Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: My thanks to Phyllis for the beta work and Beth for the technical info.
Chris looked up from his paper. Getting time to read a paper was a luxury he rarely got these days and he tended to concentrate on the local news, relying on CNN of the big stuff. Buck was watching the highlights of the basketball game.
"You ever go to the circus when you were a kid?" Chris asked.
Buck gave him a 'are you kidding?' look.
"I grew up in Las Vegas - remember?"
"Never heard of 'Circus Circus'? Not to mention Barnum and Bailey coming to town regularly."
"Well, yeah of course. I just, well I know money was tight, so I wasn't "
Seeing that Chris was floundering, Buck decided to put him at his ease. "Guess we never really talked about this did we?"
"Well if we're gonna be brothers, I guess you should know. It's true we didn't have much money, if you evened it out over the year, then I guess we had enough to get by, we did ok. The trouble was it wasn't even. Some months, some weeks there was a lot of money, we went out, ate in restaurants, had new things, some weeks there was nothing."
"Nothing, as in nothing at all?"
Buck shrugged. "There was the pawn broker and the thrift store. Ma tried not to get into debt if possible, we ate peanut butter sandwiches and waited for things to change, they always did. Well, until she died."
"Sometimes I forget how easy I had it," Chris finally admitted.
Buck, who had been staring into the flickering fire, looked around at his new 'brother'. "Losing Sarah and Adam wasn't easy, we've both been kicked in the ass by life, but we're both still here. And, well I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, life right now is about as good as it gets."
Before Chris could respond they were interrupted by a small voice from the shadows behind them.
JD was shuffling toward the men, trailing his stuffed Scooby Doo by his tail. Behind JD, Elvis wagged his tale hopefully.
"What's the matter, Little Bit? Can't sleep?"
JD shook his head even as he yawned and rubbed his eyes. Buck stood up and crossed over to him. Even before his father was half way there, JD's little arms were raised and Buck didn't fail him, scooping him up. It always amazed him how well JD just seemed to fit into his arms. As Buck headed back to the recliner, Chris retrieved Scooby who had been abandoned on the floor. JD had no particular toy he was attached to, not in the way Vin was attached to Cat, when he needed reassurance he just wanted Buck.
"I'll take this back and settle the pups," he whispered to Buck, who nodded his thanks.
Settling back in the recliner, Buck held his son close, encircling him in his strong arms.
"So why can't you sleep?" he asked.
JD lay his head on Buck's shoulder, little hand stroking his father's neck. "I d'no, just can't."
"Did you have a bad dream?"
"Don't 'member," JD yawned again.
JD didn't have as many nightmares as Vin, but he did still have them on occasion.
"Think you could go back to sleep now?" In response, JD just snuggled in closer to his father and pushed his thumb into his mouth. "That's a good boy," Buck cooed softly as he reclined the chair.
By the time Chris returned, having settled Elvis back in his bed with Ringo, checked on Vin and straightened up JD's bed, JD was asleep.
"So why were you asking about the circus?" Buck asked in a hushed voice.
"What?" Chris looked momentarily bewildered. "Oh, there's one in town, thought we might take the boys?"
Buck looked down at JD's slumbering form. He just knew JD would love a circus. "Sounds like a great idea."
They decided to keep the trip a surprise, the guys were already coming over on Sunday to watch football, so Saturday's planned trip to the circus was going to be just the four of them. What had particularly taken Chris' eye was that this circus didn't use wild animals, there were dog acts and horses, even a pig but no wild animals. The resent controversy in Denver about wild animal acts had gotten Chris thinking. He'd never been too comfortable with seeing animals in cages, these days modern zoos were a lot better, but the circus animals still seemed to be trapped in the bad old days. He just knew Vin, with his love of freedom and wild things, would feel the same. Besides, the circus boasted not one, but three, spectacular horse acts, and both boys were just crazy about horses.
After morning chores on Saturday they all mounted up and went for a ride, there was a light snow covering, no more than a dusting, just enough to make it look pretty. The men kept the two boys and their horses between them when they had a gentle canter, but in truth both boys were now competent riders. Peso was still mischievous and Milagro could still be skittish around adults he didn't know, but in truth, they were both good safe mounts. Steam rose in clouds from the horses, men and boys as they returned to the ranch a little earlier than normal.
"But it's not lunch time yet," JD pointed out.
"I know son, but we've got things to do," Buck explained as he got down from Beau. "Come on, down you get." Buck held his arms out to lift JD down for his beloved horse.
"Not yet," JD pleaded, bending down to give Milagro a hug.
Shaking his head, Buck turned away to see to his own horse before prizing JD out of the saddle.
Vin was equally reluctant to dismount but didn't complain, just giving Chris a sigh and 'big eyes' as he slid down and began to undo the cinch.
Chris came up beside him after tethering Pony. "It'll be worth it," he whispered.
There may not have been much snow, but the wind was biting and everyone worked quickly to get the horses safely put away and fed in the warm barn. Once inside the house, the boys were sent to get washed up. As ever, they were back in record time, JD still drying his supposedly clean hands on the seat of his less than clean jeans.
"What's for lunch?" he asked as he bounced up to Buck.
"We thought we'd go out for lunch," Buck replied casually.
"McDonalds!" JD shouted excitedly.
"Nope, not McDonalds."
JD's little face fell, he frowned, pondered, then brightened.
"No not Boo Burger King."
JD looked at Vin; there was brief whispered debate. Finally, Vin looked up "Pizza Hut?"
Chris came up beside Buck and shook his head. The boys went back to whispering.
"KFC?" Vin asked hopefully.
Both men shook their heads. Now the boys were confused. Where else was there to eat? Before they could ask again, they were herded out to the Ram and strapped in.
"But where are we going?" JD asked.
"It's a surprise, Little Bit," Buck assured.
"Will I like it?"
"Yes, you'll like it."
"Is it far?"
"It's in the City."
"Is the food nice?"
"Uncle Nathan would hated it, but you'll love it."
JD pondered this for a bit, what did he like that Uncle Nathan didn't like.
"He means its junk food," Vin explained. "Right?"
"I like junk food," JD announced unnecessarily. "Will there be candy, too? Da can I have "
"Yes, Little Bit you can have some candy."
By now the truck was at the end of the drive, Chris wasn't sure he could take an hour of JD's questions.
"Tell you what, boys," he began. "How about you keep a good lookout of the windows and see if who can work out where we're going first?"
Chris' plan worked - sort of. The boys watched intently out of the windows, but since JD called out the name of every sign they passed that was even vaguely connected with food, journey wasn't very quiet. Vin was more select, partly because he couldn't read the signs as fast as JD, so he only called out the ones he recognised. As they headed deeper into the city Vin noticed one sign began to appear at every junction, it wasn't a sign he recognised and it didn't seem to have anything to do with food but they did seem to always go in the direction the signs were pointing. The trouble was he couldn't read it. In the end he had to ask.
"Yes son?" Chris responded
"What's a coll-is-um?"
"You mean the Denver Coliseum?"
"Um, yes, like it says on the signs?"
JD, intent on where he was going to eat, was oblivious to this conversation. "Joe's diner?" he called out as they sped past another billboard.
"No," Buck responded, almost on automatic by now.
"Can you get food at the Coliseum?" Vin asked.
"You can, if it's open." Chris was dying to tell them were they were going, but he didn't, just up ahead was the first circus poster. Would Vin make the connection?
The poster was large, brightly coloured and featured horses. JD, drawn by the mention of eating, was now looking, trying to see what Vin had seen.
"Look Vin! Horses!" he cried out excitedly.
"Wow," Vin breathed. He wasn't sure what the sign said, but when it came to something important - like horses - he had no inhibitions about asking for help. "What's it say, JD?"
"Circus!" JD gasped in awe.
"Are we ?" Vin almost couldn't bring himself to ask the question.
"We sure are, Junior," Buck replied, looked into the back of the car and winking at the boys.
"Yay!" JD exclaimed, his little legs waving up and down in time with his hands.
Vin turned to stare out of the window, hands gripping the side of the door, as if to pull himself closer to their approaching destination. By the time the Ram was pulling into the parking lot, Buck was sure it was only his seat restraints keeping JD from levitating in excitement. Vin's nose was now practically glued to the glass, eyes wide with amazement.
Buck finished collecting their family ticket, and rejoined the family. JD was holding Chris' hand, or rather, Chris was holding JD's little wrist, because JD was staring, mesmerised by the sideshows outside the main arena. Vin was just as intrigued and excited, but he could see how many people there were and he didn't want to get lost.
Buck knelt down in front of the boys. "Before we eat, we need to make sure you guys know what to do if you get lost. Remember what we did at the fair?"
"We ask a policeman," Vin said confidently.
"Right, but I don't think there are any policemen here."
Both boys looked around. "So what do we do?" JD asked with evident worry.
"You come here, to the ticket booth at the front or you ask one of the staff in uniform, see?" He pointed to the young women selling programs.
"Got it guys?" Chris asked.
In response, both lads nodded seriously.
Happy he had a plan if he should get lost, JD's attention reverted to the excitements all around him. "Can we play the games now?"
"After we eat," Buck stated firmly, taking JD's hand from Chris. "I'm so hungry my stomach thinks my "
"Throat's been cut," JD finished for him. Just then, JD's little tummy rumbled audibly.
"Right, and it sounds like I'm not the only one."
There was a whole line of different concession stands offering food, all of it sugar or fat drenched.
"We better not to tell Uncle Nathan we ate here, Dad," Vin warned.
"Good thinking, son."
They scanned the various vendors, Vin's eyes quickly spotting what he wanted, and in response to this, his hand in Chris' gave an involuntary squeeze.
"See something you like?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded, a huge grin on his face. Chris followed his son's gaze. "Ah, corn dogs - right?"
Vin nodded even more vigorously. He'd only had a corn dog once, at the State Fair, his Grandpa Matt had bought one for him.
"Very well, come on." Chris led him toward the vendor; he liked the idea of a corn dog himself.
"I want one, too!" JD exclaimed.
"I beg your pardon?" Buck frowned down at JD.
"Please can I have one, too," JD corrected.
"That's better. Now you sure you want a corn dog and not a chilli dog or a burger, I see a guy over yonder selling them with bacon and cheese and all the fixin's."
JD thought hard, he really liked chilli dogs, and bacon-cheese burgers sounded real good.
"And that fella over there, he's got pizza slices," Buck continued.
"Don't torture him," Chris chided softly.
Buck winked at him, before looking back down at JD. "What's it to be, Little Bit?"
JD gazed about him, all the food looked good, he chewed his lip in concentration as he tried to make up his mind.
"Come on JD, I'm hungry," Vin pressed impatiently. "Corn dogs are nice."
With one more look around, JD made his decision. "Corn dog." He looked up at Buck, who raised an eyebrow. "Please?"
"Corn dog it is, you go with Chris, while I get me one of them bacon burgers."
"Don't you want one, too?" JD asked.
Buck shook his head.
"Because," Chris took JD's hand. "Buck doesn't like corn dogs."
This revelation caused JD to waver for a moment, but by now Vin was practically pulling Chris toward the stand.
Buck took his burger, fries and coke to the table he's located just before the others collected their own food. He stood up and waved them over. JD clambered into his seat and eagerly took his food from Chris. While they ate there was at least relative silence at the table. It didn't take Buck long to spot that JD had only taken one bite of his corn dog and was now only eating fries.
"JD?" he asked. "How's that corn dog?"
"'S okay." JD took another very small bite, keeping his head down.
"Son, look at me."
JD looked up worriedly. "If you don't like it, you don't have to eat it, I'll get you something else, it's okay."
The boys had come a long way, but sometimes they still found it hard to waste food, especially food that they saw as a gift.
JD looked up hopefully. "Bet Vin can eat it - right, Junior?"
Vin's own dog was half gone, grease smeared over his cheeks making him shine. "Sure can."
Buck shook his head. "How do you two eat them things?"
"They're good, that's how," Chris informed him, taking a huge bite from his own.
Buck shook his head. "JD son, watch my burger."
Once Buck had purchased JD a burger and everyone had eaten their fill, they set off to explore the sideshows, it was still only one o'clock and the show wasn't for another hour and a half, so there was no hurry.
The first games they tried were the less active ones, no need to go shaking up full bellies before the food was digested. The boys threw balls at cans, but didn't win anything, then they rolled Ping-Pong balls over jars, there were so many jars it was impossible to lose. JD won a special kind of whistle and Vin a 'pull back and go' racing car. There was a shooting gallery, but Chris carefully stirred them past it, he still wasn't sure how he felt about seeing Vin with a gun at the fair, he only knew it worried him, the fact that Vin seemed to a naturally good shot only added to his unease. If Buck noticed the diversion, he said nothing.
Next they tried some more physical games, Buck managed to win a large stuffed green dragon on a basketball game, which would no doubt take up residence with all the other stuffed toys on JD's bed. Chris won a credit card size flashlight on the dart throwing game, which he promptly handed over to a delighted Vin.
Both boys had a go at a game where they had to climb to the end of a rope ladder stretched horizontally over a ball pool and ring a bell, the trick was that the rope ladder was suspended from two gimbals that let it rotate about it's axes. As they stood in line, child after child, including older teenagers tried and failed, falling almost intently into the ball pool below. When it came to JD's turn he didn't seem to be interested in getting to the top, he just enjoyed the fall and soft landing. Vin however had been watching closely. When it came to his turn, he took off his shoes and took hold, not of the rungs of the ladder, but the rope it's self. He then stepped over the first rung and hooked his ankles over the side ropes. As with the others, as soon as the ladder was taking all his weight it spun around so he was dangling under it. Unlike all the others however, Vin was still clinging limpet like to the underside, slowly, with his family cheering him on, Vin moved up the ladder as slick as any sailor on rigging. When he got to the end he still had to ring the bell and that meant getting back on top of the ladder. Vin moved to the end and, instead of crawling around it, which would just spin it again, he crawled through the little triangular gap at the end, he just managed to hit the bell, before the ladder spun him back and he fell into the balls below. By now, not only was his family cheering, everyone in the line was shouting encouragement.
Chris helped him out of the pool. "Way to go, champ!" he congratulated.
"I did it!" Vin exclaimed, almost not believing it himself.
"You sure did, son, here." The attendant handed him his prize, a tiny remote controlled car that could perform stunts.
By now it was almost time to take their seats, but, after a quick trip to the rest rooms, there was the important matter of purchasing some sweet treats. After an even longer debate about the relative merits of doughnuts, cotton candy, and snow cones, both boys chose funnel cake.
It wasn't easy, balancing four large cakes still warm and topped with a generous dusting of sugar, but Chris decided it was better than trying to wrangle two boys, who were now practically bursting with excitement. Buck had simply handed his credit card to Ezra at work on the previous Monday and asked him to get them the best seats he could. Since there was no time to have the tickets posted, Ezra arranged for Buck to collect them at the box office, so neither of them was sure what to expect. As Chris approached, he found Buck, JD and Vin sitting ringside
"Look Chris, we're right on the front," JD called excitedly from beside Buck.
"So I see."
"You can always count on Ezra," Buck commented.
"True." Chris sat down carefully, still balancing his precious cargo of funnel cakes. "Well, then, who's for cake? Or shall I eat all of them?"
"Me!" Vin cried beside him. The intoxicating aroma of the warm, sweet cake was tantalising.
"Oh very well, you can't blame a guy for trying." Chris handed out the cakes.
"Da?" JD looked up at his father.
"Yes son?" Buck couldn't help a grin; it still felt so good to call JD 'son' knowing it was really true.
"Chris was just joking, right? He wouldn't eat all the cakes - would he?"
"No, I mean yes, he was joking, I don't think anyone can eat four funnel cakes at one go."
"I could," JD stated, taking another huge bite.
"Me too," Vin assured.
"Really? Well, one is all you're getting," Chris pointed out.
"Yes Little Bit?"
"Your moustache is all white." JD was now giggling hopelessly as Buck tried to wipe the sugar from his top lip.
"Well you know, I ain't the only one," he pointed out.
"I'm a little kid, I'm s'posed to be messy." JD explained, taking another huge bite of cake.
Vin shook his head sagely, unlike JD, who was munching into his cake whole; Vin was tearing off chunks the way Chris was. "Kids, you can't take them anywhere," he commented, returning his gaze to the sights and sounds all around him.
Chris practically inhaled his cake; powdered sugar shot up his nose making him cough and splutter.
"Chris? What's the matter - are you okay? Dad?"
"Show," Chris managed to splutter out, pointing in front of him. " starting."
The boys were enthralled, mesmerised and totally captured by the spectacle of the circus. They clapped, cheered, 'oooed' and 'ahhed' and gasped. Vin did find the clowns a little un-nerving. He did laugh, especially at the pig that seemed intent on knocking them over and running away just when it was meant to sit still, but the clowns themselves he found worrying. Before this, his only experience with clowns was Ronald MacDonald and he wasn't that sure about him. It was something about the makeup; he felt they were hiding something. JD, however, thought they were hysterical.
JD's moment of uncertainty came with the flying trapeze act. No matter how often Buck pointed out the net, JD couldn't bare to look, he didn't mind them swinging and standing on the high platform, it was the flying he didn't want to watch, hiding his eyes behind his hands every time. His bright, active little mind could all too easily visualise the pretty lady falling and he didn't want to see it. Vin was enthralled, captivated by the graceful moves and the total freedom of flying through the air. Chris had seen his look of awe and had a sudden vision of Vin trying to rig his own trapeze under the tree house and quickly made a mental note that they needed to have a talk with both boys before they went out to play the next day.
But as amazed as they were by the trapeze, tight rope walking, juggling, acrobatics and clowns, it was the dogs and horses the boys really loved. There were Hungarian rough-riders, one man controlling four horses by standing on the back of two of them. They charged around the ring, even going over small jumps. Individual riders performed death-defying stunts, on, beside and even under, galloping horses. The way the boys sat forward on their seats, half eaten funnel cake gripped but uneaten in their hands, Buck and Chris just knew what they had planned for Peso and Milagro, that talk Chris was planning suddenly became very important.
The dogs' performance combined comedy, agility, and obedience; the boys loved it. The dogs were German Shepherds, Sheepdogs and Poodles, all save one little mongrel, he was comic relief, the naughty one who always cheated or tried to steal the treats. Being somewhat shorter then the other dogs, the ringmaster, who was giving a running commentary, referred to him as a 'cheeky little bit' which had JD giggling helplessly because the dog had the same nickname as him.
The equine acrobatics fascinated both boys. A large white horse with black spots and a broad, flat back cantered steadily around the ring while one, two or three lithe young women in sparkly costumes balanced, jumped and juggled on its back.
The last horse act was the liberty horses, and they were beautiful. Four greys, four bays and four blacks, all running free and all working together; all obeying the small man in the middle of the arena, who did little more than raise his arms, wave a long whip that never came anywhere near the horses and speak the odd word of command in a foreign language.
"Wow," Vin breathed.
Chris didn't feel he needed to respond; he just enjoyed watching his son so enraptured.
They stopped on the way out to purchase souvenirs, the plan had been to buy the boys a badge each and maybe a t-shirt, if they weren't too expensive. One thing the men had learned was that small boys could never have too many t-shirts, especially if they lived with dogs and horses. The trouble was as soon as the boys spotted the Breyer Stablemates Big Top play set, with its two liberty horses complete with plumes, circus puppy, ring and tent, they knew they would be leaving with it. They did try to not spoil the boys or let their uncles spoil them, which was easier said than done, especially for Ezra. But the play set was so perfect and the 'big eyes' so big and pitiful, there was no hope.
By the time they reached home it was dark. JD had started off the trip home chatting excitedly, one minute he was explaining - yet again - how the little dog had the same name as him the next there was silence. Chris looked over his shoulder into the back seat.
"Let me guess, he's asleep - right?" asked Buck, who was driving.
"Yup, how the heck does he do that?" Chris shook his head in wonder.
"You know JD Dad, flat out or full stop," Vin reminded.
"Ain't that the truth Junior," Buck chuckled.
JD slept the rest of the way, while Vin just sat quietly gazing out of the window. Tempting as it was to let him sleep once they were home, Buck knew if he slept now he wouldn't sleep later.
"Come on Little Bit, up an' at 'em." Buck shook JD gently as he undid the buckles on JD's car seat.
Bright hazel eyes came open, darted around then focused on Buck. "We're home!"
"Yes we are. Down you get." Buck lifted JD down from the truck. "One glass of milk, one cookie, then we need to do chores."
"Okay." JD happily trotted off to catch up with Vin who was almost at the door.
Buck shook his head as he closed the car door. "Yup, two speeds."
As the boys worked in the barn, they chatted about the spectacle they had seen. Clearly they believed they and their beloved mounts were capable of anything they had just seen.
Chris dropped the bale of hay he had been toting.
"We need to have a talk with those boys."
Buck put his pitchfork down.
"That we do and right now. Boys!" he yelled.
"Come on over here."
The two little, would-be trick riders came charging down the barn. Chris had them sit on the hay bale while he and Buck squatted in front of them.
"Okay," Chris began. "We know you saw some amazing things today."
"We sure did it was fantastic, thank you for taking us, I liked the "
"JD son, we need you to listen for a moment," Buck interrupted softly.
Vin gave JD a prod with a bony elbow. "Yeah, hush JD, Chris' got something 'portant t' say. See? He's his got his serious face on."
JD's big hazel eyes shot over to lock onto Chris'. "Sorry Chris."
"That's okay. The thing is, the people you saw today, well, they practise real hard to be able to do those things. I know it looks easy, it's meant to look easy, but it isn't. You two are not to try doing any of the trick riding you saw the people do, no trying to swing from a branch like it's a trapeze, no juggling with knives."
"We're not allowed to open the knife drawer," Vin reminded him.
"So you're not, well lets just say no juggling with anything harder or heavier than a Beanie Baby toy. Swallowing swords, not even plastic ones, no jumping on sea-saws or climbing ladders. I don't want to see the puppies all dressed up, jumping through hoops, over jumps or riding on your back while you ride a bike. Are we clear, boys?"
"Yes Dad," Vin answered respectfully.
"Okay." JD's response was a delivered with a heavy sigh.
"Little Bit?" Buck prompted.
"Do I need to remind you boys what the rules are about riding?"
"We can't ride without a grownup," JD recited dutifully.
"Okay, good boys."
Buck ruffled JD's hair. "Come on Little Bit, lets get these horses bedded down, then you can tell the computer all about today's adventure while we get some food on the table."