes over toward Josiah and nodded. What he hadn’t told them was that Vin had been injured. “We need to go find him now,” Ezra stated as he started to rise. Before he could reach full vertical, the world grew suddenly dark and he collapsed to the floor.

Curses flew from both Josiah and Buck as they struggled to get the man on the cot. “We don’t need this now,” Buck hissed.

Josiah placed a hand on the tense shoulder. “I know, brother,” he assured, “but this is what we have to do before we can find Vin.” He waited until he saw Buck reluctantly agree. “Good. We need to see if we can wake Ezra and then get him back to town. Hopefully Nathan will be there to tend him. It would probably be best if we changed horses once we were there, we can also drop off the bodies.”

Another curse slipped from Buck. He had forgotten the bodies, the now wet bodies. The last thing they needed to do was find Vin hauling two dead bodies around with them. “Fine,” Buck agreed. “But we have to do this fast.”

“Agreed,” Josiah replied simply.

Ezra began coming around on his own and let out a groan as he lifted a hand to his sore head. His thoughts came back to him slowly. “Vin!” he cried out suddenly, eyes flying open. He quickly identified Buck and Josiah. “We need to go after Vin,” he insisted, struggling against the hands holding him down.

“We will, brother,” Josiah reassured. “First, we need to get you back to town to Nathan and then Buck and I will go after Vin.”

“What about Chris?” Ezra asked realizing that the gunman wasn’t in the cabin.

“Chris was hurt on our ride back,” Buck informed. “He’s at the clinic right now with JD.”

“Which is exactly where you’re heading as well,” Josiah said, helping his friend to a sitting position. “You are in no condition to go looking for small boys. Once we get you to town, Buck and I will change horses and head out again.”

“But...” Ezra began to protest.

“No buts,” Buck said, slipping an arm under Ezra’s shoulder. “The sooner you get to the clinic, the sooner Josiah and I can be on our way.”

Ezra sighed but nodded. This whole thing was his fault. He would never forgive himself for allowing his past to bring harm to his present family, but what was more, he would never be able to face any of the men again if Vin was even more seriously injured than he had been when he left.

Slowly the men walked out of the cabin toward the horses.

Chris and JD sat on the porch looking out at the rain. There was less of it now which was good, but there was still no sign of Vin, Ezra, Buck, Josiah or Nathan.

Logically Chris knew that Buck, Josiah and Nathan wouldn’t have been traveling in the worst of the downpour and he hoped that Vin and Ezra were someplace dry and safe, but all the logic in the world wouldn’t quell the yearning that burned within Chris to be out looking for his son.

The small boy shifting on his lap, drew his attention back to his current circumstance. Chris didn’t normally hold the boys like this, but right now, the solid body in his arms eased his aching worry. “You doing okay, JD?” he asked.

The small brunette nodded. He was worried and knew Chris was too. He wished Buck was here and that Vin was here too, but knew there was nothing he could do until Buck got back. Right now he had to watch Chris and take care of him. “Tell me another story,” he asked quietly. He had discovered that when Chris told him stories, the bad thoughts and feelings didn’t seem as close to them.

Chris smiled slightly at the little boy’s request even as his heart ached to hear the question come from Vin. “Alright,” he agreed softly, his eyes never straying from the road into town. “This one is about a little fox.”

Nathan looked outside and tried to evaluate the weather.

“I think it’s let up,” Vin advised before turning serious blue eyes up to his uncle. “We should set out for town now.”

Looking down at his small patient, Nathan once again felt an odd mixture of emotion. Anger was still there over the treatment Vin had received at the hands of that man. That was coupled with compassion and love for this little boy who had become part of his family. Another part of Nathan could only stand back and wonder at the seriousness of the child, so adult in so many ways and far too soon.

Looking out again, Nathan noticed the lightening of the sky and sighed. He knew he should keep Vin here and have the boy rest, but he needed to get back to town to let the others know where Vin had left Ezra. From what Vin had said, he wasn’t the only one the men had knocked unconscious. It was a good sign, though that Ezra had been coherent when Vin had left.

The fact that Vin would still occasionally fade away from Nathan didn’t sit well with him either. If he got the boy back to his clinic, he could apply the salve he had to help with the bruises and maybe have Mary sit with Vin while he headed out to find Josiah and Ezra.

Not pleased with his options, Nathan nevertheless agreed. “Okay,” he said, seeing the relief relax Vin’s face. “But we do it my way.” Seeing Vin open his mouth to protest, he held up a finger, stopping the boy mid-protest. “We do it my way or you go back to bed here until I say otherwise.”

Closing his mouth and nodding, Vin frowned to show his displeasure at this turn of events.

“You will ride with me on my horse and under the oilskin I have. I don’t want you getting wet again. The last thing you need right now is a cold or worse, understand?” When Vin nodded, Nathan replied, “Good. Now lets get everything together and get going before the rain picks up again.”

“Ain’t going to pick up again,” Vin muttered. “‘S breaking up.”

Nathan heard the words and nodded his agreement. Vin, like Chris, was usually right about these things. “Good,” he said. “That should get us to town that much faster.”

Chris stopped his story mid-sentence as he saw the riders coming into town.

JD, having been enthralled by the tale, jerked his head up at the sudden cessation of word-inspired images. He held his breath, recognizing the figures but somehow sensing that his normal chatter wasn’t welcome just then.

His eyes trained on the dots, Chris struggled against his need to leap up and go to meet the incoming men. He knew his knee couldn’t take it, knew he wouldn’t get more than a few steps, but he had to know.

Doing his best to analyze what he saw, Chris felt his heart drop and his throat clench shut. He saw five horses, three with upright riders, two with riders draped across their backs. Studying the forms as the soul-destroying fear of losing another son tried to consume him, Larabee managed to shove aside the irrational and seize on the fact that he blanket-wrapped forms were too large to be Vin.

Looking closely at the three approaching riders, he saw no sign of the boy riding with any of them. His breath increasing in frequency he wanted to call out and demand Vin’s whereabouts, but he couldn’t say anything, knowing that the first sound he uttered would set loose all the demons hiding within him; voicing even the simplest sound would open him to the despair no longer having Vin.

Eyes never straying off his father, JD slowly slipped from Chris’s lap. The riders were closer now and he could see more clearly what they were doing. There were two big bundles over the back of the horses being led. One of the horses looked sort of familiar. It took the boy only minutes to realize it was the bad man’s horse.

He saw his Uncle Josiah riding near Uncle Ezra. As they drew closer, his large uncle reached over and seemed to steady Uncle Ezra. That made JD frown. Then there was the other figure, his dad. He had never lost sight of the mustached man who had become his safety and shelter. Buck wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t sad. He seemed like Chris did when the blond made up his mind about something. Uncle Nathan had a word for it, a big word, de... determ... something. Whatever it was, that was the look on the face that had only ever looked at him with love.

The group of riders stopped in front of the undertaker’s. A man came out from inside and took over the reins of the two horses. The trio then started toward the livery.

After disappearing for a little while, the three men emerged and ascended the stairs to their landing, Josiah helping Ezra and Buck following behind.

Chris watched as the three men appeared on the landing, his fear still looming large in his thoughts, he could only glare at the men as his fear turned to anger. “Where’s Vin?” he demanded.

Three sets of eyes met his, but all were quiet as they headed into the clinic. Buck paused at the door and held his arms out for JD, not realizing the spike he was driving through his old friend’s heart. Buck could hold JD, but Chris couldn’t hold Vin.

Watching the other four disappear into the confines of the clinic, Chris struggled to his feet and walked inside. “I said, where’s Vin?” he demanded again more forcefully.

Green eyes rose to meet his and Chris could easily read the guilt living in them. He opened his mouth to say something else, but his anger and fear choked off any possibility of that.

“We’re going to look for him as soon as we have Ezra settled,” Josiah intoned, continuing with his ministrations rather than looking at Chris.

An evil sneer crossed Chris’ face and he could feel the vileness rising up within him. He was hurting and he would make sure Ezra hurt as much as he did. As he was about to lash out at the man, Josiah turned Ezra’s head and Chris saw the large lump and deep bruise. He knew from experience that Ezra had been knocked out. Normally he would have lashed out anyway, but JD’s large, brown, tear-filled eyes met his and he allowed his rational mind to win out. The small voice he’d been ignoring since he first saw the men riding into town whispered at him that Ezra would protect Vin with his life and let no harm come to the boy. Chris knew that if it were possible for this to have been prevented, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah would have prevented it. That same voice whispered to him that it could have just as easily have been someone from his own past.

As that voice of reason overcame the black depths of emotion, Chris’s stance eased and pain and worry were the only tones evident in his voice as he stated, “It’s not your fault, Ezra.”

He watched the man swallow and a brief flicker in the green eyes. He could see Ezra wanted to believe him, but refused.

“That’s all I can do,” Josiah said, stepping back. “I need you to sit back and rest,” he instructed, stepping away from Standish. Ezra rose and moved to the small cot that had become a permanent part of the room. Josiah sighed but said nothing.

“Get in the bed, Chris,” JD advised. “You got to rest your knee some more.”

Chris met the concerned brown eyes of the boy before raising his own eyes to meet those of the amused father.

“You heard the boy,” Buck said. “Best do what he says or he’s likely to tell Nathan you’ve been bad.”

Chris shook his head in defeat and limped over to the bed where he settled in, figuring it would be easier to just do it rather than fight Buck and Josiah on it. The sooner they were set here, the sooner they could get Vin back.

Seeing that the man was settled, Buck set JD down on the chair between the bed and the cot and began relating the new facts to Chris. The trio of peacekeepers had decided on the ride over that it would be Buck who would relay the information. “Vin was kept in a cellar at that old shack you pass by on your rides.” Seeing Chris nod his understanding of the location, Buck continued. “Ez met the men in question and was brought out to the shack in order to get Vin. When he got there, the guys partner hit him on the head and threw him into the cellar. Eventually they found a hole big enough for Vin to get through, but not Ezra. Ezra sent Vin to get help. He had asked Vin to get on his horse and come to town. For some reason it seems Vin set out on foot and we didn’t see him on the way to town.”

Chris frowned, his brow drawing down. That was really out of character for Vin. He would have understood the importance of getting help and was a good enough rider that he shouldn’t have had any problems.

Josiah read the question forming in Chris’ mind. “Vin had been hurt by the men who had taken him. Not too bad, we don’t think, but he might have hit his head and could have been confused.”

Chris clenched his jaw together, new fears springing up in combination with anger. “So he could be anywhere,” he hissed.

“Perhaps not,” Ezra said slowly, his face reflecting his thoughts. He didn’t notice the eyes upon him or the silence in the room as he tried to tug at the thread of a thought. Turning to look at Chris, he asked, “You said you rode past it together, correct?” Seeing the blond nod, he continued, “Then, if Master Tanner was confused, mightn’t he have returned to his place of security? His home?”

Chris blinked at him. Josiah nodded and Buck’s mouth fell open slightly.

“Buck, you and Josiah get fresh horses and split up. Josiah you ride back to the shack and see if you can see anything you might have missed. Buck, you head out toward our ranch and see if you can find anything along the way between home and the shack. We’re running out of daylight...” Chris’ voice stopped just then and his eyes closed. A shudder ran through him as unwanted thoughts taunted him.

“We’ll find him,” Buck assured, iron in his voice. He waited for Chris’ hazel eyes to meet his own and nodded once.

Turning toward the door, the two uninjured men were just about to exit when the door opened and Nathan entered.

Surprise and shock stopped everyone as the dripping healer stood in the doorway covered by a borrowed oilskin.

Josiah was the first to shake off his surprise and notice that the oilskin poncho seemed to be somewhat misshapen. “What do you have there, Brother Nate?” he asked, breaking the trance that had befallen his friends.

Nathan looked at the faces and smiled widely. Walking over to the double bed upon which Chris was resting, he leaned over and settled something on the bed. As he stood, he carefully removed the cloth to reveal a sleeping Vin.

“Thank God,” Ezra whispered.

“Amen,” Buck agreed.

JD looked over from his chair. “Vin!” he squealed, jumping up to move toward his cousin. Buck quickly intercepted and quieted him.

Josiah had tears in his eyes as he gazed at the small form.

Chris stared down at his son, wonder and relief rendering him silent. He had feared never seeing the boy again. Reaching out with one hand, he carefully brushed a stray hair off Vin’s forehead, which drew a soft sigh from the sleeping boy as he shifted and turned his head toward his father. Chris could feel his hand trembling as he drank in the sight. Taking several moments to relish the precious life that had been returned to him, he finally looked up at Nathan. “Thank you,” he offered in a choked whisper.

Nathan shook his head. “Don’t thank me. I didn’t get him out, I just found him. It looked like he was headed out to the ranch.” He wasn’t sure Chris heard him as the man continued to stare at Vin. Knowing the others had to be told of Vin’s condition, but not wanting to upset them, he sighed and removed his damp covering. “I took him back to the ranch ‘cause it was closest when the rain got real bad. I got him cleaned up and took a look. He’s got some bruises on his face from where that bas...”

“A-hem,” Buck interrupted nodding to a very awake and attentive JD.

“From where that bad man slapped him,” Nathan finished. “It also looks like he punched him at some point and Vin’s got a fair sized lump on his head from hitting it. I think he might have a mild concussion. He needs a bit of feeding. I got some food in him at the ranch, but he was more worried than hungry. He’s got a number of bruises that I want to put some salve on, including one on his stomach from where he was flung across a horse and carried.”

“How long?” Chris demanded.

“Not entirely sure,” Nathan admitted. “It’s mostly bruises. I’d like to keep him here at least overnight because of his head.” Then, taking a close look at Chris for the first time, he frowned. “Think I might need to keep you here too Chris. Seems like you have a bit of a story to tell.”

Chris frowned. His injuries weren’t important. In fact, they didn’t even hurt anymore, not with Vin back.

“Best check on Ezra too,” Josiah said quietly. He smiled as the Southerner gasped and sent him a look of betrayal.

“What happened to him?” Nathan asked, worried at having a third patient.

“Hit on the head and thrown into a cellar,” Buck informed shortly.

Nathan turned a piercing gaze at Josiah and Buck. “Anything you two need to tell me?” he demanded.

“Nope,” Buck denied.

“No, sir,” Josiah informed.

Brown eyes narrowed at the two men as he noted they were wet. “Hmph,” he said. “I reckon I have some tea y’all can drink. It should help stave off any colds.” His pronouncement was met with groans.

“What about me?” JD piped up, having been quiet for far too long.

Nathan looked JD over. “You look healthy enough. I guess you get to be my helper.” He was rewarded with a beaming smile.

Good natured grumbling and teasing started in earnest at that pronouncement. Chris was worried the noise would wake Vin, though a part of him wished the boy would awaken. He chuckled softly at Buck and Nathan’s word-play when he noted a movement out of the corner of his eye. Glancing down at the boy he was holding, Chris saw blue eyes blink sleepily up at him. A small smile graced the face. The eyes then traced around the room taking in everyone’s position before Vin snuggled against Chris and slid back into sleep, uttering a single word, “Home.”


It had been two weeks since two men from Ezra’s past had come seeking retribution. Their plan had failed miserably though not before it proved nearly disastrous to Vin and Ezra.

Vin had made a full recovery as had Ezra. Chris was still limping slightly after over-using his bruised knee, but Nathan had allowed him to stop using a cane just that morning.

Right now Vin and JD were running around in front of the jail playing a game with several of the other children in town.

Chris was resting in a chair outside the jail sipping a cup of coffee. Ezra was sitting beside him, shuffling a deck of cards.

Glancing at the gambler, Chris sighed. He had assured Ezra numerous times that no one held Standish responsible for what had happened, that it could have been men from any of their pasts, but the Southerner just didn’t seem to want to believe it.

Ezra had been keeping his distance ever since Nathan had released him from the clinic. The money that he had taken back from Rob Neeley had been returned to the appropriate owners, but Ezra had not returned to their family. It was beginning to tell on the boys who were afraid they had done something to anger their uncle.

“Heard back from Clear Creek today,” Chris said in reference to the town that had put out the wanted posters on Rob Neeley and Cal Bertram. “They’re sending the money here even though we told them they didn’t have to.”

Ezra merely nodded. “You should set up investments for the boys with it,” he offered, never once looking away from the two orphans who had made him an uncle.

Chris almost winced at the longing he read in the green eyes of his friend. He wished he could find a way to draw Ezra into their family again, but didn’t know how. With a sigh, he got up and walked inside. He needed another cup of coffee. With Ezra watching the boys, he didn’t have anything to worry about.

Vin looked up from where he was playing when he saw movement on the porch of the jail. Uncle Ezra sat next to Chris. The two seemed to talk for a bit and then Chris limped into the jail with his coffee cup. Taking this as his only chance, Vin left the game and cautiously approached his uncle. He knew that Ezra had been disappointed in him, that Vin had headed toward the ranch rather than town and hadn’t gotten the help he needed and understood why Ezra wouldn’t want to be around him, but Vin hadn’t been expecting his uncle to refuse to have anything to do with JD either.

Walking up, Vin kept his eyes downcast and stopped just outside of arms reach. “Unca... Mister Ezra,” he said, his voice tentative and full of emotion.

Ezra felt tears prickle his eyes at the change from uncle to mister. He knew he didn’t deserve to be this boy’s uncle, but hadn’t thought it would hurt so much to hear it from the boy himself. “What is it, Vin?” he asked, his voice gentle.

“I’m real sorry about not taking the horse and heading to town. I just got confused and... well, I’m sorry. I know you don’t like me no more and don’t want to be my uncle, but JD didn’t do anything wrong and you can still love him...”

After Vin’s first words, Ezra felt like he’d been pole-axed. All this time he’d been thinking himself unworthy of this boy and Vin had been thinking the same about himself. When the boy got to the part about not liking him, but still loving JD, Ezra had to interrupt. “Stop,” he said softly, tears choking his voice. Startled blue eyes came up to meet his and Ezra swallowed in an effort to regain control. “You have done nothing wrong. I asked you to get help and you headed toward home, a place where you always had someone to rely on. If anyone should be sorry it should be me.”

Vin’s eyebrows drew down and a frown appeared on his face. “Why?” he asked, puzzled by the man’s statement.

Ezra sighed and looked into Vin’s eyes. “Because none of that would have happened if I hadn’t done a bad thing to those men many years ago.”

Vin looked even more puzzled. “But it was them that did it. You can’t be responsible for them,” he advised knowingly, after all Chris had told him exactly the same thing.

Blinking at the child’s simple truth, Ezra tried to argue against it, but knew that he was the only one holding himself responsible. No one blamed him for the actions of Neeley and Bertram, maybe it was time to stop blaming himself. Then Vin’s words came back to him once more. His face grew stern and he straightened in his chair. “All right then,” he said. “If neither you nor I did anything wrong, then there’s nothing to forgive.” he saw Vin nod his agreement. “There is, however, one thing I need to make very clear.” He watched the blue eyes regard him with something short of trepidation. “I do not just ‘like’ you, Vin Tanner. I love you very, very much. And I love JD very, very much too. Nothing you ever do will make me stop loving you or keep me from wanting to be your ‘Unca Ezra’. Do you understand?”

Vin’s eyes grew wide and filled with wonder. He knew that Chris loved him like that and Buck did too, but he hadn’t realized that his uncle loved him that much. Nodding his head, Vin continued to gaze at his uncle as if the man had revealed the secrets of the universe to him.

Ezra smiled, knowing exactly how Vin felt. He had spent too much of his life searching for the type of love he had found in this odd little family. He vowed then and there that no matter what happened, no matter what demons from the past came calling, he would never let his nephew doubt his love again, not even for a moment. He nodded at Vin and received a nod in return before the boy turned and ran off to rejoin the game he had been playing.

“Do you believe me now that it wasn’t your fault?” Chris asked, limping out and settling in his chair.

A sheepish expression crossed Ezra’s face as he ducked his head. “I do beg your forgiveness for ever doubting you,” he offered.

Chris chuckled softly.

“Hey there, Stud!” Buck greeted walking up to stop next to Chris. “Josiah and Nathan are getting us a table at the restaurant. You two ready to get some grub?”

Chris grinned up at his friend. It was good to be home and have things getting back to normal. “Sounds good,” he replied. Setting his coffee aside, he stood and called, “Boys!” Two small forms detached from the group calling out goodbyes before heading over to join the three men. “Let’s go wash up and then get some lunch.”

Cheers echoed as the boys raced inside to quickly wash their faces and hands. Upon returning, Vin slipped one hand into Chris’ and another into Ezra’s while JD trotted along beside Buck. Nathan and Josiah stood on the boardwalk in front of the restaurant, smiling and waiting for their family to join them.

The End