KIDNAPPED by Phyllis Loafman

"Little Britches" Universe

Buck had convinced Nathan that he was well enough to go sit outside. He felt constrained and dark in the small room the tall black man used as a examine room, surgery, and recovery area. He had wakened early, the sun was barely tingeing the horizon a deep purple. He had tried to rest more, but sleep and relaxation eluded him. Dressing quietly, he softly opened the door and took a seat on the bench outside. He could see most of the main street in town from there, though there was not much to see at this early hour.

He heard the door click open and, without turning, said, "Why don't ya join me, Vin?"

The boy's soft reply drew a chuckle from the rancher.

"How'd ya know it was me?" The wiry young boy sat down beside the large man and pulled his feet up onto the bench and wrapped his slender arms around his legs.

"Who else is crazy enough to be up this early? And come outside without boots or even stockings on his feet?" Buck tossed a disapproving look at the boy.

Vin sighed and jumped off the bench. He reentered the clinic and returned moments later with boots in his hand. He pulled the boots onto the stockinged feet and resumed his earlier stance on the bench. Buck became aware of the cool air for the first time. He reached around and pulled the huddled form against his side.

"Pretty, this time of morning, but a tad cool" he observed. He felt the nod against his ribs. They sat that way for a long while, watching the sun slowly rise above the horizon. They watched the sky become purple and pink as the sun reflected off the high clouds. As the orb peeked over the landscape, the town started showing signs of awakening.

Buck looked down and saw Vin taking in all the sounds and sights the morning had to offer. He opened his mouth to ask Vin if he was ready for some breakfast, when he felt the muscles under his arm tense. His gaze traveled out the direction that young Tanner was looking and saw two horses approaching. They were coming from the opposite direction as the sunrise and still in the dusky light of the hills. As they came closer, Wilmington recognized his own gray and Chris Larabee’s big black.

Tightening his grip on Vin's shoulder, they stood and made their way to the foot of the stairs as the horses drew into town and continued toward them. There was only one rider and Buck knew it was Chris. A dozen questions came to his mind. 'Where was Ezra? Why did Chris have Beavis and not Molly? Had he found JD? And, if he had, where was he?' These and more screamed for answers in his mind, but his mouth remained quiet, terrified to hear those answers.

Chris drew the horses to a stop at the base of the stairs. He was riding low and bent over in the saddle. He had apparently ridden all night. Both animals were weary and their heads hung low with fatigue.

"Morning, boys. Good to see you up and around, Bucklin." Chris dropped the reins and rubbed his face roughly with his hand. He was wearing a serape against the cool night air.

Vin stood and his lip began to quiver. Buck felt the boy trembling under his hand, but was shaky himself and could not offer much support. He managed to work up enough moisture to speak. He decided to avoid the obvious question and asked. "Where's Ezra?"

He watched as Chris threw his leg over the saddle and, grabbing the back of the Mexican cover, he slid off his horse on the left side.

Chris stood with one hand on the saddle horn until he gained his land legs after riding for so long.

"He's coming behind me with the wagon. Vin, would you mind going to the church and asking Josiah to meet me here? Nathan is here ain't he?"

Vin's eyes grew wide. "He's here. Are you all right? Ain't hurt are ya?" Chris being injured explained his movements to the boy. He had never seen the man slide from a horse before.

Chris smiled at the worried tone in the boy's voice. "Nah, I'm fine. Just tired is all. I need Josiah to ride out and meet Ezra. He's riding alone with the wagon and Molly. We thought it best to bring the bodies back here, bury the woman with her boy."

Chris heard a whimper from Vin and looked up as Buck swayed slightly. "You said you'd bring JD back, Chris." Before he could correct their assumption about JD, Nathan was coming down the stairs, pulling his shirt onto his shoulders.

"Chris. When'd you get back?" the healer inquired. Nathan then took in the appearance of both Buck and Vin. "Oh, Lord. Chris?"

"No! No, I'm sorry. JD's right here." He pulled the serape back to reveal the little boy cradled in his arms. "I didn't even think about him being hidden. We got cold last night and I used this to cover him up."

Buck had stepped forward and reached out to take the sleeping child. Nathan swatted his hands back.

"No you don't. That arm ain't healed yet. I know you want to get your hands on the boy, but you'll have to wait to hold that much weight." Nathan turned back to Chris. "Let me have him. I'll take him upstairs and check him out."

Chris surrendered the bundle to the healer, telling him, "He's had a rough time, Nathan. He was feverish last night and he threw up a couple of times."

That brought Buck around to stare at his partner. Chris held up a hand and watched as Nathan took the stairs two at a time. Chris turned back to Vin. He bent down, placing one knee in the dust.

"Vin, please go get Josiah and then I'll tell you all about what happened, okay?"

"Yes, sir." Vin took off. Chris started to call out when the boy headed away from the church, but Buck's hand stopped him.

"Josiah is at the jail."

Chris scoured his face with the balls of his hands. "I'm beat, Buck. We caught up to 'em yesterday. He..he shot the woman and I shot him. Ezra is riding in alone with them and the wagon."

"Something you ain't saying, Chris?"

The friends looked at each other. Chris nodded, but didn't speak as Vin and Josiah arrived.

"Josiah. I need a favor. Ezra is coming in with Foster's wagon. He hurt his arm and could use some help."

"Say no more, Chris. I'll head out and meet him. He’s coming in from the west?" the preacher asked.

"Yeah, the road to Eagle Bend." Chris replied. "Thanks, Josiah."

"No need, brother. We'll be back in a few hours," The man turned and headed back to the jail house and his horse.

Chris watched as he mounted and rode out of town. He turned toVin and squatted down to draw the boy into a hug. Chris had not realized how much he had wanted to do that until that moment. He held on to the boy a moment longer than he would have normally. He was rewarded when he found the boy hanging on a moment longer himself. They released each other and Chris smiled at the seven year old that had stolen a little more of his heart each day.

"Vin, I hate to ask, but Pony and Beavis are worn out from the ride back. I know that you want to see JD, but Nathan won't let us in yet and he was asleep when we got here, so could I get you to lead them down to the livery and ask Yosemite to take care of them?"

Vin looked from Chris to the door at the top of the stairs and back. He nodded and, taking the reins of both worn out animals, he led them down to the livery stables. Chris watched as the wiry figure patiently walked the animals down the street.

"Okay, Chris, what ain't ya telling me?"

"Lord, Buck. He.." Chris stopped and sat on the bottom step of the stairs. "We found the horse in Eagle Bend. We decided that we could catch up easy the next morning, so we stayed the night. I felt like I hadn't slept in days. We were tired, the horses were tired. Next morning, we lit out early and, leading ya'lls horses, we headed out of town heading west. We caught up to them a little after noon."

Chris pushed his hat off his head and let it fall down his back, as he ran his fingers through the spiky blond strands of hair. The rising sun revealed the fatigue lines around his mouth and eyes. Those same eyes were red-rimmed and sunken. The jaw and chin were stubbled with two days growth. The normally clean black clothes were dusty and stained with sweat. Chris Larabee was the picture of bone tired.

But it was the eyes that worried Buck. Those eyes that had seen so much were haunted with some memory that Chris could not shake, could not find the words to describe.

Finally, Chris turned to look at Buck. Chris blinked slowly and continued his story. He wanted to finish, to tell Buck what had happened and what he had seen and heard before Vin returned.

"They were arguing when we got there. Ezra went around the camp. He was going to locate JD and get him. I was going for Foster. Then, I heard JD yelling something about 'men don't hit women' and I knew I was out of time and I started running. I wasn't that far away and I heard the woman, Sally, scream 'no'. I entered the camp in time to see Foster..he had JD by the leg.. and..."

Chris hesitated. He had to swallow to get moisture in his dry mouth. His hand came up and rubbed that mouth as tears filled his eyes. "He had by the leg and threw him against the wagon." Chris' voice had dropped to a whisper and cracked, but Buck heard every syllable. The blood drained from his face and he felt a chill run down his back.

"I thought he had killed him" Chris continued. "The sight , the sound of him.. " Chris paused, as he once again saw and heard the small boy impact the wagon. Drawing a shuddering breath. "I wanted to kill Foster . And I probably would have if Ezra hadn't pulled me off."

Once again he ran his fingers through his hair and then rested his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging limply. He closed his eyes, his hand hung down.

"The woman was talking to JD when I got there. He was starting to wake up. Ezra started to tie Foster and that's when he pulled a knife, cut Ezra on the arm. He somehow ended up with that little derringer that Ezra has up his sleeve. Ezra yelled and I turned and fired. Foster fired too, hitting the woman. She was shielding JD with her body. She died quick."

He felt Buck's hand on his shoulder. "Don't say anything else, Chris. You need to rest and clean up. Don’t go blaming yourself because you think you should have gotten there faster. You made the right decisions. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we just can't make it. You stopped him hurting the boy anymore. JD's alive and that, my friend, is all that matters."

"I should'a..." Chris started. He was stopped as Buck's hand gripped his shoulder.

"No 'should of's. You did a good job. There was nothing different either of us could have done. Things happened that we couldn't control. We just have to deal with them. No matter what else, the only thing that matters now is that little boy. That is all I aim to worry about." Buck watched as Chris slowly nodded in agreement. He knew they would have this conversation again, but not today.

They jumped up when they heard the door above them creak open. Nathan motioned them to join him at the top of the stairs. He had pulled the door to and stood in front of it, blocking their way. The two men looked worriedly at the tall black man.

Finally, Buck found his voice. "Nath, can we see JD?"

Jackson nodded, but held up his hand at the same time. "There's something I want to say before you boys go in. Boy's asleep now and I want him to stay that way for a while. I had him drink some herbs to make him sleep for a few hours, so no loud noises or nothing. Am I understood?'

Both men nodded. "Okay. Now that's a little I want to explain. JD's got a sprained wrist. I wrapped it and it'll have to stay wrapped for a couple of weeks. Period. He ain't going to like it, but that bandage stays on. Next, he's got a pretty good bump on the left side of his head. He must 'a hit something pretty hard on that side. He's pretty bruised on that side, also."

"That's where he hit the wagon." Chris offered. Buck's eyes blazed with hatred for that man that had caused injury to a child. Nathan eyes looked questioningly at Chris.

"I tell you about it later."

The healer nodded and reached for the doorknob. He stopped before opening the door and Buck and Chris stumbled to a stop behind him. "One more thing. I don't know how to say this, but I want you to see the boy before he wakes up. I want all the emotion under control before he sees you." Buck looked confused and the man's words worried him.

Nathan opened the door and they walked in quietly. Buck 's eyes filled at the sight of the small frame under the covers. He looked even smaller than he did at home in his own bed. Chris felt his throat constrict. He knew what Nathan wanted him to see. He had seen the bruises on the boy's face and wrists. He did not want to think about what might be covered by the bedclothes over the boy. But he was still shocked when Nathan lifted the sheet to reveal the extent of bruising JD had suffered.

Chris grabbed Buck's arm when the man swayed. Buck wanted to turn away, but could not. His eyes took in the arms covered with black and blue bruises. There were thumb marks on his chest from hands so large that they grabbed both arm and chest, bruising both at shoulder level. Buck knew that there were matching bruises from fingers on the boy's back. He had bruises on his legs that looked like he had been kicked. Buck thought for a minute that he would throw up, but he fought the urge. Instead he turned that repulsion into hatred.

Softly, he spoke, "I wish you'd brought him back alive, Chris, so I could kill him myself." The voice was no more than a whisper, but the words screamed out for vengeance. It was an emotion that Chris understood well. He was glad Foster was dead and that he had done it. He had done it to save himself and the boy. Buck would have strangled the man with his bare hands, through the bars of the jail if he had to. The last straw to this whole nightmare would have been putting Buck in jail for murder, and murder it would have been.

Nathan placed a night shirt on the tiny, bruised body and covered him with a light cover. "He looks bad, " the man said softly, "but he's goin'a be okay. The damage is all minor." Nathan was prepared for the looks both men gave him. He put up his hands. "Now, I know. But, like I said, he looks bad, but he ain't got no broken bones or cuts. He got that one knot on his head. He's goin 'a have a headache when he wakes up, but God made little kids to bounce. If they didn't, they'd never make it through growing up. I know you both seen him and Vin both fall and jump right back up, knowing, that if it had been you, I’d been setting bones. Right?"

Buck and Chris both smiled at the images playing in their minds and nodded.

"Good. Don't make a big fuss when the boy wakes up and he'll be back on his feet within a day." Nathan headed for the door. "I'll leave ya'll alone with him for now. I'm going to get some breakfast. Then I need to go check on Mr. Ramsey. He's down in the back again. Chris, you might want to catch up to Vin and make sure he knows what to expect." He left on that advice.

Chris stood for a moment. Buck had sat in the chair next to the bed. He reached out and pushed the dark hair from JD's face. Then he bent over and placed a kiss on the boy's forehead, a tear dropping into the long dark hair. Straightening , Buck left his hand resting around the boy's head in a protective cup. Chris turned and headed for the door. He needed to stop Vin and talk to him before he saw his young cousin. A voice stopped him, his hand poised over the door handle.

"Chris." Buck sat in the same position, bent over the bed, eyes only for the boy or, at least, so Chris had thought. Chris was again made aware of the power of a single word. "Thanks."

Chris Larabee never thought to see this side of Buck Wilmington, ladies man and son of a working girl. The effect two small boys had on the two ranchers was profound and unshakable. God help the next man that came between Buck and JD.

"That's what partners are for. Partner." And he left the two alone.

+ + + + + + +

Chris headed to the livery, but halfway there he saw Vin coming toward him. He waited as the slender figure ran to him.

"Yosemite and I brushed both horses and feed and water them. How's JD?" Vin asked. His eyes were bright with unshed tears.

"JD's going to be just fine, Vin. He's asleep now and Buck is watching over him. How about we go get some breakfast and I'll tell you about what happened?"

Vin's eyes darted to the office had contained his cousin. He wanted to see him, but something in Chris' tone told him to hear what the rancher had to say first. They walked to the saloon and ordered some food.

Chris looked at the light blue eyes of the boy as he sat waiting patiently for the story. Clearing his throat, Chris told Vin everything he knew about what had happened to JD. He explained about the bruises and the sprained wrist and the bump on his head. If Vin had been the one injured, Chris would have sugar-coated the injuries. But Vin was very mature for his age. Chris respected that maturity and treated him in a grownup manner, though, once again Larabee wished Vin was more of a seven year old. He was much too serious for a little boy. Allowing him to be a kid was something he and Buck had talked about and were working on. But, today, Chris knew that the boy needed that respect.

The food arrived and Chris watched the boy closely to judge his reaction to the news about his cousin. Vin ate slowly, his eyes focused on the distance. Halfway through the meal, he turned to the black clad man. "What do ya suppose makes a man like Mr. Foster? All mean and wanting to hurt smaller people?"

Chris cocked his head to one side and thought about it, before he shook his head. "I don't know,Vin. Some people just don't know any better. Maybe they were hurt when they were little, so that's all they know. I think that some people are just born mean. They start that way and they die that way."

Vin listened carefully. "You don't think that JD will get mean cause 'a what happened do ya?" The boy's eyes had widened and he paled a bit.

Chris reached out and covered the boy's small hand with his own. "Vin, I don't think JD could ever be mean. He can be stubborn and hard-headed, but never mean. And, if we see him starting to get that way, well, we'll just do something about it. Sound good to ya?"

Vin smiled a lopsided grin and nodded. "Sounds real good."

After they finished eating, Chris headed to the jail to keep an eye on the street and Vin headed to Nathan's. He had sworn to Chris that he would be quiet and not bother JD until the boy woke up on his own.

+ + + + + + +

The day progressed slowly. Chris walked around town, checking on shops and people. There was no trouble in town. Chris was thankful for that. He was too tired to stop any trouble that might have come up.

He was a little surprised when a little after noon, Josiah and Ezra rolled into town. He met them at the livery stables.

Josiah climbed down from the wagon and assisted Ezra down. The gambler favored his arm as he climbed down.

Chris frowned as he watched. "How's the arm?"

"I will be fine, Mr. Larabee. It is more of than an inconvenience than any thing else. I am more distressed that my jacket is stained and, more than likely, ruined beyond redemption."

Chris gave him a slight smile, shaking his head. "Ezra, you worry too much 'bout your clothes."

"My apparel makes a statement about who I am, Mr. Larabee. I feel that a decent jacket and polished boots are the mark of good breeding." Ezra smoothed the wrinkles from his jacket.

Chris laughed. "Good breeding? You forget, I've met Maude."

Ezra drew himself up straight. "Mr. Larabee, I'll have you know that my mother is truly a woman of good breeding." Ezra then chuckled. "It just did not take very well."

"We need to have Nathan look at the wound." Chris turned to Yosemite. "Yosemite, would you take care of the animals? I'll send the undertaker over to take the bodies. Josiah, tomorrow we'll go through the wagon and try to find any family the woman might have had."

The three men left the livery and headed down the street. Chris started for Nathan's, but found that Ezra had stopped.

"I assure you Mr. Larabee, my arm is fine. I am not in need of assistance from Mr. Jackson. I am, however, very much in need of a libation and some nourishment. So I will beg your leave. I can be found in the saloon if you need my assistance for any matter." Ezra tipped his hat and started toward the saloon. He stopped and turned to Josiah. "Would you care to accompany me, Mr. Sanchez? I know that you rode a long distance to meet me and I feel that I owe you a hot meal, at the very least."

Josiah turned to Chris. "I'll see you later. I can take over at the jail when I finish. I know you want to check on Brother Buck and young JD. Since you have been watching over the town in our absence, you probably haven't spent too much time up there."

"That would be great, Josiah. Thanks." Chris watched as the two men walked across the street and entered the saloon. He started toward the healer's office. Chris was at the bottom of the stairs when he heard the terrified scream from the top of the stairway.

He bounded up the stairs two at a time and threw the door open. The scene before him made his blood run cold. Vin was under the table that sat in the corner of the room. JD was curled into a ball behind his cousin. He had one arm over his eyes, while the other clung to one of Vin's arms.

Buck squatted in front of the boys, his hand reaching out toward them. Chris was shocked to see the older boy swat the offered hand away, yelling, "NO. Go away, Buck. JD's scare of ya."

Chris saw the devastation on the large rancher's face at that statement. Buck paled and fell back to sit on the floor. Chris quickly came over and knelt down by his friend. "Buck, what happened?"

Wilmington turned to Chris. His eyes glinted with unshed tears, but, worse, they revealed the shattered soul within. JD's reaction was tearing the man apart.

"I don't know. He...he opened his eyes and when he looked at me..." Buck's voice broke and a groan escaped. Buck held up a shaking hand and indicated to the boys. "JD jumped up and ran and Vin followed him under the table. I..." Buck swallowed. "Chris, he's scared to death of me."

Chris reached out and drew the man up. "Buck, the boy's been sick. He don't know what he's doing. Go sit over there and let me see what I can do."

Wilmington nodded and sat in the chair next to the bed.

Chris went over to the table and reached in to take Vin's arm. "Vin, move over a little bit and let me check JD."

He felt the younger boy tense and clutch at his cousin's arm as he reached in and stroked the boy's back. He could feel the boy shaking beneath his palm.

"JD. It's Chris. You okay, son?" Chris rubbed the little back. "It's okay, JD. You want to come out? Tell me what's wrong?" The little boy relaxed some, but made no move to leave his haven. Chris continued to talk softly and rub the boy's back. Slowly, the dark haired boy moved toward the soft voice. Chris inclined his head to Vin and the boy crawled out, allowing the blond better access to the shaking form of JD. The black-clad man sat at the edge of the table and was rewarded as the scared child crawled into his lap and clutched his arm.

Chris shhhed the whimpering boy. "It's okay, son. Shh. Ain't nothing going to hurt you." He felt the boy start to relax and lean into him, exhausted. "JD, what scared you, son?"

The tiny voice spoke into the man's chest. "Buck. He hates me."

Chris frowned and shook his head, even though the boy could not see him. "JD, Buck don't hate you. He could never hate you." Chris rubbed the small back even as JD shook his head.

"Yes, he does. He hates me cause I got him kill‘t" the little boy sobbed.

"What makes you say that, boy?"

"I wasn't s'pose to say anything about ya'll and he'd let me come home. But I guess I forgot and said something. I don't 'member saying nothing, but Mr. Jack told me I did. He told me that after he sold Beavis and Molly, he came back and kill 't Buck and, if I said something again, he'd come and kill you or Vin." The boy had started to shake again. His voice quivered with emotion. "I didn't mean to get Buck kill't. I don't even know what I said. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get Buck dead."

Chris felt the anger build in him again at the cold hearted man that would torture a child's mind. He forced himself to calm down, afraid of scaring the boy. He reached under the trembling chin and lifted the boy's head to look up at him. He was taken back by the bruising, even more evident in the light of day.

"JD. Mr. Foster wasn't a good man, was he?" Chris watched the boy shake his head. "I know that he was a bad man and you know he was a bad man, right?" The boy nodded his head. "Okay, I'm telling you that the bad man lied to you. He sold the horses, but he never left that town, until he headed back to the wagon. He did not come back here and hurt Buck. You can ask Vin, cause he stayed and took care of Buck, while Ezra and I came looking for you. Do you believe me?"

JD looked doubtful.

"JD, do you see Buck?"


"Does he look mad?"

JD peeked around the black-clad arm. He saw Buck and Vin. He pulled back and looked up at Chris. "No, he looks really sad."

"That's right. And he's sad because he thinks that you're scared of him."

"I ain't scared of Buck. I thought he was a ghost."

Chris chuckled. "No, he ain't a ghost." Turning to face the other two in the room, he stood. JD tensed.

"JD, see? Vin's got a hand on Buck's shoulder. He would never touch a ghost, now, would he?" JD shook his head. "Why don't we go over and touch Buck. If you can't touch him cause he's a ghost, then we'll run out of here just as fast as I can go. Is that a deal?"

"Okay. But you be ready to run, okay?"

Chris pushed the long dark hair from the boy's eyes. "I'll be ready."

They moved closer. JD snuggled in tighter to Chris as they came closer. Buck sat perfectly still, waiting. Chris leaned in close. The boy looked away, but finally turned and looked at the mustached man. He hesitantly reached out and touched the warm cheek. His eyes widened.

"Buck!" JD leapt from Chris' arms, taking the man totally off guard. The now empty arms reached for the child as if he had fallen, but he quickly realized what had happened and stepped back.

JD stood on Buck's lap and placed his small hands on each side of the man's face. He looked into the sad eyes, tears running down both faces. The boy leaned in and planted a big, sloppy kiss on the man. Buck could taste the salt of tears as he felt the combined moisture from little boy's mouth and nose. He would normally wipe the sloppy kiss away and complain about the boy's slobber, but not today. Today, it seemed a precious gift from a special child.

JD sat down on the man's lap, his legs tucked up underneath him.. The boy placed his hands and an ear on the rancher's chest. He looked as if he was concentrating.

Vin cocked his head to one side. "What ya hear, JD?"

The little boy smiled and, with a big sigh, said, "Home." Closing his eyes, he relaxed into that chest and fell fast asleep.

Buck had closed his eyes and lowered his head to rest his cheek on the dark hair. Chris stood for a moment, a lump in his throat.

"Buck, you okay?'

Wilmington looked at the other man, but could not speak. He offered a smile and a nod in response.

Chris gathered Vin up in his arms and left the two comforting each other.

As they headed down the stairs, Vin asked, "Is JD okay, now?"

"Yeah, I think he is."

"And Buck is okay?"

Chris laughed. "Yep. Buck is good."

"Good. I feel better 'bout this whole thing, now." He turned light, intense blue eyes on the blond. "Don't you feel better?"

Chris smiled and ruffled the long hair. "I feel a lot better. Ezra and Josiah got back a while ago, let's go see how they're doing with their meal."

Two weeks later

Chris sat in the chair, his boots propped on the porch railing. Buck sat on the steps, leaned back on his elbows. They watched as the boys played in the barnyard.

"You suppose he'll ever be the same?" Buck asked.

Chris looked again at the boys. If you didn't know JD, you think he was like any five year old boy. But, to those that knew him, he was subdued and quiet. The bruises had faded, the bump gone down, and the wrist healed, but the spirit was still suffering. He had started sucking his thumb again, a habit that they had broken him of. Several times, he had wet the bed, much to his distress. Chris was proud of Vin. The older boy had not complained, but gotten up each time and helped his cousin change. Together, they had changed the bedclothes and gone back to bed without waking either adult. JD, also had nightmares that he would not tell anyone about. They had asked the boy several times what was wrong. The only answer they had received was "I'm fine". JD would not even tell his cousin the reason for his distress.

"I reckon it's goin 'a take some time. We need to just be patient for a while."

"He's just so quiet. Ain't normal for him." Buck stated.

Buck had found the boy crying over the sampler he had asked for when they found out the woman, Sally Fletcher, had no family back east. They had buried her next to her son. Foster was buried in the same cemetery, but away from the woman and child.

After going through the wagon, a diary revealed that there were no living relatives of either Abel or Sally Fletcher. Their possessions were turned over to and distributed by Josiah for needy families around town. The team and Foster's saddle horse were bought by Yosemite and any money left over after the funeral was put in the poor box for the church. Josiah helped a lot of families that were in need of many things as they traveled west.

"I was going to town today. Miz Potter is supposed to have the supplies ready today. I'll take him with me. Maybe I can get him to talk." Buck straightened his long frame, heading for the barn.

Chris called after him. "Don't push. Buck."

Wilmington waved a hand to signal that he heard. He stopped and talked to the two boys. JD took hold of the man's hand, walking with the big man into the barn. Vin ran over to join Larabee on the porch. A few minutes later, Buck and JD waved as they rode off in the wagon.

+ + + + + + +

"Morning, Miz. Potter. How ya doing this morning?" Buck tipped his hat as he spotted the woman at the back counter of the store.

"Oh, good morning, Mr. Wilmington, JD. How nice to see you."

"Morning." JD said softly. He hung close to Buck's leg. Buck reached down and caressed the dark hair as he sadly smiled at the woman.

She returned the smile, understanding. "I have your order ready in the back."

"That's great, Miz. Potter. I'll get it loaded up." He leaned down and cupped the boy's face in his big hand. "Son, you stay here while I load the wagon. Do you want to pick out a piece of candy for you and Vin?"

That seemed to brighten the boy's mood slightly. He walked over to the counter and studied the many varieties of candy. Buck began to carry the supplies out to the wagon. JD made his selection and turned to find Buck, when he saw the packs of seeds. The bright colored packets drew his attention and he walked over and fingered the front packet. Buck had finished the loading and settled up with Gloria Potter. He felt a tug at his pants and looked down into the large hazel eyes. The little hand came up and he saw the packet.

"What's this, little bit?"

"Buck, can I have this 'stead candy?" he implored.

Buck took the packet and turned it around to see the white flowers that were painted on the front. Buck remembered the sampler and the white flowers that Sally had stitched on it. Buck looked down and smiled.

"Sure, that's fine, but you go on and get a piece of candy for both you and Vin." The boy smiled and Buck saw a glimmer of the spirit he knew the child possessed.

The two climbed onto the wagon and headed home.

A Few Weeks Later

Buck and Chris sat at the table, drinking coffee. The past weeks had brought an improvement in the youngest household member. JD had brightened as Chris predicted. He was once again, the exuberant, energetic boy of before. While glad that the boy was adjusting well, they were once again dealing with a high-spirited five year old with two speeds-dead stop or flat out run.

JD stumbled out of his room, rubbing sleepy eyes. He had his boots on and both men knew he was headed for the outhouse.

The boy smiled at the two men. He waved as he headed for the door. Buck was just reaching for his cup when the shrill cry brought both men to their feet, chairs fell over and cups tipped as the men bounded to the door. They arrived outside to find the young boy standing at the corner of the small house, jumping up and down, squealing.

"BUCK! CHRIS! Look! Daisies. Sally's daisies. They came out" he cried. The men watched as he danced around and laughed. The sight lightened both hearts and they had to laugh with the boy. He touched the petals and squealed with delight. Standing, he ran up to the two men. His eyes were wide and glittered. "Buck, do you think Miss Sally would be happy? Ya think she'd like 'em?"

Buck ruffled the long dark hair. "Yeah, kid. I think she'd be real happy."

Suddenly, the little boy gasped and his eyes got even wider, if that was possible. He reached down and grabbed his nightshirt. He spun around and ran for the outhouse. The men knew it was too late, though, as they saw the little puffs of dust that rose from the ground at his feet. They couldn't help but laugh. They heard the door slam as the shrill voice cried out.

"It ain't funny!"

Buck looked at Chris. "I thought it was."

Chris swiped at his eyes. "So did I."

Hearing a shuffle behind them, Chris turned to see Vin coming out the door. "Morning, sleepyhead. It's 'bout time you got up."

Buck patted the boy on the back as he went back into the house to get some dry clothes for JD.

"What's all the ruckus about?" the small blond asked.

"Oh, JD's flowers bloomed."

Vin nodded as he started for the outhouse. He banged on the latched door. "Hurry up, JD. I gotta go." Vin stood and waited. Nothing. He banged again. "Come on, JD!"

"I ain't coming out." the youngest declared.

"Ahh, JD. I gotta go, bad." Vin had started moving from one foot to the other. He banged on the outhouse door again

"No I ain't coming out. They laughed at me," JD whined. "I got piddle in my boots, Vin." The last was whispered through the crack in the door.

"JD, iffen ya don't let me in, I'll have piddle in my boots." Vin heard the latch being lifted. He yanked the door and entered, pulling the door closed behind him.

Buck had gotten some clothes for JD and approached the privy. Chris was leaning on the porch railing, watching.

"Open up, JD. I got some dry clothes for ya."

"No. You laughed at me."

"Now, son, I'm sorry about that." Buck chuckled.

"NO! I know you're still laughing at me. I ain't coming out," JD wailed.

Buck waited. He was soon rewarded with a squeal and "VIN! Did you die? That stinks."

He heard the latch rattling, but the door slammed back closed.

"No, JD. I ain't finished," the older boy yelled.

"I can't breathe." And he coughed dramatically.

"Just wait a minute. I'm almost done."

"Let me out. I can't breathe."

"Vin, let him out," Buck told the older boy.


Again, the latch rattled. He heard a thumping noise.

"What are you boys doing?"

"It's stuck. It won't open, Buck," Vin said as he banged on the door. Buck could hear JD crying. He grabbed the handle and pulled. The door was warped and the earlier slamming had overlapped the door and frame.

"I can't breathe," JD cried.

Buck pulled harder and, suddenly, the door flew open. The big man fell backwards and landed in the dust. The two boys tumbled out and landed on top of him. The two boys suddenly realized that they had the upper hand. Chris laughed as a wrestling match began.

Buck rolled over as the boys attacked and began tickling him. He grabbed the older boy and rolled him beneath his large frame, pinning the boy with his knee. JD tried to scurry away, Buck grabbed his ankle and lifted him up by the heel. Chris laughed out loud as the liquid ran back down JD's leg. The boy yelped as the man released him on top of the other boy. Buck reached down and gathered them both up together and wrapped them in his big arms, both young bodies squirming. Buck whispered something to the boys and sat them down on the ground.

The three whispered to each other and Chris noticed JD glance over his shoulder, only to have Vin pull him back around. Chris watched as the three stood up and dusted themselves off. They casually started toward the house. Chris straightened and started to back away. The trio broke into a run. Chris made it to the door and threw the latch when he got inside. Buck ran into the door only to find it latched. He slammed his palm against the unyielding wood.

Chris called out from the other side. "You boys want breakfast, you better rethink your attack."

The trio looked at each other. Buck shrugged. The boys giggled.

"All right, partner, we give up." Buck winked at the boys.

"I figured ya'll were hungry," Chris stated as he unlatched the door. As he swung the door open, Buck reached in and grabbed his smaller partner by the arm and dragged him out of the house. Chris found himself on the ground. The two small boys whooped and jumped onto him. They rolled around with Chris on the bottom. Dusty and sweaty, they finally lay out on the ground, arms flung wide. Buck had watched and laughed. Chris Larabee lay on the dusty ground, smiling. After years of sadness and grieving, he finally realized that he could allow love back into his life and not betray the memory of Sarah and Adam.

Chris stood and took the hands of the two boys, pulling them to their feet. He winked and they giggled. Turning, they charged the man standing on the porch. Buck started to backup, but tangled his feet together, stumbling back through the open door and crashing to the floor. He looked up in time to see three bodies launching themselves on his prone form.

Maybe, he should have left the boys stuck in the privy.

The End

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