"Little Britches" Universe

"You really think you're going to be able to fly, Vin?" JD sat down on the barn floor and glanced up at his cousin. He was holding a couple of Miss Peep's chicks in his lap, even though the mother hen had displayed her annoyance at the little boy by pecking him repeatedly on the hand.

"Those wings sure don't look like the baby's or Icky's." JD motioned to the the small, yellow fuzz-covered wings of the baby chickens.

"Well, chickens don't really fly, JD." Vin explained, holding one of his inventions up for close scrutiny. "Besides, that Day-dilus fella didn't have the exact things he needed neither."

JD frowned. "I tried to find ya' all the feathers I could. I cleaned out our coup and Miss Nettie's." The dark-haired boy glanced at the sparse feathers

covering the two wooden wings that Vin had been working on for the last few days. "I even tried to pull out some of the ones Miss Peeps was still usin' but she got pretty sore about that."

Vin smiled at his cousin. "You did real good, JD. That shirt we used of Buck's helped cover most of the wood anyway."

The seven-year-old added another drop of wax from the candle he was burning before blowing it out, and then stuck the last of his chicken feathers onto the left wing. "It's a good thing Uncle Ezra brought us these extra


"Buck says we ain't 'spose to play with fire, Vin." JD had already told Vin this at least five times and the blond rolled his eyes in exasperation.

"I know that JD, but this is for a good reason. You don't want Icarus to die do ya'?"

"No." The five-year-old shook his head adamantly. "We got to save him."

"That's right." Vin put his hands on his hips. "Some things we kids got to do on our own."

"Do I get to fly too, Vin?" JD asked, placing his baby chicks back with their mama, and eyeing one of the two wings Vin was attempting to strap on with Buck’s belt.

Vin put down the wing, deciding he‘d just wait until they were on the cliff to put them on. After all, he couldn‘t very well ride Peso with two wings strapped on. He looked at his cousin. "You know you can‘t fly, JD. Vin shook his head. "You're too little."

That was the wrong thing to say.

"Am not," JD declared, reaching his hands high in the air and standing on his tip-toes, "Chris said I was growing like a weed. I'm big now. See."

"JD," Vin decided another tactic was best, if he didn't want to start a shouting match with his cousin and bring the ranchers running,"I need for you to hold Icarus for me. Remeber, he likes you best."

The dark-haired boy let his arms fall back to his sides and he kicked at the dirt with his boot. "All right, but if Buck came he could watch Icky, then we

both could fly."

"JD," Vin took hold of his cousin's shoulder, "you promised you wouldn't tell Buck or Chris about this. They wouldn't understand. They'd say it was too dangerous."

"But they like Icky too," JD insisted. "They don't want him to die."

Deep inside Vin knew that his cousin was right. Chris would want to save the hawk, but he also knew that Chris would have to do what was right for Icarus. That's what he had told Vin.

And Vin knew what that meant. It was for that reason that the

seven-year-old had come up with the plan to save the hawk by himself. After all, he was use to taking care of things by himself. He’d protected himself and JD in the orphanage for all those months, and he’d protect Icarus too.

Just like Daedalus in Chris' story had saved himself and his son by building them both wings, Vin would build his own set of wings and show Icarus

how to fly again. He didn't like not telling Chris, but it was Icarus' only hope. It wasn’t like they were lying to the two men who had been so good to them over the last months.

However, getting his young cousin to understand that wasn’t so easy. JD was as open as a book, and wanted to share everything with everybody. It had been hard for him to keep such a big secret.

"They may not want him to die, JD, but sometimes grown-ups just don't see things the way that kids do. They have lots of responsibilities to think about."

JD sighed, resigning himself to the hard, cold truth about grown-ups. They could truly be blind at times. "They don't see the mean bridge troll, not even when I have Buck climb under my bed."

"See," Vin nodded his head, "some jobs are just for us kids."

"And birds!" JD shouted. "This job is for the birds."

The seven-year-old smiled. "Yeah, this is for the birds."

+ + + + + + +

"Dang it!" Buck grumbled as he stood to get the coffee and had to once again pull up his pants.

"Having some difficulties keeping your garments on your person, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra shot an amused look to Chris Larabee, who was sitting across the table from him.

"Buck always has a hard time keeping his britches on, Ez. I thought you knew that by now."

"Yes, but there’s usually a fair vixen in sight when he is having that difficulty. The fact that it’s occurring at home now, is what concerns me."

"Cute," Buck snorted as he retrieved the pot from the fire and joined his friends. "If you must know, I can’t find my dang belt, or my favorite shirt. I’m beginning to believe that troll of JD’s has moved into my room and is stealing from my wardrobe."

"The poor desperate creature." Ezra grinned as he accepted the drink Buck poured him. "Any respectable bridge troll would not be caught dead in most things you drape yourself in, Mr. Wilmington."

"Speaking of bridge trolls," Chris shot the southerner a glance, "could you please refrain from telling the boys stories that put certain ideas in their heads. JD ends up in bed with one of us most nights, thanks to your very vivid description of the creature that eats small dirt-covered children instead of honey biscuits."

"As I recall, Mr. Larabee, your instructions were for me to persuade the boy to take a bath. You did not advise me of what specific tactics to use."

"He’s five, Ezra, and barely knee-high to a grasshopper." Buck shook his head. "You tell him he’s having a bath and that’s that."

Larabee and Standish smirked at their friend. "And why doesn’t that ever work for you, Bucklin?" Chris asked.

The dark-haired rancher hid his smile with his mug. "Bath time is your duty, pard."

"Do you have a duty?" Chris snorted. "Or is playtime about the jist of it?"

"I’ll have you know that I teach them boys a lot of very important skills during the day."

"Like how to defend themselves from charging grizzlies, I hear." Ezra couldn’t help but to add to the lady man’s torment. Watching Buck become a surrogate father over the last four months had been enormously amusing for him. "Did one of your lessons involve masters Dunne and Tanner’s procurement of candle wax?"

"Candle wax?" Buck’s brow wrinkled. "Hell no, I’ve told them at least ten times that they can’t play with any kind of fire."

"Is that what you brought them?" Chris rested his elbows on the table and pinned the gambler with his green gaze.

Ezra wasn’t intimidated. "That and some confections from Miss Potter’s store. I assumed you knew that they had requested the candles yesterday when they were in town. They groomed Chaucer for me for the slight fee while you and Mr. Wilmington were on patrol."

Chris shook his head in puzzlement and glanced to his partner. "You have any idea what they’ve been working on out in the barn the last couple of days?"

"Nope. Vin told me it was a special project, and the squirt just covered his mouth with both his little hands like he was afraid the words would jump right out between his lips if he wasn’t careful." Wilmington’s face lit up with a grin. "He ain’t the best at keepin’ secrets."

"I don’t like it." Chris stood up and looked out one of the two small windows in the cabin that he shared with Buck and the boys. "They’ve been out there for hours. Usually if we have company, you can’t keep them from underfoot."

Wilmington nodded. "Especially since Ezra brought wanted posters. JD loves looking at these damn things." Buck motioned towards the new pile of criminals that Standish had brought for their inspection. "My luck he’ll want to be the sheriff one day."

"Did they say anything to you, Ezra?" Chris turned to face the gambler.

Standish shrugged. "Master Tanner came out of the barn when I rode in and stopped me before I made it to the cabin. He said his usual hellos and asked about the candles. I gave him the inquired about objects and the candy and he took off back into the barn. I assumed JD was seeing to their fowl friend."

"Ezra’s been here over an hour, Chris." Buck stood up. "JD would have been in here by now."

Larabee continued to look at Standish. "Fowl friend? You mean the hawk?"

"Yes, I heard the bird’s screeching when Vin opened the door. I assumed that was what was keeping Master Dunne from his usual gregarious greetings."

Chris made it across the room in three quick steps and drew back the curtain that separated the boy’s small room from the main area of the house. Icarus and his cage were missing. "I thought it was too quiet in here." Chris turned to Buck. "Did you know they were taking that hawk out to the barn."

Wilmington looked slightly guilty. "JD wanted Icky...Icarus to see Miss Peeps little chicks. He thought it would remind him of home and make him want to fly more." The lady’s man shrugged. "I didn’t see no harm in taking his cage out there for a while."

"I have a very bad feeling about this." Chris started for the door. "I think it’s time we check up on Vin Tanner’s secret project."

Ezra followed the two ranchers to the barn, and felt his stomach twist slightly when he noticed the barn door open. Larabee and Wilmington had picked up their pace now.

"Where the hell’s Peso?" Chris scanned the corral where the other horses were. The black was no where to be found.

The question was rhetorical, but Buck felt the need to calm his own fears. "Maybe they took him in the barn to curry him. Both those boys love that horse."

Chris reached the barn first, with Buck right behind him. "Vin? JD?"

Buck made his way around his partner who had stopped in the doorway and headed for the back stall. Lady, one of their prize mares, called to him as he passed, but he ignored the usual greeting he gave to the pregnant Gray.

"JD?" He called as he swung open the gate and looked inside. "Damn." Buck looked back at Chris. "They’re not in here and the hawk’s gone out of his cage."

Larabee walked into the stall and picked up the remnants of a candle and a torn piece of blue cloth. "This part of that favorite shirt you lost, Buck?"

Wilmington took the material and cursed. "What the hell did those two do to my clothes?"

Chris bent down and looked in the feed bucket he’d bought for JD. It had several feathers in it, not to mention several broken pieces of tree limb. "Something involving that hawk." Larabee met his friend’s gaze. "Nathan was suppose to come out tomorrow to see if we could get Icarus air born. Vin asked me about it last night after supper."

"Dear Lord." Both ranchers turned at the southerner’s slight intake of breath. The gambler was paler than usual and he was staring wide-eyed at a tattered book he held in his hands. "They wouldn’t."

"What?" Chris stepped towards his friend. "What the hell are you talking about, Ezra?"

"Daedalas." Standish looked up at Larabee. "The myth of Daedalas and Icarus. They were building wings."

"Wings?" Buck threw the remnants of his shirt back to the barn floor and joined the other two men. "What the hell would they want wings for?"

Chris raked a hand over his face as Buck cursed. "Get the horses ready, Buck."

"You don’t think those two would actually try to fly, do you?" Wilmington caught the blond’s arm. "That’s crazy, Chris."

Larabee pulled away from the other man. "You didn’t see the look in their eyes when I read them that story, Buck. A person flying might sound crazy to us, but to a child anything’s possible."

"Even bridge trolls." Ezra swallowed hard. "They think that they can teach that bird to fly."

Chris looked to the gambler. "Hitch the wagon and bring it. I think I know where they would go."

"Where?" Buck’s mind raced with possibilities. "They may have as much as an hour lead on us."

"Where’s the highest spot we’ve showed them. The place where ‘you could almost touch the sky’."

Buck recognized the words that JD had used to describe the cliff formation a good half hour’s ride from the ranch. JD had wanted to know if they climbed it, could he see his mama. Buck prayed that wasn‘t going to be a possibility today. "Damn."

Wilmington met Larabee’s gaze and then turned to Standish. "Meet us at the Devil’s Horns. There’s supplies we might need in the cabin."’

Ezra nodded. "God’s speed, my friends," he told them both before taking off towards the small homestead.

"Chris," Buck caught his best friend’s arm again, "maybe we’re wrong about this. Maybe they just went for a ride."

Larabee hated the look he saw in Wilmington’s eyes. Hated it more that he knew the same fear was shining in his own green gaze. "I pray you’re right, pard. I pray you’re right."

+ + + + + + +

They had pushed the horses as hard as they dared, ridden faster than when they were in pursuit of outlaws, and still it didn’t seem like enough. Chris hadn’t spoken a work, even when Buck had asked him something and suggested a different scenario than the one that both of them feared.

The silence and rhythmic pounding of horse hoofs were almost deafening so it was a shock to Wilmington’s system when he heard the loud cry from above.

"There!" Chris pulled Pony to an abrupt halt, the gelding tossing it’s head and snorting at the sudden stop. The blond rancher pointed to the blue sky above them. "Icarus!"

Buck stopped Beavis beside his partner and followed Larabee’s gaze. Sure enough it looked like the hawk that they had cared for over the last two weeks. The bird swooped around them once more, letting out a loud cry, before taking off back in the direction of the Devil’s Horn.

"We’re too late." Wilmington’s face had drained of all it’s color and he was sure he was going to be sick. Beavis danced sideways, bumping into Pony. It was as if the horse could pick up on it’s rider’s terror. "We’re too damn late!"

Chris stared at his friend a moment, before pulling on Pony’s reigns and taking off in the same direction that Icarus had flown. He refused to believe that once again he had arrived too late to save his family.

Buck quickly recovered from his shock and followed suit. Perhaps this time they’d make it in time.

+ + + + + + +

"Oh my God." Buck jumped from Beavis before the horse had a chance to stop completely and took off toward the cliff. "Vin! JD!"

He knew Larabee was right behind him, could hear Pony’s hoof beats and hard breaths, but the sight of the two boys perched precariously on the very top of the rock facing sent his body into action

The Devil’s Horns jutted up from the earth in two striking structures, rising from the ground as if struggling to break free from the constraints of rock and dirt that supported them. One side was steeper than the other, rising higher into the air and sporting more outcroppings and small cliffs. This was the one that JD and Vin had apparently climbed and they were merely small dots against the brilliant background of the blue sky around them.

Even from that distance Wilmington could tell that Ezra’s suspicions had been right. Vin had the so called wings strapped to his arms and he was hanging by one of the feather-covered structures. By the looks of it, the wing had gotten wedged in between a crevice when the seven-year-old had fallen and kept him from plummeting as far as JD had. He seemed to be awake, but dazed, which was more than could be said for his younger cousin.


JD's still form was about five feet below on a small out-cropping to Vin's right. Buck couldn’t see him very well, but he was sure the small boy wasn’t moving.

Another call from the hawk circling above the cliff brought Wilmington’s eyes heavenward and his mind raced as he tried to comprehend the fastest route to the boys. He considered going straight up the facing, but even as that idea registered he realized getting himself hurt or killed wasn’t going to help the kids.

Chris must have been thinking the same thing, because his commanding voice reached Buck’s ears just as another idea struck the mustached rancher. "Around the back, Buck! Take some ropes and hurry!"

The tall jutting was easier to ascend from behind, where it sloped at an angle to meet the earth. Although the path was littered with loose pebbles and sharp rocks, it was still safer than an unsecured ascent from the front. Wilmington thought that the boys had known better than to come out as far as the Devil’s Horns without one of the ranchers being with them, but then again he’d thought that they’d understood that people couldn’t fly either. Kids!

He wasn’t surprised to find Peso tethered to a large boulder at the base of the cliff once he’d circled behind the land mass, and he grabbed the rope that was looped around the black’s saddle horn to add to his own before taking off up the side of the cliff.

"Vin!" Buck heard Chris yell from around front as he continued to slip and slide his way to the peak. "Hold on. We're coming!"

Even as his legs carried him faster than he ever thought he could have gone, something taunted Buck that he wouldn’t reach them in time. Just like he and Chris hadn’t been in time to save Sarah and Adam. Just like they hadn't been in time to keep the boys from falling in the first place. His heart pounded against his chest, threatening to burst free if he didn’t stop, but nothing short of dying would convince him to slow down.

He'd never felt fear like this before, and it wasn't something he wanted to experience ever again. His worry for the two children, who’d come to mean more to him than he had ever thought possible, drove him on and was aided by the adrenaline rush coursing through his veins.

Every protective instinct is his body was kicking in, screaming for him to move faster. He had to reach them, there wasn’t any other alternative.

Chris watched as Vin moved trying to see him, and his heart stopped as more rocks slid down the cliff. "Vin!" He knew the wind was blowing through the valley and was sure it was worse on top of the cliff. It was hard to hear himself think, let alone have the boys hear him. But he had to try. And pray Buck made it up the steep mountainside in time. "Don't Move!"

Chris knew he needed to stay in the position he was in, in direct sight of the boys. But every fiber of his being wanted to tear up the side of the monster landmass, ropes be damned.

Vin glanced down at the rancher, wanting nothing more than to be on the ground with Chris. He thought he’d been dreaming when he’d first heard horses approaching, but it seemed real enough now. The pain he was experiencing drove out any thoughts that he had about sleeping. His arm hurt something awful and he felt dizzy, but the worst feeling of all was looking down and seeing JD laying on the rocks below him.

His cousin wasn’t moving. Vin had tried yelling to him, before Chris and Buck had come, but JD hadn’t stirred. Vin was afraid he was dead. Vin was afraid that they both were going to die.

That thought brought a lump to his throat and the seven-year-old choked on the tears he was trying hard to hold back. It was all his fault that this had happened. How could he have let JD get so close to the edge? He should have known better. The seven-year-old squeezed his eyes shut and tried to imagine what he could have done differently.

+ + + + + + +

Icarus flapped his wings furiously as another hard gale pushed against them. It was a lot windier on top of the cliff than Vin had counted on and Icarus wasn’t too happy about it. "See, he’s ready." JD pulled from the other boy’s hand in his excitement and took another step closer to the edge.

Vin followed and he peered down at the sharp, jagged rocks below. "Get back, JD. I'm the one flying, not you. You and Icarus are suppose to stand over there. "

The black-haired boy looked up at Vin, his hazel eyes brimming with confidence and excitement. "But how’s Icky ‘spose to see you from way over there. He might miss your flying lesson."

"Ah heck, JD," Vin reached for his cousin, "just do as I tell you for once , won’t ya’?"

"But I want to help. You said I could. I ain’t afraid." The five-year-old tried to shake off his cousin’s hold again, but Icarus became agitated.

The hawk extended it’s long wings again and JD yelped as a sharp talon caught his arm instead of the large glove he was wearing. "Stop moving, Icky!"

JD jerked away from Vin, his momentum bringing him much closer to the ledge. "Get back over here, now!" The blond boy shouted.

"No!" JD pulled away, taking another step back and nearly losing his balance. "Don’t boss me."

"JD! Don’t!" Vin stepped forward and grabbed his cousin again, and to both boy’s amazement Icarus arose from JD’s arm and took to the air. He screeched loudly and both boys looked up at the sky.

"Him’s flying, Vin. Icky’s flying!" JD shouted and jumped up and down.

Vin was about to reply when he felt the earth tremble under his feet. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but he was certain it couldn’t be anything good.

In a moment of fear, he reached for JD and started to shout for him to move. Unfortunately, before he could say a word, the soft ledge that they were standing on gave way beneath them and both children tumbled into nothingness.

It all happened so fast, that Vin didn’t even get a chance to spread his wings. For an instant though, he’d felt like he was flying and wondered if he were experiencing what Icarus, the boy from Chris‘ story had. But like in the story, Vin’s luck soon gave out as his body connected with something more hard and unforgiving than the ocean Icarus had fallen into.

He cried out as he was abruptly jerked to a halt and his world faded to black. The last think he remembered hearing was JD’s screams as he fell past him, and the lonely call of a hawk somewhere in the distance.

+ + + + + + +


Chris didn’t hear his oldest friend’s scream for the wind and for his own gut-wrenching yell that tore from his chest as he watched Vin slide further down the side of Devil’s Horn. "VIN!"

The total and desperate feeling of helplessness that crashed over him as he could do nothing but stand by and witness the boy fall from above nearly brought him to his knees. It was as bad a feeling as finding the smoldering remains of his cabin nearly five years before and knowing he'd been too late to save his family. How in the hell had he let this happen again?

Desperation and instinct took over and Larabee rushed closer to the bottom, as if he could actually catch Vin. He was heedless of the falling rocks and debris that the little boy was bringing down with him.

If not for Ezra’s fast reflexes, he would have most likely have been crushed.

"Dear Lord," Standish breathed as he drew closer to the Devil’s Horn just in time to watch the last act of the nightmarish scene play out.

The wagon bounced to a sudden halt at the protest of the two work horses pulling it and the southerner leaped from his perch in an attempt to stop Chris from committing suicide.

As time had seemed to slow down, he had witnessed Vin's most recent fall and felt years disappear from his life that he knew he’d never get back. It was Larabee‘s mad dash that had brought his eyes from the top of the cliff, and a profound feeling of fear had propelled him forward to save his friend.

He knew Chris would hate him for it. In fact, he‘d probably beat him senseless because of it, but he‘d be damned if he‘d let the man die. There was no way on God’s green earth that Larabee could save Vin and Ezra wouldn’t let him die trying. The act had little to do with self-sacrifice, and everything to do with self-preservation. The southerner wasn’t quite ready to give up the new life he had gained over the last year.

Standish tackled the other rancher just as a showering of rocks and small boulders littered the bottom of the Devil‘s Horns. Both men hit the ground hard, rolling just out of harms way. Ezra curled himself up into a small ball, covering his own head and as much of Chris’ as he could with his arms.

"Damn you!" Larabee roared, his voice seeming to echo around them as the rumbling from the rock slide quieted.

Ezra rolled off the other man and lay panting on his back, coughing as dust entered his lungs with each gulp of air. He was sure he‘d never ran so fast in his life, not even from an angry lynch mob that had once threatened to tar and feather him.

"Your welcome," he gasped, fighting back the sickening feeling that was trying to convince him to get up and deal with the after math of what had just occurred.

Chris showed no such trepidation as he scrambled to his feet instantly, his face a mask of rage and defiance. "Vin! JD!"

He stumbled over the brimstone that the Devil had shed and started to claw at the pile of rocks and slate piled around them. He was sure his world had just crashed to the ground. "Vin!"

"CHRIS!" Buck’s cry rang from above, bringing Ezra to his feet, but not phasing Larabee. "Up here, Chris! Up here!"

A loud shrill pierced the air and the rancher stopped his frenzied digging long enough to see Icarus circle above them. It was when he allowed his eyes to follow the hawk that he saw it.

A dark blue shirt stood out against the red rocks above. Oh, God. "Vin." He hadn't fallen the rest of the way, but by some grace of God, he'd landed on the same wide ledge that JD still rested on.

"Chris! Ezra!" Buck’s panicked voice wafted down once more. "I've tied off the ropes. I'm going to throw them down to you all. See if you can come up the front."

Both Larabee and Standish back-pedaled until they could see all the way up to the top."Neither one of them is moving." Fear resounded in the lawman's voice.

Ezra put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "All the more reason for us to get up there."

Chris glanced at the southerner. He wanted to say he'd understand if he didn't want to do this, but of course he couldn't. "We could bring that whole facing down on all of us."

The gambler shrugged. "I have never been one to back down merely because the odds were stacked against me."

Chris swallowed hard as the two ropes hit the ground in front of them. "Yeah, but usually you're cheating."

Ezra smiled grimly and reached for one of the lines. "Who better to cheat than Death himself?"

"You are one crazy son of a bitch," Larabee growled, taking the other rope and starting up the side to get his boys. "But I'm glad you're on our side."

"I'll remember that when it comes time for my annual raise, I assure you."

As soon as he’d made it to the peak, Buck had tied off the two ropes to a large boulder he knew wasn’t about to move. He had then scrambled to the edge, fell to his knees and crawled the last few feet so as not to cause another slide. He’d been just in time to watch Vin’s fall. Dust rose in large clouds as the avalanche of rocks and dirt cascaded down the cliff facing making it hard for Wilmington to see anything.

He’d yelled for the boys, praying that by some miraculous feat, that this was all some sort of bad dream and he’d wake him self up to find the kids safe and sound. Unfortunately, as the debris cleared, the gregarious rancher’s faint hope was dashed.

Buck spotted them as the dust settled. They were both lying on the same outcropping that JD had been caught on from the first. Now, neither of them stirred. He called to Chris and Ezra, relieved to see that they weren’t caught in the slide, and tossed the two ropes down the facing.

It wasn't easy, and the wind didn't help, but Chris was precariously making his way up the Devil's Horn. His motivation was the horrific vision of Vin and JD falling from the side like two of JD's tiny wooden soldiers. And if that wasn't enough, the sound of Vin’s scream mixing with his own still rang in his ears. He wasn't sure if he'd ever forget that sound.

Minutes stretched into hours, but Chris finally reached the jutting, a few steps ahead of Ezra. Vin was lying on his side facing the cliff wall, and JD was on his back, one of his arms hanging over the edge.

It was a miracle that both of them had managed to stay on it, for once their small size had served them well. Chris swallowed the fear threatening to overwhelm him and reached a shaky hand out to touch JD, who was closest to him.

He sent a silent thank you to the heavens as he felt the slight rise and fall of the little boy’s chest. The rancher briefly touched the side of JD’s face where a small gash ran the length of his cheek and his eyes traveled to the large cut on the boy’s forehead, barely hidden by his long bangs. Blood stained the raven-black hair and ran down along his ear and neck. Damn. It didn’t look good.

"Chris?" Buck’s panicked voice wafted down to the other rancher and Larabee quickly looked up to where his partner was leaning over the side.

"He’s breathing, pard. He’s still alive." What more could he say?

Wilmington’s face disappeared from his sight, but Chris heard the ‘thank God’ just the same.

He felt Ezra’s presence behind him then and quickly shifted his focus back to the boys. The southerner found a toehold and tied himself off just below Chris’ vantage point.

Vin moved before Chris even touched him and the blond lawman put his hand on the seven-year-old’s back. "Easy, cowboy."

Vin moaned again and with Larabee’s help he turned over. Numerous cuts and scratches marred his dirty face and arms. His blue eyes, although open, held a dazed glaze. "Vin, can you hear me?"

"Chriss?" The word was barely audible and the little boy proceeded to start coughing as soon as he had managed it.

"Easy." Chris swallowed, trying to keep calm. He kept his hand on Vin’s chest, holding him still as he looked over his shoulder to Ezra. "Do you think you can get him, if I hand him down to you?"

"I think my position is stable." The gambler glanced up to where Buck was watching them again. "Can you assist us for the rest of the ascent?" Ezra called. They weren’t but about ten or twelve feet from the top now.

"I’ve got your line." Wilmington shouted back and instantly Ezra felt the strong tug on the other end of the rope.

"Let’s do this, Mr. Larabee," Ezra glanced down the sheer thirty feet or more that they had just climbed, "before I remember my strong distaste for heights."

Chris nodded and turned back to Vin. "Vin? I’m going to move you so that we can get you back up top, okay?"

"No," Vin protested weakly. "JD? Where‘s JD?"

"I’ll get JD, son, but I’m going to need to move you first." Chris moved his hand up to Vin’s head and brushed some of the dust-filled locks from his face. "You with me?"

Vin’s blue eyes were shining with unshed tears and Chris could read the pain-filled lines on his brow. "Yeah," he replied weakly.

"This may hurt, because I don’t know what you might have done to yourself in that fall. Just take it nice and slow." Larabee adjusted his grip on the rope and slid his free hand to Vin’s arm. He carefully began to pull the little boy closer to him, but Tanner let loose with a pain-filled scream.

"Chris, don’t!" Vin tried to pull away and Chris realized why. The arm he’d been tugging on still had part of the wing the boys had built strapped to it. It was the arm that the seven-year-old had been dangling by when they had first arrived. It was more than likely broken.

Larabee bit back his own instinct to grab Vin and protect him from what was hurting him. He needed to be rational for the boys’ sake. "I’m sorry, Vin. Looks like you might have busted your arm. Just relax."

The little blond lay back, his breathing coming in ragged gasps as he held Chris’ gaze and rode out the fire that was spreading through his left arm. "I’m sorry."

"Shhh," Chris soothed. This time he glanced at JD to make sure their youngest was still out, before stepping his own foot onto the ledge the two cousins were on. "Just keep breathing, cowboy."

He hadn’t wanted to add the extra weight, but it was the only way he’d be able to reach Vin. As carefully as he could he bent over and slipped his arm under Vin’s shoulders and helped him sit up.

The seven-year-old cried out, but bit his lip in a brave attempt not to scream, as his injured shoulder was jostled. "Hold on," Chris told him, as the rancher straightened himself, lifting Vin to a standing position.

Vin whimpered, but didn’t say anything else as Larabee eased him back against the cliff wall so that he was facing the lawman. "You doing okay?"

The look in Chris’ eyes was one Vin had never seen before, and it scared him. The rancher’s green gaze was brimming with concern and fear, and something about the way his voice broke caused Vin to lose his battle with the tears he’d been holding at bay. " I’m sor..sorry, Chris."

Larabee forced a weary fake smile onto his face. "It’s all right, son. Everything’s going to be okay."

Vin finally stepped forward and used his one good arm to cling to the rancher with fierceness born of pain and terror. "Don’t let JD die, please, Chris. Don’t let him die."

Chris squeezed his eyes shut momentarily relishing in the warm, very alive, body in his arms. "Ezra’s going to take you now, Vin. He’s going to take you to Buck."

"No!" Vin clung tighter to the rancher. "Don’t let go! Please don’t let go."

"It’s all right, Master Tanner." Ezra’s southern drawl was even smoother than usual. "Chris and JD will be right behind us. It’s up to you and I to lead the way."

Vin lifted his head slightly and peered at the gambler who was holding a hand out to him. "Buck is very anxious to see for himself that you and JD are indeed in one piece. He needs you."

"Go on, Vin," Chris whispered in the little boy’s ear. "I’ve got to get JD."

Finally Vin loosened his grip and he quickly met the rancher’s gaze before accepting Ezra’s hand. "Don’t fall."

The tremble in Vin’s voice made it hard for Larabee to let him go, but his growing fear for JD made it possible and necessary. The five-year-old was yet to move, and although his unconscious state was probably the only thing that had saved his life, it didn’t make Chris feel any better at the moment. "I won’t. I’ll be holding on to you."

Vin wasn’t sure what the rancher meant since Chris was going to be carrying JD, but at the moment he was too confused and upset to think about it. Instead he relinquished his hold on the rancher and clasped Mr. Ezra’s hand.

Standish moved to grasp the seven-year-old around his right side, so as not to do further damage to his arm, and felt an odd and unfamiliar sense of immense relief wash over him once the little boy was safely in his embrace. "Your chariot awaits, Master Tanner."

Ezra looked up, the sun blinding him momentarily. "Pull us up, Mr. Wilmington."

Once Standish and Vin had started their climb the rest of the way up the facing, Chris eased his body down so he could check out JD.

A part of him was terrified to move the little boy. He was lying on his back, his arms thrown out wide and his legs flung to either side. It was the same position he slept in, and a lump formed in the rancher’s throat. Was it just a few days ago that he was wishing for the five-year-old to sleep more often.

His hand shook as he carefully placed a hand on the little boy’s shoulder and gave it a gently shake. "JD? Open your eyes."

If he could just wake the boy, then maybe he could guess at what was broken and what was not. Why couldn’t Nathan have been there? "JD!" Chris raised his voice and resorted to tapping JD lightly on the face.

Still no response.

A slight showering of pebbles from above made it painfully clear that there was no other alternative but to move him, Chris reached down and scooped the small body up in his arm, just as a shout echoed from above.

"Chris!" Ezra yelled. "Look out!"


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