By Joy K
This is an Old West Alternate Universe where all seven are younger than canon. JD and Vin are children and Ezra is "almost" of age. Thanks to GinaD for bouncing ideas with me
Twisting his bound wrists, Chris Larabee took another hard look at his captors. He had already determined the weak point, the one he could turn against the others to gain his freedom, but he refused to use the kid to aid his escape. It was too dangerous for the boy.
Of course, if he'd been more careful, he wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. It wasn't the kid's fault he'd fallen for the oldest trick in the book. Chris tensed remembering the fear he felt when he found the boy lying along the trail. He'd stopped to help and found himself surrounded by Bill McClintock's gang.
"Whoa!" Chris called as he pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted, rushing to the child lying beside the trail. He knelt down by the filthy, unmoving boy and laid a hand on the small chest, feeling great relief at the steady breaths.
"Don't move." A cocking gun against Chris right temple punctuated the command.
"Let me help the boy," said Chris.
The gunman snorted. "He don't need your help. Hey, Dummy, get on up now."
Chris felt his heart drop further as the boy opened his eyes, got up and moved away from him. He watched the boy approach another gunman and reach up with both hands for something the gunman held. The man tormented the child for a few moments, keeping the item the boy sought just out of his reach.
"Carter, leave the Dummy alone and get over here and tie Larabee."
Chris closed his eyes briefly. This was not a random robbery. They knew who he was. Opening his eyes, he saw the second gunman toss whatever he held a few feet off and he watched the boy scramble for it. The child picked up the item, brushed the dirt off it and began to eat it hungrily.
A biscuit. It was a damn biscuit. The boy had faked being hurt and lured him into a trap for a damn biscuit.
Chris grunted as the gunman jerked the rope tight around his hands. He wanted to fight, but there wasn't a whole lot he could do on his knees with a gun pressed against his head. He'd have to bide his time, and look for an opportunity to escape.
"On your feet, Larabee," the leader ordered.
As soon as the gun shifted away from his head, Chris took his chance. He dove into the gunman's legs, knocking the man down, before rolling to his feet and running.
A bullet kicked up the dirt near his feet and he heard the leader order, "No! Don't shoot him. McClintock wants him alive."
Damn, Chris thought as he ran. 'Bill McClintock.'
Chris headed for the tree line, hoping he could reach the underbrush before the thundering hooves could reach him.
He fell hard as a horse's shoulder clipped him from behind. One of the rear hooves caught him in the thigh and he yelled in pain.
He struggled to get to his feet and charged at the man who had leapt off of the horse. He felt the satisfaction of his bound fists sinking into the man's gut, bending him over, but the satisfaction was short lived as two others joined the fight.
He fought them off, struggling for his life, but the fight came to a premature end when the leader pistol-whipped him and he collapsed into an unconscious heap.
Something was putting pressure on his aching head. Even without being fully in control of his faculties, Chris knew he was in trouble. He struggled to clear his head and gain his bearings. He shifted slightly and heard a gasp, then a rustling as if a mouse were skittering away.
Forcing his eyes open, he saw the scrawny boy a few feet away with a bloody bandana in his hand. The kid's eyes were wide with fear.
Chris' captor laughed loudly startling the boy even more. His eyes darted towards the man who was approaching and he instinctively edged back another step.
What are you doin', Dummy? said the leader cruelly. You got horses to tend to.
Chris watched the boy cautiously approach him to return the bandana. It was clear that the boy was frightened of him even though he was bound, likely feeling some guilt over luring Chris into a trap, but he was more frightened of the captor. The boy held out the bandana as far as he could reach, hand trembling, attempting to hand it to Chris without getting too close.
Chris moved his bound hands to reach for the offering and the boy jumped back a step.
The leader guffawed. Youd better stay out of his reach, Dummy. If he ever gets free, hes gonna tear you apart limb from limb with his bare hands for what you done.
Chris fumed as the boy literally ran away from him to the relative safety of the horses. He would never harm the boy, but the kid had no way of knowing that.
The outlaw turned his attention to Chris, grabbing him by the chin and turning his head to see the wound from the pistol whipping. He snorted and said, "The little Dummy's good for something. Got a soft spot for the hurt and sick and animals."
Chris felt his anger grow a little more. This man would pay for using and abusing the boy. "You got a name?" Chris growled.
"Burke," the man spat. "Not that it will do you any good. You ain't gonna be around that long."
"What do you want with me?" Chris growled.
"Me? Not a damn thing. But McClintock has a burr under his saddle and he ain't pleasant when he's riled up. He wants you. That's all I need to know."
Burke looked at the defiance in Chris' eyes. It made him angry, and if truth were told, the cold eyes scared him just a bit. He shoved Chris roughly so the back of his head impacted the tree trunk behind him. "He wants to kill you hisself, but that don't mean we can't have some fun if you don't behave. Me? I'm kinda hopin' you try something."
Chris closed his eyes as Burke walked away, his head now throbbing even harder. He wanted to rub his head, but his bound hands prevented it. He'd killed McClintock's younger brother about a year ago in a shoot out, and even though Evan McClintock had drawn first, Bill had sworn to hunt Chris down.
One of the horses snorted, drawing Chris' attention. His horse shook his head. A small smile came to his face as he watched the boy approach the horse, stroking it gently before offering it a feedbag. His horse didn't take well to strangers, but the child seemed to have a way with the animals.
When the boy finished with the horses, he moved to a boulder that was out of the way of anyone in the camp, keeping himself as far as possible from the men.
Tied up like he was, Chris didn't have many options. He watched the kid and wondered just what his story was. The boy looked to be maybe 10 or 11 years old. He was barefoot, wearing buckskins, from which tribe, Chris wasn't sure. Apparently he'd had the clothing for quite sometime though, as it was showing it's wear in places, and the britches were too short for the scrawny legs and the shirt far too tight to be comfortable. His dark blonde hair was long and filthy, much like the rest of his appearance. He was skinny, too skinny to be eating enough.
While he didn't appear to be a captive, the band of outlaws certainly had the boy scared into doing whatever they wanted. After watching some of the verbal abuse and seeing the one man who had tormented the kid for a biscuit, he wondered why the kid didn't just up and leave. But even that wasn't too hard to figure out when the gunman in the black hat started dishing up the beans and biscuits.
The boy scooted from his perched and moved to the campfire with a quick step.
Hunger was a strong motivator. The kid stayed because they fed him, albeit too little. They were his way of surviving the harsh and unforgiving elements. A kid would never make it out here alone. Chris watched, as the boy stayed just out of reach of the men as they moved around the campfire.
"Take that plate over to Larabee, Dummy."
The kid looked at Chris and back to Burke.
"Do it, you good for nuthin' half breed."
He gave the boy a shove in Chris' direction.
The boy stumbled a few steps forward and then froze, shaking his head. He was terrified of Chris.
Burke growled and moved into the child's line of sight.
"You want to eat?" he demanded. "Tell me."
The boy nodded.
"I said, 'Tell me'," he taunted.
The boy nodded more vigorously.
He moved his hand towards the boy and the little guy instinctively flinched back.
Burke laughed. "One a these days, Dummy, I'm gonna hit you so hard that you open that mouth of yours just to prove you ain't a worthless mute."
He moved aside and pushed the kid towards Chris again.
The boy reluctantly moved towards Chris with the plate of beans. He was just about ready to set the plate down when Burke stopped him.
"It needs some more seasoning, Dummy."
The boy chanced a look at Burke.
"Spit in it," Burke demanded.
The boy shook his head. Burke grabbed the plate with one hand and backhanded the boy with the other, sending the kid sprawling.
"Leave him be," snarled Chris angrily.
"You shut up, or I'll shut you up," growled Burke, kicking Chris in his bruised thigh as the kid scrambled to his feet and wiped his bloody lip on the back of his hand.
"Spit," demanded Burke.
The saddest blue eyes Chris had ever seen locked with his eyes, as if the boy was apologizing to him. Chris gave a slight nod.
The boy spit in the beans and Burke laughed.
"Supper's ready," he said as he put the plate near Chris' knee.
Chris made no move for the food. Even if the food hadn't been "seasoned" with spit, he was too angry to eat. He was getting out of here, and he was taking the kid with him.
He hissed through his teeth as the boy neared the campfire to get his food and one of the men tripped him. The kid stumbled and fell dangerously close to the fire.
Finally the man in the black hat dished up a plate for the boy who quickly scooted back to his rock and guarded his plate as if it was his last meal on earth.
Chris grimaced as the ropes cut into his wrists as he tried to work them loose. He growled to himself as he watched Burke order the scrawny blue-eyed kid to bring him his supper. The other three men sat around the campfire with their plates, enjoying their evening meal.
'Don't do it, kid,' Chris thought, but he had no power to stop the boy. He knew the boy provided cheap entertainment to these men.
The boy stood, placing his plate on the rock. He tucked his long hair behind his ear and seemed to brace himself for what was to come. Wordlessly, he approached the fire and filled Burke's plate.
The boy cautiously moved towards Burke, careful to avoid tripping over rocks or gang member's feet. The men snickered, and then burst into outright laughter as the man closest to Burke kicked the kid in the seat of his pants as he passed, knocking him forward and causing him to spill the plate of beans and biscuits in Burke's lap.
The boy desperately struggled to his feet, but he wasn't quick enough to avoid the blow. Burke slapped him hard across the face, knocking the boy backwards. He fell into the campfire, spilling the pot of beans and dumping the pan of biscuits as he rolled away from the flames.
Chris jerked hard on his bonds wanting desperately to help the boy, but the ropes didn't give.
With panicked moves the boy slapped out the flames on the leg of his buckskin pants with his bare hands as he rolled in the dirt. With the last flame extinguished, the boy sat still, panting heavily from the exertion.
"Damn it, Boy!" Burke growled. "Ya spilled it all! Go get me your plate. It's mine now." He kicked at the boy as he rolled away. "Yer a worthless piece of trash. We ought'a just leave you behind and I would if you and that jackass of a horse hadn't cost me twenty dollars in that poker game."
The boy scrambled away quickly, moving to his plate.
Burke kicked angrily around the fire, covering the spilled beans with loose dirt and absently kicking the biscuits into the nearby bushes. He turned to the boy who approached him, holding the plate out as a peace offering of sorts.
When Burke grabbed the plate the boy dodged out of reach, narrowly escaping another blow. He retreated to the safety of his rock and curled up beside it.
Chris watched the boy inspect the palms of his hands, which Chris suspected were burned from slapping out the fire on his leg. He watched as the boy checked out the new hole in his buckskins, pulling tenderly at the edges of the hole as if he could repair it by holding it. Clearly the Indian breeches meant something to the boy as he held the edges of the buckskin together and rocked slightly.
Chris turned his attention back to the rest of the camp. They were laughing and joking as they finished their meals.
His own plate sat untouched beside him.
As the camp settled in for the night, movement in the shadows caught Chris' attention. He watched as the boy crept towards him, or more precisely, his plate. Chris grimaced. He had refused to eat the meal because it had been spit in. The boy knew it, but his hunger overruled any repulsion. Then again, the boy had been the one forced to spit in the food, so maybe it wasn't so bad.
The boy watched Chris' eyes as he carefully reached toward the plate. Chris smiled reassuringly, but it had no effect. The boy had long since had trust beaten out of him. He snatched the biscuit from the plate and scooted back a few feet, stuffing most of it into his mouth hungrily.
Chris sighed, his heart aching for the kid. Very carefully, he used his boot to toe the plate a little closer to the kid, and then pulled his foot back.
The boy's expressive eyes said it all. Why would Chris want to help him? What did he want? But again his hunger outweighed his wariness. He grabbed the plate and moved behind the boulder where the men by the campfire couldn't see him. He took a handful of beans and ate them eagerly, licking every last bit of juice from his fingers.
"Where are ya, boy?" Burke bellowed.
The boy dropped the plate, fear evident on his face. He quickly wiped his face with his sleeve.
"Get over here," Burke ordered.
The boy stood, picking up the plate and dropping it by Chris as he hurried toward the campfire.
"You slackin' off, boy?" Burke growled.
The boy cowed.
"Get over here and clean up this mess."
The boy scooted around Burke, just out of arms reach and moved to clean up the camp.
When the boy returned to his rock, having suffered more derogatory comments about his heritage and his silence, he sat down and angrily grabbed a stick. He etched something in the dirt.
The derogatory name drifted from the campfire.
The boy shook his head and pounded on his chest with his fist three times. Then he took the stick and etched in the dirt again six strokes.
Three pounds on his chest and six strokes in the dirt with the stick.
It seemed to be some sort of a ritual or maybe defiance. Every time they called him a name he pounded on his chest and etched in the dirt. Chris longed to see just what the etching was.
He leaned his throbbing head back against the tree. If he were going to make a break for it, he'd have to wait until the camp was asleep. Chris moved his arms to relieve the ache in his shoulder. A few well-placed kicks had done more damage than he thought. Chris shifted his leg and winced. Running was out of the question. He needed a horse.
Chris's eyes drifted back to the kid. He smiled to himself as he found the boy watching him. The boy was wary, but curious. He certainly showed no signs of the idiocy that Burke and his cronies implied with their derogatory comments. Mute? Maybe, but the boy wasn't stupid by any means. He clearly understood what he was told to do, and Chris had observed the boy's caution around the men. And the horses? The boy clearly knew how to work with horses.
Chris watched the boy curl up next to the boulder, pulling his bare feet as close to his body as possible. He covered himself with a tattered blanket and resigned himself to sleep.
Chris Larabee was overdue. More than a day overdue. Sheriff Buck Wilmington stood at the end of the boardwalk, looking into the distance hoping for a glimpse of his friend.
As his eyes drifted toward the livery, he saw eight-year-old JD Dunne watching down the road as well. Pushing his worry aside for a moment, he approached his young charge. It was pretty early for JD to be up and about. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon.
"Mornin', Deputy," said Buck.
JD turned with a smile at the nickname. His dream was to grow up and be a Sheriff just like Buck. He was glad that Buck was his family now because Buck knew a lot about being a Sheriff and that would help him when he became one later.
But what good was a Sheriff without a horse?
"Chris isn't back yet."
JD's comment was more of a question than a statement.
"Not yet," confirmed Buck.
JD's shoulders slumped and he blew out a sigh.
"It's been seven whole days," JD grumbled.
Buck smiled and tipped JD's hat off his head.
"You'll get to see that horse of yours," said Buck with more confidence than he felt. Chris should have been back by now.
"But it's been forever!" said JD. "Milagro's going to forget all about me."
"Who are you kidding?" snorted Buck. "That colt of yours won't ever forget you."
One of the colts that Chris was raising was promised to JD when both the boy and the colt were old enough. Chris was a horse rancher when he wasn't helping Buck with tracking down outlaws. Or maybe it was the other way around. Chris was a horse rancher who just happened to help out an old friend when he needed an extra gun.
And being that extra gun was why he wasn't back yet from delivering Quentin Delaney to the Cavalry at the Fort.
"Morning, Buck," greeted Josiah.
Buck nodded to the former preacher-turned-Indian-Agent. Josiah worked with the people in the nearby Seminole village as well as the Reservation. In addition to Chris and Buck, he had been hired by Judge Orin Travis to maintain order in the town.
"He's not back?" Josiah asked.
"No," sighed JD. "And it's been forever."
Josiah smiled at the youngster's perception of time. Seven days would seem like forever to an eight-year-old boy desperate to see his horse.
"Well, why don't we all join Nathan for some breakfast and then I'll let you wake up Ezra before you go to Mrs. Travis' house for class," said Josiah. "Then maybe the good sheriff and I will take a ride down the road and see if we can hurry Chris home."
JD's stomach growled. He grinned and nodded at Josiah, following the big man towards the boarding house.
Buck lingered for a few moments more, hoping to see a man in black headed towards town. With a sigh he turned towards the boarding house.
As soon as they ate, he was going to look for Chris.
Chris woke to a boot in his thigh. He groaned, belatedly wishing Burke would find somewhere else to kick. He hadn't meant to nod off, but between the pistol whipping and the beating he'd taken, his body had betrayed his best intentions.
It wasn't hard to figure out that McClintock was due any time. There was an agitated expectation among the men that had the kid making himself scarce.
Fortunately for Chris, they were leaving him alone for a while. Maybe they were afraid of what McClintock would do if they beat Chris too much, stealing the pleasure from McClintock.
Without taking it out on him physically, they seemed to relish taunting him verbally. He couldn't count the number of times they told him he was going to die a slow, painful death.
He wasn't the only one who'd heard the threats. A boy, bronzed by the sun, stood before him, holding his gaze. The blue eyes looked to him, still expressing uncertainty towards Chris, but with a determination about something else. The boy held out Chris' plate of food towards him, and then pulled it back towards himself as if to suggest he wanted it. Then he raised it up higher so Chris could see what was beneath it.
The boy was offering the knife for food. Or maybe it was more than that. Maybe he felt guilty for Chris's capture. Maybe he drew the line at someone being killed. Whatever the case, Chris accepted the offering.
He nodded to the boy.
The boy set the plate in front of Chris and snatched the biscuit as he backed away from the prisoner.
Chris watched Burke and the others, and used his bound hands to drag the plate and knife closer and slip the knife into his boot.
Having lost the cover of night as an opportunity to slip away, Chris knew he was going to have to make a break before McClintock arrived. Once the leader showed up Chris Larabee was a dead man, but until McClintock arrived, his men had been ordered not to kill Chris. That fact alone would make it harder on them if he tried to escape unless they forgot McClintock's orders.
He wished he could take the boy, but it was too risky. They'd have no qualms about killing the kid. He'd have to come back for him later.
Chris slipped the knife out of his boot and began to saw at the rope binding his hands. He really needed a diversion. He thought briefly of Buck, his best friend. The man had uncanny timing, but he wasn't holding out any hope for the Sheriff showing up today. Sure he was overdue by a couple days, but Buck had no idea where to look for him or what kind of a fix he'd gotten himself into.
His hands jerked as the rope gave. Chris quickly looked around to see if anyone had seen him. None of the outlaws had noticed, but someone had. The boy nodded to him from the picket line.
Chris wanted to groan and cheer at the same time. The boy had all the horses saddled, but even from where Chris sat, he could see that the cinches were loose and the saddles would slip when the riders mounted. The boy held the reins of Chris' horse as he untied the picket line. Looked like he had his diversion, even though he didn't want the boy involved.
The boy spooked the horses and all hell broke loose. The boy hurriedly led Pony to Chris as the men dodged the horses running through the camp.
Chris was on his feet and the boy held out the reins to him, watching over his shoulder at the melee.
This just might work.
"Come on," Chris called. This really could work.
There was just one little problem. One little flaw in the impromptu plan.
The boy was terrified of Chris and there was no way he'd willingly go with him.
"He's getting away!" someone shouted.
Chris swore. "Come on, Kid. We gotta go. Burke will kill you."
The boy shook his head and backed away, before turning and running into the middle of the camp.
A bullet ricocheted near Chris and gunfire erupted everywhere.
Pony wasn't normally shy of gunfire, but maybe it was just a little too close. His horse jerked free and ran.
"Chris! Get down!"
Chris dove for cover with a grin on his face.
"Buck, you old war dog. 'Bout time you showed up!" Chris shouted back as he ducked behind a boulder.
More guns joined in and Chris knew that Josiah and Nathan, and probably Ezra were there with Buck.
A horse screamed, drawing Chris' attention. His eyes fixed on the animal in the middle of the camp and on the small boy trying to get the injured animal to safety.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Burke rode towards the boy, somehow having found a horse and tightened the cinch. Seeing the danger, Chris instinctively reached for his gun, but found only empty space.
The boy let the injured horse go and turned to Burke reaching up with both hands as if he expected Burke to grab his hand and swing him up on the horse. Instead he received a boot to the chest, spinning him into the path of another loose horse.
"No!" Chris yelled as the horse knocked the boy down. He watched helplessly as the boy struggled to his feet and fell again. Chris' heart surged in fear and pride as Buck broke cover and scooped up the struggling boy, diving and rolling to relative safety with him.
An outlaw fell nearby and Chris scrambled for the dead man's gun. Now armed, he joined the battle.
It seemed like hours, but a few minutes later the shooting ceased and only two men escaping on horseback broke the silence surrounding the men.
Buck let them go. He'd track them down later. For now he had a boy and at least one injured man to take care of.
Everyone all right? he called out, instinctively checking the others. Ezra?
Fine, Mr. Wilmington, Ezra replied with an annoyed tone.
Buck would have laughed if the situation werent so serious. At seventeen, Ezra was a man by societys standards, but to Buck he was still a green kid. Ezra had proven his skill with a gun, otherwise he wouldnt be riding with Chris and Buck, but the Sheriff couldnt help being a little protective of him. Especially since it annoyed the hell out of Ezra to be treated like a kid.
Josiah? Buck called, continuing to check on his deputies as he scanned the area for danger.
It was an odd relationship. They were his deputies because Buck held the official title of Sheriff even though Chris Larabee was clearly the leader of this group of men. And Buck didnt mind that one little bit.
Hearing a Fine from Josiah, Buck called to Nathan, but it was already obvious the healer was unharmed. He was quickly making his way to Chris to check his injuries.
Buck smiled to himself hearing Chris growl, Im fine as Nathan examined him. The smile faded as he looked at the small boy beside him. He hadnt fared too well. Between being run down by a horse and the rough landing when Buck had pulled him from the confusion, the boy was unconscious and bleeding from a gash on his forehead.
Watching to make sure Josiah and Ezra had the remaining outlaws under control, he turned his full attention to the boy. What the hell was a boy doing with a band of outlaws?
Trying to make him comfortable, Buck shifted the thin body into a better position. He untied his own bandana and used it to gently wipe away some of the blood before he used it to put light pressure on the wound to the head.
Let me have a look, said Nathan.
Buck was startled by Jacksons quick appearance.
You know Chris, Nathan grumbled. Just like the rest of you. Everyone else is worse off than him. Wont let me fix him up until I check the boy. Nathans gentle touch as he checked the boy for broken bones showed there was no anger behind his words. They were simply complaints that he never expected to be heeded by his friends.
What the hell is a kid doing with these men? Nathan asked softly, echoing Bucks thoughts.
Buck shook his head. I dont know, but hes a fighter. Buck showed Nathan the teeth marks on his wrist. Did that when I was trying to get him out of the line of fire.
He thought you were gonna hurt him.
What the hell do you think youre doing? Nathan fumed as Chris fought to keep his balance on shaky legs. Buck, set that fool down a'fore he falls.
Buck grinned and moved quickly to guide Chris to the ground, settling him against a tree.
Im fine, Chris growled, batting Bucks hand away from the gash on the side of his head.
I can see that, mused Buck as he looked at the battered and bruised rancher.
Chris ignored him. Is he all right, Nathan?
I dont see nuthin too serious, said Nathan. The cut on the head there, gash on the leg and it looks like a burn?
Bastards knocked him into the campfire, Chris hissed angrily.
Buck observed his old friend, wanting to smile at the fire in Larabees eyes. That fire had been gone for a long time nearly three years since his wife Sarah and their boy Adam had died. And now a boy, half-Indian by the looks of it, was fanning it to life. And a total stranger at that.
Knocked him around, Chris continued. Youll probably find a lot of bruises.
Nathan nodded grimly as he field dressed the wounds. Id feel a lot better ifn he was awake. You never can tell with blows to the head.
Chris watched every movement Nathan made, relaxing only when Nathan covered the boy with his jacket.
Thats about all I can do for him here, Nathan said. You gonna let me check that head now?
Chris started to say he was fine, but thought better of it when the throbbing in his head intensified. He gave a quick nod and grimaced at Nathans knowing smile.
As Nathan started to work on Chris, Josiah joined them under the tree.
Got em gathered up? asked Buck.
Josiah nodded. Theyre likely regretting they survived, he said with a big grin. Ezras jacket got a hole in it.
Buck grinned, knowing that the young man would be complaining loud and long.
He all right? asked Nathan, not turning his attention away from Chris now that he had him compliant.
Hes fine. I checked for holes, said Josiah. When you have a minute, Nathan, one of them is wounded.
Let him rot in hell! said Chris angrily.
No. You didnt see the torment they put this kid through. Chris winced as Nathan tied the bandage around his head.
Josiah looked at the child and felt his own anger grow. I think what Chris was saying, Nathan, Josiah added in a quiet tone that belied his rage, was that we want these fellas really healthy for when we talk to them later.
Chris met Josiahs gaze and gave him a nod, knowing the big man would handle it well on his behalf. Even if it meant a few bruised knuckles.
Got two dead, Josiah informed Buck. Burying here or taking them back?
Nathan? asked Buck. It would depend on what the healer said. If Chris and the boy were better off heading back into town, they could make it by nightfall. If Nathan wanted them to rest up first, theyd bury the outlaws out here somewhere out of sheer necessity in the hot weather.
You think you can stay on your horse? Nathan asked Chris.
Chris gave a short nod, regretting the movement. Hed have to remember not to do that until his head was healed.
Id like to get them both back to town, said Nathan.
How many horses have we got? asked Buck.
Were a couple short, said Josiah, Especially if were hauling bodies back. Ill see if I can round up a few more.
Maybe you should relieve Ezra, said Buck with a wink. Im sure hed like to round up the horses.
No, thank you, Josiah laughed. Id rather do it myself than listen to him complain about it all the way back to town.
You stay put, Pard, Buck said to Chris. Im going to give Josiah a hand.
As he walked away Chris could hear him muttering, Cant send you anywhere always find trouble
It was a slow procession back to town. Buck was in the lead with the two prisoners ponied behind him.
Chris, Josiah and Nathan followed not far behind. Chris was focusing on staying upright while Josiah focused on holding the limp weight of the apparently unconscious boy.
Nathan rode on the other side of Chris keeping his hands free to help Buck if the outlaws tried to make a break for it, or to help Chris if his iron will gave out.
Ezra brought up the rear muttering about the assignments given to him as the youngest of the men. He ponied the two dead men, but as much as he detested the thought of the dead bodies the horses carried, they had deserved the end result. Ezra had seen the boy. Hed seen the aftermath of the beating Mr. Larabee took at their hands, and he knew without a doubt that at some time or another, those men had done far worse. No, it wasnt the dead men that bothered him. It was the horse. He was also leading a horse that was practically lame, or would be soon.
When Chris had objected to putting the horse down, it made no sense to any of them. Chris knew horses. He raised them. This animal had been wounded in the leg. Maybe Chris head injury was worse than Nathan suspected and he was out of his mind. It just made no sense to cause an injured animal to walk on a damaged leg when it was most likely already crippled for life. The humane thing to do was put it out of its misery.
I said, no!
When Chris had uttered those words all argument ceased. They trusted him enough to know there was something more than the horses health at issue, and so now Ezra was falling further and further behind again with the slow moving animal.
They had stopped to rest twice already, and while Ezra was sorry that Chris and the boy were injured, which necessitated the stops, he was a little glad for the horses sake since it gave the animal time to rest as well. Ungrateful though it was.
Ezra had quickly learned that this animal had a temper and didnt care what your motivation was, even if you were trying to help. He had barely escaped snapping teeth when he ventured close enough to try to help the gelding.
As if that werent enough, then Chris had yelled at him and called him stupid for approaching an injured animal.
Well, that wasnt exactly true. Chris Larabee never yelled. He didnt have to. And it wasnt just the former gunslingers reputation that made it so. It was his entire being. Chris Larabee was not someone to mess with.
It was well past dark when the group passed the large boulder formation on the south end of town and Ezra blew out a sigh of relief for everyones sake. Including the horse.
Of course he wasnt thinking about the fact that he still had to help Buck with the prisoners, the bodies and the horses while Josiah helped Nathan with Chris and the boy.
Nathan looked at the small boy on the cot. He had finally got Chris settled into the bed in the clinic and was now focusing on the unmoving child.
Nathan? asked Josiah, seeing the healers concern.
He should be awake by now, said Nathan. Hes been unconscious too long.
Hes sleeping, said Josiah. He woke up during the ride back.
He spoke to you?
No, said Josiah with a shake of his head. But I felt him tense up. Could feel him breathing hard and his little heart beating a mile a minute. Josiah tucked the blanket closer around the boys legs. Seemed like he tried to stay awake for a while, but he was too worn out.
The news encouraged Nathan. He hated to wake the boy, but he needed to get him cleaned up in order to properly care for his wounds. As underfed and frail as he looked, the boy wouldnt be able to fight off a fever and infection.
Josiah moved to the door answering the soft knocking. Standing outside were Buck, Ezra and JD with the last four buckets of water to fill the washtub Josiah had brought in earlier.
Buck poured his two buckets into the tub, followed by his eight-year-old ward, JD. As Ezra was pouring his bucket into the tub, JD peered around Buck to get a peek at the stranger they had brought home.
Is he an Indian? JD asked curiously. I bet he never took a bath.
I dont think so, and probably not for a while, answered Buck as he steered JD towards the door.
Is Chris all right? asked JD. Whos gonna take care of Milagro?
Chris will be fine. He just needs some rest, answered Buck.
What about Milagro? JD persisted, worrying about his horse if Chris couldnt go home.
Yosemite is taking care of the horses until Chris gets back, offered Josiah with a smile.
JD stopped at the foot of the bed and looked at Chris quietly.
Are you sure hes all right? he asked in a hushed voice.
Buck smiled and stood beside his adoptive son. He slipped an arm around JD and squeezed reassuringly. Hes fine.
He watched as JD gently touched Chris feet, which were covered by a blanket, as if he needed the reassurance that Chris was real and his world wasnt falling apart again.
Thanks for bringing the water, boys, said Nathan.
I am not a child, Mr. Jackson, protested Ezra, which made Buck chuckle. Nathan knew how to rile the seventeen-year-old, too.
Nathan ignored the protest and shooed them out of the room so he and Josiah could bathe the boy and finish cleaning his wounds.
He moved back to the cot and removed the blanket from the boy.
How can I help? asked Josiah.
Help me get these rags off of him.
"Save them if you can," said Chris.
"What?" asked Nathan.
"The clothes," said Chris laying his head back on the pillow. "They seem important to him."
Nathan nodded and he and Josiah set to work getting the child ready for a bath.
Even with moving him around while removing the worn clothing, the boy didn't wake. Given his run down condition, it wasn't that surprising that he would sleep heavily especially considering the situation they had just gone through.
Carefully Josiah lowered the boy into the warm water, holding him up so he wouldn't slip under.
Josiah felt the thin body tense as Nathan started to wash him with a cloth. It was the only warning he got before he had a tornado in his hands.
The boy's eyes opened and he began to fight furiously. He clawed at Nathans hands and kicked his legs with all his might.
"Easy, easy!" called Nathan as he tried to restrain the boy, grabbing for the flailing arms as Josiah just tried to keep the boy from slipping under the water.
Chris watched helplessly from the bed.
Josiah yelped as the boy bit his arm, but he managed to hold on.
Nathan finally captured the arms and held them tightly as the boy continued to struggle.
The boy's face was angry, his eyes frightened. Tears streaked his dirty cheeks. His mouth was open as if he was yelling, but the only sound he made was a couple of grunts and a pathetic squeak.
His head dropped forward and without warning, the boy went totally limp.
"Nathan?" said Josiah anxiously.
Nathan cautiously released the limp arms and tilted the boy's head up so he could see his face.
The boy's eyes were wide-open but he wasn't focused on anything.
Nathan tapped his cheek trying to get a response, but the boy just stared.
"What's wrong?" asked Chris. He was sitting up and starting to swing his legs off of the bed.
"Stay right there," Nathan said testily. The boy had gone into some kind of shock, or closed out the world around him and Nathan felt responsible. He should have seen it coming or known that restraining the boy would
"No," said Josiah.
Nathan looked at him. Josiah knew him well enough to know where his thoughts were taking him. He gave Josiah a nod, picked up the washcloth and continued washing the boy. He still needed to be clean.
Chris wasn't really hearing Nathan's words anymore. He was staring at the frail child in the bed. The boy who had risked his life to save him.
The boy who just yesterday was fighting Nathan and Josiah in a blind panic when they tried to bathe him. The boy had found himself surrounded by strangers in a strange place and instinctively fought to protect himself. Hed struggled until he was completely worn out and then he had just gone completely limp and had remained that way ever since.
Nathan had said something about shock, that the boy was totally unresponsive to anything. He was awake, but seemed to have tuned out the world around him. His injuries were minor, but his state of mind was more than Nathan could heal.
It had been more than twenty-four hours without any response from the boy.
"There's a place I know in Cheyenne "
"No!" said Chris, cutting off Nathan's suggestion. This kid didn't deserve to be shuffled off to some impersonal institution. He deserved a chance at a normal life. "I'm taking him home with me."
"Chris," Nathan protested. "He's helpless. Do you understand he can't do anything for himself?"
Chris never took his eyes off the boy as he shook his head. "He's tougher than you think. I'm taking him home."
Nathan started to protest again, but Josiah's hand on his shoulder silenced him. Both men understood that Chris felt the need to do something for the child. The institution could be talked about later when Chris was ready to face facts.
Chris walked stiffly over to the bed and picked up the kid, careful of the boy's bandaged knee. He winced as his shoulder protested the extra weight. He shifted the boy's dead weight to get a better grip. The little guy seemed inordinately heavy for being as scrawny as he was, but his lack of any kind of response made it more difficult. If the kid had wrapped his arms around Chris' neck or simply wrapped his legs around Chris' waist, it would have helped, but instead the gunslinger was struggling to hold limp weight.
"I'll carry him," said Josiah. "Just to the wagon," he added when he saw Chris' glare.
Chris nodded and let Josiah take the boy.
"Here," said Nathan, shoving some bundled clothing and supplies into Chris' hands. "This should get you through a couple a days. I'll come out tomorrow or the next day, depending on when Mrs. Cooper decides to have that baby."
Chris nodded. "Thanks, Nathan."
"It'll be a lot of work," Nathan cautioned.
Chris met his eyes. He understood fully what Nathan was saying. "He's worth it," he responded softly.
Nathan gave a nod.
Chris made his way down the stairs of the clinic to his wagon.
"I could ride along, " Josiah suggested.
"Thanks, but no," said Chris, placing the bundle in the back of the wagon, next to the boy. He gently touched the boy's cheek with the back of his hand but got no response. Josiah had done a good job situating the boy on a bed of hay. It would ease a lot of the jarring of the wagon.
Chris put on his black hat and climbed up into the driver's seat. Snapping the reins, he called to the horses and they started for home. He watched the townspeople staring at the wagon, exchanging hushed whispers. He growled knowing that the boy was the latest fodder for the rumor mill.
They drove past JD who was standing on the boardwalk with some of his friends from school. Chris could hear the boys' laughter and frowned. He thought the eight-year-old knew better, but then again
"Headin' out, Pard?" called Buck from the porch in front of the jail.
Chris reined the horses to a halt. "Might be best if you and JD don't come out for a while. Give us some time to get adjusted."
"JD ain't gonna like that," said Buck. "He wants to see that colt of his."
"Give us some time," said Chris.
Buck nodded as Chris snapped the reins again and the wagon lurched forward.
Chris was silent on the ride to his ranch. He glanced back at the boy, wondering just what he'd gotten himself into. He'd made a spur of the moment decision, but there was no going back. Watching the kid being mistreated by McClintock's gang, but having the guts to stand up against them and slip him the knife and a chance at freedom had done something inside Chris. The wall that he had laid brick-by-brick around his heart after Sarah and Adam's deaths was now cracked and a scrawny kid who never spoke a word was worming his way in. The kid was a survivor. His self-preservation instinct was strong, and Chris hoped that instinct would kick in now.
Nathan had been right. At the clinic the boy had been nothing more than a rag doll. But he'd also been terrified. He had no reason at all to think that Josiah, Nathan, Buck and Ezra were any different than McClintock's men. Especially with the way they'd come storming into the camp.
Chris would remember the terror in the boy's eyes for a long time when the gunfire was swirling around him and horses bolting and running. The boy had looked to Burke to take him, but the outlaw had simply shoved him away, knocking the kid into the path of a frightened horse. The horse had run him down, but the little man had struggled back to his feet and tried to run. He'd only managed a few stumbling steps before his leg gave out and Buck snatched him to safety. Even then the boy had struggled with all his might against Buck.
Chris had lost track of him after that. He'd had to focus on taking down some of the outlaws after he'd picked a gun off of a man Josiah had shot. When the battle was over, Chris' adrenalin had given out and he collapsed. And the boy's spirit had apparently collapsed, too, and now he was in a world all on his own.
"We're home," said Chris as he stopped the wagon and set the brake. "It ain't much, but it keeps me dry." He climbed down and walked to the back of the wagon bed. "Buck, he's the one with the mustache, the hair on his lip, he's always after me to fix the place up, but I never found much cause."
He looked at the empty blue eyes staring aimlessly at the sky. "Look, I know you've got no cause to trust me, but what that bastard Burke told you is a lie. I won't ever hurt you. I don't do that. I'm not like Burke."
Reaching up, Chris slowly pulled the blanket the boy was resting on to the end of the wagon bed."I'm sure you were pretty frightened by the shoot out, and then being hauled into Nathan's clinic with people you don't know. It would have scared me. But you don't need to be frightened of us. None of them will hurt you either. Well, Nathan might when he's fixing up your knee or your head there," Chris added as he motioned at the bandage on the boy's forehead, "But it's for your own good and to help you."
Chris fought not to smile as he watched the big blue eyes follow the movement of his hand. He knew the kid was in there somewhere. "Now, I'm feeling stiff and sore, so I was kind of hoping you'd feel like walking to the house?"
The boy didn't respond, but he allowed Chris to sit him up.
"On second thought, I bet that knee of yours is hurting, isn't it?"Chris didn't wait for an answer from the silent child. "So, it would be best if I carry you. But since I'm a little sore, it would be a big help if you could hold on to me while I carry you."
He slid the boy forward to the edge of the wagon bed and lifted him with a soft grunt as his shoulder protested the extra weight. He was a little disappointed that the boy didn't respond to his request, but he knew it would take time.
Carrying the boy inside his cabin, he used his foot to drag a chair out from the table and turn it so he could set the boy on it.
"Now, I figure you're a man of honor like me and you repay your debts. I owe you big time for saving my life. If you hadn't given me that knife, I might not have escaped. And I intend to repay my debt to you. I'm going to take care of you and find you a good home. I hope you're the kind of man who'll let me repay my debt."
Chris waited, hoping for a response. The boy's eyes tracked to his momentarily and then quickly flicked away. The kid was definitely listening to him. He wasn't sure how much he was actually hearing, but it was better than that blank stare.
Chris swallowed. He'd talked more than he usually did and his mouth felt dry. "Hey, I'm thirsty. How about you?"
No response, but Chris moved to the pump anyway. It was the one convenience he had an indoor pump in the kitchen area. He filled two mugs with water and sat one next to the boy on the table. "Drink up," Chris suggested.
He sipped his own water, but the boy made no move for the cup. Chris knew he had to be thirsty. It had been a warm ride out to the ranch. He set his mug on the table and picked up the boy's.
"Have a drink," he said gently as he held the mug to the boy's lips.
His effort was rewarded as the boy sipped the water. It wasn't much, but it was a start. At least he was responding.
By the time he was ready to bed down for the night, Chris had practically talked himself hoarse. He didn't think he'd talked that much in the past month. The boy still hadn't done anything on his on volition, but at least he'd eaten when Chris offered him spoonfuls.
"Well, we'd better call it a night," said Chris. "I made up a bed for you. But we should make a trip to the outhouse before we turn in."
Chris let out a sigh. Nothing. The boy made no further eye contact, not a nod, a grimace, nothing. Chris picked him up to carry him to the outhouse. He figured this was the part of caring for the boy that Nathan was convinced he couldn't handle. But he had cared for Adam. Well, part of the time anyway. Granted Adam was much younger than this boy, but the principle was the same. You did what needed doing.
As Chris approached the outhouse he felt the boy tense and then push at his arms. "You wanna do it yourself?"
Chris wanted to let out a war whoop, but he kept himself in check.
"All right. We have to be careful of your leg. Let's test it out first, make sure you can stand up."
Chris carefully lowered him to the ground, supporting his weight until he was sure the boy could stand. He let go and the boy limped a few steps into the outhouse and closed the door.
Chris smiled as the door reopened just a crack. It was damn dark in there at night.
A couple of minutes later, the door opened fully and the boy emerged. Chris reached for the door and the boy flinched.
Chris grimaced. "I won't hurt you," he assured again. "If you wait right here, I'll help you back to the house."
Chris stepped inside and closed the door, not certain what the boy would do. When he opened the door, the boy was still waiting for him.
"You want to walk?" Chris asked.
The boy just looked at him with wary eyes. Chris wasn't sure what was worse, the blank stare or the fearful eyes. The kid was waiting for him to hit him, or yell at him, or belittle him.
"Come on," said Chris, nodding towards the house. He took a few steps and the boy followed.
After five or six steps the boy stopped.
"Hurts?" asked Chris gently.
Chris walked back to him and picked him up. The boy still didn't put his arms around Chris, but at least he stiffened his body, which made him easier to carry than when he was limp weight.
Chris carried him into the house and settled him on the small cot across from his bed in the bedroom. When the boy made no move to get ready for bed, Chris removed the boots that Nathan had found for the battered feet. They were oversized and well worn, but they provided some protection.
Seeing the boy's arms wrapped tightly at his waist, Chris figured he didn't want any help getting into a nightshirt. "I'm going to leave this shirt here," he said, setting one of his shirts on the side of the cot. "You can wear it to sleep in if you want. I'm going to turn in. If you need anything, let me know. Goodnight."
Chris extinguished the lamp and prepared for bed in the darkness. He climbed into bed and tried to relax, but he found himself listening for the boy. The moonlight peeking in between the window curtains gave enough light to see in the darkened room. The boy was lying on the cot, facing him; his blanket pulled up and held tightly at his chin as if it was a protective barrier. His eyes were wide-open, watching Chris.
Chris sighed and closed his eyes, hoping that the boy would relax enough to get some sleep. They both had a tough road ahead, but Chris was determined to show this boy that there were good people in the world and that not everyone would treat him badly.
When Chris woke in the morning, two very weary eyes were still watching him.
"Morning," he mumbled, rubbing his hand across his face. It was clear to him that the boy hadn't slept much, if any, his fear of Chris keeping him awake, likely all night.
Chris sat up and put his feet on the floor. The boy pulled his blanket tighter to his chin, his eyes widening in fear.
"I'm not going to hurt you, remember?" Chris slipped his long john clad legs into his pants and stood. "I'm going to go stoke the fire and get breakfast started. There're some clothes for you there on the shelf. You can get yourself dressed and come on out." He stepped out of the room and closed the door.
Fifteen minutes later the boy had still not emerged from the bedroom. Figuring he'd given him plenty of time, if in fact the boy was going to move on his own, he walked back and rapped lightly on the door. Waiting a moment, he slowly opened the door. What he saw cracked that brick wall around his heart even more.
The boy was sitting on the cot, holding his buckskins to his chest rocking aimlessly. Sometime during the night the boy had changed into Chris's shirt, since that was what he was wearing now. The bandage on his knee showed fresh blood and there was a small blood smear on the floor. He must have tried to get dressed, but his leg had given out on him.
Chris cursed under his breath. The kid probably thought he was going to beat him just because he couldn't get dressed. There was no way the boy could get those buckskins on over the bandaged knee. They were too small, and the bandage was bulky.
Chris sat down on the bunk, grimacing as the boy's rocking intensified.
"I'm sorry," said Chris.
The boy stopped.
"Partner, you're so tough, I guess I forgot you were hurt and might need some help." Chris hadn't forgotten at all, but he needed a way to let the boy keep some dignity and to ease his fear. "Guess we'd better take a look at your knee and get it fixed up."
Chris got up and went out to the main room and gathered the salve Nathan sent along with a fresh bandage. Returning to the room, he settled next to the boy again.
"I'm going to take the old bandage off now," he said as he slowly reached toward the boy's leg. He saw the flinch, but continued anyway. He worked with the boy like a skittish colt, talking softly as he did what was necessary.
He changed the bandage and picked out a pair of pants for the boy from the bundle of clothing Nathan had given him. "Let's try these. They'll be a little too big, but they'll give room for the bandage."
When the boy didn't release the buckskins, Chris moved ahead and got him into the pants. As he slipped the boots on the boy's feet, he continued his monologue.
"I can see those clothes are important. I have a friend, her name is Miss Nettie. Maybe we could have her take a look at them and do a little mending. And then, when your knee is better, maybe you can wear them for a little longer."
Chris looked into the blue eyes. "For now, you can keep them right here. They'll be safe. Then we can change your shirt, make a trip to the outhouse and then eat."Chris carefully pried the buckskins from the boy's hands and placed them next to his pillow. "Partner, let's get this big ol' shirt off, and this one on, all right?"
The boy just blinked, but didn't resist Chris's efforts as he got him ready for the day.
The rest of the day continued in much the same manner. Chris carried the boy to the barn when he did his chores. He set him on the porch while he chopped wood. Chris even read to him as the sun set that evening.
He wasn't sure how 'Partner' was managing to stay awake. For that matter, he wasn't sure how he'd taken to calling the boy "Partner." It just seemed to fit considering the deal they'd made to let Chris repay his debt for the boy saving his life.
As they settled in for the second night, it was much the same as the first. Chris closed his eyes to sleep with a pair of weary blue eyes watching him in the darkness.
Sometime during the night, Partner's tired body won over his will and sleep came. Chris left the room quietly at daybreak allowing the boy the time he needed to mend through rest. He hoped that with every hour that passed without violence or hurtful words towards the boy, that he would realize he was safe now and that he would begin to trust.
He went about the morning chores, feeding the chickens, tending the horses and milking the cow before he returned to the kitchen. He was frying some eggs when he felt someone watching him. Without turning around, he said, "Good morning."
Lifting the pan, he turned and carried it to the table and sliding an egg onto each of the plates.
"Hungry?" he asked.
Chris smiled. Progress. Partner had dressed himself and responded when he asked him a question. Definite progress.
"Come on over and sit down. It's ready." Chris turned and put the pan on the back of the stove. He grabbed the plate of bacon and brought it back to the table and sat down.
Partner shuffled to the table and sat in the other chair.
"Eat up," said Chris, not making any effort to feed the boy.
It took a couple of minutes, but the boy began to feed himself, albeit without using the fork or knife. His hands seemed to be his favored utensil.
Chris reached over and forked four pieces of bacon onto the boy's plate. "If you want more, help yourself. There's plenty."
The day progressed much like the previous day with the exception of more responsiveness from Partner. Chris still carried the boy to where he was working since his knee was still healing.
The boy was sitting in the dirt next to the stump where Chris had set him. He had moved himself off of the stump and was playing with a stick, drawing something in the dirt.
Chris found himself smiling as he worked with the horses in the corral. He knew that the boy had a long way to go, but it pleased him to watch Partner enjoy something as normal as playing in the dirt.
Partner. Chris sighed. He wished he could figure out the boy's real name. There was no doubt in his mind that it was bottled up somewhere inside the boy. Chris hoped he could find a way to unearth it.
He turned his full attention to the horses. One of the geldings needed extra care. Buck had given him two of the outlaws' horses as back pay for Chris' work as a deputy. The town was short on cash, and since Chris was a horse rancher, it was a good deal.
Buck had been reluctant to give him this particular gelding, the one Chris had insisted they bring back with them. The animal was practically lame, and under ordinary circumstances, Chris would have agreed with Buck and Josiah when they had wanted to put the horse down. But Chris had seen the boy work with the injured animal when McClintock's men had him. And even in the chaos of the escape, the boy had tried to get the animal to safety.
Chris didn't know why he'd made them bring the horse back to the ranch. He still hadn't been able to take care of the gelding's leg. The animal would strike out every time he got close. This time he'd lassoed the horse and tied him to the fence, but that didn't mean the animal was any less dangerous. He just hoped he could do something soon or they'd lose the gelding. The cut on its leg was infected.
One of the other horses snorted and Chris shifted his attention momentarily. That was all it took. The gelding stretched his neck and bit Chris's forearm.
Chris instinctively jerked his arm back and cursed. He stepped clear of the hurting animal and turned toward the boy.
Partner was standing, moving closer to the corral. Chris's movement and angry words had stopped him.
Their eyes locked, the boy's blue eyes revealing a mix of defiance and fear. Chris relaxed his posture. He shook his head.
"He was just trying to protect himself. Can't fault him for that."
The boy flicked his gaze to the horse, then back to Chris.
Chris looked at his injured arm, testing the wound with his other hand. The bite had broken the skin and he was bleeding.
When he looked up again, Partner was standing in front of him holding out the blue neckerchief he had been wearing. He held it as far away from his body as possible and was poised to run from any threat, not that he could have gone far with the injured knee.
Chris smiled and nodded, acknowledging the gift. He reached out and took it from the boy. He dabbed at the blood and then tried unsuccessfully to tie it around his arm.
"Well, that didn't work," he mused. He caught a glimpse of what the boy had been drawing in the dirt. It looked like a mountain or a teepee and a Z, but the boy had brushed dirt over part of it, obscuring the picture.
The boy limped closer. Again their eyes met, the boy's gaze never leaving Chris's as he edged closer, took the bandana and tied it around Chris' arm. He quickly backed away when he finished, but his injured knee chose that moment to fail and he stumbled backwards, landing on the seat of his pants.
The look of fear on the boy's face was like a knife in Chris's gut.
"Are you all right?" he asked softly.
The boy hesitated, and then nodded. Chris offered him a hand to help him stand and smiled when the boy tentatively reached his small hand up and accepted the help.
Progress. Definite progress.
Partner looked suddenly toward the road as if he saw or heard something. He pulled away from Chris and moved into the barn as quickly as his sore knee allowed.
Chris looked from the boy back to the road. A rider was coming. He took a few steps towards the fence, casually picking up his rifle.
Moments later, he put it aside. The rider was Nathan Jackson, the healer, coming to check up on them like he had promised.
"Mornin', Nathan," Chris greeted.
"Chris," said Nathan as he dismounted and led his horse to the watering trough. "Came to check on the boy. He in the house?"
Chris shook his head. "He's hiding in the barn."
"The barn?" Nathan was surprised.
"Yep," Chris confirmed quietly. "He saw you comin' and went to hide."
Nathan smiled. He was thrilled that the boy was responding and walking on his own.
"Think he'll let me close enough to check that leg?"
Chris chewed on his lip for a moment considering how to get the boy to trust Nathan.
"Partner?" he called out loud enough for the boy to hear.
"Partner?" asked Nathan quietly.
"Hey, Partner," Chris confirmed Nathan's question even though he was speaking to the boy. "I'll let Nathan take care of my arm, if you'll let him look at your leg."
He looked over at the barn door, ignoring Nathan's probing look at his arm. He saw the boy peek around the edge of the door.
"Remember, Nathan takes care of people who are sick or hurt just like you took care of me when I was hurt."
Nathan followed Chris's lead. "Does your arm hurt?"
"Yeah," answered Chris. He felt slightly guilty about using the kid's natural concern for the injured, but if it worked
The boy limped reluctantly from the barn, stopping a couple feet from Chris, keeping the blond between himself and Nathan.
With his back to the boy Chris grinned at Nathan. "What do you think, Partner? Are you going to let Nathan fix us both up?"
He turned to look at the boy and was rewarded with a slight nod.
"All right. We should probably go up to the house then." Chris took a couple of steps towards the house. "Do you want to walk?"
Another nod and the boy started towards the house, stumbling more than once as he kept a wary eye on Nathan.
It didn't surprise Chris at all that after Nathan checked his wound, the boy disappeared. He had kept his portion of the bargain and his fear sent him into hiding.
He and Nathan enjoyed a cup of coffee as they discussed the boy's progress. It didn't take much to sway Nathan's opinion away from sending the boy to Cheyenne to the institution. He was still cautious about how far the boy would progress, but he couldn't deny the child had come much further than he had ever expected.
"So where'd he go?" Nathan asked as he looked around the room. "He shouldn't be doing much walking with that knee yet."
"I don't have much control over that," said Chris staring towards the barn even though he couldn't see it through the door. "He doesn't see us as any different than McClintock's men. If I chew on him for walking too much, it will only reinforce his fears."
Nathan nodded in agreement. He could see Chris's point. The boy had no reason to trust them any more than anyone else. He finished his coffee and set the mug on the table.
"I need to be goin.' Nettie's niece has a fever. Told her I'd check on her today," Nathan explained as he stood and moved towards the door. "Nettie said she'd handle it, but I thought I'd spell her for awhile."
Chris nodded. "Give her my regards."
The two men walked outside.
"Where's my horse?"
Chris started at the question, a moment of fear ran through him as the thought crossed his mind that the boy had taken the horse and "escaped."
He walked quickly towards the barn with Nathan close on his heels. He rounded the corner and stopped.
There was Nathan's horse, in the shade of the barn contentedly munching on hay that the boy had obviously set out for him.
Chris looked into the corral where the horses were milling around and that's when he got really scared. The boy was in the corral standing next to the injured horse, clucking and cooing to the animal as he ran his hands over its neck and shoulder. The same horse that wouldnt let Chris near him and had taken a bite of his arm. While it wasnt unusual for a boy of his age to care for horses, it was extremely dangerous to work with a wounded animal, especially when the boy himself had an injured leg and limited mobility.
Chris sucked in a breath as the boy took the salve from the jar that he had left in the corral after the horse bite, and gently applied it to the gelding's leg. Partner continued cooing and soothing the animal with his free hand. Carefully he wrapped a bandage around the horse's leg and tied it in place.
Chris swore softly. With a shake of his head and a bit of amazement he said, "I couldn't even get close to that horse."
Nathan watched Chris watch the boy. He knew the kid had found a home.
Still touching the horse, the boy looked at Chris as he reached for the rope that Chris had left around the gelding's neck.
Chris could see the questioning in the boy's eyes and gave a slight nod of agreement, wondering how he'd get the rope over the tall animal's head.
Partner loosened the rope and slid it up the horse's neck. The gelding instinctively ducked his head letting the rope slide free. The boy grinned and walked slowly away from the animal and approached the fence where Chris and Nathan stood.
Both men thought that brief smile was the best thing they'd seen.
"Thanks for taking care of my horse for me," said Nathan.
The boy didn't respond, but his wary eyes watched every movement.
"Partner pays his debts," said Chris smiling slightly as the boy nodded.
Nathan nodded his appreciation and mounted up. "Josiah said he'd stop by tomorrow."
"Remember, keep that clean and bandaged for a couple more days," said Nathan as he rode away.
Chris didn't know whether Nathan meant the comment for him or the boy, but he figured it applied to both of them.
"Well, Partner, what do you say we get some lunch?"
Maybe it was coincidence or maybe it was spurred by Nathans visit, but Chris lay awake in the darkness listening to the boys restless movements. Something had stirred up nightmares.
He kept hoping that the boy would calm on his own. Chris was sure that any physical comfort he attempted would be perceived as a threat, so he used his voice. Chris spoke low and soothingly to Partner hoping the tone would penetrate the dreams.
If someone were to ask him later what hed said, Chris wouldnt be able to recall. He just said whatever came to mind in the same low tone. After a few minutes the boy quieted, and not much after that Chris drifted into a weary sleep.
It seemed only moments later when he jolted awake to screaming. Disoriented by sleep it took him a moment to sort out what was going on. A whimper from the bed across the tiny room gave him the answer. The boy tossed on the bed and cried, nuh-ko-ay!
If Partner hadnt been caught up in a nightmare, Chris would have been thrilled to hear the boy speak, even if he didnt understand what he said.
The boy shouted another word, something like may-may. He called it over and over with such anguish that Chris threw off his blanket and crossed the distance to the small bed. He would probably scare the kid more, but he couldnt let the nightmare continue.
Chris sat down on the edge of the bed, hoping that simple act would remove some of the physical threat that his presence was to the child, and he rubbed the boys arm gently.
Its all right now, he soothed. Its all right. Its just a dream.
The words sounded hollow to him. It was obviously more than a scary dream.
May-May! No! the boy yelled and sat upright.
In the darkness of the room Chris wrapped his arms around the boy and held him to his chest, soothing him with a litany of Its all right. Youre all right. It was just a dream.
Maybe the boy wasnt fully awake and didnt realize who was holding him. Or maybe his fear of the nightmare was stronger than his fear of Chris. Or maybe he was a lonely, lost kid who just needed the comfort of an adult. Whatever it was, Partner didnt fight the embrace. Chris could hear the soft sniffles and could feel the hot tears on his shoulder.
It broke his heart to wonder how long it had been since the boy had been comforted, how long it had been since hed known compassion instead of brutality from an adult.
Youre all right. No ones going to hurt you, Chris whispered.
He smiled grimly as he felt the shuddering breaths as the boy tried to stop his tears and regain control. Despite his struggle with himself, the boy didnt move away from the embrace.
So Chris held him.
And held him.
He didnt know how long it had been, but his legs were falling asleep when the boy became lax in his arms. Sleep had finally reclaimed Partner. Chris lowered him back to the pillow and tucked the blanket around him.
Sleep, he said softly as he brushed the back of his hand across the boys cheek.
Reluctantly he crossed back to his own bed, grimacing at the pins and needles feeling in his legs. He could see the sky starting to lighten in the pre-dawn hours through the space between the curtains, and he knew morning would be here far too soon. Chris crawled into bed and pulled up his blanket finding himself oddly contented. It had felt good to comfort Partner when he needed it. Chris sighed as he closed his eyes, hoping the rest of the night would be peaceful for both of them.
When Chris woke in the morning, Partner was gone. The bed was empty and the buckskins were missing.
Chris sighed and dressed hurriedly, muttering to himself. He really couldnt stop the boy from leaving. He had no claim over him and while he wanted the boy to have a good home and people who cared about him, it was up to the boy to accept it or reject it. And from the independence and self-preservation streak hed seen in the boy, he knew that Partner wouldnt trust anyone fully for his care.
He cursed softly, hoping the kid hadnt gone far.
Planting his hat carefully on his head, Chris opened the front door and headed for the barn.
Striding quickly across the yard to the barn, he opened the barn door and half-smiled to himself. ALL the stalls were empty, not just one. He could hear the horses outside in the corral.
He walked out of the barn and rounded the corner to the corral and saw what he hoped he would see, Partner was taking care of the horses. The boy had somehow managed to get into his buckskin britches. The bandage showed signs of being re-tied, so Chris figured the boy had removed the bandage, put on the too small buckskins and re applied the wrap.
Apparently he had also already cared for the injured horse, which now was trailing around the corral behind the kid like a puppy dog.
Using his nose, the horse butted the boy from behind, knocking him forward onto his hands and knees.
Chris was halfway over the fence railing to help when the boy laughed. He patted the geldings nose as he stood up, and then shoved the horses head playfully. The horse snorted and walked away, only to turn around and follow the boy when he wasnt looking.
Chris shook his head in disbelief. The boy had a beautiful smile and his laughter was the sweetest sound. Partner had a natural ability and affinity with the animals. Chris had seen glimpses of it at the outlaw camp, but now was able to see it in full. He watched as the boy approached JDs colt and started to brush the animal. He was sure that JD wouldnt be too thrilled about someone else taking care of his horse, but JD couldnt be out here all of the time, especially while school was in session.
Chris picked up some of the supplies and joined the boy in taking care of the horses.
"Mister Larabee," greeted Ezra.
"Ezra," Chris acknowledged. "What brings you out here?"
"Well, it's certainly not the accommodations."
Chris ignored the jab as he caught sight of Partner peeking at them from the hayloft window. The boy had an amused look on his face.
Chris grinned. Ezra and his fancy clothes had that effect on people.
"I don't know why Mr. Sanchez insisted on sending me out here in the heat of the day," Ezra complained as he dabbed the perspiration from his forehead with a handkerchief.
"I'm sure it wasn't the heat of the day when he asked you, Ezra," Chris replied. "If you got up at a decent hour "
"Mister Larabee," Ezra huffed, "My occupation requires late nights and late nights dictate late mornings."
"Gambling ain't a job. You need to get yourself real work."
Ezra coughed pathetically. "I'm afraid I'm not meant for menial labor. Consumption, you know."
Chris rolled his eyes. Ezra had a knack for weaseling out of anything that meant good hard work.
"And I do have a job."
"Five dollars a week for helping Buck with deputy duties is not a job."
"Yes, well, that's why supplementing my income with games of chance is a necessity."
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Ezra grinned. "Mister Sanchez asked me to convey to you that he needed to make a trip to the Seminole Village today and cannot keep his appointment to visit you and " Ezra paused. He had no idea what to call the boy.
"Partner," said Chris.
Ezra raised an eyebrow.
"It's better than 'Hey, you'," said Chris.
Ezra nodded in agreement.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?"
"It's the middle of the afternoon. We have work to do. You know where the water trough is," said Chris. Something inside him just egged him to needle Ezra with his quirks.
Ezra's mouth dropped open. "The water trough?" he said indignantly.
Chris glanced up at the boy in the loft and grinned. The kid was smiling broadly as he listened to the conversation.
"For the horse, Ezra," said Chris. He almost laughed as the boy nodded his agreement.
"Fine," said Ezra with a huff. He guided his horse to the trough and took a drink of water from his canteen as he waited for the animal to drink.
"You'd think some people would be grateful," he muttered under his breath.
Seeing falling hay out of the corner of his eye, Ezra looked up at the hayloft. Partner quickly ducked his head.
"I take it I won't be graced by the presence of our new friend?" he asked.
"Nope," said Chris. "Partner's a mite shy."
Ezra glanced up at the loft again. "Well then, my work is done here. I'll be on my way."
He mounted up and headed up the road towards town at a slow walk.
Chris stood and watched Ezra go, wondering once again how the seventeen-year-old dandy had managed to hook up with the group.
Had to be Josiah's doing. Yeah, that had to be it.
Sensing the boy behind him, he turned with a smile.
"That," Chris said, "was Ezra."
The boy giggled and brushed imaginary dirt off of his sleeves mimicking Ezra.
"You got it."
Chris took off his hat and rubbed the sweat from his forehead with the back of his sleeve. He replaced his hat and looked at Partner.
"Sure is hot."
The boy looked at him warily.
"I was just thinking I'm getting awful tired of beans and bacon. What do you say you and me do some fishing down in the creek?"
Partner nodded cautiously. He watched Chris go into the barn and come back out with two fishing poles and a canteen.
Chris nodded towards the creek and started walking.
The boy followed him at a safe distance, his behavior still exhibiting his distrust.
When he reached the creek bank, Chris found a nice spot in the shade and sat down against a tree trunk. He laid one pole a couple feet away from him, then took the other pole, baited his hook and cast his line into the water. He toed off one of his boots, but had to set his pole aside to remove the second boot and both socks. He could feel the boy watching every move.
"Ah," he sighed dramatically as he placed both feet into the cold water.
Chris watched as he moved a few yards downstream, always keeping that safe distance, and took off the oversize boots Nathan had provided. Partner sat down on a log and put his feet in the water.
Chris grinned as Partner jerked his feet back out of the cold water, steeled himself and dipped them in again. He yawned as he settled back against the tree.
Too bad Ezra didn't stick around. He could have joined them.
Chris snorted. That would have killed the peace and quiet.
Before he knew it, Chris was dozing in the afternoon heat. If the fish were biting, he missed any nibbles as he snoozed.
He was startled awake by loud splashing. He sat up quickly. There was Partner standing thigh deep in the creek looking intently into the water. Suddenly he dove forward with both hands almost submerging himself.
He came out of the water with a huge grin, and a fish clamped in both hands. The fish wriggled to free itself and the boy did the instinctive thing. He flung it towards shore to keep it from getting away.
Unfortunately for Partner, Chris was sitting in the path of the flying fish. It was a direct hit, the fish flopping against Chris's chest before falling into his lap.
The boy looked at Chris in sheer horror, obviously thinking he would be beaten.
Chris looked down at the fish, and then at the boy. He looked back to the fish in his lap and broke into laughter.
The sound was an invitation to the boy and slowly he moved closer to Chris.
Chris picked up the flopping fish, but it squirted out of his hands.
Partner grabbed at it with a giggle as it squirted away from him as well.
Both of them chased the fish a few more feet before Chris came up with it.
"Nice fish!" he praised."Wanna go have supper?"
Partner nodded. Fish sounded good to him, too.
After a second night of nightmares, Chris was looking forward to Josiahs visit. Last night had been worse than the previous night, with nightmares waking both of them several times. When Chris had awakened this morning, hed found Partner sleeping in the main room on the floor by the wood stove. Hed covered the boy with a blanket and started the day as quietly as possible.
Maybe Josiah could give him some insight in how to help with the nightmares. He knew the former preacher knew several languages and perhaps he knew what the boy was saying in his sleep.
Partner had been quieter than normal this morning. It seemed odd to think that a boy who never spoke could be any quieter, but his demeanor was sad and he showed little interest in anything other than doing the jobs he thought Chris expected him to do. He spent much of the morning after the chores were done sitting and looking off to the horizon.
When Josiah arrived, Partner took care of his horse and then made himself scarce, retreating again to the hayloft.
Josiah was sitting in the shade on the porch. Chris joined him, handed him a cup of coffee. The two men were silent for several minutes before Josiah spoke.
"Are you going to tell me about it?"
Chris sighed. He wasn't big on talking, but he was at a loss of what to do for Partner.
"I thought we were making head way," said Chris.
"I just watched a boy tend my horse who just a few days ago couldn't do anything for himself. I'd say that's a lot of head way, Chris."
Chris nodded. Josiah was right, but he wanted to do more.
"You said you thought his clothes are Cheyenne?" Chris asked.
"You speak some Cheyenne, don't you?"
Josiah shifted and took a sip of coffee before answering.
"A bit. Why?"
"He's having nightmares. He keeps saying nuh-ko-ay in his sleep. Do you know what that is?"
"He's talking?" asked Josiah.
Chris grimaced. "No. Not to me, but he cries out in his nightmares."
"Náhko'e means Mother," said Josiah sadly. He knew that it was likely that the boy had lost his family.
Chris rubbed a hand across his face. He figured it was something like that.
"What about may-may?"
"Mémééhe means grandpa." Josiah looked even sadder. "It's not just grandfather, but grandpa. Someone he's very close to. He's calling for his family."
"Last night he kept crying "kuh sost vin" when he was using the other words. He sounded so lost."
"Kâsoestse means 'little boy,' Chris. It's a pet name or nickname that a mother would call her child," said Josiah. "I'm not sure what the "vin" part means. I'm not familiar with that word."
Chris sat quietly thinking about the implication of the words. It was easy enough to picture the boy's mother calling him "little boy" and Partner using his own name to call out trying to find his mother and grandpa. Closing his eyes he could hear Adam calling out "Daddy, it's me. It's Adam. Where are you, Daddy?"
Having heard the utter anguish in the boy's nightmares, Chris had no glimmer of hope that the boy's mother or grandfather was still alive. He had no way to know what had happened to them, but he figured Partner's quietness today was due to remembering his nightmares or missing his family.
Chris and Josiah sat quietly sipping their coffee.
"Give him time," Josiah advised. "Whatever you're doing is working. He just needs to know he's safe."
Chris nodded his thanks. He didn't really have any more answers than he started with, other than an understanding of around whom the nightmares revolved.
"When Nathan says he's well enough, perhaps you should take him to the Seminole Village," suggested Josiah.
"No, damn it!" growled Chris angrily.
Josiah snorted and shook his head. "I didn't mean to leave him there."
"Sorry," muttered Chris.
"I thought he might be more comfortable around them than he is around us. Might help him to open up a little more," Josiah said. "Maybe Rain could make him a new set of buckskins. Might even have some his size. They wouldn't be Cheyenne, but he might be more comfortable in them."
Chris nodded. It was definitely something to consider. He hadn't thought past bringing the boy here and nursing him back to health. There was a lot to think about. Education. His future.
"I'll think on it," he replied.
A while later, when Josiah prepared to leave, Partner quickly brought Josiah's horse from the corral. He stood quietly holding the animal until Josiah reached for the reins.
"Nia'ish," said Josiah.
The boy jerked back a step, understanding the Cheyenne word.
He gave Josiah a hesitant nod.
Chris watched Partner as Josiah mounted and left. The boy took a couple of steps in Josiah's direction as the man departed.
Chris stood beside him. "Knee-ah-ish? Does that mean 'thank you'?"
The boy turned his attention to Chris and gave him a nod.
Chris smiled. "You do good work with the horses."
Partner nodded and shielded his eyes from the bright sun as he looked up at Chris.
"Let's go sit in the shade for a while," Chris suggested.
Ever wary, Partner followed a few feet behind Larabee as he walked to the porch and sat down on the steps. The boy sat down on the ground nearby. Without conscious thought he picked up a stick and started drawing in the dirt.
"Did you hear what Josiah and I were talking about?" Chris asked softly.
The boy shook his head vigorously.
"You wouldn't be in trouble if you did," Chris assured. "We weren't trying to hide anything from you."
Partner looked at him, his big blue eyes asking Chris to explain.
"Josiah's traveled a lot of places. He's lived with a lot of people. He knows a lot of different languages, even a little Cheyenne," said Chris. "You've been having bad dreams."
The boy tensed.
"I have bad dreams sometimes, too, Partner," Chris assured. "Most folks do. And most folks talk aloud when they have nightmares."
As he continued his monologue, Chris didn't notice the boy tap three times on his chest and start writing in the dirt. Six deliberate strokes.
Chris paused. He didn't really want to talk about his personal life, but the boy was vulnerable because of his nightmares.
"I don't talk much about my nightmares, but I figured you should know about them in case I talk about them in my sleep."
Three pats on his chest and six strokes of the stick in the dirt.
"I lost my family," Chris said softly.
The boy's movement ceased as he listened.
"My wife and my son were killed." Chris swallowed hard. He tried to make eye contact with Partner, but the boy had tears in his eyes and looked away. "So if you hear me talk about Sarah or Adam, you'll know who they are."
"Now I'm guessing you know that I've heard you in your sleep," said Chris.
Partner tapped his chest and wrote in the dirt.
"I asked Josiah about the words you said because I didn't understand them and I thought maybe I could help."
The boy looked up with sad blue eyes. He shook his head slowly.
Again Chris swallowed the lump in his throat.
"I'm sorry, Partner," he said, rubbing his eye as if something was in it. Something other than the tears he was holding at bay.
A small hand patted his knee, in a bold attempt at comfort.
When Chris looked at the boy, Partner tapped on his chest three times and pointed the stick to his drawings in the dirt.
"You want me to see?" asked Chris.
The boy gave a single nod. He stepped back instinctively as Chris stood to take a closer look.
Chris looked at the drawings. He could see now that it wasn't a mountain and a "z."
"V. I. N. Vin. Is that your name, Vin?" Chris asked gently.
Partner flinched away as if expecting a blow for being so bold as to suggest his own name.
"Hey, it's all right. Remember no one hurts you now, I promised," Chris reassured him.
"So is that your name? Vin?" Chris waited patiently.
Finally Partner gave a small nod, then looked up at Chris with frightened blue eyes.
"So now I'll call you Vin." Chris was a bit surprised at the look of joy that crossed Vin's face at his words.
He couldn't know how much it meant to the boy to be called by his own name, but he now understood "kuh sost vin." Little Boy Vin. Likely that was what his mama had called him.
"Knee-ah-ish," said Chris. "Thank you for telling me your name, Vin."
The smile lit Partner's face again. Sheer joy at hearing his own name.
For a time Chris sat watching Vin who was now simply drawing in the dirt. The pictures reminded Chris of the kind you'd see decorating a tepee up North. He figured they were Cheyenne.
Finally the sun dipped below the horizon leaving only the twilight. Chris leaned forward and said, "Vin, I need to ask you something."
Vin's shoulders tensed, but he obediently put down his stick, turning to Chris.
"Vin, I was wondering what your plans were?"
The boy studied Chris, looking puzzled yet also sad.
"Yeah," Chris said, "I guess you probably haven't thought much about it."
Vin looked worried like he'd done something wrong by not thinking about his future. Chris swallowed the lump in his throat.
"See, Vin, I was thinking. You're a real big help around here. And I think we get along pretty good." Chris paused again, and then continued, "So I was hoping that maybe you'd stay here with me. That is if you want to."
He studied the boy hopefully, "Do you want to?"
Vin seemed to think about if forever, but it was actually less than a minute before he solemnly nodded.
"Is that a yes, you want to stay?" Chris had to be sure.
Vin nodded again, more emphatically.
"Well, how about we shake on it then?" Chris held out his hand.
Slowly the boy reached out his hand. He looked Chris directly in the eye then purposefully clasped forearms with him, sealing the deal and starting a new life.