Buck had calmly sat on the edge of Nathan's table and let Jackson clean his foot, and prod and poke it a bit. He has flinched a few times but that was all. Suddenly Ezra, closely followed by JD, entered the small room. They quickly positioned themselves on either side of the boy.
"Have no fear young sir, Mr Jackson is quite accomplished and will facilitate the removal of the offending object from your foot expeditiously," Ezra explained.
Nathan and JD just gave a joint exasperated sigh; they barely followed what he had just said; how in the hell did he expect a four-year-old to understand it? But Buck just laughed.
"Say it again! Say it again!" he squealed, hardly noticing that Nathan had taken a pair of tweezers to his foot.
"I can see you are a young man of taste, Master Buck, I believe you and I will become the most amiable of companions."
Buck just giggled. "You talk funny," he stated. "Ow! Ow, ow, ow!" The distraction couldn't block out the pain as the inch long splinter was pulled out, and he tried to pull his foot away.
"Now keep still," Nathan warned. "That was the worst bit, see." He held up the long bloody splinter in the tweezers for them all to see.
"Was that in my foot?" Buck asked eye wide with wonder.
"Yup, now hold still while I get it all cleaned up." Nathan was deliberately going slow, now the foreign body was out, the wound was bleeding freely and this would help to flush out any dirt and small splinters still embedded deep in the heel. "And if you like I'll put a new bandage on your finger," he offered. JD's effort was now fairly black and ragged. Buck proudly held out his finger for Nathan to inspect.
It took a good half hour to re-bandage the finger, clean up the heel and bandage it before Nathan said Buck could go. He had put three layers of bandage on the foot so hopefully no dirt would get through and informed the adults, that until his boots were ready Buck must stay inside and wear socks.
"I think," Ezra announced. "That someone deserves some candy for being so brave."
"Yeah!" Buck shouted instantly reaching for Ezra to carry him.
JD scowled as Standish lifted the boy into his arms and headed to the door, he had been about to suggest that, now the damn gambler with all his money was going to have the all the fun. He wanted to say something about candy not being good for kids, but instead he just followed quietly behind them still scowling. They were at the bottom of the steps that lead up to the clinic when Buck suddenly turned in Ezra's arms to look at JD.
"Can Chris have candy too?" he asked, either not noticing the dark expression on the young sheriff's face or not caring.
The fact that it was he, the boy turned to for a lead brightened JD's outlook considerably. "Yeah, of course he can, I think he and Vin are still in here." With that he ducked into the livery to find Vin and young Chris.
+ + + + + + +
In the store Ezra would happily have brought the boys as much candy as they wanted, but remembering Chris' difficulties with too much rich food the night before, Vin and JD were adamant it was to be one thing only. One thing was one more than either boy had had in a long time, and while Buck picked out the stick of lemon flavour candy he wanted quickly, Chris was bewildered by the choice. It had been more than a year and a half since he had even seen candy let alone ate it. Vin bent down beside him.
"Having trouble deciding?" he asked.
Chris nodded, still gazing at the jars of treats. "I I can't remember what they taste like," he whispered to Vin.
"Well I'm right partial to fudge, myself." Vin pointed to the jar containing big squares of a light brown coloured substance, I reckon three of them is 'bout the same as Buck's candy stick.
"What if I don't like it?" Chris was worried he would choose something he didn't like and he would have wasted his chance to have some candy.
"Here dear," Gloria Potter had been listening and handed down a tiny sliver of fudge. "Try a little first."
Chris looked at Vin who nodded his approval, before he accepted the proffered sample and put it in his mouth. A huge smile instantly appeared. "My Mom made this I remember it!" he suddenly said, switching his attention from Vin to the candy jars.
"Three squares was it?" Mrs Potter verified with Vin, before selecting the three biggest.
As well as the candy, which Ezra paid for, Gloria gave each boy a cookie, on the house. Once out on the side walk Buck remembered that Mr Nathan had told him not to go outside unless he was carried, so he turned to Ezra and held up his arms, expecting to be instantly lifted up. Ezra however was viewing the boy in a new light; a light that illuminated very sticky hands grasping a half munched cookie in one and well-licked candy stick in the other and an interesting combination of both around the mouth.
JD just snorted and brushing past Standish, scooped Buck up and strode off down the sidewalk toward the jail. Ezra was still standing there as Vin and Chris walked past him. Deciding that even if he couldn't bring himself to pick up a sticky child, he did want to be part of whatever was going on. There was just something about the small boy that drew him in, something that made him feel good, though just what it was he couldn't say.
+ + + + + + +
Something drew Jackson and Sanchez to the jail as well, though neither one could say what was. The two boys sat on the porch chairs and ate their candy as the men sat inside the sheriff's office, with the door open, deciding what to do. Vin passed on everything Chris had told him. His narrative had the same effect on his four friends as it had had on him, although he doubted they felt it so personally. When Vin told them the orphanage was run by Catholic brothers Josiah slammed his fist down on the table with such force the others all jumped.
"This this is why I left, the the hypocrisy! Suffer the little children He said, well they made them suffer all right!" Josiah shoved his chair back and stood so forcefully the chair hit the wall, the ex-priest stalked the room. "How? How in the name of God could they do that?"
The others knew enough about Josiah's temper to say nothing, just sit still and let him blow, but the boys didn't. Until then the men had kept their tone low, but Josiah's outburst had reached them out on the porch. He was still ranting when he spun around to face the two boys standing in the doorway, wide-eyed with fear. He stopped dead, instinctively moving toward them, to reassure the pair everything was all right. Just as instinctively the boys pulled back a step.
"'Siah," Vin warned quietly. The big man pulled back into the room as Nathan got up slowly and walked to the boys. He could see they were on the edge, ready to run in an instant. He stopped and knelt in front of the boys close enough to be able to see their faces and expressions and not so close as to scare them.
"Boys, Josiah didn't mean to scare you, he makes a lot of noise when he gets angry." Fear flashed across both boys, Chris instinctively put an arm around Buck. "But he isn't angry with you, he will never be that angry with you. He wants to help you, just like me an' Vin an' Ezra an' JD."
Chris looked past Nathan to the preacher, he still looked mad but he wasn't shouting any more, and he wasn't calling them mean things, and he wasn't threatening them.
"What is Mr Josiah mad at?" Buck asked innocently.
"Mr Vin told us about the place you used to live at, an' how the men there were unkind to you, and that made Mr Josiah angry, not at you, but angry at the people who were mean to you."
Buck looked at JD. "Does Mr Josiah pro...tec people like you do?" he asked looking very serious.
"Yes he does, we all do," JD assured.
Buck turned back to Chris. "See I told you, they going to pro tec us too." He looked back at JD. "You said that didn't you, me and Chris?"
"Yes both of you," JD confirmed.
Chris wasn't sure. Mr Josiah was a preacher, the lady on the stairs had said that, and he talked about God, Chris still couldn't be sure he wasn't like the brothers at the orphanage.
Nathan stepped back so Josiah could approach. He was calm now and smiling, his voice back to it's soft gentle tones.
"Boys, I am very sorry I scared you, please believe me I would never do anything to hurt you or any child, never." He remained in front of them, on one knee for what seemed like an age. Of all of the five adults, Josiah was the only one neither boy had been physically close to since they arrived, less than twenty-four hours earlier. As Vin watched he found it hard to believe it had been such a short time. Finally it was the ever accepting and trusting Buck, all ways eager for everyone to be happy, who approached the former priest. He put his very sticky hands around the big man's huge neck and gave him a huge.
"Don't be cross Mr Josiah, you can pro tec us now," he announced.
Josiah for his part put one huge hand on Bucks little back and gave it a rub. "It will be and honour to protect you, son."
Without letting go of Josiah Buck turned around to look at Chris.
"It 's alright, he's one of them," he announced.
Chris edged forward like a semi-wild animal working up the courage to accept a tit bit from a human hand, but finally he was close enough to Josiah to extend his hand formally. The two of them, man and boy shook.
"Thank you, young Christopher, for trusting me," Josiah said formally.
No one had used Chris full name except to tell him off for so long it sounded strange, but also good and Chris found himself smiling without even knowing it.
+ + + + + + +
The five men found themselves talking in circles. They were determined that the boys would not return to the institution from which they had run, and that they needed to find them some other safe loving place to stay. To do this they needed their legal status to be sorted out first, and for that they needed the judge and to know just where this St Johns was and what the boys full names were. Vin was adamant they should not push Chris on this yet and although Buck might be more willing to part with the information he doubted the four-year-old could be of much help. The only thing they could do was make the boys more comfortable while they were in town. To this end it was decided to clear out the third room above the jail.
The jail at Four Corners had been converted from an early trading post, it was built of sturdy logs and unusually for that time had two storeys. The cells ran the length of the building at the back and were only accessible from the side street and the office. Above the living room-come-kitchen and the sheriffs office were three bedrooms, the two at either end of the building were large and airy, and a third, in the middle, just to the left of the stairs. It was much smaller and narrow, but it had a window, and though it had no fire place of its own the chimney breast from the kitchen range came up to form part of one wall, any fire in the kitchen grate would keep the room warm. Only the first sheriff, who made the conversion, had had a family, all the subsequent incumbents were bachelors, so the room hadnt been used for years. Everything each successive occupant of the office left behind was piled up in the small room.
"We cin clean it out an make up a bed fer um," Vin announced.
The words clean it out sent a shiver of dread through Ezra.
Seeing his look of horror Vin took pity. "Aw dont panic Ez you cin provide us with food un drink an keep the boys outa mischief."
"Indeed, Brother Jackson and I will clean," Josiah announced.
"We will?" Nathan enquired, not seeing why only they should do the dirty work.
"Of course, Vin and JD will sort out what is to go and what is to stay," the big preacher announced.
The seven of them set to with a will, boxes, trunks, old saddle bags, carpet bags, cases and all manner of other containers were carried down stairs to be opened. To the boys it was like Christmas as each new container was unpacked. Most of what they found was useless, clothes and private papers of men long since departed Four Corners or even life itself. But they did find some boys clothes that, once laundered, would be useful, a big heavy chamber pot, a quilt, a wash jug and basin and under all the junk a fine bedstead. Its horse hair mattress was dusty but perfectly serviceable. Nathan dragged this down to the porch before going in search of carpet beaters; since the male dominated sheriff's accommodation did not boast such an implement. Before he returned Josiah came down stairs to announce he needed some help.
"You know this is a very small room I'm gonna need someone small and nimble to help me clean it," he explained.
Instantly Chris jumped up from the floor where he was helping JD unpack a box of papers.
"I can help," he announced.
"Me too, me too!" Buck cried jumping up and down on the couch.
"Well, I'm not sure I " Josiah hesitated, he wasn't sure how much help Buck could be, but he was fairly sure how much trouble he would be.
"Oh no you don't," Nathan announced, as he came back in. "You can't go poking around up there until it's properly swept, no knowing what there is up there on the floor."
Buck looked desperately disappointed; his bottom lip began to quiver. "'S not fair," he complained. "I wanna help too."
"Oh come here," Nathan gave in somewhat. "You can help me beat the mattress." He held out his hand to the four-year-old.
Buck didn't think beating a mattress was a good as what ever Chris was going to get to do, but it was better than doing nothing, so he climbed down of the couch and trooped outside with Nathan. Ezra, Vin and JD exchanged looks, collectively shook their heads and carried on sorting. The contents of the room were divided into three piles, rubbish to be burned, things that were useful and to be kept, though most needed a good cleaning, and valuables. These consisted of, a pocket watch - fairly cheap but in working order, a small string of pearls - broken, a cameo, a silver backed hairbrush, a set of mother of pearl shirt studs and six dollars fifty in small change. Ezra made a reasonable guess at their value and than made a suggestion.
"I propose to hand you gentlemen the value of these items in return for them, since it will take some time to sell them at a good price, I suggest this money is held by you to provide for the boys. They will need nightshirts, underclothes, socks, hats, at the very least, and in the future who knows what else."
Vin and JD looked at each other, it was a good plan, in three years they hadn't even bothered to look at the contents of the room once, and any money therein was of no interest to them. Since the boys were to sleep there it seemed right they should have it.
Chris found he was enjoying cleaning as he never had before, and at St John's he had done a huge amount of cleaning, but not like this. The bedstead was brass but it was very dull, what Josiah needed was someone small enough to get behind the bed in the small room and with nimble enough hands to rub polish into and around the decorative brass work. Chris hadn't thought much of the process of applying the polish, which just made the dull metal duller, and then Sanchez showed him how to rub of the dried polish to reveal the shiny metal below. Chris just loved it, he would rub with vigour to get the brass as shiny as possible, it was an almost magical process.
Buck was wrong about mattress beating being not as much fun as brass cleaning. He was having a whale of a time beating the mattress with the long wicker paddle. Clouds of dust rose around him and Nathan. In truth, strong though he was for his age Buck's strokes were doing very little, most of the dust was coming from Nathan's powerful blows, but that was immaterial, he was having fun.
By the time the bed was gleaming and Nathan pronounced the mattress well and truly beaten another trip to the bathhouse was defiantly the order of the day. Buck was covered from head to toe in a thin layer of dust and Chris had polish on his hands, arms and cheeks. While Nathan took care of the bathing and re-bandaging Buck's heel, the remaining men made the room ready. They made up the bed with clean sheets and pillows, plus the quilt they had found, (which had also had also been beaten), placed the two makeshift nightshirts on the bed, tacked half an old Indian blanket over the window to serve as a curtain and then hooked it back on a convenient nail until it was needed. The floor was swept clean and the clip rug from JD's room put down, and last but not least, the fine old chamber pot was tucked under the bed. If some of the villains they had tangled with had seen the famously tough law men of Four Corners fussing over their housework to get the little room just so, they would have thought again about their decisions to surrender, or give Four Corners a wide birth; and the women of the town might well have fainted with shock.
+ + + + + + +
The boys were still in the bath tub, still sharing, despite there being two available, when Vin came. He had with him the boys temporary night things and two blankets.
"I thought, now that yer all clean an all it'd be better fer ya not t' put them dusty clothes back on." He put down the blankets on a bench. "Reckon it'a be best if'n ya put these on now."
"That is an excellent idea Vin," Nathan announced.
Buck barely even registered what was being suggested, Chris was however frowning at Vin. "I'm too old," he stated firmly.
"I reckon so but it's jist till ya've got more clean clothes t' put on, jist fer tonight, I tell ya it's right nice t' git out of a warm bath an' put on som'in' clean," Vin encouraged.
"But I don't wanna walk across the street in my nightshirt," Chris protested.
"I know, that's what the blankets is for, gonna wrap ya up all snug an' then me an' Nate 'll carry ya back home."
Chris didn't respond for a bit, somehow even Bucks happy splashing faded into the background. He didn't want to be carried across the street, he wasn't a baby any more, but then again something inside him ached to be held and cuddled and made 'snug' as Vin had put it. And then there was that word Vin had used, 'home'. The jail wasn't his home; it was Vin and JD's home but not his. His home was back in Indiana, a little dirt farm, a two room cabin where he had lived with his grandparents and parents, and his Auntie until she got married. He tried to remember her name but he couldn't, he could just remember the wedding because he had walked in front of his aunt carrying the ring to the preacher. Then his Pa had said they were leaving home to go West, it would be a great adventure he said, and at the end they would have a new home. But they never go to the new home, so he reasoned his home was still in Indiana. He was taking Buck to find the new home his Pa told him about, because he had no home at all, thats what the brothers said anyway. They said he was a 'fatherless child of wickedness, debauchery and sin, that no Christian family would ever give a home to,' Chris didn't know what debauchery was but it didn't sound like nice word to him. And besides that Buck wasn't a sinner and he wasn't wicked, he just tried to make people happy. Now Tommy Vaughan was a bully, he hit little kids, he said mean things to everyone; sometimes so mean kids would hit him, then they would get into trouble but not Tommy, and he took stuff and kept it or broke it. Tommy was a sinner but the brothers liked him. It just didn't make any sense. It was all too much for Chris, too much too quickly.
"No! I ain't gonna! I ain't and you can't make me!" With that outburst Chris jumped out of the bath and grabbing a towel of the bench beside Nathan ran to the far corner of the large bathhouse.
Buck looked up from his game of making patterns in the water with the soap scum. He saw Chris huddled in the corner and the confused worried faces of the adults and suddenly felt very insecure and unsafe, like any four year old his immediate response was to bust out crying and try to reach the one person who could make him feel safe. Climbing out of the bath and making no attempt to cover himself he tried to get to Chris, only to be thwarted by Nathan who enveloped him in a towel an lifted him up.
"No! I want Chris! " he wailed, squirming to get away. For once Chris didn't instantly spring to his defence; he was too consumed by his own emotional turmoil.
Vin stepped forward and helped Nathan wrap Buck more firmly in a blanket had handed him JD's old shirt, he indicated to the door with his head. Nathan nodded and quickly left still carrying the wailing, wriggling Buck in his powerful arms. Vin glanced around, thankful the place was empty except for the owner, who was know as the most tactfully tight lipped man in town.
"Chris?" he breathed almost silently as he walked very slowly toward the quaking child, finally squatting in front of him.
The eight-year-old didnt respond he just glared balefully at Vin from the corner where he was sitting with his knees pulled up tight to his chest his arms wrapped tightly around them.
"Im sorry ifn I said somin' t scare ya, Id like t understand so as I can help." Vin resisted the temptation to move closer and gather the clearly terrified and angry boy into a hug.
Vin wasnt a tactile person; he didnt seek out physical contact. Josiah was a great one for huge bear hugs either of encouragement or relief or just for fun. JD seemed to thrive on them, Nathan seemed, well mostly he seemed surprised and somehow honoured, Ezra was much like himself, he found it uncomfortable and for the most part Josiah didnt include them in his outward displays of affection. And yet he felt the need to hug Chris, to make him feel the protection and security Vin had vowed to give him.
"Dont wanna be carried like no baby," Chris finally stated defiantly. "An I dont care if ya paddle me or lock me in a closet or or or," he looked deep into Vins clear blue eyes. "I didnt care! I dont and you cant make me!"
"I wont make you, it wasnt mean t be a punishment, I jist though ita be nice for ya t be all fresh an clean, ifn ya want you cin put yer clothes back on. Youre a big boy you can choose for yerself now."
Vin waited for Chris to decide what to do. Eight wasnt all that old, but he had been on his own, taking responsibility for Buck for who knew how long, Chris was a boy who had had to grow up much too fast. Vin knew all about growing up fast, he remembered how hard it was, life made you act like an adult and part of you was proud to be able to do that, but deep inside you were just longing for some adult to come along and say, dont worry, Ill look after everything now. As he watched Chris began to shiver, he was drying quickly and the thin towel he had grabbed wasnt doing much of a job to keep him warm. Slowly Vin stood up and collected a pile of clothes near the now abandoned bath, then returned to Chris.
"Ya cold?" he enquired quietly.
Eventually Chris nodded. Vin handed him his underwear.
"Ya want a hand?"
Chris shook his head as he tugged on the under garments. So Vin just watched him dress himself. Finally when Chris was dressed Vin stood. Chris was now standing pressed into the corner, showing no sign he was going to move. For his part Vin just began gathering up Bucks small pile of clothing, the second blanket and Chris night things.
"Well that looks t be all of it, Inez said shed send over beef stew tnight. I tell ya that girl cin cook, aint never tasted better stew than she makes, you comin'?"
This last question was almost a throw-away line as he headed to the door. Chris was confused. Usually when he shouted at adults they got angry and punished him, Vin was just ignoring it. Before he could worry about this though his tummy rumbled. So without saying anything he stepped forward and followed the tracker across the now dark street to the well lit jail.
+ + + + + + +
Buck didnt stop crying once as Nathan hurried across the street in the gathering gloom. Once inside the warm living quarters of the jail house Nathan found both JD and Ezra bearing down on him, demanding to know what was wrong and what he had done to the poor boy to make him sob so. He quickly explained that Chris had become upset, though about what he didnt know and this had scared little Buck. Suddenly Buck registered JD's voice and acting on pure instinct he turned in Nathan's arms and reached for the young sheriff. And JD, like he was born to the role, took him from Nathan, hugged him close and made his way to the couch.
"Hush, shush it's alright, I'm here, you're all right, you're safe, hush." The litany contained as he sat down pulling the trailing blanket close to the child.
"I want Chris!" Buck wailed in between hitched sobs.
"I know you do, I know, I know, but he is upset too and he needs to be with Vin right now, when he is feeling better he'll come over here alright?"
Huge dark blue eyes gazed up at him so full of trust it scared JD, his admiration for what the brave eight year old over at the bath house had achieved soared, because it was scaring him to death to have this child put so much trust in him.
"You you prom ise?" Buck asked.
"Yup I promise, you alright now?" JD looked down. Buck had stopped crying only because now his thumb was firmly in his mouth; his other hand had a death grip on JD's shirt, this state of affairs JD took to mean 'yes'.
Ezra came over to kneel in front of Buck. "How about while we wait for Chris, we get you into your night shirt?" he asked gently.
Buck nodded gently and allowed Ezra to gently place the rolled up shirt over his head, he eventually let go of JD's shirt long enough to put one arm through the sleeve. Getting him to take his thumb out of his mouth took a little longer, but finally he was in his night things and re-wrapped in the blanket still sucking his thumb and clutching JD's shirt. When Vin walked in closely followed by Chris, JD expected Buck to leap up and run to him, but he didn't, he sat up a little but his grip on JD didn't lessen. Chris however walked straight over to him and placed a hand on his arm.
"Are you all right?" he asked earnestly.
"I was scared," Buck admitted.
"Are you scared now?"
"I'm hungry." This last statement brought stifled laughter from the adults.
+ + + + + + +
Two hours later they were all full of beef stew, mashed potato and apple pie, since neither boy had actually got any pie the night before. Nathan didn't let them give Chris too much, but he had been fine tonight. Ezra had then discovered a previously unknown talent for bedtime stories, true to form Buck was asleep with in ten minutes but Chris listened enthralled until the end. Ezra, who had been sitting on the rug cross-legged as he told his tale, got to his feet, and cringed as he tried to shake some life back into his foot.
"Did yer foot go t' sleep?" Chris asked from the bed.
"Indeed it did, most unpleasant." Ezra admitted.
The boys had been so excited about their new room it had taken quite some time to get them settled. Buck had bounced on the bed, climbed on the bed, crawled under the bed and looked out of the window. Chris had tried not to show how pleased he was, but the men had caught him smiling as he ran his fingers over the bedstead and savouring the feel of the fresh pillowcases on his cheek. It was only Ezra's offer of a story that got Buck to stop bouncing.
Ezra limped over to the bed, in the weak light of the turned-down lamp he could just make out Buck's head, mostly dark hair against the white pillow. Gently he ruffled the hair and then bent down and bestowed a soft kiss on to the top of Buck's head.
"Sweet dreams Master Buck," he whispered, then he looked up at Chris lying on the far side of the bed. "I guess you're too old for good night kisses?"
"I guess," Chris admitted.
Ezra contented himself with brushing the back of his hand gently across Chris cheek. "Good night Master Christopher, sleep well."
+ + + + + + +
Vin and JD came to up stairs some three hours later. Somehow both ended up sitting on the floor of the boy's room, resting up against the wall watching the boys sleep by the pale lamp light.
"What are we going to do about them?" JD asked in hushed tones.
"I don't honestly know, I really don't." Vin lapsed back into silence. What I want to do is keep them; keep safe, keep them close, keep them and give them what I never had, he thought.
JD remembered how he had felt when Buck had reached for him; him John Daniel Dunne. What was he? A lawman, not much more than a boy himself. He was not father material, and yet it felt so good, so right. He had been raised by a wonderful mother, who had loved and cherished him, but she was unwed, and it had been hard for her, very hard to earn an honest wage. It would have been very easy for her to become like Buck's mother. It was clear to all of them, not just from what Chris said, but from Buck's own actions just what his mother had been and where he had grown up. He could easily have been Buck. From what Chris had said these 'brothers' had treated poor little Buck terribly just because of his parentage. It could have been me, oh God it could so easily have been me! He realised. And I want to make it right for him, I can't bring his mamma back, but I could try to care for him the way my mom cared for me, protected me, taught me.
"I'm not even old enough to be Chris' father," JD suddenly said out loud.
Vin did some quick mental arithmetic. "I am, just."
"We would have to ask the others to help."
"They wouldn't mind, it's not like it was when we started, town's quieter these days."
"We'd have to make it right, with the judge I mean," JD realised they were thinking the same thing.
"You reckon they'd like it?" Vin hadn't once taken his eyes of the boys.
"Reckon we should ask 'um after we talk to the judge, not raise hopes."
"Yeah, yeah yer right. JD?"
"Are we mad?"
"Reckon so; but it's a wonderful madness ain't it?"
"Hell yes, feels right, even if it is mad."
Continues in Closures
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