Alternate Universe: Runaways
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Author's note: This is sequel to Arrivals and Closures. I am indebted to LT for her wonderful beta work.
Chris lifted his arms and relaxed as Pony obediently picked up the pace to a gentle canter. Arms out at shoulder level, he lifted his head skyward and smiled, beamed, grinned he was so happy. Riding was the best thing in the whole world to the eight-year-old. Pony was circling Vin, attached to a long rain. The young lawman was encouraging the little Indian pony with a long switch; he didn't ever hit the little black, but occasionally tapped the ground behind his hind feet. The riding lessons had started just a days after the Judge had made his ruling placing Chris and his young friend Buck in the protective custody of Vin and Sheriff JD Dunne. Pony was bridle broke and naturally gentle but had never been saddled. So Vin had no option but to teach Chris to ride bareback first (the same way he had learned to ride) and then they would saddle brake him together. Saddle braking was a long way of though, Pony had no saddle and Vin didn't have the money to pay for one on his salary of one dollar a day plus room and board.
Four year old Buck was watching his friend, who was too all intents and purposes his brother, he rode around the corral behind Tiny's livery stable. He wanted to learn to ride, he wanted his own horse, but he wasn't allowed either. Pony wasn't Chris', he was Vin's and it was just a fortunate chance that Chris came into Vin's life while he owned two horses, and that one was too small for him. JD had explained to the younger boy, that even though he was tall for his age, he was too small to ride even Pony - who was the smallest horse in town - and he couldn't afford to buy him his own pony. In compensation JD took Buck out riding with him at least twice a week. He would set Buck in front of him and, with the one arm wrapped around the boy, they would gallop together.
Buck was still watching, perched on the top rail of the fence; when he suddenly looked up and around, gazing up the road out of town. A cloud of dust was just visible on the horizon.
Vin looked over his shoulder to the fence. "Is it time?" Vin enquired.
"Uh-huh." The boy nodded vigorously. "Can I go now? Uncle Ezra'll be waitin'."
"Alright, you watch the street and go straight to the Tavern, you mind me boy."
"Yessir!" With that, the small dark boy was running off in the direction of the Standish Tavern.
He ran down the side of the livery and turned once he reached the main street. "Mornin' Tiny!" he yelled as he ran past the huge livery owner and blacksmith.
"Morning Buck!" Tiny called back without looking up from his hammering.
Buck jumped up onto the sidewalk and began to weave in and out of the pedestrians. He ran past Mrs Potter's store.
"H'lo ma'am!" he called as he sped by.
"Oh! Yes hello Buck," she called after him as he disappeared down the street.
Suddenly he pulled up short as he met two of the town's working girls taking their late morning promenade, much to the annoyance of the 'proper' ladies of the town.
"Good morning Miss Lydia, good morning Miss Anna," Buck greeted breathlessly.
Anna knelt down in front of him. "Well now that is a happy face to start the day with," she commented. "Good morning Buck." She kissed him lightly on the forehead.
"You are just so cute!" Lydia exclaimed as she kissed him on the top of the head.
Always happy in the company of these women, Buck revelled in their praise and attention.
"Thank you ma'am I have to go now," Buck explained still beaming and oblivious to the disapproving looks and whispers his meeting with the two 'fallen women' was generating.
"Meeting Ezra?" Anna asked.
"Off you go then, he's playing poker."
"Ezra! Ezra! It's comin', com' on!" Ezra looked up from the gentle poker game with some bored salesman waiting for tomorrow's West bound stage.
"I will be there momentarily," he called.
Four-year-old stood in the doorway of the Standish Tavern and frowned, he was still learning to speak 'Ezra'.
"Are ya comin' soon?" he enquired.
"Yes very soon."
"I'll watch from out here, don't be long."
Ezra smiled as the dark haired whirlwind that was Buck Wilmington ran back out into the sunlight. Very little would make Ezra give up a profitable poker game, but he would not disappoint the boy, besides he was well ahead.
"Gentlemen, as you no doubt heard, my presence is required elsewhere, so I will have to bid you good day and leave the game." He rose, having gathered his winnings and tipped his hat as he put it back on, in preparation to go out into the bright summer sunshine.
"You can't just leave in the middle." One of the men protested.
"I most certainly can. Do you want to explain to my young friend why I cannot keep our scheduled rendezvous?" he enquired, looking pointedly at each of the men. He got no response. "As I said gentlemen, good day."
Greeting the in coming stage was something Buck did with Ezra four days a week. Four Corners stood at the cross roads of two major stage routs, one running north - south and one west - east. They were run by two different companies which was good news for the town, it meant two sables, two stage coach offices, lots of passengers in transit, spending money in the stores, saloons, restaurants, hotels and boarding houses. As Ezra walked out into the sunlight, the sight of Buck, swinging under the hitching rail, greeted him.
"Come Master Buck, let us greet the new arrivals in our fair community." He held out his hand and Buck instantly let go of the rail and ran to take hold of his Uncle Ezra's hand.
The two of them strolled down the street to the stage office, where the coach would stop. They arrived just as the westbound coach pulled up. The first to alight was a tall man in a brown suit. He turned and helped a middle aged woman in black down from the coach.
"That's Mrs Franklin, her sister's husband died recently, she has been visiting her," Ezra explained.
Buck looked up at Ezra with a look of sadness. "Did they put him in a hole in the ground?" he asked solemnly.
Buck had only recently finally come to understand what dying actually meant. He now understood that his mother was dead and had been buried in the ground, and that her soul was in heaven.
"Is he with God?"
"I am sure he is. Now who do we have here?" Ezra turned his attention back to the stage as another man alighted. He too had a suit on and clearly knew the first man. The two men reached up to receive their luggage, which included a long tripod. This piqued Ezra's interest, he surmised that the men were surveyors and that meant possible profit.
"Come young sir, let us introduce our selves." Taking Buck's hand he walked forward to introduce himself.
Chris reined Pony in and turned the small horse so that he was facing Vin. The boy was still smiling.
"Can we go out for a ride?" he asked hopefully.
Riding out was what Chris liked to do best. He was desperate to see just how fast Pony was, but so far Vin would only let him walk or trot, and since trot wasn't much fun without a saddle, he had only been walking. In the enclosed safety of the coral Pony was impeccably behaved, on the few times Vin had ridden him Pony, had been well mannered. But, how a horse behaved with an experienced rider and how it did with a novice could be an entirely different thing. And good as Chris was, a quick learner and natural rider, he had still only been riding for a matter of weeks.
"No," Vin replied, hating to be the cause of the crest fallen expression. "I don't have time today, I got patrol - and NO you can't come with me."
Chris stared at Vin, his best 'intimidating adults' stare that used to send shivers down the spine of the brothers in the orphanage. Unfortunately, Vin could stare with the best and wasn't intimidated.
"Besides you have lessons, don't you?" Vin reminded him.
Chris should have been in school. The term didn't end until just before the 4th of July. But unlike Buck, who revelled in company and loved to meet people, Chris was reserved and distrustful of strangers. He had encountered and overcome more in eight short years than most adults in a lifetime. Chris was still settling in and gaining confidence in his new life in Four Corners. He protected Buck fiercely, but little by little he was beginning to let his new guardians and the town's other peacekeepers take on some of this responsibility. His reason for taking Buck with him when he ran away form the orphanage was so the four-year-old would not lose his openness and love of life, in that he had succeeded. Now Chris had to learn how to be a child again. So he had not started school yet. There would be time for that in September, now, in June, Chris was having lessons three days a week with Josiah, so he wouldn't be behind when he did start school.
"Well, don't you?" Vin asked again, as Chris continued to stare.
He shrugged. "I guess," he finally admitted.
Reluctantly he slid off his horse and gave Pony a big hug before he started to lead him into the barn. Vin smiled as he watched him go. He remembered when he first lived with the People, his father, Red Feather, used to have to practically peel him off his pony Three Socks, when it was time for his chores.
Ezra was truly engrossed in his conversation with the two men who, it turned out, were map makers. Buck still stood beside him and tried to listen. His Uncle Ezra told him it was important to listen, that he could learn all kinds of interesting and profitable information by just listening. Ezra was so engrossed that he didn't notice the eastbound stage arriving nearly four hours early. But Buck did. Ever curious, he slipped unnoticed from Ezra's side to watch the second coach unload it's passengers. The first man was unremarkable but it was who he turned and helped out of the coach that made Buck duck down behind a barrel in fear. He peeked around his hiding place and watched as the two women in the funny dresses were handed their small bags.
Chris had passed Ezra and Buck on his way to his lesson, he felt confident enough in Ezra to let him take care of his 'brother' and so continued, however reluctantly, toward the church. Josiah had managed to get hold of some school reading books but Chris found them boring, so often Sanchez would have him read from the local paper, The Clarion. He may not have liked doing lessons, he may have preferred to be with Vin or Pony or both, but, once there, he gave his school work his full attention. Sometimes it worried Josiah how intense and single minded the boy could be. Chris was reading aloud from the paper.
"At the coming 4th of July Cel eb ra..t..ions," he sounded out the last word having trouble with the finally part.
"That bit there T I ON, together they say 'shun'," Josiah explained.
"Well why ain't it writ like that?" Chris enquired indignantly.
"I don't honestly know, but it does."
"That is as maybe, please continue."
Chris frowned, gave a dramatic sigh and continued. " Celebra tion, there is to be a horse race. The priz," Chris looked up not sure he had the word quite right.
"Prize," Josiah supplied.
"Prize it to be a new saddle." Chris stopped reading; he looked up at the former priest. "Is that true? They're gonna give a saddle away t' someone fer winin' the race?"
Sanchez leaned over and looked at the paper. "Why don't you read some more and find out?" he suggested.
Suddenly reading wasn't so bad, Chris decided. "A dollar ent r y fee will be charged." Chris looked up at his teacher for an explanation.
"You have to pay them a dollar to race," he explained.
"Oh," Chris responded and then continued reading. "Any one may enter, s ig..n?"
"Sign." Josiah clarified.
"Sign up today in the Clarion office." Chris looked up, his smile having nothing to do with his reading accomplishments.
Buck was frozen where he crouched. The ladies in the funny black dresses spoke to the driver of the coach and then, carrying their bags, headed up the street away from Buck. He watched them as they walked right to the end of the street and up the steps of the small white washed, clap board house at the very edge of town. Buck didn't know what the house was or who lived there, but he knew now that the two women in the funny black dresses were inside it. He hadn't dared to move while they were in sight and even now he was worried that they might be watching for him from the windows, so he stayed where he was behind the rain barrel.
Ezra said goodbye to the map makers and looked down, expecting to see his young shadow, and found no one. Instantly alarmed, he looked around for the boy, but he was no where to be seen.
"Buck!" he called instantly. "Buck, where are you?"
Buck heard Ezra calling him; he wanted to go to him, he really did, but he was too scared to move. The more Ezra called, the more distressed Buck became. Ezra's calls drew attention to him and other people started to search and call for the boy. Eventually, Vin came running as well.
"What the hell happened?" he demanded.
"He was right here beside me and then he wasn't," Ezra explained desperately. "Where's JD?"
"Still not back from Eagle Bend," Vin informed him. JD was testifying in the case of a bank robber who was accused of holding up both the Four Corners Bank and one in Eagle Bend.
"Damn!" Ezra swore.
Buck was desperate that the ladies in the funny dresses shouldn't see him, but more and more people were drawn to the drama and they crowded the sidewalk in front of the barrel. Perhaps if he ran now, he could make it back to the jail and his own room without being seen? Tears already running down his cheeks, the boy pressed himself against the wall behind him and edged out of cover. No one saw him as he managed to pass the crowd, and once free, bolted for the jail.
"There!" Someone shouted. "There he is!"
Vin and Ezra spun around at the sound of the shout and instantly saw the small dark haired form running straight out into the street, straight into the path of an oncoming freight wagon! Unaware of the danger and more afraid than ever, Buck put on an extra burst of speed when he heard someone call out for him.
Even as they saw Buck run into the path of the wagon, Vin and Ezra were moving, both knowing they couldn't get there in time. As the wagon came level with the two men they had to check their advance or be flattened. As the wagon passed they expected to see a mangled heap in its wake, instead they saw Buck jump up onto the sidewalk and continue to run.
"Hell that boy can run!" Vin commented as he set out again.
"Thank the Lord!" Was Ezra's response, as he too continued.
By the time the two lawmen made it to the jail, they just had time to see two little boots with stars on the side disappear at the top of the stairs. Out pacing Ezra, Vin made it the top taking the stairs three at a time. Even so by the time he was at the bedroom door Buck was no where to be seen. In the tiny room there was only one place he could be. Dropping to his knees Vin peered under the old brass bedstead. It took a while for his eyes to get accustomed to the gloom but over in the far corner, pressed up against the wall was the huddled form of Buck Wilmington.
"Buck?" Vin called softly, he got no response, only hitched, rapid breathing sounds. "Come on out son, no one 'll hurt ya, ya know that." But the boy did not move. "What's the matter, tell me so I can help to sort it out."
The four year old was on his knees, his head on the floor with his hands over his head, trying to make himself as small as possible. He didn't respond to Vin, other than to move even further back. Vin knew enough not to press the situation, what they needed was Chris or JD.
"Buck I'm gonna go now, just for a moment, alright?" He wasn't expecting a response so was surprised to head a tiny voice respond.
It was so unlike the open, friendly, energy filled boy they had all come to love, it almost broke Vin's heart then and there.
"I'll be back real soon," he assured.
As it was, he didn't have to be gone more than a second or two. Ezra was standing in the doorway, he had heard the whole exchange, and from the look on his face, was as effected by it as Vin.
"You remain Mr Tanner, I will fetch young Christopher forthwith."
Chris was rereading the newspaper article about the horserace and asking Josiah all kinds of questions when Ezra appeared in the doorway. Apparently his poker face couldn't cope with distressed children, because both boy and man instantly asked.
"Young Buck is distressed, and we don't know why. He is currently hiding under the bed, and won't come out, I bel " Before he finished, Chris had dropped the paper and was off and running, trailing an ex-priest and a gambler in his wake.
"Buck I'm here!" he shouted as he tore into the jail, taking the steps three at a time.
As he arrived at the bedroom Vin pulled back to allow the thin eight-year-old to all but throw himself at the floor and crawl under the bed. His arrival caused Buck to squirm even further back than before.
"It's me, it's alright, it's just me," he soothed.
"Chris?" came the halting question.
"W w where's JD?"
"He went to Eagle Bend today, remember, he said he would come home this evening."
Buck had almost forgotten. JD had promised to protect him and he needed that protection now.
"Oh." Was his only response.
"You want him now?" Chris asked, almost annoyed that Buck wanted JD, whom he had only known for a few short weeks, more than him, who he had known for months.
Buck just nodded, his thumb now back in his mouth.
"Why? What's wrong, you're safe here, we're safe here."
"I wan' JD," Buck mumbled through his thumb.
"I know ya do and he's coming, but I'm here now and Vin, we won't let no one hurt ya." Then a thought struck Chris. "You feelin' alright? Do ya feel sick, Nathan can help if ya are?"
"No not sick." Came the quiet response, "I want JD."
"I know, I know and he'll come. Hey remember when we first ran away, and you were so brave?"
In the gloom Chris recounted their big adventure hoping to distract Buck some and help him remember he didn't need JD to be brave. It was clear, even to an eight-year-old that something had scared the little boy very badly.
Buck didn't want to tell Chris about the nuns. Chris had never been in that place, he had gone straight to St John's, so the older boy couldn't possibly understand just how frightening the scary ladies were. In his scrambled four-year-old logic, if Chris didn't know about the scary ladies then they couldn't know about him, and he was safe. He listened as Chris reminded him how they had escaped.
Buck had spent the night before with the pigs. The next day he was too scared to drink anything, he hadn't drunk since breakfast, thus by the afternoon he was feeling very thirsty and had a headache. But he said nothing, and had been subdued and nearly silent all day. It was breaking Chris' heart to see the normally exuberant, fun loving, kind hearted and gentle boy he had come to think of as a little brother, wither and die right before him. Chris had been planing to leave even before Buck came into his life, but his plans would have to be advanced. Since it was Saturday they would have to go to Church for confession. Buck did his best to confess to every little thing he had ever done wrong. What he could have done in one week that was classified as a sin, was hard for Chris to fathom, but he always seemed to be there a long time.
Chris made sure they were early, he needed to go first. As normal he didn't make a confession, he knelt in the little stuffy confessional because he had too, but they couldn't make him say any thing. He and the priest when through the same routine every week. After a token period of mutual silence Father Martinez said 'you my go now son, my God forgive you,' and that was that. After Confession the boys who had to say 'Hail Marys' or acts of contrition, would kneel in front of the altar, the others, like Chris, had to kneel and pray in the pews for forgiveness for all the sin's they were presumed to have committed but not confessed. With so many boys spread out over the church Chris reckoned he could get away for a while without anyone noticing his absence. Especially if Buck was there, everyone knew Buck followed Chris like a puppy, they would assume where one was the other was. Chris slipped into the vestry, he knew it was empty and from there he could get out of the church unseen.
Running across the little courtyard and into the back of the orphanage, he pulled off his precious boots so his footfalls wouldn't draw any attention. Padding quickly over the sparklingly clean black and white tiles - sparkling because it had been scrubbed clean that day by an army of small boys - and into the huge empty dining hall. The kitchen was behind the hall; he pushed the connecting door open a crack and peeped in. Confession would go on for at least another hour, then there would be mass, that was at least forty minutes. Supper on Saturday was biscuits and beans, he didn't reckon that took too long to cook. He could see no one; no sound came from the kitchen, no voices, no pots rattling, nothing. He pushed the door open a little more, and risked walking in. Brother James was in charge of the kitchen; he was kinder than most of them, but that wasn't saying much. He wasn't there of course. Brother James and the novice who assisted him were both in the church but the youngster had expected the lay assistant to be there. Chris all but held his breath as he edged further in to the room. Biscuits were lain out on the table to cool and there was a big pot on the edge of the stove, presumably with beans in it. He edged closer to the pantry, still no one appeared. To get into the panty, he had to go past the open door to the yard. Now he saw the assistant, he was sitting outside in the sunshine smoking a pipe. His back was to the door and he was about ten feet away. Chris took a deep breath, clutched his boots tighter and darted across.
The pantry was down a few steps too help keep it cool. He was running so fast he almost fell down the steps and was forced to jump down to save himself. Holding his breath he waited to be discovered, but no one came. He looked around and, pulling out the pillowcase he had hidden under his shirt, he began to fill it with cheese, ham, dried apple rings, raisins, and some walnuts. Just as he was leaving, he spotted a big fruitcake with almonds on top sitting on a board, a big wedge had been cut out. Chris reckoned he could cut out another section and no one would notice. Looking around he found an old flour sack, turned it inside out and wrapped the wedge of cake he had sliced off in it, adding it to his now hefty bag of provisions. He peeked around the door again and, confident the cook was still occupied with his pipe, he scooted back into the kitchen and added a few warm biscuits to his bag. As he was leaving, he spotted a canteen hanging on the back of a side door. Thinking he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, he took that too, having to stand on tiptoe to get it. Now he had to hide his contraband until night. Still holding his boots, he headed for the dorms. Under his bed he had loosened a floorboard and now, with a bent spoon he had hidden in the mattress, he lifted it and pushed the bag in praying the mice wouldn't find it before it was time for the two of them to leave.
Time was short now so once the floor board was back and the spoon hidden, he bolted for the church, flying through the building and out into the court yard. He didn't try to put his boots on until he reached the vestry. If he was late or had been missed, it would be better to be caught in the church than out. As he peeked out into the hushed church, he was panting. In front of the altar Buck was on his knees earnestly prying. Chris' heart sank, he must have been there the whole time, nearly an hour, on his knees on the hard stone floor, saying sorry and asking for forgiveness - for nothing. He managed to slip back into a pew unnoticed. He was frankly amazed that it had gone so smoothly, he was half expecting to be stopped. He would have been punished, that didn't scare him, he had been punished before. He was far more scared of going through with his plan. But the sight of his little friend on his knees rekindled his courage. They were leaving, his father wanted him to grow up in the west, and that was where he was going and Buck was coming with him.
Most of what Chris had just recounted to Buck was new to the little boy. The first he knew of the plan was Chris waking him up in the middle of the night and taking him by the hand. Buck was used to that, Chris often woke him up so he could pee. It was only when he spotted the big bag Chris was dragging along with him did he wonder what was going on. He was about to ask Chris when he the older boy turned and put a finger to his lips. In silence they crept along the corridors and out into the night. Chris had Buck's clothes in the bag, his own he had on under his nightshirt. They didn't stop to let Buck dress until they were out of sight of the orphanage.
"Are we runnding away?" Buck asked in awe.
"Uh huh, we sure are, my Pa, he was takein' me an' Mom to the West. So you and me is gonna go there, it's gotta be better than that place, don't it?"
Buck had stood there, his little heart pounding in fear and excitement and total hero worship.
"Is it very far?" Buck asked.
Chris didn't know, he had been travelling with his family for what seemed like a long time but he wasn't sure how long and didn't know how much further they would have gone on. He looked down at Buck, standing before him in the moonlight, so trusting.
"Yeah it's a long way, but thats good, ain't it? 'Cause then they can't find us - right?" With that he took the younger boy's hand and headed off across the fields, heading west.
They walked until the dawn, always listening for pursuers, but none came. As soon as the first rays of the sun paled the sky, Chris stopped. He looked around to make sure the morning sun was at their back, before heading off again. He was very tired, and that meant Buck had to be ready to drop. The younger boy had not complained, he had talked, as he always did, for a while but he had been silent now for a long time. His plan was to find somewhere to hide for the day and head out again when it was dark, the moon was near full and the nights warm. They were approaching a wood and, eager to rest and eat, Chris unconsciously quickened his pace. Buck couldnt keep up; he had to trot to catch up but was too tired to pick up his feet. He tripped on a rut hidden in the long grass. He hadn't said anything, but as he tried to get back up, tears filled his eyes and overflowed down his cheeks. Crying silently, he stoically struggled to his feet.
"You alright?" Chris asked as he ran back to his little friend.
The only reply was a nod, a sniff and a quick wipe of the eyes with a sleeve.
"Come on, we're gonna stop in the woods up there, have some food and a sleep - alright?"
"Yeah." Came a response so quiet it was almost inaudible.
Half an hour later, they had eaten some ham, taking turns to gnaw the meat off the bone, and drunk some water from the canteen, then Buck had just lain down on the moss covered ground and was asleep in seconds. Chris didn't want to sleep in case someone came upon them but he couldn't help it, he just couldn't keep his eyes open.
When he awoke it was late afternoon, Buck was sitting beside him, already awake. They ate some more ham, the biscuits and a couple of apples and then did a little exploring before it got dark. There was a stream and they refilled the canteen before setting off, the setting sun shining in their eyes. Eager to make progress Chris lead them out of the fields and onto a dusty road. They passed the odd farm, and Buck became very worried when they heard pigs in a field, but he bravely walked past them gripping Chris' hand tightly.
"Remember that?" Chris asked the crouching figure of Buck.
The little head nodded.
"You were so brave, I wasn't sure I wanted to go on, I was tired and scared, but you never complained, you never once wanted to go back. You know something?"
Buck shook his head.
"You're braver than me."
"No, you're really brave Chris, youre the bravest." Finally Buck looked up.
"Come on out with me, what ever is wrong, Vin can help and JD will be home soon, come on."
Chris began to wriggle backwards, relived to see Buck following him. Once out, he just stood there staring up at Vin, his hand holding onto Chris'. Vin squatted down.
"Ya gonna tell me what's wrong?" he asked gently.
Buck shook his head.
"Ya gonna tell JD?"
"That's alright, you don't have to say nothin' 'til yer ready t'. Now see'n as it's gone noon, why don't we go have some lunch?"
Everything seemed to be going smoothly until they reached the door, then Buck hung back. He didn't want to go outside; if he went into the street, the ladies in the black dresses might see him and then they would know where he lived. He couldn't risk that so he hung back.
"How about if you an' Chris stay here with Ezra and I'll go get some food an' bring it here, would that be alright?"
Buck smiled shyly at Vin and nodded. Ever since they had found him under the bed he hadn't spoken more than a sentence, something that was so out of character it was truly worrying. Vin set out; leaving the boys with an equally worried Standish.
Buck refused to go outside for the rest of the day and remained unnaturally quiet. Chris went back to the church to complete his lessons. He didnt want to leave Buck but if he was going to get the saddle, he needed to learn as much as possible about the race. Vin went on patrol, so Ezra took Buck to the saloon. The short trip from the jail to the saloon was traumatic. It took a lot of persuading to get little Buck outside, eventually he agreed that if Ezra carried him it would be alright. All the way across the street, he hid his head under Ezra's jacket. However, once in the saloon, he relaxed a little. To Buck the saloon still felt like home, it still felt safe. Somehow, instinctively he knew the ladies in black wouldn't follow him into the saloon. He settled in to spend the day in the back parlour upstairs, where the working girls gathered when they weren't working.
From the window of the parlour Buck found he could see the white clap board house. He turned to Miss Bloom, who was sitting beside him by the window doing some sewing.
"M'ss Blossom?" he asked innocently.
"Yea hun?" She didn't look up.
"Whats that house over there?"
Now she looked up and peered out past the lace curtain. "Um you mean the white one?"
"Uh-huh," he confirmed.
"It's the boarding house dear, Mrs Jones runs it."
Buck continued to look out of the window. "Do we like her?" he asked. 'We' meant the working girls and him, the non-respectable people, the ones on the edge of society.
"No," Blossom said quietly. "We don't like her."
Victoria Jones was a bitter widow, who went out of her way to show how much she disapproved of the saloon and all that went on there. She would cross the street to avoid it and anyone who she knew worked there. She wasn't too keen on the town's law officers either, especially Vin, who she considered no better than an Indian and Nathan who was beneath her in every way. Actually, almost everyone was beneath Mrs Jones, in her opinion.
Buck continued to watch the house from behind the safe anonymity of the lace curtain. After a while, a lady in a high-buttoned black dress came out of the house, followed by the nuns. One of the Sisters was carrying what looked like a picnic basket. As he watched the lady in black pointed out of town toward the ruined mission, then the two nuns headed out of the town in that direction while the widow Jones walked into town. Buck remembered Chris telling him he was brave. It was a scary thing he was thinking of doing, but he didnt want Chris thinking he was a coward.
Can I go out and play?
Blossom was still sewing and not really concentrating. Sure honey, dont go too far.
I wont, he called as he hurried out of the room and down the stairs.
When Chris returned to the church and picked up the paper, he carefully reread the article about the horse race. If he won the race, he would have a saddle of his very own, and Vin wouldnt have to take an extra job. A few nights back he had slipped out of bed intending to use the outhouse, there was a pot under the bed but he didnt like to use it, mostly because of the smell. So he found himself padding down he steep rough stairs toward the main room.
Just dont see any other way. He heard Vin say. Itll take me ages to save up even for an old saddle.
I know but you work long enough hours as it is, how are you going to fit in another job? JD countered. "You could take it from the boys fund."
The boy's fund was the money Ezra had forwarded against the sale of the few valuable items they had found when they cleared out what was now the boys' room. Everyone had decided that the money should go toward providing for the boy's needs.
"No, there is hardly enough in there now to get them winter clothes in the fall as it is and half of its Buck's. So assuming some nice fat bounty doesnt just fall into our lap, Kitridge has offered me work later in the summer, hes gonna cut out the best of the new broncos and he wans me t gentle brake um f him. Was kinda hoping youd cover for me?
It could take Vin anything from a day to a week to gentle a horse down.
Well sure, but how much is he paying?
Fifty cents for each one, aint much, but he aint got much, or hed hire someone full time. Reckon I need five bucks or so for a decent second hand saddle for Pony. Even new saddles could be purchased for less, but Vin wanted Chris to have a proper western saddle with a horn. One that would help him stay in the saddle if his horse were to stumble or swerve suddenly not an uncommon occurrence out in the rough countryside around the town, and even experienced riders had been caught unawares.
Chris heard JD let go of a long low whistle. Even with me covering we still need you weekends. You're gonna be working all the time, well hardly see you.
I know, but I want him to have something decent, cant see no other way around it. Jist promise to poke me ifn I fall asleep on the job, he joked.
JD knew it wasnt entirely a joke, it was a good two hour ride out to Kitridges place. It might not be bronco busting but gentle braking took time, patience and concentration. He'd seen Vin do it and it was hard work, he always looked exhausted and drained at the end though also happy and satisfied. Vin was going to be dead on his feet.
Chris didnt want Vin to wear himself out for him, so he had resolved then and there to find a way to get the money for himself some how. He couldn't ask Tiny for a job, he already helped out in the livery for nothing and Tiny knew he always would. Telling Chris to stay away from horses was like asking the wind not to blow. If he was going to get a job, he was probably going to have to ask Vin's permission first. Chris wasn't sure how Vin would react, he's never had to ask his new guardian anything that important before. It was hard to remember that Vin and JD and the others weren't like the adults at the orphanage, they wouldn't punish him just for asking something. If he was going to ride in the race he needed the dollar entry fee; he had two weeks to get it. A dollar was a lot of money.
Mrs Potter Maam, do you need any jobs doing?" Chris asked. "Im lookin t earn some money.
Gloria Potter was always kind to the boys, frequently gifting them with free cookies. The widow looked down at the blond boy with a benevolent smile.
Saving up for something are you? she asked. Chris nodded. Well, I wish I could help you but I have my own children to do any chores that need doing, she explained.
Yes maam I understand. Chris couldnt hide the disappointment from his voice. Wait, Gloria called after him. Now what if instead of a cookie when you come in, I give you the penny instead, would that help? After all how much could one eight year old orphan be trying to save?
Chris debated the point, he did like his cookies, but the saddle was more important and it was only for two weeks. He made a quick calculation on his fingers. They had cookies almost every other day so that could be as much as ten cents, yes defiantly worth the sacrifice.
Thank you maam Id like that just till the fourth.
Gloria smiled and reached in to her moneybox, collected a penny and held it out to him. Once he had accepted it and placed it carefully in his pocket she had a thought. Chris, is this a secret?
Yes maam, its fer Vin. Well it wasnt exactly a lie, he was doing it so Vin wouldnt have to work so hard.
Dont you worry, Ill be discreet.
Chris wasnt entirely sure what discreet meant but hoped it meant Mrs Potter would keep the secret.
The problem was he didnt yet know too many people and was unwilling to anger any adult, you just didnt know what they would do if you asked a question they didnt like. Finally he came to the conclusion that he had to ask Ezra. If anyone knew how to make money, it was the elegant saloon owner. Buck was happy to run in and out of the saloon, he seemed comfortable there. Chris, on the other hand, had been taught never to venture into such places, the night he had first found Buck in one was the first time he had ever been inside such an establishment. Ezras saloon wasnt the first one young Buck had wandered into in search of his mother.
The two runaways had been walking for days, always moving at night; always thinking some one was going to come after them. So far the weather had been kind to them, but their food was running low now. As dawn began to pale the sky, Chris spotted the smoke rising lazily into the sky, there were several trails of smoke, too many to be a farm. Chris debated their options. They needed food, if possible they needed a hot meal. He was aware they were both filthy.
Yeah? the younger boy answered with a yawn, they had been walking all night.
I think theres a town up head, see. Chris pointed at the distant smoke trails.
Do we gonna hide? Buck asked.
We need food, so I think we should rest up an when its dark Ill go to town and see what I can find, alright?
Bucks big, blue, tired eyes darted up to his friend, his hero. What about me, I wanna come too, I dont wanna be on my own, please Chris, please, he implored.
Its too dangerous in town fer you, ya too little, Chris explained.
No Chris, no Im a big boy, Ma said so and my Ma dont lie.
Yeah I know, Im sorry, I meant youre too young.
I know about towns, I know what to do, Ill be good. Please dont leave me behind.
Chris looked down at the four year old, he looked so very young like that, his face all streaked with grime, tears threatening to over flow, could he really leave him alone in a dark wood, while he stole food? What if he was caught, what would happen to Buck then? At least if they were together, they had each other.
Okay, but you gotta do everything I say.
I promise, Ill be real good, Buck swore.
Chris grinned down at him. Yeah, youre a real good boy.
The passed the rest of the daylight hours in the wood. After a long sleep in a moss filled hollow between two fallen trees, they ate some of what little food was left and even played a game of tag among the trees. As dusk fell, the two young adventurers set out to explore the town below.
It turned out to be something of a metropolis. The smoke and roofs Chris had seen were only the outskirts. The town was a thriving cross roads; not only was it on the route of several stage and fright companies, but the newly opened railroad to California had a station there. Lights shone out from the many saloons, restaurants, diners and dance halls. Though the stores were mostly shut there was still enough light to illuminate the goods on display.
Look Chris, Buck was no longer walking beside the older boy, he had his nose pressed up to the glass of a shop window.
What? Chris turned back, it was a milliner's shop, the window was full of hats, bonnets and caps.
Look. Buck jabbed a grimy finger on the glass, pointing at a pale blue bonnet with lace around the edges. Ma has one like that, aint it pretty?
"Yeah, its real pretty, come on." Chris turned back and grabbed is young friend's wrist, pulling him away.
"But Chris I wanna "
"No Buck, we need t' find some food, that's all, we haven't got time t' look at windows. Remember you promised to do like I said."
Buck sighed. "Yah Chris, sorry, I'll be good."
After walking along what seemed to be the main street for sometime, Buck pointed to an alleyway. "We should go down there," he announced.
Chris wasn't so sure; it was dark and smelly. "Why?" he asked.
"That's were they put the trash and so maybe they throwed out food."
Chris hadn't really though about how they were going to get food, they had no money, so they couldn't buy it, yet he some how hadn't though about looking in the trash for it.
Buck, on the other hand, had grown up in a city. He's never had to scavenge for food himself, but he'd seen people, even children do it. His Ma had told him, sometimes that was the only food folk have, and no matter what she had to do she wouldn't be one of them.
Despite his reservations, Chris headed into the alley with Buck. They found quite a bit of trash but none of it was edible, so they continued down the alley, which lead then to a back street running behind the main street. Not far down this street, they came across a well lit open yard, were a portly women was scraping plates into a barrel before washing them. Some of the plates, waiting to be washed, still had food on them. Pulled in by the smell of food, the boys edged closer, hoping the woman wouldn't see them.
"Don't think I can't see you two." The woman's voice, her Irish brogue thick and unmistakable, froze them in their tracks.
Chris grabbed Buck's hand, ready to pull him away and run for it. The woman turned around, hands on ample hips. "Hungry are you?" she asked.
Chris was now ready to run, but Buck was too quick for him. "Yes ma'am, we only got a bit of cake left, can we have some of that?" he explained, pointing at the piled plates and their leftovers.
The woman looked down at the two waifs, the one who had spoken, was, she had to admit, adorable, huge dark eyes gazed at her from the shadows. The taller, fair one was glaring at her, daring her to say no and upset his little pal. They didn't look as though they had been on their own too long, both looked healthy and they both had boots and jackets.
"You two brothers?" she asked.
"Yes," Chris said quickly before Buck could blurt out the truth.
"Well why not, this food's only going to waste. I don't know, they don't clean their plates here like the boys back in Ireland." She shook her hair. "Help yourselves boys."
They ran fingers over the plates to remove every last trace of gravy or mashed potatoes and sucked the last scraps of meat off fried chicken bones and pork chops; they even ate some vegetables, mostly carrots. There was some left over dessert too, piecrusts mostly. They sat and picked at each new collection of plates that were brought out, their efforts actually making the job of the dishwasher easier. By the time the restaurant was closing sometime later, they were well fed.
"Come back tomorrow boys, you're a big help," their benefactor called as the little waifs headed back down the dark side street.
With full bellies, the boys returned to the main street to explore. Now that they were no longer searching for food, there was time to gaze into the shop windows. After spending some time at a store with toys in one corner of it's large window, the boys found a gun shop. Chris was fascinated, but Buck quickly became bored, the music and light from the saloon next door called to him, and when one of the saloon girls came out, he suddenly got an idea. Consumed by this idea, he slipped away from Chris and followed the girl as she went back inside.
Chris had been scared many times in his short life, especially in the last few days, but none of it came close to the terror in his gut when he realised Buck was missing. After running up and down the side walk several times, calling and finding no sign of Buck, he started asking passers by if they had seen his little brother.
"What's he look like son?" a slightly inebriated cowboy asked.
"He's a bit shorter than me and he's got dark hair, have you seen him?" Chris asked desperately.
"Well there's a little kid in the saloon." The man gestured at the door behind him.
"Thank you sir." Chris darted around him and into the saloon.
As soon as he was inside he stopped dead. He had never been in such a place, his father told him they weren't respectable; descent, God fearing people didn't go into saloons. Chris flattened himself against the wall and took a deep breath and almost gagged on the smoke heavy, foetid atmosphere. Working his way around the room he tried to locate Buck, but in the poor light one small, dark haired boy wasn't easy to spot. No one seemed to notice him, for which he was grateful. He was almost at the bar when he encountered the staircase, looking up he saw a familiar pair of boots. Buck was standing halfway up the stairs, watching a saloon girl while she flirted with the cowboy she was trying to entice to her room.
"Buck!" Chris hissed at his young friend, but there was no response. Reluctantly he moved up the steps a short way and called again, still no response. Finally he had to go all the way up and pull Buck away.
"What are you doing!" he demanded, even as he was pulling Buck back down the stairs.
"But Chris," Buck protested. "I gotta ask the lady if she's seem my Ma."
Chris looked back at him. "Your Ma? Why would she have seen her? Buck, your mother is dead, remember?" Chris hated to be so blunt, but what else could he do?
"I know, she went away." Buck looked down sadly.
"But she might have come back, we lived in a place like this, maybe she got lost coming back from God?" In Buck's mind it was all quite logical.
"No, she didn't come back. Now come on, we have to get out of here before you get us into trouble."
Buck looked crestfallen, he didn't want Chris to get into trouble but he was reluctant to leave without asking after his mother, because he just knew she would come back, she always came back. Nevertheless, he allowed Chris to lead him out.
Buck made his way over to the boarding house, he knew no one was there because he had seen them all leave, so he made no attempt to hide. It was a warm day and the windows were open, drapes fluting in the slight breeze. The windows at the front of the house were easy to see into, but there was nothing in the rooms of any interest, so he made his way around to the back. Here the windows were too high for him to see in, but Buck was a resourceful boy and cast his eyes around for something to stand on. Not far off was a wood stack and several sturdy looking logs had been placed beside a chopping block, ready to be turned into kindling. Choosing the biggest one, he rolled it so that it was under the first window, up ended it and climbed on to it. Now he could see into the room. Casting his gaze around, he didn't find what he was looking for, so he moved his log to the next window. This room was simply furnished, much like the previous one, with two beds with iron bedsteads and patchwork quilts. Then he saw the objects he had been searching for, the two plain bags he had seen the nuns carrying, sitting on top of the bureau.
With no fear, Buck tried to pull himself through the window, but it was just too far. Not to be denied, he went back to the woodpile and collected another log. He could just lift it, but it proved impossible to balance on the first log. So the sturdy four year old trotted back again to wood pile and found a third log to roll up to the window. Finally he'd completed his little log pyramid. It was very wobbly and uneven but it gave him the height he needed to pull himself through the window, all but falling into the room in an untidy heap.
At the front of the building Mrs Jones was returning, she had only left the house to collect the dress fabric she had ordered from Gloria Potter and was now home again. The loud thud from the back of the building alerted her to the intruder. She knew it wasn't her guests back so soon, the sisters had taken a picnic and headed out to walk to the old mission. Victoria had little time for the town's lawmen, so picking up a large carving knife she went to investigate. Easing open the door, she was met by the sight of a small boy rummaging through one of the Sister's bags.
"What on earth do you think you are doing?" she demanded.
Buck spun around, for a second he froze were he was, then he bolted for the window.
"Oh no you don't!"
The windowsill on the inside was quite high, coming at the same level as Buck's chin. He was trying to pull himself up to it when a boney, but firm, hand grabbed hold of his collar and pulled him back.
"Le' go of me!" he yelled at the top of his voice. Chris had always told him, if someone tried to grab him, he was to yell and scream and kick and get away if he could. "Chris!" he shouted desperately, as he writhed and struggled, small solidly booted feet looking for a target as they kicked out. "Le' me go, le' me go!"
"Ouch!" Mrs Jones yelped as one boot found her shin. "Why you thieving little heathen. You stop that!" As she spoke she waved the knife in front of his face, she hadn't intended to threaten him with it, but it had an instant effect, Buck stopped still, eyes fixed on the blade. Now that her captive was calm, she took a good look at him. "I might have known it was one of you two!" She shook Buck roughly. "Isn't it bad enough that we have a green horn boy for sheriff, not to mention that half breed Tanner, they have to go and take in two street urchins, probably pick pockets and worse. I can't believe a respectable woman like Gloria Potter even lets you in her store, let alone play with her children."
Still muttering to herself and with the knife in her other hand she dragged Buck out through the house and began to march him up the street toward the jail. They didn't make it to the jail, because JD rode into town just as they were crossing the street. Despite his fear, Buck called out as soon as he saw Milagro heading toward him.
"What the hell is going on?" JD demanded as he leapt down from his horse.
"You mind your language in my presence boy, and as to what is going on, your boy was trying to steal from my guests," Victoria informed him sternly.
"Put down the knife," JD began, trying to keep calm. "And then let go of Buck, he's not going anywhere."
Victoria looked at the knife; she had, in truth, almost forgotten she was holding it. Carefully she lowered it and let go of the boy's collar. As soon as he was released, Buck darted for JD, who knelt to meet him, engulfing him in a welcoming and reassuring hug. Lifting Buck into his arms, JD looked at the widow.
"I apologise for my profanity, Ma'am. Why don't we go on up to the jail and get this all sorted out?" he suggested.
"There is nothing to sort out, he was stealing."
"Mrs Jones, I am not going to discuss this in the middle of the street." With that he turned away from her and headed for the jail, Milagro following him obediently.
Once in the empty jail, JD sat at his desk, with Buck on his knee. The widow marched in behind him. "Now, Mrs Jones, please tell me what happened."
"He was in one of my rooms, going through one of the Sister's bags, I caught him red handed - thieving." She sounded almost triumphant.
JD frowned, then looked down at Buck, who had his face buried in JD shirt. "Is that true?"
Buck shrugged. "Is it true Buck?" he asked again.
"But it's mine," came the muffled response.
"Yours? What could possibly be yours in one of my rooms?" Victoria demanded.
"Mrs Jones, please, let me sort this out." JD turned back to Buck. "What are you talking about?"
"My train, it's mine not theirs," Buck whispered.
JD frowned and then the light dawned, he looked up at the angry woman before him. "You said these guests were Sisters, as in nuns?"
"Indeed I did, stealing is bad enough, stealing from nuns is unforgivable to my way of thinking, that boy is "
"Four years old, Mrs Jones and don't you forget it," JD cut in. "I'll deal with him, don't worry."
"Well I'm sorry young man, but I don't believe I can accept that, I want to lay charges!"
"You can't, he's only "
"Four, I know, so you say, even if that were true - and he's a mite big for four - he's old enough to know right from wrong."
"What on earth would you like to charge him with, besides trespass?"
"He was going through the Sister's bags!"
"Well if the sisters want to press charges, you can send them to me. In the mean time, if you ignore the trespass I'll ignore the fact that you were threatening a defenceless child with a knife!"
"I I wouldn't have hurt him, I didn't know who was in the room - he attacked me, the little brat kicked me!"
With Buck still in his arms, JD stood. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention, I apologise if you were hurt or inconvenienced in any way. Good day." Even as he spoke, he had crossed the room and pulled the door open. "Good afternoon Mrs Jones," he prompted again.
Muttering none to quietly about children needing discipline and a taste of the rod, she swept out. No sooner was she out of the door, then Ezra came running in.
"Is Buck okay? Someone told me the Jones woman was dragging him down the street?" he asked desperately, his fear lessening only slightly when he saw the small boy in JD's arms. "Blossom was watching him. She said he went out to play and she has no idea what happened."
"It's alright, he's fine, but before you ask - I still don't know what happened, at least not all of it. You can stay if you can keep calm and don't interrupt," JD warned Ezra.
Then he crossed back to his desk and sat down again. He lifted the boy from his hip and sat him on the desk in front of him. Buck hadn't been crying, he was clearly upset and scared, but he also seemed angry.
"Did you go into a room at the boarding house?" he asked softly.
Buck looked at him, his deep blue eyes full of trust, then he nodded.
"How did you get in?"
"Through the window," Buck admitted. "It was open, I didn't break nuthin'." he added defensively.
"I believe you. Now Mrs Jones says you were going through someone's bags, is that true as well?" Buck shrugged again. "I need an answer young man," JD prodded.
"Yes, but I had to."
"Had too?" Ezra questioned, but fell silent when JD glared at him.
"I want my train, my Ma give it to me, and its mine, not theirs." The defiance was back in the small boy's voice.
Ezra slumped back against the wall, now he understood, or at least he was beginning to. There were just so many aspects of loosing his mother that little Buck hadn't come to terms with yet. As he watched, JD carefully and patiently explained about nuns and how not all women in funny black dresses were the same. Yet Buck didn't seem too convinced.
"But I want my train." For the first time, now that he realised the train wasn't in the boarding house and he really wasn't going to see it again, the little chin began to quiver and tears pooled in his eyes.
"I know, I know, come here." JD lifted him of the desk and into his arms, wrapping him up in a huge bear hug. "I wish I could make it better, I really do, but I can't."
"I want my Ma," Buck sobbed into JD's shirt.
There was nothing JD could say to make the young boy feel better. As he held him, JD lifted his eyes up to meet Ezra's, unsurprised by the distress and anger he saw there, knowing it mirrored his own. Ezra pulled himself off the wall and crossed to JD, very gently he bent down to lay a gentle kiss on Buck's head before heading out.
Unaware of the second calamity of the day that had befallen his young friend, Chris finished his lesson and packed away his books.
"Can I go now?" he asked brightly.
"Sure, run along, you worked well today," Josiah praised.
By now it was getting close to suppertime, so Chris hurried to the livery so he could see to Pony's evening feed himself. Vin had told him that a horse learned to trust a person much more quickly if that person was the one who fed it. Besides that, he liked to be around his horse as much as he could. He loved the dark musty interior of the barn, the slightly sweet smell and the sounds of the horse.
"Evenin' Chris!" Tiny called as he ran in.
"I'm a mite busy here, can you manage on your own?"
"Sure." Chris didn't even break stride as he ran past the livery keeper and the two strangers.
He was still standing beside Pony, stroking his sleek shiny black neck, while the horse munched on his feed, when Tiny brought the two strangers in.
"As you can see, gentlemen, there will be no difficulty in supplying you with a couple of steady mounts and a mule. When will you need them?" the livery keeper asked.
"Oh, not for a few days yet, we'll get to work on the town first."
"Are you all set with somewhere to stay?"
"Yes, we have rooms at the hotel, now all we need is someone to make sure we don't get lost," one of the men joked.
Before Tiny could point out that the town was too small to get lost in, Chris ducked out of Pony's stall.
"I can do that," he offered brightly.
"What can you do, kid?" one of the men asked.
"Show you around town, so you don't get lost," Chris offered brightly.
"Sorry kid, I wasn't being serious, we won't get lost in a little place like this. I "
"Hang on George," the second man cut in. "Place like this, in this heat, we could use a young'n to do all the running back and fourth, he can hold the pole."
George Wade looked at the whipcord thin blond. "How old are you boy?"
"Ten sir." Tiny cleared his throat dramatically. "Eight," Chris conceded.
"What do you think? Would you like to help us, do some fetching and carrying?"
"Yes sir, I can do that."
"You'd have to do exactly as we tell you."
"Sure - how much?"
George looked a little puzzled. "How much?"
"How much will you pay me, I'm not doing it for nothing," Chris stated firmly.
"Hah! Good for you boy!" the second man exclaimed, slapping his friend on the back.
George glared at his colleague, then turned back to Chris. "Okay kid, this shouldn't take more than two or three days, lets say five cents a day."
"Fifteen," Chris countered.
"Ten, and that's my final offer."
"I'll take it."
"Chris, you make sure you get Vin's permission first," Tiny warned.
"Yes sir," Chris reluctantly agreed.
"Who's Vin?" Howard asked.
"Chris' guardian, and the law in this town or at least part of it."
"Well, we definitely don't want to go upsetting Vin then, do we?" George commented good naturally.
As Chris headed home, he was feeling pretty good. Very soon he'd have half the money he needed. Once inside the jail's small living area, he instantly felt the tension. When he'd left that afternoon Buck was looking fine, the little scare he'd had at lunchtime behind him. Now he was looking subdued again, sitting at the table, quietly waiting for the evening meal. His little legs usually swung back and fourth, while he waited, little hands ever moving, but now he just sat still. JD turned around from the stove were he was warming up some of Inez's stew.
"Chris, go wash your hands for supper," he instructed.
"What's the matter with Buck," Chris asked instead of moving.
"I'll tell you later, just come to supper now, Vin will be here soon."
Once the little family was assembled, JD quickly filled them in on Buck's adventure. "Now Buck and I have had a talk and he knows what he did was wrong, so we don't need to go over all that again."
Chris turned in his seat to face Buck. "Are you okay, did she hurt you?" he asked urgently.
"She had a knife," Buck whispered.
"A knife!" Chris head shot up to glare at JD.
"Now calm down Chris, I don't think she even remembered she had it, she didn't know who was in the room when she heard a noise, he wasn't hurt."
"Buck don't like knifes," Chris informed him.
"Why's that?" Vin asked.
Chris looked at Vin and then back to Buck. Something passed between the two boys and then Chris turned back to face the two men.
"We were in this town, it was a big place with lots of shops and saloons and restaurants, we found this place were the lady who did the washing up let us have the scraps, but when we went back there the second night there was this man there."
They had left the town as soon as Chris had extricated Buck from the saloon, finding an isolated little wood to sleep the day away. When darkness fell again, they returned to the town and made their way back to the restaurant kitchen were they had feasted on scraps the night before. The same large lady was there.
"Hello boys, back for more?" Both boys nodded enthusiastically. "Well tuck in."
They had been there for about half an hour when a tall man in a dark suit appeared in the yard.
"Hello Martha," he greeted the woman. "These the two?"
"Thats them, mind you theyre good boys."
Buck was happily sucking on a chicken bone, but Chris had heard and alarm bells were already ringing. Intently he took hold of Buck and pulled him up.
"We gotta go," he whispered.
"But I'm still hungry," Buck protested.
"Now!" Chris tugged on his hand, edging toward the back of the yard.
"Hello boys." The tall man approached them. "Martha says you're on your own, no parents?"
"We got parents," Chris stated defiantly, tightening his grip on Buck, still edging toward the back street behind the yard.
"Well until we find them, I think you two better come with me, we don't tolerate vagrants in this town."
Chris didn't know what a vagrant was, but he didn't like the word and he wasn't about to go with the strange man anywhere.
"Run Buck! Run!" With that he turned on his heels and headed down the street, all but pulling the four-year-old along behind him.
"Oh no you don't!" the man took off after them.
Chris knew enough to realise he couldn't out run the man, and fast as he was for his size Buck had no chance. As he ran he kept his eyes open for kid size escape route. Luck, fate or their guardian angels were watching out for the boys that night. Just as the man was closing on them Chris saw a gap in the board fence beside them.
"This way!" he shouted, darting right and pulling Buck with him into the dark void behind the fence.
"Where are we?" Buck asked.
"D'n know, keep running."
"Who's that man?" Buck panted out.
"A bad man, keep running."
That was good enough for Buck, he concentrated on keeping his little legs pumping to keep up with Chris. Wherever they were, it was full of huge dark forms that seemed to loom up at them out of nowhere. Suddenly Chris let out a yelp and fell forward, dragging Buck down with him. Once they had untangled themselves and worked out that no one was following behind them, the boys realised what they had tripped over were train tracks, they had run into the train depot. Slowing down they began to explore, until there was a commotion some way behind them, men's voices and lanterns.
"Are they looking for us?" Buck asked.
"Reckon so, come on, in here." Chris pulled Buck with him toward an open wagon, there were some boxes beside it, and using these, he as able to pull himself up and climb inside, hauling Buck up after him. The wagon seemed to be full of packing cases and crates; the boys scurried around behind them and hid. As they crouched in the darkness, holding on to each other, the boys listened as the voices got closer and closer. Then there as a rumbling noise and the wagon shook, followed by an ominous clunck. Once the voices had died away Chris crept out to see what was going on, only to find the wagon's big door closed. It may have been because it was bolted or just too heavy, but he couldn't move it. Even with Buck helping, they couldn't get it to move even a fraction of an inch.
"What are we gonna do, Chris?" Buck asked tremulously.
"Wait, someone will come, don't worry, I'll protect you, let's get some rest." For Buck's benefit and to keep up his own courage, Chris forced his voice to remain calm even if he was shaking with fear inside. Despite having slept most of the day and, as of now, forced to remain still and quiet in the dark, the boys inevitably fell asleep. Chris was woken an unknown amount time later when the wagon lurched forward. Sunshine was slipping in through the gaps in the boards on the wagons sides. The door still wouldn't open, and the train was now moving faster and faster. Something approaching panic hit the eight-year-old, they were trapped, no food no water, headed who knew where.
"Chris?" Buck asked sleepily as the movement of the train woke him.
"It's okay, the train's moving. I think it's going west, it's taking us were we want to go," Chris stated confidently.
He had no real idea if the train was heading west, but he had some notion it was pointed in the right direction when they go on it.
"So will we get there soon?" Buck asked.
"Sure, soon." Chris stood up and peered through one of the gaps between the boards. "Come on, I can see real good from here," he encouraged.
They past the time watching the world go by, what they could see of it form their small 'window'. If Buck was hungry - which he had to be - he didn't say anything, but eventually he asked Chris for a drink. Chris had to tell him they had nothing.
"The train 'll stop soon, don't worry."
Buck trusted Chris, and didn't ask again. It was hot and stuffy in the wagon and the boys shed their jackets and boots in an attempt to keep cool. They - as boys do - over came their fear and began to explore their temporary home. Most of the crates were nailed tightly shut, neither boy could read the names printed on the sides, though Buck could sound out some of the letters and Chris recognised the odd word.
"Ma teached me my letters," Buck explained proudly. "She said I wouldn't have to go to the school the other kids went to. She said I'd be too smart for their school."
"This says." Chris peered at the crate. "Pea ch es I think, yeah, peaches."
Buck looked at the crate, which was almost as tall as he was. "Wow," he breathed. "I like peaches."
Chris hadn't had peaches in so long he couldn't remember what they tasted like, but he did remember they were something special. Even if they had been prepared to take some of the peaches they had no way to open the crate or one of the cans inside. So, in the end, they turned their attention back to the world outside. They had seen the occasional isolated building but now they saw farms, several of them, with fields and animals. The train began to slow.
"Is it stopping?" Buck asked.
"Maybe, come on." He led Buck over to a pile of crates by the door and ducked down. "We gotta get off if we can."
"But the train's taking us to the West."
"We need water," Chris reminded.
Suddenly the train juddered to a stop and almost instantly the big door was sliding back, but not far. It had moved no more than a foot or so when a dark figure scrambled in and slammed it shut before Chris had time to react. The figure was a man, a big man, roughly dressed with a bag over his shoulder. Chris had almost made up his mind to dart out and try opening the door again when the train moved off again.
Chris could almost feel Buck about to say something. Afraid the man would hear them, he clamped his hand over his young friend's mouth. As soon as Buck's frightened eyes turned to him, Chris put a finger to his lips, signalling him to keep quiet. Buck nodded, so Chris let his hand drop.
The train was picking up speed now, rattling along at a fair lick. From their hiding place, they could see the man clearly. He was exploring his new home. Chris held his breath and Buck, as he approached their hiding place. Then, just when it seemed he was about to find them, he stopped and examined the crates of peaches.
"Well hallelujah!" he exclaimed to himself. With that he pulled out a huge Bowie knife and in no time at all he'd pried of the lid off one crate and pulled out a can. Then, as the boys watched, he began looking for something,, though they weren't sure what. Eventually he stopped looking; having found what seemed to be a largish block of wood. Sitting down, he placed the tip of his knife on the top of the can and hit the hilt with the block of wood. In no time at all, he had enough of the lid off to lift out the succulent fruit with the knife. The hungry boys watched as he ate, then took a second can and repeated the operation, abandoning the first tin to the floor of the wagon. In total he munched his way though nine can's of peaches before he seemed to have had his fill. In no time he seemed to be asleep, snoring loudly.
Chris turned to Buck, only to find that the four year old was also asleep. He looked back at the pile of opened peach cans. He could all but taste the sweet syrup that dripped so tantalisingly from some of them. He fancied he could even see a few slices of peach in the last one. Very slowly, making as little sound as possible, Chris crept out from behind the packing crates and toward the pile of cans. He almost had one, his fingers were just a fraction of an inch from his prize when a huge hand grabbed his wrist and a knife blade, bigger than any Chris had ever seen, flashed in front of his eyes and was pressed to his throat.
"Now what do we have here? A thieving rat?" The man placed his face so close to Chris' he could feel the warmth of his fetid breath on his cheek. "Well boy?" the man prompted, pressing the blade dangerously hard against Chris' wind pipe.
"I I I "
"Spit it out boy."
"I though you was finished with them, sir," Chris managed to whisper.
The man let the pressure on the knife ease a little. "Sir is it? Well maybe I was finished with them. You on your own?"
Chris was about to say yes, but then if the man found Buck, and darn, it was hard to keep Buck quiet sometimes, he might get mad.
"No sir, my little brother is over there, he's asleep."
The man lifted the blade away. "You two on your own? No grown ups?"
"Just us sir."
Suddenly the knife was in his face again. "This is my train boy, you understand that?"
"As soon as we stop again, you two are leaving but in the mean time, I guess you can have the cans." He lowered the knife.
Chris looked down at the ground in front of him, avoiding eye contact with Vin. "We didn't open the crate or take the peaches ourselves so it wasn't stealing, not really."
"Chris, its alright, no on is mad at you, no one is blaming you, okay?"
Chris nodded, risking a quick look up at Vin to assure himself of the truth of his guardian's words. "The man let us have the cans when he was finished with them, there was syrup in the bottom and some of them even had a bit of peach left in."
"How much longer were you on the train?" Vin asked.
Chris shrugged. "It was dark again when it stopped, that's when he made us get out."
Vin looked over at Buck, who now had his thumb in his mouth and was leaning into JD. "It seemed to me," he began. "That Buck was asleep, when the man threatened you with his knife. I'm wondering if Buck isn't the only one who doesnt like knives."
Chris looked down at the floor again and shrugged. "I..," he began.
"It's okay, you did a fine job of keeping Buck safe. No one should threaten little boys, of any age, with knives." Vin reached over and put his arm around Chris. "It's going to be alright, everything will be alright in the end, okay? You guys live here, with us and that is never going to change - okay?"
"Okay Vin." Chris agreed, he just wished he really believed it.
JD looked down at Buck. "Okay?"
Buck nodded, but his thumb stayed in his mouth.
Ezra sat in the saloon nursing a glass of scotch. He'd played poker, as he always did, and won, as he always did. It hadn't been a challenging game and the stakes were disappointingly low, but as he always said, a dollar is a dollar and should never be turned way. Now however, he had something else on his mind. Josiah was at the bar, ordering another beer. As he turned around Ezra made eye contact and pushed out the chair beside him.
Josiah was no fool; he knew an invitation to talk when he saw it.
"Ezra," he greeted as he sat down.
"You look somewhat preoccupied my friend."
Ezra nodded. "Are you aware of the incident at the boarding house?"
Josiah nodded. "I spoke to the Sisters, they were very understanding."
"It seems clear to me that the return of this train has become of paramount importance to our young friend."
Josiah began to have a worried feeling in his gut. "Ezra, what are you thinking?"
"That we need to get it back for him. He is sure that the nuns took it from him. Chris told us he was placed with them, since he was an infant, but they didn't believe he was only four and sent him to the boys home after only a few days - correct?" He looked up, seeking conformation.
"As I understand it, yes," Josiah confirmed.
"Then I propose that we return to this nunnery and ask for the train."
Josiah took a moment to process this and come up with all kinds of reasons why it didn't makes sense.
"Ask them for it? That would let them know where the boys, or at least where Buck was."
"My dear Mr Sanchez, do you really think I would be asking for this as myself, besides if I were them I would just deny it."
"They're nuns Ezra," Josiah reminded.
"They took an orphan four year old's only toy, his only possession in the world, away from him, told him he was a liar and sent him to a home for boys much older than him, where they made him sleep with pigs. I think their claim on the kingdom of heaven might be a little tenuous - don't you?"
"Whatever they did, they believed they were doing God's work."
"Not good enough," Ezra stated with contempt. "My past dealings with the Catholic Church lead me to believe that they will do what they are asked, so long as they are asked by someone of sufficient rank within the church. I was thinking of a Bishop or a Cardinal."
"Ezra I am not impersonating a priest for you or even for Buck, let alone a Cardinal."
"I had anticipated as much, I propose to play the part myself. I have played the role before, quite successfully I might add, but never to such a " he searched for the right word. "Knowledgeable audience?"
Josiah regarded him for a long time, weighing up the pros and cons. "What are you going to wear?"
"That I can procure for myself." Josiah didn't want to ask how. "Will you accompany me and make sure I dont trip up?" Josiah was clearly in two minds. "It is for Buck, you know what the train means to him."
"The chances are they don't still have it, you know that, dont you?"
"I feel I must try."
Josiah reached over, took Ezra's glass of scotch, and drained it. "Very well, for Buck - and only for him - I will help you."
The boys, especially Buck weren't happy when Ezra announced that he and Josiah were leaving for at least a week, if not more. Vin and JD weren't amused either.
"Will you be back by the fourth, it's only next week?" JD asked.
"I would hope so, but I can't guarantee it," Ezra told him.
"And you still can't tell us what yer doing?" Vin asked.
"Best if we don't," Josiah confirmed.
"Well be careful," Nathan told them as they headed out of the jail. Outside, the boys were waiting.
"Uncle Ezra?" Buck looked up, eyes wide with apprehension.
Ezra squatted down so that he could face the boy on his level. "Yes."
"You promise yous coming back - right?"
Both men had assured the boys repeatedly that while they would be away for some time, they would return.
"Did I not give you my word I would return?"
"Well sure, but I heard Vin say your word ain't worth the paper it's writ on."
"Oh he did, did he?"
Buck nodded emphatically. " and paper ain't worth much so I though ."
Ezra reached out and pulled the boy into a hug. "Am I not your Uncle Ezra?"
"And have I ever lied to you?"
"Well there you go then." With the boy in his arms Ezra stood up, hugged him and handed him to JD.
Josiah looked down at Chris, who was trying to look as if he didn't care about this departure, but not doing a very good job. Clearly he was, if not as worried as Buck, more than a little concerned. The two boys had only just found security and love and stability, this prolonged separation was endangering that.
"Try and do some reading while I'm gone, the Clarion maybe?"
Chris shrugged. "Okay."
"We'll be back as soon as we can."
Chris just shrugged and kept his eyes down as Vin's sure hands on his shoulders pulled him in closer.
"I hope whatever you two are up to is worth it." Vin fixed Josiah with a piercing gaze.
Josiah glanced briefly at Buck, now clamped to JD's side. "It is." With that, he put his hat on and followed Ezra to the waiting stagecoach.