"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: I would like to thank J.K. Poffenberger for creating the Little Britches AU and for generously making it available to for others to play in. I would also like to thank S. Berry for providing editorial assistance in the preparation of this story and for formatting it for submission.

Rating: PG, just a few bad words.

The two young boys had been at the Larabee ranch for several days. For five-year-old JD, it was heaven! Mr. Buck was willing to spend hours with the boys showing them the horses and teaching them to care for them. For JD's seven-year-old cousin, Vin, it was almost torture. He couldn't drive from his mind the words Mr. Josiah had said "til we find a family." They were only staying with Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck "temporarily" until the preacher found a home that could take both of them.

Vin didn't want to go anywhere else; he wanted to stay here. He wanted their home to be with the two tall horse ranchers. He trusted Mr. Chris and felt immediately close to the solemn, quiet man. It didn't bother Vin that the stern-looking man didn't talk much. He didn't need to; Vin felt comfortable with him, whether they talked or not. He'd already learned so many things from this soft-spoken teacher, like how to do things around the ranch and how to pay attention to the world around him. And he'd taken him riding on the range and showed him things about trails, and animal tracks, and the trees and shrubs. Vin loved riding the range with this new mentor. Chris had taken him out on the first day. He let Vin sit in front of him in the saddle. "You can't see anything holding on behind me. Try sitting in front today." He'd even let Vin hold the reins. JD had wanted to stay with Buck and work with the horses, so just the shy little boy and the tall man in black rode out. To the boy raised in city orphanages, this was freedom. He had never experienced anything like this before in his life. He loved the open, the air, the smells, the sights. He didn't say much as he soaked it in because he didn't want to be a bother.

As the man pointed out wildlife tracks, how to recognize types of shrubs and trees, and how to be careful about water, the boy remembered everything. He could have stayed out all day, but his teacher had to get back to help Buck. On the second day, Vin was afraid to ask, and he thought he was going to burst with happiness when a ride was suggested and, again, JD wanted to stay with the horses. While he was out on the range, he was so excited that the nagging fear of being sent to a new home faded into the background.

He couldn't contain himself this time and asked questions, pointing to things in his excitement. He tried to be careful to sense if Mr. Chris was getting mad or impatient with him, but the quiet man seemed to enjoy teaching him. They stayed out longer this time and came back late in the day. By the time they reached the ranch, Vin had fallen asleep in the rancher's arms. He smiled as he gently nudged the boy awake. "Hey, Cowboy, we're back. Let's go see if Buck has fixed anything for supper." Vin bounced off the horse and raced to tell his cousin, who was just as eager to tell about his day with Buck and the horses. The two chattered away during supper; actually mostly JD chattered. The older boy smiled a lot and let his young cousin do the talking. Neither of the men had much of a chance to get in a word other than to answer the occasional question. They just enjoyed the boys' company and chuckled now and then at their conversation, trying to remember when they'd been best friends as kids.

After supper, Vin's fears began to encroach on his thoughts again. This was temporary. He looked over at his cousin where he sat watching Buck whittle. It was clear that JD was a little afraid of Mr. Chris, but he adored the good-natured Buck. He would follow him like a puppy anywhere. No, the sandy-haired boy thought as worry lines furrowed his brow, JD wouldn't be happy when they had to go. Even if they found a home that would take both boys, how was he going to explain that they had to leave the Larabee ranch?

He sighed and straightened his thin shoulders. At least for now, they were in a place they both liked, and Mr. Josiah wouldn't take them away unless he found a home that would keep them together. Things were better than they'd been a few of days ago when the preacher was ready to split them up. So far, he'd been able to keep his promise to JD's mom, his aunt. He'd been able to stay with JD and take care of him.

Chris sat smoking his cheroot, a small smile playing at his lips as he watched the boys squealing and rough-housing with Buck. He hadn't felt this good in a long while. Then reality hit him. What on earth did they think they were doing? They were getting attached to these boys and it looked liked the boys were doing likewise. This couldn't be; it wasn't going to be fair to the boys when they had to go. He closed his eyes for a moment and pictured his son, Adam; he'd been just about Vin's age when he was killed. The pain of the memory washed over him for a moment 'til he opened his eyes and looked at the boy in front of him. He told himself Vin wasn't replacing Adam's memory. He was adding, not taking away. The boys were quite different, so Chris didn't feel an urge to compare.

The orphan was so serious much of the time, like he had the weight of the world on his little shoulders. He had had a hard life for his short seven years. The ex-gunslinger felt a tie to this shy boy that he couldn't understand. He'd been really content, happy even, out on the range with Vin. He didn't know why, but it felt so right and he didn't want it to end in a few days. He wanted to share his knowledge, his world, with this kindred spirit. As he watched his partner swoop both boys up into his lap, one on each knee, he felt an overwhelming yearning to do the same. Then, he shook his head sadly; there was no future in this. He and Buck were in no position to try to raise two boys! It just wouldn't work! He caught himself abruptly when he saw the older boy look over at him, his eyes suddenly filled with fear. Christ! How can he know what I'm thinking? Chris had a sudden disconcerting sense that Vin could read his thoughts. He grinned reassuringly at the boy as he came over and swung him off of Buck's knee. "I think maybe it's time to get you two boys washed up for bed!"

The boys protested, but only briefly; they were pretty tired out from the day's activities. The men made them wash up and smiled at the two small boys in the their 'nightshirts' - a couple of old blue shirts of Chris' that they'd cut the sleeves and shirttails off of. Nevertheless, both boys were swimming in them. Despite the protestations of having to clean up, this was a fun time for the boys with everyone getting a little wet before it was over. The men put the boys to bed and tucked them in. Mr. Buck even told them a story about Indians. JD loved that. He'd fallen asleep as soon as it was finished. Chris rested his hand gently on Vin's head for a few moments while he said goodnight. It felt so good that the boy closed his eyes and basked in the warmth of that comforting hand. After the men had quietly left, Vin lay in the bed, but sleep would not come yet. He kept reliving his time out on the range with Mr. Chris; there were a lot of places he wanted to explore. He vowed he'd never go back to the city again.

His ears pricked up as he heard the low conversation from the next room. They must have thought both boys were asleep because they began talking about them.

"Look Buck, I like them, too, but we don't have a decent home to offer them here. We're not even here all the time. What would we do with them when we have to leave town quickly? Besides, they need a Ma. You and I are both terrible cooks. It can't work."

"Chris, I can't stomach the thought of someone taking them away. It just feels right -- them being here. That JD is something. It's clear he's got a way with horses. I'm telling you he's going to be a natural. And Vin, I've seen how you two get on. It's like you don't even have to talk to each other to know what the other wants. It's uncanny. Chris, Josiah is not going to find a home for them as good as what we got here."

"Buck, no. This ain't a proper place to raise kids." He got really quiet and Vin barely heard the words "Not sure I can." "Adam?" Then more strongly as they walked out of the house toward the barn, he heard, "Buck, it's not fair to them -- to let them become too attached to this place, or to us. Tomorrow, I'll go see Josiah to find a family fast before it gets too difficult for the boys to leave here."

No, not again! Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck didn't want them. They were too much trouble. Well, they'd have to leave. He wouldn't let them take JD and him back into town to some strangers and maybe split them up cause they couldn't find a family that wanted both of them. They'd find themselves a home, out West. Tomorrow morning, before anyone woke up. But they'd have to be careful. If they left a trail, like last time, they'd be caught. He'd make sure they didn't leave a trail this time.

Vin didn't hear the rest of the conversation as the two men got out of earshot. He didn't hear Buck try again. "Chris, you know what I'm saying. Those boys are special. They're meant to be here. We can work things out. Mary and Josiah will help us when we have to go away, Gloria Potter, too. I know they will. You won't believe how good they are around the horses. They're not afraid at all. They both have a real gentle touch. That little JD, they all love him. He wandered up to our meanest mare and she just nuzzled him. We may never have to break a horse again. And Vin, he's quiet but he's real observant. He was watching Cisco in the corral today and he said he's walking funny and didn't like to put one foot down all the way. I looked and could hardly tell Cisco was favoring, but the kid was right and didn't he have a pebble in his shoe! Chris, he's sharp!"

His friend nodded and chuckled. "Yeah, I noticed. He learned everything I taught him out there today. He can already tell all the different kinds of tracks apart and new from old. He saw things I had to look twice at." He laughed, "He's gonna learn everything I know in about a month and he already tracks better than you."

Buck punched him in the arm. "Think about it. We can't send them away. We gotta work things out. I know they belong with us."

Chris sighed and said, "OK, I'll think it over a while before I go to Josiah."

Next morning, just before dawn, Vin dragged a sleepy JD out of bed and they tiptoed out carrying their boots. The little dark-haired boy didn't want to; he didn't understand how Mr. Buck could not want him. But he trusted his cousin. They sat for a moment to put their boots on and then headed for the barn. Vin knew they had to have water. They stopped by the barn first to find a canteen. "Isn't that stealing?" asked JD in awe as he watched his cousin fill the canteen from a water barrel.

"We've got to have water so we'll just borrow this and send it back later," Vin assured his cousin. He was very careful as they left. He watched their trail and found how to pick harder ground to walk on so they didn't leave marks. He made his cousin walk in front of him and he made sure they didn't leave a trail to follow. They headed West, over the dry, rock-strewn ground dotted with the occasional sagebrush, two small boys looking for a home together.

When they were some distance from the ranch and his cousin would let him start talking, JD asked, "Vin, why don't Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris want us to live with them?

"I don't know. I guess they're just too busy for us. I guess we're too much trouble." The older boy cringed internally at the words. He'd faced rejection numerous times, and now it had spread to include his cousin. Everybody said the two boys were 'too much trouble.'

"But I'll tell them I won't be no trouble," pleaded the younger boy in a high-pitched voice. "I'll learn to do chores. I'll help with everything."

"I don't think it'll work and now I'm afraid to go back 'cause I think they're gonna take us back into town today. I heard Mr. Chris say they were gonna have Mr. Josiah find us a home right away 'cause they couldn't keep us. An' if he didn't find us a home together yet, they're probably gonna split us up," said the older boy as pushed JD along, all the time carefully watching that they left no trail.

When they'd walked for a couple of hours, Vin decided they were far enough from the ranch that he didn't need to be careful about the trail. They started moving at a faster pace. The sun was up and it was getting warm. As they past a clump of sagebrush, JD disturbed a rattlesnake.

"JD, stop! Don't move!" Vin moved very slowly and got a large rock, then he moved close to get between the younger boy and the snake. He was scared, but he had a job. He had to take care of his cousin. He'd have to kill the snake with the rock.

The men awoke to find the boys' bed empty and no sign of either one. "Damn! They've taken off!" said Chris in exasperation. "Get the horses!"

He found small footprints by the porch and could tell where they'd sat down to put their boots on. He also found fresh tracks heading to the barn. As they got their tack, Chris noticed his canteen was missing. That meant they were heading out onto the range. Vin would know to take water after what he'd been taught.

"Why would they run off? I know they liked it here. I thought they liked being with us," said Buck as they saddled the horses.

Chris felt the guilt hit him like he'd been kicked in the stomach. "That might be why they left. I figure Vin must have heard us talking last night about going to see Josiah."

"Damn! I didn't even think he might still be awake," said Buck as he realized the truth of what Chris suggested.

They headed out of the barn and began searching for the trail. They weren't overly concerned; they'd tracked the boys easily the last time they'd run off. Yet, after searching all around the house and barn and failing to pick up a trail, they began to get worried. "Where would they go? They wouldn't go back to town," said Buck as they regrouped. They'd scanned in every direction in a widening circle for almost an hour and had found no trail leading away from the ranch.

Chris said, "They headed West last time. Let's try that." It took them another hour of criss-crossing in that general direction before Chris spotted the small boot prints. They just appeared, no trail leading up to them. Despite his fear and frustration, he couldn't help but smile in admiration. "Damn! Buck, look at this! He deliberately covered their trail. I can't believe he learned how to do that in two days' time! He must have decided this far out, it didn't matter anymore."

His friend just shook his head; he didn't think he could have done what the seven-year-old boy had done. "I told you he's special," he muttered. They were a long way out and he was really worried about JD. Neither boy was equipped to handle the dangers they might encounter out on the open range.

Once they found the trail, they could move much more rapidly and they put their horses to a faster pace. All the while, they were both lost in thoughts of why Vin had felt it necessary to hide the trail from them. Chris was consumed by guilt; he knew he must have hurt the boy badly to make him run away. He ran his hands over his eyes as if to wipe the vision of two small boys lost out on the range, heading no where but away from them. God, this got complicated!

Just as Vin was about to drop the rock on the coiled snake, the noise of horses approaching distracted JD. He turned to the sound. Vin saw the snake move to strike and he dropped the rock as he shoved JD away, both boys tumbling down as Buck and Chris rode up.

They had spotted the boys just as they cleared the rise. The boys were standing strangely, stiff and unmoving. Chris was wondering why Vin was holding something over his head, when JD turned in their direction. Suddenly, Vin stepped forward, his arms came down, he pushed his cousin, and the boys fell into a heap together.

When the two men galloped over in time to see a large rattler coiling next to the boys, they had their guns out and shot the snake as soon as they realized what was going on.

Both men were out of their saddles in a flash and each knelt down and picked up a boy. Buck inspected the terrified JD. He was crying, but Buck could find nothing to indicate he'd been hurt. He wrapped his big arms around the boy and JD buried his face in Buck's shirt and cried. Through his sobs JD got out, "Vin said you didn't w-w-want us. You're t-t-taking us b-b-back to Mr. J-Josiah.and w-w-we couldn't s-s-stay t-tog-g-gether. And there was a b-b-big s-s-snake."

Buck could hardly understand the words between the sobs and hiccups. He rocked the shaking boy and murmured soothing things to him. "It's OK, JD, we're not taking you back. JD, it's OK, son. You're OK now."

Buck turned his head to check on Chris and Vin, and his stomach lurched as he saw the frightened boy point to a place on his leg. With a grim face, Chris took his knife out and slit the pant leg up to find the two small puncture wounds on Vin's calf. "Damn!" Chris looked to his partner for help. "Can you hold onto him while I try to get some of this poison out?" he said. Then he turned to the boy, "Vin, this is going to hurt a lot, but I have to do this to make it better. Then we'll get you into town to Nathan. Can you be brave?"

"I'll get in trouble for ruining my pants," said the serious little boy looking at Chris' stern features. His chin quivered as he went on, "I'm sorry we ran away. We didn't mean to be no trouble. I'm sorry I stole the canteen. I woulda given it back. Please don't be mad at JD. It's my fault." He was scared and his leg was starting to hurt; he was trying hard not to cry. He was sure Chris was mad at him, and it was important to him that he didn't see him cry.

"Don't worry about the pants. I cut them, I'll get you new ones," said Chris in gentle tones as he brushed Vin's hair out of his eyes. "I'm not mad at you. We'll talk later about why you left. Now, I've got to take care of your leg. Can you be a really brave boy? Can you sit still and lean back on Buck there? You hold tight to his hand now. I have to cut your leg a little where the snake bit it. You go ahead and yell if you need to 'cause it's gonna hurt.

Vin looked at him with those huge, trusting blue eyes and nodded. He bit his lip and clutched Buck's hand as Chris cut the wound; he whimpered at the pain but didn't cry out. Buck carefully kept JD snuggled in close to him with his head buried against his chest because he didn't want the boy to see what Chris was doing to his cousin. When Chris had done all he could, he tied up the wound with a bandana and wrapped his duster around the shivering boy. Then he climbed on his horse and Buck handed Vin up. Buck then put JD up on his horse and swiftly swung up behind him. They each held the boys tightly in front of them and galloped for town.

Buck hopped off with JD in his arms as they rode up to Nathan's. He helped Chris with Vin while yelling for Nathan. By this time, Vin was shaking badly. "He's snake bit," said Buck as he burst upon Nathan at the door to his room.

"Put him on the bed," ordered Nathan. "Chris, you stay. Buck, why don't you see if you can go somewhere and calm that other poor boy down while I do what I can for this one."

Buck took the sobbing JD off with him and started talking to him in soothing tones. "Now JD, don't you worry none. Nathan is the best healer there is. He'll fix Vin up real good."

Nathan unwrapped the bandana and Chris caught his breath. The area around the bite was already violently red and the leg was swelling badly. Nathan treated the wound by cleansing it and putting compresses on it. Chris caught a sudden look of distress on Vin's face and moved just in time to get a bowl in front of him when he vomited. The gunslinger gently wiped the boy 's face and lay him back down. Nathan gave Vin some medicine and he talked quietly to the scared boy.

"Is your leg hurting?"

"A l-little," whispered Vin through his chills. He'd held onto Chris' hand through the entire procedure and wouldn't let go. He looked at the silent man and clutched tighter as shivers ran through his small body.

"Here drink this. It tastes bad but it will help so your leg won't hurt so much," said Nathan in his deep gentle voice.

Vin drank the medicine while Chris held him up, then he turned his head into the comforting shoulder and said in a voice so soft the man could hardly hear him. "I'm r-real s-sorry Mr. C-Chris. I'm s-sorry I made t-trouble for ya. Didn't want to be no trouble." He closed his eyes as chills assailed him and he passed out. His tight grip on Chris' hand relaxed, and the gunslinger looked to Nathan in silent appeal.

Nathan shook his head sadly. "Chris, it's not good. It's tough enough for a grown man t'fight the poison of a rattler, but it's a lot harder for children. Same amount of poison in a smaller body. That leg has got to be hurting him real bad. He's a tough kid, but he's in for a hard few days. He's already got fever and chills, and they'll probably get worse. He's gonna be in a lot of pain. I'll do what I can for that. And he's likely to get delirious. I'll do the best I can for him," said Nathan. He had to be honest. There was a good chance the boy would not survive and Chris had to be prepared. Nathan wasn't sure at this point how much the boy meant to Chris, but the mix of anguish and guilt on the man's face made him suspect that Vin had already done what no one had be able to since Chris' family died -- work his way through the wall Chris Larabee had constructed around himself.

Buck took JD to Josiah's church and sat talking to him, telling him it would be OK, that he and Chris weren't mad at them, that they wanted the boys to be with them but worried about when they couldn't be there. It was a lot for a five-year-old to absorb, but JD was soothed by Buck's voice and the gentle rocking of his strong arms. He fell asleep.

When Buck was sure JD was soundly asleep, he put him on the pallet Josiah had gotten ready and he explained to Josiah what happened. He kept a close eye on JD to be sure he stayed asleep while he talked to Josiah in a low voice. He didn't want the same thing happening twice.

"What are you going to do?" asked Josiah. "I don't know. That depends on Chris. and I guess Vin. We'll have to see what happens. I'm worried about Chris if Vin don't pull through. They've gotten kinda close. Well, it's more than that. Josiah, it's eerie how well they get along. They don't even have to talk half the time; they just know what the other wants. I haven't seen Chris so happy and relaxed since before his wife and son were killed. If something happens to Vin, Chris is going to be real bad off. You got any idea what his chances are?"

Josiah shook his head. "You stay here with JD. You don't want him waking up and finding himself alone. I'll go check with Nathan."

In a while he returned. He checked carefully on JD before he said anything. "Nathan says it's going to be real rough. Snake bites are hard on children; most don't make it. Chris is going to stay with him. He said you might think about taking JD on back out to the ranch."

"Yeah, I guess I will. I'll wait until he wakes up."

Vin got steadily worse. He grew more and more feverish and began tossing and crying out. He was so nauseous that he vomited every time they gave him anything to drink. Nathan was worried because he couldn't keep the medicine down and because Vin was getting dehydrated.

"We've got to get the fever down. We need to start sponging him off," said Nathan to Chris as he started to pull off Vin's shirt and trousers. When he pulled them off, both men found themselves staring at several scars on the boy's buttocks and backs of his legs. Nathan said in a hushed voice, "Damn. Who would do that to him?" Chris looked at the healer for an explanation. "I've seen these before, when I was a slave. Those long straight ones are from whipping, probably with a belt, and these round ones are from burns, like from a cigar." He shook his head sadly. "Someone hurt this boy deliberately." He watched Chris' face turn hard and his eyes grow steely with anger.

"Well, no one is going to hurt him like that again," said Chris his voice harsh and menacing.

They started taking turns sponging him off, trying to bring his fever down. Whenever he could, Chris held his little hand. Vin seemed to calm down some when he felt Chris' hand.

Buck took JD back to the ranch and tried to keep him occupied with the horses. It was clear that he was torn and confused. At times, he would become completely absorbed in learning everything he could about horses from Buck; then, he would remember what happened to Vin.

"Buck, Vin's gonna be OK, isn't he?" he'd asked in a small voice.

At these times, Buck would stop his work and sit with the small boy on his knee. He'd tell him that everyone was going to do their best and that he thought Vin would get better. He was careful not to make promises he couldn 't keep. He wasn't sure that Vin would pull through and the only thing worse than JD losing his cousin would be if he also came to believe that Buck had lied to him.

Despite their worries, both managed to keep busy and grew closer each day. There were a lot of chores to do and it kept them occupied. At one point, Buck thought to himself, When Vin does get well, I bet I have a heck of a time getting JD to do all these chores! Buck well remembered his own youth and time spent figuring out ways to hide when the chores were being passed out.

What he didn't fully realize was how much JD liked just being with him, no matter what they were doing. Or how much the boy liked being around the horses. There was no such thing as chores when it came to the horses.

Buck started to teach JD to ride and the boy was in paradise. Most of the horses were way to big for him; his little legs just stuck out at right angles to his body on their broad backs. There was one small bay mare, a pony really. She was a real pretty little thing that Buck had been ready to sell because she was so small. When he introduced JD to her, it was a match made in heaven, and on her back, JD's legs at least tilted downward and he could get some grip. For the time being, he had to ride bareback because they had no saddle small enough for him. Buck was impressed with how good the boy's balance was from the beginning, and how he had a feel for communicating with the horse. Buck only had to teach him a few things, he was such a natural. One day at dinner, JD said, "Mr. Buck, can I name her? I'd like to call her Molly."

"Well, I think that's a right good name," said Buck. "And speaking of names. Think maybe you can drop the "mister" and maybe just call me Buck?"

"S'sure, B'Buck," said JD stumbling a bit on his first try. He paused and was suddenly serious. "Buck, what about Vin? When he gets better, can he have a horse, too?" JD asked.

Buck tried not to show his concern, that maybe Vin wouldn't need a horse. "Well, sure. You want to help me pick a few possibles out for him to choose from when he comes home?" he said as cheerfully as he could. JD had apparently not noticed the brief shadow that had crossed Buck's face because he proceeded to offer suggestions on the characteristics of the perfect horse for Vin.

Together they inspected the horses the next day. There was only one that was small, not quite as small as Molly, but much smaller than Buck's and Chris'. He was a black gelding. Buck shook his head, "I don't know if he' ll like this one, but we don't have any others that are a good size. I might have to go talk to Charlie at the livery to see if he knows of any."

JD seriously inspected the horse and nodded his head. "Vin will like this one. I'm sure." JD spoke with such assurance that Buck believed him.

Vin's condition worsened. The leg was badly swollen and discolored. They had to sponge him off almost constantly to keep him from having fever seizures, and he was so nauseous that he couldn't even hold water down. His face took on a hollow sunken look around the eyes, which were ringed by deep bluish shadows. Josiah and Ezra came to help when Nathan and Chris were exhausted from lack of sleep. At one point, while the preacher was sponging the boy, he looked up to see Chris fast asleep with his head on the bed next to Vin and his hand gripping the boy's hand. Josiah smiled. "Little boy, you've got to get better because I think there's someone who needs you as much as you need him."

Buck came from the ranch once, but they worried that it upset JD too much to see Vin so sick, so they decided that it would be better if he just kept the younger boy out at the ranch.

On the third day, Vin's temperature was down a little, but he was still restless and whimpering in his fever-induced sleep. Chris tried to comfort him by holding his hand and talking to him, but couldn't seem to get him to quiet down. He gathered the boy up in a blanket and cradled him in his arms as he sat back in the chair. Vin stopped whimpering and calmed at the sound of the gentle voice quietly talking to him. He leaned into Chris and gave a small sigh when the man curved his arms tighter around the small boy. Nathan came in a while later to find the blond rancher and the sandy-haired boy both asleep, Vin peacefully curled in the gunslinger's arms with his head nestled against Chris' chest. "Well, little fella, looks like maybe you've found yourself a home," he said to himself as he gently checked the boy's temperature and found him cooler.

The next day, Vin was much better. The healer was pleased that the nausea had passed and the boy was holding down water and a little broth. His features still look sunken but Nathan knew they'd fill in if he just kept him drinking. His fever was almost gone and the leg, although still badly swollen, was showing signs that it would heal. Blue eyes opened and rested on Chris sitting in the chair by the bed talking to Nathan. The rancher turned from Nathan as soon as he felt Vin's eyes on him, "Hey, Vin, how're you feeling?"

The child fixed his solemn eyes on Chris. "Mr. Chris, I'm real sorry I caused so much trouble. I know I shouldn't a stolen your canteen. I was going to send it back. And I'm sorry for not watching out better for JD and keeping him away from snakes. Please don't be too mad."

Chris pulled Vin, blanket and all, onto his lap and wrapped his arms around the boy feeling with anguish that he was even thinner than before. "Vin, I'm not mad at you. I knew you were just borrowing the canteen. I know you took it so you could take care of JD. You've been real good to him and you've taken care of him just like you promised his mama." He rocked the boy gently as he continued, "Vin, I'm not mad at you. I like you."

"But you don't want JD and me. You said we had to go." The words were a mere whisper.

Chris inwardly cringed. God, he wished he could take back those carelessly spoken words. He hugged the boy tighter. "Vin, Buck and I do want you and JD to live with us. We both like you a lot, but I thought we couldn't give you a decent home. We have to be away a lot."

"Me and JD can take care of things when you're gone," piped up the boy.

Chris and Nathan both smiled at the thought of the two small boys running the ranch. "We'll see Vin. We'll see what we can work out with Josiah." As he said the words, Chris knew he had just made a commitment. He couldn't betray the boy again. They sat like that in companionable silence for a long time, both comfortable just being together. When Chris noticed the boy getting sleepy, he said, "Vin, I have to go back out to the ranch to check on a few things. You gonna be OK while I'm gone?" he asked.

"Will you come back for sure?" asked Vin starting to shift nervously.

"Sure I'll come back, this afternoon. I just need to go do some chores," Chris tried to reassure him.

"Promise?" he asked anxiously.

"I promise, I'll be back. You just rest now and do what Nathan says." He reached over and put the boy back in bed and pushed the hair off his forehead. He stayed until he was sure Vin had fallen asleep.

Chris returned in the afternoon, not alone, but with Buck and JD. JD was so excited to see his cousin that they had a hard time persuading him to calm down and remember that Vin was still sick. The little dark-haired boy was irrepressible. He hopped on Vin's bed and chattered away to him about the horses and everything Buck had been teaching him. It was all he could do to keep the secret about the ponies, and he had to catch himself when he saw a stern look from the normally jovial rancher. The older boy just listened, smiled, and looked over at Chris once in awhile, reassuring himself of his presence. In a short while, he fell asleep again.

Nathan pulled Chris and Buck aside while the boys were happily occupied. "Chris, he panicked when he woke up and you weren't here. He thought you'd left for good and didn't want him. I thought he was going to have a relapse he got so upset. I couldn't get him calmed down until I heard y'all ride up and I carried him to the window to show him you were back."

Chris looked at his partner and gave a small shrug, "Well, Buck, maybe it's time to take these boys home."

His friend burst out, "Well all right!" He'd immediately noticed the use of the word 'home'; every other time Chris had always carefully said 'the ranch.'

Chris turned to Nathan. "If we're real careful to keep him quiet and you tell us what to do about medicine, can we take him tomorrow?"

The healer broke into a huge grin, "I think that would be just fine. I'll give you all the stuff you need. But no riding out on the range for a few more days and keep him from running around 'til that leg looks about back to normal."

Buck took JD down to the saloon for dinner to celebrate and to meet his friends, Inez and Ezra. Ezra entertained JD with card tricks and his funny talk while Buck tried as usual to charm Inez. She paid them a great deal of attention, not for Buck's sake, but because she was so taken with the little dark-haired boy who had so clearly adopted the big scoundrel. When Josiah stopped by, Buck told him of Chris' change of heart and the big preacher beamed and said a silent prayer of thank you.

JD was delighted to have someone to tell his news to and Mr. Ezra seemed interested. He chattered on about the ranch and the horses. "Buck gave me a horse. I named her Molly. Shes beautiful. She's a bay. Do you now what color that is? It's kind of like the color of your coat, but she's got a black mane and tail, and black legs, like stockings. I've been brushing her and brushing her. I have to use a chair to reach her back cause she's so tall. You know when she's in the sun you can see rainbows in her coat. And Buck is teaching me to ride. And we've picked a horse for Vin, too, but don't tell him cause it's gonna be a surprise. What's your horse's name?" When JD stopped for air, Ezra slowed him down a bit.

"Slow down, Master Dunne. So, Mr. Wilmington has given you a horse. Now that is indeed good fortune, and I am certain that Master Tanner will be delighted with his surprise. Every young man must have a good mount. You say her name is Molly? A fine name indeed. My own mount's name is Chaucer."

"Saucer? That's a funny name for a horse," said JD.

"Not Saucer, my boy, Chaucer," Ezra replied with dignity.

"Oh," said JD still thinking it was a funny name for a horse.

In awhile, Nathan stopped by to get some supper for Chris and Vin. Josiah offered to take it back so the healer could hang around and relax. He'd had a hard few days. JD, spying a new audience for his stories, climbed onto the lap of the tall, dark man and started all over again. Nathan, beer in hand, leaned back and enjoyed the entertainment.

Chris and Vin looked up as Josiah came in. "Anyone hungry in here?" He saw the boy's eyes light up. As they ate, Vin started telling Josiah about riding out on the range and asking Josiah about Indians. He quickly discovered that Mr. Josiah knew a lot and had good stories and he decided to forgive him for trying to take them away. He even thought he'd come and visit him some to hear more stories. After supper, Chris sat by the bed holding Vin's hand as the boy's eyelids got heavy listening to Josiah's resonating baritone.

When Vin had drifted off to sleep, Chris stepped away from the bed and asked Josiah, "What do you know about him? His past? Did Nathan tell you about his scars?"

The preacher got serious and nodded sadly. "Yes, he did. So, I did some checking with the sister that brought him. She doesn't have much on him. He lived with his mother 'til he was about five. Father apparently died or ran off when he was just a baby. When his mother died of a fever, he was sent to various orphanages. He ran away a couple of times. They found his aunt, JD's mother, but by that time she was too sick to take him on. He only met up with her a few times before she died and both boys were signed up for the orphan train. Can't tell from the record when or who beat up on him. More'n likely someone at one of the orphanages." Josiah shook his head in wonderment, "It's amazing that as hard a life as he's had, he's so kind and gentle, always looking out for his cousin."

He went on, "Buck tells me you two have decided to keep the boys with you. I'm real happy for you."

Chris allowed himself a grin. "I know you planned this when you asked us to take them temporarily. You knew we wouldn't be able to give them up." Then he paused and shuddered briefly, "I almost let it all go, Josiah, and Vin almost died because of it."

"I think the Good Lord was not going to let that happen. Things are turning out just the way he wants them," said the preacher with a huge grin as he clapped the younger man on the shoulder. "I hear you're taking the little tyke home tomorrow," he continued.

"Yeah, Nathan thinks it'll be good for him. Want to stop by and help send him off?" asked Chris. "Wouldn't miss it. Wouldn't miss it for the world," rumbled Josiah.

Next morning, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra gathered around as Chris brought Vin down bundled in a blanket. He handed the boy to the preacher while he climbed on his horse and got settled. Then Josiah lifted the boy to him. Vin eyes were huge and trusting and he smiled at the big man as he settled comfortably in Chris' arms with his head resting in the hollow of his shoulder.

Nathan packed some medicines in a bag and tied them to the back of the saddle. Chris smiled, "Why don't y'all stop by day after tomorrow for supper?" When they all indicated that they would come, he nodded to the three and turned his horse for home.

"Those two little boys are the best thing that has happened to those men," remarked Josiah as they watched Chris ride out of town. "I do believe the Good Lord has made a very good and wise move this time."

Ezra, who was having a hard time hiding the fact that his eyes had misted up just a little, said, "I expect that we shall have to help oversee the education of the boys. I can only imagine the dreadful misinformation Mr. Wilmington is going to impart to them. And I will have to ensure that they are properly instructed in the manners of a gentleman. I will speak to Mrs. Travis about helping with their formal education." The other two looked at him in amazement. Who would have thought that the gambler would have settled so quickly into the role of concerned uncle? "What? Why are you looking at me like that? I am merely concerned for the welfare of two orphans. It is my Christian duty to help where I can best be of service." Nathan and Josiah looked at each other and smiled. Ezra was hooked almost as badly as Chris and Buck.

Vin was so quiet as they rode, Chris thought he must have fallen asleep. He looked down at the top of the little sandy head leaning on him and thanked the Lord for saving him. He hadn't needed Buck to persuade him that the boys should stay. The bond he'd formed with Vin was too strong and there was no way he could let someone else take him away. He knew this boy belonged with him just as it was clear that JD belonged with Buck. He smiled as he thought, Josiah, you wily old fox.

He was startled when a quiet voice asked, "Mr. Chris, who's Adam?"

Vin felt the man stiffen and worried that he'd made a mistake asking, but then he felt the arms relax again. "Adam was my son. He was killed a few years ago in a bad accident."

"I'm sorry. I guess you miss him a lot." Vin was scared Mr. Chris would be mad at him for bringing it up.

"Yeah, I do." He was quiet for a few moments. "But I can't change what happened. I've got to get on with my life."

They rode for a little while longer when Chris said as he tightened his arms around the boy, "You know, Vin, I think I've got enough room in my heart for more than one son." Vin didn't say anything, he was too overwhelmed to voice his happiness, but he snuggled deeper into the encircling arm. A while later, Chris added, "I think maybe it's time you started calling me Chris instead of Mr. Chris."

As they kept moving, the gentle rocking of the horse did eventually lull Vin to sleep. When they arrived at the ranch, Buck came out to help Chris and he had to shush JD to keep him from waking his sleeping cousin.

When Chris put Vin to bed, the boy opened sleepy eyes and smiled. "Are we home?"

Chris pushed the hair out of his eyes and said, "Yes, if you and JD can put up with Buck and me, this is your home now."

Later that evening after Chris and Buck were sure the boys were asleep, they discussed their circumstances.

"Nathan says Vin's gonna be laid up for a few more days. When he feels better, he can start doing things pretty normally. He just doesn't want him to run on that leg too soon," said Chris. "I expect tomorrow, I'd best stick around the house to watch out for him. I haven't been much help around here lately. Can you manage the horses without me for a couple more days?"

"Hell, yes! I got my new pardner helping me out. We've been managing just fine. I don't expect a couple of more days are going to be a problem. You might want to come out to the barn and see the surprise JD and I have for Vin," said Buck cheerfully.

Before they even got there, Chris guessed, "You picked that little black gelding for him, didn't you? He'll like that."

Buck looked at his partner in surprise. "JD said the same thing. How come you know so much about what Vin will like?"

"I don't know. It just feels right. He'll like that pony."

Next morning, the men awoke to find both boys out of bed and playing on the floor. Chris was immediately concerned about Vin, but he could see that the boy was playing quietly while JD did most of the hopping around. As it didn't seem to be doing any harm, he decided to let them play. The two boys were in their nightshirts crawling around on the floor where they had little scraps of wood of various sizes strung out. He tousled their heads as he walked up, taking an extra moment with his hand on Vin's head to be sure he didn't feel hot. He gave an internal sigh of relief -- no fever.

"What d'ya have going here?" asked Buck as he walked over pulling up his suspender straps.

"It's a wagon train," piped up JD. "See these are the wagons and the little sticks are the horses. They're going to Orgun."

"Oregon," corrected Vin. "It's out West."

"Looks like a big one," said Chris smiling down at them. "You boys best get some clothes on so you don't get a chill. We'll see what we can do to rustle up some breakfast." He followed Buck to the kitchen area to start some coffee.

Vin looked immediately disconcerted and came over close to Chris so he could speak in a whisper. "I ain't got no pants. Mine are all ripped up."

"Oh, oh, that's a problem." Chris turned to Buck. "Say Buck, do you think we can do something about this problem? Vin's pants are all ruined. Maybe you could loan him a pair of your pants 'til we can get to town to buy some," said Chris with a twinkle in his eye as Vin looked horrified and JD's jaw dropped.

"Sure thing. I'll be right back," said Buck cheerily as he went into his room. Vin shuffled and fidgeted. He didn't want to appear ungrateful, but he was going to look silly in Buck's pants and he couldn't imagine how he was going to be able to move around.

Buck came back in with a pair of pants that he couldn't have gotten one foot into let alone a whole leg. He tossed them at Vin. "Why don't you see if these fit?"

Vin pulled them on - a perfect fit. "Thanks," he said looking enormously relieved. He looked between the two men and gave a lopsided grin and made a mental note. He'd have to watch out for teasing.

JD, still looking puzzled. "Buck, how come you got such small pants? You can't fit in those." The tall rancher just smiled and winked at Vin.

Over breakfast, they planned the day. Chris looked at Vin, "Vin, you're going to have to be careful for a couple of days. You can be up and around as long as you promise you'll stop and rest if you feel tired. And absolutely no running yet! Nathan will have my hide if I let you hurt that leg."

Vin nodded absently; he'd heard the 'you can be up and around' part of what was said and not much more. "OK. Can we go out riding?"

"Not yet. Nathan said wait a couple of days."

Buck winked at JD. "Vin, maybe you want to come on out to the barn and help us out a little with the chores."

Vin jumped at the chance. He liked it out at the barn. There were a million fun things to do at the barn. They all wandered out and the boys were lifted onto the fence rail of a corral that had only two small horses in it. JD was twitching all over but Vin didn't notice. He couldn't take his eyes off one of the horses. He was beautiful, glossy and black with a white star on his forehead; he tossed his head sending his mane cascading over his neck as he trotted around. Vin only turned away from watching the black horse when the little bay mare came over and nuzzled JD almost knocking him from the fence.

"Quit that, Molly!" laughed the younger boy as Buck put his hand up to stop a fall. Vin looked at Buck and Chris "What's this horse's name?"

"Well, Vin, he don't have a name yet. We figure it's up to his new owner to name him," said Chris.

The immediate disappointment on the boy's face made Buck add immediately. "Since JD got to name Molly, we thought you might want to take care of this fella."

A huge smile spread across the boy's face.

JD could contain himself no longer. "Vin, they're ours! They're our own horses! And Buck already started teaching me to ride and he's gonna teach you, too. And we can ride all over the place! What'cha gonna name him? He's got a star; you could call him Star. What do you think of Molly? Isn't she beautiful?" He would have chattered on if Buck hadn't swung him off the fence and high in the air to silence him. "Shush, now, JD. Let Vin think."

Vin quietly studied the horse. "I think I'll call him Sam."

Chris smiled as pulled him off the fence. "I like that name. Let's introduce you two. Now Nathan said you can't ride yet, but I think you can get to know him. There's nothing a horse likes better than being brushed. Think maybe you could groom Sam today?"

Buck and Chris put halters on the two horses and tied them up so the boys could work on them. Having the boys completely absorbed in their horses allowed the men a chance to move about the barn and corral and get some work done while still keeping an eye on the boys. Chris could see soon that Vin was beginning to get tired. Much as the boy wanted to stay with the horse, he soon let himself be led away to rest a bit.

Throughout the day, he tired quickly, but it was easy to see when it was time to send him in to lie down. He grumbled a little, although not much. Most times, he was content to be led to the bed where he usually fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Next day, his energy level was a lot higher and Chris and Buck agreed they had better trade off keeping an eye on him to keep him from overdoing. They'd told the boys Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were coming for supper, so from mid-afternoon on, the two kept checking for their arrival. Finally, JD squealed, "They're here!" as he took off at a dead run to greet the three riders.

Vin moved fast, but Chris moved faster and managed to grab the back of Vin's shirt just as he was about to take off after JD. "Whoa, now! You want a lecture from Nathan? You'd better walk out there. If he catches you running, you'll be hearing about it all the way through supper!"

Vin reluctantly set off behind JD, walking as fast as he could, nursing a limp and trying real hard not to break into a run. He could see that JD had already been scooped up onto Ezra's horse with him. Josiah, realizing Vin's plight, put his horse into a trot and soon had the boy up behind him. By the time they'd gotten to the house, everyone including Buck and Chris had foolish grins on their faces. The boys' enthusiasm and sheer joy at being with the five men was just so contagious the others couldn't help but succumb to the spell.

When they'd dismounted, Nathan took a few minutes to check Vin out as the others moved into the house, all the while JD chattering about their wagon train and the horses and riding lessons. "Well, Vin, I can see you're feeling good and have been taking care of yourself. Let me have a look at that leg." He nodded after he studied it and said very seriously. "Looks to me like it's time to give this leg a workout. Do you think maybe you could start running again? And I think a little riding would be good for it, too. I don't know if that's gonna be possible. You think you and Chris can work something out."

Chris had been standing in the doorway to hear what Nathan had to say and smiled and gave a quick nod to the boy as Vin looked up at him hopefully. Without saying anything, they both knew he'd be up on Sam tomorrow.