KIDNAPPED by Phyllis Loafman

"Little Britches" Universe

Chris and Ezra arrived at the place where Buck had been attacked and dismounted. They ground reined the horses away from the scene to not cover the tracks that remained from the night before. The two men studied the multitude of tracks that decorated the ground.

"Looks like he approached from that direction." Chris pointed to a rock formation east of the road. Ezra followed tracks to the rocks and around them.

"You are correct, Mr. Larabee. I have found a spent cartridge here behind this outcropping. The blackguard apparently secreted himself away until which time as Mr. Wilmington and young John Dunne approached and passed. At that point he must have fired upon Mr. Wilmington and absconded with the child."

Chris studied the tracks. "Think our best bet is to follow his tracks. Beavis and Molly have been around here too much, their prints are everywhere."

"I would venture to say that you are correct, Mr. Larabee. There seems to be a small nick in the shoe on the right rear leg. It should aid us with tracking this villain. It would seem, that as he has a wagon, we should be able to make much better time and apprehend him in a timely manner."

"I hope so, Ezra. Thinking about that boy with him, knowing what he is capable of, is beginning to put me in a foul mood."

Ezra's gold tooth flashed in the early morning sunlight as he grinned. "Well, then, may I suggest that we start our pursuit posthaste, as I do not wish to be the recipient of that 'foul mood' should we be delayed in our endeavors to locate this scoundrel."

Ezra ignored the cold stare the black clad gunman tossed him. He mounted and spurred Chaucer ahead, leaving Chris to catch up. The two men rode west, in search of the cold-hearted bastard-a man who left another man to bleed to death on the road, who beat a woman and her child, and who now had in his possession a child that Chris Larabee was responsible for the care of. More important than that responsibility, though, Chris saw that child as his own, his son. And come hell or high water, he would not lose another son, not if there was any way to prevent it.

+ + + + + + +

After a cold meal at midday, the trio continued their journey. The boy slept in the wagon as the woman handled the four horses. Foster had told her that they were close to a town and he was going to ride in and get some supplies. Sally knew that meant whiskey. She asked him to bring back milk for the boy if he could get some. Jack grunted and Sally knew that he would probably ignore her request She watched as he saddled his horse and mounted. Foster grabbed the leads for Beavis and Molly.

"Where are you taking them?" she questioned.

Foster tossed a look over his shoulder, "Decided we don't need 'em. Think I'll sell 'em in town. We can use the money to buy stock once we get to Oregon." He rode off and disappeared over the hill. He told her he would catch up in a few hours.

The woman regretted not having milk for her son. He needed the nourishment She had been sewing pants for him and finished that morning, but found they were too big when she had him try them on. She was certain that she had measured Robert carefully when she had started the pants two weeks ago, before they had both became so ill. She figured the boy had lost some weight while he was sick, but that did not explain why they were too long.

'I'll have to measure more carefully next time. Can't be wasting the little material that I have by cutting the pants off to fit.' she scolded herself.

Hearing the boy begin to stir, she called to him to join her up front. JD clambered onto the wagon seat and sat down, his feet dangling off the front as he sat all the way back against the seat back. He looked around.

"Where's Mr. Jack?" he asked looking up at Sally.

Sally smiled as she glanced at him. The sun shone on the boy as he sat in the sun and she was suddenly struck by the green and brown flaked eyes-dark and light at the same time. She looked closer at the boy. Robert had brown eyes, just like Abel's. A shudder ran down her spine as the thought sprung to her mind. This boy was small and had hazel eyes. Robert had brown eyes and was long limbed for his age. The hair was the same unruly black mop. But....then, like a door closing, she simply stopped seeing JD and chose to see 'Robert'. She smiled at the small boy next to her, his eyes bright with innocence.

"Oh, I'm sorry. He went to town. He'll be back in just a little bit." They continued on in silence.

JD looked at the woman that sat next to him. "Can I play with the toys?"

Sally smiled and nodded. The boy climbed into the back of the wagon and started digging through the trunk Sally had removed the toys from that morning. He found a picture that had little knots on the back in a wooden frame. He took it to the front of the wagon.

"What's this?" He held the sampler over the seat. Sally laughed.

"It's a sampler. Young girls practice their sewing by making one of these." She watched as he climbed back over the seat.

He sat close, holding on to the piece of material. "Is this yours?"

She nodded. "I did that years ago, when I was a young girl."

JD looked at her wide-eyed. "But you're..." He blushed and ducked his head. "I'm sorry."

Sally laughed. "Yes, I've had it for a very long time. My mom taught me how to sew. See? They’re at the bottom. Girls practice their letters and numbers. They sew proverbs and religious sayings. Or they stitch flowers or animals." She chucked the reins to keep the lumbering animals moving. "See the flowers? Those are daisies. I love daisies. They're so pretty and white, so clean and simple." She sighed wistfully. "We had fields of them at home. I would run and play for hours."

She glanced down at the sampler. " I decided to marry your father by plucking the pedals from them. 'He loves me, he loves me not.' Of course, it took four flowers to get the right answer." She laughed and JD giggled at her. " See, here at the bottom? I stitched 'Home is Where the Heart is'. I knew the moment I saw Abel, that I was going to marry him. He had my heart and he was my home." With a sigh, she drew the animals into grove of trees near the trail.

"Well, I think this is a good place to stop for the evening. Looks like a small pool of water under the trees. We'll make camp and start supper. Jack should catch up soon."

The two sat about making camp. JD was busy feeding and watering the horses when Foster returned. The tall man unsaddled his horse and tied him to the line with the rest of the stock. He turned to find the boy bringing feed for the animal. JD stopped and looked at the line of big animals.

He tilted his head, setting the bucket down on the ground. "Where's Beavis and Molly?"

Foster smiled, but it was a villainous sight and the small boy stepped back. But Foster was prepared and grabbed the child by the arm. He had not planned what he did next, but he took perverted pleasure in torturing the child's mind.

The gunman sneered as he gripped the small arm. "I told you that first night that if you made trouble or told Sally anything, what I would do. I took them horses and I sold 'em. And after that I went back and finished the job I started last night."

JD shook with emotion, his eyes filled with tears. With a quivering lip, he whispered, "I didn't say anything.. What..." But he couldn't say anymore as sobs shook the tiny frame.

Foster enjoyed the terror he could instill in the boy, the woman also. "Yeah, you talked about your family. Wished the other boy was here to play with. That slip cost Wilmington his life." The sobs were quickly turning into wails. Foster jerked the boy up and held him suspended at eye level. "Quiet, boy. I don't want to have to go back and hurt more of your family, but I will. You stop with the noise or I'll be forced to do just that." He watched as the child clamped his mouth closed and fought the whimpers that escaped. The man almost laughed. He finally tired of the sick game and placed the boy on the ground. "Don't forget to feed my horse." And he left the child standing, immersed in his misery.

Sally found him a few minutes later. He had fed the horse and stood stroking the animal's head as it dipped into the feed bucket, softly crying in the growing dark.

"Robert, are you alright? What are you doing, baby?"

"Nothing. I was just petting the horse." He swiped at his face to remove the tears. He didn't want her to know, afraid he couldn't answer her questions. And he didn't want Jack to get mad at him again.

Sally placed her hands on the small shoulders. Turning the boy toward the camp, "I have supper ready, so let's go wash up to eat."

JD headed to the camp with Sally close behind. They washed in a pan at the wagon, and then sat down to eat. She spooned some stew into a plate and handed it to the boy. JD sat on the ground and put the plate on his lap.

Sally got herself some stew and sat on a stool from the wagon. Jack sat across from her, silently eating. She could tell he had been drinking. His moods were never good after he drank. She wanted to ask about the milk, but decided to wait until he had eaten some first.

Jack shoveled the stew into his mouth, heedless of two people sitting near him. He got up and helped himself to the remainder of the stew. He saw the woman glance at him. He sat and ignored her for a few minutes. Finishing the second plate of food, he tossed the plate and spoon in the direction of the woman. He leaned back, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, "Something you want, woman?"

Sally's head jerked up. Timidly she inquired about the milk. Jack just rolled his eyes and spat on the ground.

"Damn, I knew I forgot something." He glared at her. "Guess we'll have to do without."

She closed her eyes and turned back to her meal. Foster stood and stretched. "Well, we need to get going early, so I think it's about time to turn in." He looked at the woman lustfully.

Sally shuddered at the look, but knew there was no way out. She stood and picked up the utensils. JD handed her his almost full plate. He got up and got a bucket to go get water. They could heat the water over the embers of the fire and clean the cookware and utensils. Jack took the bucket from him, almost pulling the boy off his feet.

"We can clean up later. You sleep under the wagon tonight, boy. Get him some bedding and get him settled out here. I'll be in the wagon."

Sally looked at the man as he climbed into the wagon, drawing the curtain closed. She squatted in front of the small boy. "Robert, you didn't eat very much. Are you feeling all right?"

JD just nodded. He didn't want to sleep outside, but he didn't want to be in the wagon with Foster either. Sally put the supper dishes in the cook pot and threw the wash water in to keep the food from hardening. She pulled some blankets from the wagon and made a pallet under the wagon. She helped remove JD's shirt and boots, but left his trousers on. She got him to lay on the pallet and pulled an extra blanket up over the small body. After wishing him a good night, she kissed him on the cheek and climbed into the wagon.

JD heard the sounds coming from the wagon and whimpered. He heard Sally cry out and heard the sound of Jack slamming her. Wagon rocked and creaked for a few minutes, then the night grew silent. The only sounds were from the birds in the trees, the crickets that lived near the water, and the quiet sobs of a woman trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage and a small boy who had lost his world.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah entered the sick room late in the evening. He found Buck asleep and Nathan reading. The black healer looked up as the big man entered.

"Evenin', Josiah. How's things in town? Seems pretty quiet." Nathan moved away from the desk and stretched.

"And you would be right, brother. It is decidedly quiet this evening. How is Buck?"

Nathan opened his mouth to speak, but stopped on hearing a raspy voice from the bed.

"I'm doin' good. Could use a drink of water, though." Buck cracked open one eye to glance around.

Josiah was reaching for a glass that sat by the bed, when a flash of movement caught his eye. He hadn't noticed Vin sitting in the corner, but the boy flew into action at Buck's request. He took the glass and placed it in the rancher's hand, then climbed on the bed and crawled behind Buck to help him sit up.

Josiah moved to stand next to Jackson and watched as Buck took a drink and Vin patiently waited for him to finish. The preacher grinned.

Nathan just shook his head. "He's been doing that all day. I tried to get him to go and play with Billy Travis for a while, but he ain't having any of it."

The boy climbed down and fluffed the pillow as Buck lay back. He took the glass and set it back on the table. Vin turned and looked at the two men.

"I told Chris that I'd watch after Buck and a Tanner's word is his bond." His face dared either man to disagree. Both men smiled and nodded.

"You have to admire the boy's spirit, even if he does take on too much for his age." Josiah whispered to Nathan. The healer turned serious as he watched the boy.

"I hate to think about how he'll cope if Chris don't bring that child back. Or don't come back hisself."Nathan confided to Josiah.

Josiah's brow furrowed. "Let's pray that we don't have to find out. Speaking of Chris, I got a telegram from the sheriff in Eagle Bend. Seems a man sold two horses, complete with saddles, that match the descriptions of Beavis and Molly."

Josiah looked down when he felt a tug on his sleeve. He looked into the bright blue eyes of the seven year old boy. "Does he say anything about JD?"

Josiah's heart broke for the lonely boy. JD was his only living relative, that they knew of, and, even though Chris and Buck served as guardians and surrogate fathers for both boys, he must be terribly alone in his mind.

"No, Vin, he didn't mention JD. But I'm sure that he is going to back with us soon." Josiah tried to sound optimistic about the recovery of the younger boy. But each hour that passed dimmed that optimism.

Vin bowed his head, but turned quickly as he heard the sheets rustle behind him. He found Buck trying to get out of bed, having thrown the bed covers back. "Where's my pants?"

Vin quickly moved to the bed and tried to stop the man from rising. "Buck, you can't get up. You're hurt."

Wilmington placed a hand on the boy's shoulder to move him aside, but a wave of dizziness prevented him. Nathan had joined Vin at the bedside and stood ready to assist the boy in case Buck made it to his feet.

The healer cocked his head to the side as he crossed his arms. "Even iffen you could stand, how you figuring on staying on a horse?"

Buck sat and waited for the dizziness to pass. His face was pale and sweaty, his breath was ragged and short. Finally, he was able to look up without fear of crashing onto the floor.

"I could manage" he stated, though not very convincingly.

Vin had moved away from the bed and took up a stance near the door, as if to stop the man leaving.

"He ain't going anywhere." Vin leaned against the door, one foot crossed the other at the ankle, his shoulder on the frame. "He don't have a horse. He don't have any pants. He don't have any boots."

Buck looked around at this last statement. His eyes narrowed and became pinpoints of dark intensity. "What have you done with my boots and pants, Vin?"

The boy was not intimidated by the glare Buck threw his way. He had been glared at by the best-Chris Larabee. No one could come close. So, the boy smiled a lopsided smile, hooked his thumbs in his waistband, and shook his head, tossing his long hair about.

"Ain't telling. I promised Chris that you would be here when he got back with JD. He promised me that he would get JD and be careful. I don't aim to break my promise."

"Vin, you get my boots now." Buck tried to stand again and, again, was overcome by a wave of dizziness.

Josiah shook his head at the stubbornness. "Buck, don't you think that Chris and Ezra followed that trail right to Eagle Bend?"

Buck lay back on the pillows, finally admitting defeat. "I know that Josiah. I just can't stand not being able to do something. I should have be able to stop this from happening." Buck threw his arm across his face. He felt useless. He became aware of a small hand on his arm and lowered his arm to see a pair of light blue eyes staring at him. Reaching out, he cupped the small chin and rubbed the tear that ran down the soft cheek away with his thumb.

"Kind 'a hard to fight somebody that won't stand in front of ya." Vin, with that one statement, absolved Buck of any shortcomings he had imagined himself to have. He had known in his head that he couldn't have prevented JD's kidnapping, but his heart refused to believe he couldn't prevent it somehow. He wanted to blame someone, but even this small boy understood-bad things happen, no matter what you do to protect yourself and those you love. Once you realize that, you find that each day is a little more special.

Vin climbed onto the bed and wiped the tears from the rancher's face and then cradled himself the man's arm. Buck closed his eyes and rested his cheek on the youth's head. He drew a deep breath and felt the tension fade from his body. Both man and boy drifted into a peaceful sleep that neither had gotten in the last two days.

Nathan and Josiah stepped out into the cool night air. Both men stood without speaking, arms resting on the railing. Finally, the healer turned to the preacher.

'I got to say, Josiah, when you matched them boys up with those two, I don’t see it working." He paused, searching for the right words. "I can't imagine them not being all together now. Them boys just awaken something in those two. They've always been good men, but now... Now they just.. well, they're great parents. I don't know how else I can put it."

Josiah gave Nathan a slow smile, his eyes narrowing to slits. "I had hoped that Chris and Buck could help them boys stay together, but I never imagined that them boys would breathe the life right into those two. I thank the Lord for the miracle that was performed in that cabin." The smile faded and the preacher leaned on the railing again, his hands clasped. "Now I pray that God will restore that family to its full number. I hate to think that he feels it necessary to divide such a loving home."

Josiah straightened and clasped Nathan on the shoulder. "I best go and send a telegram to the Eagle Bend sheriff and tell him Chris and Ezra will probably be passing through. He can tell them about the horses and Foster." He tipped his hat. "I'll see you tomorrow, Nathan."

"Night, Josiah." Nathan leaned back on the railing and cast his eyes upward, "Lord, what Josiah said about putting that family back together, well, that goes for me too. I appreciate you listening. Amen."

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Ezra had followed the trial all day. As evening neared, they decided to go to Eagle Bend and rest. Knowing Josiah had sent a telegram to the sheriff, they stopped there to check with him.

"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Standish, I was hoping you would come through town. I received a telegram from Mr. Sanchez saying you were headed this way" the sheriff explained at Chris' questioning look. "I think the man you’re looking for was in town earlier today. He sold a couple of horses at the livery."

Chris asked to see the animals and the three men headed down the boardwalk.

"Did you see this man?" Chris asked.

"No. I received the first telegram after he had been to the livery and left. I had been out of town, chasing a thief. I only got back late today and soon as I got the message, I went over to warn Billy. He told me about the horses as soon as I described them." They arrived at the livery and entered.

Chris and Ezra had stabled Pony and Chaucer when they came into town. Neither had noticed the animals in question while they were in the livery.

"Billy. This is Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish. They're here about the horses you bought today."

"Sure thing, sheriff. I got 'em in a corral out back." The liveryman led them out back and Chirrs stopped Beavis and Molly right away. He approached the corral and called to Buck's mount. The gray walked right to him and nuzzled the familiar hand.

"Well, guess that proves the horse knows ya."

"Yeah, Beavis, I know." Chris spoke softly to the big gray. "Buck 's fine. I'll get ya home to him soon."

Chris turned to the liveryman. "The man have a bill of sale for these animals?"

Billy shook his head.

Chris turned to the sheriff. "These horses are stolen. We'll be taking 'em with us in the morning. When we catch up to Foster, if he's still got the money you paid him, we'll send it back."

Billy opened his mouth to protest, but one look at the black clad man stopped him from speaking. The sheriff merely nodded. He knew of Larabee's reputation with a gun and had no desire to cross the man. He was on a mission and he was one man glad to step aside and let him pass.

As much as Chris wanted to go after Foster that very minute, he knew they had pushed their animals hard and long and they would need to rest or they would drop. They had made good time and the distance had closed considerately in one day. Foster was traveling slow, either because of the wagon or because he thought no one would follow him. The liveryman had bought the horses midafternoon. He had seen Foster head to the saloon after that. Chris figured with a little luck they would have JD back by noon. He and Ezra headed to the hotel and took a room.

It was after eleven by the time they got to bed. It had been forty eight hours or more since Chris had slept. As anxious as he was to find Foster and get JD back, he was asleep within minutes of putting his head on the pillow. It was not a restful sleep, as Chris tossed and turned all night, plagued by dark dreams of Sarah and Adam's loss. He dreamed that JD was standing with his family, the three of them surrounded by a black cloud that finally overtook them and obscured them from sight. Chris woke in a cold sweat, their names frozen in his throat. He swung his feet off the bed and placed his feet on the cool floor. He rubbed his face with his hands and wiped the beads of sweat into his hair, making it stand up in blond spikes.

He looked up when he heard Ezra stirring. He knew the gambler was not an early riser, but he was instantly awake and aware. Ezra flashed him a grin and tossed the covers back. Rising, he stretched and flexed his muscles.

Ezra studied Chris as he rose. The man appeared to be haunted. Lines marred the handsome face and dark circles surrounded his eyes. Sleep did not appear to give Larabee much rest.

"Sun is only now making an appearance , Mr. Larabee. We could stave off leaving for another hour if you require more rest and are so inclined." Ezra knew the answer but he had to try. Chris would not be much help if he collapsed.

"Nah. Thanks for the offer, Ezra. Sleep ain't coming too easy. Might as well get going." Chris rose and crossed to the window, leaning on one arm, as he surveyed the street. Behind him, Ezra got dressed and straightened the bed. Chris turned and gathered his own things before dressing. They headed down to settle up for the room.

After paying, Chris headed for the door. Ezra stopped him with a light touch on the shoulder.

"Young Vincent made me 'swear on a stack of bibles' that I would make certain that you took care of yourself. And he stressed eating to me, Chris. So we must have a little nourishment before we leave this fair hamlet."

Chris had to smile. Vin wasn't even around and he still made his presence known. It made a warm feeling come over the gunman. The boy could certainly brighten a man's day, even from a distance.

"Okay, Ez, but let's make it quick. I think we can catch them by noon, if we hurry."

"That is a most agreeable thought, Mr. Larabee."

They had eaten and were riding, leading the two extra mounts, within one hour's time.

+ + + + + + +

Jack Foster was feeling aggravated. Everything was going wrong that morning. The boy was quiet and withdrawn. He had barely spoken all morning. The woman shied away from Jack whenever he got near her. He instructed her where to go and had left for a morning ride, only to have his horse go lame. He had to walk to catch the wagon because he had ridden in another direction.

They were stopped for midday now and the woman was acting strange. She kept looking at the boy and then away. Just his luck, she was probably recovered enough to recognize that it wasn't her kid. For the hundredth time in the last three days, he asking himself why he had not just ridden off. He figured he had to have enough miles between him and the men looking for him.

The men were the brothers of the girl he had met in Oklahoma. He hadn't planned to kill anyone, especially her. He had gotten drunk and a little too friendly with her. If she just wouldn't have started screaming. He knew her brothers would hear and come running. They probably lynched him right then and there, so he had tried to make her be quiet. He had strangled her without even realized until she fell at his feet, her neck snapped.

It wasn't his fault. If she would have just relaxed and enjoyed her self, he would not have hurt her. She teased and baited him for two weeks. He had asked her to the dance on that Saturday night. She had of course, being the proper young woman that she claimed, told him that they were not properly acquainted yet. While she could not allow him to escort her, she could honor him with a dance or two during the evening. And they had danced. And they had gotten hot. What did she think he thought when she asked him to accompany her outside for a 'breath of fresh air'? Stupid little girl! Can't tease a man that way and then slap him and tell him no. She was nothing but a tease. She only wanted to humiliate him in front of those uppity townspeople. Well, she wouldn't be teasing any others with pretty little face.

Jack shook his head, trying to dislodge the memories that fueled the fire within him. He became aware of the woman speaking to the boy in hushed tones.

"What are ya'll whispering about over there?" he growled. The memories had made him angry and he was looking for a place to vent that anger.

"Jack, who is this boy? Where did he come from?" Sally looked confused, as if she were just waking from a dream.

Foster shook his head. "Damn, woman, you don't know your own son?" It wasn't going to work, he knew, but he tried anyway. Ought to take one of the team and just ride away, leave them both sitting here. Ought to have not sold that gray. He was a good solid animal. He could use that right now. He looked at the woman and knew that he had used her for as long as he could. Time to make new plans. Plans that did not include her and the boy.

Sally looked at JD. She had asked him his name and she saw him cringe, his eyes going wide. She saw the fear in those eyes and understood what had happened. Her hands fumbled for something to hold on to.

"Oh, Lord. Jack, you stole this boy from his family. I remember a man came to the wagon. He had a mustache."

JD began to cry at the mention of Buck. He just wanted to go home. But it would not be home without the smiling rancher there. Not even having Vin and Chris there would help to fill the void that Buck's death had created in the little boy's heart. JD knew the woman meant him no harm, but he feared the man and what he might do if the little boy told her his name. So he sat quietly sobbing, wishing Chris would come and help him.

Jack watched as the realization came to the woman. He flung his plate down and jumped to his feet. "Dammit to Hell. You had to go and remember. Everything was just fine and now look. What the hell am I going to do now?" the man ranted

Sally was beside herself. 'How could I have let this happen? Lord, someone else's child.' She was frantic. 'Well, the only thing to do is take him back.' she decided. And that was what she told Foster.

"Jack, we have to go back. We have to take this boy home." She knew it was the right thing to do, the only thing she could live with doing. She could no more take another person's child than kill someone. The very idea was repugnant to her.

Sally stood and began to pack things into the wagon. Her mind was made up, she knew what had to be done. Jack was pacing back and forth and paying her little heed. She had the wagon stowed away and ready to leave before he was aware of her actions. He was so busy trying to come up with a plan, he only became aware of her actions when she reached out for the trembling boy.

Jack ran over and grabbed the boy, pulling away from the woman's out stretched hands.

"What the hell do you think you're doing? We ain't taking him back." Jack yelled.

"Mr. Foster, we can not keep this child away from his family. They must be beside themselves with grief by now." She told the man.

Jack simply looked her in the eye. "He ain't got no family."

Sally returned his gaze. "I know he has family. I remember the man that came to the wagon that first day."

Foster sneered that the statement. "Like I said, he ain't got family."

JD whimpered behind the big man.

Sally's eyes grew wide as she came to understand the implications of his statement. Tears welled in her eyes, for the man and for the small boy. With that realization, came an inner strength she never knew she possessed until that very minute. She walked up to Foster and, reaching around him, took possession of the child and walked him to the wagon, preparing to hoist him up.

Foster lost control. He would not allow any one to go counter to him. The boy was not going back, if he had to kill them both. He came up behind the woman and grabbed her hair, spinning her around to face him. He drew back his hand and slapped her across the face twice. Sally fell to the ground, her lip split and bleeding. She could feel her eye starting to swell and bruise. The pain only served to focus her attention. She came to her feet and threw herself at the man.

Taken off guard, Jack stepped away from the hellcat the woman had turned into. She raked both sides of his face when he could not back away fast enough. He fought to gain control of her arms, only have her feet assault his legs and ankles. Foster had enough. He drew back his fist and slammed it into the side of the woman's face. Sally went down and stayed there. She was not totally unconscious, but she was dazed and hurting.

Foster reached up and wiped his face. He looked at the blood on his hands from the scratches.

"BITCH!" He drew back his foot to kick the woman, when he was suddenly assaulted again. He cried out as he left the little teeth sink into the back of his leg.

JD had watched as the man attacked the woman. He was terrified when she jumped up and returned the attack. He saw her kick the man and beat him with her fists. But when the man doubled his fist and hit her again, JD decided that he had to help. He ran behind the man and bit him on the leg.

Foster screamed as JD bit down . He reached down, but could not reach the boy that clung to his calf. He finally swung his leg around and the boy lost his grip and fell to the ground. Foster reached down and picked him up the leg. Hanging upside down, JD thrashed his free leg and both arms, trying to connect with anything.

"You leave her alone. A man ain't supposed to hit a woman." JD screamed at him.

Foster just laughed. He turned to the woman when she weakly cried out. "You coward. Put that child down and leave him alone."

"Sure, Sally whatever you say." And Foster tossed the small body against the wagon. Sally had the sickening thud as JD impacted on the board side and fell in a boneless heap.

"NO!" she screamed. And then all hell broke loose in the camp.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Ezra had no trouble finding the camp Foster had used the night before. They followed the trail as it headed northwest. They questioned which trail to pursue when Foster apparently rode off to the south on the saddle horse. They decided to stick with the wagon. That was where, more than likely, they would find JD.

They saw the horse tracks rejoin the wagon’s a short while later. The tracks indicated that the animal had gone lame and Foster was walking. It was a little after noon when they saw a grove of trees nestled under a line of hills. It was a prefect spot to stop for noon break and cool off. They approached slowly. Hearing the whiny of another horse, they stopped and dismounted. Chris pointed around to the back of the trees.

"Ezra, go around and come in from the other side. I'll go in this way." Ezra moved away, but turned back when he heard Chris whisper. "Ez. Locate JD before you go in. You grab him if you're closest. I want Foster."

The gambler put two fingers to his hat brim and threw Larabee a salute. "Understood, Mr. Larabee. The boy will be my main objective." That said, he disappeared into the undergrowth.

Chris gave him a few minutes to circle around and then he started toward the camp. He moved slowly, not wanting to come up on Foster or the woman unexpectedly. He was almost to the edge of the undergrowth when he heard JD's yell. His first thought was that he was alive and apparently okay from the volume of his cry. Then his words registered in Chris' mind and he knew he was out of time. He was already breaking cover when he saw the young boy impact on the hard side of the wagon and heard the woman scream 'NO'.

Chris did not slow as he ran up on Foster from the side and plowed in him, taking both men down to the ground. Chris had crossed the clearing like a dark shadow turned solid and just as quiet. Foster never knew he was coming until the impact. The two men rolled and spun to face the other.

Foster's eyes widened. "Larabee" he spat out.

Chris' mouth pulled up in a look of disgust as he eyed the man in front of him. His eyes were hard and Foster knew fear. The man had a reputation for a reason and Foster shuddered. But he did not give up. His hand reached for his gun. Chris never flinched. Instead, he smiled. That smile told Jack Foster he was a dead man. He registered the look even as his hand slapped an empty holster.

Chris raised his left hand. "Looking for this?" He held Foster's pistol in his fist. Chris was aware of Ezra standing to the side and tossed him the gun. He stood straight and any humor faded from his rugged features. "You don't get off that easy, mister. You're going back to Four Corners with us."

Foster wiped his mouth with his hand. He judged their sizes and reckoned that he outweighed the blond peace keeper by a good fifty pounds. That should give him the advantage. He charged.

Chris had been waiting. Three days of worry and fear had made him ready. Foster outweighed him, but Larabee fought with the rage of a father and best friend. He attacked Foster with all the pent up anger he had inside for the loss of his family and for the near loss of his new family. He fueled that rage with the memory of Buck laying on the ground, bleeding. He thought of the tear filled eyes of the little boy he had left to watch after the injured man. And he filled his mind with the sound of a five year old slamming into a wooden sideboard.

Foster fought hard and he fought dirty, but he could not match the rage within Chris Larabee. He soon found himself on the defensive, being driven back by the smaller man. He got a few punches in, staggering the gunman, but he would not go down. Foster tried to back away and found he had no where to go. He slipped and went down. Chris was on him on a moment, his fists raining down until Foster could no longer fight back. Still Larabee beat him, the lax neck allowing the head to roll back and forth.

Chris felt something pull at his arm and turning, swinging. He saw Standish jump back. The gambler knew he would be a target and was prepared to move quickly.

"Mr. Larabee, I believe you have subdued him. I'll restrain him, while you go ascertain the condition of your young charge."

Reason slowly seeped back into Larabee's mind. He fought to control his hands and, finally felt them relax. The mention of JD refocused the blonde’s mind. He nodded to Ezra and turned to the limp body lying on the ground. Chris' steps faltered as he neared. What if he was ten seconds too late? How would he explain to Buck? How could he make Vin understand that he had tried, but arrived too late to save his cousin? All the 'what if's' plagued his mind-what if they had rode harder, not stopped in Eagle Bend, not waited, but rode straight in? Chris shook his head. None of this was doing the boy any good. He saw that the woman had all ready gone to the child and now sat, cradling him in her arms, rocking.

Chris knelt down beside her. He reached out to feel for a pulse, but his hand wavered. He hesitated as Sally placed her hand on the bruised skin of the boy's face.

"Wake up, baby. You're fine. He's gone and your pa is here." Chris watched as the boy stirred and whimpered when his hand brushed the bruise on face. Bruise, hell, Chris thought. The boy's whole face was a bruise. Tears welled in his eyes, but Chris did not allow them to fall. He would be strong for JD.

Just as JD's eyes opened and he recognized that Chris was sitting there, Ezra cried out behind them. Chris whirled, reaching for his gun as he turned. He saw Ezra on the ground, holding his arm, blood running freely from between his fingers. Foster had the small derringer that Ezra kept up his sleeve in one hand and a bloody knife in the other. Both men fired at the same time. Chris saw the hole appear in Foster's chest. The man stiffened and fell over, dead, the weapons dropping from his grasp. They hit the ground a moment before the man. But uppermost in Chris' mind was the sound of the small bullet from the derringer striking flesh behind him. He turned slowly, fearful of what he would find.

The woman lay with her back toward him, a small round hole in the center of her blouse. Blood pooled under her as she lay curled in a ball. Within the shelter of her body lay JD. She had turned and placed herself between Jack Foster and JD. She had protected him from harm as any mother would have protected their own child. He reached down to feel for the heartbeat he knew he would not find. She lay still, her unseeing eyes staring.

JD was seated in the protective circle of the woman's body, his body rigid, his eyes wide and his mouth open in a scream. But no sound came out the bloodless lips. Chris reached down and removed the boy from the woman's embrace. After he had the boy in his arms he realized JD was not breathing. His mouth was open in a silent scream, but he did not draw any air in. Chris turned away from the woman and, cradling the boy to his chest, walked away from both bodies. He patted the boy on the back and spoke what he hoped were soothing words to him. "It's okay, son. I got ya. You're all right now. It's okay, JD. Just breath. You're fine."

Chris paced and patted the child on the back and still he did not feel him draw a breath. Ezra had joined them on the edge of the camp. Chris put his hand on the back of JD's head and moved him away from his chest. The boy was rigid and his hands clenched. His mouth was still open in an unreleased scream. Chris felt panic seize his chest.

"JD, please breath. It's going to be okay, but you need to breath, son. Please" Chris begged. Tears ran freely down his face to fall on the little chest held so close to his own. Full blown panic took over. Chris shook the boy, trying shake him from the catatonic state he was in. Rational thought deserted the gunman and he shook the boy roughly, yelling at him. "GODDAMMIT, JD, BREATH." Chris fell to his knees, weeping. He was vaguely aware that Ezra was beside him, a hand on the small head also. Chris whispered, "Oh , please, breath, son. Please, God help me. Please..."

Chris' chin dropped to his chest as he wept . He closed his eyes against the awful sight before him. And then he felt the tiny body shudder. The man's eyes snapped open and he dared look at the child. He watched as JD took a small breath, then another. The boy drew a lungful of air and finally released the scream trapped in his throat. And the two men laughed as they wept. As gut wrenching a sound as the boy was making, it was much preferred over the eerie silence of before. And he did scream. Screams that turned into wails. Those wails became shuddering sobs and then tearful cries. These were followed by whimpers, before finally succumbing to the bone-weariness of the day's events. The little boy fell into a fitful sleep in the protective arms of Chris Larabee, gunslinger and threat to any man that dared cross him, who made grown men pale and turn tail with a single glare, a man who had been reduced to a quivering mass by one five year old waif.

Chris sat quietly and watched the boy sleep. He had thought only a few minutes before that he was witnessing the boy's death. It left him weak and nauseous as the adrenaline rush abated. When he felt capable of standing without collapsing, he rose and carried the small boy to the wagon. Ezra was at his elbow as they crossed the camp.

"Ezra, can you pull some bedding out for me?"

Ezra arranged the bedding in the shade and Chris gently lay the child down. He reached up and pushed the long dark hair off JD's forehead. His hand lingered on the warm skin. He watched the small chest rise and fall in shallow breaths. JD lay on his back, his arms and legs at right angles to his body. His hands were clenched into little fists, his thumbs tucked within. Chris stared at the soft. smooth skin that was still flushed from crying. The blond finally tore himself away from the child and surveyed the scene within the camp.

He walked over to Ezra. "Let's have a look at that arm."

"I can assure you, Mr. Larabee, I was not seriously injured. I should have been more attentive to my task. I fear that I cost the young woman her life with my lapse of concentration." Ezra turned to step away when Larabee placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Ezra, you're not to blame for what happened. The man was a killer and he would do anything to get away. I'm lucky he didn't pull the knife on me." He waited as Ezra considered his argument. The gambler nodded as an acknowledgement to Chris' reasoning. "Good man. Now, take off the jacket and let's have a look."

Chris cleaned the gash and bandaged the arm. It would need to looked at when they got home, but it would do until they got back. Chris wrapped both bodies in blankets and, with help from Standish, loaded them into the wagon. The horses were hitched up to the wagon.

"Ezra, I reckon it's best to head back to Eagle Bend."

"I beg to differ, Mr. Larabee. If you were to make use of both Pony and Beavis, I believe that you could make it to Four Corners by early morning. I am sure that you would rather head straight there, than detour to Eagle Bend . You can take a more direct route and be home for breakfast. I know that Mr. Wilmington and young Vin would be very appreciative for the comfort that would afford them."

"I don't like leaving you out here alone. It ain't a good idea, Ezra." Chris stood, shaking his head.

Ezra swept his hand toward the sleeping boy. "I don't think that I am the main concern here. My opinion is that JD needs to be restored in the bosom of his family, the entire family, before the healing process can begin. I will return the young woman to Four Corners to be interred alongside her child. It seems only fitting. I will use the utmost caution on the return journey and I will probably arrive in time to share a well earned supper with you."

Chris considered Ezra's proposal. Standish could read the doubt in the blonde’s eyes. He played his ace.

"Chris, you should get the boy home. He needs to be examined by Nathan. He has been treated extremely rough this day. I believe you owe your support and concern to the boy." Ezra knew he had won the battle as soon as Chris dared glance to the sleeping child.

"I'll take JD back and then I'm returning to escort you home."

Ezra shook his head. "No, Chris, you've been up almost since this all started. You got very little rest last night, as I can attest to. You may send Mr. Sanchez out to accompany me. I do not think it prudent for you to return."

Chris studied the younger man and nodded. He extended his hand . "Ezra, thanks. I'll see you at home."

Chris gathered the reins to Pony and tied Beavis to the horn. Ezra had gathered the sleeping boy into his arms and handed him to Chris after he was mounted. Chris tipped his hat and headed for home. Ezra watched as they grew small on the horizon. He then turned and climbed onto the wagon to begin his quiet journey to the place he now called home.


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