by Purple Lacey

The two regulators let the boys finish breakfast and carried the blanket wrapped children to the ramshackle, but still serviceable, outhouse before they finally settled each boy on the bedrolls and gently, but firmly, demanded some answers.

“Would you like to tell us how you wound up here?” Chris asked, watching as the boys involuntarily stiffened in response to his question. The happy light in their eyes that had been kindled with the early morning teasing was extinguished in an instant. Chris felt something inside his chest tighten at the loss.

Both men could easily read the indecision in the body language and expressions of the children. Vin glanced at Ezra, wondering just how much of their story they should tell the men that had taken such good care of them when they were sick. Vin looked from Buck to Chris and then back to Ezra. If he had only himself to consider he knew he would have poured out everything to Buck, trusting that the big man with the gentle hands, and voice like warm butter and honey could make it all right somehow. But it wasn't only him. He had to think about what was right for Ezra too. Vin knew Ezra was better at figuring out a person's motives than he was. This has been proven time and time again on their journey. It had to be up to Ezra to decide how much of their sorry tale to tell, and both boys realized it.

Ezra gazed at the two men waiting patiently for them to begin explaining, and had never felt such a conflict in his life. The training his father and stepmother had drilled into him since he was able to talk ran smack up against an unbelievably strong need to spill out the whole sordid mess to the men that he had instinctively trusted to help him and his brother last night. He could read nothing in either man's face to make him think they had any motives other than a sincere desire to help, but the one rule that had been drummed into him over and over was never give a lawman the truth about anything if you could possibly help it. For one of the few times in his short life, Ezra was speechless with indecision.

Chris watched the chestnut haired child silently struggle and felt an unexpected flash of pain at the thought that the boy might not trust him after all. He didn't stop to analyze why it was so important to him that Ezra have faith in him, he just accepted that it was. He really shouldn't have been surprised at the feeling though. During the long, sleepless night something unusual, and frankly unsettling, had happened to Chris as he had held and comforted the sick little boy. Holding Ezra in his arms as he had rocked him back to sleep, using the same words and tone of voice he had once used to soothe away another little boy's nighttime fears had caused long-buried feelings and instincts to bubble to the surface. He repeatedly had to remind himself during the night that the little boy with the angelic face and ancient eyes didn't belong to him....because some deeply hidden, instinctual part of Chris had determinedly insisted that he did. Chris' emotions had been counterpoised: part of him had wanted to smile and laugh for joy at finding something that had been missing, but another part of him wanted to run away in fear from the pain that he would be risking by getting involved with another child. However, the more time he spent with Ezra, the more the balance had shifted bit by bit toward the boy. Now, despite all of Chris' long lectures to himself to the contrary, Ezra mattered to him, and therefore the boy's opinion of him mattered.

Chris had been trying to be patient and let the boy come to his own decision, but couldn't seem to keep himself silent at the look of barely controlled distress that flashed across the little face.

“Ezra?” he whispered softly and tilted his head to one side to look down at the child. He didn't say anything else, but waited for Ezra to look at him.

Ezra felt his eyes pulled almost against his will to the blond man watching him. He stared at the sun-browned face and studied it closely. There were lines running beside his new protector's mouth that were proof of past pain endured, but there were also laugh lines beside his eyes. The mouth was straight and serious at the moment, but Ezra had watched it as it spoke comforting words that banished the midnight horrors that plagued his sleep, and had seen it smiling in humor. The face pulled at his emotions, but it was the hazel eyes staring back at him that captured the little boy's attention. Those eyes asked for his trust; promised to guard that trust closely and never betray it. Those eyes promised a safe harbor to weather any storm, and those eyes promised something that Ezra didn't have a name for but discovered he wanted more than anything he had ever wanted in his young life.

“Ezra?” Chris asked again softly, slowly reaching out his hand and stroking one work-roughened finger down the little cheek with a mere whisper of a touch.

Ezra instinctively leaned into the sensation and felt the dam of emotions holding back the things he wanted to speak break suddenly at the man's gentle gesture and start a flood of words flowing from his mouth.

“I was running away,” he began, never looking away from the hazel eyes that watched him so closely.

Vin sighed in relief at Ezra's decision and sat forward, ready to give voice to his own experiences when his chance came. The two regulators listened in near silence as the boys took turns in relaying their travails, only asking the occasional question to clarify points of the recital.

Chris had never had to work so hard to control his emotions as the story Ezra and Vin told sparked an intense rage in him that demanded blood be spilt to wash away the pain and terror the two little ones had endured. The only thing that kept him from giving vent to his feelings was the need to keep from frightening the small children sitting in front of him. Chris didn't have to look at his softhearted friend to know he was having exactly the same feelings at the boy's words.

Like Chris, Buck sat beside the two boys, who had somehow managed to burrow deep into his heart in the short amount of time since he and Chris had found them, and listened to the terrible recitation with his fists clenched and his jaw grinding in fury. Drawing in deep breaths, he fought to rein in the terrible temper that wanted to lash out and hurt those responsible. The fact that the seven year olds had run for their lives from the very people that should have been taking care of them made his rage boil and steam like a hot spring.

He looked at the two boys who should have been safe in the loving arms of family - getting into the kind of innocent trouble children their age usually got into - instead of riding alone in the wilderness trying to survive. He could only thank God that the children had managed to make it safely to this place. Buck had lived too long in the West not to be aware of all the myriad disasters that could have befallen the two brave little boys. They must have had a guardian angel watching over them to have made it as far as they did.

As the son of a prostitute, Buck was familiar with the depths of perversion that his fellow men were capable of so he caught on before Chris to exactly what vileness Ezra's stepmother had planned for him. Buck was a man that adored and respected women, but he vowed that if he ever got his hands on one Maude Standish he would guarantee the woman would never forget it. After viewing the evidence of the long term abuse that Vin had been subjected to, Buck could only wish Justin White a long, and pain-filled death. He knew Chris would be only too happy to help him extract justice for the child's treatment if White should ever come after the children again.

The boys finally wound up their tale, and fell silent. Their gazes slid back and forth between both men as they waited for their reaction. Buck pasted a smile on his face and he made a deliberate effort to relax before he spoke.

"Well, it sounds like you two have had a rough time of it,” he said and rose to go sit between the children, putting an arm around each boy and pulling them closer to him, "but you don't have to worry any more. Chris and I will make sure nothing bad happens to you now. "

Chris tried to tell himself he should object to Buck's assumption that they would be assuming guardianship of the seven year old twins… but somehow when he looked down at the two faces looking back at him with such yearning hope shining out of them the scales tipped a little further in their favor. He just couldn't make the words pass his lips.


Vin halfheartedly drew the letters of the alphabet that Ezra had been teaching him in the dirt of the barn floor with his finger. The boy really wanted to be up helping Buck take care of the horses, but he and Ezra had been told to stay on the bedrolls and not run around, their new guardians afraid they were not completely over their chills. Vin flashed a glance up at his twin and knew Ez was just as eager to be with Chris. The blond man was in the process of saddling his horse, planning to ride out and look for some fresh game to feed the group.

“Ez?” Vin whispered.

Green eyes broke their stare from the black clad gunslinger and Ezra looked back at his brother, an eyebrow raised in question.

“Do you think they're really gonna let us stay with 'em?”

Vin was almost afraid to believe it because he wanted it so badly. He had almost convinced himself that he had heard Buck wrong.

“I don't know,” Ezra whispered back, “but that's what it sounded like to me.”

Vin grinned in relief and answered, “That'd be great, wouldn't it! We could maybe be gunfighters and protect the town too. You think?”

Ezra threw a look back at the two busy men and shrugged.

“Somehow I doubt they could be persuaded to allow us that privilege…IF they are indeed planning to let us stay with them.”

Vin was not the only one who badly wanted to remain with the two men, but Ezra had always been cautious about wanting things too badly. His stepmother had taught him too well that the things you wanted too much could be used by someone to control you. Ezra had gotten to the point where he tried not to let himself want anything, but he couldn't deny the overwhelming desire he felt to stay with Chris and his friend.

“Do you think maybe if we're real good, and show 'em how hard we can work that they'd want to keep us?”

“I don't know, Vin!” Ezra said irritably.

Vin ducked his head and said, “Sorry, Ez.”

Ezra sighed and reached out to clasp his hand over Vin's and whispered his apology, “No, I'm sorry, Vin. I shouldn't have snapped at you that way. You didn't do anything but ask the same question I have asked myself, but I can give you only the answer that I gave myself: I don't know. I wish I did, but I don't. I, too, would like to know the secret of how to gain their affections, to make them want to retain their guardianship of the two of us, but…” Ezra finished with a despondent shrug.

“You sound like you're givin' up before the hunt even starts,” Vin punched his brother's shoulder fondly. “You can't catch a rabbit if you don't get out and set your traps.”

Ezra looked at his grinning brother and asked, “What are you suggesting?”

“We just gotta show 'em how much better off they'll be if they keep us.”

Ezra's eyes narrowed as he studied his twin, seeing the wheels starting to turn in the blond boy's head.

“What exactly do you have in mind?”

Vin's grin got even wider as he put his head closer to his brother's and started to whisper in his ear.


“We're two men alone, without wives, or sisters, or mothers. We have no real home to take them too. We have dangerous jobs that could get us killed any day we go to work. So you tell me, Buck, just what do you think we're gonna do with them?” Chris whispered angrily, tightening the cinch on his saddle with a jerk, all the while trying hard not to let the twins hear the heated discussion that had started almost immediately after they had moved away from the boys.

Buck and Chris had fed, watered and brushed down the three horses in the stalls all the while quietly arguing about the advisability of keeping the boys. Buck naturally wanted to jump right in and claim them and to hell with the consequences, and Chris tried to show his impulsive friend the impossibility of it. Chris was fighting himself as well as Buck when he argued that they couldn't keep the kids.

“Raise 'em,” Buck whispered back firmly in answer to Chris' question, “Love 'em. Keep 'em safe.”

“And how do you expect us to do that? We live in a boarding house, Buck. What should we do, get them a room? And what about when we're working? Who's going to watch them? Maybe we should just set up a schedule for watching them like we do for patrols,” Chris hissed.

Buck stared at the blond for a second and realized that hadn't just come out of thin air. He knew now that no matter what his friend said, whether or not he was even aware of it himself yet, Chris had already begun to study on ways and means of keeping the boys. Buck felt that hard knot of tension in his gut that had gathered when he thought about giving up the boys start to relax. He knew from years of experience that when Chris started planning… well, things started happening.

“Appears you've already been givin' it a lot of thought. That sure sounds like a good plan to me.”

Chris jerked his head up to glare at his ginning friend, “I was being sarcastic!”

“Maybe you were,” Buck told him, “but it still sounds like something that's workable. Come on, Chris, you and I both know it's only gonna take one look to have Nathan, Josiah and JD falling for those two like leaves in autumn. The first time either of those boys flash those dimples at the womenfolk in town they'll be fallin' all over their sweet selves to help out. I doubt we'll ever have a shortage of willin' hands when it comes to those two, and it's not like they're babies needin' their drawers changed every ten minutes. Those two are already pretty good at taking care of themselves.”

“They shouldn't have to!” Chris spit out harshly.

“Yep, you're right about that, pard,” Buck agreed as he went in for the kill, “that's where WE come in.”

Chris was being pulled in opposing directions once again. His common sense was doing battle with his emotions…and for once common sense was losing.

“I'm going hunting,” Chris growled, and led his horse out the open barn door then climbed into the saddle, effectively putting an end to the discussion. He called out a goodbye to the watching boys and returned their waves then turned his horse and spurred it into a run. He didn't look back at Buck. He didn't have to because he knew exactly what the grin on his oldest friend's face would look like as he watched Chris ride away.

The afternoon sun was making its steady decline into evening when Chris returned with a small deer draped behind his saddle. He had used the time alone to try and clear his mind but knew the day had pretty much been a waste of time. His thoughts were still in turmoil. Try as he might, he couldn't keep them from wandering to Ezra as he rode along; wondering what he was doing, if he had suffered a relapse of the night's illness; was he happy? If he hadn't managed to bag the deer he'd come across at a waterhole he would have called the whole day a complete bust.

“It would appear you were successful in your hunt,” Ezra said as he stepped out from behind one of the barn doors and approached the gunslinger as he stepped down from his horse.

Ezra tried hard not to appear as excited and eager to see Chris as he actually was. In his experience it never paid to let someone know what you were feeling. He didn't want Chris to know that he had spent most of the day anxiously watching for his return. He didn't realize that Chris could look into his bright eyes and read his feelings like an open book.

Chris turned at the sound of the boy's voice and felt a warmth of tenderness fill him as he realized that Ezra had been waiting for him; had missed him. Even though he knew it was foolish and maybe even cruel he couldn't help grinning back at the boy and opening an arm to the child. Ezra, in an uncharacteristic display of boyishness, leapt toward the man at the invitation. Chris leaned down and swept up the boy, holding him up with an arm under the little rump while Ezra wrapped his closest arm around the man's neck.

“Yep. We'll eat well tonight,” Chris assured him. “How are you feeling? Any more fever or chills today?”

Ezra shook is head vigorously and assured, “I am quite well. Thanks to your excellent care of me, I have been completely restored to health.”

“That's great news,” Chris told him and tossed him up slightly then caught him again. Ezra giggled and tightened his hold on the man's neck in reflex. “Best news I've heard all day.”

“Considering that you have been hunting all day, I would be very surprised if it were not the only news you've had today.” Ezra told him with a grin causing Chris to tickle his ribs in reply.

“What have you been up to while I was gone?” Chris asked with his own grin.

Ezra shrugged, “Nothing really. Buck wouldn't let us do much. He told us a few outlandish stories of his adventures in the west and we played cards for awhile.” Ezra shook his head in affectionate amusement and said, “Buck really isn't very good at playing cards. I think he needs a lot of practice.”

“Well I won't be getting it with you, that's for sure,” Buck's cheerfully chagrinned voice preceded his appearance through the open barn doors, a grinning Vin at his side. “You about cleaned me out, kid. I never saw anybody so good at cards before!”

“Cleaned you out? What were you playing?” Chris asked, his amused visions of Buck sitting by the boys playing Old Maid or Go Fish popping out of existence like soap bubbles at Buck's words.

“Uh, poker,” Buck replied diffidently, “They got bored with the other games.”

“Let me get this straight,” Chris looked at his friend in disbelief. “You played poker with two boys, two seven year old boys, and they cleaned you out?”

“No,” Buck suddenly grinned back, “Ezra cleaned me out. I held my own with Vin.”

“Ezra just started teachin' me,” Vin muttered, “I'm gonna get better!”

“You are showing excellent progress, Vin,” Ezra hastened to reassure his brother. “A few more lessons and you'll be playing like a master.”

Vin straightened happily at the news and looked up at Buck with a smug look as if to say, “Just you wait.”

“You got cleaned out by a seven year old,” Chris stated, his eyes starting to glow with humor and near-silent chuckles starting to shake his body.

“You don't have to make it sound so bad,” Buck groused.

“You got cleaned out by a seven year old,” Chris repeated and started to laugh in earnest. He let Ezra slide to the ground, afraid he might drop the child because he was laughing so hard.

“Hey, the kid's really good! I'd like to see you do any better,” Buck snarled at his friend who was now bent over, hands on his knees to support himself as he laughed.

“You… got…wiped out … by a…seven year…old,” Chris wheezed in between laughs.

“Cut it out,” Buck growled then swiped a hand at Chris and pushed him.

Chris put out both hands in front of him to hold off further attacks from his friend as he tried to bring his laughter under control. He stood up straight and wiped a hand at his eyes where the tears had gathered in response to his spasm of humor.

“That's a good one,” he chuckled. “I can't wait to see the look on JD's face when he hears this one.”

“Yeah, well let's just see how either of you fare after playing against him,” Buck told his friend. “We'll just see who's laughin' then.”

“I'd be more than happy to give you a few pointers, Buck,” Ezra told him seriously.

Buck looked down at the little boy and couldn't help but smile at the serious face looking up at him.

“That's right nice of you, Ez. I just might take you up on that.”

“Give me a hand with this deer,” Chris said, still chuckling occasionally as he turned and started undoing the ties that held the deer carcass in place on the back of the horse.

Buck stepped forward and both men lifted the already field dressed kill down from the horse and carried it inside the barn to set it beside the remnants of their last fire.

“Can we help?” Vin asked Buck.

“I do believe you can,” Buck assured him, “Why don't you and Ezra see if you can gather some more firewood, while I cut a few steaks off this thing.”

“Sure, Buck!” Vin smiled, eager to do his share, “Come on, Ezra.”

Both boys took off through the barn doors at a run.

“Stay close to the barn,” Chris called after them, “Don't go too far.”

“Yes, sir,” Ezra's voice acknowledged the command.

“They'll be alright, Chris,” Buck assured him as he pulled his knife from its sheath and started slicing into the deer. “I took a look around this place and there's not much that they can get hurt on around here.”

“They're little boys, Buck,” Chris reminded him with a smile, “if there's one thing within a ten mile radius to get in trouble with you know the odds are they'll find it.”

Buck chuckled in amusement and nodded his rueful agreement.

The twins had taken their assignment to heart and were hard at work scouting the area for any burnable material. They had started a pile where they would deposit their finds before ranging out for more. Both boys were eager so prove to the two men that they could be helpful.

“Hey, Ez,” Vin's voice broke Ezra's contemplation of how to go about liberating some broken boards from an old fence.

“What is it, Vin?” Ezra asked.

“Look what I found,” Vin excitedly pointed.

Ezra walked to where his twin was standing and followed his pointing finger. There by a tiny pond, the original homesteaders had planted some fruit trees. Though the homesteaders were long gone, the orange, and pear trees they had left behind had managed to survive. The boys could see a several fruits still among the branches of each tree.

“Do you think Chris and Buck would like some fruit?” Vin asked. “I bet they'd be real impressed with us and want to keep us if we managed to bring some back to go with dinner!”

Ezra looked from his brother to the tall trees and shuddered, “I don't know, Vin. That's awfully high. Do you think we could reach them?”

“Sure,” Vin hasted to assure him. “If you give me a boost I can make it to the lower limbs and climb up. Then I can throw them down to you and you can catch them. It'll be easy!”

Ezra cast one more doubtful glance at the tree then shrugged his shoulders in agreement. “Alright.”

Vin and Ezra positioned themselves under the orange tree. Ezra cupped his hands and allowed Vin to place his foot in them then hoisted Vin up. Vin managed to get a good grip on the overhead limb and pulled himself up until he was able to swing his leg over.

“I'm up,” he said unnecessarily.

“So I see,” Ezra stated sarcastically as he wiped the dirt left by Vin's shoes from his hands with his handkerchief.

Vin carefully climbed higher into the tree and reached out to pluck a nearby orange.

“Comin' down,” Vin warned and tossed the orange to Ezra who reached out and caught it with both hands.

The next ten minutes was spent with Vin picking fruit and tossing it to Ezra who put it in a pile.

“Don't you think that is enough, Vin?” Ezra asked as he looked at the growing number of oranges in the pile, “I don't know if we could carry anymore back to the barn.”

Vin tried to look down through the branches but couldn't see.

“Just let me get this last one,” he said with his tongue peeking out of one side of his mouth in concentration as he stretched his hand out to get one more.

He leaned a little farther out, holding on to the tree branch with one hand as he tried to get the orange than stubbornly stayed just out of reach. His fingers just managed to touch the skin of the fruit when he lost his grip and started falling. His yell of fear was cut short as he fell against a branch on his way down.

Ezra watched in helpless horror as Vin bounced off one limb to another on his fast trip out of the tree and finally landed on his back with a thud on the ground in front of him. Ezra stood stunned for moment then he rushed forward, dropping to his knees beside his brother.

“Vin! Vin,” Ezra yelled as he shook the other boy.

Vin's eyes opened and stared at Ezra in panic as he couldn't get his breath.

“CHRIS! CHRIS!” Ezra yelled in fear, “Help, Chris! Buck, help!”

Inside the barn the two old friends jumped up and ran from to the door as they heard the boy's frantic cries for help. They stopped to listen, trying to get a bearing on the boy's position from his voice, and Buck yelled, “That way!” and took off running, Chris right on his heels.

All Buck could think about was the fact that it was Ezra's voice calling for help…not Vin's. His heart froze in terror at the thought that something could have happened to the child. The men followed the sound of the frightened little voice and burst on to a scene that made their blood run cold.

Ezra was kneeling by the silent Vin, tears streaming down his face, and holding Vin's hand in his own. As they approached they could see Vin was struggling to breathe. Buck flew to the little boy's side and touched his head gently.

“What happened?” he questioned urgently.

“Vin was getting some oranges from the tree,” Ezra sobbed, “and then he fell. He won't say anything. Help him, Buck. Make him alright!”

Chris pulled the sobbing child into his arms and tried to comfort him as Buck examined the child on the ground.

Buck made a quick check for broken ribs then lifted the boy and slipped behind him, letting the child lean on his chest as he started to rub soothing circles on the boy's stomach.

“It's alright, Vin,” Buck assured him, “you just got the wind knocked out of you. Don't try so hard, and just relax. It's gonna be alright. Just take it slow.”

Buck's soothing voice had its usual calming affect on the boy and Vin relaxed enough to be able to draw in air to his starved lungs. Vin turned in the arms that held him and threw his own arms around Buck's neck, holding on tight and started to sob out his fear.

“It's okay, little one,” Buck crooned as he rocked the child, “I've got you. You're alright. Everything's fine now.”

As Buck soothed and petted the boy, Chris wiped the traces of tears from Ezra's face and tried to reassure him.

“There, you see. Vin is fine. I'm sure that was very scary but it's over now. Everything's alright and back to normal.”

“I thought…,” Ezra hiccupped, a few stray tears rolling down his pale cheeks, “I thought Vin was going to die.”

“Vin isn't gonna die, son. He just got a good scare and the breath knocked out of him. I've had it happen to me several times. It wasn't pleasant, but I survived it. Vin will too. What do you say we pick up the oranges you boys found and take them back to camp while Buck sees to Vin?”

Casting a final look at Vin over Chris' shoulder, Ezra nodded and wiped his eyes then helped the man pick up the fruit and carry it back to the barn. Chris looked back at Buck and tossed his head toward the barn to let his friend know he would meet him back there and Buck nodded silently in agreement.

Vin's cries were slowing but the boy remained firmly wrapped around Buck. Buck, who didn't feel any need to rush the child out of his arms, stroked the blond hair of the child as he continued to rock him gently. Eventually Vin quieted and Buck eased him down to sit in his lap.

“Are you alright besides getting winded? Does it hurt anywhere?”

Vin shook his head but kept his head downcast. Buck watched the top of the little head then gently reached down and lifted the boy's chin with one finger, forcing Vin to look at him. The wet, red-ringed eyes tore at Buck's soft heart and he reached out and wiped a stray tear away.

“I'm glad you're alright,” Buck whispered, “you scared me somethin' awful.”

Vin looked at him in surprise.

“I would have been real unhappy if anything had happened to you.”

“Really,” Vin asked, hardly believing he had found someone besides Ezra that would care if he was hurt.

“Really,” Buck said seriously. “I never want anything bad to happen to you, Vin. I'm gonna try my best to make sure that nothing ever does, to you and Ezra both.”

“Are…are we gonna come live with you?” Vin whispered, hardly daring to give voice to the thought.

Buck grinned and said, “Well if I have any say in it you will,” and then stopped smiling and faced him seriously. “I think you're old enough to realize that we don't always get what we want in this life. From what you've told me you've had that lesson drilled into you. I never want to lie to you Vin, so I'm gonna be up front with you. I want to keep you and your brother for always, but there are going to be problems that will need to be worked out; people that might object to it up to and including your grandfather. I can't guarantee you that things will work out the way we want them too. I can't promise you right now that it's gonna ever end up that way. I can promise you to do everything in my power to make it so. Do you understand what I'm trying to say to you?”

Vin studied the man watching him with a yearning on his face that the child instinctively recognized as matching his own. Vin reached out and ran his palm down the tanned face and smiled.

“I understand, Buck,” Vin told the waiting gunslinger. “I know you'll do your best. That's enough for me. It's more than I ever had before.”

Buck swallowed against the lump that formed in his throat and hugged the boy tightly.

“Why don't we get that firewood and go start supper?” Buck said as he released the boy.

The two wandered around the homestead gathering more wood to add to the pile the boys had started, Vin never straying far from his protector's side until they had what Buck declared was enough and returned to the barn. Chris had started another fire using the remnants of wood from the pile Buck had made the previous night. Ezra was busy peeling a few oranges and pulling the fruits into sections that he placed on tin plate. Both looked up with relief when Buck and Vin returned with their arms full of firewood.

Vin dropped his load on the pile and joined Ezra and they began talking quietly together, Ezra wanting to determine for sure that Vin was alright.

Buck unloaded his arms of all but a few pieces of wood that he laid on the fire as he joined Chris.

“I was wrong,” Chris looked at his friend seriously and Buck cocked an eyebrow in question, “I forgot there were two of them. They could find trouble in a twenty mile radius.”

Chris' mouth pulled into a grin and Buck smothered a laugh, but couldn't stop an answering grin from stretching across his face.


The heat of the noon sun was starting to force most people indoors when JD noticed the riders slowing making their way to the livery stable. He was sitting in front of the church where Josiah was planing a stair railing when he spotted the two missing regulators. The men were two days overdue and the remaining lawmen had been starting to worry.

“They're back!” JD threw over his shoulder at Josiah as he jumped up and took off at a fast clip to the livery.

Josiah looked up, following JD's rapidly retreating figure and sighed in relief for the lost lambs' return to the fold.

He threw the tool in his hand down and swiftly followed JD. His progress was slowed by his surprise as he watched a grinning Buck hand an equally grinning blond haired boy down to JD and then throw his leg over his horse and dismount.

Another child, this one with reddish brown hair, was being helped down from another horse by the group's leader. Josiah shook his shock off and continued his way to his friends.

“Welcome home, brothers,” Josiah's voice boomed out his welcome. “It seems you came home with a little more than you left with.”

Buck laughed and slapped the big man's shoulder in appreciation of the understatement.

“We surely did, Josiah. Found us a couple of half-drowned kittens,” Buck said and reached down to ruffle Vin's hair.

“I ain't no kitten,” Vin said indignantly.

Buck grabbed the boy up and tickled him. Vin wiggled and screamed and giggled at the man's treatment.

“Well you sure looked like one when we found you,” Buck teased then shifted the boy to his hip. “Boys this here's Vin Tanner and his brother Ezra Standish. Vin, Ezra say hello to Josiah Sanchez and that one with the funny hat is JD Dunne. ”

“Buck,” JD growled in exasperation at the introduction.

“Nice to meet you Vin, Ezra,” Josiah nodded at each in turn.

“A pleasure, Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra assured him as he confidently approached the giant of a man and stuck out his hand.

Josiah bend down and shook the offered hand seriously, biting back the shout of laughter that threatened to escape. The child was adorable. He could already see half of the town's women falling for that charming manner.

“Howdy, Mr. Sanchez,” Vin wiggled out of Buck's arms, came behind his twin, and offered his hand following Ezra's example with a shy grin. Josiah could see where the other half of the town's women would be falling.

“How do you do, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra repeated to the bemused young man watching the two boys.

JD shook himself out of his stupor long enough to return each boys' greeting and handshake.

“Sounds like you boys have to some talking to do,” the voice of Nathan Jackson reached them as the man walked up and joined the group.

Introductions were exchanged again and then Chris drew their attention.

“Let's get the horses taken care of and get out of this sun then we'll tell you all about it. Anything happen while we were gone?”

While the peacekeepers related the usual goings on around the busy little town, Chris, Buck and the two boys made swift work of unsaddling the horses and brushing them down. JD had tried to step in to help the boys but had been quickly, but politely, rebuffed. The twins, acting as a team, were actually able to beat the grown men at the job and stood by waiting patiently for them to finish, grinning to each other in triumph at their accomplishment.

“Good job, boys,” Chris told them with a smile and both boys stood a little straighter at the praise. “I don't know about you, but lunch sounds really good to me right now. How about we head over to the restaurant and grab a table?”

“I could eat,” JD affirmed.

“Heck we know you could, JD,” Buck teased, “You could eat for an hour, get up and walk around the table, sit down and be ready for another whole meal!”

“Awh, you're just jealous because you can't eat your fill like me without losing your 'Manly figure' and getting fat,” JD threw back with a smirk. “Speaking of which, you better cut down on the biscuits, Buck, 'cause I think you're 'Manly figure' is about to drop over the top of your belt.”

“Why you little…com'ere boy! I'm gonna teach you some more about respecting your elders,” Buck yelled in mock anger, and, with a laughing holler, took off after the grinning man.

Ezra and Vin looked at each other. Vin grinned and took off after the pair. Ezra just shook his head and looked up a Chris.

“Are they always like that?” he asked.

Chris nodded ruefully, “Usually. Sometimes they're worse.”

Ezra sighed then replied, “I was afraid of that. This may take some getting use to.”

“They do have their good points,” Chris said seriously, although each one present could see the laughter in his eyes.

“For example?” Ezra played along.

“Well….” Chris made show of scratching his head in thought, “…they're clean…usually anyway, and … ah…they love their horses.”

“I suppose some good can be found in anyone…if you look hard enough,” Ezra agreed.

Chris couldn't keep his straight face anymore and swooped down with a laugh to pick up the boy who was now smiling up at him. JD yelped about that time and they all turned to see a laughing Vin wrapped around the sheriff's leg while his smiling mentor had JD in a headlock rubbing his knuckles over the top of their captive's head.

“No fair,” JD tried to indigently shout over his own laughter, “Two against one!”

Josiah watched the bi-play and got even more curious about the story behind the appearance of the two children. He had seen more good humor showing on his leader's face in the last few minutes than was usually seen in a several days, and Buck's normal ebullience had been even more in evidence than usual. That both were the direct result of the boys' presence made for a tale that Josiah was determined to hear as soon as possible. It looked like things in their little corner of the world were about to get interesting…really interesting.


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