One Day Out West

by Beth Green

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

"JD, do you think you could maybe try to sit still?"

The small child riding in front of Buck was immediately sorry. "Yep. 'm sorry." The older man and young boy had been through this routine a half-dozen times already. JD would remember, when prompted, that Buck had a still-healing saber cut along his torso. The last thing that the man needed was JD bouncing against his chest. However, it had been Buck's idea for JD share his mount.

Hearing Buck's request, Chris offered, "You want to trade off?"

Buck declined the offer. His physical pain was negligible in comparison to the soul-deep comfort he received from the small boy sharing his mount. JD looked up worriedly at his companion. Buck reassured the boy with a gentle hug as he replied, "That's okay, we're almost home."

Chris was quiet after that comment. He was sure that Buck did not realize that he had referred to the town of Four Corners as 'home.' As far as Chris was concerned, he no longer had a home. That was taken away from him after the tragic death of his wife and son and the destruction of their home in a catastrophic funeral pyre. He had no room left in his heart for any emotion other than anger. At least, that's what he'd thought until recently.

Chris turned to contemplate the young man riding next to him. Vin was a good kid, and deserved a home. Why the little fellow had latched onto him, Chris would never understand. He found it even harder to understand how he could possibly feel a similar desire to hang on to the boy. He frowned when he realized that he actually regretted the fact that Vin was riding his own mount and not sharing Chris' saddle.

Men and boys were only a few days gone from their fierce battle with the Ghosts of the Confederacy. They had idled a short while in the town of Four Corners before growing restless with the inactivity. When young Vin suggested a ride to check on the Indians, everyone quickly agreed. During their return visit, Vin spent most of his time with the village elders. Chris could see that the natives' simple philosophy resonated with his young charge. Vin watched and listened to every allergorical story, nodding his head in agreement. Much as Vin wished, they could not remain there indefinitely. They spent a companionable few days together before taking their leave.

Their well-earned rest ended when they returned to Four Corners. The small group rode onto a chaotic scene. An older man stood in the street, near the stagecoach. The older man's stance was defensive as he held a shotgun while he confronted a younger man. The younger man threatened back with his own gun, a smaller but no less deadly pistol. The threat that he presented was trebled due to the fact that he had two other men backing him up.

The riders observed that there had already been a casualty in this street war. The proprietor of the General Store could be seen through the open door of his ransacked business. He was sprawled on the floor, the unnatural position of his body suggesting that he was dead.

Nathan recognized the older shotgun-toting man and exclaimed, "That's the Judge!" His companions immediately knew who was on the side of the law, and it wasn't the younger man or his friends.

Chris and Buck quickly dismounted, depositing their charges into a nearby store with the stern orders to "Stay put!" and "Don't come out 'til I tell you to!" While they were so occupied, Nathan and Ezra had split up, taking opposite sides of the street while Josiah confronted the gunmen directly.

Vin took one look at the situation in the street then dropped down on all fours and began to crawl away from the shelter of the building. He hissed, "JD, you wait here!"

The dark-haired boy vigorously shook his head. "Uh-uh. I can help!"

Knowing that there would be no dissuading his friend, Vin conceded. "Alright then, you follow me and do what I do." The two boys quickly crab-walked along until they reached the nearest water trough. They settled in, jostling each other for position so that they could peer around the side of the trough and remain partially hidden.

Vin hissed, "JD, git yer elbow outta my side!"

"Only if you get your knee off my back!"

After some maneuvering, their shoving match ended when both boys were satisfied that they could comfortably see and hear everything that was happening. They did not stop to think of the poor concealment and protection that their hiding place offered, nor of the fact that they were unarmed. They were too concerned for the well-being of their surrogate family members.

The lead gunman, a man by the name of Lucas James, waved his gun threateningly at the Judge. "I admire your courage, old man, but there's three of us and one of you."

Josiah stepped into view, declaring, "That hardly seems fair."

Nathan approached from the right side with a simple, "Nope."

Buck circled around from the left, while Ezra joined Josiah in the middle of the street. Buck announced his presence with a smile and a cheerful, "Well howdy . . . boys." The friendly tone of his voice was belied by the gun in his hands.

Chris stepped into the middle of the fray without a word needing to be said. His confident stance proclaimed the deadliness of the threat that he represented.

James' attention was drawn to the obvious leader of the group. He addressed Chris. "You stay out of this, cowboy. This ain't your fight."

His eyes never leaving his adversary, Chris indignantly asked his friends, "Did he just call me a cowboy?"

Ezra replied, "I think he did, Mr. Larabee."

Buck, knowing Chris' extreme dislike of the term gleefully added, "At least once."

Josiah decided to let Mr. James know that he'd made a tactical error. He informed the man, "He hates that."

Chris decided to give the man a chance to back down. His hand hovered over his gun belt as he asked, "Did you just call me a cowboy?"

James stammered back, "N-n-no, I was just saying that it ain't your fight."

Chris agreed but added the warning, "Not yet." His tone of voice promised deadly consequences should the man persist. James' shoulders slumped and he lowered his gun, his body language conceding his defeat without a shot having been fired.

Realizing that Mr. James was sufficiently fearful of the backup provided by Mr. Larabee and his friends to allow him to take control of the situation, Judge Travis waved his shotgun at the gunman. "Drop the gun belt."

Way too late to do him any good, James asked, "Who the hell are you?"

James knew that his troubles had greatly increased when the man replied, "New circuit judge. Orin Travis. You're under arrest, young man."

Nathan and Josiah accompanied the judge as he marched his prisoners over to the jail. Ezra headed over to the saloon while Buck and Chris went to see to their young charges. Buck headed toward the building where they'd left the boys as he called out, "JD! Vin! You can come out now!" He was puzzled when the boys did not come running at his call.

Chris explained, "They ain't in there."

"What?" Buck looked around frantically as he tried to locate the boys.

Chris detoured around his friend and headed toward the boys' hiding place. He stood over them, his posture threatening. "What part of 'Stay put' don't you understand?"

JD cowered fearfully while Vin rose to his full height. Unapologetic, the older boy declared, "We reckoned you might need some help."

Chris stood with his hands on his hips, internally at war with himself. He couldn't figure out whether to hug or slap the boys. He fumed, "When I tell you something, I expect you to listen."

Vin tossed his head back in a gesture reminiscent of a horse chomping at the bit. "I listened. I just didn't think it was right."

Buck gave JD a quick slap on the bottom before picking up the boy as he scolded, "You do what I tell you!"

Chris finally moved. He grabbed Vin's shoulders in his hands and shook the defiant child. "You're just a kid. It's not your job to know everything that's right." He ceased shaking the child and hugged him tight against his chest. Some of the terror he felt at the possibility showed in his face as he continued, "You could have been killed! Do you understand that?" He held Vin away from his body just far enough so that he could make eye contact with the boy as he continued. "Thanks to you, I could've been killed while tryin' to look after you two instead of watching everything that was going on in the street. I knew you were out here, in line with any stray bullets that might go flying, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it!"

Vin blinked away the tears that had gathered. In the space of a few short minutes, his emotions had run the gamut from relief and confidence to fear and regret. The near-sob in his tone of voice reflected the sincerity of his words as he replied, " 'm . . . sorry."

Chris hugged him again. "I know." The makeshift family made their way toward home, foster fathers holding on to their sons while their sons clung just as tightly to their fathers. All of them were well aware of how differently this day could have ended.

The Judge's daughter-in-law, Mary Travis, accompanied him to the jail. She informed him of the latest misfortune to befall their corner of the west. "I'm afraid that the town is currently without a sheriff."

The Judge had suspected something of the sort when he'd observed that James was the only prisoner currently incarcerated. He replied, "Your letter said you had a full house. Where are the other prisoners?"

Mary's voice was heavy with disgust as she responded. "The sheriff let them go before he left town."

Judge Travis silently mulled over the problem then offered a suggestion. "Perhaps that man who backed me up could be persuaded to take on the job of sheriff?"

Mary shook her head. "That is highly doubtful. The man's name is Chris Larabee and he's a hired gun. I don't think that he's the sort of man who'd choose to remain in one town for very long."

The Judge gave a thoughtful nod in return, declaring, "Well, I think I'll go and find myself a jury. While I'm at it, I'll see if anyone is interested in taking on the job of sheriff."

Judge Travis was dismayed when the true extent of the town's problems became evident. He could not find one man willing to serve on a jury, let alone twelve; nor could he find anyone willing to take on the position of sheriff. Desperate, he asked each of the newcomers, the men who had come to his rescue when he confronted Lucas James. They all respectfully declined.

His frustration mounting, the Judge decided that he was in need of a drink. He made his way to the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey. He couldn't help but notice the man at the bar who appeared to have deliberately turned away from him. Travis approached the swallow-tail coated individual, putting a hand on his shoulder to force the young man to turn toward him. He questioned, "Do I know you?"

The man was none other than Ezra Standish. Still trying to avoid the Judge's direct gaze, Ezra replied. "You may recall that I was one of the men present during your altercation in the street." The gambler used the excuse that he had to down his drink in one gulp to turn away and shrug off the Judge's hand.

Judge Travis continued, "No, you're Ezra, Ezra somebody: Ezra Simpson, Ezra Smith?" The Judge's face lit up as the answer came to him. "Ah, it was Fort Laramie. You jumped bail."

Ezra countered, "It must've been someone else. I've never been to Fort Laramie."

Travis confidently replied, "Oh, no, I never forget a face, especially one I put away." The Judge raised his shotgun so that it was pointing at Ezra' midsection. "You're under arrest. I'll thank you to hand over your gun." Ezra reluctantly complied, taking comfort in the fact that he still had his backup weapon.

The Judge continued, "And if my memory serves me correct, got a little something up your sleeve, too, huh?" With that comment, the Judge whacked Ezra's right arm with the barrel of his shotgun. This had the effect of causing the conman's sleeve gun mechanism to release the small concealed weapon into Ezra's hand where the Judge quickly retrieved it. Ezra cursed the man's remarkable memory.

The Judge waved Ezra toward the jail at gunpoint as the conman futilely protested. "Let me assure you, Sir, you are making a most egregious error. I am innocent of any wrongdoing." The Judge remained deaf to his protestations.

With two prisoners now secured in the jail, the Judge was desperate to find someone to guard them. He approached Chris Larabee and his friends with a proposition. "My daughter-in-law informs me that you are a hired gun. I was wondering if I could hire you and your friends to guard the prisoners currently housed in the jail, at least until I can find a new sheriff?"

It just so happened that Chris and Buck had been discussing possible employment prospects prior to the Judge's arrival. Buck had reasoned, "With two boys to look after, we can't just keep wandering from town to town. I think we oughtta settle in one place. This town seems to be as good as any. We already got us a few friends."

Chris smiled and stated, "You always got a few friends any place you go."

Buck shook his head. "There's still some ladies here I haven't yet had the pleasure of. I'm talkin' about Josiah and Nathan and maybe even Ezra. Good men to have watchin' your back in a fight."

Chris argued back, "If we settle here, how we gonna live? You gonna take up farming? Maybe ride herd on a bunch 'a cows?"

Buck scratched his head. "Well, I haven't quite figured that part out yet." Their discussion was interrupted by Judge Travis and his proposition.

Chris replied to the Judge's question. "I don't fancy sittin' around a jail all day."

Buck would've argued except for the fact that he felt the same way. He brightened as a thought occurred to him. "Hey Judge, you think you might see your way clear to hirin' three more men besides me an' Chris?"

The Judge nodded. "That could be arranged."

Buck spoke to Chris as well as the Judge. "If we could get Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra to share the job, we wouldn't have to spend nearly as much time sittin' around the jail as if it was just you and me. What do you think?"

The Judge interrupted. "I'm afraid that your friend Ezra is currently one of the residents of the jail courtesy of the fact that he jumped bail on a criminal charge back in Fort Laramie." The Judge paused, looking warily at his potential deputies. His hand lightly fingered the grip of his gun as he asked, "Is that going to be a problem?"

Buck quickly reassured the Judge. "Nah. We just met the man the other day. He helped us out of a tight spot. It's not like we really know him." Privately, Buck believed that you judged a man by his actions and not by his past. By his standards, that made Ezra one of the good guys. However, Buck reckoned that it was neither the time nor the place to stand up for his friend.

Chris decided to let both Buck and the Judge know his terms so he stated, "If Josiah and Nathan agree to help out, me and Buck 'll do it."

The men took a few minutes to negotiate salaries then shook hands on the deal.

Fortunately for all concerned, when presented with the offer of a paying job both Josiah and Nathan agreed to serve as temporary peacekeepers.

Buck decided to take first watch guarding the prisoners, wanting to get his turn over and done with. The boys thought that spending time at the jail would be a great adventure so Buck agreed to let them accompany him. He figured that their antics would help to pass the time. What he didn't figure on was how exhausting they could be. After an hour or two of their enthusiastic company, Buck needed a break.

He pulled a chair up to the bars of Ezra's cell, tossing a hopeful grin over his shoulder as he suggested, "Boys, why don't you check out the sheriff's desk over there while me an' Ezra play a hand or two of cards?" Buck was relieved when the boys both agreed, immediately applying themselves to the task.

Ezra paused before dealing out the cards to offer his own suggestion. "Perhaps we should play for stakes? Such as, if I win you must release me from this Stygian Hell hole?"

Buck smiled and shook his head. "Nice try, but I'm afraid all we'll be playin' for is bragging rights." The two men got down to the serious business of playing cards while Vin and JD explored the sheriff's desk.

JD began going through the drawers while Vin paged through the wanted posters. JD's eyes lit up at what he found. "Hey, Vin, lookit!" The older boy joined his friend as they admired the sheriff's badge. JD decided, "I'm gonna put it on!" It took him a few fumbling tries but he finally succeeded in getting the badge to remain in place on his shirtfront. The young boy strutted around the jail, his chest puffed out like a bantam rooster, the better to display his treasure. He declared, "I'm JD Dunne, and I'm the sheriff around these parts."

Buck smiled as he remembered an earlier boast by the imaginative child. He shared, "I know, and you can ride and you can shoot, too."

Vin trailed after JD, asking, "Can I be sheriff? Jus' for a minute?"

The younger boy was reluctant to give up his treasure. However, when Vin added, "Please?" JD gave in.

While Vin carefully polished the badge on his shirttail, JD approached Buck.

The tall man looked down at his young charge, seeing an uncharacteristically serious expression on the boy's face. He commented, "Looks like you're thinkin' some mighty deep thoughts there, li'l Britches." JD nodded 'yes' in reply, so Buck prompted him to continue. "What's on your mind?"

JD's brow wrinkled in puzzlement as he asked, "How come you don't wanna be sheriff?"

Vin was also curious to discover the answer to his friend's question. He joined JD as Buck replied. "'Sheriff' is just a job title. When you put on that bright shiny badge, you're just askin' for someone to take a shot at you. I been a lawman, and let me tell you boys, it ain't a job for any man with a lick 'a sense."

Ezra asked, "Then what are you doing here?"

Buck shook his head. "I keep asking myself that same question. I'll let you know if I come up with an answer."

The next morning, Buck was out stretching his legs when he encountered Mary Travis passing out her newspaper. Always the gentleman, he offered to help her out. "I don't want you gettin' ink on that pretty dress." The lady accepted his offer and he began to call out, "Papers! Get your papers here! Read all about it!" A natural born salesman, Buck didn't take 'no' for an answer, handing out a paper to everyone they passed. "Here you are, ma'am. A little reading material. Oh, here's a paper, don't you go running from me. Oh, here you go. Hold on. Papers right here! Get your papers! Ma'am, you've got beautiful eyes. I know you'd like a paper. You can read, can't you? Here you are." In no time at all, Buck had given out the last of the papers. He confessed to Mary, "I used to do this as a kid."

Mary smiled in response. After what she'd just seen, she had no doubt of the truth of that statement.

Buck had saved a copy of the paper for himself. He read Mary's printed words aloud. "Without justice, courage is weak."

Mary nodded. "That's right." Getting to the point of why she'd written the words, the newspaper woman asked, "Have you thought about serving on the jury?"

Buck replied, "No ma'am, I'm not a resident."

"Well, what about Mr. Larabee?"

"Uh, well, like me, he just keeps movin' on. Unless there's something to stay for."

"How long have you known him?"

As Mary continued her questioning, Buck began to get the idea that Miz Travis might be sweet on his friend.

The mustached man was more than happy to do what he could to help the cause of romance. He began, "I've known Chris a real long time, Ma'am." Buck contentedly spent the next hour conversing with the lovely lady, trying to convince her that Chris was not as unapproachable as he seemed.

With nothing better to do, Buck decided to spend the rest of the morning with the boys. He accompanied them as they visited the various establishments around town, improving upon their acquaintance with the local residents. Buck was being particularly attentive to the female population. Wanting to make the best impression, Buck rubbed a hand contemplatively along his jaw. "Boys, I do believe that I'm gettin' to be a bit on the scruffy side. Let's head on over to the barber's." Buck stepped lively in the desired direction.

The boys followed with considerably less enthusiasm. Buck couldn't help but notice that Vin and JD seemed less than excited about the idea of watching him get a shave. Their pace slowed to a sedate dawdle as two small pairs of feet dragged through the dirt. When they arrived at their destination, the tall man squatted down so that his eyes were on a level with the boys. "Tell you what, you want to wait outside while I'm gettin' rid of these whiskers, you're more than welcome to. Just promise me you won't go wandering off." The boys were quick with their "Yes Sirs," and Buck received two emphatic nods in reply.

The two young boys occupied their time watching the townsfolk and speculating upon their possible occupations. JD pointed to one bearded resident. "That fella's lookin' for gold."

Vin replied, "Way he's dressed, you can tell he ain't found none yet. What about that one over yonder?" They continued their guessing game, becoming more outrageous with each speculation.

While Buck and the boys were whiling away their time, Chris encountered Mary Travis at the General Store. After exchanging pleasantries, she stated, "Your friend Buck told me you lost your wife and son in an accident. I lost my husband. I know something of what you've been through."

Chris listened to her words, his fury mounting. He couldn't bear to hear his private pain spoken so publicly. He replied, "No, Ma'am, you don't," before setting off in search of Buck. His rage increased with every step taken toward his goal.

The boys were distracted in their musings by the arrival of a familiar figure. JD called out an enthusiastic greeting. "Hey, Mister Chris!"

Vin hesitated before he spoke. Chris seemed to be awful serious about something. The gunslinger's eyes were focused beyond the boys and toward the interior of the barber shop. He asked, "Buck in there?"

Vin nodded 'Yes' in response. The young boy's hands tightened into fists as Chris strode determinedly through the door. The man in black's tense bearing bespoke of trouble ahead.

Buck was in the middle of a fanciful story regarding his favorite subject, women. The barber worked efficiently while Buck shared his adventures. "Well, they were twins if that paints a picture for ya." Chris approached silently, stealthily from behind. Buck was unaware of the man's presence as he blithely continued. "And these two little fillies they looked better walkin' away from a man than they did walkin' towards him." Buck gave a sly 'you know what I mean' wink to punctuate his comment.

The mustached man was unaware of the danger presented by his oldest friend as Chris grabbed the straight razor from the terrified barber and shoved the man out of the way. Buck continued, "And this golden hair smellin' like sage just tumblin' down their backs to their sweet, buttermilk . . ." His words were abruptly cut off as Chris grabbed his hair with one hand and pulled his head back. Chris used his other hand to hold the razor's blade threateningly against Buck's vulnerable neck.

The black-clad man's voice was low and heavy with anger as he spoke. "My past is my own, Buck. It's not somethin' you can use for conversation."

Buck took a quick swallow to wet his suddenly dry mouth, regretting doing so when he felt the sharpness of the weapon held against his Adam's apple. He hastily explained, "She asked."

Chris growled, "Guess you didn't hear me."

Both men were intent on their confrontation to the exclusion of outside distractions. Therefore, neither man noticed when two small boys entered the room.

Not until a dark-haired little whirlwind threw himself at Chris and pounded his fisted hands against the black-clad gunslinger. "You leave my Buck alone!"

Startled by the unexpected assault, Chris lost the fine control that he'd had on the razor. He cursed and pulled the weapon away but not in time to prevent himself from cutting his best friend.

Vin, who had physically tried to shove Chris away from Buck, screamed at the sight of the blood that suddenly appeared on the dark-haired man's neck while JD continued his assault upon Chris.

Buck pushed Chris' weapon arm away from himself, cursing as he felt the blade penetrate his skin. He used the shaving towel to staunch the flow of blood as he cursed and jumped out of his chair. "Goddamn it all to Hell! You haven't got the sense God gave a flea!" Buck briefly removed the towel from his neck, relieved to note the relatively small amount of blood that was present. He didn't think that he'd been seriously injured, but in the general chaos he hadn't been quite sure. He put the towel back against the wound in an effort to stop the bleeding as well as to hide it from the two distraught little boys.

Buck ignored Chris completely and dropped down into a crouch, the better to comfort his two small charges.

For his part, Chris was still angry that Buck had shared his past with anyone, let alone Mary Travis. However, Chris was truly sorry that he'd upset the children. He attempted to apologize. "Look, boys, I'm sorry you had to see that."

Buck snapped back, "But you're not sorry you did it." He gave both boys reassuring hugs. "It's okay, I'm okay." He paused a moment and turned toward Chris. "I think you better go, before I say or do somethin' that's gonna make you even sorrier."

Buck used the towel to wipe off the rest of the shaving cream as well as any stray traces of blood while he tried to figure out what to say to the two terrified boys. He started with, "It's okay, Chris didn't mean me no harm." He pointed to his neck. "Don't worry about this little scratch. It's nothing."

JD was remembering the agonizing time he'd lived through while waiting to see if Buck would recover after receiving a major wound to his chest from a saber. Seeing the razor cut into Buck's neck brought the memories flooding back. He wrapped himself around his foster father. "I was scared."

Buck hugged him back, pushing the shaggy bangs out of the boy's eyes. "Well, if you knew Chris like I did, you wouldn't a been scared."

Vin, who'd been staring morosely at the floor, raised a hopeful gaze to Buck at that comment. "Really?"

"Yep. Ol' Chris, he's got a bit of a temper, and sometimes he does things he doesn't mean to. I did something that made him mad, and he was just trying to let me know about it."

JD was not yet reassured. He pointed to the wound on Buck's neck. "But he cut you!"

"He didn't mean to; it was an accident. Normally Chris has a pretty steady hand. Him holding that razor at my neck was just like an old dog barin' his teeth at you. He wants to let you know that he could hurt you if he wanted to."

Vin questioned, "But he didn't want to?"

"No, he didn't." Buck wasn't quite certain of the truth of his words, but he knew that the boys needed to hear them said.

Vin crossed his arms across his chest, hugging himself. The boy's nonverbal language spoke volumes regarding his insecurity. Despite his inner turmoil, Vin's voice was quiet as he asked, "Think he'd ever take a razor t' me?"

Buck tried to reassure the boy. "God, no, never. Not ever. He might swat you a time or two, if you done somethin' real bad, but he'd never hurt a child. He can't swat me 'cause he knows I'd beat the tar outta him. That's why he had to use a razor to threaten me with."

The boys had no further questions so Buck stated, "I got a feelin' Chris is waitin' right outside. You can hear it from him, if you need to."

JD wasn't sure if he was ready to confront Chris or not. To buy himself time to think, he asked, "Would you check and see?"

"Okay." Buck headed out the door while the boys stayed behind.

Chris was waiting just outside the door when Buck exited the barbershop. Buck wasn't sure whether or not he was glad about that fact. He acknowledged his friend with a short and terse, "Chris."

The black-clad man nodded and tossed the cheroot he'd been smoking onto the ground. He covered the glowing remains with his booted foot and proceeded to reduce the cheroot to tiny bits of unrecognizable detritus before he spoke. "Buck. I'm sorry."

Buck stood with one hand on his hip, the other unconsciously hovering over his gun. He responded. "I know you are. I just don't know that I'm ready to forgive you yet."

Chris frowned. "Seems like you might owe me a bit of an apology yourself."

Buck slapped his hand along the butt of his gun, trying to quell the urge to answer the threat of a razor with the threat of a gun. Deciding to leave his gun holstered, he suggested, "Why don't you go apologize to them boys?"

Chris nodded his agreement then turned hopeful eyes toward his friend as he asked, "You mind if I keep 'em with me for a bit?"

Buck wanted to believe that his friend knew how much he desperately needed some time to himself to get over his mad. He sighed as he privately acknowledged the fact that Chris probably could not read him that well. He knew that his friend wanted to make amends with the boys and not necessarily with Buck so he simply said, "If it's all right with them." He poked his head back through the door, mustering up a smile for the two upset boys. "Vin, JD, come on out here."

Chris waited nervously for the boys to appear. He knew that Buck needed some privacy and welcomed the opportunity to spend some time with Vin and JD. The older man just hoped that the boys weren't too terrified to accompany him. He needn't have worried. Buck had done a good job of reassuring the boys. Chris squatted down so that he appeared less threatening. He stated, "Boys, I'm sorry for what you saw in there. I was mad and I lost my temper. I didn't mean to hurt Buck."

Vin appeared reassured, but JD still looked a bit dubious. Chris smiled. "Honest. I'm not the bad guy here." He decided that a little bribery might prove effective. He stood and stretched out his hands, one toward each boy. "What's say we visit the General Store and you boys help me to pick out some candy?" Vin immediately reached for Chris' hand. A minute later JD let the desire for sweets outweigh any remaining reluctance.

Buck waved as the trio headed off down the street. "I'll see you later."

The boys had every item in the candy display at the General Store memorized. Vin quickly decided some of the crystallized sugar from the rock candy collection would suit his sweet tooth. JD had a tougher time deciding. Vin was well aware that Chris' patience was wearing thin. The older boy prompted, "JD, pick something."

JD stood mesmerized in front of the display case. He shifted from foot to foot, sucking on a fingertip. The younger boy used his free hand to point to the candy containers. "I want that, and that, and that, and that . . ."

Vin interrupted, "Chris said you can have one thing. How about a licorice whip?"

JD paused in his silent dance while he considered. He finally verbalized a drawn-out "Ma-ay-be."

Vin nodded to the proprietress and pointed to JD's choice. "He'll have one a' them."

The dark-haired boy raised a hand in protest. "No, wait a minute!" He looked at Vin's sweet treat, then decided, "I want some rock candy, too."

Vin's reminder was more of a scold. "Chris said one thing."

The man in question had reached the limit of his patience. Chris spoke over Vin and counteracted his previous statement. Although his words were harmless enough, his tone of voice indicated the strain of his effort to hold onto his temper. "It's all right. I'll take two licorice whips, one for each boy, and some rock candy for JD."

JD ignored Chris' irritation, taking his words at face value. The young boy was too excited over the prospect of treats to pick up on any subtleties or undercurrents of emotion. He bounced on his toes and clapped his hands while their order was filled. "Yay!"

Vin was too aware that Chris still harbored anger at Buck. He did not want any of that anger to spill over onto himself or JD. He glanced sideways at Chris, making sure that JD's enthusiasm was not wearing on the man. He relaxed his guard when he observed that the older man's posture had eased from its previous tension-laden stance. The boys' guardian smiled as he watched JD's dance of delight while their order was filled.

The younger boy grabbed for his treats. Despite his greed, JD remembered his manners. "Thank you, Ma'am."

Mrs. Potter smiled and responded, "You're welcome."

Vin offered his own enthusiastic, "Thanks!" as a licorice whip was added to his candy collection.

Chris tipped his hat to the lady as she repeated, "You're welcome."

His dark mood of earlier had been lightened considerably. Chris shook his head at himself, amazed that the simple act of purchasing candy for two small boys could make his anger at Buck retreat to a back corner of his mind. He enjoyed the pleasurable feelings generated by his two small charges as the trio walked along the boardwalk. They strolled along at a leisurely pace as the boys enjoyed their sweets.

Their peaceful interlude was interrupted by the arrival of Judge Travis. "Ah, Mr. Larabee, just the man I was looking for."

Chris tilted his head in acknowledgement, not bothering with the convention of polite greetings as he acknowledged, "Judge."

Equally brusque, the Judge stated, "I'm planning on conducting a bench trial for Lucas James tomorrow. His uncle, Stuart James, paid me a visit and threatened to make trouble if I don't release his nephew. As I have no intention of letting a murderer go free, I was wondering if you would be available to guard the prisoner during the trial?"

Chris nodded his consent. "I'll be there." He added, "After meeting Lucas James, if his uncle is half the coward his nephew is, I don't think we'll have any trouble." He shrugged, "Just in case, I'll see if I can have an extra gun or two on hand."

The Judge nodded. "Thank you."

Vin had lost all interest in his candy as he listened intently to the conversation. JD picked up on his friend's tension and anxiously looked from Vin to Chris as he tried to determine the seriousness of the situation.

Chris' attempt at light-hearted conversation fell short of the mark as he turned to the boys. "Looks like we're going to go visit your uncles."

JD grabbed for Vin's hand and held on tightly as they hurried down the street. His fears were eased after Chris met with his fellow peacekeepers. The casual attitude on the part of the men made it easy to believe that there was nothing to worry about.

They met up with Nathan outside of his clinic. The healer quickly agreed to provide backup during tomorrow's trial. Nathan smiled at the boys. "It'll be nice to be there before y'all start puttin' holes in people. Any luck, and nobody'll need me to patch 'em up."

Josiah was equally agreeable. "I said I'd help maintain the law, and I meant it. If I need to be in town to remind folks of the need to respect the Judge's ruling, I'll be there."

The boys were well on their way to being reassured by the attitudes of the men involved. Surprisingly, it was Buck who caused their fear to return ten-fold.

Chris knew that his friend was still mad at him. If their argument had been conducted privately, Chris knew his friend well enough to know that Buck would have been over his anger by now. It took a lot to make Buck lose his temper. When he did, his normally easy-going nature would invariably reassert itself and all would be forgiven. The fact that Chris had threatened Buck in full view of the boys made the man's subsequent reactions unpredictable even to his best friend.

He approached Buck cautiously, the boys following a few steps behind. They had picked up on the sudden tension in the room. The men greeted each other with a neutral exchange of names.



Buck read the tension in the stance of his friend and cautiously probed for the reason behind it. "Something you need to talk about -" he indicated the boys with a nod of his head, "in private?"

The boys both objected. Vin's "We need t' know!" was quickly followed by JD's, "Yeah!"

Chris waved a hand toward the boys. "They know what's going on. They were with me when the Judge told me."

"Told you what?"

"That Stuart James may be looking to cause trouble at his nephew's trial tomorrow. I already talked to Nathan and Josiah. They'll be on hand, just in case James tries anything." Chris paused, his eyes daring Buck to say 'no' as he said, "You gonna be with us?"

Buck began to pace, his hands sweeping through the air to emphasize his words as he spoke. "Hell, Chris, if it was just us, I'd say yes before you could draw your next breath. The thing is, there's more than just you and me to think about. You already got Nathan and Josiah backing you up. If we're all there risking our lives and something happens, who's gonna take care of the boys?"

Chris was visibly angered by Buck's words. His hands curled into fists at his sides as he declared, "Dammit, I worry about that every minute of every day! Maybe you should be thinking about what kind of an example you're setting."

Buck was sorely tempted to yell his reply at Chris, but he softened his tone of voice in respect for the boys who were anxiously listening to every word. "I know exactly what kind of an example I'm setting. I will never, NEVER regret letting JD and Vin know that I consider them the most important things in my life." Buck raised a hand to stop the objection that hovered on Chris' lips. "I ain't sayin' that you don't think the same thing."

Buck had kept one eye on the boys during the entire exchange with Chris. He worried as Vin's posture grew stiff and the young boy schooled his face to an expressionless mask. JD grabbed Vin's right hand in his left and clung tightly, leaving his own right hand free to chew on a thumbnail. The poor kid was one step away from sucking his thumb.

Buck turned to the boys. "Vin, JD, when you're workin' on the right side of the law, sometimes it gets to be dangerous. You know me and Chris 'll do everything we can to keep you and everybody else safe. Right now, we disagree on what's the best way to do that. No matter what, we need to make sure there's somebody to take care of you two."

Vin objected to him and JD being portrayed as being helpless and in need of protection. He declared, "We c'n take care a' our own selves! We done it before, and we c'n do it again!"

Buck sighed. "That's not the point. You shouldn't have to. It ain't right, folks around you expectin' you to look after yourself when you ain't hardly half-grown. I never had a daddy, but I had a momma who looked after me until I was old enough to do a man's work. If I can do the same for you, I'll never be sorry, and you'll be a better man for it." He turned to Chris, repeating the words as a solemn vow. "I'll never be sorry."

Chris shook his head. "Maybe you should be. You might want to think about that."

Buck did not let his friend continue. "I know exactly what I'm doing, and why." He pointed angrily at Chris as he spoke. "Maybe you need to do some thinking on why you're so all-fired eager to put yourself in the line of fire." He continued, "If you need an extra gun, you might consider lettin' Ezra out of jail. I got a feelin' if you give that man a chance to prove himself, he won't let you down."

Chris shrugged, trying to appear unaffected by Buck's words. He stated, "I've said what I came to say. You do what you've got to do." He tugged on the stampede string around his neck to retrieve his hat and place it upon his head. As he prepared to leave, he explained, "It's time for me to go over to the jail and relieve Josiah. Boys, you stay here with Buck. Buck. . ." Silently, Chris' words fought with his emotions. He settled for a frustrated, "Damn it!" before he turned and abruptly exited.

The mustached man shook his head as the door slammed forcefully behind Chris. He figured he knew what part of Chris' problem was, and he shared that information with JD and Vin. "That man's just spoiling for a fight, and I ain't gonna be the one to give it to him."

Vin's eyes narrowed in a glare eerily reminiscent of Chris' own while JD gave in to temptation and let his thumb slip into his mouth.

Buck decided to try to distract the boys' thoughts from the scene they'd just witnessed. Pointing to the package in Vin's right hand, he asked, "What you got in the sack?"

When Vin hesitated, JD eagerly showed off his own candy. Vin was not so easily distracted. "Would it be okay if I back up Chris t'morrow?"

Buck answered with a horrified, "No!" He squatted down so that he was at eye level with the boys. He stated, "No, I don't want to have to be worryin' about you or JD on top of everything else." He sighed. "Aw, hell. I'm gonna be there tomorrow, and Chris knows it. I just said what I said to remind him to be careful."

JD, with the simple wisdom of a child, asked, "Why couldn't you just tell him that?"

Buck sighed. "That's not how me and Chris do things. We've known each other a lot of years, and he knows I ain't quite over bein' mad at him. He also knows that all he has to do is ask me for help, and I'll be there."

Buck stood up. "Now, how about we go rustle ourselves up some grub?"

The boys followed along as Buck led the way. JD commented to Vin, "I'll never understand grownups."

Vin nodded his head in agreement. "Me neither."

The next day dawned appropriately overcast. The townsfolk made themselves scarce. Not only did they refuse to serve on Lucas James' jury, but they did not care to be anywhere around when James' friends came to fetch him. Based on their previous experience with lawmen, the town's residents were not hopeful that their current hired protectors would prove to be any more reliable than their predecessors.

Chris was looking forward to proving them wrong. In view of the casual nature of the bench trial, Chris suggested that they conduct it in the saloon. When the Judge agreed, Chris added, "That way it'll be more convenient when we celebrate the verdict."

Judge Travis did not appreciate Chris' sense of humor. "May I remind you that the prisoner is innocent until proven guilty. I suggest that you avoid any premature celebration."

Properly chastised, Chris tipped his hat to the Judge. Chris paused to consult with his fellow peacekeepers. "Given Lucas James' yellow belly, I'm not expecting much in the way of trouble from his so-called friends. Just in case, Nathan, you find cover over by the General Store while Josiah watches from the other side of the street. I'll be inside, with the Judge and the prisoner."

Chris frowned as he watched Josiah make his way cautiously down the street. It was obvious that his injuries were causing him more than a little discomfort. Chris asked, "Josiah, you okay to do this?"

The big man nodded. "The damp weather may have slowed me down a bit, but I'm more than able to handle whatever comes our way." Josiah waved his gun to emphasize his point. His smile was accompanied by an ice-blue glare that promised serious injury to anyone who crossed him.

Nathan shrugged. "As long as you figure on ignoring the hurt done to you fightin' them crazy Confederates, I ain't gonna be responsible for what happens to you."

Josiah waved off his friend's concern. "That's okay. I can take care of myself."

Nathan shook his head, tossing off a comment of "Leave it to God to look after children and fools," before he headed for his assigned post. He paused to address Chris. "We sure could use another gun. You done any thinkin' on lettin' Ezra out of jail?"

Chris nodded. "Some."

Nathan added, "If not Ezra, maybe Buck?"

Chris huffed out a frustrated breath of air before he sarcastically replied, "Like I say, we can always count on Buck."

Chris had already decided that they needed Ezra. However, that didn't mean he was in any hurry to put his trust in someone who'd previously proven to be untrustworthy. He headed toward the jail.

Ezra stood up, holding onto the bars as if he were trying to bend them. "Mr. Larabee, please don't tell me that you intend to take sole responsibility for the Judge's safety as well as a prisoner of Mr. James' repute." He continued hopefully, "I would be more than happy to provide my assistance. All you need to do is to secure my release."

Chris shook his head. "I'm sorry, I couldn't do that."

Ezra's shoulders slumped in defeat as he questioned, "May I ask why?"

Chris smiled. "You broke the law. You've been a bad boy."

Ezra agreed, giving Chris a sidelong glance to acknowledge the unspoken message. "Perhaps. But I would be remiss if I did not remind you that I'm an excellent marksman. Under the current circumstances, I believe that you may find my skill with a gun to be valuable."

Chris offered a reminder of his own. "You ran out on me once before. You wouldn't be thinking about doing that again, would you?"

Ezra held his right hand over his heart as he replied, "Never. I swear upon the grave of my sainted mother."

Chris' eyes narrowed. "You told Buck your mother was still alive."

Ezra shrugged. "Figure of speech."

Chris leaned toward Ezra's cell door and began to unlock it as he responded, "Figure you're dead if you're lying."

Chris, accompanied by Ezra, proceeded to escort Lucas James to the saloon turned courtroom. Chris handcuffed James to the nearest pillar.

The Judge raised an eyebrow in inquiry at Ezra's presence.

Chris offered an explanation. "James has a lot of friends. We need all the help we can get."

The Judge nodded his acceptance and gaveled his makeshift court into session.

Chris positioned himself at the entrance to the saloon so that he could observe the street as well as Ezra, who was guarding their prisoner. The Judge had barely gotten started when Chris announced, "Company's coming."

There were six horsemen in all. Three remained outside in the street, while the other three entered the saloon.

Chris announced, "The bar's closed."

The gunmen drew their weapons while their leader announced, "That's fine with me. Don't need no drink. Just need you to give us Lucas James."

Chris shook his head. "You're making a big mistake."

The leader sneered. "You're making an even bigger one." He pulled the trigger of his gun before he finished speaking. Immediately, a fierce exchange of gunfire took place. Chris took out the leader while Ezra winged one of the henchmen. Unfortunately, the third gunman was a crack shot. Instead of firing at Chris or Ezra, the man shot the chain off of James' handcuffs, giving himself an ally.

The Judge raised his shotgun but before he could enter the battle, James tackled the older man and wrestled the gun out of his possession. James viciously pistol-whipped the Judge into insensibility, snarling, "If I had more time, you'd be a dead man." While Ezra and Chris exchanged gunfire with James' friends, the escaped prisoner took advantage of the covering fire to exit the saloon.

Nathan and Josiah were occupied keeping the three men in the street from rushing the saloon. Josiah managed to shoot down one of the gunmen, but the other two had found adequate shelter and taking them out was proving to be problematic. Things got even worse when Lucas James exited the saloon.

Lucas was positioned so that he was able to come upon Nathan from behind. He was preparing to fire on the healer when a rifle shot cut him down. A minute later, another rifle shot rang out and another gunman went down. That left Stuart James, part of the failed escape attempt, as the last man standing. He wisely rode out of town as a hail of bullets sped him on his way.

Buck strolled out of the Hardware store, his recently-fired rifle held ready in case it was still needed. Nathan cheerfully greeted his rescuer. "Thanks, Buck."

Buck smiled as he responded, "You're welcome."

Any further discussion was cut off when Chris and Ezra exited the saloon. They were standing on either side of Judge Travis, lending physical support to his unsteady gait. The Judge was pale and bleeding from a head wound. Ezra lifted a thumb to point behind himself as he reported, "There are a couple of injured men in there, as well as one who is in need of a burial plot. The prisoners have been sufficiently restrained that they shouldn't cause any problems. Regrettably, I suppose that Mr. Jackson will need to tend to their injuries."

Nathan was in no hurry aid the men who were trying to kill his friends mere minutes ago. He stated, "Reckon you're right." He added, "As soon as I see to the Judge, here."

While Nathan was checking on the injured men, Chris nodded to Buck. "Glad you could make it."

Buck tugged on the brim of his hat as replied, "Glad I could, too." As far as the two men were concerned, their earlier disagreement was now ancient history.

Chris scanned their surroundings, frowning when he did not find the objects of his search. "Where are the boys?"

Buck replied, "I dropped 'em off at Miz Travis'. I think I'll head on over there."

Chris nodded. "Think I'll join you."

Buck had left behind two anxious little boys. They'd been visiting with Mary Travis when six strangers rode into town. Buck turned to the boys. "I don't like the looks 'a this. I think I'll head on down toward the saloon. Miz Travis, would you keep an eye on the boys for me?"

"Certainly, Mr. Wilmington."

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Buck took a minute to tip his hat, smile and remind her, "That's Buck."

Buck turned to Vin and JD. "I know we talked about this, but I need to make sure you heard what I said. Both of you, do not leave here until me or Chris comes to get you. I need you to promise me. JD?"

The younger boy was quick to respond. He vowed, "I promise."

Vin was having a harder time of it. Buck was asking Vin to do something that in his heart the young boy knew was wrong. When Buck continued to stare expectantly at him, Vin reluctantly spoke. "I promise." He consoled himself with the fact that the fingers of his right hand were crossed when he said the words. That way, if Vin decided that he needed to disobey Buck, it wouldn't be as if he'd be breaking a real promise.

Buck waited until the strangers rode past before he headed out the door. Vin couldn't help but admire his technique as the big man ducked from building to building, being careful not to be seen. Vin continued staring long after Buck had disappeared far enough along the street that he was no longer in view. JD stood at his side, gently rocking from foot to foot as they waited in tense silence.

The silence was broken by the sound of gunshots. Without a second's hesitation, Vin was heading toward the door with JD following close behind.

Mary Travis speedily moved to block the boys' instinctive rush to confront the trouble rather than to run away from it. She had to physically restrain the anxious boys. "Vin, JD, you've got to stay here. We need to get away from the doors and windows. It won't help anyone if a stray bullet finds one of us. Remember what Chris and Buck said."

She continued, "You need to trust Chris and Buck. They're far better men than any coward who needs six men to back him up." She repeated, "Trust them."

Vin sighed. So many times in his life he'd mistakenly trusted when he shouldn't have. Somehow, he knew that Chris and Buck were different. He prayed that they were, as he didn't know how he could live with himself if they never came back. Vin reluctantly allowed Mrs. Travis to escort him and JD to the back of the newspaper office. JD clung tightly to his hand, following along silently wherever his friend directed him.

It seemed to take forever, but the gunfire eventually stopped. JD began to suck his thumb when Chris and Buck did not immediately appear. After a few minutes, Vin's voice quavered as he asked, "Where are they?"

Vin had begun to give in to his despair when a familiar figure in black came through the door. The young boy hurled himself at the man, grabbing on to him as tightly as he possibly could. He could not help himself as tears of relief ran down his face. Chris leaned down to meet the headlong rush of the distraught boy, scooping him up in his arms. Vin hid his face in Chris' neck as he cried, repeating, "You came back! You came back!"

Chris closed his eyes, wishing that he was still so young and innocent that he could shed simple tears of relief. Despite the tightness in his throat, his eyes remained dry. He rocked the boy encircled within his arms, stating, "It's all right. I'm all right."

Buck and JD's reunion reflected both man and boy's eternal optimism. JD's high-pitched delighted squeal of "Buck!" was met by Buck's booming, "JD!" Buck picked up the dark-haired child and twirled them both around the room.

After they stopped their joyous dance, JD asked, "Did you shoot the deps-per-ados?"

Buck nodded. "You betcha."

JD patted him on the shoulder. "I knew you would. That's what I told Vin." He turned toward his friend, who still had his head nestled under Chris' chin. "Ain't that right, Vin?"

The younger boy frowned when Vin did not immediately respond. "Vin, you okay?"

Vin wished he could stay where he was forever. He'd never felt as safe as he did at this moment in time, held tightly within the shelter of Chris' arms. However, the young boy could tell by the concern in JD's voice that his friend would not be happy until he responded. He lifted his head away from Chris' tear-dampened shirt, using the sleeve of his own shirt to wipe the remaining tears from his face. When JD worriedly repeated "Vin?" the boy in question was able to turn and face him. His smile tremulous, he replied, "Sure, JD, whatever you say." Vin relaxed at the sound of his own words. It was true. As long as Mister Chris would have him, he would be all right.

For his part, JD already knew that he'd found a home, tucked within Buck's arms like a chick being fussed over by a mother hen. At that thought, JD smiled and began to make a series of clucking noises.

Buck laughed at the clucking child in his arms. "What do I have here? Is it a chicken?" JD nodded and beamed delightedly at Buck's willingness to play along. To emphasize his sudden transformation, the young boy bent his arms at the elbows and tucked his hands close to his sides, flapping his arms as if they were the wings of a chicken.

Chris laughed. "He's got your number there, Pard. If there ever was a mother hen, that'd be you."

Buck pretended to be angry, exclaiming, "Who you calling chicken?" as he set JD down on the ground. "Besides, I ain't no chicken. More like a rooster." With that pronouncement, he began flapping his arms and crowing.

Vin watched the proceedings from the shelter of Chris' arms. He scowled at JD's childish antics. The older boy could not remember when he'd last done something so frivolous. Vin's frown gradually turned into a smile when Buck joined in. He sighed. It sure looked they were having a lot of fun. Why, Vin was sure that he could make better chicken noises than either of them! Coming to a quick decision, he wriggled out of Chris' grasp and joined Buck and JD in their clucking and arm flapping.

Chris shook his head. "I could say something like there ain't nobody here but us chickens, but somebody around here ought to remain sane."

Buck looked at his friend, his own smile brightening as he noticed the man's smile. Hell, Chris hadn't smiled like that since before Sarah and Adam had died. Yep, Buck reflected, taking on the responsibility of these two boys might just turn out to be the best thing they'd ever done.

Next: Interlude: Making Arrangements