Disclaimer: Not mine, not making any money.
Author's Note: Clearly this owes a huge debt to the creators of the Little Britches AU. This what if tenacious little plot bunny kept biting me and biting me until I wrote some of this down. Thanks to Helen for proof reading this for me. This AU is open to any one who wants to have a go.
"Have you seen my Ma?" the small voice asked.
Looking down and down and down, Blossom finally found the source of the voice. There on the step below her, in the middle of a thriving saloon on a Friday afternoon, was a small boy of about five or six, his thick unruly raven black hair fell over dark eyes that gazed up at her.
"Well hello there." She bent down to see him more closely.
"I'm looking for my Ma, did you see her? Is she upstairs?" he tried to move past her, but she caught hold of the slight child as she sat down on the step, the better to see him.
It was possible one of the working girls up stairs had a child she hadn't told the others about but she doubted it. The saloon was small and all the working girls knew each other well, there were no secrets between them. She wondered what the boy was doing all alone in a saloon. Blossom smiled to herself as she looked in to his face; it was dirty but quite adorable.
"Well hun, I don't think she is but you tell me her name and I'll ask," she suggested.
"Her name is Ma," the boy said, clearly unaware his mother could have any other name.
He was barefoot; dressed in grey trousers several sizes too big for him, their frayed and torn bottoms trailing away behind him down the stairs. A grey shirt likewise too big, its frayed cuffs dangling past his hands and a black jacket that conversely was too small and had split all the way down the back seam, and was missing all but one of its buttons. His face was streaked with grime, the hair dull and uncombed. He was about to tell her his name when another boy, older and taller with blonde hair ran up the stairs.
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
"I was looking for Ma," the smaller boy explained to the new arrival.
As Blossom watched the older boy took a deep breath, he looked very serious, more serious than any child should look Blossom thought to herself.
"I told you, she's gone, she isn't here, she isn't anywhere you can find her, she went to be with God remember?" The new arrival spoke kindly but firmly to the little boy who gazed up at him, his eyes full of trust.
Blossom felt her throat constrict instantly as she watched and listened.
"But she might have come back from visiting God," the dark boy reasoned, "Ma always comes back after she's been visiting folk."
"No, not this time. When you go to see God it's forever, she can't come home again, not ever."
It was a conversation they had had before, yet it became clear the younger boy just couldn't grasp the concept that his mother was dead and he would never see her again.
"But I want her to come back, why can't she come back now?" he whined Tears began to fill the wide eyes and slowly spill over to roll unchecked down the grimy face, etching little trails of misery down his cheeks.
The serious blond boy, who Blossom reckoned was about eight, stepped up to be level with his young companion. "She just can't, alright, I don't know why but she can't, my Mom and Pa can't and she can't, we jist got each other now, remember what I promised you?"
The dark boy nodded, and in response his friend gave him a reassuring hug that turned into a protective embrace as a huge man entered the saloon and made his way over to the little group on the stairs.
"You found them Miss Blossom, much obliged," he said, smiling broadly, before squatting down next to the two boys. "Hello, my name is Josiah and I'm not gonna hurt you," he explained gently.
The two boys stared at him with undigested fear, clutching on to each other for dear life.
"Mr Sanchez, who are they?" Blossom asked.
"Don't rightly know, they stowed away on the stage, in the luggage holder at the back, driver found them when he went to unpack. They just shot out of there like a pair of scalded cats, me, Vin an' JD been looking for them all afternoon." He turned back to the boys. "Now I'm willing to bet you two are hungry right?" The boys just continued to cling to each other as stare at him.
"Its alright," Blossom soothed, "hes a preacher, you can trust him."
Unfortunately before she had even finished speaking both boys, their faces etched in terror, sped past the adults, down the stairs and would have been away and out in to the street had they not run straight in to a pair of sturdy wool-clad legs. The older boy managed to twist free from the hand that reached out to grab him but the little dark boy failed.
"You let him go! Let him go!" the older boy was now pounding on JDs legs and trying to prize his hands away from his friends collar, but to no avail.
"Hey there young un, you dont want to go beating up the sheriff." Vin came up behind JD and pulled the boy away.
"We aint goin back. Let me go! Let me go!" The boy shouted defiantly but there were no tears, just fear and anger.
"STOP THAT!" Vins voice cut off all sound from both boys instantly. "No ones gonna hurt you son, all we wanna to do is make sure yer alright, so stop all this nonsense."
The boy looked up at him, forest green eyes met clear blue, and then the boy visibly relaxed.
"Good." He looked over at Sanchez who was now standing in the doorway of the saloon. "Now why dont me an JD here take these two over t Nate an git um checked over while you round us up some supper, Josiah?" Vin suggested
The big man nodded and ducked back into the dark interior of the saloon Meanwhile JD squatted down on his heels and without letting go turned the small boy in his hands to face him.
"Hello there, Im JD, whats your name?" he asked, smiling in what he hoped was a reassuring and non-threatening way.
The boy just continued to stare at him. The tears had dried up now and he just stared at JD wide eyed, then he yawned, only remembering to cover his mouth at the last minute.
"Sorry," he apologised in a tiny voice just as another yawn overcame him.
"Thats all right, are you tired?" The boy nodded. "Hungry?" Another nod. "Well we have a friend and when weve been to see him you can have some food alright?" JD held out his hand. The boy looked at it. He liked the man with his funny hat, he had kind eyes and he didnt shout, finally he looked over at his friend who nodded his encouragement. Only then did the little boy take the proffered hand and walked beside the man as he crossed the street, the blond boy walking beside Vin although not holding hands with him.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan didnt seem to scare the boys at all; they let him examine them, the youngest boy going first. Finally Nathan had both boys sitting on the table in his clinic side by side.
"Now I want you two to stay sat here fer just a few minutes all right? Will you do that fer me?" he asked. Both boys nodded.
Outside on the veranda he spoke to JD and Vin. "Well the little one he aint in too bad shape, hes reasonably well-fed at least, hes got some blisters on his feet, maybe thats why he dont have boots? I dont know, he wouldnt say. Hes got some bruises on his arms and shoulders - some are old, some not so old, they were made by hands, big adult hands holdin on t him too tight, the older one, well " He shook his head in dismay.
"Nate?" Vin prompted.
"Hes very, very thin, covered in bruises and welts, even scars, his feet are all callused cause his boots is too small, that boy has been badly mistreated. Oh an we got one more problem with both of um."
"What?" asked JD; getting the feeling he wasnt going to like it.
"Theyre both crawling with lice an fleas, got bite marks all over, were gonna have to bath them, I got stuff we can put in the water an' in their hair t get rid of the critters. We'll have t' burn them things their wearin and find um some other clothes. We could use an extra pair of hands, whens Ezra coming back?"
JD shrugged, the southern gambler and regulator was delivering a warrant to Eagle Bend.
"If he delivered the papers and came straight home he would be here anytime now, cause ifn hes enjoying the amenities in Eagle Bend, who knows?"
"You mean hes playin poker with all them strangers who dont know him and takin their money," Vin clarified.
"Yeah thats what I mean."
It took a while to commandeer two baths in the bathhouse, fill them and add the noxious substance to kill the parasites the boys were carrying. Mrs Potter at the store donated some clothes her boys had grown out of, though they still didn't have any boots for the younger boy. Getting them in the bath was another matter. They trooped over to the bathhouse willingly enough but when they saw the tubs with steam rising of them both shied away instantly, the little dark boy began to visibly shake with fear.
"What's wrong with 'um?" Vin asked from the doorway as the two boys backed into the corner furthest from the baths.
Nathan shook his head. "Got no idea," he admitted. Then he approached the boys. "You got no reason to be a-feared, I promise you it'll be fun and we'll git rid of all them nasty crawling critters you got, bet them bites is sore, don't ya want to stop them?" He got no response other than wide-eyed fear. "I can't help you less'n you tell me what yer afraid of, come on please just tell me I won't be cross, I won't get mad or hit ya or nothin'," he assured.
The older boy looked over at Vin standing by the door, then back at Jackson. "Vin?" Nathan said quietly.
"You mind waiting out side for a sec?"
Vin stood up and opened the door. "I'll go see how JD and 'Siah are coming with food and clothes, see ya later."
Nathan watched the door close behind him, before he looked back at the boys. "Can ya tell me now?" he asked.
"'S too hot," the blond boy said softly.
"Too hot?" Nathan asked. Both boys nodded. "No it's just warm, look." He plunged his bare arm into the warm water, then after swirling it around a bit he pulled it out. "See just nice and warm." He looked at the older boy. "Do you want to check it for yourself?"
For a long time the boy did nothing then he edged forward and without letting go of his terrified friend he tentatively held one finger over the warm water, finally he lowered it into the bath. A small smile spread over his face as he lowered his hand in further.
"It's nice," he said with real surprise.
"Told you," Nathan grinned.
Just then the other boy tugged on his friends sleeve, and once he was within range he whispered in the boys ear. As Nathan watched the frown of fear and worry returned. Finally the older boy stood up to face Jackson; he took a deep breath before he started.
"Sir?" he asked hesitantly.
"Are you going to cut all our hair off?"
Oh Lord! No wonder theyre scared! Nathan thought as he looked at the two faces staring at him full of fear. Shaving of all their hair would be the quickest way to rid the boy of the parasites but it was drastic step he was reluctant to take, clearly it had happened to them before or they had witnessed it.
"No, not if I can avoid it, I got's some stuff here." He held up a large jar for their inspection. "I'm gonna put it on your hair, it will have to stay on all night then tomorrow I'll wash it out and have another look, if you still have some critters we'll do it all over again. Alright?" He searched their faces.
"What is it?" the older boy asked looking at the jar suspiciously.
"Hyssop oil, Larkspur and a little whisky." Nathan explained. He held the jar out for the boys to look and sniff the contents.
The boys finally agreed and when Vin and JD returned they were both sitting in a bath, it happened to be the same bath but at least they were in the water. The older boy was conscientiously washing himself while Nathan was washing the younger boy, who looked as if he was going to fall asleep right there in the water. Both boys hair was slicked back and a strong but not unpleasant smell wafted from them. JD placed a pile of clothes down on the bench.
"Josiah has supper almost ready, he going to take it over to the ja to my place," he corrected, not wanting to frighten the boys further by telling them they were going to the jail.
+ + + + + + +
Things went well until the older boy now wearing clean trousers held up with piece of knotted rope for a belt and slightly faded but serviceable blue shirt, tried to put his boots on again over his newly acquired socks.
"No you don't," Nathan bent down to pick up the boots. "They are much too small for you, theyre damaging yer feet, we'll find you some boots tomorrow."
The boy grabbed at the boots, just failing to reach them in time. Instantly he was up and trying to get to them.
"They're my boots! You can't have my boots give them back! Give them back," he shouted, there was desperation in his voice that was more than just childish petulance. "Please give them back, please they're mine," he pleaded.
JD was unsure how to help when a tugging on his sleeve alerted him to the other boy standing beside him. Bending down he allowed the boy to whisper in his ear.
"Don't let Mr Nathan take his boot's his Pa gave them to him," he said solemnly.
JD nodded his understanding. "Nate, best give him the boots, one more day ain't gonna hurt too much is it?"
Jackson was going to protest that it was just an old outgrown pair of boots, but a slight shake of the head from JD stopped it, he lowered the boots and returned them to the boy. They were grabbed from him and instantly the boy sat down and tugged them on to his feet, with the new fluffy socks he could barely get them on and in truth they hurt but he would not give in. When he stood up, his face had a hard set; he glared at the dark man.
"I'm sorry son, I didn't mean to take yer boots, I just don't want you to get hurt is all," he explained.
"They're my boots," the boy stated firmly.
"I know that now."
JD turned to the smaller boy beside him. "And what about you, where are your boots?"
The little boy looked down at the ground and muttered something.
"What was that?" JD asked quietly.
"I lost them," he whispered.
Suddenly his friend was at his side. "It wasn't his fault, I made him take them off 'cause they were hurtin' his feet, then we left them behind some place," he explained. "It was my fault, not his, please don't hurt him."
"No one is going to hurt you son, no one is angry with you for losing the boots, especially if they were hurting your feet," JD explained patiently.
"You re no no t ccccross?" The little boy asked haltingly, a look of wonder on his face.
"No Im not cross, if they hurt yer feet yer better off without them I reckon," JD laughed. "Now since you dont have boots and yer feet are all clean now how about I give you a ride across the street?"
"Yeah!" the boy almost shouted.
JD and Nathan were momentarily stunned by the sudden display of childish exuberance and joy. JD swung the boy up on to his shoulders and they headed out across the street.
Nathan looked down at the more serious sombre boy beside him. "Yer friend seems happy."
"He likes to be carried, they never carried him anyplace except to " And there he stopped.
"Except to what?" Nathan prompted.
"Nothin, are we goin t jail?" the boy asked seeing where they were headed.
"Not exactly, JD is the sheriff and he lives at the jail, and Vin sometimes stays there too," he explained. "We are going to JDs house, alright?"
JD had reached the porch and deposited his burden; he lined the two boys up in front of the door to the private living area next to the sheriffs office. He knelt down in front of the boys and looked at them very seriously.
"Now this is my home and Vins home," he explained glancing at Vin and then back to the boys. "If you are to be guests in our home I think you should tell us your names, just your first names is alright, for now."
There was a long silence; the younger boy just looked at his friend for a lead, finally the blond boy said in a clear but quiet voice. "Im Chris and this is Buck."
+ + + + + + +
"H'lo," Buck said, holding out his hand to JD, smiling all over his face.
JD suppressed a laugh and shook the small hand formally.
That done the two small boys dutifully followed JD in to the large room. Close to the front door a steep staircase led up to the attic space. Immediately to the right was a closed door that led to the sheriff's office. Ahead of the front door was a large stone fireplace with a cooking range in it. On the far wall was another fireplace. Around this fireplace there was a rocking chair, a high wingback chair and a comfortable looking couch, with a bearskin rug in front of the hearth. Between these bits of furniture and the kitchen range was a fair size dining table with six chairs around it, and a large dresser.
JD led the boys over to the table and helped Buck to get onto one of the chairs; he was still too small to eat effectively off the table. Nathan shook his had and retrieved a cushion from the couch and slipped it under the boy's bottom while JD lifted him up. Chris had pulled his chair closer to Buck before he sat down. Vin fetched plates, knives, forks and tin cups and placed them on the table, just as Josiah arrived with a huge basket in one arm and a pitcher in the other hand.
"I have fried chicken, baked potatoes and sweet corn, and since I reckon all you two got to drink around here is coffee." He glanced at Vin and JD. "I brought milk for our guests. And " He pulled a pie dish from the basket. "Apple pie."
The two boys watched wide-eyed as Josiah divided up the food handing both boys a generous portion. JD was served first after the boys and he began to eat as soon as the food arrived. Still the boys watched, as each of the men were served and began to eat; finally everyone was eating except the boys. Vin glanced over his drumstick at the boys, then up at Nathan seeking an explanation, they had to be starving why wouldn't they eat?
"Boy's?" Nathan spoke softly. "Is there something wrong with the food, are you sick?"
"Not allowed," Buck said sadly, gazing at the food.
"Yer not allowed?" JD asked unable to comprehend. "Yer not allowed to eat?"
"Theyre not allowed to eat until we have until the adults have finished," Vin supplied.
A clue about the boys had fallen into place. Vin had spent some years in an orphanage, he remembered all kinds of rules that were drilled and beaten into you, not eating until the adults had finished was something he remembered well.
"It isn't like that here, tuck in, here we all eat together son, God's bounty is for all of us to enjoy," Josiah assured.
A shiver ran through Chris at these words. Buck just looked at Chris seeking a lead and some reassurance that it was all right to do as the men said. All four men had put down their knives and forks.
"Chris," Vin said quietly. The green eyes looked up at him. "This is not the same place, not the same rules, here we all eat together or not at all, do you understand, it's different here."
Finally Chris picked up his knife and watched as Vin mirrored his actions, then the fork, again Vin waited for him to take the lead. Tentatively Chris cut into his potato releasing a plume of steam.
"Now be careful 'cause them taters is hot," Vin warned, cutting his own open with care. "Might wanna let it cool a spell while ya eat some chicken. To illustrate his point Vin put down his cutlery and picked up his chicken in his fingers and begin to eat.
Chris did the same; finally he ate something, even if it was just a small bit of chicken. Swallowing the morsel he looked down at Buck. "It's real good, have some," he encouraged.
"Really?" Buck was very hesitant he did not want to risk a punishment.
"Yup." Chris had another bigger bite. "Go on try some."
Buck picked up his chicken just as Chris had and tried the succulent meat, instantly a huge smile spread across his face and he quickly tore off another bit, smearing his recently cleaned face in grease. From then on the boys ate well, JD cut up Buck's potato for him so it could cool some. There was a great deal of food and although Chris was working his way through it with no difficulty little Buck was struggling after a while, it was more than he could manage and he was almost asleep at the table. Chris was giving him little prods occasionally to keep him awake and eating. He was worried in case the men would be cross if he couldn't finish it all.
"It's alright son if he's too tired to eat anymore he can leave it," Nathan said gently. Poor Buck was now fast asleep in his chair, his head lolling off to one side threatening to unbalance him. "What do you say we put him on the couch to sleep, then you can finish your supper, alright?"
Chris agreed. He followed JD as he lifted Buck up and laid him on the couch, pulling an old shawl from the back of the big chair and covering the small boy with it. Once this was accomplished they made their way back to the table, all except Chris who was still watching Buck.
"He's fine son, come and eat, we'll be right here if he needs us don't worry."
Chris came back to the table and sat down.
"Is Buck your brother?" Josiah asked.
Chris shook his head.
"So he's just a friend?"
Chris made no response for a while then he finally gave a small nod.
"Miss Blossom told me what you said to him, when he was looking for his mother, has she been dead a long time?"
Chris kept his head down he did not want to tell them anything; the less they knew the better the chance they would not be sent back, he had to get to the West. That was his plan; everything would be all right when he got there, he would take care of Buck and no one would hurt them or say mean things anymore. The trouble was he wasn't sure where the West was, he thought he might even be there but he wasn't sure so it was best to keep going. Finally in response to Josiah's question he shrugged and ate some more sweet corn. He did not look up once until his plate was clear. Even then he didn't look up.
"Well that was well done, how about some apple pie young man?" Sanchez placed a large slice on a dish and removing the empty plate replaced it with the pie.
Chris swallowed hard; he picked up his spoon, cut into the pie, and then dropped the spoon and jumping down from the chair and bolted for the door. For a second the men did nothing them almost as one they also careered to ward the door reaching the porch just as the blond boy lost the contents of his stomach onto the dusty street.
"'M sorry," he gasped out occasionally but he couldn't stop.
Vin instinctively stepped up, placing a hand on the boy's back moving it in gentle circles.
"Ain't no reason t' apologies, not yer fault, done it m' self more n' once," he said quietly.
When it was done a cool damp cloth was wiped over his face before he could register what was happening and a glass of water pressed into his hand.
"Come on son, lets get you inside," Nathan instructed as Vin began to turn him back toward the jail.
"But I have to clean up the mess," Chris protested trying to turn back, just then JD deposited a shovel full of earth on the offending mess.
"All cleaned up," he announced winking at Chris.
Once inside again Nathan suggested it was time for bed. Chris insisted he was fine now and continued to apologise for the accident. They all assured him there was nothing to apologise for but that didnt seem to help.
"We aint sendin ya t bed as a punishment, jist cause yer tired," Vin explained.
"It was my fault you were ill," Nathan admitted gently. "I knew you werent used to rich food like that, Im sorry. Tomorrow well start again, with something simpler, alright."
Too tired and confused to argue Chris made his way over the still slumbering Buck.
Nathan said they couldnt sleep in their clothes since they were the only ones they had. Chris looked on somewhat bewildered as the four men debated what he was to wear to bed, eventually both Vin and JD disappeared upstairs. Vin returned with a white sleeveless top with no fastenings, just an open V-neck.
"What in the blazes is that? asked Nathan.
"Its m winter undershirt," Vin explained looking a little hurt. "I wears it under m underwear, I gets cold. Whats so funny?" he asked glaring at the smirking Nathan.
"Big tough tracker, lover of the wilderness, bounty hunter, and you wear a woolly vest?"
"S not wool, s cotton. Stop laughing!"
Vin turned his back on the ex-slave and knelt in front of Chris. "Here, ya kin wear it t sleep in, reckon itll stay on ya, seein as yer a big boy."
Chris was confused, did Mr Vin not want his vest, if he was cold.
"I dont need it sir," he said seriously.
"Course ya do, dont worry it ain't near cold enough fer me t need it yet. Nathan stop laughin or so help me Im gonna kill ya!" He turned back to Chris. "Take no notice of him, just get undressed." Vin reached out to the top button of his shirt. Instantly Chris pulled back.
"I can do it!" he stated firmly.
"Sorry, course you can." Vin sat back on his heels as the tired boy very slowly undid the unfamiliar buttons, removed and carefully folded his shirt. Then he reluctantly took off his boots and put them neatly beside the couch. Then he fumbled for an agonisingly long time with the fly buttons. Finally the pants were off and neatly folded along with the socks. He pulled on the oversized undershirt then he lay down at the other end of the couch, resting his head on a cushion. He picked up the boots of the floor and clutched them to his chest. Vin pulled the throw up over him and Buck.
JD had produced an old blue shirt of his; one arm had been cut off halfway down. Nathan had done this to it over a year ago, when JD had been shot in the arm while foiling a bank raid. Nathan produced a knife and cut off the other arm at the same point. They tried to wake Buck but it was no good, his head just lolled on JD's shoulder, his legs buckled under him, he didn't make so much as a whimper. Eventually Josiah and JD just undressed him while he slept and pulled on the old, now short-sleeved shirt, though even so the sleeves reached well past Bucks hands. Now dressed for bed they put him back on the couch.
"How old do you reckon they are?" whispered JD to Josiah.
"Bout six and eight I reckon," he whispered back.
"Four, Bucks only four," came a voice from the couch. "Hes just tall is all, but hes only four."
Nathan looked down at the smaller boy, beyond the throw there wasnt much to see, just a mop of dark hair covering his eyes and his thumb firmly in his mouth. He looked more like two.
"Chris?" he asked, but he got no response, Chris too had fallen into an exhausted sleep.
+ + + + + + +
With the two boys fast asleep on the couch, the four men sat down at the table with a mug of coffee in front of them, for a kind of conference.
"Well," JD stated. "What do we do about them?"
"We dont send um back thats fer damn sure," Vin stated with the kind of certainty they all knew meant there was no arguing with their enigmatic and usually even tempered leader.
When three years ago Judge Travis had asked the five of them to take on the role of town protectors it had fallen to the youngest to take the lead roles and do the lions share of the work. JD had only been nineteen then, though at the time he claimed to be twenty-one. only admitting his real age when he was sure he had proved his worth. It was JD who had taken on the job of sheriff, simply because no one else would do it. The natural choice would have been Vin. He was only three years older then JD or so he thought, because in truth he wasnt sure how old he was. Despite his youth he had somehow become their leader, he had a natural but undemonstrative authority about him, and despite his youth, a life time of experience. Josiah said Vin had an old soul. When he had arrived it was with a price on his head for a murder in Texas which he didnt commit, it took the Judge nearly two years to clear his name. Even though he could now return to his native and much loved Texas, he stayed in Four Corners. It was partly his status as a wanted man and partly his need to occasionally take off into the wilderness alone for some solitude and space that made Vin turn down the job of sheriff, that and a little matter of not being able to read. Something he still had not admitted to the others and managed to keep hidden.
"They must have come from someplace - have folk, maybe?" Josiah pointed out.
"They came from an orphanage, where they was starved an beaten, thats what ya said Nate, right?" Vin looked at Nathan for support.
"Certainly they have both been maltreated and Chris is very thin, but they are runaways; who knows what has happened to them or how far they have travelled."
"Kid's don't run from happy homes," Vin said ominously, "an' we know they ain't related, I'm tellin' ya them two was in an orphanage or some such place. Spent time in one when I was a young 'un I know the look of it."
"Well they sure were wearing similar clothes, " JD admitted.
"Grey clothes, old, infested, didn't even fit 'um." Vin knew he was right.
"All right let's say they are runaways from an orphanage. We still have to find out where they came from and decide what to do with them," Josiah pointed out. "There's no orphanage with in a hundred miles of here, and I've no notion how good or bad it "
"They ain't goin' to no orphanage." Vin cut in with a tone of finality.
Looking at Chris had been like looking in a mirror, the reflection he saw brought back memories he thought he had long buried, memories he wanted to bury again, fast.
"Well that is an admirable sentiment but not very practical," Nathan said softly.
"'Admirable sentiment'? You've been listening to Ezra too much," JD said with a chuckle
Ignoring JD's jibe Nathan continued. "But the fact remains they are just children they need a home, someone to take care of them."
Vin stood and looked back at the couch. "No orphanage," he reiterated before he strode to the door and out into the night.
"Well that went well," JD said ruefully.
+ + + + + + +
Vin made his way to the livery, where he slipped quietly in to Peso's stall, having first picked up the soft body brush, and began to brush the cantankerous horse with slow gentle strokes.
"Well my old friend we are a pair of rejects, but we both found a home, a place to belong, and them two are gonna as well, right?" In response the horse turned his head to attempt to nip at Vin's hip. "Damn but yer an ungrateful cuss," he said ruefully swatting Peso's nose away.
On some level Vin knew he was being impractical and emotional. Most people would never have said Vin Tanner was an emotional person. He had a good sense of humour, and if pushed hard enough a temper, but mostly he kept his emotions under wraps. But this was different, this was something that went to the very core of his being, something he couldn't turn away from. He turned his attention back to Peso and concentrated on the job of grooming in an attempted to block out the memories, if only for a short time.
+ + + + + + +
JD finished tidying away the dishes and straightening the room, Josiah and Nathan had offered to help but he turned them down, assuring them he would be fine, they were only children, how much trouble could two boys be for one night? Leaving the lamp in the main room on but turned down and another at the top of the stairs, JD took the precaution of bolting the front door and the connecting door to the jail, using the top bolts that even he could only reach on tip toe. Then JD retired for the night.
It wasn't yet dawn when JD suddenly sat up in bed, trying to work out what was going on and why he was awake. The place seemed to be quiet, then there was a sudden screech followed but the unmistakable sound of a child crying. As JD tried to remember what all this meant he heard footsteps running in the room downstairs. Boys! He suddenly remembered the two boys and still dressed only in his red flannel underwear JD swung his legs of the bed and ran downstairs.
+ + + + + + +
As he pounded down the stairs JD wasn't sure what to expect. He could hear one boy crying and another -Chris- talking. He stopped mid-stair to listen for a second.
"Hush Buck, please, we'll get into trouble," Chris said in a hushed but urgent tone. He didn't want to move them on yet, not until Buck had boots anyway. And he'd had something to eat; he was feeling awfully hungry, his empty stomach growled at him. "Come on you're alright," he continued.
"I hurt my knee," Buck whined.
"I know, look I'll rub it better," Chris offered. "But you have to be quiet."
"And cutted my finger; look."
"I can see that, suck it."
When JD emerged in to the main room, even in the weak light of the turned-down lamp he could make out the two boys on the floor by the door. Buck was sucking his left index finger and Chris, kneeling beside him, was rubbing his knee. Behind them was one of the dining chairs lying on its side in front of the main door.
"What happened?" JD asked, instantly he regretted his tone of voice, which had been much to accusatorial.
Chris was ready to spring into some explanation which exonerated Buck and would only get him into minimal trouble but Buck's innate honesty and need for sympathy came though before he could speak. Holding out his injured finger, which was indeed bleeding, he explained.
"I felled of the chair, I hurt my finger."
JD took a moment to soften his tone and squat down to their level. 'Yearlings' he kept telling himself, 'you may not know much about kids but you know about yearlings, don't startle them, keep your tone soft.'
"Why were you on the chair?" he asked gently.
"I had to go out and I couldn't open the door and Chris was asleep and so I got on the chair to open the thing, up there." He pointed at the top bolt. Even on a chair the small boy had no chance of reaching it. "And I felled off." He held his finger out again.
"Well lets get you up of the floor and sort out your poor finger," JD suggested.
Happy that his wounded finger was now receiving its due recognition Buck stood up, his sore knee quite forgotten.
"Why did you need to go out?" JD asked looking down at the boy.
Buck had temporarily forgotten his original mission, but now JD mentioned it the memory returned. And with it the action. As he stood there, a dark patch appeared in the front of his makeshift nightshirt and a puddle began to form silently between his legs. A look of pure terror came over his face, rooted to the spot in fear he just trembled, his little face blanched white as a sheet, made all the more obvious by the darkness of his hair. There was a moment when nothing happened other than the puddle getting bigger, then two things happened one after another. First JD stepped closer to Buck, then Chris sprang up and put himself between Buck and JD.
"Please! Please don't punish him he was trying to get out, it's not his fault you locked the door!" Chris knew he was bringing down all kinds of trouble on to himself but Buck couldn't take another 'dirty boy' punishment, he had been doing so well lately, no accidents with Chris' help. Whatever happened to him he could take it so long as the man didn't punish Buck.
Chris felt guilty himself for not making sure Buck had used the outhouse before he went to sleep. That's what he always did. Buck always fell asleep as soon as he lay down; Chris had never found it easy to fall asleep quickly. He would lie awake for a good hour or two before falling asleep. When he felt himself beginning to drift he would get up, wake Buck, and make him pee. That way there were almost no accidents. But since they had left he had been too tired to stay awake. But it hadn't been necessary because Buck had been a good as gold until now. And this time it he was trying to get out. Suddenly the connecting door to the jail rattled.
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