Meant to Be
by Mary Ann

Characters: Vin, JD, Chris, Buck

Alternate Universe

Thanks to Sue M for betaing. Not my guys, but I’d gladly take them all home with me.

"Come on, Seeker, just load in the trailer like we know you can," the tall, mustached man said as he stood beside the open trailer door.

The dark grulla stallion looked disdainfully at the man in blue jeans and a light blue shirt. Then, with a regal toss of his head, he walked calmly into the trailer and stood in his place while Buck Wilmington tied him and shut the divider against him. The stallion nickered as another man, this one blond and dressed in black jeans and a grey shirt led a daintily-stepping grey mare to the trailer. He tossed her lead to Buck, and went back for the last horse they were taking.

The mare, Holly, stepped into her stall space and nuzzled Buck as he tied her in.

Buck waited as his partner, and owner of the ranch, Chris Larabee, brought a prancing chestnut gelding out of the barn and toward the trailer. The horse's white legs flashed in the sunlight as he danced his way toward Buck, who laughed at the horse's antics and the scowl on Chris' face.

"Jazman, you are sure a fun-loving horse," Buck said when Chris handed him the lead.

With a gentle snort the glistening chestnut stepped into the trailer and waited to be tied. Buck quickly fastened him in and, once out of the trailer, helped Chris shut the doors and make sure they were locked.

Next they double checked the small space in front of the stalls, where there was a bunk bed, a tiny wash room and a storage area for tack and clothes. Making sure everything was securely packed, they made one last trip to the house, to be sure they hadn't forgotten anything.

Buck grabbed the ice chest as they headed out the door and, as Chris locked up, he carried it to the truck and stashed it in the back seat of the gleaming black Dodge Ram one ton pickup.

Within minutes Chris was driving down the curved driveway that passed between several large pastures. Reaching the road, the automatic gate swung open and then closed behind them, and they were on their way to the last horse show of the year in the Denver area.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Three hours later, Chris turned into the Expo parking lot and followed the signs to the stable area. He was glad to get there. Thanks to a bad accident on the highway, their trip had taken twice as long. The show was a reining, performance, and cutting competition, something they had been preparing for over the past month. It was being held indoors since the weather was unpredictable this time of the year – three weeks before Thanksgiving – and they were happy about that decision.

Chris found their allotted parking space, and pulled in. On the left side was a row of ten closed-in stalls. The three on the end were for their use. An empty stall was between them and the next horse.

Chris was pleased to see that the stalls were equipped with grain feeders and automatic water fountains, and were deeply padded with sawdust and straw. He and Buck checked out each stall, making sure there were no sharp objects anywhere on which the horses could injure themselves.

Once they finished their inspection, they filled the feeders then unloaded the horses and got them settled into their stalls. When they were finished, they locked the stall doors and made their way to the office where they had to check in, pick up their numbers, and find out if there had been any last minute changes to the classes.

When they returned to the stalls, they saw a dark green Jag parked in front of their truck, and a maroon Trailblazer beside the Jag. With smiles on their faces, they hurried around the truck and trailer to greet their friends.

Ezra Standish stood, leaning against the building, talking to Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez, who were sitting on bales of hay against the stalls. Ezra straightened when he saw Chris and Buck had returned. He smiled and, after shaking the two men's hands, gave Chris an envelope of documents.

"Mr. Larabee, here is the signed documents you asked me to review. Everything is in order. You are now the owner of the mares, Gold Minuet and Neon Lace. They will be delivered to the ranch in four days. Mr. Walker said he thought he might have several more horses for sale in the next month or so, and will contact you." Ezra smiled at the look on Chris' face. He knew Chris had been trying to buy the two Morgan mares from Walker for several months; the bloodlines were top line and would be a good cross with the stallions Chris and Buck owned.

"Thanks, Ezra. I appreciate you looking over the paperwork. These horses will be a good addition to the ranch," Chris told the lawyer, then turned to Josiah and Nathan, shaking their hands as he talked. "Nice to see you, boys. How's Rain doing? Have you set the date yet? How's work?"

The tall black man laughed and shook his head. "Chris, Buck, good to see you again. Work's been busy at the hospital, but fulfilling. And, no, she hasn't decided on a wedding date – yet. I'm thinking it might be January, though. You can ask her tomorrow. We'll be here to watch you both ride. She had to work late today, but we have the weekend off, so if you need help with anything…" Nathan said with a smile.

"We'll ask her. It's about time that little filly settled down," Buck said with a wink as he unlocked the stall doors, and pulled the top partitions open.

"We'll ask for sure," Chris agreed. "Josiah, how's the Children's Center going?"

"Very well, thanks. We have twelve children between the ages of eight and thirteen there, and there are many street children coming in and out. Some come in for food, others for the comfort of a warm place for a few hours, or food and a shower. And I'm happy my usefulness at the precinct is still appreciated – the extra income has helped."

"You know if you need anything, just ask, we'll be happy to help," Chris said sincerely.

"I know, Chris, but you two have done a lot already, it's time for others to step up, and they are now, slowly. But thank you for all you've done. You, too Ezra. Nathan."

"Now that that's all over with, we have a performance to put on in two hours. Chris and Seeker are in the first class; they're the third to be riding. So, let's get things rolling here," Buck said.

A flurry of work quickly got under way. And less than an hour later, Seeker was in the practice ring with Chris on his back, putting the stallion through the pattern they had to perform in front of the show judges. The four other men were lined up along the fence, watching. Now and then Buck called out something that needed to be done again.

With a half-hour to go, Chris and Seeker were back at the trailer, and while Buck brushed the grulla, Chris changed into his show outfit, which wasn't much different than his regular clothes, comprised as it was of black jeans, black chaps, a dark grey shirt, a black neckerchief, hat and boots.

Stepping from the trailer Chris paused and glanced around. He had a feeling he was being watched, and his gaze slowly traveled around the area. He checked the fence line that he could see from his position on the slight hump where the stalls were located. A high chain-link fence surrounded the whole Expo property, with several gates scattered along the fence. A few were manned during the day for walk-in's. Beyond the fence, about twenty-five feet away, was a dip with a wide street at the bottom. Several hundred yards from the road were some old, dilapidated warehouses, five were in the process of being torn down, and the rest were slated to be taken down within the next six months. He'd heard a mall and condos or townhouses were going to be built on the reclaimed land.

His gaze continued to roam. The feeling was strong, but he couldn't determine where it was coming from.

"Chris, come on, time to get moving. Stop woolgathering," Buck called from the stalls.

Chris jumped slightly and looked at Buck, who was standing beside the trailer, holding Seeker's reins. With a sigh, Larabee looked around once more, then walked over to Buck and the horse.

The two men made their way to the large indoor arena and, once Chris was mounted, Buck and the others headed for their seats.

Chris could feel the big stallion under him tense up, and knew the horse was raring to get into the ring and perform. He talked quietly to the horse and walked him around a little to calm him as he kept an eye on the horse working through his paces in the arena. As the performance drew to a close, Chris moved Seeker closer to the entry gate. Once the other horse was out of the arena, Chris was motioned to the gate where his number was checked against the gateman's list, and then with a nod from the man, another swung the gate wide and Seeker walked calmly into the arena.

With a slight nudge of his heel, Chris set Seeker into an easy canter and then into the pattern they were required to do – figure eights, getting faster and faster with flying lead changes, a straight run with a sliding stop flowed into a 360 degree spin with one rear leg planted on the ground and moving very little. Another run in the opposite direction with the sliding halt and a 180 degree turn on his haunches; several rollbacks and pivots, and another figure eight at top speed with a flying lead change and turn.

Seeker came to a sliding halt in front of the judges at the end of his pattern work and with a snort turned toward the gate and calmly walked out.

Once outside the gate, he pranced and tossed his head in answer to the crowd's cheers and clapping.

Seeker and his rider waited to one side of the other twelve riders who were waiting for the call back when everyone was finished. The riders were summoned into the arena a while later, and after a few minutes, several were excused. It was finally down to four, and it appeared that the judges couldn't decide on something, and asked for two riders to do a run and sliding stop. Chris and Seeker were one of the pairs, and went to the end of the arena.

Cued, Seeker took off and did his sliding stop, pivoted 180 degrees and raced to the other end of the arena and slid to a stop. Once stopped, Chris had him walk back to the judging line. The other rider did his run once Chris was back in line.

After another whispered conversation, one of the three judges signaled for the ribbons to be brought out. Chris was a little surprised when his name and Seeker's was called; they had taken first place.

Chris thanked the young woman who hooked the fancy rosette onto Seeker's bridle, then urged him toward the gate. As if the stallion knew he had won, he swung into his flashy prancing gait and danced to the gate and out.

The others met them outside the building, talking and smiling, congratulating Chris on the flawless performance.

Chris laughed as he dismounted, and patted Seeker's shoulder. "Seeker did all the hard work, didn't you, boy?"

Nodding his head as if he understood, the horse pranced beside his master. Chris let the horse play for a few minutes as they all walked back to the stalls. Once there, he told Seeker to behave, and the stallion settled down.

Within minutes, Seeker was stripped of tack and bridle and tied to the trailer as Chris brushed him down. The men had plans to go out for dinner and Chris was looking forward to it. It wasn't too often that the five of them had time to visit, since they lived miles apart.

For a fleeting moment Chris thought he felt the eyes on him again as he started his truck after settling Seeker for the night and locking the stall door. As Buck got in the passenger side and closed the door, Chris glanced around, but he saw nothing that would alarm him.

He put the truck in gear and followed Ezra and Nathan out of the parking area, heading for their favorite eating place.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Ten minutes later the three vehicles pulled into the parking lot beside The Saloon, a combination restaurant and bar known for their tasty steaks and hospitality. It had an Old West atmosphere.

Buck was thrilled. He liked the beautiful owner of The Saloon and though Inez refused to go out with him, he kept trying to entice her into a date.

Inez saw the five men enter and headed their way with menus under her arm and a tray of water-filled glasses. She smiled a welcome at them as she set the things she carried in front of each man. While she listed the special for the night she sidestepped Buck's enthusiastic greeting. She liked the big, mustached man, but wasn't sure she wanted to date him – yet.

With a smile she left them to get their drinks and turn in their dinner orders.

The men talked about what had gone on since they had last gotten together while they ate their meals, then relaxed a little as they finished a last cup of coffee. Finally, Chris put a stop to the night. He had an early class, and Buck's first class was an hour later. The next day would be very busy for the two men, and they needed a good night's sleep.

With promises to see them the next day, Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah headed off to their homes while Chris and Buck drove back to the Expo center and their bunks in the trailer. After a last check on their horses, the two men retired for the night in the quarters in their trailer, and were asleep almost instantly.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next day passed with the partners busy riding and performing with their horses. Buck and Jazman placed first and second in their classes. Chris and Seeker took first in their class again.

That evening Buck and Holly placed first in her halter class. The following morning, Chris would ride her in a performance class, one of the last classes for them.

After Buck's class, they walked back to the stalls where their friends waited for them. They teased Rain, Nathan's fiancée for a bit before she changed the subject to the horses and the classes they had watched. They all agreed that Chris and Buck had done very well in the show so far, and wanted to take them out for a celebration dinner.

It didn't take long to get the horses settled in for the night and they all headed out for a late dinner.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"One of these days, I'll win Inez over and get her out on a date. I'm wearing her down…" Buck was saying two hours later as Chris pulled the truck in beside their trailer.

"Trust me, Inez will always say no, or nunca. She isn't ready for anything serious yet," Chris told Buck, then laughed.

"Well, some day she will," Buck grumbled as he unhooked his seatbelt when the truck stopped moving.

"When you're old and grey, maybe," Chris teased as he got out, then locked the truck doors after Buck shut his.

They walked around the trailer with grins on their faces, but stopped in shock upon seeing a stall door swinging open in the cold breeze. Both men ran to the door, their hearts sinking as they saw the cut padlock and the empty stall. Seeker was nowhere in sight.

Chris grabbed his cell phone and called the main gate, then the police, as Buck got their flashlights and began looking around for tracks or anything to indicate where the stallion had gone. They found the tracks of a vehicle in front of the stall area, and Seeker's tracks leading to it. But with all the rigs that had been there throughout the day and evening, he couldn't tell which way they had gone.

Chris checked on Holly and Jazman, who looked at him accusingly, as if he'd woken them for no reason. They were safe.

He prowled around behind the stalls, flashlight playing over every bush and rock there. Chris stopped and peered at a dim trail that came up the hill, picking out several sets of small footprints in the dirt. He followed the faint prints to the back of the stall, then beside his trailer and to the front, where they were lost in larger prints.

A water bucket sat beside the trailer, near the door leading into the sleeping quarters. As he played the flashlight over the bucket he wondered how it had gotten there, then he realized that it was the one they used to put grain in the feeders for the horses. Closer inspection showed it had thick, muddy water in it.

Looking up at the side of the trailer Chris stopped, stepped back, and then shined the light over muddy words.

"Buck, come here! Look!" Chris called.

A moment later Buck was standing beside him, his flashlight beam on the words scrawled on the metal side of the trailer.

"z meN z greN trK tiK hem" was printed in mud on the trailer. Quite a few of the letters were backward and several small, child-sized muddy prints were also there. Their lights picked up a couple of small footprints around the bucket and what looked like knee and hand prints under the trailer.

Chris shuddered, remembering the first day and his feeling someone was watching him. A child? he wondered, then glanced around and made his way to the back of the stalls again. The small trail led down the hill to the road below. The tall chain-link fence stretched out in both directions; there was no gate back here.

He played his light over the fence to where the trail met the fence, and spotted a small dip under the fence. Staying to the side of the trail, he walked down and looked closer at the dip. There were scuff marks where someone had slipped under the fence in the little dip. It couldn't have been an adult, it was too small.

Just then the police arrived and he hurried back up the hill to give his report to them.

Chris smiled at the sergeant and shook hands with him. He and Buck had known the man for years from their line of work – working with police departments as private detectives. A police photographer took pictures of the writing, prints, and tracks of the child. They all knew it wasn't a child who had taken the horse – the stallion wouldn't have gone with them – and Chris wouldn't let the police think that the kids had anything to do with the theft. He was sure they were just witnesses, and the chance of finding one child in thousands was close to nil.

Almost two hours later the police left, and Chris and Buck turned in. They still had two classes the next morning to get through before they could head home.

The worry over Seeker ate at both men, and they barely slept. The stallion was too valuable to just let him go without a thought.

Chris didn't want to go home without his horse. He knew he could stay at Ezra's, or Josiah's for a few days, but he wouldn't have a trailer in case the horse was found right away.

As he began to doze off he made up his mind. He would go home, then come back with the smaller trailer and be available if Seeker was found. The two new mares coming on Monday should be easy enough for Buck to handle. He was calm and gentle around horses, and wouldn't have any problems, Chris was sure.

With his plan in place, Chris rolled over and went to sleep; six o'clock was only a few hours off.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Two small boys watched the play of lights across the back row of stalls they had been at earlier. From their vantage point they watched the blond man follow their trail to the fence, then go back up the hill when the police arrived with their lights flashing. The little trail was illuminated from top to bottom and when a light was flashed across the road, they ducked below the bush they were hiding behind. No one came beyond the fence; they had not been seen.

"Come on, JD. We can go now. I'm cold and tired," the taller and thinner of the two boys said as he gripped JD's arm.

"Okay, Vin. We helped all we could." JD shivered when Vin's hand took his, it was icy cold and he could feel Vin shaking.

Together the two boys walked to the closest warehouse, then around the back of it. Making sure no one could see them, they crawled behind the bush that hid an opening into the warehouse. They carefully moved the two rotted boards and crawled into the dark interior.

JD waited while Vin quietly replaced the boards. For a couple of minutes they sat, side by side, listening for any strange sounds or voices. They knew a couple of people might be sleeping somewhere inside the building, but after not hearing anything they rose and made their way to their hidden home.

Once they were safely hiding in the pile of old boxes, they made short work of going to bed.

Vin finally stopped shaking after he was buried under several old blankets and towels. He lay there, listening to JD's almost silent breathing, and hoped the pretty horse would be found for the blond man. He and JD had done everything they could think of to let the men know who had taken their horse. And, he remembered, another horse from another place.

Leaning his back against JD's warm one, Vin closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep, but he was wide awake, so he let the visions of the blond man and his horse run through his mind.

He and JD had watched the man in black and the other, taller man, unload the three horses and get them settled. The odd-colored horse was so magnificent Vin had wished it could have been him riding.

He knew he could ride the horse, too. He had learned how at his grandfather's, when he was smaller, before his mom had died. When she did, he'd been sent to live with his grandpa all the time, but the old man had died several months later, and Vin had been taken away.

Vin didn't remember much about the long trip to some sort of home. The lady had told him he would live there until they found another place for him.

He had been scared, and was still grieving the loss of his mother and his grandfather when he'd arrived at the huge brick building in a strange city. There were close to thirty boys living there, from age two to sixteen.

The older boys treated the younger ones like slaves, making them do things they didn't want to, or have to. Vin had run away less than a month later, too scared of the older boys to tell the adults about what he and the younger ones had been made to do when the adults weren't around.

Vin had escaped on a moonless night, running through alleys and dark areas of the city until he'd found a place to hide in an old garage. He'd stayed there all day, watching the goings on around the neighborhood. He'd noticed that there were moving trucks at several of the houses, as if many families were moving out at the same time.

Late in the afternoon, he'd watched as movers had entered the closest house after the owners. For the past half an hour they had been bringing things out of the dirty white house. Once they had all disappeared inside, he'd raced to the back of the truck and, with a quick glance around, had run up the ramp and inside.

A long couch was in front of him, with several boxes stacked in the seat. He quickly hid between the couch and some of the boxes stacked behind it.

Hearing voices, he had flattened himself behind the couch, as close as he could get to it. Several more boxes were loaded, then he heard the men and the woman talking about meeting the next day, somewhere to the north, he'd thought.

The ramp had been shoved into its holder under the trailer and the door closed and locked. Minutes later, the truck had rumbled and jerked into motion.

For several minutes Vin had stayed hidden behind the couch in the partial darkness, listening as the semi-truck changed gears, maneuvered around corners then finally smoothed out on a straight away and picked up speed.

He had risen and slowly made his way onto the couch with his small bundle of belongings clutched to his slight chest. Making himself comfortable at one end of the couch, he was asleep within minutes.

Twice Vin had woken and scurried into his hiding place when the truck had stopped during the night. It had been so dark he'd had to do everything by touch.

When the truck was moving again, he'd relaxed and resumed his place on the comfortable couch, wishing he had something to eat, and warmer clothes.

He'd put on his extra shirts and pair of pants, to help him stay warmer.

He'd been happy when dim light had finally filtered into the trailer from the several vents on the back door and he'd known it was once again daylight.

When he'd entered the trailer he'd forgotten it would be dark inside, and once the door was closed and locked, he would be shut up in total darkness. He'd had to fight to keep himself from panicking. As the night had worn on, over and over he'd had to remind himself that he wasn't in the home anymore; he was free.

He couldn't stand small, dark places. At the home he'd been locked into a tiny closet for hours, and once for days when the older boys had forgotten to let him out.

His mantra while he'd been in the trailer had been, "It's not a closet. I'm free."

When the truck finally stopped and the door had been opened, Vin had forced himself to wait until the men carried a load of boxes into the house before he left the trailer at a run, racing away down the road.

He'd had no idea where he was, but he hadn't stop running until he'd gotten into the main part of the city. He had been shocked by the size of it as he'd wandered the streets. There were tall buildings, and wide, busy streets, and people everywhere.

Smells had assaulted him on every street and his stomach had growled with hunger. He'd kept walking, looking for a place to hide, and somewhere he could get some food.

It had been almost dark before he saw some kids fighting over food one had dug out of a garbage can behind a fast food restaurant. Vin had hidden in the shadows, watching as the food was taken from the smaller teen, then the kids all ran away, yelling obscenities at each other.

Vin had tentatively approached the cans, checking each of them. He found half a hamburger, and a container of fries. Looking around to be sure no one had seen him, he snatched them out of the garbage, looked them over, then quickly ate them.

In another can he'd found a drink container with some water in it from melted ice cubes. He'd pulled the top off and drank the water, slaking his thirst.

He'd checked the rest of the cans before he'd turned away, still hungry, but there had been nothing else edible in them.

He'd hurried off down the street. He needed a place to stay the night, a place to hide. As he'd gone he'd stopped to go through several more garbage cans, but the tall dumpsters seemed to be where the better food was.

He carefully climbed up on two different dumpsters with open lids and in one he'd found almost a whole steak, and in the other most of a buttered baked potato. He found a wad of paper towels that were fairly clean and he'd wrapped up his finds in them.

Hearing noises at the end of the alley, he'd climbed from the dumpster and raced to the other end of the alley, then down the street.

Later he'd found himself near a line of warehouses and, pressing his food to his stomach under his shirts, he'd eased into the first large building. There were several people scattered around, sleeping on the floor near a metal barrel where some wood was burning. The smell had made him gag.

He'd eased along the wall, staying as far away from the people and the light from the fire as he could. In a dark corner, Vin had found some large, empty boxes and quietly moved a couple of them around, pushing them into the corner, then crawled inside the largest. He'd pulled the food out from under his shirt, unwrapped it, and started to eat. He'd forced himself to eat slowly to be sure it would stay down.

After eating half, he'd stopped and rewrapped it. He'd wanted to save some for the next day. Finally, he'd laid down and gone to sleep, his arms cradling his food against his chest, still hidden.

For several weeks, Vin had watched the others, learning how to live on the streets. One young teen caught him in his "territory," but instead of beating him up, he'd taken Vin under his wing for two days. The teen, who never told Vin his full name, had showed him places he could get water, use a bathroom, find mostly edible scrapes of food, and how and where to get clothes.

Those two days Vin had thought he was in Heaven. Todd showed him all around the big city, the safe places he could walk through, anyway. He'd learned the city's name was Denver, and it was in Colorado. Vin knew he was from Texas. That was where he and his mom had lived, and his grandpa, too. He wasn't sure where their home had been, but he knew he spent many hours in the moving van.

Todd also showed Vin where there was a mission that he could get food from now and then, and a Children's Center, where no questions were asked, but he could get a meal, a shower, and even spend the night if he wanted.

Todd had impressed on him, over and over, not to trust anyone – not the adults or the kids on the street. Several times they had to run from larger kids, and once from some cops who had spotted them in an alley, going through a garbage can.

The third day, Vin had made his way to where he and Todd had met the previous two days, but the boy had never showed up. When he'd asked another shabby teen if he'd seen Todd, he was told Todd was gone.

Vin didn't know what that meant – if Todd had been picked up by a police patrol, or if he'd left the area, or if he'd been killed.

Vin went on his way and, for well over a year, had survived alone on the streets. He remembered how Todd had told him he could find clothes in some neighborhood garbage cans around the holidays. The first winter had been harsh, and Vin shivered all the time. One evening he had been going through a housing area and saw a man throwing away some clothes, and what looked like a quilt. Vin hid in the bushes near the house, snow silently covering him as he'd waited for the lights to go out in the house.

When the lights had finally all gone out, the half-frozen boy had hurried to the large can and pulled the quilt out, then some of the clothes. The clothes were too big for him, but he didn't care as he pulled them on over the few clothes he was wearing. He'd instantly felt warmer. He'd pulled the rest of the shirts and jeans out, too, rolling them up in the quilt.

Minutes after raiding the garbage can he was on his way home as fast as the cold would allow him to travel. The snow had been coming down heavily as he'd made his way through the nearly-deserted streets. He'd paused a moment outside the Children's Center, but he didn't want to lose his treasures to other kids, so he'd continued on to his corner in the warehouse.

After dropping off the quilt and the clothes, Vin had run through an alley that backed a couple of restaurants, quickly checking the dumpsters for food. He knew it was late, and the places were closed, but he hoped no one else had checked the cans yet, due to the weather. He had grinned and felt that luck was with him when he'd found several large pieces of meat, two baked potatoes, and some rolls.

Vin also found a torn tablecloth and he'd wrapped his bounty up in it, then got out of the dumpster and moved to the second one farther down the alley. More meat, potatoes, biscuits, and two apples went into the tablecloth.

He'd just gotten out of the dumpster when he'd heard a noise at the end of the alley. He could see figures moving slowly through the snow, moving toward the dumpsters. Vin turned and ran, staying as close to the building as he could, and hoping they didn't see him through the falling snow.

He'd made it out of the alley, and had raced through the deepening snow back to his home.

It was almost springtime, after his second winter living in the warehouse, before Vin had improved his hidden home with some old boxes, wood, and a pallet he had found. He'd also found several loose boards in the outside wall of the building, about ten feet from the corner he claimed as his home. Most of the vagrants who used the warehouse knew about the small, skinny, longhaired boy who lived in the darkest corner, and they left that area alone.

Vin had gathered more old blankets, and a heavy afghan over time, and more clothes. His home was snug and warm, and he had a hidden spot for his treasures that he found, too. A tattered book with pictures of all kinds of horses in it was his most prized treasure. It was a large book. When he'd found it, it had felt like it weighed as much as he did. Although some of the pages were torn and missing, it was special to him, and he spent hours looking at it, wishing he could read the words that went with the pictures.

One day, before the end of another winter, he had been wandering through the early evening, heading back to the warehouse. He'd found a nice little lake about a mile from the warehouses, back in the trees. Vin had taken some meat and cookies he'd found to eat on his walk to the lake.

The ice was still thick enough to hold his weight, so he'd played for a short time, running and sliding across the slick surface. He'd made some snowballs and threw them as far as he could out onto the ice. Finally, he'd turned toward home, making his way through the trees before it got too dark, staying away from the road and the occasional houses scattered around the area.

He'd just entered the woods when he'd heard a car coming along the road and paused to watch, knowing he couldn't be seen. Instead of following the road, though, it headed straight for the lake, bouncing over partly-frozen ground, knocking over bushes and small trees as it went down the bank.

Vin had stared in horror as the small car had careened from one tree to another before it had crashed into the lake and hit a stump several feet from the bank. The car made a strange sound and steam hissed from the motor into the cold air when the front tires sank into the lake.

Then he'd heard screaming coming from the vehicle and had run over to the car.

Reaching it, Vin had looked inside. A young woman with black hair was slumped over the wheel. There was a gash on her head, and there was a little blood smeared toward her hairline. Her brown eyes gazed blankly at nothing.

Vin had opened the door and shook her shoulder. She slowly slumped toward the passenger seat, the seat belt preventing her from lying down all the way. Vin had been sure she was dead.

Sobbing coming from the back seat had Vin snapping his head toward the noise.

A young, black-haired boy was strapped into a child's seat. A soft, dark blue blanket partly covered him and he was gripping it tightly in his small hands. Tears streamed from large, brown eyes that stared at Vin.

"Mama?" the child asked.

Vin glanced at the woman, then closed the door and opened the back one. An odd smell struck him and he looked at the front of the car where it was smashed against the stump. The steam had changed to smoke and it was snaking out from under the hood, getting thicker as Vin watched.

Eyes widening, Vin had jerked the back door open wider and scrambled inside to get the boy loose. Once freed from his car seat, the boy had tried to scramble over the seat to get to his mother.

Vin had grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the door. "Out! Out!" Vin rasped, his voice hoarse from non-use.

"Mama, mama!" the boy had cried, trying to break Vin's grip.

"Dangerous. Come on!" Vin had jerked the boy out of the car and pushed him toward the trees.

"My bag! Need it!" Big dark eyes had pleaded with Vin, and Vin had turned back, noticing several bags on the seat and floor. As the smoke grew thicker, the little boy had rushed forward, grabbing a purple backpack and pointing to another one.

Vin grabbed it by a strap, then backed away from the badly-smoking car. He'd noticed an ice chest, sitting behind the seat, and had realized that he'd crawled over it a couple of times. He'd reached out, snagging the handle and pulling it out. Slinging the backpack over his shoulder, he'd grabbed the boy's hand and they had raced away from the car.

The two boys had barely reached the woods when the car had exploded, metal and flames shooting into the air. The boys were thrown to the ground from the blast, but moments later Vin had been up, dragging the youngster to his feet and through the woods. As they did, they heard sirens from police cars and fire trucks. The little boy had looked back a few times, calling, "Mama," but Vin had kept him going.

It had been fully dark when they had hurried up to the back of the warehouse where Vin had paused. It was pitch dark, and he'd known the boy would be afraid to go into the building.

With a sigh, he'd led the way around to the side of the old wooden structure, to a broken door. He'd whispered to the boy to be quiet, then, with a tug on his small hand, they had crept through the door.

Across the floor, on the other side of the building, a fire had been burning in an old barrel, and several people were crowded around it. Vin had pulled the boy along the wall beside them, staying in the dark, and going slow.

Several minutes later, they reached his hidden home and he'd moved two boxes to the side and directed the boy to crawl into the darkness. As soon as the dark-haired boy had disappeared, Vin had dropped to his knees and pulled the boxes back into place, effectively covering the opening. Making sure that the entrance had been sealed, and dragging the backpack and the ice chest behind him, Vin had crawled the three feet to where it opened into a six by six foot "room." He'd felt the little boy in front of him, shaking, and he'd quickly reached for the dim flashlight and turned it on.

Bright, dark, red-rimmed eyes stared at Vin for a moment before the child said, "Mama?"

Vin shook his head and hoarsely replied, "She had to go visit my mama." He'd been thinking fast about how to explain that the woman was dead.

"Will she come for me soon?"

"Don't know. They might have a lot to talk about. I'm Vin Tanner. What's your name?"

"I'm John Daniel Dunne, but everyone calls me JD. Mama says I'm special."


"Yep. I know my numbers, and I can write my letters and read some. Mama said I'm going to a special school for gifted kids. I'll learn a lot, and when I grow up I can do anything I want to. Does your mama live here, too?" JD had suddenly asked, looking around the tiny room.

"No, just me. Mama's an angel. She lives with the stars."

JD's eyes had gotten huge. "Wow, an angel! I like angels. They's nice, and it'd be fun to live with them in the stars. I'm hungry. Can I have something to eat?"

Dismay had crossed Vin's face as he'd glanced around. He'd taken the last of his food with him to the lake and he'd eaten it. He spotted the ice chest and pulled it over to him. Opening the lid, he'd looked inside, sighing in relief. There were several sandwiches, a large bag of cookies, a container of milk, several bottles of water, and some pickles in a plastic sack.

Vin had split a sandwich with JD, and they had passed the milk back and forth. They each also had a cookie. Then Vin had straightened out his bed, making it larger so JD could sleep next to him. He'd used JD's blanket to make a warm nest for him. After putting the ice chest in the corner, he'd asked JD to lie down, then he'd laid beside him and pulled the blankets up over them. A bit later the two boys were asleep, their backs pressed together for warmth.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Over the next few weeks Vin taught JD what he'd learned about living on the streets. He'd showed the small boy where to stay out of sight, and to obey instantly when he told him to run, or hide. JD took it in stride, sometimes making a game out of it and, for the first time in months, Vin smiled or laughed at some of the things JD came up with.

After the first few days, Vin had started calling JD his cousin, in case something happened. It would be safer for both of them if everyone thought they were related. Since they looked so different he didn't think brother would fit as well as cousin did.

JD had been thrilled to think that they were related, and he wasn't confused. He knew he didn't have a brother, but everyone had cousins.

With JD there to help him, Vin was able to find more blankets, and some better food. They foraged farther into the city and, by carrying the ice chest and the old tablecloth with them, they brought back enough food to last them for several days.

Once a week they tried to go to the mission or the Children's Center, where they showered and got a hot meal. At first the people at the Center had asked them to stay, but later they gave up as it seemed to scare Vin and they wouldn't see either of them for several weeks.

Vin continually reminded JD that, if something should happened to him, he was to go to the Children's Center for help. Although Vin was leery around the adults, he knew if he get sick, or something happened, that JD would need help, him being as young as he was. The people at the Center were nice and they never forced them to stay, or asked too many questions.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The night after watching the man in black, Vin woke with a start when a strange noise sounded in the huge warehouse. He crept from his warm blankets to the disguised opening to their home. On his knees, he moved the cover slowly out of the way and carefully peered around the corner.

Blinking his eyes, he watched as a man walked around a truck and a green trailer that had pulled into the building. Headlights from a car highlighted the man as he worked by the trailer for several minutes, before he walked to the waiting car. Within moments the car backed out of the building's large double doors.

Another shadow crossed the lights before darkness settled again over the interior of the building when the doors were pulled closed. Vin heard the car drive away and silence fell over the area.

A couple of loud thumps came from the darkness around the truck, and Vin ducked back into his home to check on JD. It was too dark to really see anything, so he crawled back into his blankets to wait for morning. He knew the warehouse was empty. The weather had been nice for the last week and that usually drew the people from the building, out onto the streets, hunting for better food and accommodations. As soon as it started to get cold, or it snowed, they'd be back.

Vin fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming about the blond man with the green eyes, looking at him as he rode the oddly colored horse. For a while he dreamed he was riding the horse with the man in black. Vin was so happy he was smiling at everything. He saw JD in the arms of the other, taller, dark-haired man, clapping enthusiastically for him.

A loud crashing noise jerked Vin wide awake. His dream was gone and JD was huddled against him in alarm.

"What was that?" JD asked fearfully.

"Stay here. I'll look." Vin quickly got up, pulled on his socks, and went to the opening. Cautiously looking out, he could see no one in the building, just the truck and the trailer. With a jerk he realized that the noise had come from inside the trailer. To prove him right, another crash sounded and, in the grey light, Vin saw the trailer rock.

"What's that?"

JD's loud whisper reached Vin as the smaller boy crept around him for a look. JD pointed at the truck and trailer. "That's the green truck an' trailer we seened."

"I think so, too. The horse must be in there."

"We have to help him, Vin," JD said as he crawled back into their home and grabbed his shoes.

A moment later Vin followed after JD, taking his tennis shoes from JD when the younger boy held them out for him.

Soon the two small boys were walking toward the vehicles. They paused as another loud crash rang out, their gazes going quickly around the warehouse, hoping there was no one else in the building. The trailer rocked with another clatter.

JD grabbed Vin's hand and tried to drag him to the trailer faster. "Vin, we have to get him out of there. He can hurt himself real bad."

Vin nodded. "We have to be careful, too, he doesn't know us."

"We will. He might need some water."

"We'll see."

They reached the trailer and Vin started talking softly to the horse. He could barely make out the figure of the horse through the upper slats of the trailer, but he saw when the horse pushed its head against them as it listened to his words.

Vin looked around for something he could stand on and, with JD's help, pulled an old wooden box over to the trailer. JD steadied the box while Vin climbed on top of it. He could reach the horse from where he precariously stood, and when the stallion moved Vin saw a small door in front of his head. He found the outside latch and quickly opened the door. He almost stepped off the box when a dark nose pushed out at him.

Gripping the trailer slats, Vin patted the horse's nose and kept talking to the animal. The horse snorted and pulled his head back. Vin saw the halter on the horse and thought he could get it unbuckled. When he saw the rope snapped to it, he knew he could unhook the rope. It would be easier than trying to get the halter off.

As Vin continued to talk softly to the horse, he reached into the opening and grasped the rope. He carefully worked his hand up the rope to the snap. The horse seemed to understand what he was doing and stood still, his ears flicking back and forth as he listened to the soft words.

When the rope dropped off the halter the stallion shook his head, then thrust his nose against Vin's hand and arm.

"We'll get you out of here, boy. Just stay still a little longer. I'm right here. You'll be fine," Vin told the horse. With a last rub on the dark nose, Vin climbed off the box and, with JD beside him, walked to the back of the trailer.

They looked up at the latch and, with a sigh, Vin turned back to the side of the trailer. He'd have to stand on the wobbly box in order to reach the latch.

Together, the boys moved the box and, once again, Vin climbed up onto it and began working on the latch. He used all the strength he had to get the latch to unhook and rise.

He breathed a sigh of relief when it popped up and quickly unhooked the second latch, then climbed down.

Moving the box out of the way, Vin swung the tail gate open and, while JD held it out of the way, Vin stepped up into the empty side of the trailer and unhooked the butt strap. Vin patted the horse on his rump and said, "Back."

He watched as the big horse stepped back, then down, out of the trailer.

"Whoa, boy," Vin said as the horse moved all the way out of the trailer.

The horse dropped his head to Vin and nuzzled his long hair, blowing softly in the long strands. Vin rubbed the dark head and giggled as the warm breath blew over him as the horse sniffed him from head to toe. At a movement beside him, the dark grayish horse turned his head to the other little boy and sniffed him while the child laughed and patted his nose.

With a regal shake of his head, the horse stepped back away from the boys and the trailer, glancing around at the cavernous, smelly building he was in. Blowing loudly, he walked away, checking out his new home.

JD was bouncing when Vin stepped down from the trailer. "Vin, we's got us a horse! We can ride him and get lots of good food, and go see the mountains. We can reach the food in the dumpsters and you don't have to climb into them, we can—"

"JD… JD… He's not ours. We have to get him to the two men who own him. Remember? He's got a home."

JD looked up at his cousin and frowned. Vin knew everything, except his numbers and letters, and Vin was wiser than anyone he knew. JD nodded with a big sigh. "I remember. But how do we take him to the men?"

Vin, his gaze still on the horse as he moved around the pavement, often snorting and shying away from certain places, shook his head. "I don't' know, JD. Guess we first have ta see if their truck is over there, and then wait for them to come. We can show them where their horse is."

"Okay, I guess. But if we can't find them, can we keep him?"

"I don't think we can. He needs grass an' hay an' grain, an' lots of water. We don't have any of those here. He needs lots of it every day to stay alive," Vin said as they headed back to their corner.

For a minute JD was lost in thought then he said, "We can take him for a walk in the woods. He can eat grass there."

"The grass is almost gone. Soon the snow'll be here, an' then there's no food for him again."


Vin smiled a little at JD. He'd love to keep the horse, but there was no way they could feed the animal. Horses needed a decent place to live, too. It was too dangerous in the city for him to be on the streets. He needed a place to run and play, and the warehouse was dark and it wasn't safe for an animal.

Vin followed JD into their home and, a short time later, they were back in the main warehouse with their coats on and a piece of meat in their hands for their breakfast. They made sure the horse was still wandering around, then made their way out of the building through the covered hole.

They finished their breakfast as they walked across to the road in the dim, early-morning light. Headlights flashed over the two boys as they waited their chance to cross the street. When it came, Vin, holding JD's hand tightly, pulled him across the road as fast as his short legs would go.

They waited near the fence until no cars were visible on the road, then slipped under the fence and hurried up the hill to the stalls. They pulled their coats tighter around them when they stopped behind the line of empty stalls; the wind had become bitterly cold.

Vin led JD carefully around the corner of the last stall, keeping JD a bit behind him. His bright blue gaze moved quickly, taking in everything around them. They came to a stop in front of the stall that had held the horse in the warehouse. The row of stalls were empty, the smell of manure wafting from them. They could see several trucks and trailers by the huge Expo building.

JD stood, looking around at the empty stalls all around them, then, with his fists on his hips, he turned and looked at Vin. "He's ours! The men are gone. We can keep him."

"No, we can't, JD. We can barely feed ourselves, how can we care for a big horse?" Vin reasoned.

"He's ours!" JD yelled, running back around the stalls and heading down the hill.

"JD!" Vin called before running after the little boy. He'd just have to wait a little. JD would come around as soon as they had to get the horse food and water, Vin thought as he ran after the boy.

Vin caught up with JD when he slipped under the fence. JD, though still mad at Vin, waited at the road, as he'd been taught, until Vin gripped his hand. Together they waited, then crossed the street.

Once back inside the warehouse, Vin went to the trailer to see if there was any hay left. He found a little in the front manger, but it wouldn't be more than a few mouthfuls for the horse. He pried open a storage door on the outside of the trailer. It extended across the front, under the mangers, and found part of a bale of hay there. He pulled it to the door and looked around. The floor of the warehouse was filthy, littered with all kinds of garbage and human waste; there was no place he could safely feed the horse.

Vin leaned against the trailer, his arms crossed over his chest as he tried to think how he could feed the horse and not have the horse get sick from something on the floor. He watched the horse moving like a ghostly shadow around the building. JD was still mad, and wasn't talking to him, but he was watching the horse from their corner.

Vin's gaze passed over their home and an idea came to him. He pushed the hay farther into the storage area, so the horse wouldn't be tempted to reach it, then hurried to the piled up old boxes and wood that consisted of his and JD's home.

"JD, we need to get a box to put some horse food on. Will you help me?" Vin asked as he reached for the top boxes of their house.

"Is he hungry? Do we have to get him more food and water now? How can we get water for him? We don't have a bucket. Is this box okay?"

Vin shook his head as all the words tumbled from JD's mouth. He didn't try to answer any of the questions, just pulled a flattened box off the top of their home. With JD's help he opened it up and made sure it was fairly clean. They worked together, tearing it down one seam and opening it up all the way, then put it on the floor.

Vin got another one and they did the same thing to it, putting it beside the first one and letting them overlap a little. They stood for a moment, looking over their work, finally Vin hurried to the trailer and got half of the hay. He carried it carefully, so he wouldn't lose any of the precious feed on the way to the flattened boxes. He whistled shrilly and looked around for the horse as he dumped the hay onto the cardboard.

The stallion paused near the closed doors and looked toward the far corner. When the whistle came again, he went to investigate. He could smell the sweet hay before he reached the dark corner and began to trot, weaving his way around several piles of smelly rubbish.

JD backed away from the cardboard as the horse came closer. Vin finished shaking out the hay and turned to JD. "He needs water. Go get the ice chest and we'll go get some, then we can go see if we can get him some grass from the woods."

"Okay," JD exclaimed, rushing into their home. He was excited; they were keeping the horse.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Two days later, the two boys made their way from the woods carrying the tablecloth between them. It was bitterly cold, and had been spitting snow off and on. JD had whined awhile as they'd worked to get some grass for the horse. He was tired, cold, and hungry. They had worked steadily to care for the horse, spending hours getting him grass and water. This was their second trip today. Tomorrow they had to go looking for food for themselves.

Reaching the warehouse, they made sure there were no people around or any cars on the road before making their way behind the bushes and through the hidden opening. Vin ducked through first, then pulled the tablecloth while JD helped push it through the hole. JD quickly followed and replaced the boards.

Inside, they carried the tablecloth to the box they had found, and sat on the cardboard covering the floor in their corner. After dumping the grass into the box they watched as the horse came up to them. He nuzzled Vin, then JD, before dipping his head into the box to eat.

Vin stepped back and watched the horse eating as he folded the tablecloth. He could see the stallion had lost weight, and he knew they couldn't care for the animal any longer. It was too much work for them, and with snow due, other people would be coming into the building to get out of the weather.

Vin had gotten up the last two nights to check on the horse, making sure he was all right, and no one had returned to the building yet. He had no idea why the horse was in their building, or if whoever had dumped the truck, trailer, and horse there would be back for them.

He hoped the thieves wouldn't come back, but he was too scared to go to the police and report them, afraid they would try to put JD and him in a home. He shuddered. He didn't even want to even think about being separated from JD, and he was determined that would never happen.

He glanced at JD, who was standing by the horse, and shook his head. JD was petting the horse's leg while he ate.

"You are the greatest horse, Mouse. I really love you. You can do anything," JD told the stallion.

"His name isn't Mouse, JD. He has a better name than that."

"I don't care. He's our horse, so he's Mouse. I'm hungry, and cold. Can we eat?"

"You go ahead. I have to get him some water. I'll be right back. Stay in the house, and wrap up in some blankets," Vin told JD as he handed him the folded tablecloth. He picked up the ice chest and hurried to their opening a few feet away.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin was tired out when he got back the second time with water for the horse, who eagerly drank it all down. He patted the horse, who nuzzled him back for several minutes, pushing his long hair all around his head and face and making him smile. Finally, hunger and exhaustion took over and Vin told the horse it was bedtime, and that he'd get him some more water in the morning. With a last pat, he crawled into the opening to his home where JD was already sound asleep.

Getting himself a drink of water, he found a partial egg and ham muffin and hungrily ate it, then had another drink of water. His stomach was still growling, but he was used to it and, yawning, he took off his coat and shoes and crawled under the blankets beside JD. He was asleep almost instantly.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A strange, angry scream woke Vin and JD hours later. For a moment they lay in their blankets, hearts pounding. When it sounded again, followed by a man's yell, Vin bolted from the bed and raced from their hiding place. He stopped outside the boxes and looked wildly around. Someone was trying to lead the horse to the truck and trailer and was hitting him with the end of the rope he had around the horse's neck.

Vin grabbed a piece of an old 2-by-4 board and ran after the man, thinking only to rescue the horse.

JD pulled his shoes on and picked up a smaller stick when he exited their home. He slowly followed Vin, unsure what to do.

Vin let out a loud rebel yell as he struck the man on the back of his knees, knocking him forward. The rope flew from the man's hands and the horse dodged away. Vin hit the man again, and the man fell against the trailer.

Vin could smell the stink of filth and body odors coming from the dirty-looking man who turned toward him. The man caught his breath and, all of a sudden, seemed to realize that it was a child wielding the board.

With a snarl the man dodged Vin's next swing and grabbed the skinny, wild-haired boy by his arm and shoulder and swung him hard against the trailer's wheel well.

The board went flying from Vin's hands as he connected hard with the metal. He heard something snap, then his head hit the concrete floor and blackness overtook him.

JD attacked the man with a vengeance when he saw Vin drop to the dirty floor. The horse was suddenly there, too, with snapping teeth and flying hooves that chased the man to the small opening he'd come in by. The knife he was going to use on the horse fell from his pocket as he ran for his life. He barely made it out the opening before the horse slammed into the wall with an angry squeal. The wall shook as he scrambled to his feet and raced away, glad to be alive. He gave up the idea of fresh meat that would last a long time, until he could find help to get the horse. He couldn't let all that food go. He'd be back, he thought as he ran.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

JD knelt beside Vin and tried to wake him up. Tears were spilling from his eyes. "Come on, Vin, we have to go. Wake up. Come on, I'm scared and hungry. Mouse, too. What should I do? Wake up, Vin, you's scaring me," JD begged.

The stallion stood over the crying boy, nuzzling his hair and sniffing over Vin.

For several minutes JD tried to wake Vin, then he saw the blood on the floor under Vin's head. His eyes widened, and he knew he had to get help for Vin; he was hurt badly. He rose and looked around the huge building that looked twice its normal size now that he was alone. He needed to get Vin into their house first. It would be safer, he thought.

He reached down and slipped his hands under Vin's shoulders and pulled. After the first foot, he realized he had to lift Vin's head off the floor – Vin's hair was dragging under him. He lifted him a bit higher and pulled again. Vin seemed to slide easier over the floor, but JD still struggled to move the larger boy.

All the time he was pulling Vin, his tears continued to roll down his face.

After a long struggle, JD reached their hidden corner and let Vin drop onto the cardboard where they fed the horse hay. For a few minutes, JD sat beside Vin and tried to wake him again. He could feel Vin's heart beating when he pressed on his chest, but he couldn't get him to wake up.

He patted the horse's nose that was snuffling over him and Vin again, then got up and hurried into their home. Inside, he dug around their things, then put on his coat and stocking hat. Carrying a piece of cloth, he crawled out and went to Vin. Lifting Vin's head, he wrapped the rag around it as best as he could.

Once again he hurried into the box home and grabbed the old quilt that made up most of their bed, dragging it out behind him to Vin's side. The quilt was wrapped around Vin, and JD tucked it under him as far as he could.

Wiping the tears off his face, JD stood over Vin for a moment, his hand on the horse's leg. "I have to get help for Vin, Mouse. You stay here and watch Vin for me, okay? I'll be back as soon as I can. Vin told me where I had to go if something happened to him. I'll be back. You take good care of him, 'kay?"

With a last rub to the horse's leg, JD ran to their hidden opening and pushed the boards out of the way. With a last look back at the horse, standing over Vin, he ducked outside, closed the boards, and ran for the road.

Safely crossing, JD headed into the city and the Children's Center where the adults were nice. His stomach growled with hunger and he wished he had something to eat as he jogged along. It was early morning, he figured, and there was a lot of traffic on the streets, but not too many people walking the sidewalks yet.

He finally spotted the sign for the Children's Center ahead of him and he slowed down. His legs were tired, and he was starving, and tears began to fall again. Vin needed help, and he was scared of what would happen to Vin, and where he'd go, and what he'd do if they took Vin away.

I'll stay with him, JD promised as he went up the three steps, pushed the door open, and entered the warm building.

A couple of kids were seated at the end of a long table, eating. Three men sat at another table, closer to him, and JD recognized the big man who was getting up and looking at him with a smile on his face.

JD crossed the room in a rush and grabbed the man's hand. "Vin's hurt. A man tried to take Mouse, an' Vin tried to stop him with a board. He got hurted. I can't wake him up. There's blood all over. Mouse is watching him. He needs help," JD said in a rush of words and tears.

Suddenly, a tall, dark-haired, mustached man was kneeling in front of him and JD swallowed and started to talk again as more tears ran down his cheeks.

"Whoa there, Little Bit, we'll help you, but you have to tell us where your friends are. How can we find Vin and Mouse? We don't know where to go to help them. Can you tell us, or take us to them?" the man asked kindly.

JD gulped and thought for a moment, then he nodded. "I can take you. It's far," he said, looking into the kind man's eyes.

"We have a truck. We can get there fast. Will Mouse take care of Vin, stop the bleeding until we get there?"

"Mouse, he don't have any arms. He can't do that," JD answered, wiping his sleeve over his face, unaware of the looks of horror on the men's faces.

Buck and Chris’ gaze flew to Josiah's wide, shocked expression.

Chris looked down at JD and asked, "How can your friend Mouse protect Vin if he doesn't have any arms?"

"He's my horse. He can do anything," JD answered, looking up at the men, his watery brown eyes opened wide in shock as he recognized the two men from the horse show. Mouse belonged to them. For a minute he didn't know what to do, then he remembered Vin's words about them not being able to feed the horse all winter, and how tired and hungry they were after getting grass to feed Mouse the last few days. He blinked in surprise when his stomach growled loudly and the men looked at him in surprise.

"Just a minute before we leave, I'll get you something to eat. Umm, what's your name, son?" Josiah asked JD.

For a moment JD looked from one man to the other, and knew he had to tell them. He'd already told them Vin's name, and Mouse's. "I'm JD. John Daniel Dunne, and I'm very hungry. And Vin and Mouse are, too. It's hard to feed Mouse, but he can't feed his-self, so me an' Vin has to."

Josiah hastened to his side and sat down. He had a wrapped breakfast burrito in one hand, with eggs and ham wrapped in a warm tortilla. "Here, JD, something for you to eat, and I have more in this box for you and Vin, and some milk to. What can we get for Mouse?"

JD took a bite of the burrito and, as he chewed, the tears rolled down his cheeks. He swallowed and looked at Buck and Chris. "Mouse isn't really my horse, or Vin's. Someone stoled him from the stalls and brought him to us at our home. They left him there. It's a green truck and trailer…" He looked at the two men who were gazing back at him in shock. "He's really yours. We seened you riding him, and all the pretty ribbons. When he came we tried to find you, but you was all gone. Vin said Mouse was sad, and had to go home. But we didn't know his home. I love Mouse. He's so nice," JD said as the tears continued to roll.

"Well, son, let's go see him, and help your friend. We have some food for Seeker— uh, Mouse. Shall we go?" Buck held his arms out to the small boy, his heart clenching over the despair on the child's face.

JD looked at the man and he knew he could trust him. He threw himself into the man's open arms, his food clutched tightly in his hand. "We have to hurry. Vin needs me. And I can share my food with him, too."

"No need to share it with Vin, remember? I have some here for him if he's all right," Josiah said as the three men hurried toward the door, a large first aid kit under his arm, JD held gently in Buck's arms.

They rushed around the building to a black truck and trailer that sat in the small parking lot with three other vehicles. JD's eyes widened when he saw the truck, recognizing it as the one he and Vin had seen at parked at the stalls.

"I want a truck like yours. Me and Vin really liked it. So pretty, and it can go, too. But I want a red one. Vin likes black. But I like red. See, my shirt is red, too. Vin found it for me," JD said as the truck was unlocked and they got in.

Moments later they were driving out of the lot, heading toward the Expo hall as fast as they dared, dragging the horse trailer behind them. Once near it, JD pointed to the old warehouses and Chris turned that way.

"That one's ours." JD pointed to the first big building. Chris parked in front of the closed doors and the men got out of the truck and walked to the door JD showed them when he was put down.

Josiah struggled a moment to get the door open, then, with a mighty heave he almost tore it off its hinges.

JD ran through the opening and into the dim interior. "I'm back, Vin! Mouse, are you still here?"

The men following the boy, especially Chris and Buck, were surprised to hear a horse's nicker as they jogged after the boy who was still talking as he ran toward a back corner.

"Mouse, is Vin awake? Vin? I brung help for you, Vin. An' they have food for us, and you, too, Mouse. We don't have ta go get it. Vin, wake up, I gots help. Are you okay?"

The men saw the old, dark green truck and the lighter trailer sitting in the middle of the warehouse, the tailgate open. They slowed to look at it and saw a piece of rope and a lethal-looking knife lying in the dirt on the floor several feet from the trailer. They also saw where something had been dragged across the filthy ground toward the corner of the building and they realized that JD had dragged Vin across the floor.

Exchanging a glance with Buck, Chris changed his thoughts. He'd thought Vin was maybe a teenager. But now he just hoped that he wasn't as young as JD was. If so, he could be dead from the blood trail they were following.

As the men rushed toward the corner, a low nicker sounded. If Seeker could growl they were sure it would have sounded worse, and they recognized it as a warning.

Chris whistled and the horse answered instantly – a shrill whinny as a greeting – but he didn't come forward.

"Hey, Mouse, it's okay, you belong to them. Vin? Vin, please, say something." JD patted the stallion's head as he passed him and dropped to the ground beside the still form of his protector.

Seconds later the men walked up to the horse and JD. Seeker stepped back, his low nicker sounding as Buck and Chris reached him and scratched the horse as they went by. Buck paused and hooked a lead rope onto Seeker's halter as Chris and Josiah went to JD and the quilt-wrapped figure laying on the floor.

JD was shaking Vin, trying to get him to wake up and, for a moment, Vin's head moved, rolling to one side as a low moan of pain was heard.

"JD, why don't you help me with Seeker, er, Mouse? We can go get him fed and watered, and into his trailer," Buck said to the boy.

For a moment JD stayed by Vin, his hands on Vin's shoulders.

"We'll take care of your friend while you and Buck take care of the horse," Chris suggested as he knelt beside the small shape.

"Okay. I put a bandage on Vin, and used his old blanket to keep him warm. Did I do right?"

"Yes, son, you did the right thing for Vin. Now, go with Buck and we'll join you in just a few minutes."

With a nod, JD jumped up and went to Buck, who was standing a few feet away with Seeker. Seeker nuzzled JD's head as he stopped in front of Buck. With a smile, Buck picked him up and seated him on his shoulders. JD laughed in delight and leaned forward as Buck started out, leading Seeker.

"I can see forever! Do you have lots of food for Mouse? Can I ride him? He's my favorite of all horses. We had to go to the woods to find him grass. He was really hungry. Vin gots him lots of water last night. I was so tired…" JD's voice carried to Chris and Josiah as they carefully took the filthy quilt off the child. Chris swallowed as the thin boy was uncovered; he couldn't be more than six or seven years old.

Another moan brought Chris' gaze to the elfin face as Josiah took the quilt off Vin's legs and moved aside. A blanket he'd picked up from the truck was laid beside the boy.

Chris ran his hands over the thin form, and felt a soft spot on his left side.

"No… hurts," Vin yelped as he tried to move away.

Chris rested his hand on the boy's bony shoulder. "It's all right. We're here to help you. Can you tell me where you hurt, beside your ribs?" Chris half whispered.

Vin's eyes shot open. Someone was there. Where was JD?

Frantic, Vin tried to get up, his wide blue eyes glancing all around, then settling on the man in black beside him. He held his shoulder gently, but not allowing him to move.

A green gaze met his blue, and Chris froze in place. His heart seemed to stutter before it regained its rhythm again. Those blue eyes seemed to see clear through to his soul, and beyond. It was as if the child had always known him, and he knew the boy, too.

Something inside told Chris that this little boy belonged in his life, that he had found something so precious that he was compelled to open his heart, and home, to him.

The blue eyes blinked, and Chris' hand gently touched Vin's face. "It's okay, Vin. I won't hurt you. I'm going to help you. Can you tell me where else you hurt?"

Vin's head turned into the warm touch. He was so cold that he began to shiver. He looked at the blond man and said, "I trust you. My head… feet, and my side where you touched me hurts."

Josiah leaned over the boy's feet and lifted them in his hands. "Oh my!" he exclaimed as he looked down at Vin's bare feet. Shards of glass were imbedded in the dirty bottoms. Some were still seeping blood. His pale blue gaze looked from the boy to where the green truck and trailer were, a good fifty feet away. The floor was littered with all kinds of garbage – glass, cans, broken needles, and horse dung and other unidentifiable things.

Josiah looked at Chris. "We need to get him out of here – now. I'm not sure what all is in his feet. Looks like he ran out here barefoot," Josiah said as he gently laid Vin's feet back on the clean blanket and wrapped a light bandage around each foot.

Chris nodded and looked into the boy's worried eyes. "Vin, we're going to get you wrapped up and then take you out of here. We'll get all your hurts cared for."

"Okay," Vin murmured as he was tenderly lifted and placed on the soft blanket. A moment later warmth enveloped him and his eyes slid closed.

Chris smoothly lifted the boy and felt him go limp in his arms. With a glance at Josiah, they hurried across the warehouse and out the door.

Buck had turned the truck around after loading the stallion into the trailer, and it was running when they came out the door. Josiah opened the back door and steadied Chris as he climbed in. Closing the door, Josiah quickly got into the passenger seat next to JD.

"Drop me off at the Center and I'll follow you in my car, Buck. Then you won't have to bring me back later. I'll call Nathan, and let him know you're on the way. He's working ER this week, and he can get you in quicker, maybe. I'll let the DPD know the horse was found, too. They'll probably have a lot of questions for you," Josiah told them as Buck headed back the way they'd come.

"I think JD should be checked out, too," Chris said from the back seat as he cradled the slight form in his arms. "Then Buck can get Seeker home. You can come back later for me."

"Can I go, too? Can I see where Mouse really lives? Can I stay with you until Vin's okay? When he's better we can go home then. I'm still hungry; we only had a biscuit to eat last night. Vin came to bed late. He gots water for Mouse. Mouse is nice; he plays with our hair and lets us pet him. He's hungry, too." JD stopped for a moment, spreading his arms wide. "An' he makes big poopies. We had to move some away from our house. It's smelly, but we played 'Bat the Poopies.' Vin's good at it. Mouse don't like our building. Its smells, and is dang'rus for him," JD said from where he was buckled into the seat between the two large men, his arms moving as he talked.

"Hey, Little Bit, stop and take a breath. I think Josiah has more food for you, and you can have some, okay?" Buck cut in with a grin at the small boy belted next to him.

Josiah handed JD another burrito as Buck added, "Seeker, uh, Mouse, is fine. No one can get to him now. He's safe and, remember, we gave him some water and he's got hay in the trailer, so, he's eating now."

"Yeah, munch, munch, munch," JD said and giggled as he bit into the burrito.

Less than fifteen minutes later Buck turned into the Emergency Room parking lot and pulled through two parking spaces, stopping the truck. Hefting JD onto his hip, Buck opened the back door and let Chris, carrying Vin, get out.

They hurried across to the automatic doors. JD watched Chris closely as he handled Vin. He wanted to stay with Vin, but he knew his cousin needed help and Chris was the one who could give it to him right now.

Nathan walked up to the ER's main desk just as his friends came through the doors. He frowned at the look on Chris' face. He hadn't seen that expression in years, not since… He paused in his thoughts and glanced at Chris again. Not since Sarah and Adam had been alive. He motioned them to a curtained area, glad that the department wasn't busy for once.

A nurse hurried into the cubicle as Nathan reached it. Chris was laying Vin on the examining table. While the nurse filled out some paperwork, Chris gently unwrapped the boy.

Within moments Nathan was checking the slight body over while the nurse took off the dirty rag JD had tied around Vin's head. A portable X-ray had already been called for, and used, the nurse calling to ask Radiology to process it as quickly as they could.

After several minutes, Nathan gave the nurse some instructions. She hurried off and Nathan covered Vin with a sheet, then turned to the two men with the little boy who was holding tightly to Buck's arm.

"He'll be fine. I believe he has a broken rib, and there's some bruising on his left side. The pictures of his ribs should be here shortly. There's a cut on his head, too. I'll have it cleaned and stitched. He'll have a headache for a few hours, but I can't find any fractures. We'll do a head scan to be sure, though, but I don't feel it's anything more serious other than a bad bump, and a slight concussion. We'll get his feet cleaned up, too. There's some glass in them. He needs a tetanus shot. I doubt he's had any kind of inoculations for a long time. We'll get those tended to while we're cleaning him up. He's very undernourished for his age. I'd guess he's around seven…"

"Be eight 'n May," a hoarse voice said.

"Well, hello there, son. I'm Nathan, your doctor." Nathan smiled down at the brilliant sky-blue eyes.

"'M I gonna live?"

"Yes, you are. You'll be up playing in a few days."

"No, I have ta feed JD an' Mouse, theys always hungry."

Chris stepped forward and Vin's gaze instantly went to him. Placing his hand on Vin's leg, Chris said, "You don't have to worry about feeding them any longer. The horse will be fine. He's going home, where he belongs, and if you and JD would like to, you can come, too." Chris saw the hope in the boy's large eyes. Vin nodded. "There's plenty of room, and you can see Seeker all you want. Mouse's real name is Seeker." Chris smiled.

Joy flashed through Vin as he looked deeply into the green eyes of the blond man. He knew instantly that he and JD could have a loving home with this man. He felt a warmth come over him he hadn't felt in years – it felt like he was home. A shy smile crossed his pale face. "For real?" he asked.

Chris smiled, feeling the shocked gazes on him. He knew Buck was staring a hole in his back, but he didn't look anywhere except at Vin's eyes. "For real. When you get out of here you can come home with us – you and JD both."

"Can we really go with you? We can have a real bed, and see Mouse all the time? You gots more horses? Can we ride them? We seen you ride. Can I ride, too? Do you have s'gettie to eat? I love s'gettie, but we haven't found any. An' cookies. We's like lots of cookies. Milk, and cereal. We don't finds that, either. Can I have new jeans? These are too big, and cold—"

"JD… JD," Vin said before the little boy who was talking as fast as he could to the men heard him and looked over at him.


"M' head aches, can you be quiet for awhile?" Vin asked as Nathan and a nurse began working on his head.

"I's sorry, Vin. I'll be quiet," JD said in his loud whisper.

After giving Vin a local, so he didn't feel anything, Nathan cleaned the cut and put in a couple of stitches. Then the nurse put a small bandage on Vin's head.

"Are you going to sleep?" JD asked, seeing Vin's eyes sliding closed. "Vin!"

"He's all right, JD, he's just tired," Nathan said as he moved to Vin's feet and, with the nurse's help, began to wash and tend to them.

A couple of minutes later Nathan was called and he stepped to the computer display and tapped a button. The monitor lit up with the shots of Vin's ribs. There was a clean line where a lower rib was broken, but it had slipped back into place. Nothing would be done, except to let it mend. Nathan was relieved that it didn't need surgery. He would wrap it, in case the boy got too rambunctious, since the rib was a lower one and it would still be painful for a while.

"Buck, why don't you take JD into the next cubicle and I'll check him over as soon as I can. Then you two can leave," Nathan said when he returned.

Buck nodded and carried JD out, finding Josiah and Ezra sitting in the hallway, waiting. He smiled and gestured toward the next cubicle, and entered it, the two men right behind them. He sat JD down on the exam table and grinned when JD stuck out his hand.

"I'm John Daniel Dunne. Vin Tanner's next door. We saw you at the horse show. You had a pretty car," he told Ezra, who smiled and shook the small child's hand.

"Mr. Dunne, so nice to meet you. I'm Ezra Standish, a friend of Buck and Chris."

"Is your car fast? I want a motorcycle, like Vin does. They go really fast. Vroom, vroom… We want a horse, too. We can ride. Well, Vin is better than me, but Mama taught me." JD took a quick breath and turned to Josiah. "Thank you for the burritos, Mr. Josiah, they was so good. Vin would like them, too. He really likes chocolate stuff, and cookies. We only find a few cookies. Do you all have horses?" He smiled and waved at Nathan as he came through the door. "Hi, Doctor, is Vin still asleep? Can he come home now? We have to go look for food today."

JD talked non-stop until Nathan held up his hand and grinned at him. He'd heard most of what the boy had said for the past several minutes, without taking a breath it seemed. "Vin's sleeping right now. He's on the way up to have his head checked. I want to keep him here for a little while, but he should be able to go home tomorrow," Nathan said as he helped JD out of his shirt.

JD sat still, looking up at Nathan, then over at Buck, his lips trembling.

"What's wrong, Little Bit?" Buck asked as Nathan began checking JD over.

"I'm scared. I need Vin to be here. He needs me, too. We don't like being alone," JD sniffed as a tear rolled down his cheek. "Vin hasta' come home wif' me. I don't want him to be with the angels, like Mama is." More tears rolled down JD's cheeks.

Buck instantly rubbed the small boy's shoulder. "Remember, we're going to my house, and tomorrow Vin will be there, too. You know, I need some help to take care of Seeker, uh, Mouse, and you can help me."

JD gazed at Buck for a moment before he nodded vigorously. "Okay. I'm a good worker. Vin said so."

"Mr. Dunne, do you know where your father or mother is?" Ezra asked.

JD turned large hazel eyes on Ezra and shook his head. "I don't have no daddy. Mama is visiting with Vin's mama. They's angels, and they live with the stars. Vin doesn't think they'll come visit us for a long, long time. It's been a long time, but Vin tolds me I could be really old 'fore I see her. Vin, too."

"Do you remember when you last saw your mother?"

JD made a face. "I was in the car. It went down a hill and crashed into the lake, and then Vin was there. He got me out of the car seat and we had to run. It smelled funny. It 'sploded all over the place, and knocked us down," JD said, his arms moving around, mimicking an explosion and falling. "We had to run fast through the woods, and Vin took me to his home. Mama said I's special, and I's going to a special school for gifted kids. I know my numbers and I can read. I helped Vin write some words on your trailer. He don't know words or writing much. He has a book with some neat pictures I was reading to him. Horse ones," JD said. "I miss my mama," he added in a small voice.

Ezra looked at Josiah, then asked, "Mr. Dunne, do you remember when Vin found you. Um, what time of the year it was?"

"March. Momma said I'd start school in April, as soon as we gots there. We was passing through here, going west. Mama said I would see cowboys, too. And the Easter Bunny was coming soon. I was watching for it in each town, but he wasn't there yets."

Buck began putting JD's shirt back on him as Nathan wrote on a chart. "Do you remember where you came from, JD?"

"Boston. It's far, far away. We drove and drove an' drove. Sometimes we had to sleep in the car for a while, when Mama gots tired. Me, too. We used the ice chest to get water for Mouse. He drinks lots of water. Vin was tired last night. He only brung Mouse two drinks. Can I see Vin? He don't like little places, 'cept our home."

"You can see him before you leave," Nathan told JD with a smile.

"We'll get out of here, see if we can find something about… what happened to the boys," Josiah said as he and Ezra moved toward the opening of the cubicle.

"We'll have information before Thanksgiving, I'm sure, Mr. Wilmington. I'll have guardianship papers drawn up and ready in two days for you both. Am I correct in thinking that you and Mr. Larabee want to be guardians to these boys?" Ezra paused at the entrance, his eyes on Buck, an eyebrow raised.

"Thanks, Ezra. Yeah, get the paperwork going, please. We need to see if there are any relatives, or someone looking for them, too," Buck answered, his thoughts racing over what they would need to do. "Thank you both for your help. We'll talk to you later."

"Mr. Dunne, we will see you soon. You will like it out at the ranch."

"Thanks, Mr. Ezra. I can't wait to go there," JD said as he stood up on the exam table.

"Do you happen to know where Vin's from?" Ezra asked at the last moment.

"Texas. It's a big state, almost bigger than Alaska," JD said and grinned proudly. "His mama's been an angel for a long time. He lived with his grandpa for a while, then he went to be an angel, too."

"Well, thank you, Mr. Dunne. You have a good day now."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Ezra, and Mr. Josiah, and Doctor Nathan. The burritos was good." JD looked at Nathan. "Can I see Vin now?"

Nathan smiled and nodded to Buck. "I'll see if Vin's back from the scan. You can wait upstairs in the pediatric waiting room. After seeing Vin you two can head out. JD's fine. Undernourished, of course, and small for his age, but it looks like Vin took good care of the little tyke. I'll meet you upstairs."

Nathan left them at the elevators and continued on to the desk. With JD's chart in his hand, his thoughts were on the two little boys. He couldn't understand how they could be homeless, living in a warehouse, and still seemed to be thriving. How could children this young live like that? He shuddered and wondered how many other youngsters lived this way. He knew the Children's Center Josiah ran had kids of all ages stopping in, but he figured these two were the youngest.

He turned in JD's chart and found Vin was still upstairs. As he turned away, the nurse's phone rang and she answered it, calling him back. He listened a moment then said, "I'll be back shortly," before rushing for the stairs.

Taking the steps two and three at a time, Nathan raced up two flights and burst out the door on the third floor. He could hear a voice screaming in terror coming from the CAT scan rooms. Ahead he saw a white-faced Chris Larabee being held back from going into the room by two burly security guards.

Nathan ran to the struggling man and the guards. "Let him go," he demanded, pushing the door open and entering the room with Chris on his heels.

Vin was on the conveyor table, screaming as hard as he could, one wrist and his ankles strapped down, his other arm flailing at anyone who came near. A grey-haired nurse, a cloth held to her bloody nose, stood to the side while another tried to grab Vin's free arm.

Chris stepped up to Vin's side, released his left arm, and grabbed him up as far as he could with Vin's ankles still tied down. He pressed the distressed child against his chest, muffling his screams.

"Release him, now!" Chris snarled, glaring at the nurses.

"But, sir—"

"Do it, May. You can see how scared he is," Nathan said, rounding on the nurse, upset at seeing how panicked Vin was.

The nurse released Vin, and Chris gathered him up into his arms as he tried to sooth the terrified child whose face was pressed tightly against his chest. Vin's hands were gripping handfuls of his dark shirt, and Chris wished he could hold him closer. But Chris held him as tightly against him as he could without hurting him, one hand rubbing gently up and down the boney back as tremors shook the boy's slight frame. Finally the screams stopped, changing into quiet sobs.

Distressed, Chris looked up at Nathan, a question in his eyes.

Nathan signed a paper and turned to Chris. "Let's go. I just canceled this." He turned toward the door. Chris lifted Vin up and long, skinny legs immediately wrapped around Chris' waist. Vin seemed to get smaller as one hand slowly moved up Chris' chest, then around his neck. As they walked toward the elevators, a small hand fisted into his shirt collar as Chris continued to hold him in his arms.

"He's in room 601. It's got four beds, but they're empty right now."

"Does he have to stay, Nathan?" Chris asked, sensing that the crying was quieting.

"I'd like to be sure he doesn't have a concussion, or any other head trauma." Nathan frowned as he looked at Vin, then shook his head. "After that scene I think his head might be all right."

"If I took him home, we could watch him, wake him every few hours or so? Give us a list of what to look for and we'll watch for it. I think he's been traumatized enough for one day. What do you think?" Chris felt the body in his arms tense as Vin listened to the exchange, and he knew the boy didn't want to stay there any longer than was necessary. Chris had a feeling Vin would run at the first chance he get.

They stepped from the elevator on the sixth floor and Chris stopped and looked up at Nathan. The head pressed against his chest turned slightly and a pair of blue eyes, awash with tears, looked, too.

For a long moment Nathan's gaze shifted from man to child and back again. He knew from the look on Chris' face that Larabee would take care of the boy as well, or better, than they could in the hospital. The boy's blue eyes bored into him as well, and he was lost. This child, with such expressive eyes, made him feel as if Vin could almost read his mind.

With a resigned sigh, Nathan nodded. "I'll release him to your care. Wake him every two hours, and if there's any fever, dilated eyes, confusion, anything, get him back here, or to the closest clinic, immediately. Change the bandages on his feet daily. I'll have salve for the cuts for you. Watch for any infection. I'll leave detailed instructions for you, and some pain med's for him, at the desk." Nathan rested his hand on Vin's head for a moment. "Vin, I know you have a headache, and your ribs hurt, but I can't give you anything until we make sure you don't have a concussion that could cause you more problems. Tomorrow morning you can have some pain medicine, if everything is all right. I want to put a bandage around your ribs before you go. It'll help hold your rib it in place, so you can move easier. As soon as the rib starts to mend, we'll get rid of the bandage. But for a few days we'll keep you wrapped up."

Vin nodded. He did have a headache, and his ribs did hurt, but he wouldn't say a word. He didn't have to stay in the hospital where the noise and confusion scared him more. If he'd had to stay, he'd have left as soon as he could, and he thought the man holding him knew it, too. He looked up at the doctor and gave him a tentative smile. "Thank you, Doctor. I don't want to stay here," he whispered.

Nathan smiled at him and told him, "You listen to Chris and Buck, and they'll take good care of you and JD. Your clothes are on the bed. Let me wrap you, then you two can leave."

Chris sat Vin down on the bed and, keeping his hand on one thin shoulder, he waited while Nathan called a nurse and asked for bandages. Minutes later Nathan was wrapping a bandage around Vin's lower chest where the break was, reassuring the boy that it was just temporary.

A few minutes later, Vin was dressed, his bandaged feet covered by a pair of children's scrub slippers until they could get him something different to wear. Chris picked Vin up and asked, "Shall we go home?"

Vin's shy smile was Chris' answer and the, "Please," warmed his heart. Chris smiled and headed out the door.

All of a sudden Vin realized that he and JD were going to a total stranger's house. They would be depending on men they had just met to take care of them, strangers who could do anything they wanted to two small boys.

Vin swallowed and glanced around. He saw the man named Buck come out of an open room with chairs and low tables in it with JD. JD's smile could light up a room, Vin thought. He could tell JD was happy and, if he'd been allowed to walk, Vin was sure JD would have been bouncing with excitement.

Vin studied the tall man holding JD as they got closer. He noticed the man's eyes first. They were dark blue, and kind. And there was a smile partly hidden under a dark mustache as he looked down at JD, his whole attention focused on the little boy. Vin felt no threat coming from the man, his attention was fully focused on JD, although he did glance their way.

Something different was coming from the man carrying him. Mixed emotions seemed to be racing through the lean blond. Vin felt no hostility, just concern and confusion. Vin wasn't sure what to do, but he knew he wanted to stay right where he was – in the man's arms.

He sensed that Chris needed him, and he wanted to help him any way he could. Vin shook his head as they walked across the parking lot to the big black truck and horse trailer. He felt like he was home, like this man could maybe love him and take care of him like he was his son.

Vin grinned as the strong arms hugged him tighter to the man's broad chest for a moment. I'll be the best son, he thought.

I know you will, Vin heard in his head and he looked at Chris wide-eyed, his hands tightening on Chris' shoulder and arm.

Chris stopped and was staring at Vin in confusion. He hadn't realized that Vin hadn't spoken out loud. He'd just thought an answer. He looked into the boy's beautiful blue eyes. "You heard that?"

"Yes," Vin answered. "I heard you in my head."

"I did, too. You didn't say that out loud, did you?"


Chris shook his head. "I don't understand, but I'm not going to worry about it now. Let's get you boys home, and we'll figure it all out." He unlocked the truck and Buck and JD climbed into the front seat.

"I'll drive, Chris, if you want to hold Vin, or you two can sit in the back," Buck said as he carefully buckled JD into the middle seatbelt, knowing if they were to keep the boys they would have to get car seats for them.

"We'll ride in the back. Vin can stretch out on the seat. That'll be more comfortable for him, I think," Chris said as he put the boy on the back seat, then pulled out two of the blankets they always carried for emergencies behind the seat. He took the one Vin had been wrapped in from Buck and tossed it onto the floorboards – it needed to be washed. He made Vin as comfortable as he could with the two clean blankets before he slid in beside the wrapped figure.

Vin laid his head on Chris' thigh as Buck started the truck and eased it toward the exit.

"I have to go to our home. I need my box," Vin suddenly exclaimed, trying to push himself upright. Pain washed over him from his head and rib and he moaned and dropped back down. Tears welled and he tried to push the pain away.

A hand was suddenly there, rubbing his head gently and he calmed some.

"Tell me," Chris said.

"My box, it's special. I need it. It's all I got," Vin said as tears soaked into the black pant leg under his head.

"It's okay. We'll stop and get it for you. Does JD know where it is?"

Vin nodded, and Chris told Buck to go back to the warehouse.

As Buck drove, he glanced down at the small, dark-haired boy seated beside him. JD had been talking non-stop it seemed since he'd found the men, but now he was sound asleep, his dark head resting against Buck's side. The big man felt something come over him as his gaze went back to the road. He'd never felt this way before. He wanted this child. He wanted to take care of him, watch him grow up, protect him from all the hurts in the world.

He blinked his eyes. Love? He couldn't love this boy already, could he? His dark blue eyes met hazel green ones in the rearview mirror and he saw the same thoughts reflected in the gaze coming from Chris. The blond was as taken by the little boy resting on his leg as he was with JD.

Buck grinned. "What the hell have we gotten ourselves into, pard?"

Chris shook his head. "I don't know, but it… It's right." He looked down, his fingers carding through the tangled long, light-brown hair, hoping to ease Vin's headache. "I think our family is complete, Buck," he whispered.

"What a family we'll be," Buck said and grinned.

Chris smiled his agreement and leaned back to enjoy the rest of the trip. He hadn't felt so calm and fulfilled for several years. Not since before his wife and son had been killed in a car accident that he still felt was not an accident. There was just no way the brakes and the steering wheel could have both failed at the same time, in the same place, on the steep road coming from Colorado Springs.

Sarah and Adam had spent the weekend with a friend and her child. Sarah and Adam visited Jill several times a year, but that last time they never made it home. Witnesses had said the SUV hadn't slowed, and for several minutes it swerved back and forth across two lanes before it failed to take a corner and careened down a hundred foot embankment, rolling over and bouncing off trees before landing upside down in a creek.

Several people had parked and chased after the SUV while others called for help. They managed to get Sarah and Adam out before the vehicle had burst into flames. Sarah had died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital; Adam had been killed before they had hit the creek.

Devastated, Chris had crawled into a bottle for two years. He'd lost his job in the Denver Police Department, and many of his friends. Buck, already his partner at the ranch, had stuck by him, dragging him home from the bars time after time.

For a while Buck had moved out of the main house, and into the small apartment above one barn that they used for hired hands. Then, one day, Buck had exploded. He'd had enough of Chris' drinking and feeling sorry for himself.

Chris had taken a swing at him, and found himself on the ground, ending on the ground several more times after being dragged up and struck by the larger man. Finally, Chris had rolled away as fast as he could; his head had finally cleared after the fifth time he'd gone down.

Buck was yelling, reaching for him again, when he'd knelt up in the dirt, his arms spread and his head down, blood dripping from a bloody nose and busted lips. Buck had stopped.

With his anger exhausted, he'd helped Chris up and they had walked back to the house. Their friendship finally overcame Chris' drinking.

After getting cleaned up, they had talked, and from that day on, Chris had thrown himself into making a name for them as the finest reining and cutting horse line in the state.

Chris had realized that his and Sarah's dream had been disappearing, but Buck's words had hauled him out of the fog. She was gone, but their dream was still alive.

Chris had always been grateful that his fall from grace hadn't dragged Buck down with him. Buck had kept his job and transferred to a detective division. He managed to get Chris to assist now and then, with permission from his boss.

They both had started out working seven years at a detective agency before changing to police work when the agency decided to move out of state. They had been with the DPD almost a year when the accident had happened, Buck having just gotten his transfer to detective, while Chris' was still in the works. When the ranch had finally taken off, Buck quit, and they both turned their time to the horses, and promoting them, but they still occasionally helped the DPD out when they were called.

The last year had been a hard one, but they were starting to make a good name for themselves. The long hours of training were finally paying off. They were on a winning streak and they now owned a popular stallion that would be busy in a few months. Thanks to these two little boys, Seeker was safe and sound, and going home.

And the two men had found two precious souls to make their lives complete.

Buck stopped the truck in front of the old warehouse and turned around. "Where will I find your box, Vin? I'll get it for you."

Vin struggled to sit up and Chris' hand gripped his shoulder and eased him upright. Vin looked shyly at the dark-haired man. "Our home's in the back corner, on that side." He pointed to the left and Buck nodded. "It's in the corner where the wall comes together. There's an old shirt over it. It's sort 'a yellow, and JD's backpack is on top of it."

As quick as JD had fallen asleep, he was awake. "I'll show Buck, Vin. We'll get everything. Are you okay?" JD asked loudly as he worked to get the seatbelt unlatched.

"I'm fine, JD, just tired. Better get our clothes, too," Vin replied.

"I will. Thanks, Buck. Let's go," JD said as Buck released him and JD moved to the door. In moments, Buck and JD disappeared into the building, JD riding on Buck's shoulders.

And in less than fifteen minutes the two were back. Vin was once more laying on the seat, his head resting on Chris' thigh, his eyes closed in sleep. Chris' fingers slowly carded through his long hair.

Chris looked up when he heard JD's laughter. When Buck glanced at him, Chris placed his finger over his lips to warn him that Vin was sleeping.

Buck nodded and said something to the boy on his shoulders. JD instantly looked at the truck and closed his mouth.

Buck opened the door and sat JD down on the seat, then the small purple backpack was placed on the other side of JD.

Chris frowned and Buck glanced at him, his eyes moist and full of sorrow. Buck shook his head and mouthed 'later' as he buckled JD in.

"We got Vin's box. We have to make another stop. They need some clothes, and we need more groceries," Buck stated as he closed the door and moved around the truck to the driver's side. A moment later he started the truck and, with another glance at his partner, added in a whisper, "God, Chris… they can't go back there. Well, I guess Vin made it as good as a child could, but… We have to keep them, no matter what." He swallowed and turned his attention to his driving.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Several minutes later, Buck pulled into the parking lot of a superstore and once parked, he and JD were gone, disappearing inside with JD sitting happily in a shopping cart.

Vin's eyes snapped open and he looked wildly around for a moment, not remembering where he was.

"It's okay, Vin, you're safe," a gentle voice said.

Vin looked up, a shy smile crossing his face. "Sorry, I fell asleep."

"You need the rest," Chris said and smiled. The little elfin face was imprinted in his mind, and he never wanted to lose it.

"What's happened?"

"Well, Buck stopped to get you and JD some clothes, and we needed some groceries, so…"

"Donuts? I love 'em. They're hard to find, though. One place far away from home gave me a free one once. It was so good."

"Knowing Buck he'll have half the bakery in his basket. He likes donuts, too, but he tries to pretend he doesn't." Chris grinned at the giggle that came from Vin. "I have to check on Seeker, will you be okay for a few minutes?"

Vin started to push up and Chris helped him sit up. "Can I go, too?" the boy asked.

Chris opened the door and Vin scooted over to the edge of the seat, then grasped Chris around his neck when he picked him up. Chris carried Vin to the trailer. He opened the small side door that let them see into the manger area and the horse's head. Seeker stuck his nose out of the trailer and nuzzled Vin's arm and hand as the slender boy rubbed his nose and head as far as Vin could reach.

"Hi, Mouse," Vin said, putting his head against the soft muzzle as the horse nibbled at his hair. "I guess your name's really Seeker. I like it. It fits you. You'll be home soon and can go run in a field; you'll be happy and free."

"Well, he's doing fine. We can leave him alone for now. Need to get you back in the truck. Buck and JD should be back shortly," Chris told Vin.

Vin gave the horse's head one a last rub as Chris said, "Back, Seeker."

The horse's head pulled back into the interior and Chris closed the door, making sure it was latched.

They had barely settled back into the truck when Chris spotted Buck and JD coming out of the store. Chris pointed them out to Vin, and heard a giggle come from the boy. JD was once again sitting on Buck's shoulders, his hands waving at everyone, his mouth going a mile a minute. Buck had a big smile on his face.

The shopping cart Buck was pushing was piled high with bags of things.

"You leave anything for the other customers?" Chris asked with a grin.

"A few things."

"We gots lots an' lots. Vin, that store is so big! Buck says we could get lost in it. It's gots food all over so high I can't reach it. Candy an' donuts an' milk an' whole apples. Vin, it's got chicken that smells really good, 'n' hamburgers, 'n' chocolate, 'n' clothes, too. I got's a new shirt, and so do you. We have ta have a bath first, then we can wear our new clothes. They's got blankets, too – nice, warm ones…" JD said from the front seat as Buck got in and started the truck after depositing the bags on the floorboards of the front and back seats.

"Does he always talk like this?" Chris asked, looking down at Vin, who smiled.

"Yeah, when he's excited. Most times, 'cept when he's tired. Can I sit and watch where we're going?"

"Of course. Let me help you so you don't hurt your rib." Chris slipped his hand under Vin's chest and helped him to sit up. "You can lean on me if you want. Can you see over the seat?"

"Not too good."

"I'm not supposed to do this, but Buck's a good driver. I don't think he'll crash," Chris said as he carefully lifted Vin onto his lap. "How's that?"

"Thank you. I can see now."

Vin watched as the last of the city passed and he got a clear view of the mountains ahead of them. He loved the mountains, and now they were right there, clear and clean-looking with snowy tops.

"Is your home by the mountains?" he asked Chris.

"Yes. From the back of the ranch we can ride right up into them. Sometimes we ride up there and camp by a lake. It's got fish in it, and the fishing is good. Real pretty up there. And we all – Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan – try to go camping a couple times a year. Ezra would rather stay home and sleep in his feather bed, though, or in a fancy cabin. He's not much into roughing it, always says if he could bring his feather bed along he'd be happier."

"Horse wouldn't like carrying it," Vin said, then giggled as he imagined what that might look like.

"Probably not. Can you imagine what that would look like? This great big puffy mattress tied onto a horse?" Chris asked, enjoying the sound of the child's laughter.

Vin rested his head back against Chris' shoulder. A feeling of peace and hope flowed through him. He didn't understand it, but he was happy. He felt safe for the first time since his grandpa had died. He felt like he was home as the strong arms wrapped around him and he let his eyes close slowly as he relaxed into the comfortable feeling.

Chris smiled at Buck, whose matching grin was reflected in the rearview mirror. JD had once again wound down and had dropped off to sleep. Quiet settled inside the truck, only the growl of the motor and soft music from the radio could be heard for several miles.

The slowing of the truck brought Vin awake and he looked out in wonder as Buck brought the truck and trailer to a halt at a stop sign. Then they turned onto a two-lane road that wound up and around some hills with the mountains as a backdrop. After ten more minutes the truck slowed and turned onto another smaller, winding road, and five minutes after that they turned onto a dirt road between two tree-covered hills.

Less than two hundred feet later they reached an intricate metal gate that was closed across the road and the truck slowed. Buck punched an opener on the visor and the gate swung open. Once they were clear of the gate, Buck touched the control again and the gate closed behind them.

Buck drove slowly down the curved driveway that opened into a long, wide valley. Several large fenced pastures were laid out on each side of the drive, and ahead could be seen the lawn in front of a large, two-story log house with shade trees around it. To the left, and partly behind the house, were barns and paddocks.

Horses wandered in some of the smaller fields around the area.

Buck parked the truck near the barn closest to the house and, with a smile announced, "We're home, everyone. All out who can… get out."

As soon as JD was released, he scrambled out the door and to the ground, his gaze going around the area. Bouncing on his toes, he turned to where Chris was getting out of the truck with Vin in his arms.

"Vin! Vin! There's horses! Lots an' lots of horses! Look! There, and there, and there. Oh, wow. Vin, look, oh, look at 'em all!" JD's hands covered his mouth as he turned back and forth, trying to control his enthusiasm.

Vin smiled down at JD and shook his head before he looked around at the horses in the pastures.

"How about you sit here while we unload the truck and take care of Seeker? Then we'll get you into the house and settled," Chris said as he placed Vin in a chair on the long, wide deck. From there Vin could easily see the out buildings and the pastures.

"Thank you. I'll keep JD here, too, if you want."

"I think Buck has him under control, right now," Chris told him.

JD was coming toward the deck carrying a sack. "I got's stuff, Chris. Has ta go in the house Buck said. I'm helping him, since Vin has ta rest his feet and rib."

Chris unlocked the door and led JD inside. A minute later the little boy was racing out the door, across the deck, and to the truck to help again. Chris paused beside Vin. "I'll be back shortly." He then walked down the steps and to the trailer.

Within minutes Seeker was backed from the trailer and was walking beside Chris toward the barn and his paddock. Chris stopped at the gate and quickly checked the horse over before he opened the gate, slipped his halter off, and turned the stallion loose in the high-fenced field.

With a loud nicker the mouse-grey stallion took off running, occasionally bucking has he made his way around the field before dropping to the ground and rolling. Jumping up again, he raced away. After several minutes, he stopped and dropped his head, ripping up mouthfuls of grass.

Chris had gone back to the truck and was helping Buck and JD carry the rest of the groceries into the house. Once the truck was empty, Chris carried Vin inside and sat him down at the kitchen table.

"What would you like for lunch, boys?" Buck asked as he and Chris began putting groceries away.

"Hamburger!" yelled JD. "And donuts!"

"How about you, Vin?"

"Anything's fine."

"Well, while I'm making our late lunch, why don't you boys let Chris give you a bath? Then you can get into some new, nice, clean clothes," Buck suggested.

"Yay," JD squealed. "We's only could wash a little. The lake's too cold now. Do you got lots of hot water? I like hot water. We just have cold. Makes us jiggle." JD shook his arms and legs and pretended to shiver and shake.

"JD, you're talking too much," Vin said, his hand on JD's head.

Chris shot a look at Buck, but he picked Vin up. "Come on, we'll get you two cleaned up and then you can eat and rest."

JD danced along behind as Chris walked through the living room and up the stairs. He stopped at the first bathroom and sat Vin down. Minutes later the tub had warm water in it and JD was busy washing himself. Chris washed his hair and rinsed it for him, then let him finish washing. Vin sat on the toilet and waited his turn. Chris hurried to his room and got rid of his coat, then went downstairs and gathered the sacks of clothes Buck had bought for the boys and took them to one of the spare rooms. The room sat between his and Buck's room, and he figured the boys would like to be in there together. The queen-sized bed would hold the two small boys until they could get them each a bed.

He paused as he dumped out the bags of clothes, his thoughts going to how he had already accepted the thought that the two homeless boys would be staying with them. With a smile, he gathered clean clothes for the boys; he was not turning the little ones out. They had already gotten under his skin, and Vin had rekindled something in his heart that had been locked up tight after Sarah and Adam had died.

As he stepped into the bathroom, brilliant, fathomless sky-blue eyes looked up at him and he felt his heart catch as he met the gaze. This was right, and he would do everything in his power to become Vin's guardian, hopefully his father, just as he knew Buck would do the same for JD.

When Vin smiled shyly up at him, Chris' heart melted the rest of the way and he smiled back, realizing he wouldn't be happy until Vin was his, forever.

Chris made sure JD was clean and dried before he sent him downstairs in his new outfit to help Buck. Then he unwrapped Vin's feet and took the bandage from around him. He let Vin wash as much as he could reach, then washed his hair and back for him. A short time later, Vin was dried, fresh bandages were on his feet, and was pulling on a blue, long-sleeved T-shirt as Chris helped him into a pair of sweat pants. A couple pairs of thick, fuzzy socks covered his bandaged feet.

Chris gathered up the boys' discarded clothes, wrinkling his nose at the smell coming from them. He hadn't noticed it before, and he chalked it up to being totally distracted. He couldn't believe he'd missed the smell; the clothes reeked almost making him nauseous. He bundled them up, and with them in one hand and Vin in the other, he carried them all downstairs.

At the bottom of the steps, Chris let Vin down so he could walk on his own into the kitchen where Buck was just finishing their lunch. A hamburger bun sat on each plate, condiments were set out where the boys could reach them, and hamburgers were piled on the plate he had just set on the table. A pile of hash browns sat near the hamburgers, ready to be dished up. Chris made a detour, slipping outside to the burn barrel and dumped the clothes into it, then hurried back inside.

He now had an idea about what Buck had seen under that pile of boxes he'd noticed when they had found Vin. He couldn't believe the two boys had managed to survive living in that warehouse for so long. He was determined that they would never have to live like that again. They would never be alone again; they would have a home with Buck and him for as long as they lived.

With that promise to himself, he plastered a smile on his face and entered the kitchen.

After the meal, JD helped clear the table, chattering away. They were all full, and Vin's eyes were drooping. The headache and other pains were beginning to take their toll and all he wanted to do was lay down and sleep. But movement beside him had his head whipping around and he groaned in pain as he looked up at Chris, who seemed to know him so well already.

"Ready to lay down for a while?"

"Yes, please," Vin answered. He was picked up and carried to the bedroom he and JD would share for now. Chris pointed out the bathroom as they went by, then, in the bedroom he pulled the blankets and sheet down. Chris looked through the new clothes Buck had gotten for the boys, but couldn't find any pajamas, so he let Vin sleep in what he had on.

Chris tucked Vin in, opened the window a little, and left the curtains open. From the bed Vin could see part of the paddock, and some of the horses. Chris smiled to himself as Vin's gaze was drawn to the outside scene.

"Get some sleep. I'll check in on you in a little while and we'll keep JD busy for now."

"Thanks," Vin said as he snuggled under the blankets and his eyes slid closed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris checked on Vin over the rest of the afternoon as they worked around the ranch. Once the chores were done and they were back in the house, they left JD watching a children's program on TV while Buck put together a hearty beef soup for their late dinner.

It was after dark before Chris checked on Vin and found him waking up. He had awakened the boy as Nathan had instructed, but hadn't seen anything that suggested Vin had a concussion. After dinner he would give Vin some of the pain medicine Nathan had prescribed.

Vin smiled when he saw Chris coming into the room. He still had a headache, but it wasn't pounding like it had been before. He had to get up, though, and Chris seemed to read his mind as he pulled the blankets back and helped him to sit up.

Vin stood and made his way to the bathroom, sighing in relief that Chris left him alone for a couple of minutes. When Vin opened the door again, Chris was waiting for him.

"Would you like to go downstairs?"

"Yes, please."

"JD's watching TV, and Buck's finishing dinner. Are you hungry?" Chris said as he put two pairs of heavy socks on Vin's feet for padding, then walked beside him as Vin moved slowly toward the stairs. Chris knew the boy wouldn't want to be carried all the time, and he didn't want to make him uncomfortable.

"I think I could eat a little."

"Good. Buck will be happy. You can sit with JD until dinner's ready."

"Does Buck always cook?" Vin asked curiously.

"No, we take turns. His turn today. Tomorrow is my turn. But I think Buck is the better cook."


"You'll get to try my cooking tomorrow," Chris said as he glanced at Vin. "I can't decide between fish or chicken." He smiled at the wrinkled nose that turned to him.

"We like chicken," Vin said.

"Well then, I'll make chicken, and potatoes and gravy."

"That sounds really good," Vin answered.

"Here you go. Would you like to sit in that easy chair?"

At Vin's nod, Chris helped him into the large recliner and leaned it back. He laid a light afghan over the boy as JD watched. Once Vin was settled, Chris headed to the kitchen.

JD sat on the arm of the chair and told his cousin all he had seen while Vin had been asleep.

A few minutes later Buck entered the room and smiled at the vision of Vin listening patiently to JD, who was talking a mile a minute. Plucking the dark-haired boy from his perch, Buck tickled his ribs then sent him to wash up for dinner. He sat the recliner upright, took the afghan from Vin, and helped him to stand. Before they got to the kitchen JD was back and followed them into the large room.

After dinner, they all watched TV for a little while before the two boys were put to bed. Chris gave Vin a pain pill to help him sleep, then settled them into the large bed. A blanket was rolled up and placed between the boys so JD wouldn't accidently roll into Vin while they slept. Leaving the door open, the men retired to their rooms.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Four days later, Vin was wanting to go outside. His feet were better, and he was getting frustrated that he was confined to the house. Chris talked him into waiting until they could get to town to get him some shoes, and Vin agreed.

Vin realized that he'd been crabby and was scared that Chris and Buck wouldn't want him any longer, and might take him back to the warehouse. With tears in his eyes, he went to find and apologize to Chris.

He found Chris in the living room, looking over some papers.

Chris took one glance at the longhaired boy in front of him and his heart ached at the devastated look on the child's face. He somehow knew Vin feared that he was thinking about getting rid of him, and he wanted to assure Vin that that would never happen. He placed the papers on the end table and watched Vin's apprehensive approach.

Moving slowly, so he wouldn't alarm him, Chris lifted Vin, then sat down with the boy on his knees. Chris hugged the child to his chest, his cheek resting on Vin's bent head for a moment.

"Vin, you'll never be turned away from here. I want you right here, beside me, as my son, if possible. Today, well, later today, Ezra and the others will be here, and we're going to talk about how that can be done, to make you my son, and JD Buck's son. We want you both, forever. This is your home now, no matter what happens, if you want it to be," Chris told him as his free hand rubbed the boy's bony back.

"Forever?" Vin whispered hoarsely as he lifted his head from where it lay against the man's powerful chest.

"Yes, Vin, forever," Chris answered, gazing into the tear-filled blue eyes.

"But…? What…?" Vin gulped and turned his head toward the fireplace and pointed to the picture of Chris standing with a pretty woman and a little boy.

"Oh, Vin." Chris' heart and soul clenched as he looked at his family, who he would never stop loving. "Sarah and Adam don't mind. They're… with your mom, and JD's, too. They were killed in a car accident a few years ago. I'll miss them for as long as I live. But you've already filled a place in my heart, just as JD has. They don't mind you sharing their places there. And if they were in this room right now, Sarah and Adam would love you as much as I do."

Vin's small hand rested on Chris' chest, over his heart, as he sat and thought through what Chris had just said, comforted by the strong heartbeat he could feel.

"You're sure they don't mind me being here?"

"They don't mind. I believe they're happy for us. We've found each other. Adam would've loved having little brothers. And Sarah…" Chris' arms tightened a moment around Vin, his voice becoming a little unsteady. "…She would've loved you and JD as soon as she set eyes on you." Just like I did, Chris added silently in his head.

Vin cocked his head and looked at Chris. A small smile tilted his lip up on one side. I think I love you, too, Chris, he thought, watching as Chris' green eyes opened wide in surprise. Not knowing what it meant Vin said, "If it's all right with them, I'd like to stay here and be your son."

"Good." Chris hugged the boy to him for a moment, then released him. "Now, how about you get ready to go to town so we can go get you some shoes so you can get outside? Buck and JD will be ready to go in a few minutes."

With a crooked grin, Vin slipped off Chris' lap and, with a last look back into the man's green eyes, he turned toward the stairs. "I'll be back in a minute," he said, then ran up to his room.

Chris rubbed his eyes and shook his head as he moved to stand in front of the picture of his family. Oh, Sarah, I wish you were here. You'd love this little boy. He's really gotten under my skin. He'll never take your place, or Adam's, but he's in my heart now. God, I miss you both. Chris blinked for a moment, staring at the picture. He could have sworn he'd seen Sarah shake her head and smile at him as he'd felt a soft touch run down his cheek.

For several long minutes Chris just stood there, frozen in place, his gaze focused on the picture as something that felt like fingers ran over his lips, and up and down his cheeks. All of a sudden something touched his lips in a kiss and, a moment later, the touch was gone.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"I'm ready," Vin said as he started back down the stairs. Not having shoes yet, he'd put on two pairs of heavy socks. A warm sweatshirt was under the jacket Buck had bought him.

He was happy. He had a real home, and Buck and Chris were nice to JD and him. He knew Chris loved him, just like his mother had, he thought, although it was also different. He'd never had a father, and he was looking forward to having Chris as his dad. He didn't understand why, but he felt safe with these two men, and he would do everything he could to be a good son to them, especially Chris.

He stopped at the foot of the stairs, staring at Chris, who was staring at the picture of his family, and he felt the tears in his eyes again. Chris loved his family, how could he love him now?

He felt someone beside him, but he couldn't see anyone there. Something soft touched his head, then moved down his cheeks. Vin stiffened as he felt arms go around him, and something touch his forehead. He heard a soft, gentle voice in his ear. I love him with all my heart, and now you, too. He's special, you're his life now. Be happy and take care of each other.

The sensation was gone as fast as it had come, and Vin realized that Chris was looking at him, tears in his green eyes.

"Chris, what…?"

Chris crossed to Vin and picked him up. Vin wrapped his arms around the man's strong neck.

"Vin, I think we just found out that Sarah wants us together."

"She… She told me to take care of you."

"Take care of each other, she said."

"Yes. And that she loves you with all her heart, and now me, too."

"She wants you here as much as I do," Chris said, then he smiled and kissed the side of Vin's head. "Shall we go shopping before our company gets here?" Chris laughed at the sound of the Ram's horn honking. "Besides, I think someone is getting impatient."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Several months later, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra drove out to the ranch through a blinding snowstorm. The phone lines in the area were out, and Ezra couldn't get through to the ranch on his cell phone.

The three men had met at Josiah's, and he drove his SUV through the storm, all of them a little worried about what they would find at the ranch. But they were also happy about the news Ezra had for them. They reached the gate and Nathan braved getting blown away to manually open it. He waited for the SUV to pass him before pushing the gate closed through the drifting snow. He quickly brushed snow off as he got back into the warm interior of the SUV.

Josiah was happy to see that the driveway had been plowed recently; the snow was only a few inches deep in places where it hadn't drifted. They all breathed a sigh of relief when the house came into view and they could see smoke coming from the two chimneys, although it was quickly whipped away on the wind.

Josiah parked close to the side of the house and each man grabbed their bag, then opened their doors and hurried toward the side door where a small face was pressed against the glass.

JD's smile and wave greeted them and they saw his head turn. They were all sure that he was alerting the others that company had arrived.

The door was thrown open and the three stomped their feet free of snow as they hastened to the door and inside. JD was hopping from foot to foot in excitement and when the men got their coats off, he ran forward, unable to stay still a moment longer.

"We's camping! We's camping! We gets to sleep in the front room by the fire!" JD exclaimed as Josiah caught him up and held him in his arms. "You's cold, Unca 'Siah." JD giggled.

Vin was standing in the hall, watching them.

Ezra smiled at Vin as he noticed what the boy was wearing. Vin was dressed in a bulky sweatshirt over, from what Ezra could see peeking out from the bottom of the shirt, at least four other shirts.

"Are you cold, Master Tanner?" Ezra asked.

Vin shyly nodded as JD started up again. "Vin's always cold. He sleeps close to the fire. We get to sleep in sleeping bags and blankets. Da and Chris keep the fire going. We eat by the fire, too. Da cooks outside. It's cold out there. Brrr. We have hot water, an' Chris is working to get the 'pane' working…"

"JD, take a breath," Buck said, appearing from the kitchen as the men and boys walked into the living room where a warm fire crackled in the large fireplace.

The curtain was partly drawn over the huge picture window, two couches were pulled close to the fireplace and, in the corner, sleeping bags were stacked on top of several air mattresses. Blankets were folded and stacked on one end of a couch, with pillows on top of them.

"What brings you all out here on this awful day?" Buck asked as he placed more wood on the fire.

"First, where's Chris working? I might be able to help him. I've gotten to be an expert on 'pane' as JD calls it. It's the propane line, isn't it?" Josiah questioned, placing JD on the floor and watching as the boy ran to hug Nathan.

Buck smiled and pointed. "Out back, to the right, just past the corner of the house. You boys like some coffee? Got some hot in the thermos," Buck said as Josiah headed for the kitchen and back door while the others took off their coats.

"I would love a cup of coffee, since you have some made," Ezra replied. "I have news for you and Mr. Larabee, and it seems the phone lines are down, and your cells aren't working."

"Nathan, coffee?" Buck asked.

"Please," he replied.

"Make yourselves comfortable, and I'll get it. The phones went out yesterday, and the power this morning. We have some propane heaters, but, well, not sure what the problem is. Chris has been out there for a couple of hours trying to get it figured out." Buck disappeared into the kitchen as he talked, and a minute later was back with the thermos and some cups. He smiled first at JD, who was seated between the two men, then at Vin, who was sitting in front of the fireplace.

"You boys warm enough?"

"I am. Vin's by the fire, so he's warmer now," JD commented, then asked, "Can we have some more hot chocolate, Da? It really warms us up." JD's arms wrapped around himself as he bobbed back and forth.

With a grin, Buck nodded. "I guess I can find some for you young'uns, Vin?"

"Yes, please."

"I'll be back shortly."

"What have you boys been doing lately?" Nathan asked JD and Vin.

"Ever'thing! I's going to go to school for awhile. Vin gets to go, too but he's got a special teacher all to himself. We played in the snow yesterday, but not today. Da said it's too cold and we'd blow away, an' they'd be sad. Chris let Vin ride a horse all alone, didn't you, Vin?"

"Yeah, I got to ride all alone. I know how to ride," Vin replied in a quiet voice, a shy smile on his face.

"He's good. Vin can ride anything. It's fun to get to ride. And Da said we can each have a horse of our own. I can have a horse! I have to grow fast so I can get one." JD turned to Nathan, his whole body quivering with excitement. "Unca' Nathan, how can I grow fast? I want my own horse now. Vin's almost big enough now. I'm not."

"JD, take a breath, son, your face is turning red. Here's your drink – marshmallows, too." Buck handed JD and then Vin a mug of hot chocolate before turning to the two men on the couch. "Your news must've been really important to risk getting stuck out here today. This storm doesn't seem to want to stop."

"We came prepared, Mr. Wilmington, we were sure you and Mr. Larabee could put us up if need be," Ezra stated, sipping his coffee.

Before anyone could say anything else, they heard the kitchen door open and then the entrance of Chris and Josiah. Moments later the two men walked into the living room, cups of coffee in their hands.

Ezra saw Vin's elfin face light up and a smile crossed his lips. Chris went straight to Vin and sat down beside him in front of the fireplace. With a smooth, quick move, Vin was on Chris' lap a dark-clad arm wrapped around his waist.

Vin sat with his back against Chris, his long legs over Chris'. Ezra smiled at the picture Chris and Vin made, and he was pleased that the news he had would make them all happy. He'd known Chris and Buck for several years, having met them while they both still worked on the police force. Neither man had struck him as the fatherly type. After the accident that had taken Chris' family, Chris had buried himself in a bottle for years, and retired from his job. Although he was no longer a private detective, or a decorated police officer, he still had many close friends at the DPD. Maybe not as close as Buck, who had been by Chris' side for almost fifteen years, but they were still his trusted friends. Once a year Chris opened his house to all his friends, hosting a big barbeque in the back yard while they all talked cops and horses.

When the two little warehouse boys literally dropped into their arms the change in the men had been instantaneous. It seemed that, within minutes, they had gone from bachelors to family men, and seeing the enjoyment the four shared together, Ezra hadn't been at all surprised when he'd been asked to see what he could find out about the boys, and how they could get adoption proceedings started for them.

It had taken longer than he'd expected, but he was a good lawyer – if he admitted it to himself. He was glad for the connections he had to several high-profile people.

Ezra put his hand on the envelope he'd brought with him. The papers only needed signatures and witnesses, and the two little boys, who now happily called him and the others 'Uncle,' would each have a loving father.

Finishing his coffee, Chris tickled Vin, who still sat on his lap, as his gaze went to the visitors, and he welcomed them with a smile. A feeling of contentment came over Chris whenever he heard Vin's giggles. The little boy was ticklish, but he loved to horse around, and he gave back as much as he took.

Vin dropped his empty mug, and turned and grabbed Chris around his neck to wrestle him to the floor. When Chris fell over, Vin quickly sat on his chest and gripped Chris' arms. With a wide grin and a little snarl, Vin tugged Chris' arms above his head and held them down with one hand, then commenced to tickle him back.

With a whoop, JD landed on the carpet beside the two and took up helping Vin tickle Chris.

For several minutes the tickles and laughter continued, then, with a roar, Chris grabbed both boys, hugging them to his chest as he growled, "I've got you now, and I'm going to eat your ears!"

"No! No! Da, help me, the monster's got me. Da! Da, help!" JD screamed as he playfully fought to get away.

Chris let the little brunet free when Buck moved to rescue JD, then gathered him into his arms.

"But now I've got you, and I can eat you, too," Buck said as he tossed JD into the air. JD's squeal of laughter rang out as Buck caught him and placed him on his shoulders. JD hung on to Buck's head as Buck whirled around in a circle before falling to the couch amid laughs.

Chris held onto Vin as he sat up, then buried his face in Vin's hair as he loudly blew on the boy's neck.

Vin, giggling, hunched his shoulders and grabbed Chris around the neck and hollered, "I give! I give! Don't eat me."

"Well, since you're such a good boy, I won't eat you – this time," Chris said, then chuckled as Vin curled into his arms again, content to sit silently, leaning back against his chest.

Things quieted down and Chris looked at Ezra, one eyebrow cocked.

"Yes, Mr. Larabee, I do have some documents for you. I finally have everything needed for the responsibility you and Mr. Wilmington are undertaking. After a painstaking, intense investigation, nothing was found on Mr. Tanner or Mr. Dunne with regards to relatives. Every name under Dunne was checked out in Boston, and the adjacent region. There was no one by that name to be found. What originated from the police and the medical examiner…" Ezra shot a glance at Buck, who was holding JD on his lap. "…the young woman in the car died of a massive heart attack, instantaneously. She had a heart condition, the examiner reported. There were some papers found, which I personally checked out. They confirmed that a child…" Ezra nodded at JD. "…was scheduled to enroll in a school for gifted children by a certain date in April, but he never showed up, and the school never received any correspondence, so after two weeks they gave the spot to the next child in line. No one knew what had happened to the child. He was never seen."

"That was me. Vin helped me, and I lived with him," JD proudly announced, his agile mind putting things together even though Ezra tried not to say his name. "An' Mama's with the angels, so they can't find her. She's still visiting Vin's Mama. I was 'spos ta go to a special school when we gots here, but me an' Vin didn't know where to go for it." JD looked at Vin, who nodded to him in agreement.

"That's right, Little Bit," Buck told him, hugging the boy to him.

"On Mr. Tanner we found confirmation of him being placed in the North Texas Home for Boys, in Lubbock, but he vanished from there a short time later. There was no trace of him anywhere, and no Tanners in that locale, or in or near Austin, which is where the Home's paperwork came from. So, with that information, gentlemen, your exemplary records with the detective agency, the police force, and through the affidavits of coworkers, bosses, and other acquaintances, I was able to secure the paperwork for you."

Ezra opened the envelope and pulled out a sheaf of papers. Thumbing through them, he split them and handed some to Buck and the others to Chris.

"Read them over. If you have any questions, ask, otherwise, if you agree, sign and date them. We will be your witnesses and sign when you have finished," Ezra instructed the two men.

"How could you do all this without Social Services and all those agencies getting involved?" Buck asked as he read over the documents.

Ezra smiled his gold tooth flashing. "Like I said earlier, I do have friends in high places, and several stepfathers who helped me with a small number of things. Besides, remember just after New Year's, when you two had to go to that convention in Wichita, and I stayed with the boys?" He grinned at the secret Vin and JD shared with him, and nodded at the boys. "Well, Mrs. Nettie Wells of Social Services showed up at the door two days before you got back. I couldn't turn her away. She was good with the boys, and put them at ease, and we got the answers she needed. She did the house assessment, and the boys showed her their room. I recall JD talked her arm off, and she left with the knowledge that they were well treated, enjoyed a good environment, and the love of doting guardians. Now, have you finished reading? Do either of you have any questions?"

JD was bouncing on Buck's lap, and the big man held him still for a moment as he remembered the talk he and Chris had had with Mrs. Wells three weeks ago. Finally, feeling JD's bouncing start up again, he let JD slip to floor, then looked at him. "What's the matter, JD?"

With Buck's attention on him, JD bounced up and down on his toes. "We had a secret from you. Unca' Ezra made us swears not to tell until he did. It was fun. We like Miz Nettie, an' she's goin' to come see us again, and bring us cookies for Valentimes Day. Can she stay for supper?" Big brown eyes looked into Buck's blue ones.

"Ah, um, well, we'll have to talk about this with Chris and Vin first. Can you wait a little while? We have to get this taken care of first. It's very important," Buck told him sincerely.

"Okay. We'll wait, won't we, Vin?" JD looked at Vin, who smiled at him. Satisfied, JD skipped over to where Ezra sat and, at his invitation, climbed onto his knees.

Ten minutes later Buck looked up from the papers and saw Chris' gaze on him. With a little lift of his lips Buck tipped his head and, taking the pen Ezra provided, signed and dated the papers. With a flick of his wrist he tossed the pen to Chris, who signed and dated the papers he'd just read as well.

Chris handed the papers to Vin, and asked him to take them to Josiah, who signed them as a witness and passed them on to Nathan to sign before handing them back to Ezra.

Buck's papers went the same route. As soon as Ezra signed them, he took his notary seal from his pocket and notarized all of the papers. Sorting them again, he rose and handed the documents to Buck and Chris, who also had risen.

"Congratulations, Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner is now your son. Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Dunne is now your son. May the coming years together be filled with love and happiness. Papers have already been drawn up for the adoptions, and we should be hearing from the 'powers that be' within the month on the applications, and then we'll go forward with the final step." Ezra shook the two men's hands, then stepped back as Josiah and Nathan moved forward.

JD and Vin watched quietly until Buck and Chris turned to them. At their smiles the boys threw themselves into their new father's arms.

"You's my Da for sure?" JD asked, twining his arms around Buck's neck.

"I sure am!" Buck replied then pressed his face against JD's neck before anyone could see the tears that had welled up in his eyes.

"We can really stay here? We don't have to ever leave?" Vin asked tentatively, not sure what it all meant, but hoping he could still be with Chris forever.

"Oh, Vin, this is your home now, until you're old and grey. I'm your father, and Buck's JD's, and we'll take care of you for as long as you and JD are with us," Chris reassured the boy, then he pulled Vin close and Vin's arms circled his neck.

An almost silent whisper reached Chris's ears. "I never had a father. I'm glad you're mine.

Chris blinked his eyes several times and, when he looked up, there on the mantle was the picture of Sarah and Adam, and he could have sworn Sarah gave him a thumbs up as she hugged herself in joy.


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