by Purple Lacey

Josiah pounded the nails into the wood of the door frame with awesome force. It only took one blow from the man's hammer to drive the nails completely into the frame. Josiah was pretending that each nail was the face of one of the people that had hurt the twins. After listening to Chris and Buck tell the boys' story over lunch, Josiah had felt the need to retreat and take his anger at the boy's mistreatment out on a few inanimate objects. Although he had traveled extensively and seen much suffering and hardship in his lifetime, the deliberate abuse that the children had been forced to suffer struck a chord within the big man that made his blood boil. Watching those boys as they consumed lunch sitting so trustingly between the two hardened gunslingers that had stumbled upon them, laughing and teasing the two grown men fearlessly, Josiah couldn't help but wonder what hand fate was dealing the little ones…and the big ones, he thought with a smile.

It was readily apparent to anyone with brains enough to look that both men were smitten with the children. Josiah admitted to himself with a smile that after only one afternoon in their presence he was already halfway to being smitten himself. There was just something intrinsically loveable about the twins.

He shook his head over that one. That had been a surprise. He couldn't image two less likely people to be born twins than Ezra and Vin. The two were so totally different, but at the same time so strangely alike. They were like two sides of the same coin, showing different faces of one being. It would be interesting to see how their relationship grew over the years. Josiah jerked his thoughts to a stop on realizing that he was assuming the boys would still be with them in the future to be observed.

“You need some help with that hammerin',” Nathan's voice broke into his musings. “I feel like poundin' somethin' today.”

Josiah grinned knowingly at his friend and replied, “Amen, brother. I felt that very same need myself, and I imagine for exactly the same reason.”

“It just ain't right for anybody to treat them boys like that,” Nathan simmered. “Nobody deserves that kind of treatment, but especially not innocent children.”

“You're preaching to the choir, Nathan,” Josiah said.

After lunch, Nathan had checked the boys over to make sure they were healthy. It hadn't taken much persuading because both men were eager to have the healer tell them the children were alright. The protests of Ezra and Vin had been gently overcome and Nathan had escorted the children and the two men to his clinic where he had made a thorough examination of both boys and pronounced them fit.

Nathan shook his head in anger and told his friend, “You didn't see that boy's back, Josiah, but I did. A person don't get marks like that from just one beatin'. There were scars on top of scars. And the other one…while he don't have the marks of beatin's I found several places with burn marks. I recognized 'em from when I was still a slave. One of the overseers on the plantation where my family was sold liked to put the end of his burning cigar on anybody who didn't move fast enough to suit him. Those same burns marks are on the second boy. All he'd say about them when I asked was that sometimes his stepmother got impatient with him. I just… just…” Nathan sputtered in his anger.

Josiah silently handed the angry man the hammer and a nail. Nathan grabbed both and started pounding the nail into the doorframe. Josiah kept handing him more nails and Nathan pounded until he'd worked up a sweat and worked out enough anger to speak clearly again.

“You realize, from what Chris and Buck told us, those two aren't safe,” Nathan said throwing the hammer down and wiping the perspiration off his brow with his sleeve.

“I know. If their grandfather finds out where they are he's sure to try and kill them before they have a chance to provide any evidence that might lead to prison or a rope around his neck,” Josiah agreed.

“And that stepmother don't sound like the type to meekly let him go free, especially if she made a deal with a hard customer like the one Ezra described. I seen his kind before. That no- good dog's gonna want what he paid for,” Nathan ground out in disgust.

Josiah nodded solemnly and both men fell silent.

“It just ain't right,” Nathan sighed.


The sound of boyish giggles preceded JD's entrance into the roomer's parlor of the boardinghouse where the town's regulators stayed. The group had retired to the room after dinner to relax, the regular nightly visit to the saloon passed up for the chance to stay with the twins. After dinner JD had volunteered to get the boys ready for bed and the three had disappeared into the room that Chris had acquired for the two boys. The sound of laughter and bodies bumping into furniture coming from the room attested to the difficulty JD had getting both boys out of their clothes, washed up and into their nightshirts. Chris was getting ready to intervene when he heard the door open and JD start down the hall with the twins. JD had a squirming, laughing boy under each arm and a huge smile on his face as he hauled the boys around like feed sacks.

JD plopped the twins on their feet and the boys ran inside to say their goodnights. Chris couldn't help but smile. The boys stood before the group looking like little angels that had snuck out of heaven, but it only took one look at JD's rumpled appearance to tell that their halo's were crooked. One side of the young sheriff's shirt was pulled almost completely from his trousers, and one suspender was hanging off his shoulder. His thick black hair was disheveled and small, wet handprints could be seen all over the legs of his pants.

“Have you boys been giving JD a hard time?” Chris said sternly, at least he tried to say it sternly, but the grin that kept wanting to sneak out probably ruined the effect.

Both children went still as they watched the blond man's face, trying to decide if they had gone too far and were now in trouble. The memories of past reactions from angry adults flashed through their little minds. Neither boy was entirely secure in their new living arrangement yet so neither knew what to expect from these new adult caretakers when they were irritated. They didn't know whether it was better to stay or to run, but before they could decide, Chris' grin peeked out and both boys relaxed in relief.

“Nah,” JD reassured everyone, ruffling the boys´ hair as the spoke, “They were good as gold, Chris. We were just playin' is all.”

“Un-huh,” Chris looked skeptically at his youngest regulator who grinned back unashamedly as he tried to cover for the twins. Chris opened his arms and the two boys ran and climbed into his lap.

“Where's Buck?” Vin asked looking up at Chris in question.

“Buck's taking a turn around the town to check on things before we settle in for the night,” Chris assured him. “He'll be along in a little while.”

“Oh,” Vin dropped his head in disappointment.

“Don't worry. He said he'd be back to say goodnight,” Chris assured him.

“He said he'd tell us a story before we went to bed,” Vin stated forlornly.

“And I always keep my promises,” Buck said as he stepped into the parlor, still slipping his coat off.

“Buck!” Vin smiled and his face lit up.

“Who's ready to hear the story of Mean Bob Bryan and the bear?” Buck grinned as he tossed his coat over the back of a chair and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

Vin popped off Chris' lap and flew to Buck yelling, “Me! Me!”

Ezra was torn between wanting to stay seated with Chris and hearing the story. Chris made it easy for him.

“Come on, Ezra,” Chris said and rose to this feet with the child in his arms, “Let's get you tucked in so Buck can start his story. I haven't heard this one for a long time.”

The two boys called their goodnights to the rest of the regulators as they were carried from the room. Ezra snuggled against Chris's shoulder as the man carried him down the hall and slipped into his room, Buck following behind with Vin. Chris pulled back the covers on the bed and set Ezra down, pulling the covers back up to his chin and tucking them around him carefully. When he was finished, Chris sat on the bed beside Ezra and waited for Buck to finish putting Vin in the bed beside his brother. Buck sat by Vin's side as the boys watched him with expectant gazes.

“Well, I once met this old man that went by the name of Mean Bob Bryan. Now Mean Bob, he come by his name honestly. I swear you never met a man meaner that Mean Bob,” Buck began.

Chris watched as Buck captured both boys' imaginations with his tale and smiled as they each tried to fight off sleep to listen. Try as they might, the long day eventually caught up with the boys and they succumbed, Ezra falling first, and Vin only a few minutes behind him. Both men sat beside the children and watched them sleep for a few moments before reluctantly rising. Buck turned the wick on the oil lamp down to where it was just barely burning and the two men made their way out of the room. Chris gently pulled the door shut behind them.

“They get down alright?” Nathan asked when the men returned to the parlor.

Buck nodded, “They went out like a candle in a wind storm.”

“Hard day for them,” Josiah interjected.

“More like a hard life for them,” JD said looking at his friends gravely.

“I'm afraid you have the right of it, brother,” Josiah said sadly.

“They're not out of the woods yet,” Buck stated while making eye contact with the other regulators. “If that grandfather of theirs or Ezra's stepmother gets wind that they're here…”

“They could be in danger,” JD finished.

“Then we have to make sure that they don't get wind of it,” Chris told them.

“You planning on keeping them, Chris?” Nathan asked.

“For now,” was all Chris was willing to admit. He threw out a hand to stop Buck's protest. “We have more important things to discuss right now. Their safety comes first. We need to come up with a plan to guarantee that first, and then we'll worry about the rest of it.

The first thing that I can see is to make sure that they're not left alone,” Chris said looking around and seeing the other men nod in agreement. “One of us needs to be with them all the time. They're both still so small that it would be easy for someone to snatch them up and smuggle them out of town. So from now on if we're not on patrol or jail duty then we're watching the boys. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Buck said firmly.

“I'm in,” JD said seriously.

“Agreed,” Josiah and Nathan chorused together.

“That brings up another question,” Josiah intoned, “how are we supposed to keep the news of the boys away from their relatives? People do love to talk.”

“Let 'em!” Chris decreed, “They can talk all they want to as long as they don't know the truth, but we don't say anything. Nothing about the boys' past goes beyond this room.”

“Somehow I don't see Mrs. Travis being willing to let it lie,” Nathan warned.

“She can wonder all she wants, but she won't have anything if we don't tell it to her, and since we're not going to leave the boys alone whoever is with them will be responsible for not letting her close enough to get any information from them.”

“Do you really think that will work?” Josiah asked skeptically.

“It's none of her business and you can tell her I said so,” Chris ground out. “We are not at liberty to discuss the situation with her. That's our official stance. If she has a problem with that then she can take it up with me.”

Josiah let the subject drop, knowing that once his leader used that tone of voice that the subject was closed, but still thought Chris was being a little naïve when it came to the newspaper woman. Not for one minute did the ex-preacher see Mary Travis being content to let something like this lie just because Chris declared that it wasn't any of her business. Nuh-uh, no way was that gonna happen. Josiah sighed to himself. He could see a lot of trouble for the two orphan boys and some disillusionment for Chris in the future. He knew Chris had something of a soft spot for Mary… Josiah just wished that in this case that soft spot wasn't in his head!


The gentle breeze blowing through the open window ruffled the edge of the light curtain framing it. Ezra looked up from the book he was reading as the motion caught his eye and then returned to his story. He was stretched out comfortably on the settee in the parlor of the boarding horse while Vin entertained himself on the parlor rug with the wooden soldiers Chris and Buck and whittled for them. Josiah was snoozing in a chair by the door, his arms crossed on his chest and his long legs stretched out in front of him crossed at the ankles. Rumbling snores emerged from his mouth periodically.

In the week since the boys had arrived in Four Corners the seven members of the group had developed a happy little routine All the peacekeepers not on duty would join the boys for breakfast, a rowdy but entertaining affair from Ezra's viewpoint. Then the twin's day was spent with one of more of the men in a variety of activities.

So far they'd been fishing with Buck (an activity Vin found more interesting than Ezra), riding with JD, and hunting with Chris. Chris had also given them a few lessons in whittling that Ezra enjoyed immensely (mostly because it let him spend extra time with Chris). Josiah had joined Ezra in tutoring a swiftly improving Vin in his reading. Nathan had taken them with him one afternoon and allowed them to help him harvest herbs and flowers for his healing potions, although the boys spent more time chasing each other than they did actually hunting for the plants Nathan showed them. Judging by the big smile on Nathan's face as he had watched them, he didn't seem to mind too much. JD had allowed them to go through all the wanted posters he had at the jail and the boys had spent a full two hours suspiciously studying faces on the street outside the jail trying to spot someone from the posters.

The day was usually broken up by lunch with whoever was assigned to watch the boys and any of the other peacekeepers that didn't have business to keep them away. The evening meal was once again a group affair. After dinner one or another of the men might slip off to the saloon for a drink or a hand of cards, while the rest had a quiet evening reading to the children, (or being read to by Ezra) or playing with them before bedtime. Chris and Buck, and increasingly JD, found the quiet evenings more appealing than the rowdiness of the saloon and more often than not chose to stay in with the boys of an evening.

Although unknown to the boys, Buck did slip off after the twins were in bed to do his habitual romancing of the town's ladies, but even his tom-catting had changed in the time since the boys' arrival. Where he once might have spent the whole night with his latest conquest, he now found himself bidding a cheerful goodbye and hightailing it back to his own bed every night, afraid he would not be there if the boys needed him during the night.

The twins thought they had found heaven. They were surrounded with adults that really seemed to care when they were hurt or afraid or unhappy; adults that didn't hit or yell, or lock them in closets when they were mad. For the first time in a very long time for either boy, they dared to dream about what wonders each new day would bring instead of worrying about what new ill would befall them with the next sunrise.

Ezra raised his head from his book again as he caught the faint, but now familiar tinkling sounds of spurs and the heavier sound of footsteps that signaled to him that Chris was climbing the stairs. Ezra shifted his gaze to the sleeping ex-preacher and watched as the man that was sleeping so deeply came awake with startling swiftness at the first sound of someone's approach. Ezra found Josiah's ability to come awake to full alertness so quickly a source of endless fascination since it always took Ezra a long time to shake off the affects of even the shortest nap. He wandered around groggy and irritable after sleep, and didn't understand how Josiah was able to snap to awareness the way he did. When the child had questioned him about it, Josiah had just shrugged and said it was something he learned in the Army out of necessity and hoped Ezra never had to.

Chris stepped into the room, pausing in the doorway and doing his customary scan to make sure all was well before entering fully and nodding to Josiah. Ezra closed his book and sat up on the settee, smiling at his protector in welcome.

“Chris,” Ezra greeted him.

“Ezra.” Chris returned and sat beside the boy. “What are you reading?”

“Mr. Sanchez…eh…Josiah,” he corrected as the large man cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow at the child, “loaned me a copy of Mr. Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing'. It is most entertaining,” Ezra told him.

“That's good,” the blond man said absently as he stroked a hand down the boy's hair.

“Is something wrong, Chris?” Ezra asked, noticing the man's preoccupation right away.

“No, Ezra,” Chris smiled to reassure him, “there's nothing wrong. I was just thinking. I had an idea, but I need your help.”

“My help?” Ezra stared at the man with his head tipped to one side as he pondered Chris and his words.

“I'm trying to find ways to guarantee that your stepmother can never get her hands on you or your brother ever again, Ezra,” Chris told him seriously, “but I need your help because you're the only one that really knows her.”

Ezra had stiffened at the mention of his stepmother and Chris reached out and pulled the tense little boy closer.

“I'm not going to let her take you away, Ezra,” Chris hugged the boy tighter. “I just need you to help me a little. Can you do that for me?”

“Wha…what did you need me to do,” Ezra stammered, his fear of his stepmother being able to rip him from the secure place he had found rising to the surface.

“I need you to tell me all you know about her, Ezra. Everything,” Chris stressed. “What she looks like, how she acts. The way she does business. And most importantly everything you can remember about the swindles she's pulled in the past. Every detail you can remember will help.”

“Why do you need to know?”

“So I can be prepared if she ever shows up here. If I know what crimes she has committed and where, I have ammunition to use against her. It's like buying bullets for a gun. If you're going into a battle you want to buy as many bullets as you can. It's always better to have too many than not enough, right?”

“But… I…” Ezra hung his head afraid to look at Chris.

“Ezra?” Chris asked watching the child with concern. “What's wrong, son?”

Ezra suddenly pulled out of the man's arms and ran from parlor to his room down the hall where he ran in and slammed the door shut.

Chris met Josiah's concerned gaze and shrugged.

“What just happened here?” Chris asked the man in confusion.

“He's scared,” Vin's voice startled the men who had forgotten the quiet child was in the room.

“Why is he scared, Vin?” Josiah asked.

“He's scared if he tells you all that then you won't want him anymore,” Vin stared straight at Chris as he spoke.

“Then he's wrong,” the blond said and stared right back.

“Why would he think we wouldn't want him anymore?” Josiah drew Vin's attention once more.

“Cause of the things she made him do,” Vin said sadly. “If you think she's bad then he thinks you'll think he's bad too.”

“How could he think we'd hold him to blame for things he didn't have a choice about doing?” Chris replied. “He's only a boy.”

“Most people would,” Vin said matter-of-factly.

“Then it's a good thing we're not most people!” Chris announced firmly and rose from the settee to march out the parlor door and down the hall to the boy's room.

He knocked once quietly then opened the door. Ezra was sprawled on his stomach on the bed, his face pressed into a pillow to muffle the sounds of his crying.

“Ah, Ez,” Chris whispered gently and moved to sit on the bed beside him. “Ezra, I want you to look at me,” Chris said as he carefully rolled the unresisting boy over onto his back. “I want you to be able to see my face when I say this. I want you to know I am telling you the absolute truth.

I don't care about the things you were taught to do in the past. I don't care about any of the things you were made to do back then. All I care about is you, Ezra, and what happens now. Whatever you tell me about your stepmother and the things you or she did back then won't matter to me one bit, do you understand? It won't change the way I feel about you, and I am still going to want you around. Are we straight on that?”

Ezra sniffled and stared at the face of the blond gunslinger and found it unprecedentedly open. He could read the absolute sincerity behind the words Chris spoke.

“But…you don't know…” Ezra whispered.

“Nothing, Ezra,” Chris told him firmly. The man stroked the tousled hair away from the tear streaked face of the child, and continued, “Nothing you tell me can make me want to send you away. I give you my word on that.”

Tears filled the green eyes and Ezra launched himself into the waiting arms of Chris and hung on with all his might.

The two sat in silence for a few moments, Chris rocking them both from side to side, just enjoying their new understanding.

“Her favorite con is the cotton gin shares,” Ezra whispered.

Chris settled them back against the headboard of the bed and continued to hold the child as he related all the many details he recalled about his stepmother's scams.


To say that the boys' presence in town stirred up a little interest would be a gross understatement. Any new face in town was cause for excitement, but that the two little boys were comfortably ensconced within the ring of the town's five wild and woolly regulators had the grapevines working full blast with speculation. The only ones fully aware of the boys' sorry tale were the regulators themselves and they weren't talking.

It was driving Mary Travis crazy. A natural born busybody, her profession allowed her the freedom to snoop to her heart's content in a way that was not only socially acceptable, but actively encouraged. Her curiosity about the two children was about to eat her alive, and the five peacekeepers had made it impossible for her to get any answers. Not only were they not telling her what she wanted to know, shrugging off her questions and stating they weren't at liberty to say, but they made sure the children were never in a position for her to question them directly. There was always, ALWAYS, one of them with the children. When she tried to interrogate Chris Larabee he would only tell her it was none of her business and to leave it alone. It was enough to make a grown woman scream!

Since she had always been a determined woman, she refused to give up. She had decided to take matters into her own hands. If the five men wouldn't provide her with answers then she'd just get them from somewhere else. Her editorial on the children, complete with descriptions and requests for any information on them had been printed in this morning's paper. She sat back with a smug smile as she took a sip of her morning coffee and pulled her ledger closer so she could go over his business accounts. She was expecting a reaction from the five men…but not the one she got.

As she set her cup back on the table the back door to her rooms behind the newspaper office slammed back against the wall with a loud crash and four very angry peacekeepers stormed in and faced her, grim faced and almost vibrating with outrage. A startled and suddenly frightened Mary jumped to her feet and put the chair she had been seated in between her and the angry men starting at her. She gripped the chair back with white knuckled fingers and she watched as Nathan Jackson silently reached out and slammed the door shut behind them then stood in front of it with his arms crossed.

“You just couldn't keep your nose out of it, could you?” Chris Larabee growled as he stepped up and pushed his face close to hers. “We told you it wasn't any of your business, but you just couldn't leave it alone. You had to push it. Do you have any idea of what you have done? Any idea of the danger you have put those two boys in? Did it ever occur to you that there might be a very good reason why we wouldn't let anyone know anything about those two boys? Well? Did it?” Chris demanded angrily.

“How many of those papers did you sell?” Nathan broke in, “Is there anyway to get them back before anyone sees 'em?”

Mary gulped and shook her head warily, “You might be able to pick up the ones in town, but the ones on the stage left two hours ago.

Chris swore loudly and kicked one of her kitchen chairs across the room.

“The people have a right to know…” she began only to be cut short by an enraged Buck Wilmington.

“The PEOPLE have a right to know SQUAT when it comes to those two! Those two little boys have the right to LIVE, damn you! In my book that's a heap more important that satisfying your curiosity!” Buck glared at her.

“Surely you're exaggerating…” she began only to be cut off once more.

“Surely we are NOT exaggerating,” Josiah ground out. “By writing what you did in your paper you have put both their lives at risk.”

“I…I… didn't know… ”

“You didn't THINK,” Chris snapped. “All you saw was a story. Did you ever once give any thought to what your actions might do to those boys before you did it? You don't have to answer that because we already know the truth.” Chris leaned even closer until he was almost nose to nose with her and his voice got lower and colder, “I will tell you this though, if even one hair on either of those boys' heads is hurt because of what you did, I will hold you accountable!”

Chris stepped back from the trembling woman, turned on his heel, and stalked to the door and Nathan stepped aside to let his leader pass. Chris threw the door open and charged out, the other three men following behind their leader after casting disgusted looks at her.

The shaken woman dropped into the chair again as the last of the men exited and walked away. She didn't bother getting up to close the still open door. She didn't think her knees would hold her. Mary liked to think she had a good relationship with the town's peacekeepers. They were friendly and helpful for the most part. They would occasionally balk at feeding her the information she requested for her stories but seldom flat out refused to discuss something with her. She should have realized there might be a reason for the men's actions. She had let her own curiosity and her damnable pride lead her into an act of almost criminal irresponsibility if what they said was true, if the boys really were in danger and the men were only acting to protect them.

In retrospect she could see she had made a terrible mistake. She just hoped it wasn't one that either of the young boys would have to pay for. She didn't think she could live with herself if anything happened to either one of them because of her, and she knew she'd never be able to face the five men protecting them.


A still enraged Chris Larabee slammed through the batwing doors of the saloon and threw himself in a chair at the table that had come to be recognized by the locals as the regulators'. Inez Recillos, the owner of the saloon, slipped out from behind the bar with a bottle and a tray of empty glasses that she set on the table in silence as the three other men joined their leader. Inez slipped away quietly, alert to the men's mood like the good saloon owner that she was. She knew that whatever was bothering the lawmen was serious when Buck didn't make his usual attempt to flirt with her.

“Damn her,” Chris mumbled right before he poured himself a shot of whiskey and slammed it down. “Why the hell couldn't she have just left it alone?”

“The nature of the beast, Chris,” Josiah told him, “You wouldn't ask a fish to fly, or a pig to get up and dance. You can't expect Mary to be anything but what she is.”

“I can expect her to think about how her actions will affect other people!” Chris ground out, reaching out to pour himself another drink only to have his hand stopped by Buck's.

“That ain't the answer, Chris. You can't afford to take out your frustrations in a bottle this time. The twins can't afford it,” Buck kept his hand over his leader's and his gaze level with the blazing hazel eyes. “They need you clear headed right now, and Vin for one is already familiar enough with drunken men. He don't need to be faced with another one!”

Chris eyed his friend in anger for moment then nodded and withdrew his hand from the whiskey bottle as the truth in his friend's words registered.

“Justin White and Maude Standish are not the only ones we're going to have to worry about now. Judge Travis reads Mary's paper,” Chris informed them, “When he gets wind of this, you know he's going to make a bee-line for this town just as soon as he can get away.”

“You think he'd risk taking the boys away from here once he knows the danger that they'd be in?” Buck asked and worried one corner of his mustache with a finger.

“If he thought they were safer someplace else, then I reckon he would,” Nathan threw in unhappily.

“So what can we do?” Buck asked looking around at the faces of his friends, “We can't just let him take 'em away. Those boys belong to us!”

“Not legally they don't,” Josiah intoned and tossed back his own drink grimacing slightly as it burned down his throat. “Legally they belong to their grandfather… or their stepmother.”

“Right now our attention should be on protecting them from those two vultures,” Chris stopped any further discussion with a slap to the table. “The biggest danger to the boys right now is from them. We can worry about Travis when we have to. Besides, it's possible that if we neutralize the physical threat we'll go a long way in neutralizing the legal one.”

“What do you mean?” Buck asked.

Chris looked at him levelly and said, “Dead men don't have any rights to claim anyone, and if Justin White tries to hurt either of those boys, he's gonna wind up dead.”

Buck gave his leader a feral grin and nodded his wholehearted agreement to the statement.

“That still leaves Maude Standish,” Josiah pointed out.

“With the information Ezra gave me we may be able to scare her away. I've already sent out a few telegrams to some of the places Ezra told me she swindled people and have gotten a couple of replies back. Judging from the responses so far, there are a lot of people eager to get their hands on the woman. If she was tried for all the crimes we know about so far she'd spend the rest of her days in prison. If she's smart, which by everything Ezra has told me she is, then she'll know it will be in her best interest to drop any claim to the twins she might have.”

“You can't forget that viper that wanted Ezra,” Nathan ground out. “Ain't no way he's gonna meekly give up once he's seen Ezra and especially if he already paid money on him.”

“He's the biggest threat right now because he's hidden,” Chris agreed. “We don't know his name or what he looks like. He could be any stranger walking down the street, so we're going to have to be extra cautious.”

“So we just concentrate on protecting the twins for now,” Josiah stated.

“Yeah,” Chris affirmed. “From now on I want at least two of us with the boys at all times. We don't know where the enemy is right now. It could take them a day or a month to get here, so we don't take any chances. Buck, you go stay with JD and the boys right now. The rest of us will keep ours eyes open.”

Buck nodded, tossed back the last sip of his drink and grabbed his hat. He stood up and quickly walked out the saloon doors, suddenly anxious to get to the twins and JD.

Chris stood up as well and looked down at the remaining regulators.

“I'm going to the telegraph office to send out a few inquiries. I want to see if I can find out where Justin White is right now. Keep your guard up,” he said then turned to follow Buck from the saloon.


Buck scanned the area again looking for anything that could signal danger and returned his gaze to the three figures crouched around a circle drawn in the dirt of the alley beside the boarding house. He had heard the excited little voices as he hurried back to the boarding house and followed them to the alley. Buck squirmed a little to get more comfortable on the wooden barrel he was sitting on and leaned his back against the wall of the boarding house as he watched the spirited game of marbles that was taking place.

JD had proudly presented each boy with a bag of marbles after breakfast and every man present had felt an interminable sadness at the stunned astonishment the boys had shown at the giving of the gifts. No child should be so amazed that someone would care enough about them to give them a something as simple and ordinary as a bag of marbles. It brought home even more to the men how little either boy knew about the everyday things of childhood that other children took for granted.

“They're really for us?” Vin had questioned in awe, pouring out the shiny round globes of colored glass from the little blue cloth drawstring bag into his hand.

“Yep,” JD assured him.

“They are most attractive,” Ezra replied politely as he looked into his own red bag, and JD realized Ezra had no idea what the marbles were for.

“You use them to play a game,” JD informed him. “I'll teach you how later. I'm sure you'll have fun once you learn how to play.”

“Back home, I seen a few boys in town playing with these,” Vin looked at his brother and smiled, “It looked like they was having a really good time.”

“You didn't play also?” Ezra queried.

“Nah,” Vin replied matter-of-factly, “Everybody was too scared of what Grandpa would do to risk letting their kids play with me.”

Buck's heart almost broke at the thought of this little boy watching other boys playing and yearning to join in but not being able to. Every story Vin told about his Grandfather served to drive another nail in the man's coffin as far as Buck was concerned.

“Well now I guess you'll get to learn what all the fuss was about,” JD told him with a grin as he ruffled the child's hair fondly and received the boys' thanks.

It had been right about this time that Josiah had smothered a curse and handed the newspaper he was glancing through to Chris who had bitten off his own swear when he read the editorial that Josiah pointed out. The paper had been passed around quickly to the other peacekeepers, and they had stormed out to confront the newspaper woman. Since it had been JD´s turn for watching the boys he had naturally remained behind and had the uncomfortable task of convincing the two very mood-sensitive children that nothing was wrong.

Buck had found the threesome crouched down in the alleyway and had taken a seat on the barrel to keep watch over them as they played. None of the three noticed his presence, so engrossed were they in the lesson on how to shoot marbles. Buck had to grin as he watched Vin's face screw up in concentration as he aimed his “shooter” at a marble inside the dirt ring and flicked it with his thumb just like JD had taught him. The marble shot out from his fingers and collided with the marble he was aiming for and sent it careening out of the circle.

“I did it!” Vin clapped his hands in glee and yelled.

“You sure did,” JD said and gave him a congratulatory pat on the back.

“Great job, pard,” Buck called to the excited little boy.

“Buck,” Vin yelled, jerking his head up in surprise as he recognized Buck's voice. He held up the marble he'd hit and said proudly, “Did you see? I did it!”

“I surely did see that. It was a great shot, son,” Buck assured him with an answering proud grin on his face.

“Watch Ezra, Buck,” Vin said nudging his brother to take his turn, “He's really good too!”

Ezra lined up his shot with his dexterous little fingers and managed to claim his own small victory when a marble flew from the circle.

“Way to go, Ezra,” Buck congratulated him with a smile. “Looks like we got us two natural born marbles players here, JD.”

“I reckon you're right about that. Never seen so much natural talent gathered in one place before,” JD told the boys, pulling both to him for quick hug.

JD left the boys to practice their new skill and walked over to lean on the wall near Buck.

He threw a look over his shoulder at the boys then quietly asked, “What happened?”

Buck sighed, “We went over to Mary's and Chris cut into her something fierce. I…uh…well I guess I did to. I was just so mad at her for putting the kids in danger like that. I think we scared her good.”

“But you didn't hurt her…right?”

“Naw,” Buck reassured him. “Didn't touch her, although I thought for a minute Chris might take it into his head to strangle her,” Buck finished with a grin. “I was mad enough right about then I might have let him!”

“So then what?”

Buck shrugged and took another look around before answering.

“Then we went to the saloon, and cooled off a bit. Chris decided we're gonna have to keep on our toes now. There's to be two of us with the boys all the time, that's why I came back here.”

“Does Chris really think the twins' folks'll see the paper and come here?”

“The way those boys' luck is runnin' it's almost a certainty, JD,” Buck said with a woeful shake of his head.


Buck never knew just how true his words were. Unknown to any of the peacekeepers, evil had been in their midst for almost two days already. This particular evil took the form of one Joseph Rimmer, a tall, thin man in his mid-forties with patches of grey hair intermixed with his scraggly mud brown ones. His thin face was marked with an equally thin nose and thin lips. His grey eyes were small and deep set. His was a face that not even a mother could love. His own mother had proved this by abandoning him in a back street of Denver in the dead of winter when he was only five years old. He had been found, crying in terror for his mother, by the local constable when the man was on his way home from duty one evening. The officer had dropped him off at the local orphanage and forgotten about the miserable looking waif…and unknowingly set in motion the creation of a monster.

Joseph had cursed that man for years, believing for a time that he would have been better off if he had frozen in the street. The orphanage itself hadn't been so bad, but the director had been a depraved animal, using those children that he believed never stood a chance of adoption for his own perverted pleasure. Occasionally he would share them with his equally perverted friends…for a price. Although it had been close to thirty years since he had made his escape from that hall of horrors with the director's blood on his hands, there were still nights Joseph woke up screaming.

If his time in that hell had taught him anything at all, it was that he had to take care of himself because no one else would. No one had cared about the torments he had endured. No one had come to rescue him. He had affected his own escape. He was on his own. It was him against the rest of the world, and he had no intention of losing. He would do whatever he had to - use whoever he had to- without compunction or conscience to come out ahead.

His time in the depths of depravity had also taught him that people were willing to pay for their pleasures. With those two lessons under his belt Joseph had begun his lifelong campaign of getting what he considered his due by providing those willing to pay with the means of quenching their degenerate thirsts. That he preyed on the suffering of others to attain his fortunes never bothered him. The world for him had long since stopped being filled with people and had become broken down into two groups: customers and merchandise. The concept of good or evil was meaningless to him. There was only profit.

Joseph had seen a world of profit to be had in the small boy that Maude Standish had promised him. That innocent face, so childishly beautiful, with those soulful emerald eyes… Joseph just knew his special customers would fall all over themselves for a chance at him. He had been enraged when he had learned of the boy's flight. He had almost strangled Maude with his bare hands before she had managed to convince him that she had not been trying to con him. She had almost thrown his money back at him in her haste to return it. Joseph had left the trembling con woman and had retreated to his office, steaming over the loss of the boy. He had immediately dispatched his men to find him and been filled with rage when each had returned empty handed, but Joseph refused to give up. There was money to be made with that boy, lots and lots of money, and Joseph wanted it. The child became a kind of Holy Grail for him. He just couldn't rest until he found Ezra Standish.

It had been the merest chance that Joseph had spotted the child as he stepped out of the hotel yesterday afternoon. Joseph had been passing through Four Corners when the stage had broken down and forced a delay in the trip while it was repaired. Joseph had begrudgingly taken a room at the town's best hotel and had been heading to the restaurant when he had frozen in disbelief at the sight of the little boy he had been searching for playing tag with another little boy in an alleyway. If there had not been a huge bear of a man watching the two boys, Joseph might have been tempted to snatch the child right then and there. Luckily for Joseph, his common sense had intervened and he had spent the rest of the day observing and plotting. The child was within his reach and Joseph swore to himself that he would not leave this place without him.


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