by Purple Lacey

Rain dripped off the brim of his hat and ran down the back of his jacket as Buck Wilmington looked up to check the darkened sky once more. He couldn't help the flinch he gave as a bolt of lightening hit the ground only a hundred yards or so from him and a tremendous thunder clap shook the air, causing his horse to shy in terror. The man had a difficult few minutes bringing the animal back under control, and he cursed the elements all the while. Buck knew that the only thing to make him feel any better would be getting out of the damned storm.

Buck turned his troubled blue eyes to meet the frustrated hazel ones of his best and oldest friend, Chris Larabee.

"Chris," Buck told him anxiously, "We gotta get outta this. I know you want to get back home today, but it just ain't wise to try and keep goin' in this kind of weather. We could wind up dead in a hurry, and you know I'm right, pard."

An annoyed growl was his only answer at first, then the gunslinger ungraciously bowed to the inevitable.

"There's that abandoned homestead at Culvers Bluff about half a mile from here. We'll hole up there until it clears up," Chris ground out darkly.

Buck kept his mouth shut, but silently sighed in relief and spurred his horse to follow the man wearing the black duster. The two men, part of a group of protectors of the small town of Four Corners, were heading back home after delivering a prisoner to Fort Laramie for trial. The journey had been rough; plagued by two attempts by the bank robber's gang to break him free, and bad weather from beginning to end.

The cocky prisoner's threats and constant complaints had quickly worn down his friend's very limited patience. A gag, a well placed punch and a few terse threats from the cold-eyed blond peacekeeper had solved the problem but still left Chris Larabee in a hell of a bad mood. The small bullet crease the man had received on his left shoulder in one of the attacks had not helped lighten his mood either. Although not serious and healing nicely, it still stung just enough when he moved to keep him irritable.

The normally effusive Buck had kept his thoughts to himself as the duo left on the return leg of the trip, and just allowed his friend to stew in silence. He knew how easily Chris' temper could explode when he was in a black funk, and didn't plan to be on the receiving end when the explosion occurred. The two men had ridden in near silence for the last two days and had only been about half a day away from home when the thunderstorm that had been threatening all day finally broke over their heads with a vengeance. Buck knew the further delay just pushed his friend a little closer to the edge of his temper.

The two rain soaked men rode their horses as fast as the muddy road would allow and soon the abandoned homestead came into sight. The roof and walls of the old log cabin had long ago collapsed leaving only the remains of a stone fireplace and chimney standing in a rubble heap of rotting logs. The barn had fared better and it was there that both men headed their mounts as the skies seemed to open even wider and the pounding rain started coming down harder.

Buck stepped down off his horse in front of the barn door and quickly opened it enough to allow the horses to be led inside. He walked his horse in and turned to watch as Chris followed, and then closed the door behind them. Buck sighed in relief, glad to finally be out of the rain.

The darkened barn smelled like musty hay and rodents but Buck didn't care one whit. The promise of being warm and dry once more made the old barn a palace as far as he was concerned. Buck and Chris made quick work of unsaddling their mounts and rubbing them down. It wasn't until he went to bed the horse down in one of the old stalls that he noticed the chestnut horse watching them curiously from the shadow of an adjoining stall.

"Hey, Chris," Buck said quietly, not wanting to let any concealed enemies know that he was aware of their presence.

The black-clad gunslinger didn't respond until Buck called him again, putting a little more urgency into his voice. Chris spun around ready to snap at his friend when he noticed the serious look on Buck's face and the horse behind the large man. Chris pulled his gun from his holster as fast as the lightening striking outside and scanned the barn's interior looking for the horse's owner.

Years of working together had the two men moving in perfect synch with each other as they searched the barn. When no one had been found on the lower floor, Chris jerked his head at the old ladder leading to the hayloft indicating he would climb up and Buck should cover him. Buck nodded in silent agreement and kept his pistol aimed at the loft, eyes glued upward as he strained to see even the smallest trace of movement.

Chris climbed the ladder slowly, his own gun still in his right hand. He paused to listen every few seconds for any sounds coming from above, but could hear nothing over the thunder and rain that was still assaulting the barn's roof. Chris glanced down at Buck as he approached the top of the loft and Buck nodded his readiness. Chris gathered himself then surged up the last few steps of the ladder and threw himself on the floor and rolled so he wouldn't be an easy target.

Buck waited tensely below, expecting to hear gunshots at any moment, and saying a silent prayer for his friend's safety. Buck was prepared to rush to his friend's aid, but wasn't at all prepared for what happened next.

"Oh my God!" Buck heard Chris's shaken voice say.

"Chris!" Buck yelled up, "Are you all right?"

"Buck, get up here…now!"

The urgent tone of the gunslinger's voice had Buck's feet going forward even before he consciously decided to move them. He raced across the barn and flew up the ladder only to jerk to a stop in amazement at the sight that awaited him when he reached the top. There in the very back corner of the loft was his best friend kneeling beside a soaked heap of blankets. Blankets wrapped around two small and obviously ill little boys.

"What the hell?" Buck whispered, shaking in his head in disbelief. He tried closing and opening his eyes, thinking he was surely seeing things, but the two boys remained.

Chris reached out his hand and placed it on the forehead of the auburn haired little boy, and felt the heat rising off the small body.

"He's burning up with fever, Buck!"

His touch seemed to rouse the sleeping boy and the child tried to press his face against the cool hand for a moment before he woke enough to realize he and his brother were no longer alone. The boy stared in confusion into the concerned eyes of the blond man leaning over him.

Buck moved forward to join his partner, dropping down and resting on his heels on the loft floor. He reached out to try to gauge whether or not the other child was feverish as well but his hand never made it to the boy's blonde head because the chestnut haired boy suddenly exploded off the floor and pushed him away with a shoulder in his stomach. Caught off balance, Buck fell backwards.

"No!" the child yelled in a raspy voice as he moved, "You leave Vin alone! I won't let you hurt him!"

The child's forward momentum would have caused him to crash to the floor with the startled man if Chris had not quickly grabbed the child and pulled him close to his chest.

"Hey, it's okay, son," Chris told the boy as he started struggling weakly

against the arms that held him. "We're not going to hurt you or your… friend?"

The small head tipped back to stare at him and Chris felt like those feverish green eyes were reading his very soul. Whatever the boy had seen must have satisfied him because he stopped struggling and leaned a little closer to the warmth of the body holding him. Chris' arms tightened and pulled the suddenly shivering boy a little closer.

"Brother," the small voice informed weakly.

Buck picked himself up from where he had landed on the hay-strewn floor and eyed the boy who had attacked him so ferociously in defense of his brother. He couldn't help but smile at the small boy who acted like a full grown tiger but looked like a half-drowned kitten.

"I'm surely sorry. I didn't mean to scare you son. I just wanted to help," Buck smiled at the staring boy. "Would it be okay with you if I take a look at your brother to make sure he's alright?" Buck asked the child shivering in the arms of his friend.

Buck took his turn at being assessed by the child who finally nodded his agreement but watched every move the man made closely. Buck reached for the other boy again and didn't even have to actually put his hand on the boy's skin to feel the heat that was radiating from him.

"Damn, he's burning up too," Buck whispered absently. He reached under the unconscious child and lifted him into his arms, and sitting cross-legged on the hay-covered floor set the boy in his lap. The long blond hair hung in wet strings around the boy's head and Buck gently pushed it away from the pale face. "His clothes are soaking wet, Chris. He's only gonna get worse if we don't get him outta these and into some dry duds."

Chris agreed as he noticed the shivers that wracked the body of the unconscious boy.

"Give him to me and go fetch the saddlebags and bedrolls," Chris barked out an order. "I've got a couple of extra shirts we can dress them in until we can get their clothes dry and we'll wrap them in the bedrolls. After you do that, see if you can't find something to build a fire with and get a meal started and some coffee brewing. We need to get some hot food into these boys as soon as possible."

Buck reluctantly surrendered the child and hurried to comply with his orders. As much as he hated to leave the boys, he knew Chris was right. They needed to get them dry, warmed up, and fed before they got any worse. Buck stripped off his jacket and handed it to Chris, "Wrap this around them for now. I'll be right back."

Chris watched as Buck's head disappeared from view as the man climbed down the loft ladder and then he turned his attention back to the children in his arms. He laid the jacket over the two boys as best he could and pulled the little boys closer to him, hoping the heat from his body would help keep them from catching any further chills. Chris looked down and saw the green-eyed youngster watching him seriously from over the edge of the jacket.

"We'll have you warm and dry again in no time, son," Chris spoke gently. "You just rest and don't worry. Buck and I will take care of you both, and won't let anything happen to you."

The small boy stared at him in silence for awhile as though trying to judge his sincerity. Chris felt a ripple of something that felt like pride when the child appeared to accept his promise.

"Can you tell me your name?" Chris asked him.

"Ezra," the boy answered, his voice sounding even more tired and scratchy than it had before.

"Pleased to meet you, Ezra. My name's Chris. My friend's name is Buck."

"How do you do, Mr. Chris," the tiny voice rasped courteously.

"And your brother's name is Vin?"

"Yes. Vin."

"Where are your parents, Ezra?" Chris asked, concerned about the reason why the parents would have left the two sick boys alone in this weather and wondering if perhaps he would have to deal with a set of worried adults before this was over.

"Dead," was the answer he received.

The flat, emotionless voice the boy had answered him with and the wealth of experience that showed in eyes that should have been too young to hold it caused Chris' heart to ache for the little orphan boys. What kind of hell had the child endured to cause that kind of terrible acceptance? What could two such precious little ones have ever done in their short lives to deserve the ordeal they had so obviously gone through to bring them to this place at this time? Why did life have to be so unkind to the little innocents of the world? Chris' reflections on the unfairness of life were broken when Buck returned to the loft with the saddlebags and bedrolls.

He stopped a few feet away and stripped off the damp oiled-canvas sheeting that was protecting the blankets rolled up inside from the rain, and then dropped the canvas on the loft floor and continued to the back corner where the man and two boys waited. Buck dropped the saddlebags and blankets at the gunman's feet and sat down in front of the trio. He began pulling things from the saddlebags.

"Here," Buck said as he handed the other man a faded towel and a dry shirt, "Use this to dry him off before you put him in the shirt. I'll take care of the other one."

Buck took the blond boy back and settled him in his lap once more and began stripping the wet clothes off of him. The two men worked quickly and soon had both boys in dry clothing and wrapped in blankets. Buck had used one of his shirts to dry the blond boy's hair and sat for a few minutes running his fingers through it trying to undo some of the tangles. When he had done all he could he reluctantly surrendered the child to Chris once more.

"I'll go see about supper," he told the other man and rose to his feet once more, gathering up the boys' wet clothing, blankets, and the saddlebags as he went.

Buck climbed down the loft ladder and started draping the wet items he carried over the sides of the horses stalls to dry. Then he stood looking around for a few minutes before deciding the best place to attempt a fire was in the middle of the earthen barn floor. His careful perusal of the barn ceiling had shown a small hole not too far from the site he picked for his fire. Hopefully the hole would draw out most of the smoke so it wouldn't fill up the barn. He carefully cleared a large spot and began digging a good sized hole to act as a fire pit with a piece of broken board he found. He knew they would have to be extremely careful building a fire in the old barn if they didn't want it going up in flames around then. Buck kicked one of the old unused stalls apart and broke the old boards in to shorter pieces by placing one end on the ground while he held the other and stomped in the middle of it until it broke. He hauled the broken pieces of wood to his fire pit and soon had a good fire going and began preparing a supper of canned beans with pieces of beef jerky crumbled into them, and ranch bread.

While the food cooked and coffee brewed, he took advantage of the fire's warmth to change out of his own still damp clothing into his last dry shirt and another pair of britches. He kept shooting glances to the loft as he dressed, anxious to return to the little boys so desperately in need of their help. He couldn't help but wonder how the two had wound up alone and sick in the old barn. It really didn't matter how they came to be there though he decided. The bottom line was those boys needed their help and he was more than ready to give it to them. Explanations and answers could wait, the boys could not.

Ezra struggled to remain awake. He was so tired and the lure of sleep was a siren's call, but he knew he needed to stay awake in case his brother needed him. He couldn't help but snuggle deeper into the blond man's hold, relishing not only the warmth he absorbed off the man's body, but also the feeling of security that seemed to wrap around him like the strong arm that held him. For some reason that Ezra could not explain to himself, he had taken one look into the man's eyes, and had known that he wouldn't hurt him. As he stared into those hazel eyes he had felt as if they were draining away all his fear and anxiety and refilling him with safety and security. He had known that Chris was someone he could trust. Ezra was a little amazed at how sure he was of that because Ezra Standish didn't trust anyone except Vin.

"Did you and your brother get caught in the storm? Is that how you got so wet?" Chris asked interrupting Ezra's musings.

"We were caught in it, but we were already wet," Ezra whispered. "The horse fell when we crossed the creek. Everything was drenched." The little boy gave a hard cough that caused him to moan in pain and lay one hand against his throat. His throat felt like it was on fire.

Chris reckoned the closest creek to the old cabin had to be at least two hours away by horseback. If the boys had ridden that long in wet clothing in the chilly pre-storm air then it was no wonder they were ill.

"How are you doing there, son?" Chris' concern had deepened with the cough Ezra had given. "Are you warm enough?"

"Yes, sir," Ezra managed to rasp out and grimaced at the discomfort the effort caused in this throat.

"That sounds like a pretty bad sore throat?"

Ezra nodded but didn't try to speak again.

"We'll get you something to drink in a little bit. Maybe that will help, alright?" Chris smiled down at the boy.

Another nod was his answer.

"How's it coming down there, Buck?" Chris called down to the other man.

"Almost ready, Chris. You want to move the boys down here closer to the fire, or leave them up there?"

Chris considered the options and answered, "It'd probably be better all around if we moved them down there. There'll be more light to tend them by, and I don't think this old, moldy hay is any good for them."

"Okay, Pard," Buck called back, "I'll be right up to help ya with 'em."

Buck climbed up the ladder again and when he reached the blond man he stooped and picked Vin up. He started to reach for Ezra to allow the other man to rise, but suddenly two little arms wrapped around Chris' neck. Ezra held on tight and buried his face in the man's shoulder, not willing to surrender the safe haven he had found.

"Hey! It's alright, son. It's just Buck. He won't hurt you," Chris said and put his hand on the back of the boy's head and stroked it gently. "He just wants to help."

The little arms never loosened their hold and Chris finally had to awkwardly climb to his feet assisted by Buck's hand on his arm. The men carefully climbed down the ladder one-handed, each holding a boy on his hip with the other one. Soon the little ones were ensconced in their warm blankets by the fire, held securely by the gunfighters.

"You better get outta them clothes before you wind up like them," Buck reminded his friend.

Chris nodded his agreement and looked down at the boy nestled against him. He bent his head closer to the child and used one finger to gently lift the boy's face towards his own.

"I need to change into some dry clothes, Ezra. Would you mind staying with Buck for a few minutes, son? Can you do that for me? I promise I'll be right back just as soon as I can.

Chris felt Ezra's eyes looking at him again and the boy sighed and let go of Chris then slid out of his lap to stand before the man.

"Certainly, Mr. Chris," he croaked causing him to clutch at his sore throat again.

"Hey, now!" Buck called softly and held out an arm in invitation, "It sounds like you could use something for that throat. I don't have any medicine like my friend Nathan carries around with him, but maybe some of this coffee might help make it feel better? What do ya think?"

Ezra studied the large dark haired man reaching out for him and both grown ups could see the indecision the child radiated. Buck waited patiently for the boy to make up his mind.

"It's alright, Ezra. I trust Buck," Chris assured the boy, "and you can too. I promise."

The green eyes switched their focus to Chris for a second then returned to Buck. Slowly the child shuffled toward the man, never letting his eyes stray from the blue ones that watched him back. Buck got the feeling the boy was watching his eyes for any indication of danger. Buck knew a lot of gunslingers that watched a man's eyes in order to tell what he was going to do, but this was the first time he had ever seen someone this age do it.

When Ezra reached Buck's side he threw one more look at Chris over his shoulder then carefully lowered himself to sit beside the other man. Chris smiled his approval and Buck could feel the little body beside him relax a little.

"How about that coffee?" Buck asked the child.

Ezra nodded his head in acceptance. As Buck readied a cup of coffee, Chris stripped off his damp clothing and gratefully climbed into dry clothes. When he returned to the fire, Ezra was sitting cross-legged by Buck, holding a tin cup in both hands and swallowing a mouthful of the sweetened coffee. Chris could tell that the warmth of the coffee had managed to sooth some of the soreness from the boy's throat as he didn't seem to be having too much trouble swallowing.

The too-long sleeves of the shirt Ezra wore were pushed back to his elbows and Chris could see that one side of the shirt was about to slide off the little shoulder. He sat down beside the boy and reached out to pull the garment back up then drew the blanket a little tighter around the child.

"You hungry?" Chris asked him and received another nod in answer.

Chris spooned some of the grub Buck had prepared on to a tin plate and set a fork on the edge before handing it to the little boy. Chris watched a shaking hand try to hold the tin cup and the other reach for the plate of food, and knew there was no way the boy was in any shape to feed himself. Setting the plate on the ground he gently pried the cup from the child and set it down too. Then he reached out and pulled Ezra into his lap again. The child settled himself against the blonde man as naturally as if he had been doing it all his life and Chris felt a wealth of warm emotion sweep over him at the trust the child was implicitly placing in him. Chris handed the cup back to Ezra and picked up the plate himself.

He smiled down at the child watching him so trustingly and said, "Why don't you concentrate on holding that and let me handle the fork for you? I don't think you have enough hands for all of this right now."

Chris filled the fork and held it out. Ezra obediently opened his mouth and let Chris feed him. Ezra knew he was too big to be fed like a baby, but he was so tired and it felt good to let the man take care of him. Chris continued to feed Ezra, stopping every few bites to allow the boy to sip from the coffee in his cup, and kept up a stream of low voiced, comforting encouragement.

Buck had to smile at the sight of his normally tough friend turning to warm mush at the hands of the small boy. His friend had a reputation of being deadly-cold and unfeeling. He knew if he told this story to any of the men that had ever pissed themselves after being subjected to the hardened gunslinger's deadly-cold stare, they'd be calling him a liar. Buck counted himself one of the lucky few who actually knew the man that lay behind the reputation. He had seen and been on the receiving end of the man's deep capacity for caring more than once. It was what kept Buck around when Chris' demons tried to eat him alive and he lashed out in his pain.

Buck's smile faded away as he looked down at the small boy lying so still in his arms. He had bitten back a dark curse in the loft as he stripped the sodden clothes from the boy and witnessed the many scars that covered the little frame, evidence of many past beatings. He had found the bruise in the middle of the little back and knew it had been caused by a belt buckle. Buck had seen too many such marks left on the bodies of his mother's co- workers not to recognize it when he saw it. He hoped he got to meet the person responsible for putting the marks on the poor child. He would personally make sure the bastard got a taste of his own bitter medicine.

He pushed a strand of hair off the flushed face and rested his hand on the boy's forehead. He couldn't be sure, but he thought the heat coming off the body was slightly less than it had been before. He prayed it was so. Buck reached behind his neck with one hand and untied the bandana he wore. He held one end of it against the mouth of the canteen and poured a little water onto it and began wiping the boy down, hoping to bring the fever down even more. He worked in silence for several minutes and then felt a slight stirring in the child's lax muscles. Buck kept up the soothing wash, carefully watching the boy's face. His vigilance was finally rewarded when the child's eyelids fluttered and then opened, blinking for a few seconds as his eyes became accustomed to the light from the fire.

"Hello there, little Pard," Buck smiled down at the child and stated softly, "Good to have you back with us."

Blue eyes stared into blue eyes as the child looked up in confusion at the stranger holding him so gently.

"It's alright, Vin," Buck told him, "No one's gonna hurt you. You're safe and so is your brother."

At the mention of Ezra, Vin's eyes flew open wide and he began to struggle weakly to escape the arms holding him. His one thought was to find his brother.

"Ezra!" Vin yelled.

Ezra had jerked his head in this brother's direction as soon as he had heard Buck address Vin, and shimmied out of Chris' lap to head to his brother's side. As Vin began to fight, Ezra reached out and caught one of the flailing hands.

"Vin, it's alright. I'm here."

Vin stopped struggling as soon as he heard Ezra's voice and grasped his brother's hand in a tight grip.

"Ezra? You okay?" Vin asked with his eyes taking a visual inventory of his brother's condition.

"I'm fine, Vin. How do you feel?" Ezra croaked out as he worriedly took his own survey of the other boy.

"Hot…Cold," Vin whispered.

Ezra nodded his understanding as he began to shiver again himself as he stood in the chilly barn wearing nothing but the too-large cotton shirt. Chris rose to his knees behind Ezra to rewrap the blanket around his shoulders and then, still kneeling behind the child, wrapped his arms around him and pulled him back against the warmth of his own body. Ezra leaned his weight against the man's chest and made no attempt to pull away.

Vin watched the man caring for his brother with curiosity and looked at his brother in question.

"This is Mr. Chris," Ezra told him, "and that's Mr. Buck. They found us. They have been caring for us, Vin."

Vin and Ezra seemed to share a silent communication and Vin relaxed into Buck's arms.

"I bet you could use somethin' to eat right about now, couldn't ya?" Buck asked the child as he wrapped the blanket around him and tucked the edges in securely.

"Yes, sir," Vin answered in a whisper.

"That's okay. You don't have to call me sir. My name's Buck and you're free to use it," Buck told him with a grin. "Sir makes me sound like an old man and I sure ain't that yet!"

Soon all four were sitting around the fire chowing down. Ezra had taken a seat beside Vin and was feeding himself. As much as he had enjoyed having Chris care for him while Vin was sleeping, there was no way he wanted to look like a baby in his brother's eyes. Chris had looked on knowingly when Ezra had picked up his plate and sat down beside Vin to eat but didn't remark on it.

The boys had only been able to consume about half the meal before they were yawning and having trouble keeping their eyes open. By silent agreement the men decided to leave their questions for the morning and helped the boys to bed down next to each other for the night. Since the boys were using the only dry blankets, the two regulators built up the fire to help keep them warm, and waited for morning to come. Neither man wanted to sleep in case the children should become worse during the night and need them.

The storm had finally abated, and it was a little after midnight when Vin began moaning in his sleep. Buck shifted position to sit closer to the boy and tried to soothe him by stroking his hair and telling him he was alright but the child seemed to be caught up in his nightmare.

"Nooo," he cried, "Don't hurt him! He didn't do nothin' to you! Run, Ezra, run! He's gonna kill ya, Ezra! Go! Go!"

The cries seemed to trigger Ezra's own nightmares as he began to whimper and cry out, "Don't… No! Vin! He's going to kill us! My fault! I'm sorry, Vin! I'm sorry! Faster, Vin! We have to go faster!"

Buck raised grim eyes to Chris and gave voice to both men's previous thoughts, "What kind of hell have these two been through?"

"I don't know, but I aim to find out," Chris stated flatly and Buck could hear the steely determination in his friend's voice, "and when I do…someone's gonna pay for it!"

"I reckon I want a piece of that action myself," Buck agreed darkly then both men began the task of comforting the frightened, nightmare- ridden children.


Vin came awake slowly, feeling a little tired and wrung out, but better than he had the night before. He no longer felt chilled one minute then burning up the next like he had. He opened his eyes but kept very still, taking stock of his current situation. He was wrapped in a warm blanket, his still sleeping brother snuggled against his back. Vin could see sunlight creeping through cracks in the wooden siding of what appeared to be an old barn. He just barely remembered entering the barn. Most of the previous day just seemed to be a blur of wet and cold.

He could hear a low voice speaking behind him, but couldn't quite make out the words. He wasn't worried though. The voice had become a familiar one. There was something about that voice that made him feel good; made him feel safe. That was the voice that had pulled him back from the nightmares that had plagued his sleep. That was the voice that had crooned reassurance and comforting words that quieted his fears. That was the voice that belonged to the arms that held him so tenderly and rocked him back to sleep each time he had woken up scared. Vin smiled at the memory. He hadn't felt so cared for since the death of his mother.

"Hey! Looks who's awake," the voice said softly, and Vin looked up into blue eyes that were looking down at him and sparkling with good humor. "Morning, Vin."

"Morning, Buck," Vin smiled back and sat up, folding his crossed legs under him and pulling the blanket around his shoulders.

"How ya feelin' this fine morning?" Buck asked as he placed a hand on Vin's forehead. "Ya haven't got anymore fever."

"I'm good," Vin reassured him feeling happier than he had felt in a long time as the large man once again demonstrated his caring to the boy.

"Well that's yet to be seen, now ain't it, little Pard?" Buck joked.

Vin grinned back at the smiling man.

"If you don't MIND, some of us are trying to sleep," Ezra muttered as he turned over and pulled the blanket over his head.

Vin chuckled and said, "Don't pay him any mind. He's as ornery as a bear with a hurt paw first thing in the morning. It'll take another hour of sleep and at least two cups of coffee to have him back to his nice self."

"Well, how about some breakfast while we wait for Sleeping Beauty to wake up?" Buck asked. Stooping down to pick up the seven year old, he moved Vin around the fire to where Chris was serving up the morning meal.

"Good morning, Vin," Chris smiled at the boy.

"Morning, Mr. Chris," Vin returned shyly. He looked up at Buck for reassurance and smiled when Buck winked at him.

"Just Chris is fine," the blonde man told him.

"Morning,…Just Chris," Vin said, feeling brave enough to tease the black clothed man because Buck was close. He clasped his hands over his mouth as he gave into a fit of the giggles. Buck roared with laughter and the other man smiled wider, both men enchanted with the laughing seven year old.

"We got us a smart-mouthed one here… Just Chris," Buck chuckled as he ruffled the boy's hair in approval of his joke.

"Just what I need," Chris shook his head and glared with mock exasperation, but even the small boy could hear the good humor in his voice, "one made in your image."

"Ain't nothing wrong with my image," Buck stated still smiling. "At least not accordin' to the ladies," he finished while making his eyebrows bob up and down at the boy sitting by his side grinning.

"Don't start, Bucklin," Chris pointed a finger at him, "He's too young to be listening to your stories about women!"

"Hey, a man's never too young to start studyin' about women. There's so much to learn that the earlier ya start the better off you'll be and ya can't have a better teacher than me," Buck teased. "I know all about the little darlin's."

"Sure Buck. You go right on thinking that if it makes you feel better," Chris told his friend with a skeptical eyebrow raised. He turned to address the watching Vin, "Don't listen to anything he tells you, kid. It'll only get you into trouble later. Trust me on this one," he finished dryly.

"Ha. Ole Chris is just jealous 'cause he don't have my animal magnetism," Buck laughed and put his arm around the boy's shoulders. "You stick with me, kid. Ole Buck'll never steer ya wrong."

"You might want to ask JD for his opinion of that," Chris grinned evilly. "I think he might have a little something to say about your methods. I recall he wasn't too happy with you after you told him how to get Miss Annabelle's attention."

"Now, Chris," Buck smirked, "I was only trying to help the boy."

"Uh huh. You helped him right into a slapped face with your advice."

"But he got her attention!" Buck laughed.

"Who's JD?" Vin asked curiously, "Is that your son?"

"He…Heck no!" Buck caught himself mid-swear, "JD is a friend of ours. He helps us keep the peace and protect the town. That's what me and Chris do. We're regulators for the town of Four Corners."

"Really? You're the law?" Vin asked wide eyed, more impressed with his new hero than he had been before.

"Yep," Buck told him and Chris could see his old friend basking in the boy's admiration, soaking it up like rain on sun-parched ground. "Me and Chris, and JD, and two other friends, Nathan, and Josiah; we all work for the territorial judge."

"Have you stopped any bank robbers?" Vin asked in awe, almost vibrating with vicarious excitement.

"Sure. Stopped plenty of 'em at first until word got around that Four Corners wasn't a good place to try robbing folks," Buck bragged. "Nobody's been brave enough to try it for quite awhile now."

"Let's hope it stays that way," Chris said.

"What happened when they tried it?" Vin asked.

"Well the first time somebody tried to rob the bank was about two weeks after the Judge hired us to protect the town. This group of about twelve banditos come riding up from Mexico acting all tough, and looking to make a little easy money by holding up the bank…," Buck began his tale slipping into full story-teller mode.

Chris shook his head in amusement and handed the boy a plate loaded with food. The child absently took it and started to shovel it into his mouth as he listened, completely caught up in Buck's tale of the regulators' daring defense of the town's only bank.

"Wow!" the enraptured little boy whispered staring up at the big man when he finished the story. "Weren't you scared?"

"Nah," Buck said boldly. "I knew Chris and the boys were there to back me up. There was no way I was gonna let some old banditos make us look bad the first month on the job. I got a reputation to protect, you know."

"You must be the bravest man there ever was!" Vin told him with admiration radiating from his shining eyes.

"Well now," Buck answered with pseudo-modesty, "I wouldn't go so far as to say that. I'm sure there are a few other men out there that would have done the same."

"I think I better go find the shovel," Chris remarked dryly and threw his friend a mocking look over the little boy's head. "I think the manure is starting to get a little deep in this barn."

"I can help," Vin turned and told the blond man, eager to show his new heroes just how capable he was, and completely missing the joking by-play between the two old friends. "I'm real good with horses, and I know how to muck out the stalls. I'm a real hard worker, honest!"

Buck leaned down and put an arm around Vin's shoulder and hugged the boy. Buck smiled at him saying, "I bet you are, but why don't you let Chris and me take care of the horses for right now. You just got over being sick and we wouldn't want you to get sick again from tryin' to do too much too soon. There'll be plenty of time for that later."

Chris looked at his friend in surprise when the man's last words registered. He was just thinking he'd have to caution Buck about letting the child believe he would be staying with them for long when Ezra shuffled up and joined them by the fire.

"May I have some coffee, please, Mr. Chris?" he mumbled as he dropped to the ground to sit near Chris.

Vin grinned and looked at Chris slyly before telling his twin, "Just Chris. That's what he said he likes to be called."

Ezra and Vin stared at each other and Chris could see another silent message being exchanged then Ezra looked up at him with an angelically innocent face and said, "May I please have a cup of coffee…Just Chris?"

Buck and Vin howled and Chris hooked an arm around Ezra's neck and pulled the now giggling boy close enough to ruffle his hair with the other hand.

"I'm going to shoot the next person that calls me Just Chris!" he threatened them with a mock growl then joined in the laughter.


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