"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe

Thank you to all who contributed ideas to this story. You know who you are and I hope you realize how much your "encouragement" (aka nagging) means to me. Carrie thanks for the personal touches. (Someone is smiling down on you). Gina, thanks for lending me "rodeo Ezra" and his jeans.

"Cowboy Up" is a rodeo term that means to suck it up, tough it out, ride with the pain, or generally to do the best you can with the hand you're dealt.

Here's the obligatory warning: Tissue alert! Whether it be Kleenex or Puffs, have 'em handy.

Comments to Joy K:

The backpacks were filled with their favorite toys, but even that promise of the security of familiar things couldn't coax excitement out of two anxious little boys. Seven-year-old Vin Tanner and five year old JD Dunne sat in the back seat of the van, neither of them violating the 'seatbelts only unbuckled by an adult' rule. They didn't want  to be unbuckled.

Their housekeeper, Mrs. Potter was sick. Really sick. Their new foster fathers, Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee had told them last night that Mrs. Potter had to go to the hospital and have surgery on her gall something or other. Mrs. Potter wouldn't be able to care for Vin and JD for the rest of the month. And to two little boys who had lived at the Larabee ranch for less than six weeks, any change was a threat to their tenuous sense of security.

JD looked out the window of the car, watching some children playing on the slide on the playground. It looked like they were having fun. Buck and Chris had made several phone calls last night and Miz Nettie, their caseworker had told them to bring JD and Vin here. If Miz Nettie thought this was an okay place, it must be. JD looked at his best friend in the seat beside him. It didn't look like Vin was convinced.

Vin was trying his best to work up his courage. He had been in a day care center once when his mama was sick. There had been lots of toys and kids, but it wasn't where he wanted to be. They had sent him away because his mama was sick and they didn't want him around her. Vin looked at the building and couldn't help but wonder if he was being sent away again. He looked at Chris pleadingly as the blond ATF agent unfastened his seatbelt.

Chris smiled an empty smile, trying to encourage Vin but it wasn't working. He wasn't keen on the boys staying at the daycare center all day, but there was no way that any members of his ATF team could take the next few days off. They were involved in a major operation that needed all of their attention. Chris picked up Vin's backpack from the floor, holding it for the reluctant seven-year-old to put on.

"It will be fun," said Buck, helping JD with his backpack on the other side of the vehicle. "You'll have stories and play games. They have snack time and I hear they'll even let you watch thirty minutes of cartoons this afternoon."

"But you won't be here," said JD with a pout.

Buck nodded and brushed JD's black hair out of his face, "But we'll be here after work to pick you up, and we'll stop for dinner on the way home. You pick the place."

"McDonalds?" asked JD with a smile.

Buck smiled back. "If that's what you want." He knew full well that JD would say McDonald's. It was definitely a favorite for the boys, or perhaps it was simply an environment they knew, and therefore, felt secure in.

"Come on, Little Bit," he said, offering his hand to JD. "Let's go meet your teacher.

JD slipped his hand into Buck's and walked with the tall agent towards the day care center, the promise of McDonald's helping to mask his unease.

"You'll come back?" asked Vin quietly as Chris knelt in front of him straightening the straps on his backpack.

Chris nodded. "We'll pick you up after work." The fear in Vin's eyes told Chris that his words were not having the desired effect of reassuring the child. Vin and JD were still settling in to their new family situation, and neither boy was totally convinced that Buck and Chris wanted them 'forever.' Vin's question was far more than asking if Chris would be back in a few hours.

"Are you going to be all right, Cowboy?"

The use of the nickname 'cowboy' got a half grin from Vin. It was a simple term of endearment, but it spoke volumes of the budding connection between a boy and a man who had both lost too much. Chris watched the seven year old straighten up and stand tall, sucking up his courage.

"Yep. Me and JD got each other," Vin said as he started towards the doorway.

Chris grimaced at the implication that Vin and JD had each other, and that was all that they had.

"Vin," said Chris as he reached out for the boy's hand, "We will be back."

Vin still didn't look convinced, but he took Chris' hand and they walked into the building together.


At nearly six in the evening, two tired and unhappy agents climbed into their van, leaving the Federal Building. They had hoped for a quick resolution to the case, but as hard as he tried, undercover agent and teammate, Ezra Standish could not convince the seller to meet today. The deal was set for noon tomorrow meaning that the boys would have to spend another day at day care, and considering how hard it was to leave them this morning, neither man was looking forward to doing it all over again tomorrow.

"I'm sure they were fine," said Buck, staring out the side window as Chris drove.

Chris glanced at Buck. "Yeah, right. I can see you really believe that."

"Well at least they had each other, someone else to play with," said Buck, trying to be positive, but somehow that fact wasn't very comforting.

Chris nodded as he turned the corner into the day care parking lot, grateful that it wasn't far from the office. The sound of the dozen or so remaining children playing on the playground caught their attention as they exited the van. The squeals of laughter brought hope to both men as they walked toward the sound of excitement. JD and Vin were survivors. They had somehow survived alone on the streets of Denver. Surely they would find a way to have fun in a day care where they knew no one, despite their initial misgivings.

Buck stopped suddenly. "Ah hell!" he cursed softly.

Chris looked past Buck, seeing children running and playing in two play yards, which were separated by a chain link fence. His eyes drifted down the fence line finding two small boys, one on each side of the chain link, fingers grasping the fencing, staying as close to each other as physically possible.

Chris cursed himself and the entire situation. Vin and JD weren't ready to be thrust into unknown situations without any preparation, and they certainly had not had enough time this morning to properly settle the boys in to this new environment. Chris silently wondered how much of their day had been spent at the fence line.

The dark haired boy looked around, scanning the parking lot and spotted his guardians. "Buck!" squealed JD, letting go of the fence... and Vin. He ran across the yard to the fence, which kept the grown-ups out. Buck squatted down and put his fingers through the fencing, letting JD hold on to him.

"Buck, I missed you! I missed you!" The five year old tried to climb the fence to reach Buck.

"Hang on there, Little Bit," said Buck, knowing that the daycare would frown on him taking JD from the yard. "Let's go inside and get your things."

Chris and Vin didn't have the option of physical contact. Vin's play area was separated from them by JD's play area, so the older child simply pressed his face against the fence, the links making indentations on his thin cheeks. He gripped the chain link tightly, looking very much like a prisoner wanting out of jail.

"I'll be right there, Vin!" called Chris, loud enough for Vin to hear him. It was all it took. Vin smiled and ran from the fence to the opening to the building, eager to meet Chris on the other side. He was ready for freedom.


After the promised side trip to McDonald's for dinner, the boys played quietly at home. Chris glanced into the den to check on the boys as he finished up the dishes left from breakfast. The television was on and the video, "Babe," was playing in the background for what seemed like the millionth time. The boys really enjoyed the story of the pig that wanted to be a sheep dog.

Vin was lying on his stomach on the throw rug, coloring in a Scooby Doo coloring book. Chris watched Vin warily scan to see where JD was, then turn his attention back to his book, coloring furiously with his tongue between his lips in concentration. Moment's later, JD looked around the room from his beanbag chair, assuring himself that Vin was still there. He sighed and turned the page in his book.

"How far do you figure this day set them back?" asked Buck quietly as he walked up behind Chris after completing his chores in the barn.

Chris shook his head. "All I know is that we didn't help them move ahead today. Dr. Lowery is right. We really need to work on separating them so it's not so traumatic when school starts." He shook his head. "After today, can you imagine what school will be like?"

Vin looked up and caught Chris' eyes. Chris was certain that Vin didn't actually hear them speaking, but the boy had sensed their presence or was looking for some extra reassurance. He set the pan and dishtowel on the counter.

"Vin, why don't you grab a book that you want to read?" Chris asked as he walked into the room and shut off the video.

"Oh boy!" hollered JD, grabbing his favorite book. "Winnie the Pooh and Piglet Too!" he called energetically.

Vin slid the book he chose back on the shelf. He wanted a different book, but it didn't matter as long as Chris was there. JD could pick "Curious George" for all he cared. He grinned as Chris sat in the recliner instead of the couch and JD piled onto his lap. That meant he'd have a Chris' arms wrapped around him in a hug for the entire story. Without hesitation, Vin climbed into the chair as well, both boys snuggling into Chris' arms.

"Hey!" complained Buck. "Where do I sit?"

Both boys giggled and JD scrunched over, elbowing Chris in the ribs in the process. "I make room!" he suggested.

Chris shifted JD and raised his eyebrows at Buck as the tall, dark haired man rested a hip on the arm of the recliner.

"What?" asked Buck with a grin. "I'm not going to break it."

JD giggled. Vin opened the book for Chris, who cleared his throat and began to read...


"Buck!" screeched JD, padding down the hallway in his footed cowboy pajamas. He trotted into the kitchen, sliding into Buck's leg and wrapping his arms around it.

Chris took another sip of coffee. It was too early in the morning for JD's exuberance. It seemed the little guy had two speeds, fast and full tilt. Fortunately, Buck seemed to thrive on JD's energy.

Buck stirred the oatmeal and set the spoon on the counter. "Good morning, Little Bit. What's up?"

JD blinked and rubbed his fists across tired eyes. "Vin won't get up," he reported loudly as he reached up for a hug. "He says he's sick."

Buck scooped JD up and squeezed him with a laughing growl. "Well, we'll let ol' Chris take care of Vin while we finish making oatmeal."

"With brown sugar?" asked JD brightly.

"Of course," said Buck. "Is there any other way?"

Chris shook his head at his roommate and set his coffee cup on the kitchen table. He had a strong hunch after their discussion last night that Vin wasn't really sick. It hadn't gone well when they told the boys that they would have to go to day care again today. JD had cried, but Vin, though clearly upset, refused to say a word. JD complained loudly that he and Vin had not been allowed to do anything together because the teacher said JD was in the pre-kindergarten group and Vin was in the early elementary group and those two groups did things separately.

The conversation, or rather the lack thereof, with Vin had been frustrating. Nothing Chris thought of could spur the seven year old to talk, and that left Chris between a rock and a hard place. Day care was his only option, like it or not.

"Vin?" he called softly as he entered the boys' room. Vin was buried under his blankets on the top bunk. Chris reached over and gently pulled the blankets away from his face. Vin's light brown hair stuck up in clumps, evidence of a restless night.

"JD says you're sick." Chris rested his hand against Vin's cheek, then his forehead, brushing the unruly curls back, pleased that Vin hadn't flinched away from his touch. "You're not running a temperature."

"I'm sick," insisted Vin, pulling his blanket up to his chin.

"Does your throat hurt?"

Vin shook his head.

"How about your tummy?" Finding out how Vin felt was always like playing twenty questions.

Vin shook his head. "I think I got gull rocks."

"What?" asked Chris, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice.

"Gull rocks," repeated Vin. "I think I got it from Mrs. Potter."

Chris blinked trying to figure out what on earth Vin was talking about. When it dawned on him, he had to turn away to keep from laughing. Taking a deep breath, he composed himself before turning back to the very serious child.

"Vin, you can't catch gall stones," he said softly.

"Oh." Vin looked down at his blanket, avoiding Chris' eyes. His disappointment that his lie had been uncovered seemed to fill the room.

"You wanna tell me what's really going on?" asked Chris. Vin slowly turned to Chris and met his gaze.

"Can't I just stay home today? I promise I'll be really good," Vin pled, his blue eyes begging for a reprieve.

"You can't stay home alone, Vin."

"I did it all the time before..." Vin countered.

Chris sighed. Vin was right. He had taken care of himself for far too long. He smoothed Vin's unruly curls again, more to soothe the distress than to straighten the hair. "But you have us now, Vin. And the state would frown on it if we left you alone."

"Oh." Vin dropped his gaze back to his blanket; the horse pattern was suddenly very interesting.

Again with the disappointment. Chris frowned, knowing that this was a major issue for Vin, but also realizing he had limited time to deal with it. He decided to handle it like he handled everything else. Straight on.

"Why don't you want to go to the day care, Vin?"

"I don't like it." Vin plucked at the edge of his blanket, rubbing the silky edge between his fingers.

"Why not?" Chris pressed.

Vin was silent for a few moments, before blurting out, "Is Mrs. Potter dreaming of angels?"

The question was so out of the blue, Chris felt as if he'd been sucker punched. He rubbed his lower lip with his forefinger trying to come up with the answers Vin needed to the questions he wasn't asking.

"No, Vin. She'll be just fine," Chris calmly assured. "What makes you think that?"

Vin sighed and dropped back onto his pillow with a muted thud.

Just when Chris started to think Vin would say no more, the seven year old turned on his side, facing Chris directly.

"When mama got sick, they made me go away to day care." Vin paused, forming his thoughts into the words he wanted. "I wanted to be with mama but they said I was in the way. And they made me go." Vin's blue eyes scanned Chris' face, gauging his reaction. "When I came back..." Vin choked back a sob, "When I came back, Mama was dreaming of angels."

Choking back his own threatening tears, Chris gently wiped Vin's tears away with his thumb. "Mrs. Potter will be fine, Vin. And never, ever think you are in the way here. I'm not sending you away. We're only using the daycare because it's our only option right now," Chris sighed. "Our case is supposed to wrap up today, and if it does I'll make sure that Buck and I bring home our reports so we can work on them here and you won't have to go tomorrow." He cupped Vin's cheek in his hand. "Can you make it through one more day?"

Vin sighed. He did not want to go, not at all. But he was still insecure enough to think that if he caused problems Chris would get rid of him, no matter what Chris had told him. The daycare wasn't that bad. In fact the people were nice, but they just weren't Mrs. Potter or Buck or Chris. And despite what he'd told Chris this morning, he still hadn't told him his biggest fear. He hadn't told Chris that he was afraid that he would leave him and wouldn't come back.

Chris raised his eyebrows in question, still waiting for an answer.

Chris really wanted him to do this, and he was a big boy. He could do it. He could tough it out for one more day. He wouldn't like it, but he could do it.

Vin nodded.

"Then let's get you dressed and get a good breakfast." Chris dragged the blankets to the foot of the bed and Vin crawled to the ladder and climbed down.


Two boys spent the day trying their best to enjoy the daycare, but play times consisted of staying next to the fence, playing together in spite of the wire mesh between them.

Two men spent the day wishing the case was over, but when it came time for the bust, all other thoughts were put aside and they focused on the job at hand. The bust was successful and went without incident.

However successful it was, it didn't shorten the debriefing time or the mountain of paperwork that would follow. By nature of his position as team leader, Chris had more responsibilities for wrapping things up.

He and Buck decided that Buck would take the boys home, and Chris would work late, getting as much done at the office as possible. At the very least it would allow him to take part of Friday off, as well as Buck taking part of the day, and they could cover caring for the boys. It made perfect sense to them...

...But it made no sense to one little boy.

Vin stood dejected at the doorway of the daycare. Buck had come back for JD, but Chris had not come for him. Buck assured Vin that Chris was simply working and would be home late, but Vin's fear was stronger than Buck's words. His biggest fear had come true. Chris had sent him away and not come back. Chris was dreaming of angels and Buck was too nice to tell him.

Shortly after they got home, Buck realized Vin's problem was much bigger than he anticipated, and short of driving all the way back to the office nothing would assuage the fears. But even that was out of the question after Buck had gone into the boys' room and found Vin packing his things in his backpack. The boy simply would not believe that Chris was coming home. Buck was afraid if he took Vin anywhere, Vin would really think he was being sent away.

Buck called the office but Chris was out on a late dinner break. He left an urgent message for Chris to call home or come home a.s.a.p. to help with Vin.

When Chris called, Vin and JD had just gone to sleep, and both men agreed that waking them now, or waking them an hour from now when Chris got home wouldn't make a difference, so they chose to wait until Vin would be able to see Chris with his own eyes.

An hour later with a brief case full of paper work, Chris arrived home as promised. He took a moment to put things away and get the full scoop from Buck on the events of the evening. Armed with information, he walked into the boys' room and walked to the bunk beds.

He stood just watching Vin sleep for a moment, watching his small chest rise and fall steadily in the glow of the night-light. "Ah, Vin," he whispered. "Will your waking hours ever be as peaceful as you are right now?"

Chris waited a few more minutes before reaching over and gently shaking Vin's shoulder, hating to disturb his rest.


Blue eyes popped open and fearfully scanned for what woke him.

"Vin, it's me. I'm home," said Chris.

Vin sat bolt upright in bed, screaming frantically, "Buck! Buck!"

JD woke at Vin's scream and not knowing what was going on, jumped right in with his best friend, crying for Buck.

Buck raced down the hall, stepped into the room and flipped on the light.

"Buck!" JD and Vin called at the same time. Vin's outstretched arms compelled Buck to step past a stunned Chris and 'rescue' him. He pulled Vin out of bed, wrapping his arms around him and sitting on JD's bunk. JD snuggled close to the pair as they began to sort out what was going on.

"What's wrong, Junior?" Buck coaxed.

"Vin?" said Chris softly, totally perplexed by Vin's need to reach for Buck instead of him.

Vin pressed his face to Buck's shoulder and mumbled, "Make me wake up. Make me wake up."

"Shh, Vin, you are awake," said Buck, "and that is Chris standing right there." Buck started to peel the child away from his shoulder. "I told you Chris would be home late, and he's home."

Chris crouched down in front of the bed. "It's me, Vin."

Vin stared at Chris, his only movement was the blinking of his eyes. Chris had left him. Chris had not come back to get him and was dreaming with angels, but here he was right in front of him. He looked up at Buck skeptically and Buck nodded a single nod toward Chris. Vin looked at Chris again.

"When you didn't come, I thought...I thought..." Vin stammered.

"It's all right, Vin," soothed Chris. And suddenly it all clicked in Vin's mind. Chris wasn't dreaming of angels. He really was squatting in front of him, holding his arms open in invitation. Vin pulled out of Buck's grasp and leapt onto Chris, the force enough to knock Chris onto his backside despite Vin's slight weight.

Chris balanced himself and wrapped his arms tightly around Vin. "I told you I'd come back," He said softly. He gently rocked Vin, rubbing his back, thinking of how many times Vin must have felt abandoned. "I will never send you away. And when you go to daycare, it doesn't mean someone you love is leaving you forever." Chris kissed the top of Vin's head.

JD pulled his thumb from his mouth and tipped his head back to look up at Buck. "Do we have to go t'morrow? I want Mrs. Potter."

Buck roughed JD's hair. "No, we don't have to go tomorrow. That's why we worked late today, so we can take the day off tomorrow. We have some work to finish up, but we can do it at home. Okay?"

JD nodded.

"And," added Buck, "I think it would be all right if we called Mrs. Potter on the phone tomorrow, just to see how she is."

JD beamed. That was a great idea.

"How's that sound?" Chris asked Vin.

Vin nodded but continued to hold tightly to Chris. There were no words, no tears. Just a frightened little boy needing to know his world had not dissolved again. Needing to know that there was some stability in his life.


Once the boys were settled for the night, Chris and Buck spent a couple hours tossing around ideas of ways to help the boys establish some independence from each other. Doctor Lowery had suggested several ideas, specifically encouraging them to have the boys do separate fun activities. Hopefully with the fun activities on their own, and then coming back together, the boys would discover that they could function independently and they would be able to make new friends when school started and they were separated.

One of the ideas Buck suggested was the community rodeo. It was an annual event run by an old friend, Jack Mercer. Chris and Buck had helped Jack with the rodeo every year until the loss of Chris' wife and son. When he brought up the idea, Buck approached it carefully, knowing the loss still affected Chris deeply. Hell, it affected him deeply as well. But Buck was pleasantly surprised when Chris agreed with little hesitation. The two little 'angels' in their household had brought about a lot of healing in both men in just six short weeks.

The following morning, Chris spent a great deal of the time on the phone and on his computer finishing up paperwork. He was well aware that Vin was sticking close by. The seven year old was careful not to disturb his work, but he was always within line of sight. It was obvious that in spite of the reassurances last night, Vin's subconscious was still uncertain. The boy wanted to believe that this was home and he was secure, but past experience was hard to overcome.

"Are you about done with your work, Cowboy?" Chris asked.

Vin looked up and grinned, pleased that Chris had noticed he was practicing his letters. With a quick nod, he finished the last 'r' on the line.

"Well, then I think it's time we eat some lunch and head for town. How's that sound?" asked Chris.

Vin grinned broadly. It sounded great to him. He quickly gathered up his papers and pencil and put them on the desk, before running to the bedroom to get JD.

Chris smiled. The little shopping trip he and Buck had planned was step one in separating the boys. He'd take Vin shopping while Buck and JD were in the arcade, and then he and Vin would take on the arcade while Buck and JD shopped. It didn't seem like much, but it was a start.


The kid in front of him looked sharp. He wore shiny new cowboy boots, blue jeans, a pale blue western shirt, and a brand new brown cowboy hat. Not one of those straw hats, but a real cowboy hat. Vin smiled, then turned away from his reflection in the arcade storefront window, taking Chris' hand while he talked to an old friend. Chris looked down for a moment and smiled before introducing Vin to his friend.

"Jack, this is Vin. Vin, this is Jack Mercer."

Vin looked up at the tall man next to his foster father. Jack Mercer was taller than Chris by a few inches; he was broad and big, bigger than Josiah. Jack might be scary to some people just because of his size, but Vin felt at ease with Jack's friendly smile and Chris' relaxed demeanor.

"Pleasure to meet you, son." Jack held out his hand as Vin extended his and they shook hands. "Are you going to join us for the rodeo?"

Vin's eyes widened in excitement at the word 'rodeo'. He had only been living at the ranch for a few weeks and the horses were his delight. He glanced from Jack to Chris searching Chris' face for his answer.

Chris smiled at the longing in Vin's eyes. If JD had heard the comment, he'd be hopping all over the place, begging and pleading to go. Vin probably felt like hopping all over the place on the inside, but would not chance such a display outwardly. He was still very insecure in his new home and was careful not to do anything he thought would cause a disruption.

"Do you want to go, Vin?" Chris asked.

"Yes!" Vin eagerly, with a big smile. He turned, catching another glimpse of his reflection in the store window.

Chris watched with an aching heart as Vin's smile suddenly faded as some thought clouded his young mind. As the seven-year-old looked down at his new clothes, his shoulders slumped and his chin dropped.

"Vin?" Chris cautiously touched Vin's chin and tilted it up so the boy would look at him. Sudden movements of adults around him easily spooked Vin, so Chris took extra care to ease his fear. "What's wrong?"

"Does it all cost too much?" The small voice was almost a whisper. In their short time together, the men hadn't yet been successful in convincing the boys that costing too much would not get them sent away.

Chris squatted down in front of Vin, meeting him eye to eye. "No Vin. It doesn't cost too much. We can't buy you new outfits everyday, but we can splurge once in awhile."

"What about JD? It means a lot more for him to be a cowboy," said Vin quietly. He carefully took off his hat, holding it in his right hand and reverently touching the hatband with his left hand.

"We can give my hat back so JD can go too." Though he held the new cowboy hat out to Chris, apparently willing to sacrifice it for his friend, his body language screamed he didn't want to give it up.

Jack turned his face away and looked anywhere but those sorrowful blue eyes. He knew Chris and Buck had recently taken in the two orphaned boys, and now he understood part of the reason they couldn't turn the boys away. He wanted to hush the child's fears and tell him he could go to the rodeo for free, but Jack knew Chris needed to handle this situation.

"No, Vin," said Chris firmly. He took Vin's hat and put it back on Vin's head. "I appreciate the fact that you're willing to give up your hat so JD can go, but it is not necessary. We've got enough money to do this. It's time you stopped worrying about money. If we don't have enough for something, I'll let you know. Okay?"

Vin nodded uncertainly.

"JD's going, Buck's going. In fact, we're all going. Even Ezra," said Chris.

That got another smile from Vin as he pictured Mr. Ezra at a rodeo protesting the smell or stepping in something that the cows left behind.

"Hey, Vin! Look at me! I'm a cowboy!" called JD as he ran out of the clothing store to where Chris and Vin were waiting. The younger boy was adorned in boots, jeans, a western shirt and vest, and a black cowboy hat that nearly matched his raven hair. "Hey, you're a cowboy too!" JD chirped as he bounced around his friend. He fingered Vin's belt buckle. "It has a bucking bronco on it!" he exclaimed.

Vin smiled at the comment and the admiration from his five-year-old friend.

JD spun around quickly and took two hops. He bumped into Jack and quickly stepped back. His eyes slowly scanned from the man's boots up to his face in amazement.

"You're really tall!" he announced.

Jack chuckled. "That I am. I'm Jack."

"I'm JD." JD stuck out his tiny hand and grinned as Jack shook it.

"JD? JD!" Buck called urgently.

Chris and Jack grinned as a slightly frazzled Buck Wilmington joined them outside the clothing store.

Buck shook his head with a sigh. "He can be slicker than a greased pig. You turn your head for one second..."

"Buck, look. Vin's a cowboy too!" declared JD.

"He sure is, Little Bit," acknowledged Buck, "But if you want to meet a real cowboy, Jack here is one of the best bronc riders ever."

"Wow!" said JD with awe. "Did you ever get bucked off? Did it hurt? Buck got bucked off the other day. Hey, Buck, is that how you got your name?" JD danced around Buck, dangling from the tall man's arm.

Jack laughed as Buck rolled his eyes at the barrage of questions. "Yes, JD. I have been thrown many times. And yes, sometimes it hurt. As for Buck, I don't know how he got his name."

Chris had watched the entire exchange, but now was watching Vin's odd reaction. With JD's arrival, Buck's comment, and now JD's obvious admiration of Jack, Vin had backed away from the group and was standing off to the side. Chris watched Vin look at Buck with a scowl. He then looked at Jack, then at his own 'cowboy' clothes. Vin sighed and his shoulders drooped dramatically. Chris got the distinct feeling that Vin would have disappeared if he could.

Chris ran the conversation back through his mind trying to discern what was upsetting the seven-year-old. He was probably still bothered by yesterday's events, but the only thing he could come up with was that maybe Vin was a little jealous of Buck or Jack having JD's attention. Vin had been JD's entire world after the younger boy's mother was murdered. He took the responsibility of JD's care very seriously and had issues with letting someone else, namely Buck and Chris, shoulder that responsibility. It was likely that Vin also found some sort of fulfillment in having the younger boy looking up to him, needing him, and when that attention was lavished on someone else, perhaps Vin felt a little threatened.

Chris reached out his hand to Vin in invitation. Despite whatever was going on in his head, Vin reached out and slipped his hand into Chris' and leaned his cheek on Chris' arm seeking security in his turmoil. Chris knew that every situation they encountered was still new ground to the boys as they tried to figure out just how they fit in the family. He also knew that sometimes they wore themselves out simply by trying too hard. Maybe Vin was just overly tired from the stress of the last couple days.

"Vin," said Buck, "How about you and JD and me going across the street for some ice cream. We'll let ol' Chris and Jack have a chat."

Vin shook his head and tucked himself behind Chris. He didn't want to go with Buck. Buck had said he wasn't a real cowboy and JD believed him.

"You don't want ice cream?" asked Buck, peeking around Chris to see Vin.

Vin shook his head again.

Buck looked at Chris questioning the reaction. Chris shrugged. "He can stay here and talk with us, Buck."

"All right," said Buck. "Come on, JD."

JD shook his head sadly, his shoulders slumping in disappointment. He wouldn't go for ice cream if Vin wouldn't go.

"Oh, now I know something's up," said Buck. "Not one, but two little boys don't want ice cream?" Buck could easily see from JD's demeanor that he wanted to go get ice cream, but the two boys were not easily separated. They had depended on each other for everything while living alone on the streets for the two months after JD's mother had been killed. What one boy did, the other would do as well.

Chris felt Vin press his forehead against his arm and knew that Vin was upset that his action had caused JD to miss out on a treat. Chris redirected the conversation to ease Vin's dismay. "Maybe they'd rather talk about the rodeo."

JD perked up. "Rodeo? With cowboys and horses?"

"That's right," said Jack.

"Yeah!" said JD with a hop, the adoration shining in his eyes again. "Do you ride the buckin' horses?"

Jack smiled at the exuberance. "I used to, JD. Now I let the younger boys do the rough stuff."

"Don't let him kid you, JD," said Buck. "He does rough stuff. He's a clown."

"A clown?" asked JD as he looked up at Buck with a frown. He'd never heard of a clown riding a horse. "I thought he was a cowboy."

"He's both," answered Buck.

"Oh," said JD skeptically. That didn't seem right to him.

"I have to be on my way," said Jack. "It's been nice to meet you, boys. Hope to see you at the rodeo."

"Bye, Mr. Jack!" said JD. As Jack walked away, he turned back to Buck. "When's the rodeo?"

"Well, Little Bit," said Buck as he scooped up the miniature cowboy, "It's tomorrow."

"Oh boy!" said JD. "That'll be fun, huh Vin?"

Vin nodded with a fake smile. Chris tugged his hand and Vin looked up at him. "You were a little more excited about it earlier."

Vin tried harder to smile. "It will be fun," he said honestly.

Chris could tell he was still upset, but he was again at a loss on how to get Vin to tell him what he was feeling.

"I like your hat, JD," said Vin, directing the focus away from himself. "It makes you look like a bad guy."

JD wriggled free from Buck and pretended to bounce around on an imaginary horse. "Come on, Vin. Let's ride."

Vin avoided looking at Chris as he trotted down the sidewalk after JD.