With Josiah out of town, Chris was free to put his plan into operation; all he needed was Vin's permission to work for the two surveyors. JD had taken Buck over to the stable to pet the horses, so he took his opportunity to talk to Vin.
"Did you know about the men making a map of the town?" he asked, as they walked back inside.
"Sure did, reckon someone is thinkin' of building a railroad in these parts."
Chris hadn't thought about why anyone wanted a map of the town. "Really, the railway's coming here?"
"Reckon, it's a natural crossroads. We've got good water, the roads and the telegraph are already here."
Chris beamed, not just because having the railway come to town would be exciting, but because Vin was so smart. Chris was well aware some people in town didn't like Vin, they thought he was dumb or too wild to be a lawman. Chris knew none of this was true, and it made him proud every time he saw just how good at his job his guardian really was.
"What about them?" Vin asked.
"Them?" Chris asked.
"Oh, yeah, they asked me to help them, you know, show them around town."
"Yeah, I was in the livery when they came to talk to Tiny about hiring horses. So can I?"
"Sure, why not, so long as you look after Pony."
"And do your reading, like Josiah told you to."
Chris' shoulders slumped. "Okay."
The stage coach took all day to reach Ridge City. There, Ezra and Josiah had to spend the night before they caught the east bound train. All the boys could say was that the orphanage was on the edge of a big town. It had taken quite a bit of research but Ezra had discovered that there was only one catholic orphanage called St John's that fitted with the information Chris had given them. It was located a few miles outside St Louis.
After he told them about the man on the train, Chris had been persuaded to tell them the rest of the story. The man had forced them out of the train the next time it stopped. It was dark and cold. From what he'd said, the train had stopped to take on water. There was no town, just a water tower and a windmill to pump the water. There was no moon, so the boys were forced to just huddle together beside the track until the morning.
"When the sun came up we took a drink from the tower and filled the canteen, then we started to walk down the track," Chris explained.
Nathan visibly shuddered at the thought of them drinking from the remote water tower, all the men had a vision of the two small boys alone on the prairie, walking down the railway tracks and being hit by a train. Oblivious to the distress his words caused, Chris continued.
"Buck's boots hurt his feet, especially 'cause the wood under the rails were a bit far apart for him."
"I had to jump," Buck explained. "But I's a good jumper, ain't I Chris?"
"Yeah, you're real good at it. Anyway we came to a bridge and there wasn't anything under the track, and it was a long ways down. I could have done it, but it was too dangerous for Buck. So we went down to the river, it was nearly dark anyway. Buck took his boots off and his heel was all bloody, so I made him wash it in the river." Chris looked up at Nathan.
"That was a right smart thing to do," Nathan confirmed.
"We slept under the bridge. In the morning, we waded 'cross the river."
"How deep was it?" JD asked.
"I could stand up, but not Buck."
Chris shook his head. "I carried him. On the other side the ground wasn't as stony as before, so Buck walked on the grass, he didn't want to put his boots on again, 'cause they hurt his feet." Chris' own boots had been much too small, but he'd refused to abandon them because they were a gift from his father. Only when Vin promised he could keep the boots and brought him a bigger pair did he agree to stop wearing them. "Somewhere we must have put them down and forgotten them. I tried to look for them, but I couldn't go all the way back. It started to get dark and we were getting hungry, Buck had a belly ache, so when we saw some smoke we headed for it."
Chris went on to explain that the smoke was a town on the railroad. They has scavenged some food, Chris made it clear that they never stole anything.
"Its okay," Vin assured. "No one would have blamed you if you had, but I'm very proud of you for stickin' by the law."
Chris had beamed in response to his guardians praise. "In the morning we saw the stage in town and there was this man talkin' to the driver, the driver told him he was goin' west, so we hid in the back."
"How long were you in the luggage holder?" JD asked.
"Not that long, only that one day."
The boys had been found when the stage arrived in Four Corners and the luggage unpacked. By Josiah's reckoning the boys had been in the luggage holder for at least six hours.
If Josiah had any remaining doubts about their trip, the memory of those two little boys, calmly relating their perilous journey banished them. So as the train sped east, toward St Louis, he wanted to know where Ezra intended to get the clothing they would need, but the gambler refused to be drawn in, insisting instead that Sanchez coach him in his role.
The two nuns had fully understood Buck's actions when it was explained to them by Josiah, and had offered their apologies on behalf of all nuns. With no further repercussions, Buck - as is the way with young children - quickly forgot the incident, though not his train.
Chris was pre occupied with his new job. Originally he had only been interested in the money he could make, but he quickly got involved with the work, finding the whole process fascinating. Howard Kirk, in particular, enjoyed showing the ever inquisitive boy what he was doing and the maps they had already made. His colleague, George Platt, found the boy efficient enough, he held the pole tolerably still, but his questions and Kirk's eager explanations slowed them up, in the end it took four days to map the whole town and the surrounding area. Chris might have enjoyed his job, but he was doing it for the money.
"Here boy," Platt handed over the some coins.
Chris counted his money. "There's only thirty here, should be forty; ten cents a day, I worked four days, that's forty cents." Chris held out his hand and glared at the man. "It would have taken three if we hadn't spent so much time answering your questions."
Chris wasn't having that. "You didn't have to answer, I worked four days, I want forty cents."
"He's got your there," Howard Kirk pointed out.
Platt glared at his partner, who put his hand in his pocket and pulled out another ten cents, which he handed over to Chris with a wink.
"Thanks Mister Kirk." Chris then turned back to Platt. "Thanks, sir." Giving the man he considered had just tried to cheat him one more glare, he took off down the street to the livery.
It had taken them nearly four days, but Josiah and Ezra were finally in St Louis.
"So, come on, tell me were you think you can get robes to make us look like a Cardinal and a Brother?"
Ezra just smiled enigmatically and led them to the Phoenix Theatre. "Just follow my lead," he advised as he strode up to the stage door and walked in.
"Hey!" A large bald man with a cudgel in his hand, challenged. "What do you two think you're doing back here?"
Ezra turned to greet him, smiling broadly, gold tooth glinting. "Brody, my good fellow, am I not welcome here any more?"
The fearsome looking man suddenly seemed to relax. "Mr Stanley! It's been so long, are you back to work?"
Ezra and Brody shook hands. "No, not at the moment, though I admit the call of the greasepaint is strong at times. What I am looking for is a favour. Is Sally still here?"
"I think she came with the building, you know the way."
"That I do. Oh by the way, this is my friend Mr Sanchez."
Brody held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Once they were alone, making their way down a long corridor that presumably ran behind the stage, Josiah asked Ezra just what was going on.
"As you may have surmised, I worked here once, as an actor."
"Really? Were you any good?"
"If I do say so myself, I was superb, packed houses. If circumstances had been different, I might have stayed."
"So why didnt you?"
Ezra paused for a second. "It's a long story."
They had reached the far end of the corridor and Ezra led them up a steep wooden staircase, with open treads and only one banister rail.
"Sally!" Ezra called.
"I'm here?" a loud voice answered. Finally a head appeared above a rail of clothes, flame red hair framed her freckled face, small wire rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. "Ezra!" she greeted. "You're back!"
They greeted each other with hugs and kisses.
"Sadly, this is only a fleeting visit. I am here to ask a favour."
"Well ask away darlin' boy."
Ezra explained their needs. "Well you are easy, I still have the costume you wore to play Cardinal Richelieu. Your friend may be more of a problem. I have a Friar Tuck costume."
"That should be fine," Josiah commented.
"Ah well, you see the fella who played Tuck, he wasn't as tall as your self. Let me get it out and we'll see what we can do about letting down the hem."
Sally was as good as her word, though even with the hem down Josiah's robes were still somewhat short, but once he had swapped his boots for 'Marc Anthony's' sandals, it didn't look too bad. Now dressed for the part, the 'Cardinal' and the 'Brother' hired a modest buggy and set out for the Mission Church of the Holy Family, the St John's Boys Home and the St Lucia Orphanage and Foundlings Home.
Chris calculated his progress, he reckoned he would have ten cents from Mrs Potter by the fourth of July, with the forty from the surveyors, he was half way to his goal. The trouble was he wasn't sure how to make the other fifty cents. If only Ezra was still in town, Ezra knew how to make money. Climbing up into the hayloft he got a good view of the town, hoping he'd see someone who need a strong boy to help them. Who he spotted was Nathan, hurrying to the sawmill, his bag in his hand.
He didn't see Nathan again until the evening when he joined them for their evening meal. Buck was telling him about how he'd skinned his knee. Nathan had inspected the wounded knee and being suitably impressed by it and by Buck's bravery - apparently he hadn't cried once while Miss Blossom washed it. While JD took Buck to wash his face, Chris got a chance to speak to Nathan.
"What happened to Mr Johansson?" he asked.
"Mr Johansson?" Vin asked. "The miller?"
"His son fell down a ladder. I don't think his ankle is broken, but he's sprained it badly. He'll be off his feet for a while."
Chris nodded. "That's too bad."
Since he was dressed as 'Cardinal Richelieu', Ezra used that to create his character. The nun who answered the bell was somewhat shocked to find a Cardinal on the doorstep.
"Good day sister, would you be so kind as to tell the Mother Superior that Cardinal Simon is here," he announced in a French accent.
"Oh my, yes of course, please come in."
She ushered them down a long hall, somewhere more than one baby was crying, but the place looked and smelt clean. As they walked down the corridor a small group of girls were coming in the opposite direction, dressed in white aprons over grey dresses. As the girls saw them, they all stood to the side and lowered their heads as the adults past.
Josiah looked questioningly at the girls and then the nun.
"We believe in strict standards of behaviour. It is important for these girls to learn their place."
"Indeed," Ezra commented as they reached a small anti room.
"Please take a seat, I'll just tell Mother Superior that you're here."
It was no more than a minute before the mother superior came out. "Cardinal Simon?" she asked.
"Madam, may I come in?"
"Oh yes, please do."
She ushered them into a spacious room, with a large desk at one end and at the other end there was a fireplace, a comfortable chair and a large bookcase.
"Cardinal Simon," Ezra introduced himself."
"Mother Juvenilia," the Mother superior introduced herself. "I wasn't expecting a visit, is Cardinal Charles unwell?"
"Are you saying that you were not notified of my arrival?" Ezra turned to Josiah. "Brother Josiah, did we not send a letter to this good woman?"
"We did sir, but there was no reply."
"I assure you, we had no letter."
"Well, these things are to be expected in such a location. Let me explain," Ezra began. "I have the honour to work in the Vatican. The Holy Father is interested in the New World; there are so many new churches, new missions. The Holy Father thinks there may be things the rest of the church can learn from these new churches. So I have been sent to see them."
"The Holy Father is interested in our mission?" she gasped.
"He is interested in all his churches, but currently he has a particular interest in the work of the church in this new frontier. Perhaps we could start with a tour?"
Chris wasted no time. As soon as his morning chores were down, and he'd had his riding lesson for the morning,, he sprinted down to the mill. Johansson's was an all all-purpose, water powered mill, located just down stream of the town. Primarily they milled lumber; the water wheel drove a band saw and a lathe. In addition, the mill could also grind corn and wheat.
"Hello Mr Johansson," Chris called as he stepped into the mill.
"Hello?" Johansson, a short, stocky built man, with a shock of almost white blond hair, put his head out of the window.
"I was wondering how Eric was, Nathan said he hurt his ankle."
"And who are you?"
Chris did his best to smile warmly. "I'm Chris, I live at the jail."
"Oh yes, I've heard about you and your brother, might have seen you around town too I think."
"Well Eric is resting, like Mr Jackson told him too, I think he's glad of the time to do some reading."
Chris couldn't think why any one would voluntarily read. "I was wondering sir, since Eric is laid up, you might be needing someone to sweep up and such?"
Johansson came out and took a good long look at Chris. "So that is why you are here, for a job?"
"Yes Sir," Chris admitted.
Johansson gave him a wry look. "Well, you're too small to do most of Eric's work." Chris looked crestfallen. "But I guess I do need someone to sweep up this week. You sure you can you sweep boy?"
"Oh yes sir, I do it all the time at the livery."
"Okay, penny a day."
"One penny. If you do a good job maybe you'll earn a bonus. Come over at about five this afternoon."
"Yes sir, I'll be here."
Ezra had never had to work so hard to stay in character as the Mother Superior showed them around. He hadn't dared to look at Josiah, but noted that the big man had remained silent. It wasn't that the children weren't being cared for; they were clean and seemed to be adequately fed, the building was clean and in good condition. It was just so cold and lacking in love. There were no pictures on the wall, all the beds had the same grey blankets, all the children wore the same grey uniforms. Even the small babies were dressed in uniform white. Apart from the occasional cry from one of the babies, the children seemed to be almost silent. There was none of the usual laugher, chatter and squeals of joy they were accustomed to when Chris and especially Buck were around.
"I see Mother, that the children all were a uniform," Ezra commented as the tour came to an end.
"Oh yes, it's essential. Most of the poor dears don't have much when they come and what they do have is usually unsuitable. Also we find that if some children have personal possessions and the others do not, it causes ill feeling and jealousy."
"I see," Ezra responded guardedly. "And what happens to their personal possessions?"
"Most of the clothing is burnt, we find it is generally infested, or too threadbare to be worth keeping. Occasionally we get things that are of a better quality and these we distribute to those good Catholic folk with young children who can best use them."
Ezra could almost feel Josiah's anger rising. "And what of other possessions, keepsakes, valuables, toys?"
"It is unhelpful for the children to dwell on the past. We are training them so they can find new families or respectable means of employment. Many of them are born in sin," she lowered her voice. "or from unsavoury backgrounds, if you know what I mean sir?"
"I do," Ezra admitted.
"Of course, any valuables they bring with them go toward their board and education."
"So, you don't ever keep any of these personal possessions?" Ezra asked, his heart already heavy with disappointment.
"We do have some, if they have things of no value, we keep them until they leave, when they may claim them, if they wish. Of course, most have forgotten about them by the time they are to leave, so they never claim them. We dispose of them after they leave."
"And what of the boys who go to St John's?" Ezra asked.
"Their possessions go with them, of course. What Father Peter does with them, I couldn't say."
Using the same tactics, Ezra and Josiah gained entry to St John's Home for Boys. Like St Lucia's, it and the boys were clean and the seemed to be adequately fed; though they knew from Chris' accounts that this was an illusion, as both boys had often been hungry. While the atmosphere in St Lucia's was that of repression and resignation, in St John's the sense of fear was all pervading. No boys made eye contact with them at any time. Both men noticed numerous bruises on thin arms and fearful faces.
Father Peter told them that, like the Mother Superior, he kept any of the boy's possessions that weren't worth selling, and returned them when the boy left, if he asked for them. Ezra and Josiah were sure no boy ever had the courage to do this.
"Most of these boys are from ungodly families, many are little better than heathen. Often they have been living alone, like animals. Why, some have been living in prisons or saloons or worse. We have to treat them firmly, drive out the devil, because you can be sure he's already got his hooks into their souls."
Forcing himself to remain calm, Ezra cleared his throat. "I think I should see these possessions, it may give me a better idea of where they came from."
Father Peter looked surprised, but then shrugged and led them to the basement. And there they were, neat boxes in rows, row upon row of wooden boxes, each one with names on the front. Most of the boxes had three or four names on the box, the top ones crossed off. Whoever was in charge of this sad collection of stolen lives was at least meticulous; the boxes were stacked in alphabetical order.
Ezra manoeuvred the small party toward the 'W' section and, while he distracted the Father, Josiah pushed his hand into the box marked 'Wilmington B' relieved that no one had yet removed the runaway's box. There was no time to look at it, they had to make their exit before their true purpose was discovered, so he just took everything thing in the box. On the way out, Ezra suddenly seemed to stumble, knocking a box off a bottom shelf.
"So sorry," he apologised as he pushed the box back onto the shelf.
"Please don't trouble yourself," Father Peter assured.
Mr Johansson was very pleased with Chris' three days of sweeping and added an extra two cents. With the money from Mrs Potter and the surveyors he now had fifty five cents, a long way short of his one dollar goal, and he only had until ten o'clock the next day to register for the race. On top of that, he hadn't managed to sneak Pony past Tiny once for a practise. Vin had been letting him get Pony up to a good lope, but only in Tiny's big corral. He knew he'd be fine outside the fence. Pony was his friend, they understood one another. Whenever he was in the livery he always spent every free moment standing in Pony' stall or at the corral fence, just stroking his friend and speaking to him. Vin had told him how the Comanche break their horses, gentle breaking them, so that man and horse would be friends, not master and slave. He wanted to be Pony's friend, not his master.
Once more he wished Ezra was in town, he'd know how to make forty five cents, he might even have loaned him the money. Chris wouldn't have minded how long he had to wash glasses or sweep floors to pay it back, so long as he had it. The eight year old knew Nathan or JD would have lent him money, but like Josiah, had he been there, they would have insisted on knowing what it was for and he didnt want to lie to them. Ezra would have asked, he would have said it was a secret and that would have been that. Ezra understood about secrets.
As he walked home, he was still thinking about Ezra and how to make the money he needed and feeling very despondent when he realised he'd walked not to the jail but right up to the Standish Tavern. It was early yet, not even dark, and the saloon was almost empty. As Chris stood there, Inez came along the sidewalk, a basket full of fresh eggs in one hand and a pail of milk from one of Mr Morgan's cows, in the other.
"Hola!" she greeted cheerily.
"Hola, Miz Inez."
"Are you looking for Buck, I haven't seen him all day."
"No, I was just It don't matter." He shrugged and made to turn away.
"Oh come now, tell me what it making you so sad."
Chris gazed up at her again. "Miz Inez, if you needed some money, say like forty five cents, how would you get it?"
"Well, I would work for it."
"What if you don't have time, what if you needed it by tomorrow?"
She though a moment. "Well I tell you this, under this floor," she gestured to the saloon, there must a good number of coins. People drop things when they drink too much and there are gaps between the floor boards."
Chris' eyes lit up. "Really?"
"Yes, but it is too low and too dirty to be crawling around under there. If you need the money why do you not ask Vin? I'm sure he can lend you some."
"It's okay, I was just asking."
"CHRIS!" Vin bellowed from the jail.
"You better go."
Buck sighed, tomorrow was the forth of July and his uncle Ezra and Josiah weren't back. Everyone kept talking about 'The Fourth', it sounded very important, although Buck wasn't sure way. Chris was off someplace doing something. He wouldn't tell Buck what he was doing, it was a secret and it was only for big boys.
"You're too little to help me," he insisted.
"But I'm a big boy," Buck protested.
"Okay, you're too young."
"No fair." Buck's lower lip trembled in a sulk.
"This is important, I gotta do it."
Chris' voice and face made it clear that this was something he had to leave to Chris. "Okay," he finally admitted.
The rest of the day was boring, everyone was too busy to play with him or read to him or even tell him what was going on. For a while it had been fun to watch the men stretch string of little red, white and blue flags across the street, especially when one of them fell off the ladder. Mrs Potter had red, white and blue decorations in her shop window and when he said they looked nice she gave him a broken cookie, as well as his regular cookie. Lots of people went in and out of the newspaper office all day, but he couldn't work out why. After sitting in the jail and drawing a whole heard of horses on some paper that Mrs Travis had given them, he finally fell sleep, not waking until JD came looking for him.
"JD?" he asked sleepily.
"What's The Fourth?"
JD looked deep into his son's deep blue eyes. It hadn't occurred to him that the four year old had no idea what was about to happen. His mother had still been alive a year ago, so he assumed they had celebrated together. Of course, now he thought about it, Buck was only three last year, maybe he just didn't remember it? "Well let's see, tomorrow is the Fourth of July, and that's our country's birthday, sometimes people call it 'Independence Day'.
Buck's little mouth formed a big 'O' then he grinned. "I 'member that! Me and Ma went to a 'dependence day picnic and we had lots of food and candy and then Ma had to work, but she gotted me out of bed to see the fireworks!" he explained with enthusiasm. "Is there gonna be fireworks?"
"You bet and a horse race and a pie contest and a dance and a whole bunch of fun stuff."
"And candy," JD confirmed.
"I like candy," Buck told him seriously.
"I know you do, but it's "
"Only for a treat, not for all the time," the little boy recited dutifully if not very earnestly.
"You remember that. Now, we need to go and get washed up for supper."
Buck dutifully took JD's hand as the two of them headed for the bathhouse. "What's for supper?"
"Cold cuts and bread." Buck let out a disappointed sigh. "We gotta save ourselves for tomorrow, there's gonna be steak and fried chicken and enchiladas and all kinds of good things to eat."
"And candy," Buck reminded him.
As JD laughed, behind them Vin was bellowing across the street at Chris.
Chris had a plan, it scared him, but he was determined. He lay in bed and waited. As always, Buck fell asleep before their bedtime story was even half way through. After JD said goodnight and left their room, he slipped out of bed and stood at the window. He had a good view of the main street and could see two saloons including the Standish Tavern. For what seemed like forever, he watched the goings on in the town on the eve of the fourth of July. There was plenty to see, more than once he saw JD, Vin and even Nathan pull men out of one of the saloons, two were even dragged over to the jail. He could hear them downstairs being locked up for the night. Eventually the town quietened down, one by one the lights in the saloons went out and the watch fires died down.
Quickly he slipped back into bed. He knew either Vin or JD would push the bedroom door open and check on them before they went to bed. As he lay there, feigning sleep, he heard the door open and then close. It was Vin; his soft, almost silent footfall was unmistakable. He lay there and waited and waited and waited. Finally, when he was sure everyone was asleep, he got up again. Carrying his clothes, he tiptoed down the steep stairs to the living area. Once he had his clothes on, he opened the door to the jail. The smell of alcohol and the sound of loud snoring came from the cells, but none of the prisoners stirred. He collected a lamp from the shelf and lit it. He went back into the living area and exited by the front door. He'd never been in the town when it was so dark and so quiet, but compared to some of the nights he and Buck has spent out alone, it was alive with sights and sounds.
Keeping the lamp turned down, he crossed the street to Ezra's saloon. He had already worked out where the biggest opening was, so turning the lamp full up, he lay on his belly and wiggled under the building. At first it was hard going; there was almost no room to move, and it was not only dusty and dirty, which he'd expected, but also infested with spiders, beetles, mice and all manner of other small creatures, including at least one rat. Chris wasn't afraid of bugs or rodents, not as a general rule, but, being on his belly with no room to get away and having a hand-sized spider crawl over his arm near his face, well, it was impossible not to react. When that happened he almost gave up, he almost began wiggling back, but he didn't. He took a deep breath and steeled himself. He'd come this far; he wasn't going to give up now. As he moved further on, the ground slopped down and there was more room, and fewer creepy-crawlies.
Suddenly, something glistened in the lamplight and he crawled over to it. He'd hit the jackpot! It was dime. Pocketing his treasure, he slowly moved the lamp around, looking for another tell-tale twinkle. It took him no time at all to find two nickels and a quarter, just enough money.
Turning around, he wiggled his way back out and stood up tall again, a grin of triumph all over his filthy face. All he had to do now was get back into bed undetected. He had half excepted his absence to be discovered by Vin, or even JD, never did he think Buck would be the one who caught him. As he slipped into the bedroom, Buck sat up and gasped.
"You're back!" he hissed.
"What are you doing awake?" Chris asked as he pulled off his clothes.
"I had to go, and you weren't here! I thought you was at the out house, so I waited." While Buck used the chamber pot under the bed, Chris preferred to go all the way to the outhouse. At least he had so far, when it came to the winter, he'd no doubt be sharing the pot. "You was a long time," Buck all but accused.
"Well I'm back now."
Just then the light cloud cover must have blown away, because brilliant moonlight suddenly flooded the room.
"Ewww, Chris, you's all dirty," Buck announced.
Chris peered at himself in the small mirror on the wall. Even in the moonlight he could see the dirt. He'd expected to be a bit dirty, but as he looked at himself now, it was clear he was filthy! If he washed his face in the basin in the bedroom he'd make it as dirty as he was, and that would mean answering questions in the morning.
"Chris? Did you fall over?"
Chris was still looking at himself in the mirror.
"Did you?" Buck asked again when he got no response.
"Did I what?"
"Fall over, on the way to the outhouse?"
Chris turned back to face Buck. "Oh no I yeah, yeah I fell over in the dark."
It was a convenient lie; it explained away the dirt. He didn't like lying to Vin or JD, much less Buck. He'd never lied to Buck before, but he had to do it, he just couldn't see any other way out of the situation. As fast as he could, he washed his hands and face and hid the clothes he'd been wearing. His face and hands might get dirty falling over, but that wouldn't explain how dirty his clothes were.
He was as clean as he could get as he climbed back into bed.
"Are you okay?" Buck asked as he lay down again.
"Sure, go back to sleep."
Buck was asleep again in minutes; Chris could feel his warm body resting up against him in the darkness. He didn't sleep; he just lay there, his stomach in knots. Tomorrow he was going to ride in a race, a race against men on horses, not boys on ponies. He was going to ride Pony faster than he ever had before, outside the corral, with no saddle. He was going to lie to Vin and JD, as he'd just lied to Buck. It wasn't that he'd never lied. He'd lied to the brothers at St John's many times, he'd lied to other boys before, but he'd never lied to people he loved.
The midsummer sun rose early, and morning came all too soon. As he got out of bed, the sunlight reflected of his pristine white nightshirt. He groaned silently, he was meant to have fallen over in this shirt and there wasn't a mark on it. Buck shifted and yawned as he woke. Chris quickly pulled off his nightshirt and stuffed it under his pillow. The basin was full of muddy water from the night before, so he had to dress with out washing.
"Buck?" he called as he dressed.
"Don't say nothing about me fallin' over last night. Vin an' JD are gonna be real busy today, I don't want them frettin' about me."
Buck knelt up in the bed, still rubbing sleep from his eyes. "'Kay."
"Boys," Vin began as they sat at down for breakfast. Both boys looked up at him expectantly. "It's going to be a busy day, so you need to listen up, okay?"
"Sure Vin," Chris assured.
"Now, we were hoping Josiah and Ezra would be back before today, but they aren't so we'll have to manage. Chris you look after Buck this morning,, you can watch the race from Nathan's place, you'll have a good view of the finish from there."
Chris' stomach lurched, how could he look after Buck and ride in the race? He was so worried about his predicament, he almost didn't hear what Buck said next.
"You're gonna win the race, arent you JD? 'Cause Milagro's the fastest horse ever."
JD's gonna race? Chris hadn't considered that one of his guardians was going to race against him.
"Sorry Little'n, not this year," JD told Buck.
"But why? I heard Uncle Ezra say you was a 'sure thing', that means you're gonna win."
Inwardly making a note to talk to Ezra about what he was teaching the impressionable four year old, JD smiled at his ward. "Well Milagro is fast, but he's not fit. Remember, he came up lame the day after I went to Eagle Bend?"
"But he's all better now," Buck pointed out.
Chris had all but forgotten the stone bruise Milagro had picked up on the way back to Four Corners.
"I know, but he's had no exercise for over a week. I can't ask him to run in a race like that, he might hurt himself."
Buck suddenly looked worried. "Do horses get hurt in races?"
"No, not usually, but if they're not fit, they can."
Buck turned his attention to Vin. "Vin, are you gonna race Peso?"
No, please say no, Chris silently pleaded.
"On Peso? No, I ain't racin' t'day."
"Peso ain't the sociable kind, you know that," Chris pointed out to Buck. "He'd most likely kick the other horses. Right Vin?"
"Well " Tanner began. "That is true, but mainly 'cause it's only a mile and a bit. That's practically a sprint, Peso's a distance horse. He'll keep going at a steady lope for miles, but over a short distance, there's too many horses around here who could beat him."
Chris relaxed a fraction, all he had to do now was sign up for the race, get Pony warmed up without Tiny telling Vin and find someone to watch Buck - easy.
"After the race," JD continued, "you can come with us and we'll see what kind of fun we can have - okay?"
"Yeah!" Buck cheered.
When some mechanical problem with the train stranded them in the middle of nowhere for the best part of a day, Josiah and Ezra knew they were going to miss their connecting stage to Four Corners. By the time they arrived in Ridge City, the stage was long gone. They could get on the next stage - on the fourth - but that wouldn't get to Four Corners until late afternoon. So they made some enquiries. They could hire a pair of horses, but when and how would they get them back? Then luck played a hand. A travelling show wagon, 'Madam Zaza, Fortune Teller, She Knows All, She Tells All', happened to be headed for Four Corners, leaving before dawn. After crossing her hand with far more silver than the stage ticket would have cost, she agreed to take them with her, so long as they drove the horses.
"Why are you gents in such a hurry?" she asked Josiah as they rode in the back of the small wagon while Ezra drove.
"Family," he told her. "Our nephews are waiting for us to join them for the celebrations."
She reached out and took his hand, turning it over to examine his palm. "Yes, I see children, and a long life. Also much conflict." She looked up into his eyes, hold his hand a little tighter. "But peace will come to you, and with it love."
Josiah generally dismissed people like her as charlatans, but there was something about her that made him hope she was telling the truth.
"What about Ezra?" he asked. "I noticed you held his hand a little longer than is usual when you shook on the deal."
"You notice a lot."
"Live longer that way, so, about Ezra?"
"He keeps things to himself, his future is hard to see, but I see much love and contentment, eventually."
"No I don't see great wealth for him, nor great poverty."
Josiah smiled at her. "Good, but don't tell him that."
"Come on Buck, let's go to the livery," Chris encouraged.
"Yay!" Buck enthused, he loved horses almost as much as Chris. If JD would only let him have his own horse, he'd be at the livery as much as his brother.
Chris worked to get Pony ready. He brushed him until his coat shone, made double sure his hooves were spotless and his mane and tail knot free. Buck 'helped' in his own way.
"Buck?" he called.
"Yeah?" A small face appeared at the hatch to the hay loft.
"I just gotta go across the street for a sec. You stay here with Tiny, I'll be right back - okay?"
Buck was having fun in the hay loft, normally some grownup told him to stop making a mess and come down, so he as more than happy to be left alone for while.
"Okay," he happily agreed.
Chris crossed the street to the Clarion office. He had his money in his pocket, all he had to do now was register, he just hoped Mrs Travis would understand.
Luck was with Chris Larabee. Mary Travis was very busy, so she'd asked Eric
Johansson to register the riders for the race, since he wasn't able to do much else to help.
"Hi Vin," he greeted cheerfully.
"Hi Eric, how's your ankle?"
"Getting better thanks. What do you want?"
"I gotta register someone for the race," Chris told the teenager seriously.
"Okay, what's his name?"
Chris took a deep breath. "Christopher Adam."
Eric didn't even blink, he just wrote the name down. "That's one dollar."
Chris put his collection of coins on the table. Eric lifted one eyebrow, and began counting.
"Here," he held out a penny.
"What's wrong with it?" Chris asked.
"Nothing, you gave me too much."
Chris sighed with relief and took the penny back. "Thanks."
"Tell him to be at the start, outside the livery, at eleven."
"I'll I will!" Chris beamed and ran back to the livery.
It was already ten, and he still had to get Pony warmed up.
Once he'd persuaded Buck to leave the livery, the two boys made their way to Nathan's clinic.
"Mr Nathan," Chris began.
"Can I go back to the livery?"
Nathan looked down at him. "Why?"
"It's were the race is starting, please?"
"Can I go too?" Buck asked instantly.
Nathan knew that the start of the race would be exciting, and also he knew that all those men and animals milling around, excited and distracted, would make it a dangerous place for an excited four year old.
"Sorry Buck, it's too dangerous."
"But can I go?" Chris asked again.
"Very well, but you mind Tiny and be careful."
"I will! Thanks!"
With that he was gone, and though he didn't look back, he just knew Buck was pouting with disappointment. He almost ran right to the livery, but a sudden pang of guilt had him diverting to Mrs Potter's. Gloria wanted to enjoy the day with her children, but with the town packed, it was too good a day not to open. Chris ran in and using his one cent refund, breathlessly purchased a bag of lemon drops. Then, bag in hand, he sprinted back to Buck.
"Here, these are for you!" He handed the bag to Buck.
The dark haired boy looked into the bag. "All for me?" he asked.
"Yeah!" Chris was already running back down the steps.
Vin was making a last minute inspection of the course, ensuring it was safe, properly marked, and that someone reliable was positioned at every point where someone could take a short cut. If you cut down the arguments, you cut down the likelihood of trouble. JD was down by the finish, keeping an eye on the gambling. Things would have been a lot simpler if Ezra had just been there to run an honest book.
As he headed back into town, Vin spotted the garishly painted wagon on the road from Ridge City. He squinted into the sun, making out the driver, who was not only wearing a familiar hat, but a very distinctive red coat.
"Ezra?" Vin asked himself, riding toward the wagon.
If he hadn't met the wagon, if Josiah and Ezra hadn't been hitching a lift with the fortune teller, he would have ridden into town past the livery. If he'd done that, he'd have seen Chris, up on Pony, getting ready to line up and race. As it was, he walked with the wagon to the field behind the church, where the main celebrations were going to take place, followed by the fireworks.
Chris got up on Pony and took him into the open ground behind the livery and got him warmed up. He rode circles in walk, then trot and then in a steady lope. Then he put him though the kind of exercises he'd seen Ezra do with Chaucer. He rode at a lope, in circles that started out big and then got smaller then bigger, he rode in snake like patens and figures of eight. Suddenly, someone was hitting the anvil with a hammer, the signal to line up.
"Chris? What are you doing up there?" Tiny asked.
"Boy you can't just race, you have to be registered."
"I am registered."
Tiny frowned and turned back to the list Mary Travis had given him. "Let me see. No, I don't think so."
"But I paid my dollar, it's gotta be there."
"Chris your name isn't on the list."
"It must be, Eric wrote it down I saw him, he wrote Christopher Adam."
Tiny looked at her list again. "Christopher Adam?"
"That's my name, Christopher Adam Larabee." Chris sat up tall, puffing out his chest with pride.
"Well, yes, your name is there, but I don't think you can race, you're too young."
"That's not fair, I read what it said in the paper over and over, it over. It didn't say nothing about how old you were," Chris protested indignantly, glaring at the adults.
"Look, are we gonna race or what?" One of the men asked.
Several of the horses were now getting very agitated.
"Yeah, come on, let the kid ride," Someone called from the crowd.
Mr Colkin was the race starter. No lover of the two orphan boys, he wasn't about to hold up proceedings or put off his moment of glory any longer. He lifted his fed flag.
"Attention racers!" he shouted.
As one, the competitors, including Chris, turned to look at him, ignoring Tiny.
For Chris time stood still, all sound seemed to fade away into a distant mummer as he focused all his attention on the flag. It seemed to hover, almost as if no one was holding it, then it was moving and so was he. As the horses around him suddenly launched themselves forward, Chris was almost thrown off before the race started as Pony suddenly lifted his forelegs and then lurched forward, following the forty or more other horses in the race.
It had seemed like such a simple plan, ride in a race, win a saddle, then Vin wouldn't have to work so hard, simple. He'd convinced himself he was ready to ride fast outside the corral. After all, he'd never even fallen off Pony, not once, he was a good rider, everyone said so, Tiny said he was a natural. He knew now Vin had been right, he wasn't ready. Pony was going so much faster than he'd ever gone before. The land below was just a blur, Pony's hooves were hitting the ground so fast he couldn't hear the individual beats like he usually could. Out of sheer fear, he reached forward and grabbed two fistfuls of the long black mane in front of him. Taking hold of the mane forced him to lean forward, so that now he was almost lying over Pony's neck.
There were other horses and riders all around him, all intent on getting to the front, but Chris had ceased to care, all he cared about was not falling off. He tucked his head down beside Pony's neck and fought the urge to close his eyes. It was almost his undoing, because with his head tucked down, he didn't see the first turn coming. Suddenly Pony side stepped, Chris was thrown out to the side, only the proximity of the rider beside him saved him.
"Watch it kid!" the man shouted, shoving his elbow out, as Chris all most landed on his thigh.
It was painful, but at least the shove had pushed him back onto Pony. Unfortunately, he almost slid over too far and was in danger of sliding off the other side, even with a death grip on the mane. Just as he felt he could hold on no longer, Pony followed the melee of hoses around the first marker flag. The sudden shift in direction helped him to right himself again. Almost too scared to breathe, he resolved to keep his head up and his eyes open. Not that it helped a lot, with the dust and the wind blowing in his face, he could hardly see at all anyway. That didn't mean he couldn't see the next red flag marking another turn. Screwing up his courage, he sat up a little taller and moved his hand a little further down the mane. When the turn came he would be more able to lean in to it and keep his balance, he hoped, he even prayed.
The turn came and went and he was still on his horse and it seemed there were fewer horses around him. The ground ahead was straight and flat, so Chris took a risk and looked around. There were a couple of horses behind and to his left and one in front of him. He recognised it, everyone at the start of the race had been talking about it. The horse belonged to Mr Royal, a local rancher. He'd bought it in the east, some said in Kentucky. It was being ridden by one of Mr Royal's hands, a wiry lad of about seventeen. He even had a special saddle. Chris had heard Tiny say something about Mr Royal showing off, and it was only a local race, and how a man like him didn't need a new saddle anyway.
As the long straight stretched on, the horses behind him fell back. As they approached the final turn, the one that would take them back into town and down the main street, it was just Chris and the Royal horse. Chris was feeling more confident, he relaxed a little and with more courage than he had ever thought he had, he put his heels to Pony. The response was instantaneous, it was if Pony had only been coasting until then. Suddenly he sprang forward and in seconds they were almost beside the big bay in front, not behind it.
I could win, I could actually win! Chris suddenly realised.
Before the race had started, he'd believed that he couldn't loose, a second after it started, all he wanted to do was survive. Now, his belief in victory was creeping back. He risked letting go of the mane so his hands could move with Pony's head, giving him the freedom to stretch his neck fully and lengthen his stride even more. He drew level with the other horse and, as they approached the last turn, it was Chris who had the inside track.
Chris put his inside leg on to Pony, pushing him out a little. He wanted to make sure he made the turn, going inside the flag would mean he was out of the race. Mr Pimm, the gunsmith, was standing off to one side, making sure no one cut the turn.
They both made the turn with Pony coming out just a fraction ahead. There was a stand of trees ahead, once they were through the trees, they would be on a long looping turn up onto the road into town. Chris was now more and more confident, he'd found his balance. As excitement replaced fear, he relaxed, and that made him a better and faster rider.
Suddenly, something grabbed his shirt and pulled him off Pony, before he had even realised what had happened he was falling between the two horses. Something flashed though his mind, something Vin was forever drilling into him.
"If you loose hold of your horse, you're a dead man."
Vin might have been talking about losing your horse out on the prairie or the desert, but none the less, even as he was falling, Chris' little hand closed onto one of the reins.
Someone shouted that the riders were coming. Outside the clinic, Buck began to bounce with excitement, trying to get a good view over the railing.
"Here, let me help." With that Nathan lifted the little boy up and onto his shoulders. "Can you see better now"?
"Yeah, thanks Mr Nathan. Look, I can see JD and Vin."
"So do I, and who's that standing just beside them?"
Nathan felt Buck lean forward a little. "Josiah and Uncle Ezra! Can I go stand with them?"
"Sorry, they're still working, and besides, there's no time, look!" Nathan pointed to the far end of town.
"They're coming!" Buck shouted.
As they watched, the bay thundered down the street, at least three horses length ahead of the next horse. The town's folk, lining the street and hanging from the upper windows, all cheered. As the horse passed the wining post outside the Standish Tavern, Vin waved the flag to signify the winner.
As soon as the other horses were past the post, Nathan lifted Buck down. "What say we go find your father?"
Buck didn't need to be asked twice, he was already tugging at Nathan's hand to hurry him along.
It took about fifteen minutes to see to the horses, most of whom were sweating and breathing heavily, before the presentation could be made. Having greeted Ezra and Josiah, Buck was now standing beside JD, one hand holding on to his father's belt, so as not to get separated in the crush. He watched as the crowd parted and a tall man with a cane came limping up to the saloon. There on the hitching rail was a shiny, new saddle, with tooled leather. Mary was standing on the far side, ready to hand it over.
"Stop!" someone called loudly from the back of the crowed.
JD lifted his head, trying to see who had called.
"Stop, it's not right!" the voice called again, it sounded like a woman.
There was a movement in the crowd and eventually Mrs Morgan appeared at the front of the throng.
"That man cheated!" she accused pointing at the Royal hand who had ridden his boss' horse to victory.
"What?" the youth asked. "You don't know what yer talkin' about."
"I tell you he cheated," Clare Morgan insisted.
"I didn't miss one turn, you ask them folk Tanner set t' watch um!"
Vin turned to his marshals, all of whom were now gathered at the front of the crowed. "Well?" he asked.
"No one missed a turn, not even the kid," Mr Pimm confirmed.
"That ain't what I'm talking about," Mrs Morgan continued. "I was grazing one of the cows among the trees, she's expecting and it's cooler there, anyway, I saw them coming, that man and the boy on his pony. The boy was level with him and he!" She pointed her finger accusingly at the young hand. "Gabbled the lad and pulled him off his horse."
"Is this true?" Mary asked the rider.
"Of course it's not true," Guy Royal insisted, taking a step toward the saddle.
"Just hold it there, Mr Royal." Vin held up his hand. "Let's just get to the bottom of this. Mrs Morgan, what boy are we talking about?"
She looked confused. "Why, your lad, of course!"
"WHAT!" Vin all but vaulted the hitching rail and strode toward the farmer's wife. "Where is he? Is he alright?"
"He was just behind me, walking that pony of his."
The assembled crowed parted like the Red Sea as Vin charged though it, Nathan hot on his heels. JD passed Buck to Ezra and followed them.
When Chris hit the ground, he still had hold of the rein, but Pony was still moving, carried alone by the need to run with the herd. Chris, however, didn't let go and Pony stilled for a fraction, until the rest of the horses came thundering thought the trees. Now with a death grip on the leather in his hand, Chris pulled his legs in as hooves and legs flew past him, while all the time Pony was trying to follow them. After no more than a few seconds, it was all over and he looked up. Pony was still there, no longer pulling, just standing and looking down at his young master.
Chris stifled the urge to cry out in frustration, as he slowly climbed to his feet. He could feel bruises all over his body, but mostly down his left side. He tried to lift his arms to pull himself back up onto his horse.
"When you get thrown off, the first thing you do is get back on," Vin had taught him.
As soon as he tried to lift his left arm, white hot pain shot though his shoulder, down his arm and across his chest. Now he cried, and he didn't care who saw him. Resting his forehead on Pony's warm flank he cried and tried to will the pain away. At that moment, all he wanted was for Vin to come and make it better. Eventually the pain did subside, the white hot daggers became dull pokers that sent waves of pain back and fourth across his shoulder.
"Boy!" a woman called. "Boy, are you alright?"
"Um, yes ma'am," Chris managed, looking up as a woman approached. He couldn't remember her name, but he'd seen her in town.
"I saw what happened, don't you worry, I'm going to tell them in town."
Before he could say anything to stop her, she was hurrying away. Chris groaned and once more rested his head on Pony's flank, tears flowing again. He was in so much trouble, he'd lied and disobeyed Vin and now he'd shamed him by not even finishing the race. Pony shuddered, sending little ripples through his skin to rid himself of flies.
"Okay, I know," Chris told him softly.
Slowly he straightened up. As he walked, leading Pony behind him, he quickly found that placing his left hand on his right shoulder was the least painful position. The town was no more than two hundred yards away, yet as he walked alone, leading his horse, it felt like a hundred miles.
Ahead of him was a crowed of people, with their backs to him. All he had to do was get past and into the livery and he'd be safe, at least for a while. Then suddenly, they turned around, all of them and stared at him! Chris froze were he stood. As he looked at all the people looking at him, he began to tremble.
"CHRIS!" Vin voice came to him as the crowed parted and his guardian came flying toward him.
Vin was about to wrap his arms around him, when Nathan, just behind him shouted a warning.
"Easy Vin, let me see!"
Vin stopped in his tracks as Nathan past him.
"Chris?" Nathan asked in a soft voice, kneeling in front of him. "Are you hurt?"
Chris was still looking at Vin, looking into his eyes, trying to see if he still had a home.
"It's okay, it'll be okay," Vin whispered.
"Chris?" Nathan asked again.
Slowly the eight year old turned to look at Nathan. "Yes?"
"Are you hurt."
"Chris, tell Nathan the truth," Vin instructed.
"M' shoulder hurts some," he admitted.
Nathan made a quick visual check, please to find no sign of blood. "Well, I'll take a look at it right away," he assured. "Let's get you to the clinic."
Vin wanted nothing more than to get Chris up to the clinic, but he also wanted to know what happened. "Hold on there, Nathan, lets get this sorted first." Nathan frowned, but Vin ignored him and turned back to Chris. "Mrs Morgan says that you were pulled from your horse, is that right?"
Chris looked up at him, eyes filled with fear.
"It's going to be alright, just tell me the truth. Did someone pull you off Pony?"
"Yes sir," Chris admitted.
"Was it that man?" Vin pointed to the cowboy who'd claimed victory.
Vin shot to his feet, his hand resting ominously on the mare's leg in his holster. "You're disqualified!"
"That is ridiculous, you can not take the word of some street urchin and this milkmaid! What do they know about horse racing?!" Royal demanded.
"If I were you, brother," Josiah spoke softly in the rich man's ear. "I'd quit now, while you still can."
"Mr Tanner is right, interfering with another rider is grounds for disqualification," Mary announced.
"So who won Miz Travis?" someone asked.
"According to the rules the rider who came in second is now the winner."
"That was the paint," JD confirmed.
The second horse home was a striking black and white paint horse. The rider, a weathered looking man, who could have been any age from thirty to fifty stepped forward.
"Name's Hank Bradley, I work over toward Watsonville, and I didn't win this race. That kid was a ways ahead of me, and the rest of us. If he hadn't a been pulled down, he'd have been second, he might even have won." Bradley looked down at Chris. "You got yourself one fast horse there boy, you take care of him."
Chris smiled at the craggy cowboy. "Yes sir, I aim too."
Mary looked at the other riders. "Are you all agreed?"
The men moved into a loose huddle then turned back to Mary. The oldest of the men stepped forward. "We agree with Bradley, the kid should take the prize."
"Then I declare Christopher Larabee to be the winner of the Four Corners Forth of July Horse Race!"
There was a moment of silence and then the place erupted, people began to whoop and cheer.
"I won?" Chris asked, looking up at Vin.
"Yeah, you did!"
Still bewildered, Chris watched as Josiah lifted the saddle and carried it toward Chris. As he approached, the people cheered even louder, startling Pony who began to back up. The sudden movement jolted Chris sore shoulder.
"Ahh!" he cried, before he could stifle it.
"That's it, he's coming to the clinic, right now!" Nathan announced.
JD stepped forward and took Pony as Vin bent down and lifted the trembling boy into his arms, taking as much care of his injured shoulder as he could. None the less, Chris hissed as he was lifted.
"Sorry," Vin whispered.
Chris just sighed and hid his face from the assembled crowed as he was carried away.
Ezra lifted Buck up so he could see better.
"Uncle Ezra?" the boy asked.
"Did Chris winned?"
Ezra beamed. "Yes he did."
"Wow!" Buck gasped in awe, then he frowned. "How come he winned if he didn't come in first?"
"Because the man that did come in first cheated, he pulled your brother from his horse."
"That's mean," Buck stated.
"Indeed it is, most reprehensible."
The two of them watched for a few moments, then Pony began to get fractious and they saw Chris flinch and Vin pick him up.
"Is Chris hurt?" Buck asked worriedly.
"I'm sure it is nothing serious."
"That man hurt Chris," Buck stated angrily.
There was something about the way he said it that made Ezra look around. Buck was no longer looked at Chris, he was pointing behind them. As Ezra turned, he saw the man in question slipping away.
"Buck, you get down and go to the clinic, stay outside and sit on the bench - understand?"
Buck's deep blue eyes gazed at Ezra. "Okay."
"Promise me you'll go straight there and stay outside."
Once Buck as gone, Ezra followed the cowboy to the livery.
"And where do you think you're going?" he asked the man.
"The race is over, I'm going home."
"Oh, I don't think so. There is the little matter of the assault of a minor child. You are under arrest."
The cowboy looked at Ezra, his jaw dropped open, then his hand went to his gun. He never even had the chance to lift it from its holster before Ezra's gun was in his hand.
"I wouldn't advise it, it's not worth dying for."
The man froze for a moment, then he moved his hand away from his gun. Ezra twitched the end of his gun. In response, his prisoner lifted his hands above his head.
Chris sat on the table in Nathan's clinic, still cradling his left arm. Vin stood beside him, a protective hand resting on his back.
"Chris, can you tell me where it hurts most?" Nathan asked softly.
"M' shoulder," Chris admitted in a small voice.
"Okay, we're going to need to take your shirt off."
Chris pulled away from Nathan, resting more on the solid comfort of Vin. "Come on buddy, we can do this, I'll cut it off."
"No!" Chris looked up. "Take it off."
"Are you sure, it'll hurt more."
Chris knew shirts cost money, he didn't just risk his life to win a saddle so Vin could spend money buying him a new shirt.
Vin and Nathan worked together to ease the shirt off and, in the end, it wasn't as bad as Chris had feared. That was until Nathan began to run practised fingers over his shoulder. At fist he just hissed a little. Vin's hand was now moving in gentle circles on his back. Nathan's fingers were still moving, but he was watching Chris' face all the time.
"Ah!" Chris suddenly gasped as Nathan's fingers brushed over the front of his shoulder.
"That hurts, don't it?"
Chris nodded, ashamed of the tears that now leaked down his cheek.
Nathan looked up at a very worried looking Vin and smiled reassuringly, before squatting down so that he could look Chris in the eye. "Okay, Chris I think you've broken your collar bone, that's the little bone that runs from here to here." He indicated on his own body were the bone was located. "Now, there are no bones sticking out where they shouldn't be, so I don't think its a bad brake."
"So what do we do now?" Vin asked.
"I'm going to need to put Chris' arm in a sling and strap his arm to his chest."
Chris didn't like the should of that, and his fear must have shown on his face.
"Don't worry," Nathan assured. "It isn't a punishment, it will make it less painful and it'll heal quicker if it doesnt move too much - okay?"
Chris sniffed and looked up at Vin imploringly. "I think we should trust Nathan to know what's best, don't you?"
"'K," Chris finally admitted.
Outside, Buck had forgotten his promise to sit on the bench and was standing at the railing, watching through the rails as Ezra marched the mean cowboy over to the jail. There were still lots of people about and he was enjoying watching the comings and goings. Josiah followed Ezra into the jail, carrying the prize saddle. Outside the saloon, Mrs Travis was talking to some man and writing on a pad of paper. He was so intent on watching the town that he didn't even notice JD come up the steps behind him.
"Hey there Little'n," he greeted.
Buck spun around and smiled, instantly lifting his arms. JD didn't hesitate, he closed the distance between them and lifted his son into his arms.
"Where were you?" Buck asked.
"Taking care of Pony."
Buck grinned. "Pony's a good horse."
"Yes he is and fast too."
"The fastest ever 'cept Milagro." JD had to smile at the boy's loyalty. "JD?" Buck asked.
JD didn't need to hear the rest of the question, he knew from the tone of voice what was coming. "No you can't have your own horse - yet. When you're a big boy we'll see about it." The little brunet pouted. "I'm sorry, when you're a bigger boy." Buck was still pouting. "And older."
Buck sighed. "Okay. Is Chris alright?"
Buck was allowed into the clinic to sit with Chris while a tub of hot water was set up in the living quarters at the jail, there seemed little point in strapping Chris up - filthy as he was - just to undo it a few minutes later so he could wash. When it was ready, Vin carried Chris to the jail. By now Josiah was looking after their prisoner as Ezra had been forced to return to the saloon to help with the lunch time rush. While Nathan and Vin helped Chris wash, JD and Buck set out on a mission to bring them back some lunch.
There were far more people in town than the restaurant and two saloons could feed, so on the field behind the church, where the dance would be held, Mr Olson has set up a spit roast, with a whole side of beef on it. For ten cents you could have a three big slices of fresh roasted beef with mustard on a big hunk of corn bread. Not that JD and Buck were headed that way, though the pig roast planned for the evening was definitely on the agenda. For lunch they were headed for the Standish Tavern, where Inez was serving up spicy beef, with tomato salsa sauce and grated cheese, all wrapped in fresh cooked, warm tortillas, Chris' favourite - after chicken and dumplings. Despite the draw of the nearby beef roast, the saloon was still packed, so, even though the boy was more than comfortable in the saloon, JD picked him up. The sheriff felt the boy was safer sitting on his hip than down around the boots and fumes on the floor.
Ezra saw them coming and motioned them over to the side of the bar.
"What news of our winning jockey?" he asked.
"Broken collar bone."
"Ah, most painful," Ezra sympathised.
"Did you ever brake a collar bone, Uncle Ezra?" Buck asked.
"No, but I have on occasion dislocated my shoulder, I suspect it is somewhat the similar."
"What's 'dis-co-cate'?" Buck asked.
"It just means the bones in my shoulder were in the wrong place and someone like Mr Jackson had to put them back."
Buck looked sceptical. "Does that hurt?"
"Yes, it hurts."
"Now, are you here for your lunch?" Ezra asked, aware he had other customers to see to.
"Yeah! We want spicy beef in tortillas!" Buck announced.
"For six," JD added.
Washed and in clean clothes, Chris managed to eat half his lunch. After that, Nathan made him some warm willow bark tea with a good quantity of honey in it.
"How come I don't get honey in that stuff?" Vin asked.
"Because you're an adult."
"What's that got to do with it?"
Nathan just gave him a withering look, as he watched Chris drink all his medicine. "I slipped in something to make him sleep," he whispered to Vin.
The medication took affect not long after, so while Vin watched the prisoner, JD took Buck out for the afternoon to see the sights. By the time they returned, carrying slices of pie from the competition, Chris was awake and feeling much better. Better enough to eat all his slice of cherry pie. Buck on the other hand, fell asleep before he'd finished eating his apple pie.
Vin offered to watch him, so that JD could take a turn around the town, before it got dark.
Chris looked up, he was still sitting at the table, running his finger around his plate to get the last bits of sweet cherry filling.
"Come on over here."
Chris knew what was coming, the 'talk', the one about the race, about the lies and the disobedience.
Careful not to knock his sore arm, Chris got down from the table and crossed over to Vin, who was sitting in the armchair.
"Come on up here." He patted his knee.
Slowly and with a little help, Chris settled on his guardians knee, but instead of leaning back and resting on Vin's chest, he sat still, looking down at the floor.
"So, are you going to tell me about it?" Vin began.
Chris shrugged and then hissed when the movement sent a stab of pain though his injured shoulder.
"Let's start with why?" Vin encouraged, once he was sure Chris' pain was under control again.
Chris sighed. "I wanted to win the saddle for Pony."
"Well I figured that out, but why did you feel you had to do that, I'd have got you a saddle."
"I know I heard you talking to JD. Saddles are expensive, 'specially good ones and you wanted me and Pony to have a good one. I heard you say you was going to work for Mr Kitridge. But you already got a job and if you had to do more you'd be real tired and you wouldn't hardly ever be here. Then I was reading the paper with Josiah and I read about the race." He looked up at Vin for the first time. "It didn't say nothing about it how old you had to be."
"Well even if it didn't, it did say something about an entry fee, didn't it?"
"One dollar? Where did you get one dollar?"
"I didn't steel it!" Chris defended instantly.
"I know that, I never thought you did, but I'd like to know where it came from."
So Chris told him, all about the pennies from Mrs Potter instead of cookies, the surveyors, helping to sweep up the mill and finally, sneaking out to crawl under the saloon.
Vin took a deep breath. "Okay, pennies for cookies is fine, you gave up something you love to earn money, that's a good lesson. Working for money is fine, but I'm not happy that you didn't tell me about it."
"I asked you if I could work for the map man and help Mr Johansson," Chris defended.
"I know, but you didn't say you were getting paid, you knew you should have - right?"
Chris looked into Vin's eyes for a second then dropped his head and nodded. "I knew."
"Right. Never again, are we clear?"
"This business of looking for money under the saloon." Chris' head dropped even lower. "It was against the rules. You are only allowed to go to the outhouse after bedtime, no where else - you know that."
"I'm sorry, I just wanted to win the saddle so you wouldn't have to work so hard 'cause of me."
Now it was Vin who sighed. "I know, but have you any idea how dangerous it was, what if there was a snake under there?"
"There was a rat," Chris admitted.
"You see. You're only a little boy." Chris lifted his head. "Don't say a thing, you are only eight. I don't expect you to think about everything that could go wrong, that's why we have rules - to keep you safe. Now what are the rules about riding Pony?"
"I can ride in the corral if Tiny say's it's okay, otherwise I have to be with a grown up."
"And you broke that rule today, didn't you?"
Vin looked at the miserable, hurting boy on his knee. He should be happy, even hurt, he should be enjoying his win and the day of fun and celebration. "Okay, for sneaking out at night, no playing out for one week. For riding Pony in the race, no riding for four weeks."
Chris looked up, his face a picture of hurt and devastation. Vin might have felt sorry for him, but he didn't.
"Think about it," he said softly.
Chris frowned, then he smiled and then he grinned. Nathan had told him it would take four to six weeks for his shoulder to heal. He wasn't going to miss any riding time he wasn't going to miss already.
"Right," Vin confirmed. "But break the rules again, and it won't be so easy - are we clear boy?"
"Yes Dad," Chris told him, trying to look serious, but still smiling.
Vin's heart missed a beat. This was the very first time Chris had called him 'dad'. It was true the small boy probably wasn't even aware he had done it, but it meant everything to Vin.
"Winning that race, that was an amazing bit of riding. I didn't think you were that good yet, I guess I was wrong," he told him with a smile as wide as the Mississippi.
"I'm not that good really, mostly I just hung on and let Pony run," Chris admitted.
"That's all most of us do in a race, most of the time. You still did great and I am very, very proud of you."
Those words meant more to Chris than any saddle ever could.
"Is it fireworks now?" a sleepy voice from the couch asked, as Buck woke up.
Sometime, while the other men had been away, the prisoner had vanished from his cell.
"What happened to him?" JD asked.
Vin grinned. "If we keep him, one of us has to stay and watch him, while everyone else is having fun."
"So you just let him go? After what he did?"
"He didn't get way with out knowing not to do it again." Vin winked at JD.
JD frowned and then happened to notice two fresh cuts on Vin's knuckles.
"Oh, well, that's okay then,"
They feasted on succulent, fresh roasted pork, with sweet apple sauce, between wedges of fresh sourdough bread. All of that was followed by slices of sticky pecan pie. Then there was dancing. Vin and Chris sat on the side and watched while the others danced. Buck seemed to be enjoying himself enormously, not caring if he had a partner to dance with or not.
"That boy is going to sleep well tonight," Vin commented as JD sat down on beside him.
"Yeah," JD agreed.
Vin lowered his voice so Chris couldn't hear. "He did it,"
"Who did what?" JD asked.
"Chris, just this afternoon, he called me dad."
JD smiled, but it was a smile tinged with sadness, Buck had never called him 'dad', yet he called Ezra 'uncle'.
"Hey," Vin broke into his thoughts. "Remember, Buck's never had a father, he never used the word. Where he grew up the men were..." Vin tried to think of a way to explain it. "The enemy?"
"I never thought of it that way." He watched his boy dance for a little while in silence. Then he looked back at Vin. "You know, before they came here, I reckon Chris may have been the only 'man' he trusted."
Vin nodded his agreement. "In any case, I think it was just a slip of the tongue when Chris said it, he didn't even notice. We need to give them time."
"Vin! Vin!" Chris called.
"See," Vin said to JD, before turning to Chris. "What?"
"Look at Buck."
The little boy was copying some of the men, he had his hands on his hips and his arms out like wings, strutting like a rooster.
"That's my boy!" JD exclaimed.
Finally it was dark enough for fireworks. Everyone 'oohed' and 'ahhed' as the pyrotechnics lit up the summer night sky. When it was over, they all headed for the jail. Buck was all but asleep as his head rested on JD's shoulder.
"Don't go to sleep yet," Ezra told him. "I've got a surprise for you."
In an instant, Buck was wide awake again. "Fer me?"
"Yes and one for Chris too."
"Boys," Ezra began. "You know that Josiah and I took a trip?"
Both boys nodded.
"We went to retrieve some things that were lost."
Josiah put his hand in his pocket had pulled something out. It still wasn't possible to see what was in it.
"Here," he said softly as he held it out to Buck and slowly uncured his fingers.
"MY TRAIN!" Buck screeched at the top of his very loud voice.
Somehow all the adults had assumed this prized possession was something very fancy, maybe one of the big clockwork one's with brass fittings and proper linked wheels. The toy that Buck snatched up and held to his heart was no more than three inches long, made of thin, crudely painted tin plate with four simple wheels. But no matter how cheep or crude it was, it meant the world to Buck.
"You found it for him." Chris gazed at his young friend, his brother in all but blood. "Thank you."
"We found something else too." Ezra pulled something small from his vest pocket. "I'm sorry to say that we think the orphanage sold your father's watch, but we found this." He held out a simple wedding ring.
"Is it Mom's?" Chris asked hesitantly.
"I believe so," Ezra confirmed.
Chris reached out a trembling had and took it. "Why didn't they sell this too?"
"I don't know," Ezra lied smoothly. The truth was the ring was brass not gold, but Chris didn't need to know that yet.
Chris tried the ring on, but it was too big.
"Hang on." Vin hurried into the jail proper, returning a few moments later with a thin leather thong. "Here." He threaded the ring onto the strip of leather and then tied it around Chris' neck. "How's that?"
"Thanks," Chris said, without taking his eyes of the ring.
"I think there are some others who need a thank you - don't you?"
Chris nodded and stood up. He crossed to Ezra and Josiah, hugging both men as best he could and thanking them, smiling the whole time.
Buck had been showing JD his train, explaining why it was the best train ever. JD whispered something to him and instantly the little boy shot to his feet and ran to Josiah, flinging himself at the man to envelope him in a mini bear hug. "Thank you!"
With that Buck ran to Ezra. "Thank you Uncle Ezra!"
"You are most welcome." Ezra looked over at Josiah and winked.
"You were right brother, we had to do this," the ex priest admitted.
Buck stood back from Ezra and held his train high. "This is the best 'dependence Day ever!" he declared.
Chris looked around at his family, his new saddle, Buck, so happy with his train and down at his ring and grinned. Yes, it was the best Independence Day ever.