Dark Memories

By Ann Stuart


Disclaimer: This work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe upon anyone with legal rights to The Magnificent Seven. I don't own the characters, and am receiving no money for this work.

I would like to thank J.K. Poffenberger and S. Berry for creating and supporting the "Littles Britches" AU and for generously making it available for others to play in. I would also like to thank S. Berry for providing assistance in the preparation of this story and for formatting it for submission.

Part 1

Nathan and Josiah were just approaching the Larabee Ranch, looking forward to checking in on Chris, Buck, and the boys, when the peace of their ride was shattered by terrified screams and an unearthly roar. Both immediately put their horses into a gallop and headed in the direction of the ranch house, the apparent location of someone in terrible distress. They were just about upon the house when they had to pull their horses up suddenly to avoid running over two small boys as they came tearing around the corner of the house shrieking! JD kept running past Josiah and Nathan, but Vin ducked behind a rain barrel, just as Buck came flying around the corner bent low, arms out stretched, hands like claws, emitting a horrendous roar! As Buck passed the barrel, his eyes on JD ahead of him, Vin launched himself onto Buckís back with war whoop, yelling, "JD! I got him! JD! Come help me!"

The younger boy turned and he, too, launched himself on Buck. Soon the three of them were rolling on the ground, yelling and laughing. Nathan and Josiah, momentarily stunned by the spectacle in front of them, hadnít immediately noticed Chris standing quietly on the porch observing the proceedings. He looked up at the two on horseback, gave a half-grin, and shrugged, as if to say, "Boys will be boys!"

Nathan and Josiah couldnít help but burst out laughing as they got off their horses and joined Chris on the porch. Both couldnít have been more pleased to see how the young boys had settled in and were behaving normally, well as normally as young boys can be expected to around a big kid like Buck. Even Vin, who theyíd only seen as quiet and solemn, was yelling and carrying on almost as much as Buck and JD.

"Afternoon, Chris," Josiah said as he mounted the steps, "we came to see if the boys were well and in good spirits." His rumbling laugh boomed out as he continued, "Brother Nathan, do they look well to you? As far as the spirits go, it would be difficult to imagine them in better spirits!" He clapped Nathan on the back while the healer just grinned.

The three were about to sit down to some conversation, when Vin registered who had arrived while he was tackling Buck. "JD! Mr. Nathan and Mr. Josiah are here!" He broke away from the scrimmage and hurled himself up the stairs and at Josiah as JD broke away and did the same to Nathan. The two men beamed as they hugged the boys. There was no question that the two boys were special; one could not help be around them and not start to feel good.

Buck picked himself up, swatted at the dust on his clothes, and came up the steps grinning sheepishly. "Nathan, Josiah, good to see you. I was just training the boys on how to protect themselves if they meet a bear."

"Ah, yes, we see. Youíre teaching them to jump on the back of a charging bear and wrestle it to the ground," commented Nathan, one eyebrow lifted.

"Well, now, I was teaching Ďem how to run. We hadnít gotten to the part about it not being a good idea to jump on the bear yet. Thatís tomorrowís lesson."

With that, all adult conversation ended as JDís excited voice took over. "Mr. Josiah, Mr. Nathan, come out to the barn. You gotta see our horses. And we can show you the new kittens. And one of the mares foaled a few days ago, and the foal, she was all wobbly legged and falling down, but now sheís running all over the place! Come on. Iíll show you. Chris, is it OK?" as he tugged at Josiah and Nathanís hands, leading them toward the barn. Chris smiled and nodded. He and Buck followed willingly as Vin ran ahead. Chris was beginning to find it hard to imagine life before the boys had joined them. Their zest for life on a horse ranch was contagious, and both Buck and Chris were seriously infected.

ooooOOOoooo

In the time that the boys had lived at the ranch, theyíd learned a lot about helping out and eagerly took on chores, especially if they involved helping with the horses. Since it was a horse ranch, it was an easy matter to find chores involving the horses, such as cleaning stalls, feeding or grooming the horses, or oiling the tack. It was not at all unusual to find one or both of the boys in the barn carrying out one of these duties while Chris or Buck tackled the myriad of heavier tasks involved in the management of a horse ranch.

One day, Chris was working on one of the horseís shoes while Vin was occupied in another part of the barn cleaning tack, when he called, "Hey, Vin, can you get me my big nippers? These just arenít doing the job."

"Sure Chris, where are they?"

"In the tool room." He pointed to a small, dark room near the end stalls.

Vin looked down at the room, swallowed hard and headed toward it. He knew where the tool room was. Heíd just never been in it before. Heíd managed to avoid it so far. When he got to the door, he paused, then squared his shoulders and stepped in. Chris, holding up the horseís forefoot and waiting for the nippers, watched, a little puzzled at Vinís slowness. Usually the boy raced from place to place. He called, "Theyíre hanging on the wall."

When Vin didnít answer and didnít reappear right away, Chris put down the horseís foot and walked to the room. He found Vin inside, shivering, his eyes filled with terror. Chris reached out to put his arm around the boy when Vin shrank away from him and put his arm up protectively, whimpering, "Please, donít. Please, it hurts. Iím sorry. I didnít mean it."

As gently but as quickly as he could Chris picked up the trembling boy, who stiffened immediately at his touch, and carried him out of the room. He took him out into the sunshine talking to him the whole time. "Vin, itís OK. Iím not going to hurt you. Vin, itís Chris. I wonít hurt you. Iím just going to put you on this bench," he said as he sat the quaking child on the bench in the sunshine by the barn. Chris sat down beside him at a small distance and waited. The rancher watched as Vin grasped the edge of the bench, his knuckles white, then he slowly relaxed and stopped trembling. All the time, Chris was seething inside with anger at whoever had hurt the boy and caused this kind of fear in him, but he was careful not to let Vin see his fury.

"You OK, Vin?" The boy nodded, but didnít look at him. "Did that room remind you of something bad?" Vin nodded again, head hung low. "Want to talk about it?"

The boy turned to Chris, a haunted look deep in his blue eyes. He looked like he was ready to say something, then shook his head and quickly looked down again. He hung his head and wrapped his arms around himself but sidled closer to Chris on the bench. "Iím sorry. I get kinda scared in small, dark rooms. Iím sorry. I shoulda told you before," his voice a bare whisper.

Chris moved closer, taking care to watch that he didnít upset the boy and put he his arm around Vinís shoulders. He was relieved when he felt the tension ease and the boy leaned into him. "Itís OK. When you want to talk about it, we can. No reason you shoulda told me. Iím sorry I sent you in there. You donít have to go in that room unless you want to."

ooooOOOoooo

When Chris had put him down on the bench by the barn, Vin felt miserable. Maybe Chris wouldnít want him around anymore now that he knew Vin was a coward, afraid of dark rooms. Heíd tried to be brave, tried to make himself go in that room. Every time he got near the door, his heart would start beating faster and heíd feel him again -- Mr. Baker. Mr. Baker hadnít liked Vin. Nothing the boy could do had been right. At first, heíd tried as hard as he could to do what he was supposed to, but Mr. Baker would yell at him, hit him and drag him into the closet, where heíd hit him again and then lock him in, for hours. Vin never really knew how long he was left hurting and cowering in that small, dark room. Later, heíd given up trying, and just worked hard on staying out of the way, but Mr. Baker would find him and yell at him. Even if Vin hadnít done anything, he would beat him and lock him up. Sometimes, Mr. Baker had a cigar in his hand when heíd found Vin and heíd yelled and then burned him. Vin grabbed his arms tighter around himself when he remembered the fear and pain of that. He tried to tell himself that Mr. Baker was gone, left behind, that he couldnít hurt him anymore, but when he faced the dark room, memories flooded back and it was as if Mr. Baker was standing right behind him ready to hit him and close the door.

Sitting in the warm sunshine, Vin started to relax. Chrisí gentle words slowly penetrated. It didnít sound as if he wanted to be rid of him now that he knew the truth. He felt his mentorís arm come around his shoulder and it felt good and safe. Mr. Baker was fading into the past again. He leaned against Chris and relaxed. He wanted to tell him about what had happened, but when he opened his mouth, the fears came back and he couldnít form the words. Chris said it was OK and he could wait. For now, he just accepted the strong and comforting presence. Maybe later, heíd find a way to tell him.

ooooOOOoooo

Later that evening after the men were sure both boys were asleep, Chris told Buck what happened. He didnít try to hide his anger. "Whoever beat up on him probably also locked him up somewhere dark and small. Buck, he was terrified. He didnít even recognize me when he was in that room. If I ever find the bastard that did this to him, Iíll kill him!"

"JD said something once about Vin not liking closets. Said something happened at the orphanage. Didnít seem to know much more than that," commented Buck. "I didnít realize how bad it really was else I would a told ya."

"Not your fault. Vinís so careful to stay away from places like that, JD probably doesnít know how bad it is. Goddamn it, Buck! How could someone hurt him like that? He couldnít a been moreín about five when it happened. Nathan said those scars of his have been there for awhile."

Buck looked at Chris, seeing his anger, and surprisingly his guilt. How could he feel guilty for this? He couldnít protect Vin back then. Buck shook his head; Chris was like that. He was hurting for what had happened to Vin years ago and what it was doing to him now.

"Chris, this ainít your fault. We all know that Vinís had a hard life. It ainít fair. Weíve got to make it different from now on. Thatís what we can do."

Chris nodded. He knew his friend was right. If he could just get his hands on the bastard that had done this to Vin, but that was a long time ago and a long way away. No point dwelling on the impossible. He started to calm down and thought about Buckís comment. "Youíre right. We have to make a difference now. Weíll have to be kind of careful to remember. Iíll try to work with him to see if we can get him over the worst of it. Maybe Nathan or Josiah will have some ideas. And I guess Iíll see if I can get him to tell me if thereís anything else that scares him like that. God knows there may be something else and, damn it, he ainít likely to bring it up!"

ooooOOOoooo

The next day, Buck, Chris and the boys had been working down by the corrals when in the late afternoon, Buck called out, "Thatís it for me. Iím done for the day. Iím heading up to the house."

"Iíll be right along," said Chris. "Vin, JD, you coming?"

"Can we stay out a while longer and play in the hay?" piped up JD.

"Donít see why not? Youíre gonna get itchy, but you need a bath tonight anyway, so go ahead," Chris said as he put aside his work and followed Buck up to the house.

JD and Vin exchanged looks. "Bath! Ugh! Letís stay out late, and maybe theyíll forget," suggested Vin.

The two men headed off to the ranch house while the boys played. Vin had just shoved JD into a large pile of loose hay, when they heard gunshots, nearby. They raced out of the barn and around the corner, to see a group of men on horses surrounding Chris and Buck. They could see Chris was helping Buck off the ground.

JD started to yell, "Buck!" when Vin clapped his hand over his cousinís mouth and grabbed his arm to pull him back behind the barn.

"JD, quiet! We ainít gonna be able to help get them away from all those men! We need ta watch and see where they take them and we gotta go for help!"

They watched long enough to see Chris and Buck escorted into the ranch house. Then the boys put bridles on their ponies and jumped on bareback as they still didnít have saddles. They urged the ponies into a run for the gate and kept running, leaning low over the ponies, especially when they heard more gunfire behind them. "Come on, JD! We gotta go get help!" yelled Vin.

They stayed low over their horses and kept galloping until they were well away from the ranch and sure that no one was following them. Vin pulled up and JD as well. "Whatíre we gonna do?" asked the younger boy.

ooooOOOoooo

Part 2

After Chris and Buck had been shot down while heading back to the ranch house, they had been surrounded by a group of men led by ĎThe Colonel.í Neither man had been seriously injured, and they both sized up the opposition while they were dragged into the house and tied. The second in command seemed to be a man named Sheffield and as nearly as they could tell the rest were hired guns. There appeared to be at least 12 of them altogether. Chris had blood down the side of his face where a bullet had creased his head and Buck had a bullet wound in the leg, but both were well enough to be keenly aware of their circumstances. They were tied up in there own home by a group of men whose purpose they didnít know.

The Colonel stood in front of them. "Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington, let me introduce myself. I am Colonel William Standiford, an old friend of Judge Travisí." With that Chris felt a cold chill. This fellow didnít sound like an Ďold friendí the Judge wanted to see again.

Chris looked at the Colonel coolly, "So, how do you know the Judge?"

"Enough of this! You two sit quietly or Iíll have you gagged," ordered the Colonel.

Buck and Chris exchanged looks when the Colonel turned his back and moved off. Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity outside, men yelling and rapidly moving horses could be heard. Both Chris and Buck were stilled with the gut-wrenching realization that the noise was probably due to the boys. ĎOh, Godí thought Buck. ĎWhat are you kids doing?í They heard the hoof beats pass by the ranch and start to fade as they moved off to a distance. Both Chris and Buck relaxed a little when they didnít hear any other horses pursue. Moment later, their initial relief was replaced with panic when they heard the shots. But the fear was short-lived as Sheffield came in to report.

"Itís a couple of kids on ponies. Should we go after them?"

"No," replied the Colonel. "Theyíre playing right into our hands. Let them go. Those other peacekeepers from town are going to come looking for these two when those kids report on whatís going on out here. I want you and a few men to get out by the road. I want them stopped and brought in here."

Chris and Buck looked at each other. Vin and JD had escaped, but Josiah and the others would be riding straight into a trap! And there was nothing they could do to warn them.

ooooOOOoooo

They had made their escape and now JD was asking Vin what to do. He didnít know what to do, but his cousin was depending on him. He had to come up with a plan.

"Weíll go to town to get Mr. Josiah, Mr. Nathan, and Mr. Ezra," answered Vin, assured that this was the only reasonable course to take. JD was thinking he was glad Vin knew his way, because he wasnít sure he could do this on his own. They proceeded on to town at a gentle lope, knowing that the ponies couldnít gallop the whole way. When they got to town, both boys headed for Josiahís church, but it was empty. They looked across the way. Thatís where they thought they could find help Ė the saloon. They tied the ponies and approached the doors cautiously. Light poured out and there were loud noises of men talking and women laughing. Both boys felt very timid about entering, but they had to find help. They peeked slowly through the doorway, trying to find Nathan, Josiah, or Ezra. JD spied Josiah and Nathan in the corner. "There they are," he squeaked as he started in their direction. Vin followed his cousin, casting wary glances right and left as he moved into the room.

The two boys had made it about halfway to the table when a very large and very drunk cowboy stepped in front of them. "Well, lookee here. What do we have here? A couple a pint-sized cowboys. Whatíre you boys doing in here?" he leered and started to reach for JD.

"Donít you touch him," ordered Vin and he stepped between the man and his cousin.

The man grabbed the older boyís arm instead, "Now that ainít polite."

Vin struggled to pull his arm free, yelling at the man, "Let go of me! You let go of me!" He gave the man a kick in the shins and cringed as the man raised his hand to hit him. By this time, JD had jumped in and was kicking from the side, taking care to duck away when the man tried to get a hold of him.

Suddenly, the man felt a huge hand on his shoulder. "I think youíd better just leave these boys alone, Brother," said the tall preacher as he and Nathan came up and JD scooted for shelter behind the healer. The drunken cowboy started to protest, then saw the size of the preacher and decided heíd rather be back at the bar drinking with his friends. He let go of Vinís arm and backed away hands out. "Sorry, no harm meant. Just having a little fun." He turned and made a hasty retreat.

Nathan scooped JD up and Josiah took Vinís small hand in his huge one as they headed back to their table. They sat down, JD on Nathanís knee, and Josiah got eye-level with Vin. "Vin, JD, whatís wrong? Why are you here?" asked the preacher gently trying not to reveal his concern. The boys coming to the saloon alone could only mean one thing -- Chris and Buck were in trouble.

JD started spilling out the story, but his words tumbled over each other making little sense. Vin took over and explained what had happened at the ranch. "Can you come to help, please?" he pleaded.

"We sure will. Vin, do you know how many men there were?" asked Josiah.

Vin looked down, momentarily ashamed. "I didnít count them. I guess I should have. There were lots." JD nodded in agreement.

Josiah pointed to a group of men standing around the bar. "About that many?" he asked.

Vin looked over, thought a moment, picturing back to the group standing around at the ranch. "About, maybe a little more," he said hesitantly.

"You said Chris and Buck were hurt. How bad?" asked Nathan.

"I-I donít know. Not too bad, I think, Ďcause they were standing and walking. Chris was holding his head, and there was blood, and Buck was limping like his leg hurt," answered Vin. JD looked like he was about ready to cry at the memory.

"Now donít worry; that doesnít sound too bad. Theyíll be fine," Nathan reassured them and his tightened his arm around the smaller boy.

"Weíll get saddled up and go see for ourselves. Too bad Ezraís not back yet. We could probably use his help. Donít you worry none, weíll get Chris and Buck out," Josiah said to the boys.

ooooOOOoooo

It was well into the evening when Nathan and Josiah were ready to head out. Vin and JD went out with them and were ready to mount up on their ponies, when Josiah said as gently as he could, "Whoa, now, boys. I think youíd better stay here and let us check things out. Besides you need to be here to explain what happened when Ezra gets back. Tell you what, why donít we get Inez to let you get a little sleep in the back, then she can come and get you when he arrives."

"But, Mr. Josiah, Chris and Buck need us. We want to help," protested Vin as JD nodded vigorously.

Nathan stepped in, "Iím sorry, boys, but there could be shooting and Chris and Buck would never forgive us if we let something happen to you. You need to be here to tell Ezra what happened."

The men settled the grumbling boys with Inez and headed out.

They didnít have much of a plan, considering the odds, but their first step was to get close to the ranch and size up the situation. They didnít get that far. A half mile from the ranch, they were surrounded by several riders, who came out of the dark, firing a few warning shots. Josiah was winged in the arm and neither really had a chance. ĎGreat!í thought Josiah as they were led, unarmed, toward the ranch. ĎSome rescuers we are.í

Chris and Buck looked up and their hopes fell as the other two peacekeepers were led into the ranch house, hands tied. They could see that Ezra was missing and hoped that it didnít mean he was lost.

"Canít say Iím glad to see ya," remarked Chris dryly as the two were pushed to sit down next to Buck. "Whereís Ezra?"

"He wasnít back from Eagle Bend so we came without him," said Josiah and both Chris and Buck gave a sigh of relief.

Chris continued quietly, "Vin and JD?"

"Theyíre just fine," said Nathan. "They rode in to tell us what happened and they wanted to come help us, but we made them stay with Inez. Donít worry, theyíre fine; just worried about you two. How bad are you hurt?"

"Itís OK. Just got grazed," Buck answered. Chris nodded, but grimaced at the ache in his head.

"Let me see to their injuries. I need to bandage them up," said Nathan to the Colonel.

"Well, I am not an inhumane man. Go ahead," said the Colonel and he signaled one of his men to watch Nathan. The healer found that the wounds were fairly superficial and could be taken care with cleansing and bandaging. Chris would probably have a punishing headache for awhile.

ooooOOOoooo

Part 3

Vin and JD tried to curl up on the blankets on the floor in the back room at Inezí, but they kept thinking about Buck and Chris.

"JD, you awake?" asked Vin.

"Yeah," came the sleepy reply.

"I wanna go aní help Mr. Josiah aní Mr. Nathan rescue Chris aní Buck. Wanna come?" asked Vin in hushed tones.

"Yeah," said the younger boy popping up.

"OK, now be real quiet. We gotta sneak out the back. Donít make no sound now. Come on," said Vin as he led the way to the back door. Once out back, the boys quickly ran around front to retrieve their ponies and set off again for the ranch. As they got close, they heard gunshots and put their ponies into a gallop, watching the ground carefully in the moonlight to be sure the ponies didnít stumble. When they rounded a bend, they saw a group of men surrounding Josiah and Nathan. Vin pulled up short and stared, paralyzed by fear. If Nathan and Josiah were captured, who was going to help Buck and Chris? He couldnít think what to do.

JD pulled up next to him and started to whimper, "Vin, whatíre we gonna do?"

As soon as JD started to cry, Vin sat up on his pony and stiffened his back with resolve. He had to show JD that they shouldnít be scared. Heíd figure it out.

"JD, we canít go to the ranch. Thereís too many of them. We gotta go back and find Mr. Ezra. Heíll know what to do."

"Vin, Iím lost. I donít know which way to go," sniffled the younger boy.

"Itís OK, JD. I know the way. Come on. Follow me, but watch the ground so Molly donít stumble," said the older boy trying to sound braver than he was feeling. They headed slowly back to town and sat down outside the saloon to wait for Ezra.

It was almost two in the morning when Ezra returned. He walked straight into the saloon, only to be met immediately by a very agitated Inez who rattled on about things he could not follow.

"My dear, Senorita Inez, pray slow down. I cannot fathom a thing you are imparting to me."

Inez caught her breath and tried again, "Josiah and Nathan went to the ranch to help Buck and Chris, and Vin and JD have run away. What am I to do? They told me to watch the boys."

That made a little more sense, but still not enough. Ezra tried again to move Inez through the story slowly, and finally got the major portions sorted out. "Vin and JD were to remain here and now they disappeared?"

"Si, Senor. We must find them."

"Do not distress yourself further. I will mount a search for them outside," offered the gambler.

It didnít take long. When he stepped out in front of the saloon and scanned up and down the street in both directions, his eye was caught by the shadows of strange lumps leaning against the wall outside the saloon. He stepped over for closer inspection. "JD? Vin? What are you boys doing here?"

The boys stirred and stared sleepily up at the gambler. As Vin slowly came awake, panic set in again and he leapt up and started to tell Ezra what had happened. The gambler let him go on a bit, fitting the pieces of the story heíd gotten from Inez with Vinís version, as he led them both into the light of the saloon.

"Master Tanner, Master Dunne, do come in and sit down. I believe we shall have to formulate a plan." JD just looked at Vin puzzled.

Inez finished closing the saloon while Ezra settled the boys at a table with a glass of milk each. "Now, letís go over this again very carefully, very slowly so I have the full details describing the circumstances," said the gambler calmly as he got the boys to tell him exactly what had happened. Lines of concern flitted briefly across his usualy smooth brow; if four of his friends were incarcerated at the Larabee ranch, it did not bode well for them and he needed to find a way to liberate them. On the other hand, he was but one man. ĎThe odds, ah, the oddsí, he moaned to himself. That would something he would have to ignore.

Ezra thought awhile. Aside from the overwhelmingly unpropitious odds, he had a few problems. Josiah and Nathan had been ambushed and captured before they got to the ranch. Vin knew precisely where this had occurred, but his description of the location meant nothing to the gambler, who had paid little attention to landmarks as he had traveled back and forth to the Larabee ranch. He had no idea where the place was. He needed Vin to show him. On a negative note, if he got the boys involved in a rescue attempt, well, he hated to think what Buck and Chris would do to him later for putting the boys at risk! Of course, if they didnít rescue his four compatriots, there might never be a later! Ezra didnít like facing these choices. He was used to Chris or Josiah, or even Buck, making these kinds of decisions.

"Vin, if we head out to the ranch, do you think you can guide us around the place where Josiah and Nathan were ambushed?"

The boy nodded.

"Do you think you can get us close to the ranch house without anyone seeing us?"

The boy nodded again.

"Well, it would appear that we have no choice but to go out there and rescue our friends. Now you boys get some more sleep. Weíll leave very early in the morning, before first light." Inez looked at him dubiously. She knew Buck and Chris were not going to like this plan. Ezra looked back with a slight, helpless shrug. He had no choice.

ooooOOOoooo

Dawn found the three of them hiding in shrubs near the back of the ranch house. There had been no signs of activity yet. Ezra had no idea how many there were or what condition his friends were in. However, it was clear to him that he alone could not do much against a group of armed men. He needed to get weapons to his friends. As he was considering the situation, he mumbled under his breath, "I wish there were a way into the house without using the front door."

A quiet voice next to him said, "I know a way in."

JD and Ezra both looked at Vin startled. "You do?"

"Through the woodshed. It connects to a woodbin next to the fireplace. Chris said itís so you can have firewood in the winter without having to go outside."

"How is it closed off?" asked Ezra.

"Thereís a small door. It has a latch, but I think it could be opened from the outside."

"Well, then I shall endeavor to go in that way and have a look," said Ezra with determination.

"You canít," said Vin hesitantly, reluctant to face where this was leading.

"And, Master Tanner, pray tell, why can I not?" asked Ezra indignantly.

"Cause youíre too big. The bin is small. I could fit in it, but you canít." At this JD nodded; he remembered the bin after Vin reminded him of it. Ezra was way too big to fit into the wood bin.

Ezra paused at this. If he thought Chris and Buck would be mad at him for bringing the boys with him, imagine how they would react if he let Vin enter the house through the wood bin. Again, there didnít seem to be many choices.

"All right. You maneuver in quietly and see if you can see into the room. Donít go inside! Come back to report on what you see. Now, Iíll let you know when to cross to the shed. Quietly, my good man. It is essential to not disturb the sleeping miscreants." JD and Vin both looked at Ezra puzzled, having no clue what a miscreant was, but it didnít sound good. Vin agreed that he did not want to wake them.

Vin set off when Ezra gave him the signal. He paused only briefly at the door. Heíd never been in the woodshed. It was small and dark and the kind of place he avoided. But Chris and Buck depended on him. He took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped in. Immediately, the place started to close in on him, he couldnít breathe, Mr. Baker was in the room with him and he was going to get hurt again. ĎNo, Chris and Buck need me. I have to move,í he told himself. Despite the fact that he was trembling, his heart felt like it was going to jump out of his chest, and could hardly draw a breath, he forced his feet to move him to the wood bin. He could see light around the small door located at the far side of the bin. Slowly, carefully, he pulled a few logs out of the bin and slid himself in until he could touch the door. He reached a small sliver of wood through the slit and gently lifted the latch, holding the edge of the door so it didnít swing. He peered in.

Chris, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan were all sitting on the floor leaning against the wall not too far in front of where Vin was. They all appeared to have their hands tied behind their backs. Chris had a white bandage around his head; Buck had one around his leg. Vin couldnít see the others well because they were farther from where he was. The bad men were sprawled asleep mostly toward the other end of the house. Everyone seemed to be asleep. He tried to count how many there were by using his fingers. Two hands worth of men, ten.

While he was peering in, he saw a slight movement from Chris. The gunslinger stirred and shifted and as he did so, he eyes were drawn to the door of the wood bin. His eyebrows shot up for a moment when he realized someone was in there. Then, he nodded carefully and let his head slump forward again as if asleep. He saw the door pull closed again out of the corner of his eye. He knew no man could fit in there. It had to be Vin or JD; something told him it was Vin. But he wondered, it was close and dark in there. How could the boy stand it?

Vin backed out. Tried to control his breathing again and bolted from the shed to get back to Ezra. His breathing and trembling only slowed down when he was with Ezra and JD again.

ooooOOOoooo

Part 4

Chris gently nudged Buck, hoping fervently that his partner would wake up without his usual show and noise. "Buck," he whispered when he was sure his friend was awake and not going to reacted violently. "I think Vin and JD are here."

He watched as a gamut of emotions crossed Buckís face. Recognition that help might be at hand, fear for the sake of the boys, anger at being so helpless. "What you want to do?" asked Buck.

"Nothing we can do yet. I hope theyíre with Ezra. Weíve gotta just wait and see what happens."

Buck growled in a hoarse whisper, "Iíll kill him for bringing them into this.

ooooOOOoooo

When Vin returned, Ezra got him to describe the situation. He was pleased that Vin had figured out a way to give him a count on the number of men holding his friends. Vin drew a picture in the dirt to show the layout and where Chris and the others were. Ezra was relieved to hear that their friends appeared to not be too badly injured and were placed in a way that he might be able to get help to them.

"Master Tanner, do you think you could get into the room and slide in behind them so you wouldnít be seen?"

"I think so. Chris is sitting real close to the wood bin door and no one is near them. I think he knows I was there."

"Good. All right. Hereís the plan. I am going to send you back in with a couple of guns and a knife. Youíve got to get behind Chris and cut his hands free and give him one of the guns. Do the same for Buck. If you can get farther to Nathan and Josiah, do so. Give the knife to Nathan. Heíll know how to use it."

"But what about Mr. Josiah," piped in JD.

"I do not believe you need to worry about Mr. Sanchez. His has demonstrated on numerous occasions that his hands are powerful weapons," Ezra assured the boys. "Now, I am also going to send you with a note for Chris -- to tell him that Iíll have JD ride by the barn to cause a distraction." At this he turned and sternly said to JD. "Master Dunne, you will ride up to the barn. Leave your horse and hide out up in the loft. You are under no circumstances to come near the house." JD nodded, completely intimidated, but glad to be part of the plan. All the time, Ezra was thinking that his life would not go on much after the time Buck got his hands on him. And if Buck didnít kill him, Chris surely would. There would be no acceptable excuse for exposing Vin and JD to danger as he was. He sighed. He had come to like these friends; heíd miss them.

"All right, let us move with haste before everyone starts to wake." Ezra helped Vin secure the guns and knife so he wouldnít hurt himself or drop them. Then he and JD move off to get in position for JD to make his run for the barn.

Vin headed off again for the woodshed. He really didnít want to go back in there. But he had to -- Chris needed him. Again he had to fight off the anxiety attack while he eased himself through the shed and into the small bin. He pushed the door open just enough to see. The men all looked asleep. He quietly dropped into the room and, staying low, crept over to Chris. The gunslinger had been watching as soon as he saw the door move again. He nudged Buck, and as the two watched Vin enter the room, they eased slightly away from the wall to let the boy slide in behind them.

Vinís heart was racing but he appeared to move with calm assurance. He knew what had to be done and heíd seen a reassuring nod from Chris. He pulled out the knife and carefully cut Chrisí ropes. If one looked at Chris from across the room, there would have been no sign that Vin was behind him; Buck and Chris covered him so effectively. When Vin finished with Chrisí ropes, the gunslinger felt the reassuring pressure of a gun being put into his hand. He stayed still as Vin moved on to Buck and freed his hands. By this time, Nathan and Josiah were also awake and they felt their bonds released. Nathan felt the boy put the knife into his hand. Then Vin eased quietly back and slipped the note into Chrisí hand. Chris feeling the paper, gently slid his arm forward to his side so that he could look down and read the note. He let Buck know and waited while he passed along the message that there would be a distraction.

Shortly, they heard a clattering of horseís hooves and a couple of shots. Then men in the room came to life pulling up pants, suspenders, and grabbing guns, but too slowly. Chris and Buck were up and had their guns out firing, taking down almost half in almost no time. Chris yelled at Vin, "Get out of here! Find JD!" Vin ran out the door and headed for the barn. Nathan nailed one with his knife and Josiah made short work of a couple by cracking their heads together. Ezra took out a few that ventured onto the front porch to see what the noise was down by the barn.

They practically had the situation under control when Chris saw that the Colonel and Sheffield had made it out and were disappearing into the barn. He signaled Buck and grabbed Ezra on the way out and the three ran to the barn. As they cautiously entered, they heard a booming voice, "Mr. Larabee, if you do not put your weapons down, I am afraid I will have to end the young life of this boy." They looked up to loft to see the Colonel holding JD with a gun pointed at his head.

Terror stopped them. They put their hands out and slowly laid their weapons down. The Colonel relaxed his arm to let his gun train on the enemy below, but he kept a grip on JD. Suddenly, a small voice yelled, "You let him go!" Vin came charging from the side of the loft and hit the Colonel low and hard at the back of knees with all his weight. The huge manís knees buckled and he toppled forward, letting go of JD who stepped out of reach quickly, but Vin was struggling to get to his feet and was caught by one of the Colonelís flailing hands as he desperately tried to prevent himself from going over the edge. The peacekeepers watched in horror as the pair tottered together for a moment and then plummeted, hitting the ground with a sickening thud. Chrisí eyes were glued on Vin, but Buck saw Sheffield move from the shadows to grab JD, and he pulled his gun and shot the man in the chest. Buck raced to the loft bellowing, "JD!" He flew up the ladder and swooped the terrified boy into his arms, stepping back from the edge and turning so JD couldnít see his cousin crumpled on the floor below. Meanwhile, Chris and Ezra dropped down next to the pair on the ground, dreading what they would find.

The boy was entangled in the Colonelís arms. The Colonel himself would bother them no more; his neck was at an impossible angle. Chris and Ezra had to move the dead man to pull the limp boy out from under. Chris gently pulled the still body to him and cradled him in his lap. "Ezra, get Nathan, please."

Ezra raced off. Shortly, Nathan ran into the barn and to Chris who looked up with grief-stricken eyes, "Nathan?"

"Let me look at him, Chris," said the healer as he gently tried to examine the boy "Heís alive. Doesnít seem like he did serious damage. No ribs broken, no bruising that might say he hurt something inside. Maybe the Colonel broke his fall. Heís bumped his head pretty good. And heís got a broken arm. Not too bad, though. Letís get him to bed and then we just have to watch him." Chris tenderly carried the boy to the house put him on the bed, pulling the covers over him as he smoothed the hair off his face. He pulled a chair over and sat while Nathan splinted the broken arm and checked again that there didnít seem to be any other damage.

"I think heíll be OK. His breathing is nice and easy. Just need to wait now," said the healer to Chris.

Chris nodded and took Vinís small hand in his own rough one. Heíd wait.

ooooOOOoooo

Buck headed for the house carrying JD, his big arms enveloping the small boy. "JD! Are you all right? Youíre not hurt are ya?" he asked as he hugged the boy. God, he had been frightened! At that thought, he turned to the gambler, who was walking beside him.

ĎOh Lord!í thought Ezra. ĎHere it comes.í And it did. Buck pulled back one arm and slugged Ezra in the chin, putting the gambler on his seat in the dirt.

"Buck!" shrieked JD. "Donít hurt him! He saved you!" The boy grabbed Buckís arm and hung on it like a terrier. "Buck, please donít hurt him," he begged and started to cry.

Buck couldnít take it. He turned from Ezra and started soothing the boy. "Itís OK, JD. I wonít hurt him if you donít want me to. Hey, itís OK. Letís go in and see the others."

Ezra was left sitting in the dirt, rubbing a sore jaw. But he was alive -- saved from being dismembered by a small boy. He would have to remember that he owed Master Dunne a favor. And now for Mr. Larabee.

ooooOOOoooo

Josiah, Buck, and Ezra finished loading the dead into a wagon and preparing to take the others to town to jail. Buck stopped in the house.

"Chris, Nathan, you stay here. We can take care of things in town. Weíll get these fellows locked up and let the Judge know what happened," he let his eyes fall on Vin and a worried expression crossed his face. Then he spied the other small boy sitting miserably in a chair nearby.

He walked over to JD, picked up him, and sat down with the boy on his knee. "JD, you worried about Vin, huh?" The boy nodded, trying to disguise a sniff as his chin quivered a little.

"Donít you worry. Nathan says Vin will be fine. He just needs to rest a bit Ďcause of that fall he took." Buck gave JD a big hug. "You boys were real brave and you saved us. Donít know what we woulda done if you hadnít come." JD started to look a little brighter, feeling proud that Buck was complimenting him.

"I have to go into town for a few hours to take care of these bad men. Maybe you could do another favor for me while Iím away." JD nodded vigorously. Having something important to do would be much better than sitting and helplessly watching Chris and Vin.

"Your horses have been working pretty hard since yesterday. I bet theyíre real tired and hungry. You think maybe you could take care of Molly and Sam? Give them some food and water, get them all cleaned up, and put them in their stalls? Vinís not going to be able to take care of Sam today, and I bet heíd be real grateful if you could do it for him," said Buck.

JD beamed. "Sure thing, Buck. I can take good care of both of them. Buck, you should have seen us! We ran like the wind! Molly is real fast! Those bad men couldnít catch us!" the boyís excited voice started to rise an octave and Buck smiled at the resilience in such a little boy. He took him outside with him and looked around.

"JD, can you find Sam? I donít know where Vin left him."

"I know. Donít worry, Buck. Heís just out back. Iíll get him. Iíll take real good care of them," said the boy as he happily went off to find his cousinís pony. He had a job to do. They needed his help, and taking care of the horses was something he loved.

ooooOOOoooo

It was late afternoon when Buck and Josiah rode back through the gate to the ranch. Ezra had uncharacteristically offered to stay and guard the men in the jail. They spied a small figure tearing toward them and Buck smiled. God, it was good to have the boys around. Theyíd really scared him, but theyíd done a good job in helping out. And they hadnít seemed to be frightened. They just did what they needed to. He swung off his horse and greeted the boy with a bear hug. "Hey, JD. Howíre ya doing? Howís Vin?" A shadow crossed JDís face.

"He wonít open his eyes and he doesnít say anything and Chris is just sitting there looking real angry. Iím scared, Buck. Is he going to be OK?" asked the boy in a voice that indicated he was ready to break into tears.

"Now donít you worry none. Heís just gone and bumped his head. Heíll be good as new soon. Why, I bet heíll be waking up in jest a little while now," said Buck as he tousled the boyís hair.

As if Buck had known, when they returned to the house after putting up Buckís horse for the evening, Vin was just starting to stir. "See now, ainít Buck always right?" JD nodded, delighted to see his cousin showing signs of life again. Boy, was Buck smart!

Chris moved closer to the bed at the first sign that Vin was coming to. He called over, "Nathan, I think heís waking up." The healer was immediately by his side. Josiah hovered forward in concern but took care not you impede the healerís move toward the boy.

Vin moved around, groaned, and slowly his eyelids fluttered open. His large blue eyes settled on Chris and he smiled. "Hey, cowboy," said the man he thought of as a father. "Just lie still now. I bet you got a headache."

The boy nodded slightly, then pinched his face at the pain. Nathan leaned close, "Careful, Vin. You bumped your head pretty good and you broke your arm. You want to move real slow now. You just hold on and Iíll get you something to drink and a little something for the pain."

The boy smiled and resisted nodding. He slowly lifted his broken arm to get a look at it; it was all splinted and wrapped up, but it didnít really hurt much. He squeezed Chrisí hand with his good hand, sighed and closed his eyes. He was almost asleep by the time Nathan got back, but they managed to get a little water into him before he drifted off.

"Chris, his eyes are clear and pupils are normal. Heíll be just fine. Heíll probably sleep hard tonight and you wonít be able to hold him down tomorrow. Now I know you. Youíre getting ready to tell him off for getting himself hurt. Donít. He was only helping you and everything has turned out OK."

"OK? I just turned a whole lot of my hair gray in one day," said the gunslinger indignantly. "He needs to know he canít be pulling stunts like that."

The healer nodded. "Stunts like what? Saving our lives and probably the Judgeís. He cares about us. You know he couldnít sit around and let us get hurt. Damn, heís a lot like you! You canít get mad at him for that. He only did what he had to and he was real brave about it. He donít deserve to have you chew him out." Nathan could see that Chris was overwhelmed with relief and with a deep sense of well being -- his boy was going to be fine. The healer was not overly concerned that Vin was going to hear even one negative word from the man around whom his world revolved.

Chris nodded, Nathan was right, but he needed to vent. Vin had scared him near to death. He never thought heíd care about anyone like that again, but it had happened and the thought of losing the boy had about torn him up inside. Vin shouldnít have been put at risk like that, but Nathan was right; he shouldnít lay into Vin. The boy had done it all for them, even crawled into the small, dark woodshed; Chris could only imagine the demons heíd faced to be able to do that. No, Vin didnít deserve to get chewed out by Chris after what heíd been through.

Unfortunately for Ezra, Chrisí thoughts at that moment began to wheel in a different direction. The gambler had brought the boys into the rescue. The gambler had put them at risk; the conman was the one responsible for Chrisí anxiety. Chris leaned back and smiled, happy that Vin would be OK. As for EzraÖ the gunslinger let the corner of his mouth tilt up ever so slightly. Ezra would hear from him Ė tomorrow.

End