"Chris! Buck!" JD's strident voice broke into the peaceful morning scene
where the two regulators and the twins were eating a leisurely breakfast
in the dining room of the boarding house.
"Now, Mr. Dunne, what have I told you about exercising proper behavior inside
my house?" Mrs. Jeffers, the proprietress of the boarding house, stood with
her hands on her ample hips as she gave the sheriff a disapproving stare.
JD skidded to a stop with a chagrinned look at the woman.
"Uh," JD stammered, "Sorry, Miz Jeffers."
The landlady sniffed and turned her back on the young man to bend and remove
an empty platter from the table.
"Some people could use a few lessons in the correct way to comport themselves
in a polite establishment," the woman said archly, addressing the two boys
sitting at the table biting their lips to keep their smiles in check. "Perhaps
you boys would be kind enough to give him some instruction."
"I said I was sorry," JD grumbled under his breath.
The Sheriff waited until the woman returned to the kitchen to turn back to
his friends with a scowl.
"I have some free time this morning if you'd care to begin your lessons,"
Ezra told him with a straight face.
Vin slapped both hands over his mouth to contain his giggles as JD's scowl
deepened and he glared at Ezra.
"Ha, ha. Very funny, Ez."
"What has your drawers in such twist this morning, JD?" Buck asked, wiping
up the last bit of gravy on his plate with a biscuit and popping it into
JD suddenly remembered why he had originally come inside and said, "The morning
stage just arrived and Judge Travis was on it. He's over at the newspaper
Silence abruptly dropped like a blanket over the room. Both men sitting at
the table tensed with the automatic battle readiness that made them so good
at their jobs.
"Go find Josiah and Nathan, and tell them to meet us at the jail," Chris
snapped out the order.
JD spun around and hurried outside to carry out his instructions. Buck looked
at his old friend with worry.
"Chris?" he asked only to be cut off by Chris slicing his glance toward the
"You boys need to finish your breakfast," Chris told them. "We have to get
Ezra stared at the two men for a moment then nodded and finished the last
of his milk. Vin's head swiveled between Buck and Chris, curious and becoming
anxious about their sudden mood change.
"Buck? What's wrong?" the boy asked.
Buck pasted a reassuring smile on his face for the twin's benefit and answered,
Nothing you need to worry your head over. Just some business that needs
taking care of."
"Mrs. Jeffers," Chris said when the woman reentered the room to continue
clearing the table, "would it be alright if Ezra and Vin stayed with you
this morning while we take care of some business?"
"Why certainly, Mr. Larabee," she said giving the boys a big smile,
perhaps Ezra and Vin wouldn't mind helping me bake some sugar cookies."
Both children perked up at the suggestion and nodded eager agreement.
"Good, that's settled then," she said with another smile for the regulators
before she bustled out of the dining room with her hands full of dirty dishes.
"You boys be good for Miz Jeffers," Buck said and ruffled their hair.
"Will you be long?" Ezra asked quietly. In his experience, Judges were always
Chris smiled and bent down to hug the boy then said, "I don't know. You and
Vin stay with Mrs. Jeffers, and I'll be back as soon as I can."
With one last look over their shoulders the boys followed the boarding house
owner into the kitchen, and the men left the boarding house to join the rest
of their friends at the jail. They never made it.
"Chris. Buck," Judge Orin Travis stepped out of the door way of the newspaper,
closely followed by Mary, and greeted the two peacekeepers.
"Judge Travis," Chris returned tersely.
"I heard some unexpected and disturbing news, gentlemen," the judge said.
"I'll just bet you did," the blond regulator snapped and threw a glare at
the woman standing behind the old man.
"Chris, I," Mary began but broke off when Chris ignored the protest and turned
his eyes away from her to concentrate on the judge.
"I'll be holding court in the Grain Exchange in fifteen minutes. We'll discuss
the issue of the boys' welfare then," Travis declared.
"There's nothing to discuss," Buck told him, smoldering.
"I disagree," the judge replied. "Fifteen minutes, gentlemen."
Buck stood staring at the retreating back of the man, his fists clenched
at his side.
"What do we do now, Chris?"
"You heard the man," Chris said flatly, "Go get the others and bring them
to the Grain Exchange."
"Chris?" Buck was really worried by his friend's reaction or rather his lack
"Just go get the others," Chris told him and started walking after the Judge,
passing by a silent Mary Travis as if she didn't exist.
Buck threw a frustrated look after his leader then stomped off toward the
jail. Mary stared after the men and sighed in sadness before stepping back
inside the newspaper office and closing the door.
When the other regulators arrived at the impromptu courtroom, they found
Judge Travis seated behind the desk he used for his official bench looking
through some papers and Chris leaned against the back wall with his arms
crossed on his chest and no expression on his face. The new arrivals filed
in and took up places around the room, no one breaking the silence that filled
the place, until the Judge cleared his throat and looked up a the men.
So tell me about these boys, he said.
At first, all the men looked at Chris, expecting him to explain, but the
man in black just continued to stare at the toes of his boots and remained
silent. Buck stepped forward and began the tale of how they had found the
boys and why they were running. Josiah stepped forward with the telegrams
he had retrieved from the jail verifying the many crimes that on Maude Standish
had perpetrated on unsuspecting people across several states and through
out the territory, and the replies they had received to Chris' requests for
information on Justin White who had apparently disappeared the same day that
Vin and Ezra escaped. JD stepped forward with Edward Standish's journal with
the proof of the grandfather's guilt in the murder of Gunter Svenson. Nathan
told of White's attempted murder of the boys.
All through the men's recitation, Chris kept his silence, seeming to be lost
in his own thoughts. Which, in fact, he was. The man was thinking about all
he had learned since the boys had entered into his life. Chris had never
realized there was such an empty place in his life until Ezra had slipped
into it and filled the hole so perfectly that it was almost as if the boy
had been born especially to fit into it. At first he had worried that he
was just using Ezra as a substitute for his dead son, but had soon realized
that it was Ezra himself that he needed. The loss of his son still burned
in his soul. Ezra helped to make that loss a little easier to bear, but didn't
erase it. Ezra had called out to a different part of him; filled him with
a quiet joy that was uniquely associated with Ezra. He believed without a
doubt that if Adam had still been alive when he had found Ezra he would still
have felt exactly the same way for the chestnut-haired boy.
The thought of having to live the rest of his life with the bleeding chasm
that Ezra's absence would leave now was anathema¹ to the man that
had already lost too much in his lifetime. Even though he knew Ezra would
be better off in a regular home with a normal family and he was being selfish
to even consider it, the gunslinger could not let the boy go. They belonged
together. It was as simple as that he decided. After all the soul searching
and pain he had caused himself and the child with his indecision before,
things finally focused in his mind with absolute clarity: they belonged.
And where Ezra went Vin would go too. The two were a matched set. There could
be no splitting of the twosome now that they had finally found each other.
Chris searched his heart and found Vin had already started carving a niche
for himself there as well. The heart that he had thought had turned to stone
with the death of his family was turning out to be surprisingly elastic.
He found it had more than enough room to accommodate the small blond child
with the devilish sense of humor also.
Come hell or high water, Chris Larabee vowed, they would all stay together
even if he had to do battle with the devil himself and all the demons in
Hell to make it so. Providence had blessed him on that stormy night he had
found the two cold, sick little boys shivering in that ramshackle barn and
Chris would do what ever it took to protect the gift he had been given: WHATEVER
it took. His decision made, Chris relaxed and leaned more casually against
the back wall, watching as his friends argued, pleaded, and subtly threatened
the Territorial Judge holding court at the desk in the Grain Exchange.
Orin Travis looked at the man in black leaning so calmly against the wall,
a little puzzled that he hadn't put forth any arguments in favor of the boys
remaining with the peacekeepers. Somehow his silence unsettled the judge
more than all the raised voices of the other four put together.
"Do you have something to say to the court before I render a verdict on the
matter of the boy's welfare, Mr. Larabee?"
Buck and the other regulators faced their leader, but their pleading looks
didn't seem to capture his attention. His steely-eyed stare never strayed
from the Judge sitting at the desk in front of the makeshift courtroom.
"Just this, Judge," Larabee's low voice addressed Travis as he stood away
from the wall and, with the fluid grace and confidence of a panther preparing
to pounce on his prey, slowly walked toward the old man, placed both hands
on the top of the desk and leaned forward, towering over the seated man.
Travis was forced to move back from the desk in order to keep the blonde
man in view without straining his neck. He regretted the move almost immediately
as he recognized the retreat implicitly demonstrated by the action weakened
his position of authority over the younger man standing before him, and thus
the men that he led.
Chris didn't let the satisfaction he felt at the tactical edge he'd just
seized show on his face as he continued, "If you should rule to take those
boys away from us
who are you going to get to enforce the order?"
Orin Travis stared at Chris in barely concealed shock as the subtle implications
of the regulator's words penetrated his mind like a stiletto pushed smoothly,
silently, into the heart. He hardly believed the words he had just heard.
He and Chris had gone head to head on a few issues in the past and even when
the blond man disagreed strongly with his decisions, Chris had always bowed
to his authority as judge and employer of the peacekeepers. Now the other
man had just drawn the proverbial line in the sand and dared the judge to
cross it. It was rapidly becoming apparent to the judge that Chris Larabee
was not going to let go of the twins.
With his words Chris had made it unmistakably clear he was ready, willing,
and absolutely able to take on the judge, and the whole town if pushed. Judging
from the looks of agreement on the other men's faces they would back him
in whatever course he chose. Travis had no doubts what the outcome would
be if he should decide to ignore the leader's threat.
"I could always call in the Army," Orin tried to bluff.
Larabee smiled thinly and called it, "I believe you might find that a little
difficult to explain to the territorial governor, don't you think? Calling
out the army to escort two little boys to an orphanage? You'd be the laughing
stock of the territory."
"Besides," Buck threw in, "the army is at least four days away from here.
Mexico is only one."
"I don't take well to threats, gentlemen," Travis growled trying to keep
up the appearance that he was still in control although everyone in the room
knew the balance of power had shifted to Chris Larabee.
"Wasn't making any," Chris told him, allowing the judge a measure of face-saving,
"You asked me, and I just told it to you like it is."
"Very well," the judge cleared his throat and rapped his gavel on the table.
"Court is adjourned while I consider the matter."
Five men filed out of the Grain Exchange and Judge Travis watched them leave
in silence, glad there were no other witnesses to the confrontation. When
the last man had stepped through the doorway the old man blotted the perspiration
from his forehead with his handkerchief and groaned to himself. He couldn't
afford to have his best men mutiny. Not only would it set a dangerous precedent
for other lawmen in the still wild and too often brutal West, but it would
put his grandson and daughter-in-law in harm's way once again. He didn't
even want to consider the damage this could do to his reputation and thereby
his authority in this territory.
This was a harsh and unforgiving land and in it a man was only as good as
his reputation. A judge who couldn't control his own men would certainly
be seen as weak, and a judge who was seen as weak was an ineffectual judge.
An ineffectual judge opened the door for the kind of rabid vigilantism that
he had fought to stamp out for much of his long life.
Although the other four men might or might not realize the razor's edge they
were forcing him to walk, Larabee understood the stakes as well as the old
man did. The judge
hell, the entire territory, stood to loose more
that it could afford if Larabee and his men went to war over those two little
boys. Remembering the look in those icy-cold, determined hazel eyes, Orin
knew war was what it would come to if he tried to remove the boys from Chris
and the other regulators.
The Right Honorable Judge Orin Travis found himself in a most unenviable
position. He now had the unwelcome task of finding a way of giving in to
the regulator's demands without seeming to give in.
"I should have listened to my mother when she wanted me to become a doctor,"
I'm going to get Ezra and Vin, Chris told his friends as he stepped
off the boardwalk and started toward the boarding house.
Do you think that's wise to take the chance of upsetting the boys that
way, Chris? Josiah's voice calling out to him caused the man in black
to turn and face them once again. I mean, he hasn't given his verdict
yet. He could still decide to place them with a family somewhere.
A feral smile crossed the leader's face as he looked at the assembled men
and shook his head.
No. He won't, he said with absolute certainty and resumed his
walk to the boarding house.
Buck watched him go and felt the dread that was squeezing his heart at the
thought of the boys being taken away lessen with every confident step his
old friend took toward the waiting boys. The smile on his face was growing
in direct proportion.
Boys, he said, slapping JD on the back and nearly sending the
young man flying from the boardwalk, The first drinks are on me, when
this is done!
You're that certain that we're gonna get to keep them? JD asked
He's certain, Buck said jerking his chin at the man walking into
the boarding house without a backward glance. Buck threw an arm around JD's
neck. He pulled him in for an enthusiastic nooggie on his head before letting
the man go again, and if he's certain, then I'm certain.
You place a lot of faith in him, Brother Buck, Josiah told him,
trying not to let his hopes get raised too high, just in case.
You don't know Chris like I do, Buck told him. The Judge
won't rule against him because Chris won't LET him rule against him. If he
tries, Chris will come up with something to stop him. Chris has made up his
mind and is playing to win. Chris never loses when he makes up his mind because
he just doesn't quit
The other men exchanged hopeful looks with one another.
Here they come, Buck grinned as the two children exited the building
in front of Chris. Their hands were filled with as many cookies as they could
Buck! Vin ran to the large man, holding out a cookie to him,
Look what me and Ez made! Try one. They're real good.
Buck accepted the crisp sugar cookie from the excited boy and took a generous
Mmmm, Mmmmm, Buck closed his eyes and played up how good the
cookie tasted. I think that's just about the best cookie I ever tasted.
The boy grinned with delight at the man's appreciation.
We brought enough for everyone, Ezra said, and he and Vin handed
out cookies to the men and accepted their thanks.
I do believe I would have to agree with Buck, Josiah said and
smiled down at the two boys. These surely are the best sugar cookies
I have ever had the pleasure of trying.
Little chest swelling out with pride, Vin told him, I got to break
the eggs and Ezra poured in the sugar. Then we got to mix it all up with
our hands. Vin stopped to giggle and threw an amused look at his twin,
Ezra didn't much like that part.
So the next time we get a hankerin' for cookies we know where to go,
Nathan returned the child's grin.
The cookies were consumed by the laughing group within minutes.
Is your business concluded? Ezra asked curiously, looking up
at Chris for an answer while his little pink tongue licked cookie crumbs
from around his mouth.
Chris had to smile as the little gentleman forgot himself enough
to act like a normal seven year old boy.
Just about, he answered and settled his hand on the crown of
Did it turn out satisfactorily? Ezra continued.
It will, Chris assured the curious child.
Hey, Chris, Buck's voice caught his attention and the blond looked
at his friend with one eyebrow raised in inquiry.
Buck nodded his head at Judge Travis who had stepped out of the Grain Exchanged
and was waving them over. Chris held out his hand for Ezra and the Ezra grasped
it. Buck took Vin's hand in his own and the group made their way to the makeshift
courtroom to hear the Judge's decision.
So these are the boys, hmm? Travis said as he looked over the
top of his spectacles when the boys entered with their guardians. Hello,
Ezra, Vin. I'm Judge Travis.
Vin looked at the old man watching them so closely and felt uneasy. Without
thinking, he let loose of Buck's hand and stepped behind the big man. He
grabbed Buck's jacket as he instinctively sought the safety Buck represented.
He watched nervously from his position, remembering how Chris and Buck had
reacted when JD had mentioned that this man was on the stage. He didn't know
what was going on, but was wary of the man that had managed to upset his
protectors by just coming to town. Buck turned slightly and placed his hand
on the back of Vin's head. He stroked the boy's blond hair a few times to
soothe him then laid his hand on the little shoulder and gave it a reassuring
pat. Vin broke his stare at the old man behind the desk to look up at Buck.
Buck gave him a wink and a smile. Vin let go of Buck's jacket but stayed
close to his side.
Ezra tensed at the introduction. Although his grip on Chris' hand tightened,
the only other outward signs of his unease were the straightening of his
back and shoulders and a slight hitch in his breathing. His mind raced as
facts connected with other facts and he realized why the Judge was so interested
in him and his brother. His head tipped back and he looked up at Chris, trying
hard not to show the fear that suddenly overcame him. The man looked down
at the boy by his side. He squeezed the small hand still held in his own
and gave the boy a reassuring look and a small smile. It was barely a lift
of one corner of the man's mouth, but it was enough to have Ezra relaxing
The reactions of the boys had not escaped the watchful eye of the Judge.
He had seen both boys instinctively reach out for the men by their sides
and be comforted with nothing more than a look or a touch. As he scrutinized
the two men and the boys he began to realize why the men were willing to
fight for them. He could almost see the invisible bonds between them. It
made what he was about to say a little easier to accept.
Boys, I have been apprised of the facts concerning your arrival in
this town. I have been asked by Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington and their
associates to leave you boys in their care. In fact, they have been most
adamant, Travis threw an ironic glare at the regulators, in their
wish to become your guardians. How do you boys feel about that?
Vin straightened in excitement and looked at Ezra then up at Buck.
Really? Vin asked. We can really stay?
Would you like to? the Judge asked.
YES! Vin yelled and threw his arms around Buck's waist.
And you, Ezra? Would you be happy with these gentlemen?
YES! Most certainly yes! Ezra said looking up at the blond leader
whose smile mirrored his own.
Very well then. After reviewing all the facts presented to me, and
seeing that the boys do appear to be happy, and thriving in your care, I
have made my decision. Maude Standish is, by all accounts, a criminal wanted
in several cities for her activities will probably wind up one day in prison
for her misdeeds. I find it unlikely that she will be able to provide a proper
home for the boys. Her lack of conscience and complete disregard for the
welfare of her stepson, as shown by her attempt to sell him into the worst
kind of slavery, I find shocking and repulsive. I believe her to be completely
lacking in the morals necessary to raise these two children properly.
As for the maternal grandfather, I am ordering a warrant be sworn out for
Justin White's arrest for the attempted murder of the children and the murder
of one Gunter Svenson. I am also terminating all rights he might have to
the children. Unfortunately, Mr. White has disappeared from his home in Dry
Springs and remains at large. He has tried to kill his grandsons once before
and constitutes a very real threat to their safety in my opinion. The children
need to be protected from him. They need to be cared for by someone who is
prepared to provide the protection that they will need night and day along
with the regular care that all children require.
You gentlemen have already proven yourselves more than capable of the job.
Since all parties involved seem happy with the arrangement, I am ordering
that the minor children, Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner, be placed in the care
of Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington respectively. The profession of Mr.
Larabee and Mr. Wilmington is by its very nature a dangerous one. Therefore,
I am naming Mr. Josiah Sanchez, Mr. Nathan Jackson, and Mr. JD Dunne as secondary
custodians to the children. Should Mr. Larabee or Mr. Wilmington be unable
for any reason to fulfill their duties as primary custodians, Mr. Sanchez,
Mr. Jackson, and Mr. Dunne will have full power to act in their stead to
ensure the children are taken care of properly.
Judge Travis banged his gavel on the desk top, and pandemonium broke loose
in the Grain Exchange. Five men and two small boys whooped out their happiness
at the ruling. Each man made a point of shaking the Judge's hand and expressing
their thanks. Ezra and Vin were lifted on Chris' and Buck's shoulders for
a ride back to the boarding house to celebrate. Just before Chris exited
the door, Ezra stopped him by grabbing onto the doorframe. Chris halted and
twisted his head up to look at the child looking back at him so seriously.
Down, please, Ezra told him, and Chris silently complied.
Before Chris could ask if everything was alright, Ezra ran to where Judge
Travis was standing and held out his hand.
Thank you, he whispered. He shook the judge's hand and looked
up at the old man with emerald eyes full of hope and happiness.
Ezra looked at the judge as if the man had just handed him the sun, the moon,
and all the stars at one time, and Orin Travis had to clear the lump from
his throat before he could speak.
You are very welcome, son. It was my pleasure.
Giving the judge one last, blinding smile, Ezra stepped back and flew across
the room to his waiting guardian. Chris stared at the judge for a moment
and a silent message of understanding passed between them. Chris respectfully
nodded his head at the judge then picked up Ezra and set him on his shoulders
once again. As the two left the building, Orin Travis could hear the cheerful
calls from the other regulators for them to hurry up.
There were many times in the Judge's long career that he had wondered if
he had done the right thing, made the right decision. As he watched the laughing
group disappear into the front door of the boarding house, he knew he would
never have to wonder about this one.
The watch fires were burning when Buck stepped out onto the covered porch
of the boarding house. He walked over and joined his oldest friend in leaning
against the railing. Both men stood looking out at the town. Most people
had retired to their homes for the night, but the saloons were still doing
rollicking business. The a tinkling notes of a badly tuned piano could be
heard floating on the night air, and the raucous buzz of ranch hands enjoying
a night in town was a familiar background hum to the peacekeepers. Although
both men were completely relaxed, two sets of practiced eyes still swept
the dimly lit streets searching for trouble. Neither man regretted not finding
Going to see one of your ladies? Chris broke the silence as he
lifted his lit cheroot to his lips.
Nah, Buck answered. Kinda feel like hangin' around home
Chris smiled in the dim light that reached them under the porch roof.
It does feel like home now, doesn't it?
That it does, Buck leaned against one of the roof supports and
gave a contented sigh. It's amazing how all it takes is two little
boys to make someplace that's just a spot to lay your head down at night
into a home.
Hmmm, Chris agreed quietly. A few peaceful minutes passed then
the blond said, I never thought I would ever have another home. Not
after Sarah and Adam were gone. I didn't think I wanted one.
Are you still having doubts about us taking in the boys? Buck
cast a worried glance at his friend.
Chris shook his head and smiled.
No. No more doubts, he assured him. The boys are right
where they belong. I'm right where I belong. It took me a long time to figure
that out, but I know it for the truth now.
The easy silence returned as they watched the night.
Do you believe in fate, Buck?
Never really gave it much thought one way or the other.
I never used to, but I keep thinking of the way we found the boys.
The chance that we would have been in just that place at just that time was
so slim. If we hadn't been transporting those prisoners; if the lightening
storm hadn't broken when it did; if we'd chosen to take shelter somewhere
else, Chris took another drag on his cheroot then continued, One
change to any of those things and we would never have met the boys. Who knows
what would have happened to them by now.
I'd rather just be thankful that we did find them, Buck told
his friend. It doesn't do any good to dwell too much on what could
have happened. It makes better sense to me to concentrate on the here and
Chris shook his head again.
That's not what I meant.
Then what did you mean?
Fate, Chris turned his head to stare at Buck seriously. I
just have this feeling that everything happened at just the right time in
just the right sequence to have us find the boys in that barn because it
was meant to. Does that sound crazy?
Not to me, but then I could be crazy too, Buck grinned, after
all I'm standing on the porch talkin' to you when I could be all snuggled
up with Miss Mirabelle.
I don't exactly see anybody chaining you to the porch railing,
Chris told him sarcastically.
No, I reckon not, Buck admitted. I just
just officially got the boys today. That's special. It's
the big man shrugged his broad shoulders as he struggled to find the words
to describe his feelings, Special. I want to be here, need to be here,
because it's special. I don't really know how to say it. I guess now I'm
the one sounding crazy.
No. I understand what you're trying to say. This is a once in a lifetime
day. A day we'll look back on in the years to come when we want to remember
what joy felt like. We don't get too many of those days in a lifetime. We
shouldn't take them for granted, but treat each one that comes our way with
respect because it IS so rare.
That's it, Buck agreed. It's not an ordinary day. It's
not a time for ordinary things. Feels kinda like my birthdays did as a kid.
Never wanted those days to end either.
There's where we disagree, Chris told him as he flipped the butt
of his cheroot in the dirt street. I can't wait for this day to be
Buck jerked his head around to stare at his friend in surprise.
Yep, Chris told him with a smile, Because now the boys
are with us to stay. Having those two around will probably keep things
interesting for many years to come. I'm looking forward to seeing what tomorrow
will bring. Can't wait to see what happens next.
The dust covered stage coach pulled to a stop beside the hotel in the equally
dust covered town of Eagle Bend. The driver jumped down from his perch on
top of the stage and hurried to open the door for his single passenger.
We'll be stopping here for the night, the driver said as he reached
up to help the passenger down to the street. If you'd like to get yourself
a room, I'll bring your bags right in.
A dainty hand emerged from the coach to lie on the man's as its owner stepped
gracefully from the coach.
Why thank you, Sir. You are so kind. You will be careful with the luggage,
though, won't you? the melodious voice asked, the southern accent very
apparent. That IS French leather, after all.
Of course, ma'am, the driver hastened to assure the beautiful
When will our journey recommence? she asked as she scanned the
town with a practiced eye.
We'll be leaving right after breakfast, she was assured.
Excellent, Maude Standish said as she threw the man a brilliant
smile. I am most eager to reach Four Corners. I have some unfinished
business to take care of there.