By Estee

This week I got real sick because Vin made us forget our lunches and I had to eat the yucky, bad lunch at school.  Vin didn't get sick because he fell in the garbage and didn't eat his lunch. I wish I woulda fell in the garbage too because it wasn't no fun getting sick, even if I did get to stay home from school.  Vin got to stay home from school too and he wasn't even sick.  We didn't get to go trick r treating. We didn't get to go to the pumpkin farm, but Da and Chris got us pumpkins and we got to have a hayride and a big fire and

roast mushmellows and hallo-weenies. We got to wear our costumes. I got to be Scooby Doo and Vin got to be a soldier like his borned dad and Chris got to be a cowboy even though he didn't want to be nothing and Buck got to be a king.  We made S'mores and Vin ated them all. Vin ate my chocolate pie too. Vin eats a lot.

JD, ya gotta take your costume off.


Cause Chris said so.

But we're just gonna have to put them back on tomorrow, cause our party is tomorrow.

I know.

So why can't we just sleep with them on?

I don't know.

Did Buck take his costume off?

I hope so.

Me too. He looked scary.


Boys, you need to . . . what are you laughing at?


Have I done my Nothin' but a Hound Dog rendition for you boys, yet?


How 'bout Love Me Tender?


Da, we gots to hurry so we can get our jammies on! Go away!

Hey! Hey! Careful!

You gots to get your jammies on, too, Da.

Yeah, you better hurry or Chris will be mad.

I don't have to do anything . . . Hey! Ouch! Careful of the King's fingers!


Hey, boys.

Hi Chris!

Hi Dad!

It's getting late. You two need to get ready for bed now, okay? Buck, take that ridiculous outfit off before I shoot you.

The King ain't ridiculous and I ain't afraid of no empty squirt gun.

The King is dead and don't forget, I have my service weapon the next room.

The King is dead? How can you say such a thing? Hey! Leave the hair alone! Larabee, you're asking for it!

Oh, yeah? What are you gonna do? Sing at me, again?

I'll show you what--

Vin, should we help?

Help Buck?

Um, no. Help Chris.

It don't look like Chris needs help.


Let's go get his sunglasses.

And hide them.


HEY! Where you boys goin' with the King's -?????? Shit, Larabee, you're dead meat.


JD, son! Help your poor ol' Da! Vin! Get him offa me! ???????? Shit!

Good job, boys.

You little traitors! ?????? Ouch! Dammit! ?????? Larabee!

Buck's gonna owe lots of dollars.

Yeah, we's gonna be rich.

CHRIS! ?????? LARABEE! ?????


Do you think Da will catch him?

Nah. Chris can run real fast.

The week had started out okay. There was a new girl at school, named Isabella Alvarez. Vin had thought it was pretty neat to have a new student, since it was his job to greet the new kids and show them around and help them feel comfortable. Vin found that it was hard to make the new girl feel comfortable, though. For one thing, she was very quiet, she hardly ever spoke and when she did, Vin could barely hear her. She seemed nice enough, for a girl, but for some reason she made him feel very uncomfortable. Still, Vin took his responsibility very seriously, and did his best to help the new girl feel welcomed.

Mrs. Roquette had told them they could bring something about fall or Halloween for sharing that week. JD had chosen to bring his book about bats, but Vin hadn't been able to think of anything all weekend. Then, just before they left for school Monday morning, he remembered the jack-o-lantern book they'd gotten a while back. His dad gave him permission to take it to school, as long as he was careful. The book didn't belong to him only, but he thought it would be okay anyway. It had lots of ideas and patterns for making all kinds of scary faces or silly faces, even cartoon and animal faces.

All of the other kids had brought things, too. Some brought masks, some brought decorations and some brought scary books and scary music they could listen to later in the week. The coolest thing - or so Vin had thought - was the gen-u-ine voodoo doll that Stinky Freddy had brought.

Later in the day, while they'd been lining up to come inside from their last recess, Eli Joe and Freddy had come up behind him. "Guess what I did?" Freddy whispered loudly.

"What?" Eli Joe whispered back, glancing at Vin.

"I put a voodoo curse on the whole school," Freddy informed the other boy seeming unconcerned that Vin could hear him. Both boys looked around suspiciously.

"Cool! I hope it works."

"Course it will work."

"Then, maybe we won't have to go to school no more!"

"Or maybe all the teachers will disappear then me and you can be the bosses of the school," Freddy said, with an evil glint in his eye.

"Ya best be careful, Tanner." Eli Joe said to Vin as the line started moving inside. "If ya say one word about this to anyone," he warned, "we'll put a curse on you, too."

"Yeah," Freddy agreed smugly then pushed him out of the line and stepped ahead of him, making sure the heel of his hiking boot came down hard on Vin's toes. "Oops," he grinned, "sorry."

Vin let the boys cut in front of him. He didn't like it but it wasn't worth getting into a fight over. The last thing he wanted to do was have to apologize to Eli Shmeeli again.

He knew that curses weren't real, or at least he thought they weren't real. Still, he couldn't help but wonder if maybe the curse would work since Freddy had used a real, genuine voodoo doll? He thought he should probably ask Chris about it, but he wasn't sure if that was a good idea. He pondered Eli Joe's warning that if he told anyone he'd be cursed, too, but when he thought about that, he decided that if Freddy and Eli Joe were really puttin' curses on people, Vin would be at the top of their list, no matter what he did. Still, if he asked Chris, would Chris think he was stupid for wondering about it? Or what if Chris did believe the curse was real? Could he make the boys take it back?

Vin thought about it all evening and finally, after he was all ready for bed, he approached his dad.

"Dad?" Whenever he was feeling a little scared about something, it always made him feel better to use the word Dad.

"Hey, Partner." Chris smiled, reaching out an arm and inviting Vin to climb up into his lap. "You all ready for bed?"

Vin nodded, snuggling into the security of Chris' arms. "Can I ask you somethin'?"

"Sure, you can," Chris gave him a squeeze. "You can ask me anything, Buddy."

"Do you . . .." Vin licked his lips, squinting as he tried to find the right words. "Do you believe in curses?"


"Yeah, like . . ." he glanced up at his dad's face, "like voodoo curses."

Chris was a little startled by the question, but then again, it was that time of year. He tried to look thoughtful as he figured out how best to answer the question. He could tell Vin was serious and he wanted to ease the boy's mind without making his question seem silly. "Well, I'd have to say no to that one. I don't know much about voodoo, but I don't believe in curses. Why?"

Vin shrugged, his mouth twisting as he contemplated Chris' answer. "Ya know how Mrs. R said we could bring scary stuff to school?"

"Not too scary, though."

"Yeah, well, today, Freddy Chaney brought a gen-u-ine voodoo doll."

Chris raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"

"Yep, Mrs. R didn't seem too happy about it and she didn't give him much time to tell about it. Then she made him put it back in his book bag."

"I see."

"It was real ugly and scary lookin'. He said his sister got it at the smarty graw . . ." then he looked up at Chris, seriously, "that's where college people go for vacation."

Chris grinned. "Is that right?"

"Yep, his sister goes to college. She must be lots smarter than Freddy." Vin nodded, mostly to himself, it seemed. "She must be lots nicer, too."

"Why's that?"

"Well, last year, Freddy brought a who-o-ole bunch of shiny bead necklaces his sister brought home from smarty graw. He said everyone there liked her so much they just kept givin' her necklaces for free!"

Chris snorted. "I'll bet."

"At school today, after he showed us his voodoo doll, I heard him tell Eli Joe that he put a curse on the whole school." Vin frowned for a second, then his eyes got wide and he looked up at Chris. "I didn't mean to hear him. They was standin' right behind me . . . well, until they cut in front of me, but I didn't push 'em or hit 'em or do anything bad."

"I'm glad to hear that, Pard."

"I figured if I did do something bad, I'd just end up having to 'pologize again and," he shook his head solemnly, "it ain't worth it."

Chris just smiled.

"I wasn't listening to 'em on purpose. It was an accident," he said, wanting to make that point clear.

"I understand," Chris assured him. "Sometimes it's easy to overhear things."

"Ya know, I think they were saying it loud just so's I'd hear them."

"They probably thought they could scare you, Vin, but you know better. There's nothing to be scared of."

"I ain't scared."

"I'm not scared," Chris corrected.

"Good," Vin sighed with relief. "I didn't figure you would be, but I thought it was best to tell ya anyway. Ya know, just to be safe."

"Well, I'm glad you did." Chris kissed his forehead then stood up, lifting Vin with him. "Now, let's get you to bed."

On the day of their nature hike things started to take a turn for the worse. At first, Vin hadn't even thought about the curse. He'd convinced himself that all of his troubles were mostly the new girl's fault. If she would just quit smiling at him and looking at him and standing close to him everything would be just fine. He knew he was supposed to be helping her feel comfortable at the school and he wasn't doing a very good job, but for some reason, he just couldn't seem to do anything right.

When they'd first set out on the hike, she'd looked over her shoulder and smiled at him. He'd meant to smile back, but instead he'd tripped over a little bit of rock sticking out of the dirt and fallen down right in front of the whole class. Not only did he skin his knee, right through his pants, but he managed to land on top of his lunch, too.

And if that wasn't enough, when he sat down at the Boy picnic table to eat his squished lunch, she had the nerve to sit down right next to him -- not at the Girl table where the girls were supposed to sit. Well, that wasn't a rule or anything, but still, he'd told her she should sit at the Girl table, because that's where the girls sat, and she'd ignored him and sat by him anyway. That had made him jumpy enough, but when her knee accidentally bumped into his he'd nearly jumped off the bench. That's when he'd choked on his juice and snorted it out his nose, which had made everyone laugh at him again.

She hadn't been laughing, though. Her dark eyes had been filled with worry and then she'd gone and handed him her napkin and that was even worse than if she'd laughed because then everyone started singing the k-i-s-s-i-n-g song at him! She blushed and looked down at her lap. Vin had almost felt sorry for her, but then he'd reminded himself it was all her fault for sitting there to begin with. If he could have, he would have melted right into the ground, or maybe disappeared. Unfortunately, he'd been stuck there, his cheeks burning, with no alternative but to put up with his classmates' teasing. Just ignore them, he kept telling himself, but it was a hard thing to do. He wanted to shout that he didn't kiss girls -- well, except maybe for Aunt Raine and he didn't think she counted - but he knew that nothing he said would do any good. Most likely shouting would only make them tease him all the more. So, he just sat there trying to force himself to eat his squished sandwich until Mr. B finally made them all stop talking.

That was only the beginning of the bad day, there was more to come and none of it could be blamed on the new girl. When they got home from school the dogs ran up to the car to greet them.

"Hey look!" JD squealed, grinning as the dogs chased the car up to the house.

Vin had been happy to see the pups at first, too, but that faded quickly. Mrs. Potter hadn't been out to the ranch yet that day and Ezra had rode into town with them that morning so he could work on fixing up his new house. So if the dogs were running around, and Chris or Buck or Ezra weren't home, that could only mean somehow the dogs had gotten out of their kennel, and Vin had been the one to feed them that morning. He couldn't remember locking the gate. He usually did, but he just couldn't picture it in his mind that morning. Well, at least they hadn't run away, he thought, but as soon as he got out of the car and looked around the yard, he almost changed his mind about whether that was a good thing or not.

It was obvious that the pups had been very busy during the day. The garbage was knocked over and strewn all around the driveway and the yard. There were several holes in the yard, which explained the dogs' muddy paws, and the muddy paw prints all over the porch, the door, the sidewalk . . .. Oh, boy! Vin sat down heavily on the front steps with his head in his hands. How was he ever gonna fix all this?

"Vi-in . . ." JD sing-songed, shaking his head. "This is not go-od. You musta forgotted to lock the kennel."

"I know, JD." Vin groaned, not wanting to look up and possibly find even more damage. He stood up, called the dogs over and herded them into their kennel. Then with a heavy sigh he began picking up the yucky, smelly, dog slobbery garbage and putting it back into the garbage can.

JD wanted to help Vin, but the garbage smelled really bad and he was in no hurry to actually touch it. He decided maybe he'd help Vin later, after he went to the bathroom and had his snack and did his homework and reading and after the bear cartoon was over. He did pick up Vin's book bag and take it inside for him, though.

While JD was having his snack, Mrs. Potter had spoken with Chris on the phone, so he knew ahead of time what to expect when they arrived home. By the time Chris, Buck and Ezra pulled up in the driveway the garbage was all picked up, most of the holes in the yard had been filled in, the porch and front door had been cleaned off and the pups had both been hosed down and kenneled up. Vin was nowhere in sight.

Chris found him in the barn, sitting on a bale of hay, filthy and worn out. Chris sat down beside him, grimacing at his damp, muddy clothes. "Bad day, Cowboy?"

Vin heaved a sigh and wiped his hand over his face, adding another grimy smudge. He gave Chris a look that said, 'You don't know the half of it'.

Smiling, Chris rubbed between his shoulders then nodded toward the house. "Come on, let's get you hosed off, too." He didn't seek permission; he simply picked his tired, dirty little boy up and carried him toward the house. When Vin melted against him and laid his head on Chris' shoulder, Chris just held him tighter, uncaring of any grime that might transfer onto his own clothes.

After taking a shower, Vin could hardly keep his eyes open through dinner and he barely remembered Chris putting him in his bed.

On Wednesday morning, Vin hung his coat and backpack on the coat hook. He looked at the few lunch bags set up on the shelf and sighed. He and JD had forgotten their lunches that morning and they hadn't had time to go back and get them. Chris had bought them lunch tickets at the beginning of the year, just incase they needed them for some reason, but Vin wasn't looking forward to eating the school lunch. Even though Miss Lottie served the lunches, they never looked very appealing to him.

Slowly, he walked toward the bookshelf and was thankful to find that nobody had taken his favorite book. So far that seemed to be the only thing going right for him that day. Carefully, he pulled the large book from the shelf. It was one that had pictures and information about every kind of horse in the whole world, even ones from back in the olden days. He clutched the book to his chest and walked over to the little table by the window.

"Whatchya readin', Vin?" JD asked, plopping into the chair across from him with a piece of paper and bucket of crayons. Vin loved the first half hour of school when you could choose whatever station you wanted to work at. If you just wanted to read or color, you could do that, too. Some kids were practicing flashcards, some were playing with puzzles or games, and some were reading books or doing art things. Sometimes Vin likes to draw and color with JD, but lately he enjoyed looking through the horse book.

He held up the book, so JD could see the front cover, even though he was still a little mad at JD for eating his cereal that morning. "Oh, that again?" JD asked, wrinkling his nose. Vin just nodded, and opened the book. JD rummaged through the crayons then began drawing and scribbling away. A few moments later he said, "Look, Vin, I made a picture of a horse!"

"Horses ain't blue, JD," he said, frowning. He'd looked all through the book and never seen any blue horses, not even the ones from back in the olden days. He decided that even if there was a real live blue horse, he wouldn't want to ride it 'cause it would look silly.

"Da said I can make 'em any color I want," JD defended. With a haughty look he turned back to his artwork. Vin just sighed, shaking his head a little and returning to his book.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Roquette called for everyone's attention. She smiled when the chatter almost immediately died down. "Richie Carson and Vin Tanner," she called out, "Miss Bukatz would like to see you boys in the audio-visual room."

Suddenly Vin got a funny feeling in his stomach. Everyone knew Miss Bukatz was the speech lady. Richie Carson had to go with her and he always got teased. Sometimes the kids called him 'Witchie'. Well, mostly just Freddy and Eli Joe did that. Vin never did, he knew what it felt like to get teased. Eli Joe and Freddy had been teasing him a lot lately, saying he talked like a baby. Apparently Mrs. R thought he talked like a baby, too. It was the only reason he could think of that she'd be sending him with the speech lady.

As he put his book away, he felt everyone's eyes on him. For the second day that week, Vin wished he could just disappear. Then, just as he was wondering what else could go wrong this week, Mrs. Roquette said, "Oh, I almost forgot. Isabella, I'd like you to come up, too."

Vin heard a few snickers before the chatter started up again. He glanced in Freddy Chaney's direction just in time to see him pucker up his lips and start kissing his hand. Clenching his fists and squaring his shoulders, Vin started for Freddy, intending to make him eat that hand -- even if it meant he'd have to apologize, later. But, before he was able to get very far, Mr. B intercepted and redirected him back towards Mrs. R's desk. Isabella was already standing up there and he felt his cheeks flame when she smiled shyly at him, but at least he didn't trip over anything.

He remembered earlier that morning when Buck had come into their room to wake them up for school, Vin had closed his eyes again, thinking he'd just lie there for another minute or two and then get up. The next thing he knew Buck was pulling the blankets back, feeling his forehead. "You okay, Junior?" he'd asked. When Vin had rubbed his eyes and nodded, Buck had lifted him from the top bunk and set him on the floor. "You fell back asleep," he said, sounding cheerful, but a little impatient. He pulled a shirt, some jeans and socks from the boy's dresser drawers and placed them on the bottom bunk. "You want some help?" he asked, and received a negative shake of Vin's head. "Okay, then try and hurry up. We're running a little late. You might want to grab a sweatshirt, too."

After a quick trip to the bathroom, he'd gotten himself dressed and made his way to the kitchen where Chris was already rinsing out the breakfast dishes. "Hurry up, Cowboy. You have about five minutes to eat." Vin looked at the box of Honey Nut Cheerios then looked at Chris. "Ain't there any frosted ones?"

"Aren't," Chris corrected, then shook his head. "Nope, JD ate the last of them. Sorry, the early bird catches the . . .." Chris smirked a little. "Never mind."

Vin sighed, staring forlornly at the box of cereal with the stupid bee on the front. He didn't like this kind. JD had picked it out and he'd picked out the frosted ones, so why'd JD have to eat his kind? "Where's Uncle Ezra?"

"He's still in bed. I think he overdid things a little, yesterday. He's feeling stiff and sore this morning." Chris grinned then suddenly looked concerned. "You feelin' okay, Cowboy?" he asked, laying a hand on Vin's forehead, just like Buck had done.

He should have said, I'm sick. I need to stay home, too. He should have stayed with Uncle Ezra, but no-o-o . . ..

Vin was brought back to the present when Miss Bukatz laid a hand on his shoulder and gently urged him toward the door. They walked the short distance down to a room they referred to as the audio-visual room. It was smaller than a regular classroom and had carts with TV's and other equipment stored to one side. Miss. Bukatz stood in the doorway and gestured them to the table inside the room. She was young - for a teacher, anyway. She had blonde hair and pretty eyes and a nice smile, but that didn't matter much to Vin.

"Come in, and have a seat, Vin," she said kindly, pushing a chair out for him. The other two kids were already seated, so Vin trudged inside, even though he didn't want to.

"You don't look very happy to be here."

That was an understatement.

"Well, since you three already know each other, I just have a few tests that I'd like for you to try. They're not like regular tests, where you get graded. You might even think they're kind of silly," she said, then turned a smile on Richie. "Right, Richie?"

Richie shrugged. "You just have to say silly sentences." Vin had never really listened to the way Richie talked, but now that he was paying attention, he didn't think Richie talked at all like a baby.

Miss Bukatz smiled again and slid booklets across the table to each of them. "Mrs. Roquette told me you're getting to be very good at reading, Vin, and I'd just like you to turn to the first page and read a few sentences into this tape recorder. Do you think you could do that for me?" Again she smiled, batting her long eyelashes at him.

Vin sighed heavily, opened his book and looked down at the sentences. He didn't like reading in front of people and he didn't like the idea that the teacher wanted him to read just so she could hear if he talked wrong. He was considering never speaking again. Ever.


He didn't want to be disrespectful or get in trouble, but he really, really didn't want to read. He looked up at her, hoping The Big Eyes wouldn't fail him now.

Miss Bukatz sighed, looking a little disappointed. She glanced to Isabella, who didn't look any more enthusiastic about reading than Vin. Finally, she turned to Richie. "Richie, would you go first?"

Richie shrugged. "Sure, I'm not scared to go first." Even though Richie couldn't say his r's very good, he read the sentences without seeming the least bit embarrassed. Vin couldn't help but admire that.

When Richie was finished Miss Bukatz thanked him and turned to Isabella. "Isabella, I hear you're learning to speak English very well."

Isabella smiled, just a little.

"Would you mind reading just one sentence?"

Isabella's cheeks turned pink; she lowered her eyelashes and she shook her head, no.

"Well, that's okay." Miss Bukatz looked a little amused as she took back the booklets she'd just handed out. "Maybe we need another strategy?" Vin didn't really care as long as he didn't have to read anything. Or talk.

"Maybe we'll just sit and get to know each other so we feel a little more comfortable." She smiled at them. "Richie, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?"

I never knew Richie was a real live Indian.

Yeah, but he said he's not a whole Indian. His grandpa is, though.



And it's cool that he speaks Mexican.



People from Mexico don't speak Mexican. They speak Spanish.

Oh. How comes that new girl is in there?

Cause she's just learning English and she needs to practice per . . . pronouncing the words better.


Vin was late getting to the lunchroom because he'd forgot that he didn't have a lunch bag. He wondered again about the being cursed thing when he found himself last in line, behind Eli Joe and Freddy.

Vin moved through the lunch line, managing to stay just out of reach of Freddy's elbow as the boy intentionally tried to jab him. He frowned when he got a glimpse of what was being served onto the lunch trays and wondered yet again about the being cursed thing. Soggy looking slices of French toast and greasy looking sausage links. Yuck. He'd give anything to have a delicious peanut butter and banana sandwich instead.

When he got to the end of the line, he grabbed a carton of chocolate milk then spotted JD and headed for the table they usually sat at. Unfortunately, he didn't get too far before he noticed Isabella sitting at the end of the table -- his table -- smiling at him. Why'd she have to sit at his table again? The moment he realized he was staring at her, he quickly looked down, but it was too late to stop himself from running into the big garbage can where everyone dumped their left over food and milk cartons. Not only did he run into it, he knocked the whole thing over, slipped and fell and landed right in the middle of the big yucky mess. Why, oh why, hadn't he just stayed home today?

Mr. B helped him up and brushed his clothes off. All the kids were laughing at him, even JD. His eyes were stinging and his cheeks were burning, but he somehow managed not to cry.

"Why don't you go wash up, Vin?" Mr. Beidler said softly, his eyes sympathetic.

Vin was only too happy to comply. He gave one last glance over his shoulder, to find JD still grinning and hurried for the restroom. Maybe he'd lock the door and live in there forever or at least until school was out, so he wouldn't have to face any of the kids.

He swiped at his cheeks, feeling the tears escaping even though he was mad, not sad. In fact, he was so mad that instead of going into the restroom like he was supposed to, he let his anger propel him right down the hall and out the open door. The rush of cool air on his face and in his lungs felt wonderful and was more than enough incentive to keep his feet moving across the blacktop and out onto the grassy field. He wasn't quite sure where to go but there was a line of trees at the back of the field so he kept his legs moving forward, thinking that was as good a place as any. Nobody would be able to see him; he could just sit there and breathe the fresh air and wait until Miz Potter came to get them.

Beyond the tree line he came to a big back yard, with a shed and a woodpile. Vin leaned back against the shed, then slid down until he was seated on the ground. From where he sat, he had a perfect view of the playground, the parking lot and everything. He watched as the kids filed outside for lunch recess. He could see JD looking around, maybe for him, but then another little boy pulled on JD's arm and the two of them headed for the swings. Vin just sat there, feeling a bit of the chill in the air, wishing he'd brought his coat.

He watched the kids play, then watched them line up and head back inside. When the door of the school closed, Vin suddenly felt lonely and cold. He wondered if anybody realized he was gone, but he didn't have to wonder about that for too long. As he watched, a familiar looking black Ram pick-up truck pulled up to the school. His heart pounded when he realized they must have called Chris. Why hadn't he figured on that?

He felt only slightly less apprehensive when he saw Buck climb out, instead of Chris. It wasn't that he was afraid of Chris, but the thought of having to face him, to see his disappointment or worry, was a little overwhelming at the moment. The longer he sat there, the more he regretted running off, though - especially now that Buck was there.

The last thing Vin wanted to do was go back inside, even though he was starting to get cold. He knew Buck was probably worried and he was pretty sure that even though Chris wasn't able to come he was probably still worried. He wasn't sure if that made him feel good or bad. He didn't like the thought of Chris worrying over him or thinking that he had run off, but he had to admit it felt nice that someone cared.

Vin could remember all too well his time on the streets, with no one to look after him and no one to care whether he was cold, hungry or scared. A shudder ran through him as he was revisited by the familiar empty ache of hopelessness. Back then, grown ups would walk right past him or bump into him without even seeming to notice, and those who did notice were the ones he didn't want to be anywhere near. He didn't like to think too closely about that time in his life, it was scary and made him feel dirty and a little desperate.

Suddenly, he felt ashamed for taking off from school over something that didn't seem all that big of a deal, now. Accidentally falling into garbage in the school cafeteria seemed almost like a privilege compared to having to dig through garbage for food, because your tummy was so empty you couldn't stand it. His tummy had never been that empty since Chris had found him.

With a deep breath, he stood up, ready to face Buck and the humiliation of going back into the building.

As he started across the field he noticed the school door open and Buck came stalking outside, looking bigger than life, like a hero in a movie. The dark haired man paused when he spotted Vin, then started forward again in a jog. Vin quickened his pace, uncaring of whether he'd be in trouble. He knew that Buck would never hurt him. Buck would make him feel safe and secure, something he needed more than anything, right then.

"I'm sorry, Buck," he said, when Buck scooped him up into a hug. He couldn't help the sob that escaped his throat, and he wrapped his arms tightly around the big man's neck and just clung there.

"You okay, Pard?" Buck asked, trying to get a look at the boy.

Vin just nodded, hanging on even tighter.

"You had us all worried," Buck said quietly, feeling the cold little body tremble. He tried to tuck one side of his leather coat around Vin to give him a little warmth. "Let's get you inside where it's warm."

Just moments ago he'd been thankful that Buck had come instead of Chris, but now he'd have given anything for it to be the other way around. "Where's Chris?"

Buck squeezed him tighter. "He was in a meeting with the brass, but we'll try giving him a call when we get inside."

"Can't we go home instead?" Vin tried. If he couldn't have Chris right now, he really wanted to be home.

"Sorry, son. We gotta go back inside, but it'll be okay, I promise," Buck assured, rubbing a big hand up and down his back. "We're just gonna go into the teachers' lounge for a bit. The rest of the kids are all in their classes, okay?"


Once they got inside the school building, they were ushered into the teacher's lounge by Mr. Beidler who gave Vin a pat on the back. He smiled sympathetically and Buck nodded at him with gratitude in his eyes. As soon as the door to the lounge had closed, the big agent settled down on a vinyl couch, still holding onto Vin. He'd seen the boy's sweatshirt was a mess and was only mildly concerned for his own light blue cotton shirt. "You got another shirt under this one, don't you?" he asked, pulling the back of the boy's shirt up to peek underneath.

Vin pulled back a little and nodded, looking up with sad blue eyes that tugged at Buck's heartstrings. "I fell in the garbage."

"I know ya did, pard." Buck helped him pull the messy shirt over his head, pulling the long sleeve t-shirt back down when it threatened to come off, too. Once the sweatshirt was off, Vin leaned against Buck's chest again, letting out a weary sigh.

Buck dropped a kiss on top of the curly head and pulled out his cell phone. "Hey Josiah, is the boss still in his meeting?" He winked at Vin and then said, "Yeah, I got him right here. Everything's okay . . .. Alright, I'll tell him." Then he closed up the phone, slid it back into his pocket and looked down into a pair of mournful eyes. "Chris is still in his meeting."

Vin's shoulders slumped, and Buck tilted his head until he made eye contact. "It's gonna be okay, Junior," he said, with a smile. "Sounds to me like you're havin' a bad day."

Vin nodded seeming content to remain leaning against his chest. "I had to go to the speech teacher and then I fell in the garbage. Everyone was laughin' at me. Even JD." His breath hitched again and he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. "Buck?"


"D'you think I talk funny?"

"Aw, Vin." Buck looked down at the boy, not sure of how to respond. Vin had a slight lisp that most of the time you could barely detect. Over the past few weeks it seemed to have gotten a little worse, but they figured that had a lot to do with the stress he'd been through with Ezra being shot and then leaving for New Orleans. Sure, he knew that in the long run Vin would be better off without the lisp, but they'd been hoping that Vin would be able to correct it himself, over time. Buck couldn't deny that he thought it was adorable. "I love the way you talk, Junior."

"You're just thayin' that."

"No, I'm not. Lots of young'uns have a hard time saying their S's," Buck told him. "Sometimes it's their R's or L's or something else that gives 'em trouble. It's no big deal. It just takes a little extra practice to learn how to make the sounds the correct way."

Vin wondered if he could just get by without ever having to say any words with S in them. If he was gonna get adopted he wouldn't have to say Chris anymore. But then there was Uncle Ezra - which had a Z in it and Z's came out pretty much the same as S's. And then there was Uncle 'Siah. Elvis. Torkus. Peso . . .. Almost everything seemed to have an S sound in it.

"Do I really gotta go back to school?" Even school had an S in it. Maybe it would be best if he just quit talking altogether.

"Yeah, Vin," Buck replied kindly. "I'm sorry, but you do have to go back."

Vin nodded with a long-suffering sigh.

"Only a couple more hours, though."

"I know."

"Vin?" He waited until Vin looked up at him. "There's one more thing."

Vin looked up at him, piteously. "One more thing?"

"Yeah," he said gently, finger combing the boy's bangs out of his face. "I think you ought to apologize to Mr. Beidler for runnin' off the way you did. He was real worried about you."

Vin nodded, knowing it was something he'd have to do. He thought a lot of Mr. B, and Mrs. R and all the teachers. He didn't mean to worry them. "Okay."

There was a knock on the door, and the teacher peered into the lounge. "Is everything okay?"

Buck gave Vin a quick hug and set the boy on his feet before standing up, himself, holding Vin's dirty sweatshirt in one hand.

"Mr. B," Vin said looking solemnly up at the teacher. "I'm sorry for worryin' ya. I shouldn't have left, but I just felt like I couldn't breathe. I couldn't stand it . . .." His voice trailed off and he looked down at his shoes.

"I understand, Vin." The teacher squatted down to the boy's level. "But, if anything like this would ever happen again, I want you to know that you can come in here, first, okay?"

Vin looked around the teacher's lounge in awe, as if suddenly realizing where he was. He was pretty sure the teachers lived in this room, even though he didn't see no beds. He didn't think he'd feel comfortable comin' into their lounge without them knowing. "B-but only teachers are a'posed to come in here," he said in a reverent whisper.

"Yes, that's true. Sometimes, we teachers use this room when we need a moment of peace and quiet, but Vin," Mr. B explained with sincerity, "if you ever need a moment to yourself, or you feel like you have to get away from something or someone, I'd much rather you came in here."

Vin nodded a little uncertainly, but he said, "Okay."

Mr. Beidler smiled, standing up and giving Vin a pat on the shoulder. "Should we head back to class and let Mr. Wilmington get back to work?"

Vin looked even more uncertain about heading back to class, but after a few seconds he straightened his spine and squared his shoulders. "Okay." He turned to give Buck one more hug then followed Mr. B back to the classroom.

Vin did his best to ignore the other kids' whispers and giggles and was glad that it only lasted a short time. He ignored JD, who seemed to be more worried now than he was before. He took his seat and started in on the worksheets that had been placed there, hoping the day would be over soon.

Recess was usually his favorite class, even though Chris had told him it wasn't technically considered a class. But he wasn't looking forward to the day's last recess. Reluctantly he put his jacket on, noticing that JD still kept glancing worriedly at him.

"Vin?" the younger boy said in a quiet voice, joining him at the end of the line.

Vin looked at him calmly, although he wasn't in the mood to talk.

"I's sorry for laughin' at ya when ya fell in the garbage."

Vin frowned, but nodded at him.

"Don't be mad at me, Vin." JD sounded like he was sorry, but still . . . "I didn't mean it."

Vin sighed, accepting the apology but still not in the mood to be social. He trudged out onto the playground, but instead of playing he sat down on one of the swings and scuffed his toes in the tiny smooth pebbles on the ground and wished recess was over, wished he was with Chris . . . or Buck, or Uncle Ezra . . . or home takin' care of Peso -- anywhere else but school. He barely noticed when someone sat down in the next swing only glancing up to see it was the new little girl. He was too unhappy to let it rile him, so he just gave her a small smile and turned his attention back to scuffing the stones. She didn't look much happier than he did and he'd probably feel bad about that, if he wasn't already busy feeling bad for himself.

"If you was hungry, Tanner, I'd have given ya some a my lunch." Freddy Chaney's voice snapped him out of his pondering. He glanced up to see Freddy, Eli Joe and a couple other boys standing in front of him. He looked away, trying to ignore them like he'd been told to.

"I think he likes diggin' in the garbage for his food," Eli Joe taunted.

"Guess garbage food is one of them 'quired tastes," one of the other boys said.

"Yeah," Freddy laughed. "Once you get used to it, ya don't wanna go back to normal food."

If the little dark-haired girl hadn't been sitting there, he would have punched all their lights out, whether he'd have been made to apologize afterwards or not. He was pretty sure that Chris wouldn't be too mad once Vin told him what the boys were saying, but then again, after taking off from school earlier, it would probably be best not to do anything else. So he just sat there, pretending to ignore them.

When the boys realized they weren't going to get a reaction from Vin, amazingly they left him alone. Wow, thought Vin, maybe there was something to this 'ignore them and they'll go away' thing.

A short time later the whistle blew, signaling that they should get in line. He pushed himself out of the swing, glancing over his shoulder at Isabella. She stood up and followed him, giving him a little smile that made him feel funny. He frowned then stumbled, almost tripping over his own feet as he hurried to get in line. He heard one of the boys with Eli Joe whisper something about him not being able to walk any better than he could talk and he wondered if he'd be able to make it through the last half hour of school.

That evening, Vin had two worksheets to catch up on, both of which he'd finished, with Uncle Ezra's help, before Chris got home. He was also supposed to read for thirty minutes, like every night, but it was hard to keep his mind on reading when he was worried about other things.

Chris and Buck arrived home a few minutes later than usual, both carrying grocery bags. Ezra had sent Mrs. Potter home early and called Chris at work and given him a list of things to pick up at the grocery store on the way home. When their dads came inside, JD shouted his usual enthusiastic greeting, bouncing up from the floor to attach himself to Buck's legs. Vin remained silent, letting the book he'd been trying to read fall to his lap.

Ezra took the bag from Chris' hand and said to Buck and JD, "Why don't you gentlemen give me a hand in the kitchen?"

Buck nodded, pausing to wink at Vin before hefting JD up and over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes. "Come on, Little Bit."

Vin gazed up at Chris, suddenly feeling unsure about everything. Would Chris be mad that he'd run off at school? Would he think that Vin had been running away, or that he didn't want to get adopted? Or had he changed his mind about adopting Vin? Uncle Ezra had told him that Chris would be sad and worried, not mad, but the way things had been going lately, all his old fears were easily resurfacing.

But when Chris sat down on the sofa, pulling Vin close and asking in his soft voice, "How you doing, Buddy?" all Vin's fears seemed to melt away. Chris' eyes were filled with nothing but love and concern and Vin breathed a sigh of relief, feeling guilty that he'd ever doubted his father.

"I'm okay," Vin said quietly after a few minutes of contented silence. "Just had a bad day."

"Yeah, I heard," Chris said, with understanding. Still, Vin looked up at him uncertainly, so Chris lifted the boy into his lap. "Wanna tell me about it?"

Vin took a deep breath, but then his whole body seemed to relax. "I fell in the garbage and spilled my lunch tray and everyone laughed at me."

Chris had already heard the story, but he knew it would do Vin some good to talk it out. "That definitely qualifies as a bad day, I think."


"You know, Cowboy, things like that have happened to practically everyone, at some time."

"Did it ever happen to you?"

"Well, not that exactly, but I remember one time I was carrying my lunch tray and some girl bumped into me . . . or maybe I bumped into her . . . anyway, we both spilled our lunches all down the front of us."

Figured there'd be a girl involved, Vin thought to himself. He was beginning to think, more and more, that girls were nothing but trouble.

"I ended up wearing spaghetti and meatballs, garlic toast and jello for the rest of the day." Chris grimaced.


Vin's nose wrinkled and Chris tweaked it, thankful when the boy smiled. "Yeah, ew."

"Did everyone laugh?"

"Oh yeah, they called me Chef Boyardee for at least a month," Chris admitted, grinning and shaking his head.

Vin's smile faltered. He didn't like the thought of anyone teasing his dad. "Didn't that make ya mad?"

"Well, I was embarrassed at first, but then, later on, I had to admit that it was kind of funny."

Chris could tell that Vin was thinking that over. Probably weighing whether or not he could ever find humor in his ordeal. He looked up at Chris and said, "JD thought it was funny. He laughed at me."

Chris sighed, hugging Vin closer. "You know he'd never hurt your feelings on purpose, Vin."

After a long moment, Vin nodded. "I know."

They sat there for a few minutes, listening to the sounds from the kitchen. JD was chattering away, telling Buck and Ezra all the specifications for the pumpkin he was planning to get . . . and planning to name Pete. Buck said he liked the name Percival better. JD giggled and said, no, it was definitely going to be Pete.

"Oh, yeah?" questioned Buck. "Well, what if it's a girl?"

"My punkin ain't gonna be a girl. It's gonna be a boy!"

"Really?" Ezra chimed in. "However will you be able to distinguish between the two?"

"I just will."

Chris looked down to find Vin smiling at the exchange. "I don't know where he got the idea to name his punkin."

"Well, you know JD. I'm sure he probably thought it up all by himself."

"Yeah," Vin took a deep breath and the smile slipped from his face. "Mrs. R made me go to speech class."

As soon as Buck had told him about the speech class, Chris had called the school and spoken with Mrs. Roquette. The teachers there were wonderful and he knew they'd never do anything to intentionally upset Vin. Still, Chris wasn't very happy that they'd failed to inform him of this, beforehand.

Mrs. Roquette had apologized profusely, admitting that she should have alerted Chris - considering Vin's past. She told him, at the time, she hadn't foreseen any problems. She had suggested he meet with the speech therapist only because she'd thought it would be beneficial for Vin. She hadn't realized the two boys were teasing him about his speech and promised to deal with that immediately.

Apparently, despite the recent meeting they'd had with Mr. Chavez and Ms. Chaney, Eli Joe and Freddy's behavior hadn't improved. The teacher confided that the staff was still discussing the behavior problems and trying to come up with a solution without having to expel the boys . . . but that option had not been ruled out.

"Going to speech class is a bad thing?" Chris tried to sound like he was surprised Vin would think that.

Vin looked at him like he was crazy. "I don't talk like a baby."

"I didn't say you did."

"Eli Joe and Freddy say it, and if I have to go to speech class, they'll say it even more," he mumbled.

"Oh, I see," Chris said. "So, their opinions mean a whole lot to you?"


"Then why do you care what they think?"

"I-I don't!"

"But you're going to let them run your life? Stop you from doing things that you might want to do, or things that might be helpful to you?"

Vin's mouth twisted into a pout. "There's a boy named Richie Carson who takes speech class and when they make fun of him everyone laughs."

"Hm . . . I wonder why he still goes to the class then?" Chris could tell Vin was getting frustrated, but he also thought he was on the right track. Vin was the type of boy who had a deep sense of justice, of what was right and what was wrong. In most cases, he chose to do the right thing, even if it wasn't easy. "Maybe he should quit if it's so embarrassing."

"Well," Vin said hesitantly, "he don't seem all too embarrassed."

"Do you think maybe he figures if he learns to say the sounds right those other boys won't have anything to make fun of him for?"

"Maybe," Vin nodded thoughtfully, then looked up at Chris with enlightenment in his eyes. "But they'd probably find something else to tease him about."

"True." He shrugged casually. "You already know what I think about people who have to make fun of other people."

"That they feel bad about themselves . . . and that's why they try and make other people feel bad?" Vin replied, sounding not entirely convinced.

"Yep. It's a pretty sad thing. I almost feel sorry for them, but I would never let them stop me from doing something good for me."

Vin was silent for a long moment, then he looked up at Chris, with a spark of mischief in his eyes. "Buck said he loves the way I talk."

Chris stared at him for a few seconds amazed at the sudden change of mood; then he nodded once and grinned. "I love the way you talk, too."

"Ya do?"

"Absolutely. It's . . . cute." With a wink, he gave the boy's cheek a playful pinch. "Very cute. All the girls at the office think so, too."

Vin's mouth fell open with horror, his cheeks flushed brightly. "Chriiiith!" he protested.


It took Vin less than a second to figure out the best defense was a good offense. He scrambled to his knees then pounced on his father, trying for all he was worth to wrestle him down to the floor.

After a few minutes of laughter and tussling, Chris did end up on the floor with the scrawny seven-year-old sitting on his chest in victory. Allowing himself to be pinned for a moment, he then rolled over and sat back against the couch, with Vin still in his arms. "Here's the deal, Pard," he said softly. "You've got three choices and I'm going to let you decide which one you want to go with, okay?" He waited for the boy to nod before he continued, "You can either keep going to speech class at school, or we can look around and try to find some other place that offers the same thing, or Mrs. Roquette says that if you'd rather wait until next year and see how things are going, that would be fine, too. You don't have to make a decision now, but I told her we'd let her know by Monday, so you think it over and make your decision based on what you think is best, not on what those other boys think."


"Okay, so . . . should we go see what they're doing to the kitchen?"

"It's awful quiet out there."

"I know." Chris glanced apprehensively toward the kitchen. "That can't be a good sign. I just hope they've made food 'cause I'm starved."

"Me, too." Vin's stomach growled in agreement. "Mr. B saved me a lunch but I wasn't very hungry then."

"Well, come on then." The two stood up and made their way to the kitchen.

Buck and JD had been busy cutting up vegetables, while Ezra had been slicing and seasoning the beef, in order to make kabobs. Both boys ate more than their share of beef and rice, and one piece each of broccoli and cauliflower. The green peppers were surreptitiously passed onto their fathers' plates because not even the dogs would eat green peppers.

After baths and a story from Uncle Ezra both boys went to bed with little protest. Vin hadn't felt all that tired, but when his head hit the pillow he was asleep in no time.