AU - Lost Lambs
Vin, JD and the Potter children were playing 'Olly Olly Oxen Free' out in the street. JD as ever was following Vin. He was the youngest by far and didn't understand some of the rules but he insisted on playing. Vin raced down the sidewalk opposite the store to the diner. There on the corner was a spot where the gap under the wooden sidewalk was just big enough to let a very small boy and a very thin boy crawl under. It was dark, dirty and a little smelly but they couldn't be seen and had a great view of the storefront. They also had a good view of the sheriff's office.
They had just heard the game begin when a very new-looking, shiny black car drove right past them. Cars, much less new cars, were rare in Four Corners. Most people had trucks like Chris and Buck; lots of people still rode. The game momentarily forgotten, the boys watched as the car stopped outside the sheriff's office and three men in smart dark suits got out. The strange men entered the office. Vin was now watching intently, a small nagging fear began to gnaw away at him. It was almost instantly that he heard Chris' voice shouting. He couldn't understand what he was saying but he sounded very mad.
"Why's Chris shouting?" asked JD innocently.
"I d' know, shhh will ya." Vin was trying to listen.
The shouting stopped and they could hear nothing more. JD quickly got bored and started fidgeting.
"When we gonna get out of here Vin?" he whined.
"Not yet, jist lie still will ya." Vin snapped.
Vin didn't mean to be cross with JD but he needed to concentrate on the activity in the jail. He looked over his shoulder to see JD looking upset but not protesting.
"Jist lie still JD okay?" he said more gently.
"Okay Vin, I'll be still." JD said meekly.
Sometime later they heard the other children calling them, but Vin didn't move.
"Come on Vin we're free let's get to the store." Still Vin did not move. "Come on Vin."
"JD we can't go yet, we gotta see what them men is up too, so you jist hush up," Vin stated firmly.
JD gave up on Vin. He stared to make little mounds of dirt and made Pony jump them, then he started to give names to all the spiders and beetles he could find under the sidewalk. Eventually, lying still in the dark had the usual effect; he fell asleep. The Potter children had called and called but Vin and JD had not shown. Then they had searched, but Vin's hideaway was near perfect. Eventually Gloria was involved in the search. She was about to go and find Chris and Buck when she had a thought, remembering the gap under the sidewalk. Her son protested it was too small. But Vin and JD were very small themselves, she pointed out. As she crossed the street the big car that had been outside the sheriff's office pulled away. Sure enough there they were. It took some manoeuvring to pull the slumbering JD from the gap, and both boys were very, very dirty.
"Lord a mighty boys, youre a sight."
JD was barely awake as he stood there blinking, covered from head to toe in dirt.
"Didn't you hear them calling you?" she asked.
"JD fell asleep, I didn't want to wake him up," Vin hated to lie but he couldn't tell her the real reason.
It took poor Mrs Potter a whole hour to get the two boys to a state where they no longer looked like they had been digging a well. And she hadn't even been able to start until JD had knelt back down and said goodbye individually to all the spiders and beetles.
Vin had remained mostly silent throughout the cleaning process. He needed to get JD alone before they went to the sheriff's office. Finally Mrs Potter decided they were as clean as she could get them without the time to bath them, or clean clothes to put them in. Now they were walking down the street together.
"JD you can't say nothin' t' Buck or Chris 'bout us watchin' the men at the jail, okay?" Vin instructed.
"Why?" JD responded with his usual question.
"Ya jist can't JD, it's real important, okay?"
"'kay." Was JD's only response, as the jail came in sight and he started to run.
+ + + + + + +
Lunch in the diner was a strained affair. Chris, Buck and Vin were preoccupied with the visit of the Federal Agents, though not for the same reason. JD was having trouble talking to Buck and not talking about the men who came to the jail. As a result he was preoccupied with playing with Pony under the table. Chris watched Vin pushing his food around the plate.
"Vin?" he asked.
Vin looked up; Chris was shocked to see the nervous fear in his eyes they had seen when he first came to the ranch.
"Is there something wrong with your meatloaf?"
"No, it's fine." With that he started to eat some, but it was clear he had no appetite.
Chris exchanged a worried glance with Buck. Now he was well on the way to a full recovery Vin had developed an insatiable appetite, devouring everything on his plate.
"Did you have a nice time at Mrs Potters JD?" Buck asked.
"Yeah." Was the only response.
"So what did you do?" Buck encouraged.
"U-huh, what games did you play?" Buck was getting as worried as Chris was. This was totally out of character for JD, whose normal responses were detailed and gushing.
"We played 'Olly, Olly Oxen Free'."
"I used to play that when I was little. Where did ya hide?" Buck asked with enthusiasm.
"We hid under the sidewalk. I made friends with the spiders I called the big one Claude, and the little brown one Slim and I made a jump for Pony and Ow!" Just as JD was getting into his stride he suddenly stopped. He frowned at Vin who kept his head down.
"You okay Little'n?" Buck asked with concern.
"Yeah," After that JD went back to playing with Pony in his lap while munching his hamburger.
The two adults looked at each other and shook their heads. As if they didn't have enough to worry about now both boys were keeping secrets from them. After lunch Chris took some food over to Ezra while Buck took the boys to the field behind the church to play.
"Arent you gonna play with us?" JD asked imploringly.
Buck squatted down in front of him.
"Nothin' I'd like better little brother, but I gotta work a bit while longer." He could see JD pouting, and behind him Vin was just looking tense. "You understand JD, I'll come get you as soon as I can, I promise."
"I don't want you to work." JD stated clamping his arms around Buck's neck.
"Well I don't wan'a work either but I have to." He looked over to Vin. "Chris would rather be here too, but we have to work. Now you two be good, and we will finish as soon as we can. Alright?"
Vin nodded, then he took JD's hand. "Come on JD, lets play catch. I got the ball." With that Vin led the little five-year-old away.
+ + + + + + +
JD and Vin played for a while but they quickly got bored, and since there was no sign of Chris or Buck Vin decided he wanted to explore some of the town he'd never seen. As ever JD was happy just to be included and tagged along. They explored behind Tiny's. This was a garage, blacksmiths, gas station and occasionally still a livery all in one. The owner, the ironically named Tiny, was a huge man with a thick beard, didn't notice them poking around behind his premises. Then they moved on to investigate the back of the farmers market. Vin began to relax. His fear of the morning seemed less certain, and he pushed it to the back of his mind. Such a good time were they having that they didn't notice the time, until the shadows began to lengthen. Finally Vin called an end to the game.
"Come on JD, let's go and find Buck and Chris," he said convinced the two men had to be finished by now.
They headed back via the ally between the market and the post office. Suddenly there was a man standing in front of them. JD looked up at him.
"Hello," he said.
"Hello," the man responded.
JD became aware of a strange sound, like the sound when he overflowed the sink in the kitchen. Looking around for the source, he noticed a small puddle of liquid forming between Vin's feet. Vin was standing stock-still staring at the man. JD looked at Vin, and at the spreading dark mark in the front of his dungarees then at the man. Instantly he didn't like the man, the man was frightening Vin. With all his innate courage the small boy stood in front of his friend glaring at he stranger.
"Vin! JD!" Chris voice cut through the stand-off.
The man looked over his shoulder in the direction of the voice. When he looked back the boys were gone. Pounding down the ally Vin suddenly dodged to the left to hide behind a shed to one side of the post office, JD in hot pursuit.
"Vin did you wetted yourself?" JD asked, unaware of the insensitivity of his question.
"Please don't tell, JD," Vin pleaded as he spied down the alley to see if the man was coming.
JD didn't respond. Vin looked over his shoulder at him. "JD?"
JD didn't understand what was going on, but he agreed. The two of them ran all the way back to the jail behind the buildings until they finally emerged onto the main street, and climbed into the back of the truck. Vin planned to ride in the back so no one would see the state of his clothing. JD had always wanted to ride home in the back of the truck and now he was going to get his wish. Chris came walking up the street having not found the boys, when he spotted them in the back of the truck; JD was standing up and waving.
"Where have you two been?" he asked.
Before JD could answer Vin spoke. "We came when we heard you calling, guess you didn't see us."
Chris looked from one boy to the other, not sure what to believe. Well sometimes you have to let boys get away with things; it was part of being a boy. Chris thought shaking his head.
"Chris where's Buck?" JD asked.
"Don't worry JD, Doctor Nathan came by to fix his bandages, he'll be out soon."
"Is Ethan coming?" JD asked, not sure if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.
"Well " Chris started. "Yes he will, but his name isn't Ethan, it's Ezra."
JD frowned, even Vin who was sitting in the corner of the truck with his knees pulled up to his chest looked puzzled.
"Did he forget what his name was?" JD asked.
"Well, sort of." Chris was saved having to explain further when Buck walked out with Nathan and Ezra. Shaking Nathan's hand he waved the good doctor off and escorted Ezra to the truck.
"What you doing back there, JD?" Buck asked, eyeing his brother.
"Please Buck I'll be good I won't stand up or nothing." JD brought his secret weapon into play; he lowered his head, bit his lower lip and looked up at Buck with his big hazel eyes through his bangs. "Please."
Buck was helpless against such a weapon. "Oh well I guess . sit down with Vin and don't stand up until I say so, you understand?"
JD grinned. "I promise." And with that he sat down next to Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Once they reached the Circle T Vin jumped down before the truck was fully stopped, and sprinted into the house. JD almost followed him but then remembered he had promised not to get up until given permission. By the time the others had arrived inside Vin was emerging in clean clothes.
"Now what was that all about?" Chris asked.
"Mrs Potter said we was to change as soon as we got back 'cause we was so muddy," he explained. Mrs Potter had actually said that was so it wasn't a lie.
Chris looked somewhat sceptical, and then he looked at JD, taking in his dirt-covered knees, backside and chest. "Indeed, I think you better go and help JD do the same."
After supper the boys bathed and dressed for bed and settled in on the hearthrug to play before story time and bed. Ezra had remained quiet all evening; he was trying not to let them see how scared he was. The next day Buck would drive him to Eagle Bend, there Judge Travis would arraign Ezra and remand him into custody. Then he would be taken to this Stockwell place were Vin had apparently been mistreated. He had been confident to begin with, now he wasn't so sure. Finally he decided to ask for something. He needed to keep his mind on something other than tomorrow.
"Sheriff Larabee , sir?" he asked.
"Do you by chance have as pack of cards I might borrow in the house?"
Chris saw no harm and collected the cards from the dresser. Ezra proceeded to play a game of solitaire. It was an unusual game in which the cards were laid out in a long line that snaked back and forth.
"What ya doing?" JD asked crawling over to Ezra.
"This is a game of solitaire requiring sharp eyes and patience." Ezra continued to lay out cards, and occasionally he would pick up a card and place it on another one. Sometimes he would move a whole stack of cards, and sometimes move several cards or stacks. JD watched for a long time in rapt silence, than he suddenly said after Ezra had moved a card.
"And that one." JD pointed to a card one away from one Ezra had just moved.
"Quite right young JD, have you played this game before?"
"No, but I like it, can I play after you?" JD continued to watch the cards as they were put down.
Chris had also been watching, he hadn't been able to work out the principal behind the card-moving. He was fascinated that JD had worked it out so quickly. He looked over at Buck, who had dozed off, Chris smiled to himself, Buck put up a good front but he wasn't fit yet by a long way. Vin always tended to be quiet in the evening; he still got very tired. But tonight he was even more quiet. Eventually Ezra's game reached a stalemate, and he turned the cards over to JD, who sat cross-legged and began to play his own game. Ezra looked over at the sombre Vin. Then he looked around the room; finally his eyes lit upon JD's marbles which he had abandoned on the rug. He crossed over to Vin with a marble in his hand. With out saying a word he sat down in front of Vin and showed him the marble in his left hand, then he showed his empty right hand, he made a quick movement with the left and suddenly it too was empty. Vin frowned at the two open empty hands. Then he moved his right hand to Vin's ear and produced the marble. Vin at first looked surprised, then confused, then as Ezra once again made it disappear, delighted. Stepping over JD, who was totally engrossed in his game of cards, Ezra crept up to the snoring form of Wilmington, timing his move to perfection he made the marble appear from Buck's mouth mid snore. Vin and Chris simultaneously clamped a hand over their respective mouths to prevent themselves laughing out loud and waking the unsuspecting Buck.
As the three boys all showed signs of tiring Chris prodded Buck awake so he could put the two youngest to bed while he escorted Ezra up the steep stairs to the attic. There were two rooms, the first was a gallery that looked out over the living room, and the second was reached through this gallery. This room was long and narrow and was empty but for two single metal-framed beds, one of which was made up. There were two small windows at the far end one each side of the chimney-breast.
"You just might be able to get out of one of the windows, but it is a good twelve foot drop and even if you made it uninjured it is right outside my room and I am a very light sleeper," Chris warned. "You may also be thinking that the door lock is very basic and you can pick it with the lock pick I know you have someplace." Ezra was suddenly very conscious of the lock pick lost somewhere in the lining of his jacket. "But," Chris continued. "a lock pick won't get you very far against a bolt." Chris drew Ezra's attention to the heavy bolt on the outside of the bedroom door. Ezra looked at the bed, noting his bag had already been put in the room. Then he nodded, and stepped into the room.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was not planning on running, not yet. He was intending to go through with the plan, in his own way. Larabee had made it plain he was going to be there for only one week, in fact less, just five days. Even if he didn't find out anything, in one week he would be rescued. He had heard them speaking about young Vin's experiences. He wasn't afraid of being hungry or uncomfortable, he had been hungry before and slept in places most people wouldn't put a dog in. True Vin had been beaten, but Vin had been caught, Ezra wasn't planning to get caught. He wasn't planning on doing anything to get himself caught. He would just bide his time for five short days and he would be free. If he didn't he would be prosecuted in a multi-thousand dollar land fraud. The most likely result of this was that he would end up in some place like Stockwell or even worse for who knew how long. This way he could clear his name, with the minimum of effort and only a little discomfort.
Well that had been the plan. Then he had seen Vin trooping out of the bathroom behind Buck who was carrying JD swathed in a towel. Ezra wasn't to know that this was the first time Buck had picked JD up since he was attacked. JD was so happy he couldn't do anything but wrap his arms around Buck's neck and grin. Vin had his towel wound around his waist as he passed Ezra who was waiting for his own bath. He looked down at the smaller boy. The marks on his back were fading, but still visible, pale red, pink, maroon, some would one day be scars, but most would fade in a year or two. Ezra noted just how thin the boy was. He had been hungry before, but never hungry enough to ever look like young Vin still did. Then Vin had looked so sad all evening. He was still going to go through with his version of the plan, but if he happened upon something of interest he could take note, pass it on, what could it hurt?
+ + + + + + +
Buck still didn't like the plan, and said so. "Ain't right Chris. That place is poison, how can you agree to sent a kid, even one like him to that place? He may be a thief but he don't deserve to go to Stockwell."
Vin didn't stay to hear the rest of the argument. He had been sure the men in the big car were there to collect him. But nothing had happened so he half convinced himself they weren't. Then the man had been there. Right in front of him. He had found him. He knew Chris didn't want to send him back. But Chris had explained that sometimes adults had to do things they didn't want to do. That the law was more powerful than one person. He knew he was a thief. He had stolen from the pantry; something he had never told Chris. Even though he had been forced to do it, even though it was for food because he was hungry, it was still stealing. He crept back to his room and waited for Chris and Buck to go to bed. He didn't have to wait long, Buck was still tired and since his shoulder ached he wanted to get to bed which was marginally more comfortable then the chair. Chris decided to retire with his current book.
+ + + + + + +
Clinten Rance looked up from his desk as his brother-in-law walked in. "Well?" he asked, putting down his pen.
"It was him. That same straggly long hair, same blue eyes, yeah it was him. Why you so worried about him, the kid don't know nothing."
"'Doesnt know anything', why my sister though to marry some one so uneducated is beyond me?" Rance gave the other man an exasperated look.
"Suited your purpose though didn't it, where would you be without me? I'll tell you, a whole hell of a lot poorer, thats where!"
"That is beside the point. We don't know he didn't see anything, He was in that truck for hours, who knows what he saw and heard? And why is this Judge Travis holding him as a material witness? And why in the custody of a deputy sheriff? It's fishy I tell you. We need the brat back. Besides it's bad practice not to bring runaways back, encourages the others."
+ + + + + + +
Vin lay awake waiting for the house to go completely silent. Tears ran unchecked down his cheeks. He didn't want to leave, he loved Chris. He loved JD and Buck and the horses and the ranch. He loved his bed, and his toys. But he just couldn't face going back to Stockwell, he just couldn't. On his own would be better than that. And if he didn't go back then Chris wouldn't have to feel guilty about sending him back and breaking his promise. Adults were always breaking promises. In Vin's experience it was mostly because they didn't care, but Chris cared, so he would be very unhappy if the law made him break his promise.
Once he was sure the house was asleep he crept out of bed and tiptoed out to the kitchen. It was true Chris was a light sleeper but Vin was a silent mover and he woke no one. In the kitchen he filled his pockets and an old flour sack with bread, cheese, ham, cookies and apples. He darent] turn a tap on because the pipes made all kinds of strange noise first thing in the morning, so he took the canteen from the kitchen door with him and filled it from the horse trough. He had worried about taking the food and canteen, even about the clothes but had decided Chris would understand. If he got a job when he was safe he would send back the money, he reasoned.
Finally, after he had said goodbye to Tsar and all the horses and given Special Day a hug, Vin set out on his own across the fields towards the forest-covered hillside.
Josiah Sanchez's car drew up outside the house very early, dawn was still a good hour away. Chris had roused a very groggy and reluctant Ezra a half hour before, given him coffee, which the boy insisted he had to have before he could face the day, and some toast. Then with a bag of sandwiches he turned him over to the priest, whom he had just deputised. The good father would drive Standish to Seattle. There he would be arraigned by Judge Thompson. The Judge was an old friend of Travis; he was a very old friend, and due to retire in just two days. Then his ongoing cases would be handed over to other judges, including Travis; Ezra's case would come to him. This way there would be no names on Ezra's paper work linking him to Vin's case. Whose horse he stole and where, was kept vague. Ezra remained silent on the long trip. He played with the deck of cards from the night before, which Chris had said he could keep, practising his dexterity, making the desired card come to the head of the deck. He tried not to think about the week that lay ahead of him.
Once they arrived at the courthouse Josiah handed Ezra over to the bailiff. He turned kind pale blue eyes on him. Despite his efforts the boy had still not said more than a few words, and these had only been to answer direct questions when absolutely necessary.
"Young man, I have to leave you now," Josiah began. "I know what you are doing, and it is a very fine thing. Have faith Ezra, Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington are men of honour, men of their word, they will not abandon you."
Instantly Ezra's eyes shot up to look at the huge man. How did he know? Ezra wondered. This had been the fear gnawing away at him during the long drive. So many times he had been forgotten, abandoned, betrayed. Why, he wondered, had he though it would be different this time? Why had he let himself think that Larabee would not betray him and just leave him behind? His mother had, why would a stranger be any different?
"You are doing a good thing, maybe you intend just to just bide your time until the week is up and then say you could find nothing. I can't know what is in your heart. But even if you only thought of helping once, even if you can't or won't act on it, it is still a good thing my son. And I don't think you are a bad person. I think you have been dealt some rough hands, but you are still a straight player."
Ezra said nothing, he just looked up at the man, then he gave the slightest nod of his head and turned away to go with the waiting bailiff. Josiah when into the courtroom and watched Ezra's hearing. It wasn't a long hearing, and it went as planned. When it was over Ezra stood to be led away to Stockwell. As he was going he turned to search out Sanchez. Their eyes met, with just his eyes Ezra said, I've changed my mind, get me out! All Josiah could send back to him equally silently was. Too late, be brave.
+ + + + + + +
After seeing Ezra and Josiah off Chris looked in on Buck who hadn't stirred and the boys who had been equally quiet. He noted that Buck was still sleeping on his front, which wasn't normal for him so his shoulder must still be hurting him, he reasoned. The boys were no more than a hump in the middle of the bed. He eased the door shut and decided just for once that he would go back to bed, just for a while. When he woke up it was nearly ten.
"Aw hell!" he swore as he pulled on his pants and went running out of the bedroom. "Why didn't you wake me guys?" he bellowed.
No one responded. The house was quiet, he ran into the kitchen to find no one and no evidence of breakfast, the dishes from the night before were still on the drainer where he had left them the night before after washing them. He looked outside; everything was peaceful, no small boys running wild, no trail of hay, and no escaping chickens. Walking back inside he checked on Buck who was still sleeping. Then he checked the boys; they too appeared to be asleep. Well they were about to get up, he decided. When he reached the bed he found it contained not children but pillows.
A feeling of icy fear washed over him as he searched the room. What he found or more accurately failed to find scared him even more, no Pony - well, that wasn't unexpected- no Snow, no baseball mitt, no marbles, no harmonica, and a set of Vin's clothes were missing. Everything Vin held precious was missing. Worse still, under the bed he found the dungarees Vin had shed so quickly the evening before, they weren't damp any more but the smell was unmistakable. He couldn't believe that Vin was still so insecure he would run away just because he had an accident. And where was JD? He quickly searched the rest of the house and out buildings with no success. Now near-panicked he had to wake Buck and tell him both boys were missing.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had been going for about three hours, when he heard something following him. He turned around to scrutinise the dark forest behind him; coming out of a deep shadow was his pursuer. This however was no federal agent or spectre from his past. This was a small figure in an old-fashioned nightshirt, over which there was a jacket and wearing sturdy boots. JD looked up at Vin, and seeing he was being watched waved at Vin, and breaking into a run, hurried to catch up.
+ + + + + + +
"JD! What are ya doing here?" Vin demanded of the smaller boy.
"Hi Vin, are you s'ploring? Can I come? Are we havin' an adventure?" JD asked with enthusiasm.
"NO, JD! You have to go back."
JD suddenly looked shocked, Vin had never shouted at him, and he wasn't sure what to do about it.
"JD JD you have to go home now," Vin implored.
Still the little boy just stood there. "Why?" he asked.
"'Cause ya can't come with me, now go home."
"Yer too small, 'sides Buck 'll be worried 'bout ya."
"He'll worry 'bout you too an' Chris. Vin is you runnin' away?" JD asked as the truth dawned on him.
Vin didn't say anything; he just regarded the boy for a long time. He really liked JD, even if he was annoying sometimes. JD was the first person who had been kind to Vin since his mom died. The only person who had ever given him something precious of their own, just because it would make him happy. He unconsciously felt the reassuring hard lumps in his pockets, his harmonica and Snow. His marbles and mitt were safe in the flour sack.
"I have t' JD, now please go home," he implored.
"Them men, you know the ones in the big car who came t' the jail?"
"They was looking fer me," Vin admitted. "They are gonna take me back to to to where I came from. That man we saw in the alley, he was from there."
JD was shocked, he didn't understand all of it but he knew Vin had been in a bad place before he found him.
"To the bad place?" JD asked seeking conformation.
"No Vin, Chris an' Buck won't let them, you live with us now."
"They don't wan'a I know that, but Chris explained it t' me, sometimes grownups have t' do stuff they don't wan'a, 'cause the law makes 'um. See the law it's stronger than one man, Chris says. He says sometimes grownups make promises and they want t' keep 'um they really do but the law makes 'um break them. He says being a grownup is complicated."
"Buck didn't want Ezra to have to go see the Judge," JD stated solemnly.
"See thats what happens, I can't go back JD, not there, I jist can't."
JD was now in a quandary. He wanted to go home, but he also wanted to be with Vin and have an adventure. Slowly he looked behind him at the dark forest. He wasn't sure he could find his way home on his own.
"Please Vin, I don't know how to go home."
Vin took a deep breath. In all honesty he wasn't sure he knew how to get back either, getting back hadn't been important to him.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was dreaming of the delectable Miss Julia Dawson, the waitress at the diner in Eagle Bend who was always so pleased to see him and so obliging. This delectable vision was interrupted by a loud harsh voice calling his name and shaking him, one shake was just a little bit too hard and he awoke with a jolt.
"OW!" he exclaimed, coming fully awake with a start.
"Sorry, come on, get up, we have a problem," Chris instructed.
Buck looked around, it was light out. "What is it? Did Ezra run away?"
"No he went with Josiah, ages ago, it's nearly ten."
"Oh, what's up?"
"The boys are missing."
Suddenly Buck was awake in an instant. Ignoring the early morning ache in his shoulder he was out of bed and dressing as he questioned Chris. "What do you mean missing? They've gone out playing and gone too far?"
"No, Vin has taken everything he owns, Snow, harmonica, everything. And there's something else."
Chris told Buck about Vin's apparent accident.
"You think he ran because of that?" Buck asked incredulously.
"I don't know, and if he did why is JD with him, assuming that is where JD is."
Suddenly Buck looked his friend in the eye. "Jesus - I hope he's with Vin and not on his own some place. You say it's near ten?"
"When did you miss them?"
"Just now, I went back to bed after Josiah left with Ezra, overslept. At first I though they had got up and were outside some place but they had placed pillows under the covers to make it look like someone was in the bed," he explained.
They both searched the ranch and house top to bottom, and found nothing. Chris called the town and spoke to Mrs Potter. She hadn't seen them and would make sure everyone watched out for them, she also promised to go over to the presbytery in case they were there, though of course Josiah wasn't. Josiah did have a housekeeper but Nettie Wells had been on an extended holiday for the last four months looking after her younger sister who was dying. The resourceful ex-missionary had been coping all right, though in truth he did Miss Nettie's cooking.
Finally the two increasingly desperate men had to face the fact that the boys were gone. Despite his protests Chris insisted Buck remain behind in case they came back. Then he saddled up and set out to try and find them.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and JD sat down on a mossy bank and ate some of the food Vin had brought with him. The sun had now burned off the early morning mist and it was looking like it would be a good day. Vin had decided he could take JD far enough back so that he could see the ranch and then set off again. Once they had eaten they lay down to rest before they set out. Having woken at around four a.m. and walked for more than three hours both boys quickly fell asleep. When they woke it was almost noon; they ate some more and set out to head home.
The two boys had been walking for about two hours and Vin was scared, he didn't recognise anything and was beginning to worry he wouldn't be able to get JD home. JD had just chatted away as they walked about everything and nothing. He would stop every now and again to look at things but he seemed unconcerned by their predicament, trusting Vin to look after him. JD was engrossed with the progress of a beetle as it made its way across a log, while a tired Vin tried to work out what to do. Down, he decided; he had to go down, he didn't know where the ranch was or where he was going, but there was a stream and a lake on the ranch and he knew water flowed downhill, so he was going to go down.
"Come on JD, we have to go now," he said as cheerfully as he could manage, taking JD's hand and pulling him away from the beetle.
The two boys had now been on the move on and off for five hours and were now nearly fifteen miles from home. Although Vin's plan to go down was sound, they were going to come out of the forest into the valley nearly ten miles from the ranch.
"Vin did your mama go to God?" JD asked as he trudged beside Vin.
"Yeah, when I was your age." The thin boy said quietly.
"Did she get sick, my mama got sick."
"I don't know." Vin stopped suddenly and looked down at JD. "She just wouldn't wake up one morning. I tried to make her wake up but she wouldn't. I don't really remember it; just that some people came and took me away."
JD walked in silence for a while, then he said. "Vin."
"I'm sorry you didn't have a brother to look after you like me, I don't want the law to make you go away."
The two boys walked on in silence for some time after that.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra watched the undeniably beautiful countryside pass by the window of the police car taking him to Stockwell. His stomach did flips every time he though of it. Was he as good as he thought? Well he was going to have to be. They turned off the road and up a long straight track lined with trees; finally they turned off this along a private drive. Eventually Stockwell came in sight. Beyond the perimeter gate a single building in the form of a capital H appeared. It was built of dark stone, its small barred windows were dark, the roof slates were dark.
He found himself in Rance's office, just as Vin had, and just like Vin he got the same speech about working hard. The man took in Ezra's better than average clothing, his confident stance and the lack of fear in his piercing emerald eyes. Boys who showed no fear worried Rance. He remembered Tanner had shown no fear when he had first stood in front of him. Ezra's lack of fear was an act. It was an act he was good at. He's been doing it all his young life.
"Standish, you ever worked boy, ever got dirty? Sweaty?" he asked.
"Yes sir." Well that at least was the truth.
"I worked in an orchard sir, thinning the crop."
"Really." It wasn't a question, more a statement of incredulity.
"Yes sir, last week, sir." Ezra didn't reckon it would hurt to throw in as many 'sirs' as possible.
"You're a weasel Standish, a liar and a cheat and a thief, but a bit of genuine hard work will knock that out of you." Rance had met boys like Ezra before and no amount of 'sirs' would win him over.
"Yes sir," Ezra admitted.
He was marched down a long corridor from Rance's office to a wide staircase, by two burly men in dark uniforms. At the top of the second flight of stairs, stairs that extended up for one more floor, was a metal grill. Ezra watched quietly as the guard opened the door in the grill, which ran from floor to ceiling. Easy lock, won't take more than 30 seconds to open. He noted. Once through the grill, which was locked behind them, he found he was on a long narrow landing. To his left about half way down was another partition and a door, but this one was solid. He was walked down the landing past several doors; some of the doors were open revealing plain rooms with four bunks in each. The floors were like the landing; plain wooded boards, mostly worn and frayed. Ezra made a mental note never to go bare-foot or risk picking up some serious splinters. He reached what appeared to be his room. It was one of the big rooms that made up the two wings.
"You're in here, it's mainly little kids in here but it's the only free bed right now," the guards informed him. "That's your bed." He pointed to a bottom bunk with a rolled up thin mattress, and a rather stained pillow but no bedding. With that the guard left him. Ezra watched him disappear down as far as the stairs, unlock the grill and go downstairs.
Ezra decided to explore. The rooms were all open and deserted. All the windows were bared, there were no drapes, all the walls were painted in a dingy yellowing cream colour. All over the paint was peeling, there was evidence of damp mostly near the ceiling suggesting the roof was in need of attention. He hated to think what the attic rooms were like. Several windows were cracked or broken. From the evidence of paper shoved into the holes some had been broken a long time. In the corner between the wing and the long landing he found a cupboard containing clean looking sheets and pillow cases, towels and even blankets. At the end of the long landing he found two rooms containing basins, urinals and stalls. Hopefully there are some more extensive washing facilities some place else, Ezra thought to himself as he viewed the rather primitive facilities. Returning to his room Ezra had a good look at the other beds. There were four bunks down each side and two against the far wall, making twenty beds in all. They all had the same plain grey blanket, they were all immaculately made, there was no evidence that anyone slept in the beds; no personal possessions, no toys, no pictures, not so much a crucifix. Looking inside one of the small bedside lockers he found a neat pile consisting of a folded shirt, and a single set of underclothes. And that was all. He had seen towels handing in the wash room. Thinking it prudent to do as the others did, Ezra made his bed up in the same way as the others and hung his towel on the only empty hook in the bathroom. The hooks were numbered from 1 to 42.
"Standish!" He spun around from his bed-making at the voice calling him. Out side the room he met another guard. The man just handed him a small pile of clothing, like the things he had found in the lockers; one pair of undershorts, one pair of socks, one undershirt and a grey top shirt, as well as a pair of blue striped pyjamas. "Put those away and come with me."
+ + + + + + +
Vin and JD had had a second stop for food and a drink and were now on their way again. Both boys were now very tired and foot sore.
"Are we nearly home yet Vin?" JD whined. He was now trailing some way behind and had ceased to find the flora and fauna interesting. He just trudged, scuffing his boots in the dry soil as he went.
Vin sighed. He didn't know where home was, so how did he know if they were near it, but he couldn't tell JD that. Home, he called it home, it had only been that for a short time but it had seemed so right. Tears ran unchecked down his cheeks as he walked, clouding his vision.
"Vin?" JD whined again.
"I er..." Vin fought to get the tremble out of his voice. "No JD, we're not near yet." He decided not to raise false hope in the five-year-old.
"Oh, okay," was JD's brave response.
Vin looked back. He had forgotten JD was only wearing his nightshirt, a jacket and boots. The long garment was filthy, the bottom almost black, torn and ripped. As he waited for the little boy to catch up he noticed that JD was now limping. Vin was about to ask what was wrong with him but though better of it, he didn't think he could carry JD very far even if he was small for his age. The only way to get help was to walk so he though it best not to draw attention to it since JD wasn't whining about it, yet.
They walked on in silence for another hour, their pace getting slower and slower as they were both tired and JD began to limp more and more. His foot hurt, it hurt a lot but he wasn't going to complain. If you told someone when something hurt you got taken to the doctor, he wasn't going to risk that. So intent was Vin on keeping going he almost didn't realise when they came down out of the trees in to an open pasture. Suddenly looking up he took in the view before him and turned to JD who was by now nearly fifty yards behind.
"Come on JD!" he yelled.
The little boy looked up hopefully, and broke into a limping trot. "Are we there?" he called as he ran.
"No but I think I know where we are, look." Vin pointed across the fields in front of him.
There, quite clearly, was the road. Vin and JD reached it in about half an hour. "Which way Vin?" JD asked looking both ways in bewilderment.
"Well, when we come out of the ranch we go right to get to town and I know what the road looks like from there to town and I don't recognise this bit so the ranch must be that way." He pointed to the right.
JD didn't understand but he trusted Vin, and not waiting to be asked he set off down the road.
"No JD!" Vin called after him. JD turned to look at him, as much as to ask why. "The men, the men in the car, what if they drive by, I have to stay off the road, come on!" He headed off the road back into the fields. "We can follow the road from here," he called over his shoulder.
JD just shrugged and hobbled after him. Going through the fields slowed them even more and it took the two bedraggled and exhausted boys nearly five hours to cover the eight miles to the Circle T turn-off. Vin knew JD was hungry but he had to save the rest of the food for himself.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra's introduction to his fellow inmates had come at the evening meal. This consisted of bread and jam, an apple, and water to drink. As usual he scanned the room, which was huge, he noted the exits - all guarded; the kitchen - not so well guarded; the windows - all barred. He took in the occupants. The tables closest to the servery were occupied by the youngest, the furthest tables by the oldest boys. Considering there were nearly two hundred boys in the room it was almost silent, only the noise of plates and tin mugs moving and the murmur of guards chatting broke an unnatural silence. Oh Lord, Ezra, what have you got yourself into? He asked himself. The guard behind him shoved him forward toward an empty chair on a nearby table, a plate of food and a mug of water were already waiting for him. Clearly the boys were terrified of the guards, and considering what he had heard of Vin's treatment he wasn't surprised.
It was a different story once the boys were escorted back to their landings. Once the doors were locked there were no guards and the older boys and their gangs ruled. There were three floors and three main gangs. From what Ezra saw and heard clearly he wasn't the only one who found the locks ludicrously easy to open. There was about two hours of what was called 'free association', then a bell sounded. At that point all the boys scrambled to line up outside their respective bathrooms. Ezra just followed the herd. He had made a point of not getting to know anyone yet, he tried to stand back and observe. Once they were lined up two guards appeared and checked each boy off on a list as they watched them wash and use the toilet facilities. Ezra noticed for the first time with horror that the stalls had no doors. Once this was accomplished and Ezra thought if he had to do it again he would die of shame. All the boys retired to bed and the lights went out. That should have been it until the morning but clearly no guards would return until the morning because as soon as they were gone the older boys re-emerged from their rooms.
It was still dusk outside, and some light still penetrated the small windows. Three large boys came into the large dorm where Ezra lay on his bed, trying his best to be inconspicuous.
"You, new boy!" One of them advanced on him menacingly. "Up new boy!" A large hand grabbed his pyjama front, and yanked him out of bed.
A quick look around the room told him he wasn't going to get any help. So far as he could see the boys in his dorm fell into two categories, those who were indeed hardened juvenile criminals and the others, who were like Vin, innocents caught up in the system. He was dragged over to the room of the gang leader.
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