"Little Britches" Universe

Disclaimer: This work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe upon anyone with legal rights to The Magnificent Seven. I don't own the characters, and am receiving no money.

Notes: This is the first story in the Little Britches AU series.

Rating: PG, just a few bad words.

The gently rocking train sang its lullaby along the tracks as it headed purposefully westward. The sun had slipped below the horizon hours before. A thin crescent moon, obscured by flowing clouds, provided no light for the massive iron traveller. The old conductor, making his rounds, liked this time best of all. The train, with its sleeping passengers, was all his then. He knew, deep in his bones, every whine of the engine, every creak of its metal joints, and it was best heard at night when there were no distractions.

His rounds took him to a small car normally used for transporting the more expensive cargo, like jewelry and fancy European goods earmarked for the San Francisco shops, but on this trip it held ten passengers. Children, orphans from one of the large Eastern cities, were headed towards the promise of families. The elderly man had taken pity on their tired faces and had arranged for them to spread their blankets on the floor of this car. Not luxurious by any means, but better than trying to sleep in the hard seats of the passenger cabin. He'd also found a bunk in one of the sleeping cars for their chaperone, a frail and weary nun, Sister Martha. She hadn't wanted to leave her charges, but he'd promised to keep watch over them and she'd finally agreed.

This wasn't the first group of orphans that had made this journey. All had held the same lost look in their sad eyes; all had gone through more than any child should face in their short lives. What they were going to might not be much better. This wild land took no pity on the young--many families lost children to disease and accident. Young ones were a necessity... more hands to work the land, tend the garden, care for the animals....and their parents when they were too old to care for themselves. So these orphans would be welcomed. As the elderly conductor resumed his inspection, he offered a silent prayer that these children would find good, loving homes.

Not every child in the car was asleep. The old man heard a tiny whisper from one of the youngsters, barely heard over the clacking of the train's wheels. "Vin?" He listened for a moment longer, concerned that one of the orphans might be in distress, but moved on when things seemed okay.

"Yes, JD." Vin waited as patiently as his seven years would allow. This had become a normal part of their evening routine.

"Vin, do you think I could have a pony?" Five year old JD Dunne wriggled closer to his older cousin, trying to get comfortable. The mat they shared didn't provide much padding between boy and floor.

"I 'spect so, everyone out west has horses."

Well if Vin said it, it must be so. "I wanna black one with a star." JD snuggled even closer to his cousin, finding the perfect spot under Vin's chin to tuck his head against. "Bet I can go real fast then, huh, Vin?"

"Sure, JD...real fast. Now, go to sleep. 'Member we get there tomorrow." There was a place called Four Corners, someone had showed Vin where it was located on the map, but it was just a dot a very, very long way from home. Vin wrapped his arms tighter around his thin body, wishing he were home right now. His mama would read him to sleep and she'd kiss him good night. But that wasn't gonna happen. His mama was dead, two years ago, and now JD's mama was dead too. They were angels now, up in heaven, the preacher said. He said they were watching over the boys, but Vin would much rather have them down here with him and JD. Heaven was even further away from home than Four Corners.

"Vin? That lady said we was gonna get a new papa and mama. You think that's right?" JD sounded worried.

It was Vin's job to keep JD from worrying... he had promised his aunt on her death bed to take care of her child and he was gonna do it. "Sure, JD. They got nice people wanting us to live with them. People with lots of horses, I betcha."

That seemed to satisfy JD. He turned over on his side, chubby hand under his cheek, stuck his thumb in his mouth and quickly fell asleep.

Vin wished he could be as sure as he'd tried to sound. He was so scared. What if they weren't nice people? What if they whipped them? The older children at the orphanage, where the boys had stayed temporarily, had taken great pleasure in frightening the youngsters with horror stories of cruel parents. Even worse, what if they didn't want two boys? Two boys were a lot of trouble--he had heard some woman say that to his aunt Rachel when her cousin and best friend, Kate, had died leaving a grieving five year old boy.

Vin wrapped his arm protectively around the younger boy, burying his face in JD's silky, dark hair. Slow, hot tears trickled down his face and soaked JD's shirt as he cried himself to sleep.

The old church that stood in the center of town had seen better days. So had its preacher, Josiah Sanchez. Of course, he had seen worse ones too. A true faith in the Lord and a wicked sense of humor got him through both, usually in one piece.

Josiah lifted another box of supplies off the back of the wagon. Mrs Potter, who ran the store, had been generous with her donations of food and blankets for "the poor, unfortunate children", as she called them. Yes, unfortunate now, but the preacher hoped to change that soon. He carried the box inside and set it next to the growing stack on the pew. Returning for another, he was interrupted by a quiet, familiar voice.

"Need a hand, Josiah?" Chris Larabee didn't wait for an answer before he grabbed one of the boxes. He grunted at the weight. "Damn, what've you got in here?"

"Just supplies for doing the Lord's work." Josiah grinned at his friend.

"Well, the Lord must be planning on having lots of company." Chris struggled with the box, finally managing to carry it through the open door.

Chris Larabee had a knack for showing up at the right time, even if it was just to carry supplies. That was one of the reasons Judge Travis had hired him and Larabee's partner, Buck Wilmington, to help look after Four Corners. This little out-in-the-middle-of-hell town seemed to draw more than its share of trouble. The new railroad, which had finally reached town, hadn't helped, in fact, just the opposite, it allowed trouble to arrive a whole lot faster and more frequently.

Josiah glared at one of his favorite members of his 'flock' from under thick, bushy eyebrows. "If a man took the time to visit church on a Sunday morning a little more often, he might know a bit more about what's going on."

"Been busy with the horses and all." Chris felt guilty enough at the rebuke to offer an excuse. Well, he had been busy. "So you gonna tell me?"

"Orphans. Ten of them coming in on the noon train. Mrs. Travis made the arrangements and we're gonna find them homes."

Chris remembered reading something about that in Mary's paper a couple of weeks ago. Buck had mentioned how he wished they'd bring a few of the marrying age ones along too. Only marrying them wasn't what ol' Buck had in mind.

Buck Wilmington--long-time friend and partner. They'd fought together, fought each other on occasion, but always stayed friends. When Chris' wife and little boy died in a tragic fire several years ago, Buck had moved in. When Chris wanted to drink himself into a grave right beside his family, Buck had refused to let him. Got him interested in breeding fine saddle horses, helped him pick out a Thoroughbred stallion from back East, kept him going long enough that he finally found another reason to keep living.

"Children. Sounds like you got your hands full, preacher." Chris selected a pile of wool blankets off the wagon and took them inside. Josiah followed with a box of clothing.

"Yep, but me and the Lord got big hands."

"Hurry up, children, we don't want to keep Mr. Sanchez waiting." Sister Martha shoo-ed the excited children ahead of her, trying to take count at the same time. One of the older boys tugged on her habit and asked if this was Four Corners. She absentmindly answered "yes" and hurried on. She'd made several of these trips in the past few years, so the thrill of seeing a new land was lost on her. She was simply ready to complete her duties and head back to Boston as soon as possible.

Last in line, JD stumbled as he gawk-ed at the sights, eager to comment on everything he saw. The piece of candy the old conductor had given him as he'd been helped off the train was completely forgotten, dropping from his hand.

Vin clasped the smaller boy's sticky hand tightly, keeping him from falling, before tugging him along.

"Look, Vin, did you see...I think it's a real cowboy." The little boy stared in open-mouthed fascination.

Vin stared at the tall man walking across the street, his bright blue eyes shining in wonder. A real cowboy, just like the one in the picture he'd brought with him. He couldn't have dreamed he'd see a real cowboy so soon. The man disappeared through swinging doors and Vin remembered his duties. "C'mon, JD, we're gonna get left behind." He tugged at JD's hand and pulled him along through the dusty street.

There was a man coming towards them, a huge man with a kind face and friendly smile. "Hello, you must be Sister Martha and the children. Welcome to Four Corners."

Even the elderly nun seemed charmed by the big man's smile. "Yes, I'm Sister Martha. And you must be Josiah Sanchez... Father Sanchez?" She said the last with a question in her voice, unsure of his religious title.

"Josiah will do just fine, ma'am. Please come along with me. I have some refreshments waiting in the church. Miz Mary will join us shortly. She's putting the finishing touches on this week's paper."

Josiah gave the group of tired children a smile of their own. "We'll all get introduced shortly, but I bet you'd like some milk and cookies. They're awful good, I've already had a few." He winked at the children and was rewarded with timid smiles from several.

"Vin, Vin...he's nice, you think he's gonna 'dopt us?" JD stood on his tip-toes to whisper the question in Vin's ear.

"Don't know, JD, maybe."

The boys followed the other children down the busy main street. It wasn't much of a town compared to Boston. Everything was covered with dust and it wasn't long til the toes of their shoes were covered with it too. Lots of people stopped to watch their little troop pass and Vin could tell they were talking about them.

The church wasn't very fancy, a white board building with a steeple. It was just as plain inside. A table was set up with food that the preacher had told them was donated by the church ladies. Vin licked his lips as he eyed the cookies and sandwiches. It'd been a long time since breakfast and he was hungry.

Josiah saw the thin boy with dark blond, curly hair looking at the table and could tell that the youngster was too shy to ask for anything. He was holding tightly to the hand of a sturdy black-haired child that couldn't be more than five. Both boys were wearing worn, wrinkled calico shirts and woolen pants with heavy jackets. The jackets were too warm for the season, but Josiah suspected it was all they had. The preacher guessed that the little fellow must be John Dunne, he was the youngest on the list. Which probably made his protector Vin Tanner. Josiah had heard their story and knew that he had nothing but bad news for those boys. He hadn't been able to find a family to take both--they'd have to be separated. Well, at least the news wouldn't seem so bad on a full stomach.

"Let's eat, children." Josiah waved them over to the table and started handing out plates.

Candles provided welcome lighting as night approached. Shadows danced on the walls and played games with the trickle of sunlight still peeking through the windows. Josiah set out a stack of clean plates on the long wooden table. The children were quickly succumbing to the excitement of today's activities and he wanted to get them fed before they got too tired. Pallets had been placed around the walls for the children to sleep on. A hearty vegetable soup and bread made up their evening meal.

Mrs. Travis, Josiah, and Sister Martha were having a conversation in one corner of the room. Mary had joined them two hours ago after finishing with the paper. They'd spent the last few hours discussing the children and what arrangements had been made for finding them new homes. It had been a successful undertaking--Mary's determination and Josiah's charm had ensured that. They'd found families eager to take in the children, but no one who wanted two little boys.

Mary glanced over at the dark blond and black heads huddled together over a book. She could tell the older boy couldn't read well enough to make out the words, so he was discussing the pictures with the younger child, his hands waving to emphasize some point. She smiled when she saw JD giggle in delight and move closer to Vin. Mary sighed. "I'm so sorry we couldn't find the right family for those two. They seem like such sweet boys."

"I'm sure they will adjust. The important thing is that you found homes for them." Sister Martha tried to sound positive, and truly that was the case. Homes were the most important thing.

"There's a family outside of town willing to take Vin."

The adults were talking quietly, but Vin heard his name mentioned and started to take note of their conversation. He saw JD point at one of the pictures, and knew the little boy was going to comment on it.   Vin quickly shushed him. Somehow he knew this was important.

"It's a very nice family with a small farm. They have two children already, both younger than Vin."

"The family that wants JD lives over in Eagle Bend. They'll be here tomorrow afternoon to pick him up."

No. They can't do that! Vin wanted to shout at the adults, demand they change their words, admit they were wrong. Me and JD gotta go together!

"No one wanted two boys at this time. Said two was jes too much trouble. Growing boys eat a lot and winter is coming on." No amount of Josiah's charm had been able to convince any potential families otherwise, but if that was the good Lord's wishes than so be it. At least they had found good families.

I won't eat too much. JD can have my share. Please, please, let us stay together. I'll work extra hard. I'm really strong and JD'll help too.

"I don't know how we're gonna tell them, but it can wait 'til in the morning. Most of the families will pick up their children then, except for the two families comin' from Eagle Bend." Josiah pointed towards the door of the church. "Sister, I've arranged for you to stay the night at the boarding house. Much more comfortable than here. I'll keep an eye on the children and get them settled for the evening."

Vin wanted to cry, but he was too big for that. Cryin' didn't do no good when you had somethin' that had to be done. No one was takin' JD. If these people couldn't find a home for them both, well then, he'd just have to do it himself. Maybe the Indians would take them in, if he could jes find where they lived.

Vin got up and went over to the table where there was still a few biscuits and some cookies left over from supper. He tied them up in a napkin and brought his bundle back over to where JD was sitting. Opening the worn carpet bag that held a change of clothing and a few family mementos, Vin carefully tucked it inside. He knew it was too dark to leave now, but early in the morning before all the adults were stirring around, he and JD were going off to find their own family.

Josiah moved from pallet to pallet, tucking the children in for the night. It was going to be a big day tomorrow for all of them, you could call it the start of their new lives. One little girl gave him a shaky smile as he leaned over to tug at her braid. Poor baby, scared to death, aren't you? It's gonna be okay.

He reached the last pallet where two boys lay side by side. He noticed the protective arm Vin had laying over JD's chest and once more, dreaded what would come tomorrow. "Are you boys all ready for some shut-eye?" He knelt down beside them and pulled one of the blankets over them. "Don't want your toes to freeze." He grinned at JD and JD smiled back.

Vin raised up on his elbow. "Mister Josiah, are there indians 'round here?" Vin looked Josiah square in the eye as he asked the question.

Josiah looked into the boy's honest blue eyes. This child has been through some rough times. He's a fighter, though. "Yes, Vin, there's an Indian reservation west of here. Would you like to ride up there with me someday?"

JD's excited voice kept Vin from having to answer. "Real injuns. Do they scalp people?"

"No, son, they don't scalp people, they're my friends."


Josiah had to laugh at JD's obvious disappointment. This one is gonna be a handful. "Now you two had best go to sleep." He leaned over to rest his hand on JD's forehead, sweeping the long bangs away from the boy's hazel eyes. When Josiah reached over to pat Vin on the shoulder, Vin moved away from his hand.

Vin didn't want the big man to touch him. He'd liked the gray-haired preacher from first sight, but Mister Josiah had let him down and he didn't plan on forgetting that anytime soon.

Taking the boy's rebuff as shyness, Josiah stood up, stretching a bit. That floor was rough on the knees. He went to his small room at the back of the church, ready for some sleep himself. It was gonna be a long day tomorrow, one that would bring both joy and sorrow.

Vin didn't sleep well that night. He was too excited about what was to come the next morning, and too afraid he'd over sleep. He wanted to be gone at first light, since he figured it'd take them most of the day to get to the reservation. The youngster wasn't too sure what a reservation was, but reckoned it must be some sort of town.

The sunlight was beginning to creep ever so slightly into the windows of the church when Vin shook JD gently. Trying to wake the sleeping boy, he whispered. "C'mon, JD, wake up."

JD grumbled a bit, but complied, wiping his sleep-filled eyes. He didn't like the gettin'-up part too much, especially when it was way too early. And there was no smell of breakfast cookin'.

"Ssh, be real quiet." Vin grabbed up their coats and the worn carpetbag that held their few possessions. They'd slept in their clothes, they didn't own any night clothes. Motioning for JD to follow, he began to tiptoe out of the building.

When they were safely out front, Vin carefully looked around to see if anyone was watching, then led JD off down an alley.

"Where we goin', Vin?" JD still sounded grumpy, but there was curiosity too.

"Goin' to find some indians." Vin hadn't told JD of his plans. JD wasn't awfully good at keeping secrets.

"Really? Wow." JD was wide awake now. "How we gonna find 'em, Vin?"

"That man said they lived west of here, so if we jes keep walkin' west, we're bound to run into 'em." Vin was pleased with his plan. He kept walking, wanting to get some space between them and the town 'fore all the adults woke up.

"How do you know we're goin' west?" JD looked around the backs of the buildings that they were passing, only he couldn't see no signs that pointed to indians.   'Course he couldn't read yet, so maybe they was there.

"Don't you 'member, your mama told us that the sun wakes up in the east and goes to bed in the west? Well, see the sun is gettin' up over that way."

JD looked at Vin with admiration. His cousin sure was smart. He knew all sorts of neat things, like how to find the best skipping stones and where frogs like to hide, so it didn't surprise him one bit that Vin knew how to find where the indians lived.

The two boys walked for an hour before stopping to get a drink at a burbling, trickle of a stream. The water was icy cold, but tasted good. Vin slapped his hand on the surface of the water to splash JD in the face. He grinned at his cousin's look of surprise, then ducked when JD sent water back in his direction. They played for a few minutes, then got back on the trail that Vin was sure was leading them in the right direction.

"I'm hungry." JD looked over at Vin expectantly. "When we gonna eat?"

Vin reached into the bag and carefully opened the napkin with the few biscuits and cookies. Didn't look like much and he frowned as he broke one of the biscuits in half and gave it to JD. He took a piece out for himself and shut the bag. Munching eagerly, it didn't take long to finish their meager breakfast.

"Vin, I'm still hungry."

"Sorry, JD, but we gotta make it last til we get to the indians."

"When we gonna get there?"

"I think it'll probably be almost night."

"What you think these indians will be like, Vin? You think they'll give us horses of our own?" As far as JD was concerned, having his own horse would be as close to heaven as a boy was likely to get.

"Sure they will, all indians ride horses."

JD took off galloping in wide circles around his cousin, yelling giddyap to his pretend steed. The dust flew under his 'hooves' and a frightened bird squawked noisily while flying away.

The more Vin thought about it the more he liked the idea of living with the indians. Let them keep their families, bet those kids wouldn't have near as much fun as he and JD were gonna have. They'd have horses...and he figured indian children didn't have to go to school...or take baths. It would be almost as good as being a cowboy. Maybe better. Yep, he and JD were gonna be the best darn indians ever.

JD hauled in his 'wild horse' and settled down to walk beside Vin. The sweat was dripping down his hot, flushed face, and he was covered in dust up to his knees. "Vin, you think I can be one of those kinda indians that scalp people?"

"We'll see." His mama and his aunt had always said that in response to their questions. It seemed to satisfy JD and he slipped his warm, grubby hand into Vin's.

"When they turn up missin'?" Chris focused his attention on Josiah as Sister Martha was too distraught to make much sense to the impatient man.

"No one has seen 'em since last night. We've checked around the church, but no sign of 'em."

"Oh, you know boys, they probably jes went out to explore a bit and forgot the time." Buck grinned, remembering a few such occasions where he'd done exactly that. Aw, hell. There weren't many wakin' moments I wasn't in some sorta trouble.

"You're probably right, but I'd feel better if we could find 'em soon. Their new families will be here today to pick them up."

Josiah eyed the two men who shared the duties of protecting the town, along with himself, Ezra Standish, and Nathan Jackson. You couldn't ask for two more opposite people. Buck Wilmington was outgoing, easy to laugh, and could charm the stockings off any woman, young or old. He was an excellent horseman and had been the one to select the eastern-bred stallion that now graced the Larabee ranch. On the other hand, Chris was serious, intense, dangerously quiet, and many would say, a hard man. Most would blame the latter on the loss of his wife and son several years ago and they would be right. Josiah wasn't living in Four Corners then, but Buck had told him how different Chris was before the tragedy. Both men were in their early 30s and had been best friends for over half that time. Together they made quite a team.

"Don't worry, preacher. We'll find them."

But Chris' confident statement didn't prove to be the case. The two men searched all the spots tempting to two youngsters with no luck. Even more worrisome, no one had seen the boys. Four Corners was too small a town for them not to have been sighted by someone.

An hour or so later, even after adding the town's resident gambler to the search party, the two men came to the conclusion that the boys were not in Four Corners. Leaving Ezra to continue looking just in case the boys wandered back into town, they went to the church to share that information and see if anything could point to where they might have wandered off.

Sister Martha was beside herself. This had never happened before. Guilt and fear made her elderly face even more worn and wrinkled. "What could've happened to them? They never gave me even one moment's trouble on the whole trip."

"Did they say anything, ask anything..." Buck didn't want to add to the nun's worries, but he and Chris knew the dangers facing the children would multiply the longer they were missing.

"I tucked they boys in last night. The older one, Vin, wanted to know if there were indians around here." Josiah paused, then continued, "you don't think...I told them the reservation was west of here."

"Well, it's a start. We'll see if we can pick up a trail."

Once they had an idea of where to look, it didn't take long to find the small footprints in the dust. The two men saddled their horses and headed along the same path.

"When we gonna be there, Vin? I'm gettin' kinda tired."

This big adventure wasn't so exciting anymore to JD. His legs hurt from all that walking and his tummy was growling loudly.

"Can't we go back now? I don't wanna see the indians no more."

"We can't go back, JD. If we do, those people are gonna send us to different families and we won't ever see each other agin."

"Why would they do that, Vin?" JD was puzzled. If he knew the two boys had to stay together, why didn't those grown-ups know it too? Grown-ups were supposed to know everything.

"Nobody wanted both of us, I reckon." Vin shrugged his thin shoulders. "Think we'd be too much trouble."

"Wouldn't be no trouble, I promise."

"I know that, JD, but they don't. So we gotta find the indians."

"I understand now." JD didn't really, but he trusted Vin to take care of them both, so he'd follow wherever Vin went. And maybe they'd find the indians soon and could get something to eat. It'd been a awful long time since they'd eaten the last of the biscuits and cookies.

Vin was scared. They'd been walking forever it seemed and there was no sign of any indians around at all. The trail they were following had become nothing more than a narrow trace through rocks and tangled bushes. Maybe Mister Josiah was wrong 'bout where they lived, or maybe they had moved. And he and JD couldn't be out after dark. The night held all sorts of frightening creatures that were just waiting to attack children. He shuddered at the thought and pushed away the memory that surfaced of a little boy trapped in a dark cellar. No, they had to find the indians before dark.

The boys trudged along the rough path, hot and thirsty. They'd taken their jackets off earlier and JD's was trailing along in the dust behind him. The weight of the tapestry carpetbag was hurting Vin's back and he kept shifting it from hand to hand trying to ease the discomfort.

JD stumbled and fell hard to the ground. He sat up holding his wrist, tears making visible tracks through the dirt on his face.

Vin dropped the bag and his jacket, going quickly to help his cousin. "You okay, JD?"

JD held his sore wrist up for Vin to inspect. "Hurts. I cut my finger too." He sniffled, wiping his nose on his sleeve, and climbed to his feet.

"Why don't you sit on that rock and rest a bit? I'm gonna climb to the top of the hill and look for the indians." Vin led the younger boy over to a big rock along the trail, then brought over their jackets and bag. "You watch over our stuff, okay?"

The small hill was mostly just a bunch of rocks and dirt, with very little vegetation. Vin was tired, though, and it seemed to take forever to reach the top.

Buck and Chris urged their horses over the small rise, still following the boys' trail. Buck was in the lead and he noticed the small boy first. "Well, lookee what I found, Chris." He dismounted and walked slowly over to JD, not wanting to spook him. "Hi, little britches."

"My name's JD." JD frowned up at the tall man with the friendly face.

"Well, nice to meet you, JD. My name's Buck and that's Chris." Buck kneeled down in front of the boy, taking a quick look from head to toe to see if he was all right.

"I hurt my arm." JD held up his wrist for the man to look at. "See, I cut my finger too."

The tiny scrape was barely visible under all the dirt. "Yep, I can see..."

Next thing Buck knew he was dodging a handful of pebbles. He could hear a scared voice yell from above, "You leave him alone, mister." Another rock bounced a few inches from his boots, then Buck heard the high-pitched voice shout, "JD, run."

The little guy got up to do as ordered, but Buck grabbed him around the waist and held him close. JD kicked and squirmed, causing Buck to grunt, but he held on. "Now, jes take it easy, little feller, I'm not gonna hurt ya."

Chris, in the meantime, had sent his horse loping up the hill and easily overtook the older child as the boy started to run. Scooping him up, Chris slung him face down over the front of his saddle, holding him in place with a firm hand. "It's all right, kid. I ain't gonna hurt you." He kept his voice as soothing as if he were talking to a wild colt. Riding back down the hill, he joined his friend. "Looks like I got me one too." He dismounted, pulling Vin down with him and set the boy on his feet. He knelt down in front of the struggling boy, holding on tightly to the narrow shoulders. "Don't worry, we aren't gonna hurt you. We just come to take you back to town."

Vin looked the man square in the face, seeing the kind blue eyes, and somehow knew he could trust this man. But maybe he didn't know. "We can't go back."

"Why not? Josiah's found families for you. Don't you want a family?"

"We gotta stay together. An' nobody wants both of us."

"I'm sorry, son." And Chris was. He could see in the boy's eyes just how important this was. And he admired the grit the boy was showing.

"See, I promised my aunt, JD's mama, when she died that we'd stay together. An' I keep my promises." Vin stared at the ground, not wanting this stranger to see the tears in his eyes.

"We need to git you boys back to town. There's a lot of folks worried after ya." Buck picked JD up and carried him over to his saddle horse.

JD's eyes lit up when he saw the big gray. "Is this your horse, mister Buck? He's beautiful."

"Yes, he is. Good horse, too. But if you wanna see one fine piece of horseflesh, you need to see Fire." Firestorm was the Larabee ranch's pride and joy. Buck had picked the chestnut stallion out from a fancy horse farm back East. He and Chris had big plans for breeding him to the calmer, sturdier range mares. "Yep. he's the best horse in these parts." Buck sat JD up on the horse and mounted up behind him.

"You ready to go, Vin?" Chris stood, still holding on to the boy in case he decided to run.

"Yes, sir." Vin wiped the tears from his cheeks and kept his head down as he followed Chris to the patiently waiting horse.

Chris climbed up in the saddle, then reached down to lift the boy up behind him. "Now, you hang on tight." He nudged the black forward til he was next to Buck's horse.

Buck and JD were chattering away, discussing their favorite subject...horses. "Vin, Mister Buck's gonna show me his horses." JD's excited little squeak made both Buck and Chris laugh.

Skinny little arms circled Chris Larabee's waist and tightened as the horse moved again. Vin buried his face against the man's dark coat, his tears staining it black. I'm so sorry, Auntie, I tried. I really did.

The ride back to Four Corners was slow, but still too fast for Vin Tanner. He knew what waited for him and JD there...more goodbyes. There had already been too many goodbyes in their young lives.

By the time they reached town, JD had fallen asleep in Buck's arms. He had chattered endlessly for miles until he talked himself out. On the other hand, Vin hadn't said a word. He clung to the man in front and tried not to think.

Chris led the way to the church where a worried party was waiting. "We found them. They're jes fine." Chris swung Vin to the ground, then dismounted.

"C'mon, JD. Time to wake up." Buck ruffled the sleeping boy's hair, grinning a bit when the boy yawned and tried to tuck his face back into his shirt. "Better get Nathan to check them over. This little bit has a sore wrist." Buck handed the now awake JD down to Chris and got down himself.

"Ezra, you seen Nathan around?" Chris set JD down and the boy ran over to stand by Vin.

The gambler, who had recently returned from searching for the boys himself, grimaced. "Ah am not Mr. Jackson's keeper. However, ah believe he is out doctoring Mr. James' gout."

JD leaned over to Vin and whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. "Vin, he talks funny."

Ezra glared at the little boy, sputtering with righteous indignation. "Young man...ah hardly...ah don't..." His protest fizzled to a halt, simply unable to come up with the best words to express his dismay at the insult.   Children were a puzzle to the gambler. He had a real talent for entertaining them, but beyond that he felt a bit out of his league. Maybe it was because he had so few good memories of his own childhood. A neglectful mother had ensured that.

Sister Martha moved to the two boys, grabbing each by the shoulder. Her worry had turned to anger now that she knew the boys were safe. "You wicked children, do you know how much trouble you've caused? No one will want such two bad boys." She scolded them vigorously, giving them each a firm shake. "I should take a strap to both of you."

"Wasn't JD's fault. Was mine. Don't be mad at him." Vin stood tall, thin shoulders straight as he could make them with his aching back, and took the blame.

At the same time Ezra spoke up. "Madam, I suggest you take your hands off those boys." That young rapscallion may have insulted him, but Ezra didn't like the look of fear on the little face. No, he didn't like it one bit.

"It's all right, Sister, no harm done." Josiah's steady voice soothed the upset woman and halted Ezra's unexpected defense. "Let's get these boys cleaned up and ready to go to their new homes."

Vin looked at Chris, big blue eyes pleading for some sort of help. His stomach tied up in knots, and he wrapped his arms around JD.

Josiah caught the look and motioned the two men aside. "Brothers, I hate like hell to separate those two. Would you be willing to take them temporarily 'til I can find a family that wants 'em."

Chris automatically shook his head. He didn't want the responsibility of watching over two boys. No way was he ready for that. But he looked over at Vin, holding his little cousin as tightly as he could, looking as if he'd fight all of 'em if they tried taking JD from him.

"Chris, it wouldn't be no problem. Just temporary. You got that extra bed." Buck obviously liked the idea. That little JD had gotten to him with those big hazel eyes and non-stop chatter. And Vin, well, you had to admire a kid like that.

"No, Buck. Bad idea." Chris kept looking at Vin and saw the imploring look the boy gave him. Damn, the child expects me to do something. Chris didn't know if he could live with himself if he disappointed that boy.

He nodded slowly, coming to a decision. "Just temporary, preacher." It was a warning that Josiah had better heed if he knew what was good for him.

"Whoopee!" Buck slapped his hat against his leg and headed over to where the boys were standing on the sidewalk. He picked JD up and swung him gently around, being careful not to hurt the boy's arm. "Well, little britches, you ready to go see that horse?"

JD shouted with glee and giggled as Buck danced around with him. "Yep, can we go now?" He thought for a moment, then a frown replaced the big grin. "Is Vin coming too?"

Chris studied the five-year old boy, lips twisting in a small smile at the streaks of dirt covering the now serious face. Looks like he found the war paint. He quickly lost that smile when he glanced over at Vin and saw the fear and longing in the child's eyes. That look caused him to hesitate answering and he saw the hopeful expression die in Vin's blue eyes.

Chris knelt down in front of Vin as he answered JD. "Yes, Vin too. You boys are coming with us 'til Josiah finds you the right family. Is that okay?

Shyly, the boy smiled at him, and Chris realized it was the first smile he'd seen out of Vin. He barely heard the response, a whispered "yes, sir", but he could see the answer in the boy's eyes. Chris stood up and Vin tucked his small hand into his trustingly.

"Josiah, will you send Nathan out to the ranch when he gets back to town."

"Glad to, Chris."

"Thanks, preacher. We're headed out there now. I think we got some boys with some empty stomachs that need a good feedin'." Chris caught Vin's grin and he winked at the boy.

Chris swung up into the saddle. "Ezra, you wanna give Vin here a lift?"

Ezra picked up the boy, carefully holding him out away from his body, trying his best to avoid soiling his brand new coat. He grimaced when Vin's boot left a perfect footprint on the burgundy fabric. As soon as the youngster was in place behind Mr. Larabee, Ezra brushed away the dusty smear. He looked up and caught Chris laughing at him, and wondered to himself just when was the last time he had seen his friend this happy.

"You all set, Vin?" Chris could feel the boy's arms tighten around his waist and heard a mumbled "yep, all ready." Signalling to Buck that he was ready to go, he touched his horse lightly with his spurs and moved on at a slow walk with Buck right behind.

Josiah could see a big smile on the boy's face and it warmed his heart. He sent a prayer upward. Lord, you've done a fine thing here today...a fine thing.

JK Poffenberger